My first day on the beat in Brighton Beach – an oceanfront chunk of South Brooklyn known primarily for its Russian population – was like something any outsider would expect from a movie scene. As I walked along the long row of colorful shops lining Brighton’s main thoroughfare, a steady downpour created rivulets several inches deep at every intersection. I had no choice but to succumb to being wet as I slogged on soggy shoes past block after block of Cyrillic-signed storefronts and broad-faced Russian men and women hunched forward as they too made their way through the heavy rain.
Other than the fact that I’d seen a movie called “Little Odessa” – a tale of Ukrainian mobsters set in Brighton Beach, which is called Little Odessa because of a supposedly striking resemblance to its Crimean namesake – I knew very little of the place. Imagining a cadre of Russian underworld foot soldiers guarding access to the juiciest stories the area had to offer, I wondered what I’d actually have a chance to report on.
The rain got heavier, and I could feel a few chilly tentacles of water as they found their way down the collar of my rain jacket. Then I saw the lights – the flashing red and blue kind that stay in one place. My experience as an ambulance driver told me that in this largely geriatric community, it was probably an ambulance, parked outside the house of some poor soul whose good health had given way to old age. But as I rounded the corner, I saw that the light show was coming from a group of police cars ringed by yellow plastic “Police: Do Not Cross” tape.
The scene was curious. About 15 feet away from the police cars, inside the yellow tape fence, was a big, shiny black Chevy Suburban, parallel parked in a rather tight spot. Despite the continuing deluge, the driver side door stood ajar. On the ground just next to the massive vehicle was what looked like a bloody T-shirt. Eventually, I caught the attention of the plastic poncho-clad police officer standing guard over the scene and asked him what was up.
“Some guy got stabbed,” he said curtly in a thick Brooklyn accent. “They took the guy to the hospital, and he ain’t dead. I don’t know much more than that.”
All sorts of suppositions swam through my mind, but the most glaring of these was
that this could have been some kind of mafia hit. I mean, it was all there: the big, fancy car sitting next to a Russian food store; a tight lipped police officer standing sentry to a bloody T-shirt…
As I found out a few weeks later when the police finally released the results of a failed search for the puncture-wound perpetrator, the soggy crime scene I’d witnesses had nothing at all to the Russian mafia. It was an extension of a much more pedestrian problem. It was something that has been all the rage at community board meetings in the area over the past few years: parking shortage. According to the report, the guy driving the Suburban was a bit speedier getting into one of that particular street’s few available parking spaces than another guy. Somewhat offended, the shortchanged motorist then stepped out of his vehicle, stabbed his opponent, and drove off. That was all that ever came of it. Fortunately, the stabee lived, and life went on.
As this little vignette was to illustrate, while there may be some mobsters lurking in back room high stakes poker games here and there along Brighton’s teaming streets, most of the news that comes up on a regular basis is stuff that every place has to deal with; building heights, neighbor noise, petty crime, sidewalk encroachment. Perhaps if I stick around long enough I’ll be able to break a big Russian mafia story. It’ll probably be a while. Right now, they’re not talkin’.