“My repeated returns to Strauss Park make of New York not only the shadow city of so many other cities I’ve known, but a shadow city of itself, reminding me of an earlier New York in my own life, and before that of a New York that existed before I was born and which has nothing to do with me but which I need to see–in old photographs, for example–because, as an exile without a past, I like to peek at others’ foundations to imagine what mine would look like had I been born here, where mine might be if I were to build here.”
André Aciman, Shadow Cities, in Letters of Transit, p. 32
“My displacement was metaphysical to the precisely same extent to which it was physical. But I couldn’t live nowhere; I wanted from Chicago what I’d got from Sarajevo: a geography of the soul. More walking was needed…”
Aleksandar Hemon, The Book of my Lives, p. 146
After Labor Day, the beach in Coney Island is slowly dragging summer into hibernation. The sky is low; the September sun is tender; and the bright orange of life guards’ swimsuits and umbrellas has been replaced by the green of fully clothed Parks and Recreation officers, whose job from now on is to shoo away stubborn swimmers and dippers. “The beach is closed now,” they scream into megaphones, their sneakers sinking into the wet sand, signaling the end of carefree barefoot season. Their voices are annoyed and fatigued: “Please Ma’am , get out of the water …” Reluctantly, mermaids and mermen come forward, and one of them, a Russian middle-aged woman in a bright floral swimsuit, her hair the color of brass (popular on Brighton Beach), approaches the bewildered green-shirted man and asks, all naiveté and puzzlement, “How can beach closed?”
The water is clear now and is getting cooler, and whoever is here this afternoon is trying to enjoy the last precious summer days: kids are still playing in the sand, building castles and canals; a fully dressed Hasidic woman is standing in the wet sand in her stockings and reading a prayer book, moving her lips and swaying; an Asian man, his wet pants rolled up, is taking pictures of the kids fooling around in the water; an older Russian man is standing with raised twisted arms, in Salutations to the Sun pose, trying to glean the last drops of warmth and color. It will be over soon…
I walk on the firm wet sand licked by the gentle tide, among occasional shells, jellyfish, and human refuse, plastic bags or soda bottles lazily riding the waves. During these walks I am in the moment, with the affectionate sun overhead, with the blueness of the sky, with the open space, taking in the view of the new bright Luna Park and the rebuilt, post-Sandy, Steeplechase Fishing Pier.
For the last five years or so, change has been in the air: the storefront has been redeveloped and renovated, some businesses changed hands, and freshly painted colors show rejuvenation after decades of decay and discoloration. Paul’s Daughter, Ruby’s Grill and Bar, and Nathan’s have been remodeled, and Coney’s Cones, Brooklyn Beach Shop, Tom’s Coney Island Cafe, and Mexican Grill are brand new.
Further along, a traditional merry-go-round, once located across the street on Surf Avenue, that my five-year-old daughter used to ride that first year we arrived to America, is now back on the boardwalk. It sports the same gilded horses and carriages and gigantic multicolored letters C A R O U S E L along its perimeter. Next to it is a civilized snack bar and a few tables on the repaved concrete boardwalk floor, which sits beside the famous Parachute Tower, a symbol of Coney Island, now freshly painted in red and illuminated at night with myriad multi-colored light schemes: the “starred banner,” the candy cane, and the rainbow, among others.
The new structure of Coney Island subway station, the terminal hub on Surf and Stillwell Avenues, is rebuilt in imitation of the former terminal in terra-cotta, with the original signs and logos, and is reminiscent of grand European railway stations, like Gare Saint-Lazare in Paris, with wide multiple platforms covered by a glass dome (made out of solar panels) and a soaring tower at the entrance. On a clear day, standing on the boardwalk facing the subway, one can see Manhattan skyline in the distance–New York City seeping into Coney Island, like a mirage in a desert.
