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Barbés sur Mer
Dean Borok on Brighton beach

Stepping 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 couldn’t 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 don’t 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 40’s. 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 women’s 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. It’s 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 don’t 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! You’re 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.

The 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 can devise.

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 Ruby’s or Cha Cha’s 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 don’t believe he’ll 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 anybody’s interested, which is to build a ferry terminal at Coney Island pier and inaugurate a high-speed hydrofoil service to Wall Street. Once it’s 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, it’s 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. It’s 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 I’m 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 person’s 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 we’d 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 water’s 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 hundred meters.

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.
We’re so lucky!
© Dean Borok May 2007

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