Boroughing Out

Seagull Stampede

Seagull Stampede

We know how to get to Carnegie Hall, but getting to Brooklyn is a little harder.  I printed out some subway directions from a website, which my husband immediately rejected.

“An hour and 20 minutes to get to Coney Island?” he sniffed.  “That’s ridiculous!”

Pretty soon, he was pawing around the Internet and subway maps and came up with an alternate plan he pronounced superior.  Fine.  Big deal.  I agreed to go with his idea, but kept a close tab on my watch.  It’s always good to be alert to those little “I told you so” opportunities in a relationship.

An hour and a half later, we got to Coney Island.  Coney Island!  There was the roller-coaster, even if it wasn’t in use, there was Nathan’s, there was the boardwalk.  OK, so we were kind of late for the official season, and it was raining intermittently and the wind whipped around and nobody was dressed in a bathing suit.  In fact, the whole scene, with its gray skies and metallic-colored waters and bundled-up walkers was more Bergman than beach-blanket bingo.  Still, I’d heard about Coney Island all my life, and here I was.

The usual bird nuts were feeding the seagulls pizza.  Men gathered in small knots to play chess and smoke and talk.  We stopped in a Russian restaurant to order a beer and watched as planes glided in to the nearby JFK airport.  Any minute now, I expected Tony Soprano to show up on the almost-deserted boardwalk and cut a deal.  Overhead, a red parrot in a cage kept watch, dangling from one of the beams; it was stuffed, we finally realized.  “Lower maintenance that way,” noted my husband, who has no particular fondness for birds.

Finally, we met another couple for dinner at a Russian restaurant.  She’s Russian, so took the lead in ordering.  “Are you adventurous eaters?” they wanted to know.  I never know how to answer that.  If I say yes with too much enthusiasm, I might end up eyeball-to-eyeball with live monkey brains.  If I say no, I’m boring, but I get to skip the primate course.  “Kind of,” I said.

So, we ate green and red borcht.  A salad of radishes, onions and chicken livers.  Rabbit stew.  Veal dumplings.  Chicken Kiev (I’m always adventurous when it comes to copious amounts of butter).  We heard about the history of the area, Brighton Beach, which had initially become home to waves of Russian immigrants when Krushchev allowed greater movement in the 1950s.

“This is my country now,” a Latvian waitress who had served us earlier had said.  She’d been here 12 years.

That’s one of the things I love best about this country — how it changes and becomes richer and more complex with each new wave of immigration.  How it looks different and sounds different, how the language and accents alter, how the food becomes more diverse.  I was so affected by these thoughts that I even managed to accidentally swallow a clump of chicken liver without gagging.  Who says I’m not adventurous?

Returning to Manhattan, the subway ride took only 40 minutes.  My husband said he considered our earlier ride to be a “moral victory” for him and his mass-transit calculations, since he’d pretty much tied the experts for efficiency.  Or maybe that’s how you figure out getting around in this city: Practice, practice, practice.

(Copyright 2009 by Ruth Pennebaker)

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18 comments… add one
  • Suzy

    That’s what I miss about being in NY — all the different cultures including accents, foods, music, and viewpoints.

  • Cindy A

    The veal dumplings were probably pierogi. My Russian mother-in-law used to make them. I can’t stand the thought of eating veal, but, man, her potato pierogi were to die for.

  • Never been to Coney Island myself, so I really enjoyed following you there.  I loved your descriptions.  Great writing!

  • Hi, Ruth.  I’m so glad you’re having a great time, even with the subways…ha!  You get around much better than I ever could.  My Amber is in Brooklyn, because she found it’s cheaper to live there and work in Manhattan.  I love Brooklyn.  It’s got so much character.  I haven’t been to the Russian restaurant yet.  Thanks for the idea!

  • I went to NYC on a choir trip as a teenager, but I’d love to go back some day sans hyper-concerned chaperones. Coney Island would definitely be on my Gotta See List.

  • Like Suzy, I miss New York. Your post certainly brought back memories. New Yorkers get a reputation for being rude, but like your waitress, we found most people to be friendly. Next time you need to go to Times Square and get cheesecake at Roxy’s Deli (right next to the Marriott Marquis). Best cheesecake ever–they’ll even give you taster bites if you ask. My favorite is the pina colada. Yum…

  • Coney Island sounds great – even in bad weather. You’re really getting out and exploring!

  • I love Russian food so much. My sister in law came from Belarus 15 years ago and brought with her all of these amazing recipes. My mouth is watering just thinking about it.

  • Our daughters are Russian and when in NY we used to take them to Brighton Beach when we visited. LA has a similar area in W Hollywood, but much smaller. I highly recommend visiting to those of your readers who haven’t yet been to Brighton Beach. It’s very much like Russia – authentic from the food to shops to people to vibe.
    Nice post 🙂

  • Coney Island in the off-season is so.much.better than Coney at the height of summer! It’s unbearably crowded then, and the wait for a hot dog feels interminable.

  • ruthpennebaker

    The ethnic diversity here is staggering to me.  Often, I have no idea what language people are speaking.  It’s wonderful.

  • Ruth, I used to live in NYC and now live about an hour away. That said, I don’t take advantage of exploring nearly enough; maybe because it’s always been there. But reading about your adventures makes me realize NOT to take it all for granted; there’s so much to be seen/tasted/heard/eaten!!

  • So did you let him know that you told him so?

  • My dad is from New York and I’m from the East Coast, though I live in Oregon now. This story, especially the photo, made me homesick…

  • I still haven’t made it outside of Manhattan on my visits there, one of the reasons I envy you your nine-month residence. Glad you got to Coney, even on a blustery day.

  • I agree with Debbie, Coney Island is best seen the way you saw it.  I often take my kids to the Aquarium there and we usually pull our jackets closer and walk up to the boardwalk.  My kids always point out the rollercoaster (which is never running when we go either).  I think the movie look is so much cooler than the brutal hot/humid look.  As for NY (I live on LI) I adore how you can walk down the street and hear so many languages.  Style?  You decide your style.  And despite the gruff exterior, most NYers are actually pretty nice/helpful.  You can walk down the street with a duck on your head and no one would even look twice.  And have I talked about the food yet?  YUMMMMMMMM

  • have to say the idea of green and red borscht [which I have not seen, let alone eaten] mad me think of Christmas chile and huevos divorciados — what is with green and red foods?

    I’ve been working on a project about music of immigration. lovely to hear  the comment from your waitress and your thoughts on it.

  • I love reading about your adventures, Ruth!

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