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Porcelain New York

A Brighton Beach Bathroom to Remember

This is the domain of Hazel Chatman, a 75-year-old seasonal Parks Department worker who has been overseeing beach bathrooms for 28 years.

The outside of the Brighton 2nd Street Comfort Station on a beautiful summer day.
Hell Gate|

It may look like a regular bathroom on the boardwalk in Brighton Beach, but it is so, so much more.

A few weeks ago, a friend sent me an urgent public bathroom tip after a recent visit to Brighton Beach.

“There was a boombox playing R&B, and there were posters of NBA players all over the walls. The floors had just been scrubbed and it had a fragrance, almost like Old Spice or something,” my friend wrote. “And this guy walked in after me and shouted, ‘MMM, shit smells GOOD in here.’ Clearly the staff in charge of this bathroom kinda make it their own.”

When I made it out to the Brighton 2nd Street Comfort Station on a hot Saturday afternoon, the conditions were much the same, only the speaker was blasting the 1986 hit “Geronimo’s Cadillac.”

For a bathroom that was being used by dozens of people in a ten-minute span, the basics were in good shape—urinals and stalls were free of sand and debris, sinks were clean and functional, there was no wait for the facilities. Plastic basins sat under the sinks for people who wanted to use them for ablutions. 

But what takes this comfort station from solid to sublime is its personality. 

A little pizzazz around the mirrors (Hell Gate)
There is much to consider while your wet hands are being blown by hot air (Hell Gate)

I don’t usually think about how The past cannot be changed while I’m drying my hands at the beach, but I can’t say that I didn’t appreciate the reminder. On the men’s side, motivational quotations hang next to photographs of City workers who went above and beyond the call of duty and tributes to locals who have been lost, like Yevgeniy “Eugene” Glebov, a Brighton Beach lifeguard who drowned during a dive off the coast of the Rockaways in 2012.

Pretty solid tableau here (Hell Gate)

There’s a photo of former pro basketball player and Brooklyn native Smush Parker (next to his old teammate and former nemesis, Kobe Bryant) and a surreal painting by local artist Conrad Gardner, hanging near remembrances of Cecil the Lion, memes of Americans with disabilities overcoming extreme adversity, and folksy maxims. (“Of course women don’t work as hard as men. They get it right the first time.”) It’s like looking at a physical Facebook news feed of an extremely positive person with a dizzying array of interests. 

Outside the Women's side (Hell Gate)

This is the domain of Hazel Chatman, a 75-year-old seasonal Parks Department worker who has been overseeing beach bathrooms for 28 years. The Daily News was praising her work back in 2007, and here she is in the summer of 2022, five days a week, eight hours a day, a short woman in sunglasses and a Parks Department shirt, moving both rapidly and deliberately, directing patrons to open stalls, greeting old friends, and keeping things in order.

“We like doing this stuff, but I like doing it from my heart,” Chatman explained. “My goal is I pray, and I work, and I give every day.” 

When I asked her about all the quotations, Chatman replied with a story. “One lady came and she said, ‘I’m from Manhattan, I’m gonna come use the bathroom and then jump off the Verrazzano Bridge.’ But then she saw one of those sayings, and she didn’t do it.”

Chatman, who used to work for the state’s Office for People With Developmental Disabilities, took me on a quick tour. She showed me a poster with photos of some wounded doves who survived an overnight thunderstorm outside the restroom and were taken in by some locals (“I cried, please God protect those babies!”), and a Parks employee who returned a wallet full of cash to the lost and found that they maintain. (“If we find anything, we return everything. Every. Thing.”)

“I love animals, I love plants, and I love nature. I don’t care about money. Money don’t make you happy,” Chatman added.

While she credited her work to divine inspiration (“You know who I give my credit to? God”) and declined when I asked to take her portrait, Chatman heaped praise on her colleagues, Sylvester and Wendy, among others. “We wanna be in the background, we don’t wanna be noticed,” she insisted.

When we reached out to the Parks Department for this review, they noted that Chatman received a “Beyond the Call” award in the summer of 2016, something she didn’t mention during my visit.

According to the citation, one Sunday that year, “Hazel noticed a distressed patron who was crying and stated she did not want to live. As the patron entered the ocean and attempted to drown herself, Hazel was in immediate pursuit. She successfully calmed the patron and convinced her to get out of the water.”

Most of the people we spoke to said they appreciated the restroom, though they were also eager to get back to a perfect beach day. “It was OK, it was clean,” Fabian Duarte told me as he exited the men’s side. Duarte said he is at Brighton Beach every weekend in the summer, so long as it’s not raining. “Those posters are nice. Those guys are doing great.”

Troy Reed was visiting Brighton for the first time from Greensboro, North Carolina with his friend James Brandon.

“I think it’s dope that they have art and stuff in there,” Reed said.

Brandon, who lives in Bay Ridge, said his stall could have used some work, but acknowledged that it was a busy beach day. “It could be a little cleaner, but I guess they get a little pass. It is getting pretty heavy use.”

Jesse Miller said he didn’t see the posters on the wall on the men’s side. “The one thing I did notice was the wonderful music that they have set up on the little boombox there.”

Miller, 73, was at Brighton with his wife Julie, 70. They take the Q from Prospect Lefferts-Gardens. “We could use more [public restrooms] for sure,” he said. “The older you get, the more you have to use them.”

Julie put it a different way: “It’s kind of a lack of civilization to not have public restrooms.”

At least at Brighton Beach, Chatman and her crew are keeping things civilized.

Porcelain New York Rating for Brighton 2nd Street Comfort Station: 9.0

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