During my strolls I sometimes lose all sense of time and gravity, and find myself beyond the Amusement Park, the boardwalk eateries, the Fishing Pier, and a new MCU stadium, without remembering how I got there. How could I possibly leave behind the noisy crowd spilled on the beach from the subway without even noticing, my own footsteps fading away in the sand? This is what happens when the present moment dissolves into the surrounding world and when one’s gaze is turned inward, to reverie or angst, or loneliness, or worry for children. And I am glad to be reminded by the cool ocean breeze to rejoin my body in Coney Island, where I am so lucky to live for twenty-five years already. I must do the work, I say to myself, to be present, to connect to the ground with my bare feet and my senses, and I smile to a lucky person, my future self, walking toward me on the beach, her face tanned and happy, more aware than I am of her good fortune.
Every Friday night, fireworks explode over Coney Island beach in tri-color bunches of sparkling stars, melting away like soda bubbles. For fifteen or twenty minutes, thundering shots boom and then crack away, drowning out my TV or a phone conversation, and as summer deepens its course, I find it annoying and almost silly, blasé as I am, this foolish waste and irrational summer happiness. I rarely drag myself to the balcony (called ‘terrace’ in Brooklynese) to watch the show.
This is what happens when you live in the ‘resort’ and routinely take in its summer festivities: Luna Park roaring with laughs and hollering, the Cyclone riders’ wavy shrieks resonating its geometry, the ocean fragrance dominating urban odors, and seals barking at night in the NYC Aquarium just like dogs. Not without costs, which include severe winds, floods, and hurricanes. But truth be told, I never want to go away in the summer: am I not already “away” in Coney Island?
A huge acacia tree–we call it the Tree of Life–has grown along with us for these twenty-five years, spreading its branches as if to hug my balcony. Sitting here, within its feathery green, feels very much like being nested in a treehouse in some secret garden. But there is no garden here, just a parking lot, and behind the tree’s thick curtain, New York City’s reality is lurking–the ugly subway elevated above the streets against its own prefix. There is no escape from it in this part of Brooklyn: as it is with everything else, you can’t win over New York.
Subway trains enter my windows, as in Magritte’s painting where a train bursts through a fireplace and becomes part of the rooms, the metallic cars reflecting off my mirrors, and a squeaky shrill announces the F train on its turn to the station. During and in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy, when the subway was brought to a standstill, I acutely felt its absence in the comatose body of my house, just like time disappears with the stop of a clock’s tick-tock.
In the fall, the Tree of Life’s lacey feathers turn into fine gold jewelry and the subway is unveiled. With the change of season, my strolls are transported from the beach to the boardwalk under the huge cold sun setting behind the ocean and blinding me with its white light. The Parachute Tower pierces the Coney Island sky, which turns into the pinks, oranges, navies, and purples of Edvard Munch’s Scream, and horizontal lines and asymmetrical splashes bask in the dying sunlight with a hopeful, not spooky, promise of another day.
Unlike Parisian flâneurs, real or imagined leisurely wanderers who wrote poems on marble tables of cafés between their romantic strolls, Russian strollers are rarely solitary urban explorers. In the absence of casual cafés or affordable restaurants in Soviet cities, there were only two places for social or romantic get-togethers: the home and the streets, maybe on a bench in the park or in a yard. In summers or winters alike, a date was a stroll. A meeting with a friend was a stroll. Women often strolled together holding each other in the crook of their arms (pod ruchku). The culture of ‘social strolling’ was integrated into snowy or muddy Moscow streets, under chestnut trees of Kiev, along the Black Sea shore in Odessa, or in a Crimean resort town, Koktebel, and it predictably continues its life on the boardwalk in Brighton Beach, where Western café culture has never taken root.
