By Maria Kostaki
As the Q train reached the end of its 45-minute journey from Manhattan to Brooklyn's Brighton Beach, fewer and fewer of the words spoken around me sounded like the words you now read, showering me with a strange acoustic deją vu of what life sounded like when I was a child.
I arrived in America's largest Russian enclave to cover a beat I had chosen for a graduate writing class at New York University. Without having ever been there before, without a single idea for a story, without knowing if I could still speak the language of these people, and without much confidence in my lukewarm desire to try. The only leads I had were my fragmented, stale memories and a couple of articles from the New York Times and the Village Voice that I had stashed in my bag.
Walking through the green swinging doors of the station and onto Brighton Beach Avenue, the nearby Atlantic Ocean sent a gust of frozen air through every tiny hole in my knitted sweater. Shivering, I looked around, waiting for the picture that I had in mind to paint itself in front of me: elderly Russian women in multicolored babushkas rushing through the street, Russian and English coexisting on signs above store windows, World War II veterans rolling their wheelchairs down the sand-sprinkled boardwalk; maybe a gangster or two lurking in the alleys.
Most of them were there. But the quiet Russian murmur that greeted me on the train slowly turned into a buzz, growing louder and louder on the busy street as women pushed their shopping carts side by side, discussing dinner plans, as men stood under the station smoking and talking, kids ran pulling at their mother's coats, until even the store signs seemed to be screaming Russian words at me. The noise became unbearable. In an overwhelming wave of panic I ran back through the green doors and onto the Q train that would take me away from this, take me home.
Twenty years earlier, my mother was pulling me away from home through the doors of a train at Moscow's Kievskiy Station, while the conductor announced the last call for passengers to Athens, Greece.
"Your mother is coming to take you home," my grandmother told me. "And Sasha is coming with her." Sasha was my step-dad, a man that I had met a couple of times before the Kostakis family fled the Soviet Union in 1978.
The station looked like a huge greenhouse, as I fought to pull myself in the other direction head thrown back towards the dirty glass ceiling lined with green metal bars, late summer sunlight barely piercing through, sobbing, screaming, shaking, for what I was being forced behind. But my mother was stronger, and the doors shut behind me. My seven-year-old life was packed into one suitcase that stood in the middle of our two-by-five meter cabin with three tiny bunk beds, while the main characters of my childhood story-grandparents, cousins, aunts and uncles--stood outside the window, smiling, waving goodbye as the train slowly began to move out of the station.
The sun set three times as the train rocked on the tracks speeding through endless green fields of the Ukraine, Hungary, Yugoslavia, and finally Greece. I bounced a ball in our cabin and pleaded with my parents to take me back home.
As the Soviet Union was entering its last decade under communist rule, I was hurtling towards my new life, and Brighton Beach was slowly waking up out of a dark sleep, developing into the vibrant enclave that it is today. A huge wave of Russian immigrants was just beginning to flood the deserted shore of Brooklyn. By 1980 more than 30,000 Russians had settled in Brighton Beach, many of them Jews, who had managed to escape the impermeable borders of the Soviet Union and settle in the United States as religious refugees.
"You cannot imagine what this place was like when we first came," says Milya Fridman, shaking his head to the memories. A dark, spray-painted wasteland, haunted muggings, shootings, and a petrified elderly population. Even McDonalds packed up the beef and shut its doors.
"Can I tell you what I dream," Aron Bronfen, an Odessan immigrant told New York Times reporter Jane Blanksteen in 1978. "I dream of meeting some rich people who would want to make a Russian Plaza here-a center with restaurants, delicatessens, luncheonettes, a Russian immigrant bank, Russian stores with Russian goods, and there would be plenty of parking."
To say that his vision materialized would be an understatement. But the area was not revived by the arrival of an affluent Russian miracle worker. Its pulse began to beat thanks to the energy and drive of its Russian newcomers-people who had escaped such horrid living conditions in the Soviet Union, that this neighborhood seemed like paradise. In the late 70s and early 80s, housing was cheap, a framework of organizations to care for the elderly was in place thanks to the existing community of European Jews left over from the 60s, and the waves that beat on the sand of the beach drew thousands of Russians to build a new life in a ways they only dreamed of back home.
Today, the streets bustle with life. Stores are packed with produce. Russians from all over New York City crowd restaurants and clubs when the sun sets. The Russian community has spread like a puddle to Coney Island, Sheepshead Bay, and Rego Park. And on the corner of Brighton Beach Coney Island Avenues stands Oceana, a huge, brand new condominium of 15 buildings, overlooking the glimmering Atlantic. The average price for a two-bedroom is $400,000. And the seven buildings that are complete are 96 percent occupied.
