First Stop, New York City

A walk around Brooklyn's Park Slope neighborhood,
and a drive to Brighton Beach for dinner.

Click on any image for an enlarged view.

Niki's street in Brooklyn.
I left Atlanta in the early evening of Friday, June 13, and flew to Newark, New Jersey to meet my old friend Niki Genov. He's originally from Bulgaria, but now lives in Brooklyn, near the Park Slope neighborhood, and he's become a real New Yorker. He knows the subway like he was born here, drives his little Subura car through Manhatten not giving an inch to the taxi drivers, and knows all the best late night pizza joints in his neighborhood.

I got in about ten o'clock, Friday night. We took a longer route, through Manhatten, on our way to Brooklyn to give me a taste of the city. It's an incredible place at night! The taxi drivers think they're the only ones on the streets, but the long scratch marks and dents on their cars would indicate otherwise. You can't lean your arm on the edge of the window, I learned the hard way, without being in danger of having it sliced off by a speeding taxi.

About an hour later we arrived in Brooklyn. After throwing my bags through the doorway, we headed out in search of a neighborhood pub for a drink. We found just the place, a little local joint filled with a group of Brooklynites who had just come from a wedding. The men all had their ties pulled loose and were swigging beer from big mugs. The women, squeezed into dresses that looked like they hadn't worn in a few years, stomped and twirled to the Culture Club tunes I had played on the jukebox until they had shaken the perms right out of their hair. They were a good crowd and a fine welcoming committee.

We made a short night of it, since I had been up very late the night before, saying goodbye to friends in Atlanta. After a couple of cocktails we headed back to Niki's, and I collapsed onto an air mattress. I drifted off to sleep a little bewildered by the fact that my trip had finally begun, and here I was in New York City on the first leg of a journey that would take me to the other side of the world. It was a good feeling.

The next morning we headed out for a leisurely walk around Park Slope and some surrounding areas. Many people from other parts of the country would probably be suprised to see how many sections of Brooklyn consist of beautifully restored apartment buildings and tree lined streets.

One of the many pleasant streets in Brooklyn.
People are out everywhere on the streets, and each corner usually hosts a small grocery store, a pub or at least a stand filled with fresh fruits and vegetables. Residents sit on the steps outside their apartments and watch the people go by; some seem as if they've lived in the neighborhood all their lives.

The weather in June was pleasant enough, warm but not too hot for a long walk. Coming from the stifling humidity of the south, northern climates, even when the locals complain of the heat, are usually tolerable for us southerners. But for the sake of blending, I left my southern drawl at home; 'How ya'll doing,' did not pass my lips until I was to return to Atlanta about one month later. And I never once mentioned a hankering for grits.

There's also quite a bit of renovation still going on in Niki's neighborhood, with workers crawling in and out of apartment windows overhead as you walk by, drilling and pounding some poor old building into shape for a new owner or tenant. Many of them have new, lavish entrances, remodeled steps with new iron gates out front.

I was looking around and thinking to myself how much my own neighborhood in Midtown Atlanta looked somewhat similar, but still lacked the settled in feel of a place that had some history. Midtown is teeming with people in their late twenties and early thirties, new to Atlanta, wide eyed and in search of something like the latest gizmo in a toy store. Brooklyn, quite the opposite, seems to boast residents and families that go a long way back. Or if the residents are newer arrivals, they've got this certain style that says, "Yeah, I'm in New York; that's because I'm cool. Now back off 'cause I'm walking here."

Well, that may be a bit of an idiosyncratic perspective, but hey, that's the impression I got. This was all new territory for your humble narrator.

A sidewalk sale on a sunny summer day.
Another myth about New York that was to fall away quickly on my short stopover here is the notion that all New Yorkers are rude, and just treat you like you're in their way. I found quite the opposite to be true. At this little sidewalk sale, hosted by a couple of adjoining apartments, both the sellers and prospective buyers bantered and joked in a manner that would make so-called southern hospitality look cool and distant by comparison.

Maybe it was the beautiful weather, maybe it was something Rudolph Giuliani has been secretly pumping into the air, but I found the New Yorkers I came across to be a pretty enjoyable bunch. And why shouldn't they be? They live in the greatest city on earth.