After sunset, in the cool air of the ocean breeze, dense Russian crowds spill out onto the ‘brodvok’ (phonetic approximation of ‘boardwalk’ with a slightly endearing touch) for their stroll-n-schmooze, wearing bright glittery clothes, in dyads or trios or chains, often holding each other pod ruchku. Some are pushing babies in carriages, and some have brought their children or grandchildren, who are rolling in loops on their bikes or relentlessly running ahead. Elderly couples nest on benches, gossip, and watch the crowd. So every time I pass by, I feel their eyes following me, and their judgmental whisper trailing in the breeze. In the heart of the summer, sunflower seed shells are flying (and landing) all over the boardwalk, especially around the benches, where the schmooze and sunflower seeds are paired up like popcorn and movies.
When summer evenings are especially nice and cool, ‘La Promenade des Russes,’ extends from east to the west, from a newly built grandiose million-dollar condominium complex looking like Cinderella castle times ten, via tennis courts of Shore Front Y, the Jewish Center of the Russian Community (the oxymoron poignantly illustrating the inherent cultural paradox), to a few popular ‘brodvok’ Russian restaurants, Tatyana and Volna, with identical overpriced menus. It continues along the Brighton Beach residential area–old apartment buildings entirely populated by Russian immigrants, mostly seniors. In the shade of their entrances, older women sit on folding chairs, right in the street, replicating scenes from small town Russian life.
For a native Muscovite, as cosmopolitan as one could get in Russia, Brighton Beach ‘interculture’ and its peculiar frozen ‘interlanguage,’ a creative mix of Yiddish-flavored Russian with Ukranian and English, appear foreign and familiar at the same time. While I am definitely in-house, I am also outside of it, in a conflicted relationship of center and periphery. However, this relationship is more temporal than geographic. My Russian neighbors represent my past and not my present territory–my ancestry and grandparents, who had grown up in a shtetl in Belarus. Their lives across sweeping changes of the last century, transformed by and transforming history, moved physically, culturally, and socially from East to West, from the shtetl to Minsk, the capital of Belarus, and then to Moscow, where I was born and where I lived for 33 years, until our final leap Westward to New York.
Coney Island and Brighton Beach was an ’emergency landing’ for my big enmeshed family, a clan of twelve people and four generations, where we found sponsorship and support from friends who had emigrated during the previous emigration wave, who hosted us, helped us find housing, and make other life arrangements. During the first years of immigration, everybody worked together to help each other, to care for children and elderly, interpret and translate, and deal with newly discovered American bureaucracy. Physical proximity was essential. A few years later, as often happens in immigrant families, the down payment for my condo apartment was paid with my family’s financial aid, everyone chipping in to help out. For about ten years, my three teaching jobs juggled with child and parent care did not allow for me to think about social, aesthetic, or cultural aspects of our place of residence, of belonging to a community, or of a physical space.
Now, as twenty-five years have flown by, my (quasi) native New Yorker daughter is getting (re)settled in Brooklyn after much soul-searching and traveling. She found a nice studio in the trendy Boerum Hill area, filled with cozy cafés and restaurants, close to stores, trains, and other lively neighborhoods gentrified by young professionals like her. Helping her with this challenging task, I realized with pride and a sense of accomplishment that my daughter, unlike me, has chosen a place of residence based on various aesthetic and social considerations, besides financial ones, having to do with social belonging and community–the kind of luxurious thinking that immigrants cannot afford.
My ’emergency landing’ was not a physical but a survival space. I walked, rode the subway, and later drove around in Coney Island blind, deaf, and turned inward, consumed by work and problem solving–all of this in a foreign language–my life structured to the minute. I slept each night as if collapsed in a dark, slimy cave. Once, when asked by a neighbor about some place in the neighborhood, I caught myself barking impulsively, “I don’t know. I only sleep here.”
But that changed, too. My part-time teaching at a nearby CUNY school, Kingsborough Community College, a lovely on-shore campus, an antidepressant for immigrant anomie, turned from a love affair to a long-term commitment. I met interesting colleagues, some of whom have become my (second) life-long friends, enjoyed a sense of community, and seized opportunities for intellectual growth. I stayed in the neighborhood–and not just to sleep. When I finally awoke from immigrant dreams and nightmares, it was through the body first, the skin, the eyes, the feet that I labored to feel physically at home here, in Coney Island, leaving the learning mind to do its implicit work on my individualistic, un-Russian strolls.
