A STRANGER IN MY OWN CITY
by Eileen Donovan
If I weren’t standing in the middle of 48th St., I’d scream.
That thought ran through my head every time I came out from a theater into the pinpoints of sunlight that filtered through the surrounding buildings to the sidewalk. The bus taking me north to Orange County was leaving in ten minutes. There was no way I could get to Port Authority Bus Terminal in ten minutes. Maybe if I suddenly sprouted wings I could, but that didn’t seem likely. I was doomed. I checked the schedule again. Terrific! The next bus would leave in two hours. What was I supposed to do for two hours? It was too early for dinner. Besides, the slices of pizza I gobbled down for lunch, two hours early for the Saturday matinee, still sat in my stomach like lead weights. My life had been reduced to two hour waits between early arrivals and delayed departures.
Consulting Google, I found a Barnes & Noble nearby. A perfect place to while away an hour or so. I could peruse the new releases then stroll over to Port Authority and catch my bus.I certainly didn’t need to buy any more books. The five bookcases at home overflowed with books, some of which I hadn’t read yet. In fact, the unread books had started a life of their own piling up on the living room windowsill. And so, with firm resolve to window shop only, I headed to 5th Avenue.
Of course, as soon as the revolving door spit me out, I saw Tana French’s newest book. How could I refuse to buy that? After all, she was one of my favorite authors. I convinced myself that one book was okay. That justified, I headed to the escalator to browse around upstairs in the fiction section. But, wait! At the foot of the escalator was a table with a sign, “Buy one, Get one 50% off.” Now really, who can resist a bargain? Before long, I stood on the checkout line with a tower of hardcover books and a few paperbacks from the bargain shelves. As the cashier packed my selections into two bags, I looked at my watch. Oh no! Now I’d have to jog to Port Authority to make my bus. I got to the bus terminal, and raced up the escalators to the fourth floor. (I’m still convinced they lie about that fourth floor designation since the last escalator must be the equivalent of at least three flights of stairs.)
Panting like I had run the NYC Marathon, I staggered over to the usual gate. No bus. No line. No nothing. I checked my watch. I was three minutes ahead of the scheduled departure time. Sweat ran into my eyes, and down from my armpits soaking my sweater. My legs burned from running up all those escalators. I wanted to cry or scream, either seemed an appropriate response.
As I stood there dumbfounded, I noticed a raggedy piece of paper on a nearby bulletin board. I dragged myself over to read it.
SPECIAL NOTICE “For the weekend of March 9 – 10, the Chester, Goshen, Middletown buses will depart from Gate 28.”
Of course, it was the very last gate on the floor. I summoned the last ounce of my strength, told myself I could rest on the bus, and ran the length of the terminal. Gasping with my last breath, I reached the gate and sputtered, “Chester?” to the driver collecting tickets.
“Cutting it pretty close, aren’t you?” he asked.
I nodded. I didn’t have enough breath left to speak anymore. On wobbly legs, I climbed onto the bus, the driver right behind me, and faced a sea of faces staring at me. Please dear bus gods, there has to be an empty seat. I can’t possibly stand for an hour and a half. My legs trembled.My arms were stretched like rubber bands. I focused and saw a man pointing to an empty seat across the aisle from him. I lurched toward it as the bus backed away from the gate. Throwing myself into the empty space, my breathing beginning to slow to normal,my friend’s words ran through my head. “You know, this book buying thing of yours is an addiction. You do know that, don’t you?” Of course, she was right. But when I pulled out my new books and reread the back-cover blurbs, I didn’t care.
However, one thing I did care about was the ridiculous commute to Manhattan every time I wanted some fun like seeing a play, or having lunch with a friend, or going to my writing group. This had to stop. I arrived two hours early for everything and then waited two hours for my bus home. I had to move. It was that or giving up everything I love to do. No contest.
