Sunday, May 16, 2010

a New Yorker and an immigrant

You mean your family never took you to Coney Island? I ask Ed.
Not that I recall...
Not to the amusement park? Or the beach?
No, I don’t think so...
Or Brighton Beach? (Brighton Beach of Brooklyn is home to a significant number of Russian Jews and though I wouldn’t exactly identify Ed’s family with this very recent population of immigrants, I thought maybe they had stumbled down to visit. If only for the pickles. Ed’s family had a particular fondness for kosher dill pickles.)
No, no real New Yorker would have any reason to visit Brighton Beach.
I was a real New Yorker.
No you weren’t and anyway, you didn't regularly go to Brighton Beach.
I was a New Yorker! You left New York to go to college and never came back. I finished college in New York. Formative years! And when I was a kid, we went to Coney Island.
You were born in Poland. I was born in here. It’s in my blood!

We are, of course, bantering for the hell of it. We do that a lot here. In Madison, Ed can be very quiet. When he does banter with store clerks back home, I'm often squirming because I know they don't see it coming. In New York, they see it coming. Ed is in his element. His accent comes back, his hands are alive, he delivers the lines and then roars with laughter.

I often wonder why he has hated New York for so long (he doesn’t now, not on our visits here this year and the year before). He is the genuine article. Even though I carry a camera, people assume I live here, just because I walk next to him. They ask us directions. They ask us questions about real estate in the Village. And Ed plays the role of the friendly New Yorker very very well. It's a mistake to say New Yorkers are rude, he tells me more than once.

My last trip to Coney Island was in March of 2005 (yes, I blogged about it then). I went alone and it was perhaps for that reason that I found it a haunting experience. My childhood memories were or vast crowds having a wonderful time escaping the stifling air of the city. Coney Island had rides and food stands and a sprawling beach, with the cooling waters of the Atlantic. It’s an easy place to travel to – the last stop on the Q, D, F or B. But on my 2005 visit, the place was cold and empty.

Let’s go, real New Yorker, I tell Ed. Brighton Beach, before it gets discovered. Then Coney Island.

It’s a beautiful May day. Sunshine and a warm breeze. Short sleeve weather, even for me.


On our way to the subway, We pass a group of musicians with an energetic doo wop sound.


We pause to listen. They call themselves Spank and they’re superb. And they have a small, but tremendously appreciative audience.


We play cruises. The lead singer tells us. We’ve been all over the globe. He looks at his watch. Now I gotta go meet my girlfriend in Macy’s. Macy’s, on a nice day like this. She wants me to buy her perfume. Sweet smell, but it’s $130! I throw Ed a “see what men do for their girlfriends or traveling companions” look.

At the station we wait for the B train.

The D comes and goes. (That one only goes to Coney Island, I tell Ed. I thought we’d start with Brighton Beach. You might enjoy a swim there.)

The second D comes and goes. (That’s strange, Nina. You sure this is the right platform? Of course it is. I retort. See? The sign does say D and B.)

The third D comes and goes. (Maybe we should just take the Coney Island train... No, we’ve waited this long, just one more and if it’s not B, we’ll take it.)

I glance at my subway map and notice the fine print: B runs only on weekdays. Oh dear.
New Yorker, huh? Ed grins. What I like about Ed is that he always chooses to laugh at me rather than getting annoyed. Because we have now wasted half an hour waiting for a train that was not to be. And the ride on the local D to Coney Island is a 45 minute affair. In all, we’ll have spent a good part of the sunny May day enmeshed in the subway system.


Never mind. The day is fresh and brilliant as we alight in Coney Island. Ed asks – do they still have the original Nathan’s there?
Of course! (Nathan's Deli has been around since 1916, and in case you want to know where the idea of a hot dog eating champion arose, it was here. Record thus far: 68 hot dogs and buns in twelve minutes )


Let’s split a hot dog. With the works! (This from Ed, who does not eat red meat out of respect  for the feelings of cows. Me, I avoid hot dogs because my imagination puts all sorts of gross things into that orange toned cylinder of whatever.)
Of course! I say. New York, New York, you are messing with our principles.

The best shot of the day would have been one of us starting in on the same hot dog with sauerkraut and onions and mustard from the two ends. No such shot was taken, but I at least offer you this.


The boardwalk is reasonably busy. But the beach is nearly empty. And we understand why: it’s still closed for the season (official opening: next week). You risk getting zapped with a fine if you swim. No one is swimming.

But Coney Island is as good as any road carnival that comes to the county fairs in Wisconsin. At the end of May, a new amusement park is scheduled to open here. For now, it’s completely charming to watch the wee ones have their wild moment on a kiddie ride.



Further down along the boardwalk we come to handball courts. I never see handball in Wisconsin. I say to Ed. How come? It’s a game for places without much space. In Wisconsin, we can afford to have tennis courts.


Still further down is the community of Brighton Beach. As you walk along the boardwalk, at some point you notice that the language around you has become almost entirely Russian. And even if I didn't notice the language change, I’d have guessed the heritage of these people. You don’t grow up in Poland without knowing what a Russian or Ukrainian face looks like.


At the Brighton Beach playground we watch men play cards and dominoes. They speak no English and my Russian is too weak to carry on a sensible conversation. They're a friendly bunch and I'm sure they think they have a soul mate in Ed. Indeed, they're eating the pickles he loves. Still, we are useless onlookers. Communications falter. We move on.


We pass the eateries that spill out tables onto the boardwalk. Volna, Tatiana... Coiffed women, men with big bellies – this is the older generation. Or is it my generation? Strains of Moscow Nights, menus with old world standards.


The boardwalk ends here and we move inland, away from the ocean and the still empty beaches.



In the shadow of the elevated subway, Brighton Beach Avenue has the stores that draw the crowds. Green grocers and aptekas (pharmacies, where I hear you can get knock off pharmaceuticals), stores with glitzy  clothes -- so beloved by immigrants who haven't the money, but who want the symbols that are the immigrant's idea of American success. Cold storage for furs, shops renting Russian movies, small law offices advertising immigration services. The writing is in Russian, the clerks speak Russian, the language on the street is Russian.They say only Moscow has more Russians than Brighton Beach.




We buy some baked goods – poppyseed cake and walnut pastries.


At the diary counter, the woman wears lipstick that is as bright as the roses of June, carefully outlining her full lips. Blouses with flashy, sparkling designs are not uncommon. Counters have smoked fish and sweetened cherry juices. I haven’t felt so immersed in the world to the east of Poland since I visited the Soviet Union in 1969.



We ride the Q train back. Over the Manhattan Bridge, with views of the Brooklyn Bridge to the south.


You think I’ll end with this shot of a city scape? No, our day actually ends with a very late night meal at Suzie’s – a Chinese place just up the block on Bleecker. With okay spring rolls and a wonderful Hunan stirfry.


But I want to end with the walk from the Q train back to our Bleecker Street apartment for the week. Because you’d think New York couldn’t possibly offer you garden space to grow the perennials I love to see in Madison gardens. So wrong. Just two blocks from our brownstone, there is this plot, where neighbors have created a magnificent flowering landscape.


With an apple tree and a birdhouse and a young one, still needing help with her food. It's such a non-New York moment that for me, it is as essential to the story of the day as Nathan's hot dogs and Brighton Beach kolbasa.