At Coney Island, the Little Engine That Could
The other day at Coney Island, a lazy summer rain was dampening the Boardwalk. The morning shift at Ruby’s — four old men — was annoyed, complaining about the weather and muttering obscenities into their beer. A couple of tourists stumbled past the freak show, dragging their chubby children and their dashed hopes for a sunny day behind them. The seagulls seemed unusually depressed. They hovered near the jetty, then fell like sacks of laundry into the sea.
But in a small room under the Wonder Wheel, the 89-year-old carnival amusement that commands the local skyline, a cheap electric engine kicked to life.
There was a sudden smell of axle grease, and the ticky-tacky cars surged back and forth. The lights came on, and the gears began to turn. In a caged pen near the platform, a sleeping dog woke up.
“There it goes,” said Deno John Vourderis, better known as D. J., 28 years old and a member of the third generation of the family that has run the famous 150-foot-high Ferris wheel for nearly 30 years. He stood by watching as it began to shudder through a shakedown cruise, its steel spokes throwing raindrops. “That’s the heart of it, right there. That’s all it really takes.”
Every now and then — especially this summer, which started out so dreary — it is a fine idea to remind oneself how simple fun can be, how few ingredients are actually required in the production of enjoyment. An easy place to do that is in the motor room of the Wonder Wheel, an unpretentious hole in the ground where 200 tons of steel are powered by nothing greater than a 60-horsepower engine, a driveshaft and a set of four connected metal gears.
It is an austere room, as ugly as a wood shop, and more or less unchanged since the Eccentric Ferris Wheel Company began construction on the wheel in 1918. There is a concrete floor, a claustrophobic ceiling and an atmosphere of rickety mechanics. It is the sort of place you would not expect to find in New York City, but perhaps in the basement of a retired Navy man who moved out to the country and now spends time fixing antique Harley-Davidsons all week.
“It’s the simplest thing you can imagine,” said Mr. Vourderis, a graduate of Hofstra University (theater and political science) who started tinkering with the wheel when he was 17 and his father, Steve, the chief mechanic, had a day off. An electrical inverter turns the motor, which is not much bigger than the Evinrudes that are used to power speedboats. The motor turns the main gear; the main gear turns three smaller gears; and the small gears turn the driveshaft, which eventually turns the wheel.
The braking system, meanwhile, is a hand-drawn wooden lever attached to padded clamps. Every day, the innards of the engine take a little 40-weight motor oil. But the armature is rarely touched, and the gears themselves are infrequently replaced.
Mr. Vourderis, a modern man, has nonetheless made modifications over the years. He has, for instance, taken out the incandescent light bulbs on the cars and replaced them with light-emitting diodes, each set powered by a lithium phosphate battery. “Everything I learned, I learned from my father — or else from the Internet,” he said. He dreams of placing solar panels on the roof so that the Wonder Wheel will eventually be green.
It was shortly after noon and the shakedown cruise was over. A crowd had formed outside the turnstile. The day was dark, the sun not out. But at least the rain had finally gone away.
By ALAN FEUER