Brighton Beach Letters

Story posted on March 9, 2009 at 4:00 AM

When I first came to America, Brighton Beach was still timid.
The first Russian store was more like a country shop. It sold dry fish, caviar and matryoshka dolls all at once. The first Russian restaurant was bleak like the cafeteria of a railroad station. It featured day-old borsht, faded wallpaper and the owner’s offspring running around among the tables. Small groups of immigrants strolled along the now-famous Brighton Beach Avenue from the Beryozka store to the Oceana picture house. They all wore the same uniform, like members of the armed forces of some unknown nation. In winter, it was the fur hat brought along from Russia and the American-bought shearling coat. In summer, it was the sanatorium-style pajamas bottoms and the polo shirt. The leather jacket was the rule between the seasons. It is difficult to understand in what deep woods we had developed our ardent love for hunting clothes. At the time, Brighton was still being created. The early letters mailed back to Russia contained pictures of our fellow immigrants taken against the backdrop of other people’s motor cars. However, even back then an enterprising beach photographer was already offering a plywood set with characters from the famous Russian cartoon You just wait! He was the first to figure out that no Mickey Mouse would be a hit with this particular crowd.

In time Brighton Beach changed. It became a spicy gem in the mosaic of ethnic New York. A Brighton street scene now flickers frequently on the TV screen. It has become a tourist destination. New York City guidebooks have allocated to it its rightful place between Harlem and Chinatown. It is now accorded certain respect, as though it were a private ambassador of the Russian State. Brighton Beach won its independence as triumphantly as the United States had done two hundred years previously. Having extricated itself from its root, the proud Brighton Beach tirelessly taunted its powerful Motherland. Clearly despising the Kremlin, it nonetheless secretly dreamed of revenge: "How I’d love my old neighbors in Kiev’s Podol neighborhood to see me driving a Cadillac and Sonya dressed in a sable coat!"

However, as it often happens when reality somehow catches up with a dream, sweet revenge failed to come about. When the wave of perestroika washed upon Brighton’s shores, when small streams came together to form a tsunami and when guests from Russia became as much a part of ?migr? life as tax evasion, it turned out that the change provided few dividends for Brighton. The emissaries of perestroika even refused to recognize Brighton as their bright future. In general, Brighton failed to impress Russia. She did not embrace it wholeheartedly and refused to emulate it. As to commerce with Russia, it had been running smoothly before, anyway. As a result, singer Willie Tokarev became the lone beneficiary of the newly started exchange of values. His taxi driver muse managed to cross the Atlantic without even wetting her skirts. Naturally, Brighton repaid the Motherland in kind. A sign was placed next to the kiosk selling enormous pirogies, proclaiming: "Gorbachev came here. He wanted to use our pirogies to feed his hungry perestroika."

This bold statement exemplifies the honestly that has always been a Brighton virtue. Here people speak their mind, indifferent as to whether children, women or Secretaries General happen to be within hearing.

Brighton failed to fall in love either with its old Motherland or with its "New Motherland", as America came to be called in ?migr? newspapers. As old Soviet agronomists used to say, they didn’t sit around waiting for Mother Nature to do them any favors. Instead, they went ahead and reshaped their environment to their liking.

Brighton wasn’t happy with the America it found here and so it created a different one for itself. It is remarkable how few American traits it contains. The grand International Foods supermarket carries its own version of every product. Not just rye bread, kefir and garlic salami, but everything else into the bargain: juice, vanilla powder, crackers, heart medicine, beer, what have you. Brighton refuses to recognize the standard American product selection. Here—and nowhere else—you can find Uzbek carpets, bras with four buttons on the back, cast-iron meat grinders, calico socks, embroidery threads and even the "Early Dawn" brand of toothpaste.

The Brighton entertainment industry is also idiosyncratic. It has its own stars, its own laureates of All-Union competitions, its own banquet rituals, its own brand of humor and of course its own press. On its pages, the ?migr? circles carry out private conversations in the kind of language that used to be reserved for an intimate, if not alcohol-enhanced, dialogue. In Brighton, no one would shudder upon reading in a paper "Happy Golden Wedding Anniversary to Zhorik and Beatochka!" Because Brighton is so enamored of diminutives, it sometimes seems to be inhabited by individuals with bird names—Aliks, Shmuliks, Yuliks, Rose-Breasted Grosbeaks.

Whenever a new restaurant opens in Brighton Beach—which tends to happen with improbable frequency—it gets a name of truly imperial grandeur. TheMetropole. TheEuropean. TheCapital. There is no inferiority here. Brighton needs nothing from anyone. It feels inferior neither to Russia nor America. Brighton does not demean itself with memories. It creates them instead.

It is the essence of the Brighton phenomenon that no one pays attention to reality. The phantasmagory is invariably better. The Brighton melting pot mixes everything, the strange Russian-Yiddish-English dialect, the memories of the past that is not yours and the hope for the future that will never come true. Brighton survives on myth, and reality does not interfere with it. It has built distinct society, complete with its own language.

