Wonder Wheel, 1963, oil on canvas
"House of Mirrors"
from Frank Kleinholz: A Self Portrait © 1964
When we were very young, my mother took us to Coney Island for a holiday. She took my sister Ruth, Jake, Fanny and myself. She gave us each a five-cent piece for "spending money". "When you get to Coney Island," she said, "spend it on anything you like."
It was a hot, sticky day and a relief to get away from the pavements of Williamsburg. We arrived in Coney Island and what a beautiful sight. What delicious smells, clean skies, peanuts roasting, taffy candy, merry-go-round calliopes playing and a whiff of salt in the air. We looked at everything and wanted to buy everything. Ruthie wanted to buy some spun candy. Save your money for something special.
The Bowery in Coney Island is a short narrow street that leads to the beach. Side shows line both sides of the street, and we stopped in front of one where three girls in semi-transparent silk folds were doing a diminished hootchy-cootchy. The barker kept shouting: "This is the House of Mirrors -- Come in -- Try to get out -- Ten cents for adults -- Five cents for children."
We were gawking open-mouthed at the show when Ruthie leaped toward the ticket seller and bought a ticket. We tried to stop her, but my mother said, "It's her nickel, let her go." She went in and we waited and waited. Suddenly her face appeared in the small opening of the tent and she cried out, "Help, I'm lost -- get me out!" With that, she disappeared.
My mother went up to the barker; "Mister, my little girl is inside and can't get out. She's lost. Can I go in and get her?" "Lady," he said, "this is the House of Mirrors. Ten cents for adults. Five cents for children." My mother looked at me, and I read her mind. I'm not spending my nickel!
Jake had to go in. He got lost. Fanny went in. She got lost. She couldn't find Jake or Ruthie and couldn't find her way out. Finally I went in. I got lost.
Desperate -- my mother went up to the barker again and again he told her: "Sorry, Lady, this is the House of Mirrors. It's ten cents for adults, five cents for children." She finally had to give up a dime to get in, and she got lost.
By the time they rounded us up it was late afternoon. There was nothing left to do but go home. My mother didn't say anything, even after we got home. It became a family secret. We were too chagrined to talk about it.
Many years later, studying for a law exam, I was at the kitchen table. My mother was scrubbing clothes in the kitchen sink. I would read a page and then look up at her as she bent over the sink, weary, tired, her hands red in the hot water. She started mumbling something to herself, shaking her head and then stopping suddenly, she straightened out, heaved a sigh and said to nobody in particular, "What a strange country this is! You have to pay to get lost."
© 2003-07 by Lisa Kleinholz