The first time I saw my new house in Athens I was dumbfounded-it was bigger than any I had ever seen. A dark wooden winding staircase stood in the center of the spacious living room, beige couches formed two Ls on each side, and huge windows lined by tall pine trees outside. I stood at foot of the staircase and wrapping my arm around the polished banister peeked to into the darkness to the floors above. There were many rooms up there, carpets that my bare feet melted into as I came out of the shower, four different colored bathrooms to chose from, balconies that I could run on, and even a little garden. But as I unpacked, my dolls lowered their heads and cried to sit back on the shelf above my bed in grandma's house in Moscow. Mama had promised that she'd send us back in a month if we still didn't like it. I couldn't wait.
The first morning I cautiously made my way down the stairs and into the kitchen. Mama was at the stove stirring something a pot while my little brother sat on a high chair at the table wagging his legs, humming, moving his blond curly head to his own music.
"What do you want for breakfast?" she asked. I didn't know what to say--grandma used to simply slide the kasha in front of my face.
"You can have anything you want."
"Anything?" I asked.
"I want spaghetti with ketchup," I replied, excited.
The look on my mother's face puzzled me. She was looking at me as if I said something wrong. My face burned with embarrassment. I began to bounce my ball and jump rope alternating rooms of the house. And count down the days of till I could get back on the train to go home.
The second time I felt my face burn, Marina and I were playing with her new pink dollhouse while the adults socialized on the veranda. We were the same age and our parent's friendship had forced us together into her room. Communication was limited to sign language and the frustration resulting from conflicting Greek and Russian Barbie story lines bored me after a while. I made my way through the strange house to the grown-up scene and patting my mother on the shoulder with my finger while she was talking to Marina's mother, announced that I would like another Coca-Cola, proudly presenting with my third empty bottle of the night. The adult conversation turned to silence and my mother's face had that look again. The spaghetti for breakfast look.
"Maria, honey, don't you think that three is enough?" she asked me in Russian. "We are guests here, it's rude to empty people's refrigerators. Marina has only had one coke. Why don't you go back inside to play."
"But mama, they have at least ten more in the refrigerator," I whispered in her ear.
"But it doesn't mean that they are all for you. Now please go inside."
I left, convinced that I would pack my bags and go home, right on deadline.
The third and final slip of what I eventually came to define as my "embarrassing Soviet upbringing" led to 20 years of striving to forget where I came from and mold myself into a civilized Westerner.
Mama was squeezing through the front door, hands so loaded with supermarket bags that she had to push to get through. I ran after her into the kitchen and watched her unpack foreign products; cheeses, cereals, fruit, meat, and chocolate milk. The chocolate milk was in a strangely small cardboard container. A little straw was attached to its side. Mama had bought two of them. I wondered firstly, why they were so small, and secondly, why in the world she would only buy two of these sweet treasures, why not a whole box? What if they ran out at the store? What if we could never get chocolate milk again?
Confused, I asked.
"This is not Russia, Maria, stores do not run out of products. Stop being greedy."
I don't remember what made me stop counting the days before I could go back "home." Perhaps it was the comfort of feeling the mother's touch that had been absent in the previous five years when I lived in Russia with my paternal grandparents, maybe the sudden abundance of coke and chocolate milk. I was sent to an international school where I quickly began to learn English, and saw my first movie, and chatted with Ismene on the phone about E.T.'s flying powers. But as I stopped counting, I assigned myself a new task: to stop being Russian.
As I fled home on the Q train, my left leg fiddled with a Russian paper someone had left lying on the floor. I wasn't sure why I left Brighton and I wasn't even sure if I wanted to find out. But I went through the semester believing that these people are paranoid Soviets who are scared of the strangers. An assumption based on their unwillingness to talk to me when I barged into their flower stores, notebook and pen in hand, and posed questions, in English, about the importance of Women's Day.
When I worked up the courage to walk into the Brighton Beach Neighborhood Association offices, I was sent away by the time I managed to voice half of my first sentence.
"We have very bad experience with media. I cannot help you, I very busy, please go away," said a woman with a heavy Russian accent crouching over papers on her desk. "Try across over there," she snapped pointing past my shoulder.
In the other corner of the room was the Brighton Beach District Management Association. I squeezed past the line of people waiting for the bank tellers and knocked on the door (the Neighborhood Association's offices are housed in a bank).
