How some places get in our bones, and Mr Robot is the missing link between Chernobyl, Trump and an old family photo.
In this piece, he hits upon a quietly brilliant point: that our collective memories of a place are often…. empty.
The absence of references to Coney Island and its beach in the films and TV shows I had grown up with was more puzzling. Why did it not exist as territory of the imagination in the same way that Miami or Venice beach did? — TSDK
Here’s his piece (which features Nathan’s franks so has my heart forever).
Now, it’s interesting to me how long-form multifarious understandings of places can be constructed from all of our extended takes and memories. It’s like the narrative equivalent of recording a famous event, say, the King’s coronation, from the perspective of every phone held over every head on the Mall.
Substack is kind of like those coronation videos, but it captures the internal, and often the mundane.
On that note, I’m taking a quick break from The Notebooks (don’t worry, they’ll be back) because there’s still a lot to say about my recent trip to the States.
I wanted to write about how much has changed since I was last stateside, pre-Trump. But, honestly, it’s too depressing to dwell on and I don’t trust my ten-day hot takes.
I noticed a lot of hot differences with the UK though: the trees are bigger, the wildlife is wilder, the payment systems are antiquatedand there are flags EVERYWHERE.
None of this is new. In fact, I’m pretty sure even the jars of marshmallow fluff and ice cream toppings in my home town’s ice cream parlour are the *exact* same ones from 1994.
Some things have stayed the same.
To wit: the crazies on the NY subway.
I’m not sure what I’m supposed to call them these days. Neurologically divergent denizens of the Metropolitan Transit Authority? My grandma used to call them headbangers (except imagine it in a rich Brooklyn patois: headbangas).
She lived pretty much her whole life in Brighton Beach — the less trendy end of the Coney Island boardwalk, down by Bay 1 — and the crazies were plentiful. As a kid, I distinctly remember her lashing out with handbag and raising her not inconsiderable voice — “the fuck outta here or I’ll call the cops” — but that may or may not be childish embellishment.
The woman on our subway last month when we went back to Coney Island could have led a masterclass on subway crazy etiquette.
First, she leaned in close to my face, gave me a conspiratorial look and said “two-five” with accompanying fingers held up. After some miming at the Subway map, I deduced she meant 25th Avenue and, consulting the map, gave her detailed instructions to alight at Avenue U (the nearest stop to 25th). She nodded fervently like she understood but didn’t move at the stop for Avenue U.
Then, when I moved back to rejoin my party, she did too.
Standing way too close, looking deep into my soul with dead eyes, she wrapped one leg around the pole and started shuffling around it. Still looking me right in the eye like she was trying to seduce me. Then, she came over to stand right in front of me again — and I mean right in front, I was inches from her T-shirt (J’adore Dior, since you asked).
She was so close, I noticed she was carrying a plastic Tupperware of what looked like raw meat. I wondered idly if she was a violent schizophrenic, perhaps preparing to knife me in the face.
We changed train carriages and I watched in horror as she started to change too but she didn't make it to our carriage before the doors closed. I kept a close eye on her from the next carriage for the rest of the journey and, not without some trepidation, alighted in Stilwell Avenue at the end of the line and fled the station.
They never change, the subway crazies.
Anyway, it’s a long old ride out to Coney Island on the Q train. This bit of Brooklyn is called “Little Odessa” because it used to be full of Russian Jews and now it’s full of Russian Orthodox. My grandma lived on the seventh floor of one of the brick apartment buildings that all look the same, all built sometime in the first half of the twentieth century. She fed birds on her fire escape and you could hear the Q train rattle below all night.
These days, Brighton Beach is pretty comprehensively Slavic. There is actual accordion music wafting from open windows and Russian and Ukrainian restaurants named “Tatiana” sell borscht up and down the boardwalk towards Bay 1.
Why are we here? For Joel, this is all about Mr. Robot — a hallowed F Society pilgrimage out to Coney Island. If you don’t know what I’m talking about (spoiler alert), Mr Robot is a four-season TV show starring Rahmi Malek as a neurodivergent software engineer (right up Joel’s alley) trying to take down (and also stop himself taking down?) Evil Corp. F Society is the secret headquarters for the take-down, cunningly hidden in a defunct arcade that used to be called FUN SOCIETY until some letters fell off.
