BROOKLYN & CONEY ISLAND
Next time in New York, don't miss Brooklyn. Once Broken land, parts are still cracked and though lacking the seductive craziness of Manhattan, that psychotic crackle in the air, This crackling tension in Manhattan makes people come up to you in delis to shout "Hey! I fucked Tony Curtis and Vincent Price in the ass. Whaddaya think of that?"
"What do I think of that? Did they enjoy it?"
"What are ya, crazy?"
But Brooklyn gets weirder the further out you go. So miss out Brooklyn Heights' must-see view of downtown Manhattan, miles of
brownstones, Prospect Park, even Brooklyn Museum. Leave them behind and head out onto the exiled edge of New York, the Brokenland riviera with the bleached bones of the most famous fun fair in the world and crazy Russians dancing on the steps of Odessa.
Jump on the B, D, N or F trains to the end of the line, direct to Coney Island. On the way out of Borough Park, down Coney Island Avenue, is a Kosher Gym.
What makes a gym kosher?
A block away was "Kosher Sushi - a new concept in Kosher".
Right opposite the subway is Nathan's Famous on Surf Avenue with seagulls wheeling round Cinerama hot dogs blasting out of mustard walls. The sea and the boardwalk were just beyond, but Nathan's called. I passed on Nathan's less-famous frogs' legs but the grilled hot dogs were tasty. The Freak Bar further down Surf Avenue is worth a visit for tattoo students. Might catch the Illustrated Man or the Human Blockhead off-duty. Abandoned in the wasteland between Nathan's and the beach the mouldering plywood stable of the World's Smallest Horse has become someone's terminal condo.
Alive! Alive! $1,000 Reward if not Alive! suggest the horse was stuffed as well as small.
Coney Island is the home of the freak show, of fake dreams, of illusions.
The Boardwalk was a faraway American dream since the Drifters took us Under the Boardwalk in 1964. Thirty five years later it's like walking through the movies.
On a warm February day it is a spectacular walk, running for five glorious miles along a sandy beach. The boards, set on diagonals and parallels, disappear off into a shimmering distance. Built in the twenties, it's a wide never-ending overland pier.
I started at the Coney Island end, the frayed edge of New York. A motorcycle cop on a blue Harley cruises past, rattling the slats. Old people are sunning themselves in front of Knish & Italian Sausage grills by Astroland in the watery winter sunshine.
The skeleton of the old parachute jump looms over the wasteland like an apocalyptic mushroom. Cyclists clatter down the boardwalk.
A single brave couple are snogging on the empty beach. Teenage boys jostle by the waterside. Without footprints the sand is covered with gulls' tracks. The sea, glass smooth, is the Atlantic. We are on the known edge of New York.
In February most of Coney is closed. Rides and freak shows are locked up. Booths are shut. The whole place is a shadow of a shadow of itself. Very Sam Beckett. Coney Island started tacky and went downhill. Now rotting landscapes of urban decay run alongside the ocean with the boardwalk between. The Desolation Row walk. Steeplechase and Luna Parks are long gone. No more Dreamland, its prophetic exhibits "End of the World" and "Fall of Pompeii" all burnt down.
In Astroland the rickety skeletons of the Wonder Wheel and the Cyclone, the ancient wooden big dipper, are wrapped in corrugated iron for the winter. These spectral monsters will come back to life this spring. Atop an Astroland pizza stall on the boardwalk an ex-army surplus nuclear missile lurks behind a sinister tubby 1950's burger boy threatening us with a giant hamburger. 2001 is fifty light years away.
Though Coney Island is in advanced decay, it may have passed through the compost stage and be about to regenerate. It makes sense. The spot is magic. Outside Manhattan the sky is huge. The sea and the beach are glorious and the boardwalk goes on forever. So go there before it becomes a genuine reproduction. Right now it may be rotten but it's real.
Strolling down the boardwalk past the Aquarium, built on the remains of Luna Park, on towards Brighton Beach, buildings get smarter. Gold teeth sparkle in the sunshine. Since the seventies this has become America's biggest Russian colony. Russian men in leather driving coats and women in furs stand around on the boardwalk and sit on the benches chatting. Some stare silently across the sea. On a clear day you can see St Petersburg, even Odessa. Like home, the boardwalk is a parade. So however warm, all the Russian women are wearing their fur coats and hats. It's warm but it's February. And for the parade the lipstick is on.
The beautiful Mrs Wangford, a fan of lipstick and henna, worries that she should roll with the gray and avoid becoming an old redheaded tart. She should see these crazy eighty year old Russians with fiery hair under their fur hats and a lipstick festival on their faces. Never too old for dye or lipstick, the redder the better. Several Russian restaurants like the Tatiana and Volna open onto the boardwalk ready to serve blini, pirogi, caviar or smoked sturgeon. I went for the Moscow Café's excellent Ukrainian borscht served with a condescending sneer just like back in the old country.
The elevated D train from Coney Island clatters down the length of Brighton Beach Avenue, the heart of the colony. Under the train arches, the street is filled with cafes, bookshops, grocers, restaurants, delis, nightclubs, butchers, every one Russian. Kalinka giftstore. Potamkin auto dealers. St Petersburg books and videos. Odessa Bake Shop. Signs are in Cyrillic and English. Now Indians are moving in. One café says Chicken in English and Curry in Cyrillic.