Soon I realized that I had failed to break into the Russian community as a result of my lack of experience as a journalist. Stage fright. In the process, I had dismissed Brighton Beach and its 30,000 paranoid Russians. And maybe there was just no story there. Meanwhile, I successfully produced stories on other subjects, interviewed Hollywood actresses, and novelists.
And one fine day it hit me. The Russians weren't scared of me. I was scared of them. And I needed to find out why.
* * * * * * * * *
Four months later, I sat at the bar of a dark restaurant in Manhattan waiting for a man named Roma. Referred by one of the restaurant's waitresses, he could be my tool for knocking down the Russian wall. "He knows the right people in Brighton and beyond," she told me, "he has been in America for 12 years." And he spoke English.
Alternating my glances between the restaurant door, the book that I rested on the bar, and my watch, I formed an image of what Roman was to look like. When a 30-something blond, blue-eyed man walked into the dark restaurant wearing plastic sandals, khaki shorts and a stained white T-shirt, I thought I had my man. As I rose to greet him, he looked at me blankly and walked past me, sitting down with a group of Americans at the other end of the bar.
I moved to a table in the inner section of the restaurant, rested my back against the wall. It was even darker there, green lamps lit the plates as customers next to my table sliced rolled blini bursting with caviar.
First two denim legs rooted themselves into the floor very close to where I sat. Raising my head, my eyes made it to a white shirt casually resting, untucked, on the torso of a very large man. His hair was dark, curly, strands brushed against his unusually angular, unshaved jaw. The typical cold Russian blue eyes told me he was my man.
Roman solemnly shook my hand, sat down next to me, moving the table forward to fit his legs, and stared at the table. And said nothing.
"So," I said in English, flashing a nervous smile. "How will you help me?"
"What do you want to know?" Was his barely audible answer. He his head took a slight turn in my direction, now staring at my side of the table instead of his.
"Do you want to know about criminals?"
My chest suddenly felt heavy. The infamous Russian mafia. The one subject I did not want to explore. The one subject that the media covers, and exaggerates, the one reason the people of Brighton did not speak to me a few months before. "No, I don't want to know about the criminals," I replied.
"Well, what do you want to know?" he asked, this time looking straight at me, his deep voice suddenly turned onto full volume.
I wanted him to give me phone numbers of elderly women in Brighton, the ones that walk the streets in their fur coats whose pink mouths you can spot a block away. I wanted him to tell me that he knows the members of the World War II Veterans association. I wanted him to tell me that his parents have lived in Brighton since the 70s after living through Nazi occupation, escaping from concentration camps, living through communism, and finally finding a passage to the land of the free. I wanted him to introduce me to the owners of Tatiana restaurant so they could tell me how the American dream worked for them. I wanted him to give me all of what I thought were the pieces of my story.
"Ok, tell me about the mafia," I said.
* * * * * * * * *
Roma lives in his car. He spends his days driving from house to house in Brooklyn, Manhattan, Queens and New Jersey. His clients are mostly Russians. The comfort of a common language and the prestige that comes with hiring an interior designer, has led to such a large bank of customers that he steers the wheel with two ringing cell phones in his hand.
Huge drops of rain were beating on the windshield while cars crawled in slow motion in rush hour on Belt Parkway. He told me in his usual bare whisper that we are going to visit Mila, whose apartment he has been working on for the past four months. He had recently installed a sophisticated shower system where thermostat-controlled water pours at you from three directions. The problem lay in the lack of pressure, ("Roma, there is just a little water, and what is worse, is that there is no cold water" she had complained).
"I told her," he explained in Russian, "you have to ask your super before we install the shower if there is sufficient pressure in the bathroom. Do you understand what I mean by pressure? Let me explain how the shower works." I got a crash course on plumbing, the variety of shower systems that exist in the markets of Europe and America, and bits and pieces of laws of physics.
"This will be interesting for you," he said, half smiling, nodding his head.
"Where exactly is Mila's house and who is Mila?" I asked. "Rego Park. Mila is a Russian. You know, from Odessa."
And that was the extent of information that he was willing to share. Petrified, I sat squeezing every muscle in my body, clinging to the leather seat of the BMW.
Behind the door of the 10th floor apartment appeared a plump blond lady.
"I was wondering who could be knocking on my door like that," Mila smiled, lifting and wagging her stout forefinger, that reached the height of his chest.