This is not to say, of course, that a visit to New York is just a giddy little adventure, say like a day at Walt Disney World. All you have to do to dispel this silly little notion is watch two truck drivers argue over the same parking space, both of them behind schedule on their respective delivery routes. I did this, and the resulting scene was extremely entertaining, from a safe distance. Thick, booming New York accents, peppered with more obscenity than the entire world wide web drowned out the sound of traffic around them. New Yorkers, perfectly accustomed to this sort of thing, walked briskly around the trucks and their drivers without giving them a second glance. I found a nice safe niche, out of the way of pedestrians, and watched the drama unfold.

Of course, their confrontation was only verbal, and nothing physical happened. Finally, one driver nosed his truck into the space, while the other swore that his 'Mada' knew enough voodoo to torment the other's whole family for three generations to come. This was met with a skeptical, 'Ah, go on, you shmuk, you!' And as quickly as it started the scene was over. Two wonderful performances, engaging dialogue, and a plot rich in cultural heritage: a truly wonderful New York City performance.

Along the path in Prospect Park.
We made our way to nearby Prospect Park, a favorite gathering place for Brooklynites. The park is pretty large, at least based on my experiences, and hosts all sort of sporting and recreational activities. There were little league baseball games, pickup basketball, and a lot of just relaxing.

We followed paths under large shade trees and were passed by an occasional horse and rider. The bridge in the picture to the right was a favorite stopping place for pedestrians.

Prospect Park provides a much needed piece of nature and tranquility in bustling Brooklyn. It's easy to see what an asset it is for city dwellers to have a place like this to come to on the weekends to unwind and relax from the pace of city life. I know from living across the street from Piedmont Park in Atlanta what an incredible therapeutic value a few trees, some shade and little bit of grass can have at the end of the week. Observing the similarities in Piedmont Park and Prospect Park convince me now that places such as these are as essential to city life as telephones and running water.

Brooklyn also hosted its first ever Gay Pride event in 1997. While to many people this may be a controversial subject I personally find the whole matter a no brainer, as we say. I generally don't get into politics on these pages, but since the event coincided with my journey, and gay rights was to be a subject I would think about a time or two as I travelled in Russia, I might as well get my opinions in here, along with the accompanying photo.

Brooklyn's first Gay Pride event.
Of course, New York City is probably the site of the largest gay pride celebration in the country, long recognized as a bastion of immorality by the likes of Jerry Falwell. However, Brooklyn, with a huge population of its own, had never hosted its own pride event. That changed in 1997.

Niki and I happened across the march as we exited the park and were searching for a place to sit and rest a bit, so a short and not too uncomfortable brick wall by the side of the street seemed like just the spot.

Niki's favorite participants were the group of motorcyclists known informally, and perhaps formally (I'm not sure), as Dykes on Bikes. These are lesbians riding big Harley Davidson or Japanese cruiser motorcycles. Niki loved the motorcycles and thought they were terrific women as well. He smiled broadly at them and told me he'd like to take a ride with them sometime. 'Stick around Brooklyn, Niki. I'm sure they're not an unfriendly bunch.'

We watched the rest of the parade while we rested from our walk through the park. There were many different groups participating, some more theatrical and outlandish than others.

In Atlanta, as most people know, the gay community is very prominent and well represented, and gay rights here in the states is always a front burner issue. However, I know from my reading that in the former Soviet Union, and many other parts of eastern europe, the oppression of so many ideas declared subservise by the state have kept many struggles for civil rights by minorities in the closet.

I pondered this for a moment and then decided not to occupy myself with it this day. I was here in New York, and the experiences that were awaiting me in Russia would come soon enough. We headed back to Niki's place to prepare for a ride down to Brighton Beach for dinner.

An apartment building in Park Slope, Brooklyn.
We headed out for Brighton Beach in Niki's car. I had thought the subway would be a better way to go. But Niki, like a real American, prefers to drive everywhere he can. I didn't mind though; in a car I figured I'd see more of the city than hurtling through some subway tunnel. Besides, I'd have my fill of the New York City subway system before I left for Russia the following Monday. I'd even ride the thing by myself, which for a southerner is a real adventure, and one your damn proud of once you reach your destination without taking a single wrong train.

