Brighton Beach Diaries

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I started thinking this morning of the two years I spent living on the beach in Brooklyn. Out of nowhere, it occurred to me that the whole experience has taken up a very different space in my mind after the fact. The cycle of my life is essentially: start thing, complain about thing ad nauseam, end thing, want thing back. Looking back on it, Requiem for a Dream did not prepare me for my Brighton Beach experience (probably a good thing). My entire family warning me, “DO NOT MOVE TO BRIGHTON BEACH,” also did not prepare me for my Brighton Beach experience. Really, when me and a friend moved from Central Park West down to a neighborhood at the very tippy bottom of Brooklyn often referred to as “Little Odessa”, I didn’t know I was moving out of the city. Essentially. It’s within the five boroughs, but it’s another world. Another country at least––Russia, specifically. It had its ups and downs, one major down being that it took me almost an hour and a half to commute to the UES during a hellish year of working a job that almost killed me for numerous reasons. Aside from that, I felt alienated from the city I love. I was suddenly cut off from my college years, which marked the end of my honeymoon phase with New York.

On the upside—who knew there were beaches in the city? Most people, probably, but I was unaware prior to the move that there were, all along the South Brooklyn coast, honest to goodness, not shitty beaches. I lived five feet from the sand. We were a fifteen minute walk down the pier from Coney Island, which is certainly the most well known area of Brooklyn’s deep south. But Brighton Beach is more trippy, which is saying something, considering Coney Island has *this guy* and frequently feels like an episode of Jersey Shore directed by David Lynch.

Mister Softee truck
My old building, and summer breakfast of choice.

In Brighton Beach, I found that it can be very hard to tell where or when you are. Aside from the pervasive “I am not in New York” feeling of isolation, and the fact that half the store signs are in Russian, there’s something undeniably haunting about the dollar stores and meat markets, lack of nightlife, and odd businesses like a furrier. Restaurants were all Russian, with the exception of a few fast food places. There were only a few bars, the most terrifying of which is called The Velvet Rope (sketchy name IMHO) and has darkened windows and black lights like a strip club on the side of a desolate highway. I’ve linked the Yelp page solely for formatting consistency…honestly I don’t suggest going to this bar, mostly because it’s just not that great. Also there are always a lot of creepy old guys there. I got hit on by men at least thirty years older than me multiple times. If that weren’t enough, they tend to play a mix of Russian pop music and American hits from ten years ago or so, which obviously does nothing to help the surreal weirdness of the place.

Yikes.

All that said, the neighborhood is nice. It’s well-maintained and fairly safe as far as I know. I’ve heard some talk of the Russian Mafia, but always felt safe walking home late at night. And you can feel that you’re near the beach. I liked that. I also liked the people there even though I couldn’t hold a conversation with most of them. They were friendly, and unusual. Most of them over the age of sixty. There are several luxury complexes along the boardwalk absolutely full of old people, who tend to have the same unique sense of style. All the women wear perfume that smells like baby powder and heavy rouge, usually a very pink lipstick. Fur coats are a big thing. In the summer it’s not uncommon to see an old lady in a tiny bikini or topless at the beach, while their husbands walk along the boardwalk in speedos, heavily tanned, oiled like bodybuilders. The next generation seems trapped firmly in the early years of the millennium––you see a lot of middle aged women and men in velour tracksuits. I found something about the vibe of the place and its people disquieting, but that might’ve just been because I was young and not used to feeling like a foreigner. I was homesick, in a very jarring way, for lack of a better description, like a pioneer gone west with the promise of striking gold. In my case, gold was stainless steel appliances, granite countertops and lots of space for a suspiciously low price.

But it’s different now, from the distance of Ditmas Park (five miles, two years), I feel about my time there how I do most of my life––I wish I had appreciated it for the bizarre, lonely, ultimately hopeful, and at times hilarious mess that it was. More and more often lately, I feel the desire to order a pizza from Luigi’s on Brighton Beach Ave, or get khachapuri at Cafe Max. I miss the clash of the train and the ocean––competing sounds and smells filling the gap between two worlds. I miss the old movie theater turned grocery store, which sold chicken hearts and cow tongues. I even miss the toothless old woman that lived above us and would frequently come to my door asking me to take shots of vodka with her. One time she wandered down in her underwear, and told me reassuringly when I opened the door, “It’s okay. I am nude.” Bizarrely, I miss Friday night fireworks more, accompanied by the sound of hundreds of voices carrying down the pier from Luna Park.

It was only a few years ago, but firmly lodged in another era of my life––I seriously cannot decide if I would advise my younger self to move there or not. Probably. Because when I get in a sentimental mood, it’s like some part of me will always be late-night late-summer skinny-dipping in the ocean.

One time a random old woman sat down next to me on the pier and told me she used to watch from her window as the police pulled body parts out of the water after a string of shark attacks in the eighties. I didn’t really believe her, but was impressed by the view she must’ve had––she said she lived in the building just in front of mine; this building is the single lowest point of Brooklyn, and her bedroom window looked out at absolutely nothing but the ocean. Only far away coasts (Staten Island? New Jersey?) as a reminder we were not actually in the middle of nothing.

I would never live in Brighton Beach again, but sometimes I do kind of wish I could go back to the old apartment for a few days, especially as I go through old photos taken there. Planning on going back this summer at some point. I know it’ll give me a weird feeling in my stomach, but I like missing things, in small doses.

My mother is obsessed with The Office and repeatedly quotes Andy Bernard on the exact problem I’ve got with nostalgia––“I wish there was a way to know you’re in the good old days before you’ve actually left them,” he says, at some point in one of the more poignant episodes. So, two items to be added to my to-do list: watch The Office, and when it gets nice out, take a long ride down to the beach and actively enjoy sunbathing amongst half-naked elderly beachgoers. Nothing like seeing an old woman’s saggy boobs to remind you to appreciate what you’ve got.

Brighton Beach