So far, so Fight Club.
But F Society? I couldn’t wait to help him find it.
I swear when I first saw it on TV I remembered seeing it as a kid.
My grandma used to take us to Nathan’s for hotdogs in the early nineties, and to the beach, which was then littered with used needles and broken glass. It seems to have been cleaned up since, maybe passed through a sieve or something.
I know this beach well, it is in my blood.
My grandma met my grandpa on this beach, sometime in the 1930s. She told me she didn’t like him at first, didn’t think he was cute. She was sunbathing in her two-piece and he came up to talk to her and he was so hairy she thought he was wearing a jumper. (As an aside, almost a century later, I identify big time with this: I do not like a hairy man. Sorry, please don’t @me.)
But I guess he must have won her round in the end (my existence is strong evidence). I imagine he knew Brighton Beach pretty well. He grew up there, running these sun-baked streets down to the sand. He married my grandma, landed in Normandy on D-Day and then died of heart complications (which would have been manageable today) a couple years later, in his early thirties, when my mum was just a few months old.
His parents, whose paths only crossed here in Little Odessa, were both immigrants from the same corner of Belarus. My great-grandpa Isidore (what a fucking sexy name), was a quiet man with dark eyes who went swimming in the ocean year-round.
He was from Pinsk, on the Pripyat marshes between Ukrainian Lvov and eastern Poland. You’ve probably heard of Pripyat: thousands of acres of marshland and birch forest and its eponymous town. It has an abandoned Ferris wheel, moss-covered bumper cars and radioactive contamination.
Coney Island too has its own abandoned amusements. The Parachute Jump is long defunct but still looms over the boardwalk, like a sprouting metal tree. I’ve heard my grandma and grandpa did the Parachute Jump back in their day, after they met on Brighton Beach. The Parachute Jump was originally built for the 1939 World’s Fair and, despite needing to be closed on windy days, remained a popular ride into the ‘60s.
Outcompeted by the 1964 World’s Fair up in Queens, it was finally decommissioned and sold to a notorious profiteer whose family money came from the Klondike gold rush up in the Yukon: an ambitious and unsavoury German-American Bronx-born property developer named Fred Trump.
True to form, Trump Sr expended considerable efforts in the 1960s to demolish the Parachute Jump and sell it for scrap metal — but was blocked by the city, which eventually acquired the site.
Still a pointless tower of metal, these days it’s covered in LED bulbs so at least looks pretty at night.
“You guys watch Mr Robot?”
A bald, black guy sitting in front of one of the arcades called over to us. We were loitering, up and down a strip of arcades near the famous Zoltar Speaks fortune telling machine. Looking at our phones and pointing at buildings, we felt like we were close but couldn’t quite figure out which arcade was F Society.
He heard Joel’s accent and started asking the “where you from” questions. Turns out he’s the manager of the building that the F Society scenes were filmed in.
We exchanged glances. Looks like we found it.
“Yeah, everyone who comes over here looking for F Society is from another country. I don’t know why. Americans don’t watch it. I ask them, you watch it online? They say, yes I watch it in Germany, in Denmark, you know, wherever. But it’s only people in foreign countries that watch it, never Americans. I don’t know why.”
Then he said they weren’t open yet for the summer season but we were welcome to come in and look around.
Joel was giddy. It was full of arcade games. It was F Society. The building manager pointed out all the sights: that’s where the popcorn stall was, that’s where Eliot stashed the gun. That’s Mr Robot’s desk, that’s the spot where he does all his best thinking. That’s the joke stall.
I took a picture of Joel behind the stall. He was raised Christian but I’m confident this is the closest he’s ever come to a religious experience.
Then the building manager started telling us about the filming.
“They were so nice you know, the big stars, Rahmi Malek and Christian Slater. Their security guys were so big, these big, bald, black dudes. But one of the producers or managers or something, he was such a dick. One time, they were getting ready to film and they had the shot all set up and I accidentally dropped a bottle of coke and this guy, he gets really angry and goes “who’s the asshole”. So I stepped forward and was like “I’m the asshole”, real serious, not smiling or nothing. And he goes “Uh, sorry, you know, I thought it was, you know…..”. And I was like “you thought it was one of your assholes”. And he just went quiet.
