I drove to Brighton Beach on Saturday, in urgent need of sea air and a change of scene. My mission, supposedly, was to find a Russian beautician named Irene whose lease wasn’t renewed on her salon in Rockaway (it’s now a Dunkin’ Donuts).
There was metered parking on the last block of Coney Island Boulevard, which dead-ends at the ocean: green-and-white signs saying “Back-In 90º Parking Only.” How stark. I didn’t want to be tied to a meter (twenty-five cents for thirty minutes, with a two-hour limit), so I parked out beyond the boardwalk, on Oriental Avenue, where the streets leading to the ocean are lined with rich people's houses and No Parking signs.
Everywhere were women in fur coats, speaking Russian, even to their dogs. I walked down the beach, past the aquarium (where I thought about going in to see the seals) to the Parachute Drop. Near a stone jetty, someone was filming a guy in a horse suit; at first it looked like he was a fishermen in yellow waders, but instead of an overall top, he was holding a stuffed horse's head by the reins. He jingled as he pranced around, a Coney Island centaur.
I had a bowl of Ukrainian borsch in a café—very delicate, laced with dill and threads of onion, chunks of potatoes soaked pink with beet juice—and then set off to find Irene. It felt wonderfully like a foreign country. There is a Black Sea Book Store, delis selling caviar, fresh-baked pastries (poppyseed—my favorite!), Polish chocolates, and sausages. On one corner people were thronged around a guy who was unpacking cheeses: they were mad to get their hands on a round of brie. It reminded me of being in Sofia, Bulgaria, where people were lined up on the street waiting to buy tomatoes.
In a former movie palace, a sale of cooking utensils was open to the public, so I went in: lots of flatware, shiny pots and pans, and racks of used coats—but wait, this time I wasn’t going to fall for that: this was just the coat check, right? No! They really were selling coats, some of them for three thousand dollars. The best thing on offer was a tent, no bigger than a kitchen range, made of silvery space-blanket fabric, with a chair inside and a zipper, so that a person could sit in there zipped up to her chin with her head sticking out the top. It was a portable infrared sauna.
There are dozens of nail spas and hair salons and skincare outlets in Brighton Beach, with names like Paradise For You and Hello Gorgeous, and at least one Russian beautician named Irene. Stopping in at those places, where people were being plucked and buffed and blown out and “vaxed,” I realized that even in Rockaway Irene had had a lot of competition, especially for nails, and it would have been very disheartening for her, after having her own salon in exotic Belle Harbor, to work for someone in Little Odessa.
Next week: Bayonne!