The apartment smelt of new furniture, varnish, and clean rain-washed air making that made its way through the open window. The sparkling wooden floor was covered with cardboard, carefully taped together to avoid any damage. The walls were a strange light yellow texture ("It's glazing, you know what glazing is?" Roma later explained). Little spotlights lined the kitchen ceiling in two neat rows of five. An over-sized dining room table stood in the middle of the room, at which an elderly lady sat playing with her fingers, rocking back and forth, letting out deep sighs every few seconds. I was immediately informed that the distress was rooted in the size of the dining table. Ordered from Italy, (less expensive than buying European furniture in America), the store had sent the wrong table. To exchange it would leave Mila without an essential piece of furniture for at least two months.
"How can we send it back?" Mila's mother said. "They will come here, pack it, take it back to Italy. Then ship the other one. Oh, oh, what is she going to do?"
Mila had an idea. She removed the tablecloth exposing a calligraphic design at the table's center.
"Look, here, we can cut the center out and put it back together," she said.
"Oh, no, no, Milachka, that will take away all the beauty," the mother replied. Roma had gotten on his knees and was checking out the technical possibilities of the idea.
When that got boring attention was turned to a huge classical buffet that stood against the window on the other side of the room. At its center stood a vase. It was in shape of a bouquet of roses, its stems fluorescent green, and its blossoms fluorescent pink.
"Romachka," said Mila, walking over to the cupboard, proudly brushing the air with her hand a foot away from the vase like a television salesgirl. "What do you think of this glorious piece of art?"
"Milachka, it's horrible," he replied without a second thought.
Mila's jaw dropped and she stood speechless for a moment.
"But Romachka, it cost $4,000!"
Roma led her to the bathroom where the real problem lay.
I remained in the living room with Mila's mother, staring at the huge, thin, state-of-the-art TV screen where an interview with a 100-year-old Jewish Russian lady was being aired.
"How old did they say she is?" the grandmother asked me.
"One hundred." She sighed.
"So, I don't know what Milachka will do about this table," she said stroking it. "She's been crying all night, I've been crying."
I looked past her into the bedroom, thick pink and white vertical stripes lined the walls behind the immense wooden bed. Somewhere beyond I could hear the water running. Relieved that the shower was working after all, and initiated by the sound of running water, I made my way into the hallway, catching my image in the huge gold mirror on the wall, as I went to use the guest bathroom. I switched on the light and had to close my eyes. Bright, sparkling yellow gold was everywhere. The taps, the cabinet knobs, the doorknob, even a thin sheet of gold metal that covered the toilet paper were plated with 18-karat gold.
A few minutes later, Roma convinced Mila that there was no reason to have cold water in the shower and we left.
We were on our way to Roma's sister's house.
"I want you to meet a priest," he said. Notebook and pen in hand, tape recorder safely on "hold" in my bag, I stood in front of the door prepared for my fist encounter with a Russian immigrant family.
The door was open. A fleshy redhead met us as we entered with a smile that came out of her eyes. Plates of pickled cabbage, mushrooms, cucumbers, Russian salad, studen, chicken, red caviar, and Russian rye bread lined the table that stood a few feet from the door. On the right hand corner of each plate stood a shot glass and a bottle of Grey Goose vodka fresh out of the freezer perspired drops onto the tablecloth. Russian pop music was pounding in a dark room. Straining my neck, I saw two figures dancing.
I put my notebook away.
Roma and Lena made their way from Minsk to New York in two waves. Lena arrived in 1990 with her Jewish husband and three children. Roma came to visit on a six-month visa and never left. First laying bricks on construction sites, he slowly worked up his clientele in the line of business from back home. He now drives a BMW with more buttons and gadgets than my eyes have ever seen. And designs apartments in Manhattan, restaurants in Sheepshead Bay, and penthouses in Brighton.
As the song slowly faded into refrain, the dancers came to the table to greet me. Ivan, a blond, blue-eyed, jolly 35-year-old was followed by a shy, blushing Lilia, who had arrived from the Ukraine a four years ago. A short man in an apron appeared from the kitchen sweeping his wrist against his forehead. That was Andrei.
I was told where to sit. I sat. Alone. Everyone seemed to be fiddling somewhere-Ivan poured the vodka, the Andrei hid in the kitchen, Lena chatted with her brother. Slowly the rest joined me around the table and hands began to put food on my plate. A toast was made to the cook.
"Masha is a journalist," said Roma. "She's working on a book about us Russians." Everyone looked at me. I was again, petrified. Were they all waiting for me to ask some magnificent journalistic question? To present them with a glib explanation of what I plan to do? To tell a joke, make a toast, praise the food, something? I tried to think.
