This place goes on without him. The streets he walked down, the bars and rooms where he drank and slept, the big top where he worked his elephants and made his name, spots where he blew his money, had his heart wrecked and went crazy: you can’t get to them, not exactly. Neptune is a parking lot. Luna Park is the projects. Bodegas. A dollar store. Like everywhere in Brooklyn there is the condo threat—orange scaffolding and tarps, architects’ renderings. Smiling cutouts living lives on top of some fake future. Whole blocks bought up, razed or poorly resurrected, left to decay or otherwise made strange. Surf Avenue is a unisex salon and discount shoes. Shell Road goes blood bank, dance studio, blood bank. Joseph Whitley’s geography, that tumbledown Sodom between West 3rd and West 5th—the part of Coney Island they called The Gut—it’s gone.
No Sea Beach Palace or Point Comfort House. No Elephantine Colossus, the 10-storey pachyderm hotel with internal organ-themed rooms and a cigar store in one leg. In construction, Joseph was asked to use some of his herd to haul materials, an odd request but not surprising to him. Already, he’d felt entitled to the place, felt that in some way every booming enterprise was borne of his talent. What his animals did was all show—a few pallets of bricks pushed around with their trunks—but the idea of it astonished people: elephants building an elephant.
Before the elephant hotel was a brothel, before she burned down, that big girl was the first bit of the New World the rheumy-eyed immigrants saw from their boats, beating out even the Statue of Liberty. Her pristine days quickly passed—the phrase “seeing inside the elephant” came to mean you were up to no good. So many opportunities in The Gut to find whatever flavor of trouble interested you, and so much of that place charred black over the years: the horse tracks, Cully’s Cantina, all of Dreamland. Consumed by sin, some said. Fire, odd curse of the seaside. Buildings built, immediately bursting into flame.
No Ruby’s Pub, where Joseph first saw Elizabeth, where Ruby herself taught the girls to carry garnishes between their teeth, push themselves backwards against the tables, serve their drinks from the rear like that. To turn and look over their shoulders, smile openmouthed, let their lemon wedges and their cherries fall.
No sign of Blackie Sue’s, the restaurant Joseph and Elizabeth lived above before they were married, before the money ran out. No misspelled bill of fare chalked on an easel, no dirty tables blocking their stairwell. The owners were Welsh and the cook smells—some good, some weird—floated up and seeped into their lives. The bedroom took it the hardest, essence of rarebit baked into the bedclothes. Elizabeth had no appetite for the place, but Joseph discovered a stew, a cawl with lamb and egg sauce that, when eaten in advance, could fortify his drinker’s stomach. No Gold Lion Tavern, where the actual drinking was done, where Joe started and ended most nights, where the doors stayed open even after the spirit lamps were spent.
That’s neon now in the storefront where his haberdasher used to be, a glowing sign for a psychic reader. She’s a charlatan, tells every customer their aura is bright purple, turns their hands over and says, You got a lifeline longer and thicker than any I ever seen.
Shore Theatre, closed for decades, is set for demolition. Once called the Tall Kingdom for its golden dome, today it leaks, sweats—the interior damp from rainwater. There’s a bizarre indoor cloud that forms in the upper reaches near the ceiling. It hovers, shifts around, and no photograph can do it justice. Joe’s reserved seat is still there near the stage, though the burnout velvet is rotten through. The intricate plasterwork—mermaids swirling the columns, a grand ship at sail in the mezzanine—comes apart in your hands. Like so much that is majestic, this place couldn’t be kept up. In the ‘60s it changed owners and names and started showing sticky movies. Hot Shots and Bang Bang and The Pleasure Machine. Groaning men sat rows apart, calling out to God. Such a stretch from the great burlesque shows Joseph once watched here, the slippery women in their giant glasses of champagne.
A block over is Henderson Music Hall, where he and Elizabeth spent so many Saturday nights. In the ‘20s, developers cut the foundation in half and a colony of oily cats rushed out. Cared for all these years by the unwell or misguided—the same sorry types who feed pigeons—the strays flourish. Mornings, they crawl out from everywhere to swarm bags of discount kibble. They flatten and squeeze under chain link, huddle next to piles of garbage and still-warm car engines, knot up on porches and stairs. Sometimes the fixer vans drive by and scoop the slow ones into nets, turn them loose an hour later, groggy and sterile, the tips of their ears cut off. It’s no use. There are more kittens than ever, flashes of new fur darting around in the pack. You’d think the cats would curb the escalating rat issue over on Stillwell, but no. Half the block is infested, corners baited, windows boarded up.
Spend enough time in a place and you seep into it. Maybe it’s a literal mark: your childhood hand pressed into wet cement, a tree you killed forever with your first love’s knifed initials. More likely it’s ghost. A bad decision made in a doorway, an avenue thick with your worst moments. The phone booth that ruined your marriage, the lamppost that turned your heart. There’s the pier Joseph walked down, twice rebuilt, but forever in the same place. People still stroll the length of it as he did, compelled always to reach the very end of a thing. It’s been more than a hundred years, but if you know where to look there are remnants, reminders of him. Parts of Joe punching through.