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Happy New Year from Brighton Beach! or [the russian symbols won’t paste]

January 4, 2008

Happy New Year! It’s 2008 and I started the year off right with a trip to one of my favorite New York places, right at the end of the Q and B lines: Brighton Beach.

Non New Yorkers immediately think Brighton Beach Memoir, a Neil Simon play about growing up Jewish in the 1930s.

The Brighton Beach of the late 90s and aughts or naughts or whatever we are now in is a Russian ex-pat community. A trip out there is about as as close as you can get to leaving the country without actually leaving the country. Not just because it’s far out on the edge of NYC, on a body of water overlooking what may seem, to the spatially challenged, to be France, but because of the chance to be spoken to first in Russian and the necessity of asking people to withhold the shaved dried smoked beef from your salad. It’s a singular experience.

I love this neighborhood for the Tudorish seaside apartment buildings along the boardwalk and the chance to watch old Russians stroll (or be wheeled) and young ones pony for one another’s attention. You can while a day away looking at the ocean over a plate of french fries drizzled with garlic butter and parsley. A few notable experiences aside from the obvious Russian ones don’t fit well into narrative format and will therefore be arranged into a chronogical list:

1. She’s a Mush
New to New York and battling mice in a tenement apartment in the East Village, I call a 718 number in response to an ad for a kitten. 718 = Brooklyn, I thought, and while I was not technically wrong, I did not yet realize that going from the edge to the middle and back out to a wholly nother edge still requires a hefty train ride. (Now that I’ve moved deep, deep into this borough, it is an unforgettable fact.)

Arriving in Brighton Beach an hour later, I pick my way over to and ring the bell of a house ponged sour with cat urine. The owner of the house came down to explain that she was eating a roast beef sandwich and that I should wait. (Sandwichless, in the stink.) She let me in the outside door but left me in a vestibule lined on both sides with cages. The staring cats cried and stuck their paws through the bars to get at me. I felt repelled.

Finally I called up to announce that I wasn’t going to wait any longer, and the woman, still wiping mayo from her lips, ran to show me the real cat storeroom, which was in the basement. She was particularly eager to give me a 4 month old striped gray one tabby who fell over when she reared up to play with me. I felt a connection to her slight ungainliness. “She’s such a mush,” the crazy cat person explained. “A mush! Like a dog!” She told me that the cat was half “Russian Blue,” which is supposed to be a sexy brand of kitty. Promised an animal with mousekilling abilities but dog’s character, I brought her home. In reality, the cat I came home with is standoffish, angry, and insecure. Despite my attempts to name her Katrina or Katrinka or Sabrina or something little and tinkly and Russian sounding in homage to her geographic and genetic roots, I ended up calling her George because of her lack of grace. There is another kind of cat–a French kind commonly described as a “potato on toothpicks,” and surely this better describes her. Still, who needs a graceful cat? Character trumps grace, and I could not love her more. And once you fall in love, you don’t want your pet to do a job, like eat dirty mice. Pets are for snuggling.

2. “Cheese Eating Cheese”
During a spate of unemployment in early 2002, I have as little energy as I have money. I live in a studio apartment on the ground floor. It’s dark and I spend a lot of time alone. One day I muster collect myself as best I can, haul on a blue two-piece and go out to the beach with a paperback, giant hat, and towel. I am alone on this trip. It is a weekday, I will see no one I know, and I will wear my bikini no matter how I look. (How I look is both pale and like I do not have washboard abs.) The moment I set foot on the sand a pretty lithe brown man with big curls runs circles around me, working himself up for an introduction. He’s recently moved to New York from the ancient city of Fez, where he worked as a tour guide. He’s very bright and very sensitive. I enjoy both his company and his washboard abs. We talk while we splash in the water. Later he walks me to Coney Island, buys me some fried shrimp. We watch people fish off the pier. “You are so crrreeeeeamy and whiiiiiiiite,” he describes, in a truly appreciative tone. “You are like cheese,” he continues, as we enter the arcade, which makes me laugh, even if that wasn’t the intent. He rides the train back to my house with me so we can continue our conversation, before he turns back to Sheepshead Bay to go home, and we agree to see one another again. We date for 2 months until cultural differences intercede. Cultural differences include his proclivity for quotes such as “You are so pretty. Not beautiful, like Monica Lewinsky, but very nice to look at. More like Princess Diana, but your features aren’t all in synchronicity such as the lovely Diana’s were.” But these conversations are amusing, and he does seems to like me. At one point during our relationship he watches me eat a spinach pie on my couch. It is full of fenugreek and fresh mozzerella. He watches intently. “So creamy and white,” he breathes. “You are like cheese eating cheese.”

3. Booties
I like to go to Brighton Beach with my friends Jennifer and Mike. Jennifer and Mike can both lie in the sun (I need an umbrella) and like to take what they call a “freak walk,” which is where they admire the crazy old ladies in leopard-pattern bras, or men in banana hangers, or people with legs splayed in large nylon undies surely never meant to see the light of day. Brighton Beach makes you realize that you’re really in the middle, physically and in terms of your taste, and that can be a good thing. In addition to the “freaks,” Jennifer is gay and likes to look at ladies. Mike is straight and likes to look at ladies. Mike is married to an upright swimmer with lean haunches, but that’s not the sort of thing they’re on the prowl for out here. Mostly, they traipse the beach looking for big jiggly booties on girls with smooth brown skin. “You always want things you don’t have,” says Mike, presumably referring to wife’s own booty, in addition to his own.

There is so much more to tell about the wonders of Brighton Beach. On New Year’s, my husband and I decide instead to pop into the grocery stores along the Avenue, instead of walk over to the beach. We end up looking at real estate, as all New Yorkers do. What would it be like to live here on an all-Russian ‘cept for us block? We could live in a gingerbread house . . . we enter into one grocery store with pastries piled everywhere, and smoked fish sitting in boxes. Steam trays of stuffed cabbage fail to provoke any hunger in me, because I can’t help but wonder whether they are holdouts from last year, though it was only 12 hours before.

We check out the holocaust memorial on the Bay, as we are walking up to Sheepshead. It seems that families can pay in with other families to get a stone to honor their dead. It’s sobering but moving that a community from the USSR seems intact again in Brooklyn. I don’t feel that I have a community that intact.

We stopped into a cafe, which I’d like to write about but it was in Sheepshead–that’s another story. In a post coming soon!

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