The sun is shining so brightly that by the time I survey my chosen place on the sand, I find myself amidst a posse of 70-something Russian men enjoying their summer dacha here in Little Russia: Brighton Beach.
Volodya and Misha are directly in front of me. They are both sporting George Hamiltonian tans. Only one of the two has a folding chair; the other one stands nearby as if on guard. Volodya occupies this chair, which makes sense since he’s wearing a thong. Misha is more discreet in his see-through white shorts. Misha stands besides Volodya’s chair, as if half a century ago in a distant land. He surveys his surround like the old Russians like to do.
They stand, heels anchored in the silky golden Brooklyn sand and look around. They nod to a bald crony; Semyon they call him. Also without a chair or a towel, Semyon stands besides the pile of clothes he discarded sloppily on the bare sand. He sports a pair of swanky black bikini underwear that will function as a bathing suit. He diligently applies lotion from an oversized bottle of CVS SPF-50. It takes him close to half an hour of application before he buries the depleted bottle in the pile of clothes on the sand.
Semyon abandons his things and carelessly walks off into the greenish ocean. Somehow there is sadness about him. He seems nostalgic for the days when the oceans were bluer than the veins that show through his white skin. Longing for the days when home felt like home and when putting on the television meant you understood the 3 channels that you actually had.
There is ease on this beach.
Although the typical Russian 70-something Brighton Beach resident scrutinizes, it’s a familial type of analysis; like an aunt or grandmother you role your eyes at when they ask you the same question over and over.
I remove my iPod to take in the familiar sounds.
I feel surrounded by grandparents, aunts and uncles…
As Semyon awkwardly proceeds into the oil-shimmering, khaki-colored water, it reminds me of a group of people with a collective history, a collective culture, a shared language.
The Atlantic Ocean, a lousy substitute to the Black Sea of their childhood. This group individually abandoned their homes – and collectively built a new one that would remind them as much as possible of the old world.
Growing up as a child immigrant, I never understood why immigrant families try so hard to hold onto what was – the culture, the language, the traditions. But the smells, sights and sounds of Brighton Beach transport me to a home country I no longer remember; it’s a permanent déjà-vu. Interestingly enough, Brighton is probably more reminiscent of the Russia that was – rather than the Russia that is.
The older generation often claims they did it for the generations that follow. The new generations are thankful, in theory, but rarely understand the struggle. The struggle with the original decision and with living with it everyday afterwards.
The old babushkas wear very big or very small bathing suits. Most of the women who choose to shed their bathing suit tops are mostly young Russian 20-somethings showing off their fake tits. Babushkas come with plastic bags full of food and chase their young grandchildren around with sandwiches and cut up fruit.
Semyon waves to his wife who joins him on the beach. Dripping wet, his underwear is droopy in all the wrong places. He begins reapplying the sunscreen. First between the palms, then on the face, torso, thighs, feet, ears, his bald spot.
A young teenage Russian girl finds her beach spot near me; she is insecure, finagling with her suit until she lies down with her bare, oiled belly to the sand.
On the beach at little Russia, black men walk around selling ice cold beer, Smirnoff ice, vodka — all available in the small plastic mini bar bottles. They a carry portable mini bar in plastic grocery food bags. The black men are saying “voda, voda,” trying to sell water in our native tongue. A Mexican man sells Italian ices with a bell. Another man is selling ice cream directly from a red and white cooler.
At 4pm the seagulls come and the lifeguards do their ceremonial changing of the guards.