BRIGHTON BEACH MEMOIR
A plane–it’s hard to tell from this distance, but the odds are it’s an old single-engine prop job–crosses the horizon about six miles south of the line of gray-green trees in the big cemetery a few blocks to the south of my fourth-storey apartment. The plane is dragging a banner behind it, huge by comparison, an ant toting a leaf twenty times its own size. The banner is perfectly extended, a big gray rectangle, slightly billowed, making me wonder if it is indeed the same sort of thing I used to see many years ago or some new fabric, more aerodynamic, made from some kind of superlightweight fiber.
I can’t of course read anything printed on the banner from this distance. It’s only by chance I spotted it sliding lazily across the gray sky through the frame of the one window I keep partially exposed despite the heat of the midday sun and the heavy humidity that has been with us almost constantly for the past two months. I wonder, as I never did when I was on the beach–usually Brighton–gazing up at one of its sister crafts, how does a small plane get airborne dragging something that big and clumsy behind it? Or does it carry the banner inside until it nears the beaches and then unfurl it? Surely when the banner snaps into place behind, there would be a terrific jolt that would put the plane in danger of stalling, if not rip it apart.
Even in my youth those planes were old, sometimes WWI-vintage biplanes. It’s a business, after all. Someone is paying the pilot who, I imagine, had higher goals in mind when he trained to fly. Maybe he’s a veteran who used to fly supersonic fighters, down on his luck. I picture him in the cockpit today, angry, full of contempt for the human ants below, and not entirely sober.
The messages on those banners used to be for Coca-Cola or Marlboros. But the last time I saw one the text was surprising, a political or environmental abjuration. Today’s might be a campaign slogan. The presidential election is just a few months away. Whatever the message, the plane reappears every day. At least, I’ve observed it two days in a row, and, while I don’t spend all my time staring out the window, I seem to do so often enough not to miss it. It’s not as spectacular as one of the blimps that sometime materialize, bobbing up and down like something at sea as it elbows its way through the wind, nor as shocking as the squadron of military aircraft that buzz the beaches to show off the might of the nation, their wingtips dangerously close together like a bunch of teenagers all doing wheelies in synchrony.
My thoughts move down to the beaches themselves, broad white sands so hot you can’t walk on them without some sort of protection, though walk on them we did, or run, to be more precise (when I found out there was a resort in England known as Brighton, my reaction was, What are the odds?). In those days, before immigrant Russians took over the neighborhood, also known as Brighton Beach, it was already Jewish, no one under sixty, though that didn’t stop the women from wearing bikinis or the men from wearing those super-briefs I associate with European beaches. Those old fellows were on the prowl, frankly assaying the woman-flesh on the blankets, the women themselves showing nothing but disinterest or disgust.
Later I recognized all this in the later short stories of Isaac Bashevis Singer. Back then, my twenties, it was alien territory. The only women I had seen in bathing suits were my mother or sister or girls my age, and they wore one-piece suits that covered up pretty much everything. But this was like being inside a movie set that extended a mile in either direction, only with no cameras and no directors, just the posings and posturings of the actors in their outlandish costumes.
My purpose in being there was as escort to a group of forty or more boys, African American and Puerto Rican, from East Harlem in the upper reaches of Manhattan. It was a long subway ride from East Harlem to Brighton, just next to the more famous Coney Island, only made partly underground because much of it was elevated and even through the back yards of respectable Brooklyn suburban neighborhoods. Just part of the show, as it were, along with the bikinis and the strange accents and even stranger languages those beach people spoke, especially when one of them seemed to suddenly become enraged and began abusing another over something that must have been said in a normal tone of voice by one of those roués to one of the women on the blankets.
And, then, like something out of Fellini–whom I had not yet experienced and therefore was all the more unprepared–there appeared the knish-seller, a big dark man with a tray of hot potato cakes strapped to his mighty shoulders. He announced himself with a steady stream of calls, “Hot knishes! Hot knishes!” his big head streaming perspiration. Apart from daycampers in the strict charge of white youth like me, there were no dark people on Brighton Beach. The law did not forbid it as it still did in other parts of the country, but there was an understanding that “they” would stay on “their own” beach, i.e. Coney Island, a sad rundown place, the old gray parachute jump towering like a petrified giant over the boardwalk, the steep hills of the Cyclone looking as abandoned and long-suffering as a Roman aqueduct. That dark-skinned knish-seller was even more unreal than the old men and women in their shameless swim suits. But just imagine what it was like to hear him suddenly break into fluent, animated Yiddish. A black man speaking Yiddish!
Brighton Beach was where I lost Diosdados Rivera. At that point, my third summer, I was not just another camp counselor. I was the tour supervisor responsible for as many as six groups of boys and girls and their counselors. Somehow the boy went missing at the head count taken just as we were all about to march back to the elevated “D” train. I don’t recall feeling especially worried. I reported the situation to my boss by a pay phone on the boardwalk and was told to send everyone else on their way but remain there myself until the boy was found. I headed straight for the local police precinct–wasn’t that where all lost boys ended up? I found Diosdados seated on one of the officers’ desks, just as he should have been, though I don’t recall if he had the requisite ice cream in his hand.
The police handed him over without my having to provide any kind of identification–unthinkable today–and off we went, still without my having any sense of a close call, never mind notions of what a sex maniac might have done with the child. Even when I presented him to his mother an hour later in a dark apartment on a back street of a rough neighborhood, I had no sense of the frantic afternoon the woman must have spent after she was notified her son had gone missing. How could I be so blithe? She thanked me again and again in broken English, though she might just as appropriately have blamed me for his going missing, but what did I know then about a parent’s anxieties? Should I not at least have realized a child named Diosdados must be cherished and fretted over?
All this goes through my mind as that plane lugs its big banner slowly across the horizon. In a few weeks the beaches will be closed. The daycampers will be back in school. The weather, with any luck, will be dry and sunny, the leaves turning gold and red. But today they are still a lush green, more so than in any recent summers I can recall. Autumn may be just around the corner, but today it’s still high summer, the days long and lazy, the nights short and cool.