So then for the rest of the day, he kept looking sideways at me and I was just like flipping the bottle and catching it, flipping it, catching it, looking right at him.
And he didn’t say nothing.”
We reminisced for awhile about Coney Island in the ’90s. I told him my grandma was from up by Bay 1 and she used to take me down here all the time.
I told him how once, when I was about four, I saw a toy pail and shovel down the steps on the beach. This was off-season, maybe November, and it was cold, not beach weather, but hey a pail’s a pail and sand’s sand. So I ran down the steps to the toys and settled down to play with them, then looked up.
About ten feet away, underneath the boardwalk, a man was standing there, grinning at me in an unhinged way. He wasn’t wearing pants.
I don’t remember that part, I only heard about it later when my grandma called the police.
“Oh yeah,” the building manager said. “That was before they filled in under the boardwalk with sand.”
He thought for a second.
“You know the history of this place, this is a mean place. They’ve got the roller coasters but this place don’t play. Al Capone got his face cut here. The projects just down the way (he pointed towards Neptune Avenue) you don’t want to go towards those projects. Trust me. You don’t want to go that way. They’ll be looking you up and down, even if you’re walking with your man (he nodded at Joel) and they’ll be like “hey ma”. And they’ll wait to see if your man says anything.
But you just gotta keep walking. Don’t say nothing.”
It’s strange writing about a place you think you know intimately, trying to square it with other people’s hot takes on it, their memories. Mr Robot and the whole F Society riff is a hot, dilapidated take on a forgotten Coney Island that has seen better days, what’s left behind after the world’s moved on.
In Coney Island, the world hasn’t moved on much. There’s still borscht, still the Parachute Jump, probably still a grandma somewhere on Brighton Beach asking her granddaughter if she wants a knish from the guy selling them from a shoulder bag. Still the fiends (but these days they doze on boardwalk benches topside, rather than lure little girls down below).
My memories are not the same as anyone else’s, but they are memories of the same place.
It reminds me again of all those videos held aloft, filming the King in his carriage to Buckingham Palace. If you could harness the cumulative data from those phones, from all our memories, if you could compile it, you could create this immersive experience, float above the crowd and see it from everyone’s perspective at once. That’s how I feel about all this writing about Brighton Beach. Can we call it back? Walk the 1990s beach in my memory, the gritty streets of 1970s Little Odessa, maybe even the 1910s when my great-grandparents first pitched up there?
We’re going to need a hell of a lot more writers. Get enough people writing their place, recording their memories.
But maybe it’s too late for the 1910s now.
The building manager was still talking. He had lots of memories.
He told us about the scene in Mr Robot where the FBI were meant to bust into F Society. All the actors, the extras for the scene, were wearing fake blue FBI jackets and had fake gun holsters. On their breaks from filming, they were going out to Dunkin Donuts for coffee, still dressed up looking like the FBI.
Pretty soon word got around and all the locals were saying to each other “shit, the FBI is raiding something down by the boardwalk”.
And then, sure enough, the actual police came busting in while they were filming to see what was going on.
The cops (the real ones) told the director and the crew “hey, if your guys need to go out to Dunkin Donuts, they better take off those jackets. We see anyone else out there in a blue jacket, we’re going to arrest them for impersonating a police officer.”
Then they turned to the building manager. “Yo, you got a blue jacket? You been going out there all dressed up?”
And he said:
“No man, I’m not even part of it. I just work here.”
I tried something a little different this week and am sharing some spicy hot takes on America in Notes one by one, just for fun. Basically, I had some bits and pieces from our States trip that I couldn’t stomach working up into full pieces (sometimes, that’s just all there is). So I used Notes to post them separately and now, rather than having unrelated little mini-essays in footnotes, I can link to them here. Neat. Here’s the first. It was about flags.
And here’s the second. This one was about Apple Pay (or its mysterious absence):