About a month later, I received an email from a building management company I had contacted about an apartment. They had nothing in Manhattan, but they did have a one-bedroom in Brighton Beach, Brooklyn. I knew nothing about the area except that at one time, many years ago, it was called “Little Russia.” In fact, I really didn’t know anything about Brooklyn. But I decided it couldn’t hurt to go look at the apartment. An hour and a half drive time, according to MapQuest. Okay, I could do that. I made an appointment, and in a couple of days, was on my way to look at my possible future home.
Needless to say, MapQuest doesn’t travel on the Belt Parkway. I emailed the building manager to let her know I’d be late, then inched along to my exit.
When I arrived, the building showed real promise. Thirteen stories high, situated right on the boardwalk. I could hear the surf breaking as I walked from my car to the front door. The manager showed me the apartment and it was lovely. A tiny kitchen and bathroom, but a large living room and bedroom, and a ridiculous number of closets (five double door ones and one single door), and on the top floor with an unobstructed view of the ocean from both the living room and bedroom windows. Sunlight poured into the rooms and bounced off the wooden floors and ivory walls.
Back in her office, I asked the manager if the area was still overwhelmingly Russian. She assured me it wasn’t.
“A lot of Russian people live here, but they all speak English. You wouldn’t even know they’re Russian.”
Reassured that I wouldn’t be moving into a community where I couldn’t interact with my neighbors, I signed the lease.
Moving day came, and the movers who showed up jabbered away to each other in Russian. Hmm, the man I dealt with on the phone wasn’t Russian. An uneasy feeling crept up my spine.
“Why you move to Brighton Beach?” the lead mover asked. “You not Russian.” His heavy accent didn’t lessen my growing doubts about this move.
I told him about my frustration with bus schedules. He shrugged.
“Why?” I asked. “I heard it’s not really very Russian there anymore. Are you saying I should learn how to speak Russian?”
“No. Most young people there now from Uzbekistan. Most Russian moved to Long Island.”
“Oh, so what language do Uzbekistanis speak?”
“Russian. Everybody speak Russian.”
My lungs stopped working for a few minutes, my heart sank into my stomach, and my brain said, This is a fine mess you’ve gotten yourself into.
But I was undeterred. I was flexible. I could surely live with Uzbekistanis.
The first sign of trouble arrived with my belongings. For starters, one of the two elevators in my building was out of order. At every writer knows, we travel with our own medium sized bookstore. Boxes upon boxes of books, along with dozens of other boxes, wardrobes, and furniture all needed to go to the thirteenth floor. And it seemed that every tenant had gone out that day, and were now all arriving back home and needed the elevator. As I stood in the lobby with my movers, and the mounting towers of boxes, I realized I wasn’t endearing myself to anyone. The tenants pointed at my growing piles, their murmured grumblings getting louder. I decided to let them take the elevator ahead of me. After the third pass on the elevator, my lead mover said, “We take next elevator. They wait.”
The grumbling changed to shouts. All in Russian. Tenants shouted at my movers, my movers shouted back at them, and I stood there frozen. A few of my new neighbors wagged fingers in my face and yelled at me. All I could say was, “I don’t speak Russian.” At which they would shake their heads and say something like, “Baah,” although I’m pretty sure that wasn’t it.
One lady who squeezed into the elevator with the mover, the boxes, and me asked him something, in Russian, and he answered. When she got out on her floor, he said, “She from St. Petersburg.”
“Oh, did she tell you that?” I asked.
“No. Everyone from St. Petersburg very nice. Very polite. Other people probably from Stalingrad.”
With that overarching summary of the Russian people, he smiled. This was not going well.
We arrived at my floor and he started moving the boxes into the hallway. I grabbed one of the boxes to prop the apartment door open when I heard a woman yelling. Stepping into the hall, I saw a tiny elderly lady charging towards the mover, shaking her fist, and screaming at him. Dressed in a robe and slippers, I knew she wasn’t going out, but she was obviously distraught. Her outburst continued while this former professional Russian hockey player looked down at her. Then, just as I thought she was winding down, he started yelling at her. Any dreams I had about detente with my neighbors evaporated.
