Monday, July 6, 2009

Monday Morning in Brighton Beach: Breakfast on the Boardwalk

We were at the Brighton Beach boardwalk around 9 a.m. today, when the day seemed fresh and pristine.

Our early breakfast on the High Line on Friday made us decide to go out early again, to one of the spots we love - admittedly, more in summer than in any other season.

The B train got us to Brighton Beach Station pretty quick from Atlantic Avenue. We started taking the Brighton Beach line in the mid-1960s when the express was the Q and the locals were the QB (bridge to Manhattan) and the QT (tunnel to Manhattan). The express eventually became the D, with the local the M and sometimes the QJ. Now the express terminating at Brighton Beach is the B, and the local, going on to Coney Island, is the Q. We miss the double-letter locals.

Back around 1971 at a Brooklyn College peace rally, one of our friends carried a sign that said ESCALATE THE BRIGHTON STATION, NOT THE VIETNAM WAR. There actually is an escalator today, though going down you have to take the stairs.

We got our oatmeal, banana and iced tea at the Starbucks on Brighton Beach Avenue, which is one of those owned by Magic Johnson's Urban Development Corporation, one of the only ones we've been in around the country that's not in a largely African-American neighborhood. Brighton Beach, of course, is very, very Russian and has been since the '70s.

The neighborhood was more mixed (though quite Jewish) thirty years ago when our first book With Hitler in New York came out in hardcover. The title story, originally published at Washington & Lee University's literary magazine Shenandoah in 1978, features a scene in which his American friends take Hitler here on a summer evening:

After our eggcreams, we go on the boardwalk. Ellen tells Hitler that there are many old people and Soviet Jews in Brighton Beach and cautions him not to talk German. Hitler nods.

We join a circle surrounding a fiftyish woman in shorts. She is very animatedly singing a Yiddish folk song. All of the old people are enjoying it. It seems like it’s supposed to be funny, or maybe dirty. Hitler is listening intently.

Farshteit?” I ask Hitler.

Ja, ja,” he says. “She is telling about how not to have children.”

An old lady next to us smiles. She seems glad that Hitler understands the song. We walk away before she can recognize him.

Libby and Mike are sitting on a boardwalk bench, talking about old times.

Hitler and I are leaning against the rail, watching the dark ocean, the dark sand, talking about this and that.

“Giscard d’Estaing is so funny,” Hitler says. “The things he does to make himself popular.”

I nod.

I tell Hitler I can name all ten states of West Germany. He counts on his fingers as I name them. I can only name nine. I know the other one has a hyphenated name, but it is difficult.

“It’s where Stuttgart is,” Hitler gives me a hint.

Now I remember. “Baden-W├╝rttemberg,” I tell him, and Hitler smiles.

I wonder if I am beginning to fall in love with him.

This story has been reprinted in I Hate All of You on This L Train, our new little book from Canarsie House.

Brighton Beach wasn't our beach. That was always Rockaway, where we grew up in the summers. Later, when we went to the beach with friends in junior high while school was still in session in June or after the bungalows were torn down, we headed for Manhattan Beach, closer to the neighborhoods we lived in and seemingly more teen-friendly and remote.

We'd come here in April and May, on cool but sunny days, to a place off the boardwalk called Sun City, where other tan-freak degenerates like us sat in chaise lounges that were metallic reflectors. To make it worse, we used face reflectors. No wonder we have wrinkles.

But we did go to Brighton Beach with friends sometimes in college, as this diary passage, dated Wednesday, June 11, 1975, in our book Summer in Brooklyn: 1969-1975 shows:

After hanging up with [Vito], I dialed Mavis's phone number; she was just on her way out, to meet Helen & Grace at Brighton Beach. I told her to stay up & I'd be right over to pick her up. Mavis went to Washington over the weekend to visit Phyllis, who's working there over the summer, & she saw the Univ. of Maryland & was favorably impressed, as that about makes her mind up about grad school. She said graduation was one big bore, & as we drove she took photos of me with Bob's camera.

We finally found a parking space & then met Helen & Grace on the beach; they were sitting with Grace's grandmother, who only speaks Spanish. It was great to see Helen again; she's gotten thinner & I noticed she bleached the hairs on her chin. Helen also seems very mellow, as befits a Californian; she was very interested in my MFA program. From her conversation, I gathered she was seeing a great deal of Mason -- she & Grace were planning to go to his house this weekend. I know that Mason's always been terribly fond of her, & that's understandable. Grace was her usual sprightly & quirky self; she's going to summer school at BC. Her abuela is funny too. We sat out on the beach for an hour or so, then Mavis & I left, as she had to meet Bob in the city at 4:30.

Today we sat and walked on the boardwalk for about 90 minutes. It started to get busy around 10:30 a.m. We like it best when it's early and almost empty.

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