Examples of this language are provided by plentiful Brighton store signs. Take, for instance, this undying neon miracle, the sign that reads "Optecary". Perhaps the owner created this neologism to avoid spending money on extra words. Everyone can figure out that an Optecary is a place that combines the optician’s and the apothecary, where you can both get a new pair of glasses and buy a bottle of aspirin.

On the other hand, Brighton restaurants spare no expanse to get themselves opulent bilingual signs. For instance, one reads, in English, "Capuccino" and then provides a Russian translation "Meat Dumplings".

Brighton has created a distinct—and very aggressive—style. Some may be proud of it, others may be embarrassed, but none can shed its influence.

The core feature of the Brighton Style is overabundance of money, flesh, words--everything. A true Brightonian takes up one and a half standard seats in a subway car. Not because he is particularly large. Not really. Because he is a Master of Life. An ?migr? Gargantua. Overabundance is the world which he inhabits and which he built with his own two hands. No Fifth Avenue has as many mink coats as the Brighton Boardwalk in wintertime. Plus the diamonds hanging around every neck and off every ear, as if it were not Brooklyn over there but Cape Town diamond mines. At Brighton banquets, food is served on three-level serving platters. The first level has Georgian appetizers, the second kebobs and the third pastries. Musicians play without a single break.

Brighton shocks everyone who comes there. Because here people know how to live well. No one bothers to keep his knowledge to himself. Actually, one of the key features of the Brighton Style is its propaganda. Here, everyone know what others should be doing and how to do it. How to write a novel or paint a portrait. How to treat cancer or deal with a hangover. How to make a million and what to spend it on. An enormous, all-consuming self-confidence not only allows them to give advice but compels them to oversea how it is implemented.

Once, at the dawn of Brighton’s creation, visiting a famous delicatessen bearing the inevitably grandiose name of "Moscow," Peter Vail and I met a very small man who was missing his front teeth and had a large sore covering his entire cheek. Having inquired about our occupation, he grabbed his bald head between his hands in horror: "Oy, what have you been thinking of? What kind of a life is it, I ask you? America loves the strong."

It is absolutely true. There may be some question as to what America actually loves, but Brighton is a land of strong, rich, confident people. They didn’t like the world they left behind and they are not interested in the world they found here. They are building a new country for themselves. A country according to their specifications. A country the size of a dozen Brooklyn blocks.

Brighton Beach is the reincarnation of Odessa, of the noisy, filthy and semi-criminal Odessa that Isaac Babel, shaking with delight, used to describe as a wellspring of dreams, imagination and an improbably bright sensation of the world: "Think of it. A city in which life is easy. In which life is clear… I believe that the Russian people will be attracted to the South, to the sea and the sun… The literary Messiah, whom everybody has been looking out for so fruitlessly, will come from there." Babel himself became that literary Messiah. But Odessa’s creative potential was not exhausted. Instead, Odessa took to the road. Now, it is here, in Brighton Beach, densely settled with characters drawn as though from his Moldavanka Aristocrats: "They were squeezed into raspberry-colored waistcoats, orange jackets hugged their shoulders and sky-blue leather was bursting around their fleshy legs."

The Brighton Style, with its candid rudeness, cynical ignorance and inevitable cruelty, is imbued with the same charge of creative energy as Babel’s Odessa. The only reason why the Brighton Beach phenomenon is so hard for an outsider to appreciate is because it still lacks its own Babel.

Brighton needs no flattery and it is indifferent to others’ disdain. What it needs is its own Babel, its own literary Messiah, who would help the Third Wave of emigration to become part of Russian cultural history as much as Odessa.

Perhaps this is how Brighton Beach will one day make it up to its victims.

Brighton Beach is no longer what it once was. Even the occasional foreigner has begun to appear here.

Not that there were none before, but in the old days Americans didn’t used to get underfoot. Old ladies used to hang around the nursing home, Puerto Rican young men used to court full-bodied Odessa brunettes exclusively at the beach and Jewish aborigines used to cluster around the synagogue.

But now English is sometimes heard in totally inappropriate places, such as restaurants. In Brighton I once even encountered a couple that seemed to have emerged straight out of a Woody Allen movie. They had ventured out of Greenwich Village and stumbled upon a Caucasus restaurant. The young man, who had clearly read too much Dostoyevsky, ordered a plate of caviar and a glass of vodka. A quarter of an hour later, he was being pulled from under the table by his girlfriend with the help of the waiters. The last I heard from the unhappy victim were his bitter words: "This is not a restaurant. This is Holocaust."

Even though in this particular case foreign travelers did not dally in Brighton for long, the very fact that Americans have been able to enter its life is quite significant. Did something go awry in its once ardent life? Was perhaps the source from which wild Brighton energy used to bubble up starting to go dry? Was Brighton becoming a park, an amusement ride or a reservation?

