Every Saturday of my childhood—at least that’s how it seemed--my parents and sister and I paid our familial dues by visiting my grandparents in their home a few miles away from Coney Island, the Brooklyn landmark. In nice weather I would spend hours on their rooftop watching the enormous Wonder Wheel spin around and around. After we had visited for long enough, we would hurry to the amusement park for dinner and a few thrills. I lived for this.
While my mother and my sister stood by, holding our coats and wearing worried expressions, my father and I rode all of the scariest rides: The Cyclone, the Thunderbolt, the Tornado, the Wonder Wheel, even the Parachute Jump, which I probably should have skipped. I have nightmares to this day, and besides, any ride where you have to take your shoes off is too extreme for children. Next we hit the Steeplechase, sort of a private club within Coney Island where the rides were really dangerous. Rumor had it that the young daughter of the man who designed its namesake ride had died on opening day, falling off a faulty electric horse and electrocuted on the spot. Naturally this story made it all the more popular.
When my father couldn’t possibly take one more thrill, we’d head straight for Nathan’s Famous for some all-beef kosher hot dogs and big, fat French fries—the source, I’m convinced, of those extra fifteen pounds I carried with me to adulthood—and in a time-honored family tradition, eat until we couldn’t breathe, which was the signal in our home that the meal had ended. After dinner, there was more fun: the pinball machines, the Toss the Ring and Win a Stuffed Animal games, the Fortune Teller; every week we did it all. One particular Saturday, however, we did something new: we were kidnapped. Or rather, I was kidnapped; the others must have done something else.
The old woman had been following us for several hours, or perhaps several weeks. (Bear in mind that this story, like most, was embellished over the years so as to rival to the Lindbergh case.) What I clearly remember is my mother releasing my hand for just a moment to put mustard on her hot dog. Then her hand came down once again and I took it unquestioningly, eager for the next adventure. We had gone several blocks before I realized that the next adventure was the hand I was holding, suddenly not my mother’s hand at all. Instead, I had become the property of a snaggle-toothed, babushka-wearing crone who might have been sent straight from Central Casting for the role of the witch in Hansel and Gretel.
I felt a mixture of fear and excitement, all the while wishing I hadn’t finished my hot dog, thereby depleting my supply of breadcrumbs for the trail back. I was no dummy even at four, and nobody had to spell out that what was going on here was not fun. (To this day I retain my ability to sense “not fun” things, a skill I called up often in the last days of my first marriage.)
What happened then is hazy. (Not important, according to my shrink, who was so excited to have uncovered this buried memory during one of our sessions that he almost called the American Psychiatric Association right then and there to apply for some medal or something.) The old lady took me home to her apartment, or rather hovel, a filthy room in the shadow of the Wonder Wheel. Somehow I did not cry; knowing even then that she was not playing with a full deck, I knew she wouldn’t hurt me. Still, I definitely did not want to be “her little girl now,” as she kept insisting I was. The next morning, after a fitful sleep on top of a pile of old newspapers, we went out for a walk and I easily escaped.
Never looking back, I ran and ran, the tears finally welling up. Despite this event pre-dating the Amber Alert by decades the local police were on the prowl, and very quickly I was spotted and taken to a nearby precinct. Shoving a drippy strawberry ice cream cone in my hand, the nice police sergeant called my parents who appeared in minutes for our tearful reunion.
My mother never got over it. Her daily mantra became, “Don’t talk to strangers.” This of course proved impossible advice to follow much of the time, like when, at the age of 30, I traveled alone to Europe. (“But Ma, I gotta eat!”) Still, when I became a mother myself I understood her terror. Besides the loss of thousands of dollars spent on therapists hoping to cure me of my inherent distrust of strangers, the long-term effects of this unfortunate incident have been minimal: My own son, now 22 and living in Vermont, has thus far never been kidnapped. However, like me, he hates strawberry ice cream and is wary of bag ladies wearing babushkas.