The day eventually ended, but now I had to move my car out of the building’s “Visitor Parking.”Ah, the joy of trying to find a parking spot on the street. As I drove up and down various blocks, the weather changed and it started to pour rain. Not a light misty rain, oh no, this was monsoonal.
Wipers going full blast, I finally squeezed into an open spot about four blocks away from my new home.But I remembered, from my previous visit, there were a couple of restaurants on the boardwalk. I found access to the boardwalk, and sloshed through the rain to find a place that would quiet my growling stomach. Through limited visibility, I spotted the yellow awning of one of the restaurants and headed for it.
“Closed,” the sign said. Gee, could this day get any better? By now, I was soaked to the skin but I didn’t care. I was famished. I trudged to the next restaurant. “Closed.” Was this some kind of special Russian holiday I didn’t know about?
Back in my apartment, I grabbed my phone and googled “Pizza.” Thankfully, there was a place not too far away that delivered. In about half an hour, a very wet delivery boy knocked on my door. I tipped him about a week’s pay and dove into my dinner. To this day, I have no idea if it was any good, but right then it was the best pie I’d ever tasted.
The next morning, I woke anxious to get to the supermarket and stock up on some staples. I’ve moved enough times to know that “first day” items belong in one suitcase, so showered and dressed, I waited for the one working elevator. That’s when a woman came out of her apartment and stormed down the hall towards me, shouting in Russian the whole way. This woman wasn’t the tiny one from yesterday. This one was as big as my mover. As she got closer, she flailed her arms and continued yelling.
“I don’t speak Russian,” I said. My future mantra.
“You have too much furniture,” she said in heavily accented English.
“I don’t think so. I have just the right amount.”
Once again, I was assaulted with a torrent of babble. “I still don’t speak Russian,” I said.
“I speaking English,” she screeched.
Really? Since I couldn’t understand a word she said, I waited for a break in her tirade, then said, “Excuse me,” and went back into my apartment. There was no way I was getting in the elevator with that crazy woman.
Later that day, I made it to the supermarket. And I use that term lightly. A whole new experience. Instead of aisles of boxed and canned foods, there were long aisles of steam tables stocked with fully cooked items, and refrigerated tables of cold food. Although I recognized some of the foodstuffs, like salmon, coleslaw, and stew (although not sure what kind), the rest was a mystery. And since all the labels were in Russian, I had no idea what they were selling. People milled about filling take-out boxes with various items while I searched for “normal” food. Towards the rear of the store were a few shelves stocked with cans, jars, and packages, but most of them had Russian labels. A few English labels scattered among them. Very few. The fresh meat department was about the length of my coffee table, but there was a decent selection of dairy products (although all the packaged cheeses had Russian labels), and lots of produce. I began to envision my life as a vegetarian. Another area where there was an abundance of product was the bakery. I had never seen such a variety of cakes and sweets, even in the best bakeries I knew. And they all looked so sugary my teeth started to ache.
Opposite this display was an entire aisle of boxed candy, again all Russian labels. The abundance even outdid Walmart or Target right before Valentine’s Day. I grabbed some fruit, veggies, yogurt, eggs, and a loaf of some kind of bread (yes, that had a Russian label too), and made my way home, my head spinning. Fortunately, there was plenty of leftover pizza, so I opened a bottle of wine, part of my “first day” necessities, and had dinner. I also made a resolution to find an “American” supermarket the next day.
I’ve been here a year now. I found a “real” supermarket, a mile away but walkable. (I sold my car.) My neighbors mostly ignore me, or sneer at me, except for the woman across the hall who’s very nice. (Maybe she’s from St. Petersburg.) The subway into Manhattan takes about an hour, but I don’t have to consult bus schedules anymore. I continue to send inquiries to realty management companies about apartments in Manhattan. I haven’t given up on those hopes yet. I haven’t learned how to speak Russian, or made peace with Brighton Beach yet, but it’s home for now.