A big Jewish tradition here has brought a Kosher gym, which frankly puzzles me, and Kosher sushi - "A New Concept in Kosher." I passed. I love Georgian cuisine, sharp and spicy, a far cry from the wintry stodge and cabbage of Northern Slav food. I searched it out. The Primorski featured walnut sauces and the owner's name, Buba Khotoveli, was a give away. I asked if they were Georgian. A waiter with white hair in an early Rod Stewart mullet shrugged and mumbled disinterestedly "Well, Georgian, Russian".
That famous surly Russian service again, refreshing as a cold shower. I persevered, with memories of a chillied, garlicky relish made from sour plums unlike anything we know
"You have T'qemali?"
"Of course" and another disdainful shrug.
Undaunted, I go for the $4.99 lunch special, Georgian sausage and t'qemali, and a bowl of red caviar. Russian MTV was on the television. A kid with a dinosaur head on one arm played jurassic aeroplanes on the empty dancefloor in front of the red, black and gilded stage. A woman with an Abba haircut smoked furiously.
Buba was in a shoebox of an office, crammed in behind a desk smoking. On the wall behind my head a TV was blaring. Buba was fat, with intimidatingly thick lips, a cross between Sidney Greenstreet and Jabba the Hutt. I babbled ingratiatingly about how I loved T'bilisi.
"Yes" Buba-Jabba kept saying with no glimmer of interest whatsoever in his dead eyes. He pulled the TV volume down with the remote and said blankly "I am here very long time." Does he mean he is stuck painfully behind this desk?
I decide not to cut him free and ask instead if I can buy t'qemali in the shops. "No, only here we make t'qemali. Ask boys, they sell you bottle." Buba slammed the TV volume up again. Outside the waiters sold me a coke bottle filled with the wondrous relish.
My son and I went to the National, a cavernous Russian nightclub on Brighton Beach Avenue, for the forty-dollar banquet and show. The reception was predictably Russian.
"No banquet two persons. Only four persons, more."
"No soup? Russian food without soup?"
"No soup. Ten dollars each to watch show."
"No Russian beer. Only Heineken."
"You like tongue?" No, steak please.
"Tongue." No, steak thank you.
So they bring us steak on a slice of tongue. You like tongue.
"No receipt. Must put tax. No receipt."
Amazing that we persevere getting repeatedly slapped in the face with a cold sturgeon. But it makes me laugh. Everyone seems to be having a great time in their banqueting groups of four or more, roaring on vodka, wine and kvass, Russian wheat beer which was definitely not Heineken. They smoked heroically between mouthfuls while attacking mountains of food with their free hand. This was Russia and they had no use for wimpy New York restaurant anti-smoking laws. Recently Aeroflot, refusing to infringe passengers' freedom to smoke, have become the only airline with a White House waiver on the smoking ban on all airlines flying to the United States.
The exuberantly tasteless ten dollar show bursts upon us with a blond chanteuse in full leopard-skin - matching jacket, blouse, miniskirt and thigh-length boots. Then, firmly rooted in Russian balletic tradition, a blatantly homoerotic pas de deux makes us think we've stumbled into some Slavic gay bar. Until the girls come on. It's disco ballet, the ludicrous moves of classical ballet set to a hideous Europop beat. Bolshoi Ballet in a dodgy nightclub. Men stride around in tights posing and women twirl in crinolines. After some nice corps de ballet work the crinolines fall tastefully to the ground revealing thongs ("butt floss") and waxed buttocks.
Dosvydanya, tovarisch. This is gangster ballet.
The Krays would have thought it well cultural.
Nice one St Cyril.
Sheepshead Bay sounds like another threat from the Russian mafia but its name is an ancient one acknowledging some ovine lie to the land. On the harbour, fishing and tour boats are moored opposite Randazzo's, a classic waterfront clam bar which boasts of its "Worlds' Famous Sauce - hot and medium".
Got some Manhattan clam chowder and enquired after Randazzo's famous hot sauce. They'd sold out. Too famous. They poured me out a little container of Tabasco.
"That's your famous hot sauce?" I asked incredulously.
He shrugged. "Hey, Tabasco's famous".
Back out on the waterfront a couple of fishermen had fish laid out on their boats.
"Fresh fish! Fresssssh fish!!"
Now I'm sure these fish came from way out at sea. Worryingly, however, advisory signs along the harbour's edge explained just how rarely it was safe to eat fish from the notoriously polluted waters of New York's harbour and rivers. They get more toxic further upriver. The warnings specified fish by fish and area by area. The waters are cleaner than a few years ago, but the list of dodgy fish is still scary.
Some fish are to be eaten only once a month and none are to be consumed more than once a week. And this is only for those of us with strong constitutions. For none of these fish from any of the areas are EVER to be eaten by women of a child bearing age or children under fifteen. On top of this there are strict instructions on how to cook the fish to remove the contaminants (don't fry! the filth stays in the fish! broil!).
Once cooked, the liquid from the poison-leached fish should NEVER be consumed. Me, I'm with the women of child bearing age. If it makes them give birth to a sheepshead, I don't want to know.
I'll stick to cabbage and dumplings and red caviar.
At least I've got my own T'qemali.
©Hank Wangford - March 2001
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