Janet Veksler has the ability to instantly light up a room. Her looks alone draw attention. Her hair is cropped short and dyed a deep red, curly tendrils spiral in every direction. Her nails, painted a glossy red, are long and trimmed to a severe point, and are often on full display as she uses lively gesticulations to enhance her stories. Her makeup- complete with penciled brows and a swipe of burgundy lipstick- has been applied with great care. Ms. Veksler throws formality to the wind as she openly and cheerfully discusses her life and work with an ease that could make anyone feel comfortable.
As the only Russian-speaking employee at the Brighton Neighborhood association, Ms. Veksler spends her days attending to the needs of the Russian population of Brighton Beach. Sitting at a cluttered desk in an equally cluttered office, she speaks to a young woman in fluid and rapid Russian. The woman is noticeably agitated. After a lengthy meeting, the young woman is ushered out of the office, now seemingly consoled, and Ms Veksler takes a seat with a hefty sigh, “I have the Russian crowd. They’re very demanding”. Her voice, booming and with the raspy quality of a life-long smoker, also has a startlingly thick Brooklyn accent, cultivated in the decades spent in Brighton Beach.
Ms. Veksler moved to Coney Island from Ukraine in 1979, and commutes to Brighton Neighborhood Association’s temporary office, located in a back office in the local Chase Bank, every morning. Her job is to assist the Russian-speaking population of Brighton Beach with any problems they have within the community. In particular, Ms. Veksler works to provide fair living conditions for the elderly, whose numbers are growing in the area. As she says, “A lot of the people that we help, especially the older people, they don’t understand the law, and so their landlords will try to take advantage of them. It’s not right. It’s just not right.”
Ms. Veksler works alongside Brighton Neighborhood Association’s founder and leader, Pat Singer, who she says has taught her how to be a more resilient person. Such resilience was tested by Hurricane Sandy, which left Brighton Beach devastated, including Brighton Neighborhood Association’s main office (hence, the temporary Chase Bank location.) Ms. Veksler was unable to travel to work in the wake of Sandy’s destruction, temporarily halting aid for Brighton residents. Furthermore, Brighton Beach found it difficult to find the money necessary for reparation and rebuilding. “I was scared that the Association was going to close and I’d be out of job. I couldn’t even get to work. It was terrible. We’re still recovering.
Despite recent challenges, she loves her job, and most of all she loves retelling stories of the people who come to her for help. Leaning in and placing her hands on her desk, she begins her tale like she’s sharing the latest gossip with girlfriends at a sleepover.
“Yesterday I had a beauty. Now this is what happened. She comes in and she’s angry, she’s angry! And I say, ‘tell me what’s happening’. She’s angry that she’s not getting her security deposit [on her apartment]. I start to ask her questions. So this is what comes up: She kind of broke the lease. [hearty laugh] Well, I said, ‘stop it, stop the craziness!’ Well, I find out that she’d moved out, somewhere on Flatbush, and THEN she let them [managers of her previous apartment] know she’ll be moving. And she says to me, ‘you know, I think I’ll get a lawyer’ and I’m explaining to her that you can’t just do that, can’t just collect your things and move away whenever you want.” She chuckles under her breath and shakes her head, “Russians are always complaining”.
She turns to her computer and begins to type, but not two minutes go by before a new, recent story comes to mind.
“She comes in, looks at me like a maverick, and says, ‘my landlord raised my lease five hundred dollars’. I said , ‘where is the new lease?’ she says she already sent it to court. Again, going around the campfire. Finally, she shows the lease. Turns out, she signed preferential rent [an agreement where the resident originally receives reduced rent]. No, no, no, what’s this about? She wants me to bargain with the landlord. Bargain with her landlord! No, no. “
Although the job can be demanding, Ms. Veksler shrugs off any frustrations with a flick of the wrist, “I’m going to tell you what I tell everyone hun, They’re coming from a different place, they have different goals, a different view of life. They’re crazy, but it makes it interesting.”
Right on cue, there’s a timid knock on the door, and a pair of Russian women nervously peek their heads in the room. Ms. Veksler stands and warmly greets them in Russian. Before ushering them to the two folding chairs in front of her desk, she turns and with a sly smile and a wink, whispers, “this will be a good one, I can tell!”