Past Luna Park, the Russian stroll Westward abruptly ends, as if an invisible line has been drawn around the Parachute Tower. I have to concede the path to all-season outdoor lovers, helmeted bikers and runners, brisk walkers swinging their arms and holding free weights, and to occasional motorized chairs.
Once I pass the ice skating rink building, a morbid dirty grey structure sending out clouds of steam and evoking a crematorium, I am in the land of “the other”: Coney Island projects, multiple twin brick buildings conjured up by some ailing imagination which attempted to project the beauty of the beach into the landscape of poverty and discoloration. Paralleling the boardwalk all the way up to Sea Gate, these melancholy apartment buildings are partnered with a cluster of nursing homes, some whimsically called ‘manors’ and some extending to other euphemistic variations: geriatric centers, subsidized housing, assisted living facilities. Here, Surf Avenue does not live up to its cheerful marine name, but is sad and deserted, its blind windows indifferent to million-dollar ocean views. At street corners dilapidated bodegas sell six-packs, stale snacks, and who knows what else in ubiquitous black plastic bags. Litter swirls in wind vortexes; marihuana whiffs are cycling in the air with despair and un-love; and uninviting NYC Housing Authority signs crookedly hang on building entrances. The only humans are a few elderly sitting in wheelchairs at front doors and hooded teenagers hanging on monkey bars at childless playgrounds with broken swings.
The street sign indicates the intersection with West 21st Street, and this is where my stroll ends. I have arrived. This is my destination, my secret place–an abandoned building* on the boardwalk, between Coney Island festive and Coney Island decaying, a decrepit temple adorned with columns, arches, cameos, and bas-reliefs. Rows of yellow school buses are parked next to it in what seems like a mistaken accommodation. And on the other side, make-shift patches of vegetable gardens appear equally mistakenly ‘parked,’ with squashes, cucumbers, and sunflowers sticking out of the entangled green vines, metal screens, and milky plastic sheets tearing in the wind. The sumptuous ruin with terra-cotta ornamentations, decorative strips and oval cameos on its top is blackened by time and wind, but I can still discern marine themes reminiscent of my Pushkin and Jules Verne childhood: Neptune holding his triptych, a mythical ship sailing on turquoise waves, a mermaid with a curled tail emerging from the sea, a golden fish with a gape mouth. Around these (once colorful) lubok** pictures, baroque decorative seaweed is woven into wreaths, amidst bolding brick patches and rusty traces of rain, running from the rooftop along the walls like tears on an aging face.
On nice sunny days, a strange group, most likely residents from nearby assisted living facilities, congregate at the building arcades on their folding chairs. Why have they chosen this particular place on the boardwalk to enjoy fresh air? The scene looks like a rehearsal of some quintessentially American play: crossed-legged actors sitting on the stage, reciting their lines and sipping coffee from Styrofoam cups, the scenery behind them left from the previous show. They try hard to sound natural yet their voices are raised a pitch higher, so they can be heard in the back rows of the theater. I am tempted to step over and join them on the stage–but I am on the outside, in the audience, so I sit in the orchestra on a bench and watch the show on the boardwalk theater, finally getting my fix of the passing time.
The physical sense of home, I have discovered, different from the abstract-sounding notion of cultural integration and language acquisition, is more like literally lying down on the floor of your new house trying to feel grounded with every fiber of your body, creating an emotional attachment through physical ritual, and connecting the mind-body to its surroundings. I strolled, strode, and strove to make an ’emergency landing’ my permanent home, to observe and to know, through slow “ruminative leisureness [which] makes the act of creating a home akin to the process of writing***.”