The dog days of summer have nearly come and gone, but there are a few weeks left to catch those last rays of summer sunshine if you’re still daydreaming of a beach day from your air-conditioned office cubicle.
Let me make a recommendation: Brighton Beach.
In ninth grade I watched a high school production of Neil Simon’s Brighton Beach Memoirs. Back then I had only an inkling of the place — that it was somewhere faraway and down on its luck, undesirable to a kid going through those awkward adolescent years. It didn’t sound like any beach town I knew growing up in Southern California.
In actuality, Brighton Beach was an exclusive seaside resort for the wealthy at the turn of the nineteenth century. But around the time of the Great Depression, much of the opulent beachfront hotels and bath houses were boarded up and bulldozed, their land parceled out to the highest bidders. Drab concrete apartment buildings sprung up in their place. And when it was in most need of a revival, the neighborhood welcomed its first wave of Russian immigrants in the 1970s. Which is why today, Brighton Beach is one of New York City’s largest Russian enclaves and affectionately referred to as “Little Odessa.”
Besides tasty pirozhki and rumblings of the Russian mafia, the community harbors another hidden gem: a population of fervent sunbathers. A day there, more than any other beach in New York, offers people-watching at its finest. Of course, I brought my camera with me, but what I captured in one day is just the tip of the iceberg.
Go experience Brighton Beach for yourself, and you will realize an entire way of life and its rituals have been carrying on in spite of your ignorance: the covert dressing and undressing on the boardwalk, the lathering of creamy, white sunscreen and slick tanning oil, the umbrellas and beach chairs and brightly patterned towels staking a claim, the books that were brought with every good intention of being read discarded next to dozing septuagenarians.
And everywhere you look, a sunbather in sublime slumber, gloriously unaware of the world spinning around them — temperatures rising, tiki torches lighting, democracies imploding — while the biggest star in the solar system bears down on them, turning their skin an impossible auburn.
Maybe the sunbathers at Brighton Beach know something we don’t. Like the sweet drip of beta-endorphins being released into the body, a natural high triggered by the sun’s rays. That sunscreen may protect your skin, but it can’t save your soul. That youth is overrated and sunburns are for amateurs. That you can die from heat stroke — yet, can you ever truly live without a day in the sun?