George Bellows, The Cliff Dwellers
A few years ago, I was standing on the Boardwalk in Brighton Beach, staring at the ocean, minding my own business, holding a camera in my hand. I always feel like an outsider here, not ever having to live in a place with a large Russian community. I am as American as an immigrant can get. I speak a not-so-heavily accented English, good enough to confuse someone who asked me once if I am from Montana. I dress just like everyone else in the Midwest, a non-trendy mix of Costco and thrift store. Only occasional Adidas shoes might betray my former allegiances to a careful observer. I even break with the Russian tradition and smile at random people every once in a while. It took me years to get here.
I visit Brighton as a nostalgia vaccine booster. With a mix of horror and curiosity, I wander the streets in silence, trying not to reveal that I understand the sights and sounds around me. This is one place in the world where I don’t want to be mistaken for a local. I browse Russian stores filled with my every childhood dream food. I browse the newspaper kiosk display, the books in front of the book store.
People are swarming around me, they have things to do, stuff to buy, people to meet. I don’t need anything here, not being able to connect my America to this weird boil of a late-eighties Soviet city festering in a New York City borough, with its own language, dress code and behavioral norms. These people see my America from a bus window narrated by a Russian-speaking guide, read about it in their Russian newspapers, hear about it on a Russian talk radio and TV. I should feel at home here but I don’t.
So there I was, standing on the boardwalk in Brighton Beach, staring at the ocean, minding my own business, holding a camera in my hand. And suddenly, a family walked straight up to me and asked me for directions in Russian just like I was standing in the middle of Odessa in 1987. I told them how to get to Manhattan, added a few helpful tourist tidbits of my own, and then I asked them how did they know. How did a group of Russian immigrants from Canada know that a random guy on the American Boardwalk wouldn’t even blink when asked a question in Russian? Was it my face, posture, clothes? They said they just knew. As American as I am in my own mind, I still can’t fool the internal radar we all have for spotting people like ourselves in the crowd. There is still work to be done.