By this time, I had been in the city for all of about eighteen hours, I had already begun thinking New York City was the greatest place on earth, and wondering how I could afford a move here. Of course, that was a bit premature, but it's certainly something to keep in mind for the future. Naturally, people say that New York is a very expensive place to live, and they're correct, but well paid computer geeks like Niki and myself are probably up to the task. It seems like finding the right apartment, and getting a housing allowance from your company the way Niki does, are key.

Prices for apartments are outrageous here, and during my visit a political debate raged through city hall concerning the doing away with rent control, which is still something I don't completely understand. Television newscasts were filled with all night shots from the mayor's office, complete with protestors outside demanding to keep the current laws in place. Their reasoning went that as soon as the laws were repealed, rent all over the city would skyrocket and everyone, from little old ladies who had lived in the same apartment for fifty years to generation X'ers, would find themselves among the city's homeless.

All of a sudden little ol' Atlanta didn't seem so bad a place. Maybe a move to New York should wait until all this dust settles. Or until there's another real estate crash. Whatever happens, one thing is sure: New York City is not very likely to become a cheaper place to live.

Enjoying a Saturday afternoon, and wondering who's taking their picture.
New York, of course, is famouns for cultural diversity. Boy, is it ever! Since I've moved to Atlanta the city tries very hard to portray itself as an international city. And while it's true there is a fair amount of ethnic diversity in Atlanta, compared to New York City, it's about as diverse as Mayberry, South Carolina. I'm talking about the little town of Andy Griffith fame.

In New York languages from all over the world are heard everywhere. Restaurants serving up every ethnic cuisine imaginable can be found all over town. Houses of worship from different faiths from around the globe can be seen in abundance. And on this Saturday, as we drive through the traffic headed for Brighton Beach, many different peoples mingled without animosity.

As we drove on through the many different neighborhoods, often with signs in native languages, I felt as if I was going on a miniature world tour, right there in Niki's little Subura.

A tan hat? What a bold fashion statement!
Religious diversity is something that flourishes in this country, the Christian Coalition not withstanding. And it is something that we Americans can consider a crowning achievement of our democracy.

When Niki first came here, to Atlanta, he was amazed at the number of churches he saw, and the myriad of faiths. He once asked me how many religions there are in America. The question baffled me; I mean, I knew there's a great number of different religions here, but an actual number? I just stared ahead blankly and said, 'Billions.'

As we rode along, Niki did a little exploring into unfamiliar territory. Soon he got a concerned look on his face when the landscape got a little rougher, and the property values began to plummet. "I've never been here before," he said, and then looked over at me. "What are you looking at me for?" I said, "You think I know where the hell we are?".

Niki shrugged this off and said not to worry, as he sped through a red light to avoid stopping, and I began to wonder if my trip to New York City wouldn't end up in an incident that got a small mention in the back of the local section of the New York Times: A tourist on his way to Russia had his trip cut short yesterday, resulting in a detour to the emergency room with multiple stab wounds.

Naturally, all this worry was unfounded, and soon we were in Brighton Beach. Little Russia might be a more appropriate name for the place, and I suppose it does have some nicknames to that affect. This was to be my preview for the rest of my trip. We walked along the boardwalk and took in the sights.

Many of these people probably left Russia before the collapse of the Soviet Union and the clothing styles of many of the women seemed to suggest this. Lots of bright polyester pants and blue eyeshadow adorned many of the older women. Hair color was as diverse as the rainbow, often leaning to the more purple side of the spectrum.

The boardwalk in Brighton Beach.
We tried to find an outdoor table at one of the cafes along the boardwalk, to no avail. The ocean just a short distance away would have made for great scenery during dinner, but obviously we weren't the only ones that thought so. On a Saturday night the boardwalk is a real happening place, and chairs were a commodity in short supply.

So we went down a street or two to a Russian restaurant Niki had visited on a few earlier occasions. The tables were lined up in such a way so that it was likely you would sit next to someone in another dining party. This didn't bother me at all, and in fact, afforded us the opportunity to talk to three women who turned out to be very interesting and entertaining.

