The International Writers
Borok on Brighton beach
out of the house, all set to go work out, in my sweat suit and
carrying my boxing gloves, I felt the warm temperatures and saw
the beautiful sunny day, and I knew I couldnt go through
with it. Magpie had told me she wanted to take the subway to Brighton
Beach, walk on the beach, eat lunch in one of the restaurants
and go shopping in the Russian delicacy stores. Go ahead,
I told her, I dont have any interest in going to the
beach in the dead of winter.
But I reconsidered.
Magpie had been a brave girl, going to a job that she hated every day
without complaining. When the transit workers had gone on strike she
had braved vile weather to walk both ways, over a hundred blocks, for
each of the three days of the shutdown.
The idea of making her spend that glorious sunny Sunday by herself was
more than I could bear. I have a conscience. I ran back upstairs and
announced that I was willing to do anything she wanted.
A couple of hours later we arrived at the Brighton Beach elevated station.
It was the height of the day and the January sun shined brightly, warming
the air temperature to the 40s. Brighton Beach Avenue was quite
animated. Russian people, who compose the overwhelming majority of the
population, were out in force, enjoying the temperate weather. They
looked quite elegant in their shearling and fur coats. The Russians
are obsessed with rich-looking fur and leather outerwear, and during
the winter they put on a really toney exhibition of fashion that frankly
puts the normal American population to shame by comparison. Having been
deprived under communism, they are making up for lost time now, with
ermine hats, all manner of fur-lined shearling coats, the womens
coats dyed in flamboyant pastel shades of pink and mauve, and ostentatious
full-length mink and nutria coats, the latter being so superfluous and
exorbitant as to eclipse the wearer.
At the other end of the spectrum were the young girls walking around
on the warm day wearing just t-shirts and large studded belts, showing
off their arms, mid-sections and busts. Nobody ever accused the Russians
of being cold fish, and these young girls were certainly bursting out
estrogen in every direction. Its great to be a kid!
Walking around the Russian section of Brooklyn, with all its signs in
Cyrillic lettering is like taking a trip to a foreign country. The shops
are filled with exotic European delicacies and fashions, and the sensibility
is more reminiscent of the popular Barbès quarter of Paris, with
its cheap, flashy boutiques and cornucopia of exotic comestibles than
of any North American city. The place is defiantly European, with its
gaudy, heavily made-up women, forbidding male heavies and TV monitors
blaring syrupy Russian music videos.
What distinguishes Brighton Beach from any other immigrant quarter is,
of course, the beach. This beach is one of the few beachfronts in the
world which has not been appropriated by the monied classes. The beachfront
section of Brooklyn from Coney Island to Brighton has been from its
inception the preserve of the working and striving classes, people of
means preferring to avoid these rough elements and go farther afield,
to the Jersey shore or Long Island, to enjoy the sea.
Magpie and I dont see it that way. While Brighton Beach may not
have the pristine sand of the Long Island beaches, it is quickly accessible
by subway and the ocean view is breathtaking! Youre seeing a vast
expanse of ocean, with tremendous cruise ships like the Queen Mary II
leaving and entering New York Harbor, the Jersey Shore all the way from
the point of Sandy Hook to Sea Bright, several miles to the south and
Jamaica Bay. When the Concorde was flying we saw it overhead every afternoon
as it made its approach to JFK Airport.
proximity of the beach to Brighton Beach Avenue, just one block
away, means you never have to run out of cold beer, ice, food or
liquor. In addition, there is a very lovely boardwalk always jumping
with riotous activity. Joggers and bicyclists navigate around musicians,
chess players, radical orthodox Jews seeking to bring backsliders
back to the fold, performance artists, whatever the human imagination
In the middle of
all this, there are some elegant Russian outdoor cafés right
on the boardwalk where, for a very modest sum, you can enjoy a lovely
seaside meal with wine or vodka under an umbrella with tablecloth and
linen napkins, enjoying a view of the shimmering silver sea and the
sailboats breezing by. After a day at the beach you can walk down the
boardwalk to Coney Island and have drinks at Rubys or Cha Chas
and enjoy the blues music, the sea breeze and the continual floating
crap game of outrageous characters that never lets up for a second,
day or night.
When the blackout of August 15, 2003, occurred, Magpie and I were spending
the day on the rather more placid beach and pristine dunes of Gateway
National Park, which occupies the de-commissioned army post at Fort
Tilden in Rockaway. With city transit paralyzed and no way to get back
to Manhattan (and just as well, thank you), we managed to get a lift
from a guy with a car, who left us off at Brighton.
Brighton Beach Avenue was in a riotous state of emergency, with food
vendors, their refrigeration having shut down, trying to get rid of
their perishables right on the sidewalk, and at any price.
Magpie and I loaded up on half-price sandwiches, bought a jug of wine
at the liquor store and headed to the beach, where we spent the night
in comparatively cool comfort on the beach instead of having to sweat
it out in pitch black, sweltering Manhattan. The only inconvenience
was at four AM, when the sand cleaning machines and garbage trucks descended
upon us like Terminator machines, belching diesel fumes
and chasing us from one spot to the next as they cleaned the formable
mess of refuse from the preceding day.