Only 20 minutes earlier, I was in the car firing questions and catching every word of the replies spoken in my mother tongue. Now, as these people sat curiously staring at me, asking polite, casual questions ("When is your birthday?" Lena asked. My birthday was two hours away, I told them, causing a happy roar around the table), until they eventually lost interest in me and began speak amongst themselves again, I felt as if I was listening to a Martian dialect. I said nothing and followed everyone's example, putting out my shot glass for a refill.
Lilia caught my raised hand and placed it on the table. "Never hold up the glass when it's empty, it's bad luck. Just for the future, so you know," she said in reply to my baffled look.
"Mashka grab the napkins behind you," Lena said. Mashka, she had called me Mashka. The muscles in my body began to relax.
"Lets drink to the family! Because there is nothing more important than the family," Roma said as we gulped down the frozen vodka.
After we drank to Roma and Lena's parents ("Without whom none of this would be possible," they said), Roma asked Andrei, the designated cook of the night, where the much-anticipated main course was. Andrei went to check on it while Lena stood up and shut off the lights in the room. In the darkness I made out a small flickering flame through the spaces between the boards of the screen that separated the living room from the kitchen. Andrei appeared with the heaping platter of plov, a Russian spicy pilaf of rice, meat, carrots, and onions. On top of it a candle burned. Everyone began to sing the Russian birthday song.
Wow, I thought to myself. Someone was born on the same day as me! I looked around at the smiling and singing group waiting for the part of the song where the person's name appears.
"Happy birthday dear Masha!" My face caught on fire. I made my wish and blew out the candle on top of the plov, looking around in awe at the five people as they hurrah-ed and clapped. I looked at Lena, Roma and Ivan-speechless--and melted in my seat. The light was turned back on and we ate.
There was very little time to absorb the incident because I was the next person in line to make a toast. My mind froze again. Here I was, in between five complete strangers, in a strange house, speaking a strange language, and now I had to make a toast. But strangers that had just put their hearts out on display for me. Tina Turner's "Private Dancer" was playing in the background, but I could hear myself breathe while ten eyes were eyes casually moved from me to the raised glasses and back again.
It was a regular Saturday night at our house in Athens in the mid-1980s, I had been helping mama cut cucumbers, crab, potatoes, and roll pelmeni, since the morning hours. Now our creations lined the dining room table, soon to be devoured by the usual Saturday group of my parents' Greek-Russian immigrant friends. My step-dad strummed the guitar, yelling, more than singing some Russian tune on top of Tina Turner's voice, kids were running up and down the stairs, Boss--our cotton-white sheepdog--was chasing a red ball, someone was complaining about the temperature of the vodka, while I sat on the couch on the other side of the room stubbornly watching Dynasty on a muted television set.
It was the end of the school year and I spent the day obsessively leafing through the yearbook. It was the first year that my new Greek name was printed under my photograph. Only my Greek name. Not hyphenated with my Russian one.
"Fifth Grade, Ms. Henderson, from left to right: Brian Karey, Alkis Klimathianos, Maria Kostaki." No more mumbling answers to "Maslofskaya? What kind of name is that?" And in just a few months I would also be the proud holder of a Greek passport and there would be no problems in getting on the American air base for Zucchini Daze and People's Fest. Oh the hot dogs and cherry coke! Just waiting for the papers from dad to come from Moscow.
"Dear Father," I had written. "If you love me and you want me to be happy, there is one thing I want you to do for me. Disown me. And I promise, I will never ask anything of you again. Love, Masha." And he did. And I got a Greek last name, a new Greek-Russian father, and a chance to really be what I wanted to be. And never spoke to him again. Pressed the delete button and rewrote the story, leaving out the lead.
I went and filled up my plate from the adult table, and sat back in front of the T.V., yearbook open to the page by my side and sunk into the world Blake and Crystal.
Now I was sitting at the adult table. I tried to recall what my mother would say when it was her turn to make a toast. But couldn't remember because I never listened. I raised my glass and opened my mouth to speak. And stuttered. As if I had swallowed a handful of rocks.
Across the table, Lena looked into my eyes, nodded her head once, and flashed that smile that is exclusively hers, where the mouth remains straight but the blue eyes twinkle, and release a magic wave of warmth.
"I, I'd just like to...can I say this in English?" I killed the moment. My voice has never trembled so hard.
"Whatever language you like," Roma answered.
"I would simply like to thank you. Thank you for letting me into your house, into your lives and into your family. I drink to you." And I downed the entire shot. After my head snapped back into place, everyone was still holding their full glasses and looking at me. If they all knew how to smile Lena's special smile, they would have. As they drank and slammed their glasses on the table the Russian wall crumbled to a pile of dust at my feet.