Roz, Sophie and Lee were probably in their early fifties, and all three real native New Yorkers - great accents. They told us all about the history of Brighton Beach; Sophie had grown up there. When they asked me what I was doing in New York, and I told them I was on my way to Russia, Roz drew in a deep breath and then began expounding on the potential disasters that awaited me.

"You don't want to get sick in Russia," she began, "If you end up in the hospital they cut you open with a rusty scalpel and no anesthetic."

Upon hearing this Sophie dropped her fork, making a sound as if the plate had cracked, and admonished Roz in perfect New Yorkese, "Roz, Roz shut up. The boy's on vacation. He don't need to hear this."

But Roz was not to be deterred, "I read in a magazine about a man who went to the dentist in Russia, and lost an eye." Sophie shook her head, rolled her eyes, and poured me another glass of wine. Sophie was cool.

We ran into the ladies again as we were leaving in the lobby of the restaurant. Sophie and Lee were examining some decorations on the wall. I accused Roz of waiting for us to come out so they could offer us a drink and try to take advantage of us. Roz giggled like a guilty convict and said, "I could teach you a think or two, sonny, believe you me."

Sophie again felt obliged to intervene, "Roz, Roz what the hell are you talking about? You're old enough to be his mother. Now cut it out. Geez, what I gotta' put up with you." She looked at me, "Can you believe her, huh?" I was beginning to really like Sophie.

My travel companion, Ivan Grozny, enjoys a martini in the East Village.
We left Brighton Beach and headed for the East Village. There we found a table by the street to have a few cocktails and watch the people go by. East Village is, I suppose, one of the hipper sections of New York City. Punks and hippies, all the counter culture freaks, call the place home.

While we were there I thought it was a perfect place to get a good shot of my travel companion, a stuffed gorilla named Ivan Grozny ('Ivan the Terrible'). But I wasn't sure how a stuffed toy would be received by the leather punks sitting in the table behind us. They were pretty rowdy, gulping down beers and generally a little on the intimidating side. Leather jackets, crazy haircuts, and lots of tattoos and piercings did not make them look like gentle folk.

I decided to chance it; it was just too good a shot to pass up, so I slowly extracted Ivan from my bag. I was carefully placing him behind the martini glass when the punks saw what I was up to. The first one to see him said, "Hey, what is that? Check that out. Man, that is so charming!"

I assumed he was being sarcastic, and waited for the comments to turn more hostile. But it was not to be. "Oh, that's great. Cool," came next. They asked about Ivan, why I was traveling with a stuffed gorilla, and then promptly approved of the whole thing. They even fell into a hush and stayed still as the pictures were snapped.

We browsed around the East Village a little while longer, checking out shops and the odds and ends for sale on the streets. Then we headed back to Brooklyn, and once again stopped off at Niki's neighborhood bar for a nightcap.

I guess a lock doth not a secure bike make.
My first day in New York City left my head a bit swimmy; I suppose it could have been the cocktails, but there was another unfamiliar element. I was most struck with the fact that New York is actually a pretty friendly place. The images of people hurrying down the street, pushing strangers out of their way with a huff is really all a lot of Americans think of when they think of New Yorkers. Sure, they hurry from place to place much of the time, and you're likely to get bumped into now and again on the crowded streets. But you're also likely to have a pretty good time, and be treated decently as well. I sure was.

Maybe it has a good deal to do with life in America these days. Maybe in the suburbs outside places like Atlanta the people take in the local newscasts full of horrible stories and fill up with dread. I think it's easier in those places, where people are cut off from their neighbors by the lifestyle of 'the burbs', and where people feel no sense of civic culture, to see only the bad things around you and hide away in your two car garage. In the suburbs I'm familiar with, people live as if in bubbles, driving their cars to the strip malls and then back again. The only human interaction they get, outside their immediate family, is usually just a clerk in a store. And if advancing technology has any say in the matter, even that may be lost to them in the near future.

It might be in cities like New York, and even in the city proper of Atlanta, there's too much going on around you to fill up with dread. Sure bad things happen, like they do everywhere in the world. But if you're in a place where every night you can choose from so many places to go and things to do, and you can go out and see people having a good time, and you can interact with them and feel a part of something good in your community, maybe then it's a little easier to turn off the local news and spend time living.

These were just a few thoughts I was pondering as I drifted off to sleep after my first full day in New York City.

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