Friday, January 16, 2009

Do Svidaniya Brighton Beach: Brief Visit to Gawk at Furry Streetscape a Success!

IF YOU SEE ANY FUR COATS on a Coney Island- or Brighton Beach-bound subway train, there's a good chance the owner's destination is Brooklyn's own Little Russia-by-the-Sea. Heading out on the F train earlier today, I spotted the first clue that confirmed I was headed to the right direction: A woman in her 50s bundled up in a sable coat with matching fur-covered pillbox-type hat. With her there was a Bed Bath & Beyond bag carrying some sort of comforter and a second bag with an overly earnest looking Raggedy Ann doll.

Because the train was late, it ran express out the Culver Line. As the train pulled into the W. 8th Street station, the woman stood up to exit -- I surmised she wanted to transfer to a Q train to Brighton Beach, like me -- the F train pressed forward to the Stillwell Avenue terminal. The woman made a sour face, looked about the train car and sat back down, clearly miffed. Raggedy Ann continued to look out of the bag, not phased.

Fifteen frigid minutes later, and a transfer to a Q train at Stillwell, we were in Brighton Beach. Like neighboring Coney Island, much of the action is on the boardwalk. But not in January. Instead of using the seaside promenade as a parade ground, the fur-festooned Russian residents of Brighton Beach take to their boulevard under the tracks.

If PETA organizers were looking for a good place to stage an anti-fur action, Brighton Beach Boulevard in January is the place to be. But I wouldn't want to face off with the locals, a fierce bunch hardened by the icy winter sea breezes and sharp-edge typography of the Cyrillic alphabet that dots the main drag under the B/Q train tracks.

Six years ago this weekend, I was visiting friends in Manhattan and ventured out to Brighton Beach, went to M&I International Food and gawked at the birch sap for sale while a Russian friend of mine bought caviar in bulk. Over yonder, a babushka was seated on the stairs, selling tubes of lipstick, perfume and eyeliner neatly arranged on the stair steps. (A health safety violation? Izvinite!) I didn't go in this time, but a recent review on Yelp aptly sums up the atmosphere: "The customers are rude and will push you without apologizing or saying excuse me, but that's most of Brighton Beach."

Six years ago, it was frigid, much like today. But instead of sunshine, it was cold, gloomy and snow was blowing through the elevated tracks. It was Brooklyn's own little Arctic Murmansk.

From my memories of that trip to Brighton Beach -- my first time there was back in the early 1990s -- it was the first time I'd ever seen fur coats en mass. Growing up in Michigan where it was indeed cold, fur coats might have been looked upon as a little too showy, reserved only for a select few woman of a select stature in town. In middle school, a friend had said the way to judge a woman in a fur coat was how wide the strips were: The thinner the strip, the cheaper the pelt and the cheaper the coat. And why would you want to be showy with a cheap fur coat?!?

In Brighton Beach, it's mostly wide strips at least from my informal survey. And it seemed that more than half of everyone on the street was bundled up in fur. Russians, you see, take the cold very seriously.

I blended in with the streetscape wearing my dad's old sheepskin coat from the 1960s. Plus, as someone who is half Latvian, I looked sort of Russian. (But never tell that to a Latvian, just in case you don't know your Soviet history. Stalin, gulags and occupation are never leisurely topics of conversation.)

Stepping into an all-Russian book and gift store, I walked through, looking at the array of titles, trying to do a rough translation from the Cyrillic to the Roman alphabet. (Like that was going to help me figure it out ...) I carefully moved from section to section, trying to figure out an escape that would involve avoiding having to move around anyone. An encounter might have necessitated an uncomfortable conversation in my non-Russian.

I found my route out, snaking through what I think was the religion section and to safety on the street.

While six years hasn't changed the Brighton Beach strip that much, there's now a Starbucks and a Bank of America. While getting cash from the ATM, Russian voices dominated. And there was more fur in the lobby!

And while the fur today wasn't as dominant as it was six years ago, there were some show-stoppers: There was the woman in something that looked too orange to be natural. Then there was an elderly man in a Rascal-type scooter wrapped in a black fur thing, and matching ushanka, ear-flaps up and looking absolutely miserable. And then there was the otherwise striking woman with a brown fur bonnet showing off some Snuffalopogus-style Ugg things. She got looks from some of the locals hanging out. You don't see something like that every day, not even in Brighton Beach in January. Too bad it was too cold to take many photos. I got a couple, but Bill Cunningham should really swing through.

And while it's hard to tell how the recession is affecting retail sales along the strip, you can get something furry starting at $999, as you can see in one of the photos here.

My toes frozen, it was time to leave for the warmth of home.

Sidenote: Do they make fur-lined Snuggies?

First photo by Flickr user arimoore; the rest by Michael E. Grass

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