Now, living outside of Boston, I have no one who is sensitive about Brezhnev eyebrows, and I always have to ask twice to have them cut, once at the outset and once before the barber finishes and forgets. For a long time I would joke with the barbers around here about Brezhnev eyebrows, and they just kind of stared at me like I was naming a Yankees relief pitcher.
The building I grew up in – all 18 years and then a few after college here and there when I was “in transition” – had all sorts: we had Russian revolution-era nobility who lived on the 4th and 2nd floors (matronly grandmother on 2, her son and his family on 4). The daughter-in-law on 4 was a princess by birth. She died of cancer in her early 40s and left four kids. They all spoke English like an educated American, but also Russian, as well as the language of their French nanny.
Because of the number of Russians who had relocated there after fleeing from the Communists in the early 20th Century, our neighborhood had been written up in New York magazine or something and dubbed “Nevski Prospekt,” which was the main thoroughfare in St. Petersburg. The onion dome of an Eastern Orthodox church on 97th Street was visible from my bedroom window.
Another couple lived in 5C. The man was the chief curator for arms and armor at the Hermitage in St. Petersburg. He and his wife died in a car accident when their children were 16 and 14.
We had a Circassian in 2D. She was Muslim, smoked cigars and played poker. Her brand of Islam was definitely not up to Al-Qaeda standards.
But dearest to me was Mrs. Ziffer, Polish, who lived in 6C, next to our apartment in 6B. She was Jewish and had escaped her country in 1939, moving to London and getting bombed by the Germans a short time later. She was married to a doctor, who died when I was only eight or so, and they moved to New York City, to Nevski Prospekt, to 6C.
Jim and I would give Mrs. Ziffer a Christmas present each year, usually Jean Nate bath products, which she loved, and which Mom either picked out or gave us money to buy from Gimbles department store on 86th and Lexington. Mrs. Ziffer’s perfume always smelled awful, but she gave us candy each time we visited her, and she had a high, cackling, true laugh which made her seem like a second grandmother or a fairy godmother.
I cried when she died.
photo of Hermitage Museum: wikipedia