Just before dawn, when we saw the first sparkling necklace of lights
across the bay in Breezy Point, at the far western extremity of Rockaway,
it was our first indication that the power grid was being restored.
I recently read a magazine piece about a Brooklyn developer who is trying
to assemble financing to upgrade this potentially lucrative piece of
seaside real estate. He seems to want to build a giant mall and amusement
area where the Cyclone roller coaster and parachute ride currently reside.
I dont believe hell succeed because his business model does
not strike me as being very convincing. Without casino gambling, which
is an option that the state legislature foreclosed long ago, the revenues
from a bunch of fancy rides, food courts and crummy NBA stores will
never cover the massive costs of a major development project.
I would modestly like to advance my own proposal for the area, if anybodys
interested, which is to build a ferry terminal at Coney Island pier
and inaugurate a high-speed hydrofoil service to Wall Street. Once its
demonstrated that a fast commute to the financial district has been
established, developers will instantly rush in and snap up all that
beachfront property for high-end condos, because what you potentially
have there is another South Beach. The Brooklyn Riviera, its inevitable!
But who listens to me?
Magpie and I bought a sausage and pepper hero and a bottle of wine and
headed to the beach. Our plan was to find a nice bench on the boardwalk
facing the sea and have a picnic. But when we got there, our plan was
complicated by a major snag, namely that the public bathroom was closed
for the season.
Fortunately, the Russian boardwalk cafes were doing business, although
the outdoor terraces had been dismantled for the winter. I proposed
that we go into the Moscow Café for a vodka, and Magpie would
be able to use the bathroom. As we walked there we passed The Tatyana
Café, which had a sign announcing Brunch. We decided to go in.
Though we had eaten and drunk many times at The Tatyana outdoor terrace
in summer, this was the first time we had gone inside the place, and
we were shocked by the elegant décor!
We had expected a nice place, to be sure. Even if the Russians
taste in cuisine, with an emphasis on overcooked slabs of greasy meat,
boiled or fried dumplings and marinated salty fish filets, is rather
primitive, they demand an overwrought, neo-Romanoff décor for
their lavish, wild drinking parties.
And not just the kids, but everybody right up to old age gets dressed
up to kill to go out at night. Its not unusual at all to see men
of retirement age fully decked out in black tie or immaculately pressed
Red Army dress uniforms weighted down with Hero of the Soviet Union
medals and their huge peaked hats dragging along their old dolls in
floor-length gowns, out for a big night of feasting on herring, shish-kebob
and pastries, washed down with copious draughts of vodka and wine to
the musical accompaniment of cabaret bands with sexy singers.
But instead of a ponderous setting of heavy velvet draperies and elaborate
chandeliers, like I expected, the room was bright and airy, almost ethereal.
The place was done up in a nautical motif, with beige wood paneling
and glass tables. Set into the wall paneling were fish tanks filled
with exotic, brightly colored tropical fish.
Most amazing was the clear plexiglass floor, under which swam live tropical
fish in a real aquarium. Huge goldfish, catfish and even eels swam through
little coral formations beneath our feet as we were shown to our windowfront
table facing out onto the boardwalk, the beach and the shining sea.
Walking over this live, teeming exhibit of sea life induced in us a
giddy, vertiginous sensation of exhilaration unlike anything we had
ever experienced. Magpie fairly swooned, I feel as though Im
going to fall in!
Seated at our table, we ordered cocktails. We looked down through the
glass tabletop, through the plexiglass floor and into the eyes of fish,
who were watching us with the same intent curiosity that we felt peering
back down at them.
We immediately opted for the buffet with delight, feasting on huge raw
oysters the size of a persons hand, jumbo shrimp cocktail, cold
crab, Alaska king crab legs, rack of lamb, salad, pastry and fresh fruit
in whipped cream.
Every couple of minutes wed stop eating to marvel at the fish
gathered beneath our feet, as though expecting a handout. We were so
effervescent with happiness that Magpie forgot that she had to go to
the ladies room, our original intention when we first walked in.
At the end, we emerged from the restaurant and into the sunlight dazed,
like Dorothy returning to Kansas after her whirlwind sojourn in Oz.
Crossing the beach to the waters edge, we strolled on the direction
of Coney Island. There seemed to be as many people strolling there as
on the boardwalk, elegantly dressed Russians enjoying the temperate
ocean breeze and intense sunshine.
After a while, we realized that we still had the bottle of wine that
we had originally purchased with the intention of enjoying a picnic.
We walked back up to the boardwalk and found a bench in one of the open
concrete shelters that punctuate the promenade at intervals of a few
The westerly wind brought cloud cover in the late afternoon. We sipped
our wine and awaited the sunset, watching the ships sailing to and fro
as they passed heading in and out of New York Harbor to our west.
At the last few moments of sunlight, as the sun was descending over
the horizon, a wispy band of bright fuchsia opened at the very edge
of the sky as the sun, a blazing crimson ball of fire, was exposed for
our delight, inching down through the bright ribbon of sky on its eternal
voyage to the other side of the world. Magpie and I shared a kiss.
Were so lucky!
© Dean Borok May 2007
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