Saturday, December 8, 2007

Part I: Ruskiy Narod, Eto Ruskaya Brigada

Brighton Beach. I grew up spending more time there then in my own neighborhood. You have probably, at the very least, heard of it and in some way, shape, or form link it to the Russian Mafia.

Years ago my dad described Brighton as a chunk of Soviet Russia frozen in 1982 and dropped on to South Brooklyn. Fifteen, maybe ten, years ago that was very much the case. Brighton was thriving more than ever and just unpleasant enough to be romantic. It's hard for anyone outside the community to understand what can be romantic about a fat woman named Fanya, with a slight hint of a mustache, pushing you out of the way to reach for a $2.99 box of Ferrero Rocher knockoffs at Zolotoy Kluchik. The romanticism is even harder to fathom when you consider that Fanya, who violently pushed you out of the way, isn't just a bitchy customer trying to skip in line, she's the cashier, and quite possibly the owner of the very store you're in. Customer service? Try a different neighborhood, that's not how we work around here. Vulgarness, lack of service, and even dirt on the streets were all somehow, almost magically and most definitely nostalgically, charming. Much like you were guaranteed no service (in the modern American sense of the word) in a Russian store, it was also inevitable that among the pushing, the shoving, and the cornucopia of Russian curses circa 1982, you would run into your friend Igor, your Cousin Alex, or your Uncle Borya, who would then join you for a walk on the Boardwalk, bag of sunflower seeds in hand. And what walk on the Boardwalk would be complete without dinner at Tatyana or Volna to conclude the night, and of course provide an excuse for downing a 1.75L of Smirnoff among 3 people.

The 90's were a magical time in America, and Brighton was no different. It was a time of prosperity and a time of unity. Russians from all over the world would flock to Brighton Beach to have dinner and a show at National, Arbat, Primorski, or Odessa. Men in leather jackets and women in fur coats from Le Monti could be seen exiting anything from a 1986 Oldsmobile to a brand new S600 Benz and entering the same restaurant to enjoy caviar, escargot, and just about any other delicacy most people in America only dream of. It was all there, it was all plentiful, and it was all accessible. Brighton bought people together. One restaurant would have the Sisters Rose singing, or Mikhail Shufutinski down the block, Luba Uspenskaya across the street, and Gulko two blocks down. It was like the Vegas of Russian New York, local celebrities were known internationally, and you could smoke right under a no-smoking sign and still be handed an ashtray. Designer Italian brands, leather, and fur were the norm, and it was not unusual to see people wearing them while paying for their bread and milk with food stamps. Behind the stores, in the park by the Boardwalk, you could find tables occupied by old men gambling their food stamps away playing dominoes. (My own grandfather being one of them)

Being an American lost on Brighton was an unpleasant experience to say the least. Russian signs permeated every inch of the highly valued land under the above-ground subway and Russian, not English, was the default language. In this little part of America, knowing English did you no good. Knowing English on Brighton was as worthless as knowing Japanese in Ireland, it just wouldn't buy you a pelmeni. Many people, who had spent 20 years living on Brighton, still couldn't speak a word of English. Many still can't because they never needed too. The 90's was a time when the Russian community took care of its own in their own language. Everyone wanted to empower Brighton almost as much as they wanted to make money for themselves, and the only way to do that was to empower its people. Somewhere along the line, however, the desire to make money won out the battle, and Brighton Beach began its slow decline.

Today, the Brighton of the 90s is a lingering nostalgic thought memorialized in the Brighton that is today. You can still find the vulgarity, lack of service, and even the occasional fur coat on Brighton, but the inspired young businessmen which used to fill its streets have since moved on to newer BMWs, Lexus SUVs, and in many cases Bentleys. With the new cars came the new houses. Some relocated to Jersey, some to Staten Island, and many to new luxury condos, much like my own, all over Brooklyn. Brighton has gone from the place to thrive, to the place to go when you need homemade Russian food without having to cook. The restaurants are still there, and the show still goes on, but it is no longer the celebrity-making congregation it once was. Those who made their money have found new, more exciting, and decidedly more expensive alternatives to Brighton's, now tacky, array of identical restaurants. These people only go back for the nostalgia of sitting at a lavishly plated table with 100 of your family and friends watching the girls dancing to the same 90's music blaring through the speakers ten years later. Neither the streets of Brighton, nor the wooden panels of the boardwalk are filled with young entrepreneurial Russians in furs and minks looking for a good time, but are rather filled with elderly women going for a stroll with their home attendants or buying potatoes while their husbands wait in line outside the store to be served perogi by the same fat, mustached, woman who's attitude towards her customers has never changed. With the exception of a few choice boutiques, which cater to the "Novie Ruskiye" tourist crowd of Russian millionaires, and the local millionaires who still visit Brighton to buy a new watch or pair of glasses, most stores are filled with the elderly who simply prefer a Russian voice when shopping, even if that voice is as condescending as a prison guard at Rikers.

To be continued….

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