There is nothing to worry about. Not a single store has closed yet. On the contrary, the choice is only getting vaster. As ever before, Brighton eats, drinks and talks its distinct brand of Russian and its distinct brand of English. Nevertheless, there is a faint scent of decay in the air—like in Venice.

Signs of decadence are easier to discern not in the body of Brighton—everything is just fine with the body here, as usual—but in its spirit. The flow of energy is thinning out, youthful-looking men with gold teeth are getting scarcer and there are fewer mink shawls on the boardwalk. In general, it has grown quieter here.

Life here is acquiring the unhurried pace of a summer resort, the non-aggressive retirement-age prosperity. Everybody known everybody else, and everyone is at peace at last with all his neighbors. In the greasy spoon known as the Knish Place, middle-aged men play dominoes on tables covered with Soviet-made oilskin under a group photograph of the Chernomoretz soccer club. They wear their ear flap hats. Not long ago, this place used to be an illegal casino, where priceless icons and diamonds were won and lost at card games.

Brighton slowly slides into the state of catatonia from which it was shaken by the Third Wave some twenty years ago. Of course it will forever remain the cradle of emigration, its launching pad. But Brighton can no longer live up to its reputation as the Capital of Russian America. It proved to be too small for the ambitions of its population. Cruel class laws sorted out all Brighton businessmen—except for those who are still doing time in jail—into those who peddle nuts from pushcarts, those who wear evening clothes at art gallery openings and those who inhabit the highest strata among the rich and the famous.

It’s scary to say, but I have heard tales of our countrymen who count millions by the dozen, live in chateaux on Cote d’Azur, employ black gardeners and eat off silver and gold. True, what they eat is still meat dumplings, but this is the only thread that still ties them to their Brighton origins.

Having lost its best children—or at least the most enterprising of them—Brighton is sinking into hibernation, if possible, all the more precipitously. But it is too early to write Brighton off. It has merely entered another stage of its life, having left behind its young age, complete with its cruel indifference to the means and the ends, and advanced to a cheerful old age only lightly touched by decay and abandonment.

If fewer people live here now, at least they come back to visit. I once saw with my own eyes a Rolls Royce stopping in front of the "Fishtayn" food store. In the blaze of diamonds and bare knees, the car disgorged an improbable blonde, holding a pickled cucumber in her teeth.

Perhaps this is how various Godfathers return to Sicily from Las Vegas accompanied by kids or personal assistances, in order to taste true polenta and share a bottle of Marsala with the town police chief.

Having lost the intensity of feeling, Brighton has preserved its appearance completely untouched. It canned the spirit of the early settlers. The dust on window panes, the na?ve oilskin with a polka dot design and warmed over Russian burgers, cotlety—all this serves to underscore the authenticity of this mysterious place. This is exactly how it all began. Even those same meat grinders made by the Kharkov Metalworking Factory, that same embroidery thread and those same caps, wide as an airfield, can still be purchased at the very same shack on the corner of the Boardwalk.

Nostalgia is what links the Third Wave to Brighton. Nostalgia keeps the restaurants and the stores open. Nostalgia collects abundant tribute from professors and magnates who sooner or later must make a pilgrimage home.

It turns out that investment into an ephemeral eccentricity—namely, the memories of one’s first days in America, of that foyer of emigration that was Brighton Beach—pays off handsomely.

These Letters will not replace a genuine guidebook. Nevertheless, I conclude with three recommendations: what must to be seen, where best to eat and what to visit.

· Brighton’s most important attraction is, of course, the Boardwalk, the long promenade running along a considerable stretch of the Atlantic shore, which takes the place of the Black Sea in the minds of local residents.

· The most interesting part of the rather standard Russian meal any Brighton restaurant will be able to serve you is musical entertainment. For instance, a few years ago the Brooklyn restaurant sector experienced an epidemic of affection for the White Guard, going back to the Russian Civil War. All the local stage idols began singing sang about it inspiringly. This restaurant oddity was described in verse by Naum Sagalovky, the Bard of the Third Wave:

I live well. Without humility
I munch on caviar at restaurants
I share my table with the nobility
With hussars, dragoons and ulans.
At the call of the bugle ready to be off
In plumes, crosses, cockades and epaulets
Lieutenants Golitsyns, Romanovs and Stroganovs
Cossaks Shapiro, Rabinovich and Katz.

· The most exotic local entertainment—taking into account the fact that Brighton Beach is located in America, after all—is the Russian public baths with a pool, a bunch of birch twigs and pickled herring, which is eaten without putting on your clothes. Here you can catch a few odd sights. For example, a group of overindulged intellectuals from Boston who in my presence finished off an entire bottle of Courvoisier cognac without leaving the top shelf of the steam room.