Sunday, October 12, 2008

Brighton Beach, Brooklyn

A jubilant, boisterous Russian language greets me on arrival to Brighton Beach Boulevard. This is the true southern terminus of the borough. It has the genuine character of a foreign world. Not a word of English reaches my ears as I wander from shop to shop; from bookstore to supermarket and from corner to corner. The Q train, shuddering overhead, is making its way to Coney Island. I cross under the elevated tracks onto a more peaceful stretch. These homes are in medium repair: Paint peels away from eaves; splintered doors bear the scars of heavy winters astride the sea. Women in Muslim headdress watch their children from stoops. The neighborhood kids are yelling and playing ball in the private drives between houses. Clouds, which obstruct the sun for some minutes, eventually submit to the repeated triumphs of sunlight. The neighborhood descends into darkness before returning to light.
Oceanview Avenue—these days in view more of the elevated train tracks than any ocean—reveals clusters of single-storey bungalows. The bungalows line side paths and side lanes with names like “Brighton 4 Walk,” and “Brighton 5 Court.” Most of these little buildings are in disrepair, and the lanes and walkways are overgrown with weeds and dominated by the odor of urine. Half-constructed towers of new development rise above this section of bungalows. I observe how not one of the new towers is completed. Each is a steel and concrete skeleton, seemingly abandoned mid-construction. The resulting atmosphere haunts a lonely sightseer like me.

Throughout the area the light of a beach town glows: A soft orange sea light accented by the cool, salty breeze down streets.
On Brighton Beach Boulevard the impressive fruit and vegetable stands are teeming with afternoon customers. It takes the skill of a linebacker to break through the wall of concentrated, shopping bodies. Energy spent like that brings on pangs of hunger. I dash into a tiny establishment on Brighton 2 Street, called Varenichnaya.
For $6.50 I buy a pile of vareniki with potatoes. I look around the place as the cooks prepare my order. Patrons seated at the tables are watching Russian television. A picture of the Hasidic head Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson hangs on the wall beside the kitchen.

I take my food to go. I walk through streets of pre-war coops to the boardwalk. I find a comfortable bench in view of the sand and the green ocean. I open the to-go container. The vareniki are boiled pierogi-type dumplings topped with thin strips of uber-caramalized onions, with a side of sour cream. At first I worry that I won’t be able to finish the whole batch; $6.50 apparently buys you a plentiful pile of vareniki. But I’m hungry, and when I finally finish I remember where I am, and I take a look around. An Anglophone visitor is chatting with a group of men in Russian—testing his skills. Though it’s cold enough for a jacket, two men in swimsuits walk side-by-side on the sand. Far off in the distance I see Coney Island’s Wonder Wheel, unmoving, a mystical shadow. And a strange, pink-yellow, grey-blue sky rests low over the Atlantic. I could sit here till dark, listening to Russian conversations, and watching the sun weaken as it cracks through the ocean clouds.

No comments: