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The International Writers Magazine
:
USA

Brighton Beach, Brooklyn
Ulle Trautvag


Before it becomes too warm and hordes descend on this relatively short stretch of beach east of Coney Island I make my foray for provisions and some sun. I board the Q train at 57th St. and 7th Ave. where it begins its express run to Brooklyn, making sure to sit on the right side of the car in order to enjoy the train's traverse of Manhattan Bridge that displays a gorgeous view of the eastern part of lower New York harbor. 
Icons appear:  Brooklyn Bridge, the Statue of Liberty, South Street Seaport, Governor's Island, the Staten Island Ferry terminals and a recent addition on the Brooklyn side, the Red Hook cruise ship port.  As always, I feel a pang in my heart in remembrance of the Twin Towers that soared above everything and were visible from anywhere.  I miss them…
 
I change at Atlantic Avenue to the B train, now an express through Brooklyn and get off at Brighton Beach, its last stop.  The change in milieu is immediate: Signs announce that I am in Little Odessa.  A decade ago most were in Cyrillic but capitalism, spearheaded by intrepid travelers wishing to taste (oh, yes!) and shop produced incentive to have dual language signs and menus.  Credit cards are now widely accepted.
 
I walk past Berta's and Value Depot where you can buy all kinds of flip flops, shorts, towels, caps, tops and, best of all, multi-hued water shoes; these are only $3.99.  The shop next door sells French New Man jeans for $210 a pair, the shop after that fur coats starting at $999 displayed on racks on the sidewalk.  A left turn brings me to the boardwalk, already full of people strolling past restaurants where maitre d's beckon. You can lunch at White Nights, Michael, Tatiana, Tatiana Grill and Volna of which several advertise a special for $9.99 at tables set with linen napkins and cloths.  Menus are similar, offering a variety of soups such as red and green borsht, solyanka and kharcho, a spicy lamb soup in my opinion better consumed in colder weather.  Instead of soup, you can opt for a mixed green salad and then have a choice of chicken, fish, beef stroganoff, beef stew or shishkabob.  Finish with coffee and a small slice of cake.  The food is good.
If you don't want lunch, you can sit down after the beach and enjoy a frosty mug of $4 Baltika beer whose bottles are numbered from 3 to 6 to denote potency; the waiter will ask which number you want.  Or, you can have a shot of Smirnoff for $2.50 as you enjoy the ever-expanding promenade.  As the crowd increases, so does the police presence, whether cruising past in patrol cars, dune buggies or balancing on those cute two-wheeled Segways.  They elicit smiles from everyone.  Hey, I wanna do that too! 
The police seem to make it a point to present a friendly face and the ones on Segways pirouette and seesaw to appreciative audiences.  Suddenly, this festive scene is interrupted when a dark, unmarked, tinted-windowed sedan glides ominously past, its occupants scrutinizing and videotaping the restaurants' patrons.  In a ridiculous moment, Steely Dan's lyrics "…and when she smiles for the camera…"flash my mind.  I stare poker-faced.  The Russian mafia has a strong foothold here and I recall several rubouts in past decades, most notably one in front of Café Arbat, under the el on Brighton Beach Avenue.  The cops are keeping an eye on everyone.
 
A couple of years ago I arrived at the beach on a Sunday, about 12:30 and noticed a couple lying immobile in the sand. Both were in full evening dress:  She in glittering sequined tulle, he in a tux whose jacket was discarded.   Lying face up they were getting sunburned.  I stopped because I couldn't see any movement and approached to check the rise and fall of their chests.  Yep, they were breathing.  It must have been a heck of a party last night!   Without a doubt the proximity of this beach is a contributing factor to heavy imbibing that can lead to stumbling assignations on the sand, declarations of love, subsequent oblivion and, certainly, regret.
 
At another time, I happened past the Imperial, a large club on Brighton Beach Avenue, where a party was in full swing. Russian music filtered out.  A tuxedoed young man was on bended knee on the sidewalk, arms stretched wide before a beautiful woman.  She clasped a rose in her teeth and had planted one mesh-stockinged, stiletto- heeled, foot imperiously onto his knee while pouring the contents of a bottle of vodka, from five feet high, into his mouth.  Opera buffa with Russian soul.  It was 4 pm.
 
Jackie's department store is another that sells a mish mash of toiletries, clothes, household products and, sometimes, cheap fur.  I had tried on a cognac-colored Mongolian lamb jacket for $250 and, although it fit, it was too short.  A black, longer style made me laugh into a mirror as a gorilla laughed back.  A few feet east is a neighboring store selling a brand for men named Caribbean Joe that seems to copy Tommy Bahama.  I bought a tropical shirt for Forklift, envisioning him sauntering along the malecón in Havana --
NOT………..Yet!
 
The north side of Brighton Beach Avenue is replete with vegetable markets that sell very good produce and fruit for about one third of the price in Manhattan.  Several varieties of melons, at least four types of tomatoes, berries, including gooseberries and black currants (twice the amount of antioxidants as blueberries) are on display.  The resourcefulness of the Mexican salespeople is evident as I hear them comment in Russian to a clientele that certainly doesn't speak Spanish.
 
International Market is the largest charcuterie on the Avenue.  It boasts an extensive smoked meat counter as you enter on the right.  All types of salamis, hams, bolognas, smoked chicken, kielbasis, liverwursts, etc. are on sale, as well as pate foi gras, viande de grison, prosciutto, bresaola and bundnerfleisch.  Prices start at $2.99 a pound and almost never exceed $10. A selection of juices – cherry, elderberry, mulberry, mixed wild berry, black currant, birch beer, lemonade with mint (delicious!) are imports from Israel, Poland, Estonia, Russia, the Czech Republic and Bulgaria whose BBB brand I find to be the best.  The second floor is relegated to baked goods where you can buy tortes such as walnut, black forest, Sacher, Melba, cherry and small cream cakes costing $1.50.  Russians favor a sour cream filling for their cakes, which, while heavier than whipped cream, is quite tasty.  A few steps higher leads to a roof garden and a café that includes a counter stocked with ready-made foods.  Here you can purchase pelmeni, chicken Kiev, fish, Israeli salad, matjes herring and other foods.  It's a good way of tasting before buying larger amounts on the main floor.
 
As I buy some chicken salad I am reminded of the great blackout of August 25, 2003.  Forklift and I were at the Ft. Tilden beach in Rockaway when a neighbor called us over with startling news.  New York City had just lost all power resulting in a total standstill of public transportation.  We stared at each other and while I'd always dreamed of spending a night on the beach I didn't want it to be on this remote stretch. The neighbor, who lived on Long Island, offered to drop us off in Brighton Beach, a relatively short distance away.   We arrived to find makeshift outdoor counters in front of dark food stores.  Hastily lettered signs offered food for sale at big discounts.  Ice cream was free. A salesperson asked me to please buy two pounds of chicken salad that she was selling for $1.  "Please, please take.  Is goot, goot."
 
We reached the boardwalk and were astonished at the sight.  It seemed that the entire population of Brighton Beach had decamped for the beach; there was almost no room left for us to place our towel. A kindly woman made space next to her blanket and offered cigarettes and vodka; I reciprocated with chicken salad and tepid soda.
 
Because the day had been very warm my only clothing was a tank top and shorts. We had two towels, both damp, and the boogie board.  We sat near the water listening to intermittent laughter from the restaurants on the boardwalk behind us which were crowded with people at candlelit tables enjoying this adventure, as, for the time being, were we.  But as night approached and we tried to fall asleep on one towel with the other over us, heads resting on the boogie board, it became clear that it would be cold and damp.  Time to grit one's teeth.  I felt reassured by the Russians who had devised a simple security system by mounting patrols of paired men who quietly walked the beach.  In addition, they had brought a generator to the boardwalk that powered a strong search light which played over the buildings, no doubt as a deterrent to burglars.  We felt secure, but the cold kept us awake.
 
Dawn was beautiful and those people still left on the beach began to awaken.  I set out to find coffee, a futile undertaking.  Still, my traipsing around the restaurants showed what a good time everyone had had last night.  Discarded bottles, candles and brimming ashtrays littered linen-covered tables.  I even checked out some coffee cups but all were empty.  We'd made it through, one way or another.  The beach was again becoming crowded and at 1pm, someone yelled "Power's on!"  It took Forklift and me four buses and three hours to make it home.
 
Chicken salad is no longer a favorite
© Ulle Tratvag June 2007
ulletrautvag@aol.com

Chinatown/Koreatown - Flushing, Queens, NY.
Ulle Trautvag
I rush to take the #7 subway train in order to make lunch at East Buffet and Restaurant in Flushing, changing at Queens Plaza to the express that will let me off at Main Street, the last stop.

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