Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Brighton Beach memoirs

Like most people, I spend most of my days in a little bubble of habit and transit. I shop at the same grocery store, meet friends at the same bagel place, take the same train to the same theater, take the same long walk through the same park, lather, rinse, repeat. And for the most part, I like that I have a "usual" - it's comfortable, it's consistent, and it allows me to get to places efficiently and on time ('cause apparently I'm also 85 years old).

But last week, I'd had enough of the usual. I needed something new, something different. Something with blue skies, white sands, and possibly some sea breezes running through my hair. So I grabbed some iced coffee, took advantage of my unlimited metro card, and made the long (long) trek to the end of the Q-train.

When I got off the train at Brighton Beach, it was like I was Dorothy entering Oz - but instead of munchkins and talking lions, I was faced with fruit stands and clothing stores, the roar of trains rushing overheard, and little old Russian women haggling over the fresh fish and vegetables that would end up on their dinner tables later that very evening. I immediately headed into the nearest grocery store to find the shelves lined with brightly colored packages and aisles full of bins of individually wrapped candies, all with beautiful and unfamiliar Cyrillic lettering. I turned back into the street and down to the next little grocery, where a woman was standing in the window selling pastries. I pointed to one, learned that it was called a Khachapuri (essentially a dough with cheese), and handed over $1.25. When I finished that, I ducked into one final grocery store, where I gave fully into impulse and bought a jar of Russian spices and the most beautiful glass bottle labeled "Tkemali," or Georgian plum sauce.

With a heavy purse and full stomach, it was time for some serious boardwalking. I'm sure it gets pretty crowded on the weekends, but on a Tuesday morning the Brighton Beach boardwalk was practically deserted, save for the requisite little old Russian man holding court on his favorite park bench. The beach was surprisingly clean and well-kept. The sand was already blisteringly hot, and the freezing ocean felt wonderful on my feet.

I took my time walking down the boardwalk, stopping to photograph both the never-ending coastline and the ebb and flow of runners, mothers with strollers, bicyclists, and grandmothers laden with shopping bags. Eventually, the scenery changed before my eyes - the boardwalk filled up with people, restaurants offering hotdogs and cotton candy dotted the edges, and I could hear the clang of rides and carnival games - I was at Coney Island.

The walk from Brighton to Coney took about 15 minutes, but it felt like I had crossed into a different country. I'm not a huge fan of the area (it's a bit touristy and trashy for my liking), but it has been cleaned up a lot since I'd last been there in 2010 (Hurricane Sandy, though devastating, forced a lot of positive changes to the coast). I wandered though the Luna Park (it's free to enter, rides are pay-per-ride), and fondly recalled memories of trips with friends to Great America, the theme park near my childhood home.

The temperature was turning from warm to sweltering, and I was getting tired - it was time to catch a train back to Astoria. But not before one last look at the ocean. It's one of the small ironies of living in New York City that we are surrounded by so much water, but so rarely ever get the chance to appreciate it. So I walked to the end of a pier, past the families and couples and men hoping to hook the catch of the day, to the point where I could look out and see nothing but water and horizon. A land-free Atlantic spread out in front of me, filled with wonder and possibility and adventure. I took a deep breath, allowing myself a moment to soak in the salty, fishy air, and then headed back home.

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