Monica Ghee keeps an apartment on the Lower East Side, but during the summer you’ll find her in the shadow of the Wonder Wheel in her native Coney Island, where for over 40 years she has operated the Hi~Striker, a test-your-strength game invented in the early 1900s. Patrons whack a mallet against a base, propelling a dinger up a 17-foot, yellow steel tower. Ghee has aptly labeled each checkpoint — “Sad Sack” at the lowly level seven, and “Oy Vey” at the close-but-no-cigar level 13.
Ghee – a cheery, bijou Italian woman with a two-toned platinum-brown pixie cut – is a bona fide carny. At five years old she traveled across America with her grandmother to sell cotton candy at fairs, and spent her adolescence operating stands in and out of Coney. She’s traveled the country with her Hi~Striker, and has run food stands and games to support her eight children.
The day Sandy hit, she and Jeff Fish, who operates the Hi~Striker with her, broke down the heavy apparatus, left it on the grass next to their lot, and took shelter in Ghee’s apartment near the boardwalk.
“The pool by us filled up in 35 minutes, which is very quickly to fill an empty pool,” Ghee recalls. “The water was creeping very fast, very quick, and then it receded just as fast.”
Ghee’s Brooklyn apartment lost power for three days; meanwhile street closures and barricades prevented her from getting near the boardwalk to check on the Hi~Striker. When she finally gained access to the site, the game was cloaked in dried sand and dirt, but seemed to be intact. Only her landlord’s three guard dogs, Bear, Princess and Rasta, were missing.
“They were tangled up in the equipment,” Ghee somberly recalls.
The Hi~Striker had been submerged in at least eight feet of salt water. “And that’s when I saw how bad the damage really was,” says Ghee. “Everything was salt-watered and rusty, and it was fermenting…My Hi~Striker looked like it was for the scrap metal.”
It was a long winter. Ghee and Fish didn’t have insurance coverage for the damages, and they say FEMA helped with basic supplies such as clothing, water and first-aid, but according to Ghee, the agency was being stingy with monetary relief. Every nut, bolt, screw and bell had to be replaced on the Hi~Striker so that it would be up to code – and the $5,000 in repairs came out of pocket. Monica says if she hadn’t saved money over that summer, they would be out of business.
Their office flooded and developed mold. They lost tax papers, toy orders, bills, receipts, compressors, and tools were rusted out. They worked for hours in the freezing cold, wearing masks to evade kerosene fumes from a space heater in the unsafe workspace.
The recovery process was slowed by their age. Fish started working as a Coney Island carny when he was a young teen; he’s now 59 and walks with a slow, calculated gait. “If I’m 30, bam boom bah, in a couple weeks you knock it out,” says Fish. “When you’re 60, it took me the whole winter to do this.”
Ghee was also at a disadvantage. About five years ago, she suffered a bad fall off the Hi~Striker; she snapped her back, broke her shoulders, and spent two years in a wheelchair. An extended rod and pins undergird her right leg. “I’m in a lot of pain a lot of the time,” Ghee says. “But, I live with it.”
In addition, she had to travel back and forth between Coney to the Lower East Side apartment where her estranged husband Ray was staying with their 16-year-old son, Jesse, who lives with autism. After the apartment flooded, it remained without power or running water for six months, during which Ghee’s family had to use sleeping bags and blankets for warmth. Relief agencies delivered additional meals and drinking water, but there wasn’t enough water for flushing.
“Can you imagine?” Ghee says. “Walking down 14 flights of stairs with human waste for six months?”
Palm Sunday, opening day, came early this year, cutting down repair time. It was cold, and nobody was out. And on Memorial Day it rained. Ghee and Fish set their hopes on Independence Day, but on that day she couldn’t open until 4 p.m. because the swaying Astrotower was dismantled for safety.
“They didn’t give us an explanation,” Danny Ghee, Monica’s 45-year-old son says. “They said, ‘You’re closing the next day.’ I said, ‘No we’re not.’ You can’t force me to close my business.”
But Monica caught a break this September. Though her work truck washed away during Sandy, she rented a U-Haul for Little Italy’s Feast of San Gennaro. She didn’t mind the added expense.
“If I don’t go there, I don’t feel right with myself,” Ghee says. “That’s our heritage, that’s our pride, that’s our town.”
At San Gennaro, Ghee says people are happy spenders. And at night, Italian men have to be men.
“Even the women get in on the act, they were smokin’ cigars…it was amazing,” she says. They would throw money at you and played until the change was gone.”
Still, Ghee says her business suffered a 50 to 60 percent loss this season, amounting to thousands of dollars. Coupled with tighter hours and expensive prices at the corporate-minded parks surrounding her, she believes local owners who built the area brick by brick are being squeezed out.
Fish remembers when attraction operators made a fortune over locals that flocked to the area, but “now they come once, and they don’t come back. Because they can’t afford to come back.”
Monica says, “Years ago, the moms-and-pops were the only ones who survived Coney Island. We were Coney Island.” In the ‘70s, she says, Coney Island was fast crowds and fast money. People lined up down the block for a whack at the Hi~Striker.
“If I get a good season next summer, it will all be worth it,” she says, later adding, “The storm came creeping up on us and it robbed us of a lot of things. It doesn’t leave you feeling secure anymore.”
As Ghee prepared to close for the winter (she usually cleans houses during the off-season) she reflected on her rough year. A former game restorer, she plans to repaint the Hi~Striker’s wooden base a vibrant red to “make it look spiffy for next year,” and will add a face-in-hole photo station for the kids. When Ghee retires, Danny, her brawny, tattooed son who has operated the game since he was 13, will take over the reins.
“We’re really at a crossroads right now,” Ghee says. “I don’t want to let it go because it’s his legacy, right son? That’s our legacy.”