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Maspeth Avenue, 6:05pm

A mom and grandmother push an angry infant in a stroller. A two-year-old girl with dirty blonde curls flails at her restraints. She arches her back trying to snap herself loose and expels primal howls of want.  If you had no visual and only heard her screams you would think the girl was either being murdered or was committing a murder. She doesn’t care that she looks and sounds crazy. Kids have to learn how to be sane.

I am a half a block away from the trio when the screams first catch my attention. I am walking the opposite direction. We will soon overtake each other. Once I spot them I feel my steps quicken. The little girl is a magnet of anger and id.

I have been where they are many times. Every parent thinks s/he can win a battle of wills with a two-year-old and every parent is proven wrong. You want to demonstrate you will not give a child what she wants just because she wants it. You want to instill some idea of patience and propriety. And then one day you’re out in public with your kid and she loses her mind over something trivial and suddenly your larger point is subsumed by the need for a few precious moments of peace.

The grandmother silently acquiesces to the little girl’s shrieking pleas. She reaches into a bag slung over the back of the stroller to produce the prize that will restore order to her universe.  What the girl wants is a tiny toy gun. Assembled in garish plastic of purple and yellow and green. Shaped like a 1950s idea of a Martian weapon. It is a gun all the same.

The moment the little girl has the gun in her hands she points it at the only living thing in her line of sight. That thing is me. I am five or six feet away when she aims the gun at me and looks down the barrel and jabs it in my general direction. She doesn’t say bang bang but the motion has the same effect. After each “shot” she jerks the gun back and sets it up again as if reacting to recoil.

She adjusts her aim as I get closer and continues to “fire” at me even as I draw parallel to her stroller. The mom and grandmother are relieved the scene she caused is over and say nothing.

I pass them by and continue on my way. The little girl continues on hers being chauffeured toward new targets.

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F train, 4:55pm

It is near-rush hour on the F train which is to say it is crowded but not packed. A pair of drag queens crack each other in a nook by a shut door. One baby wails in each half of the car. The one attacking my left ear is a little more persistent than the one attacking my right. A panhandler says “Excuse me” in a clear smooth voice so he can move past other riders before adopting a pitted groan to give his  SPARE CHANGE pitch.

I’m attempting to read Richard Rhodes’ The Making of the Atomic Bomb which is a long and heavy book and not conducive to standing-up-on-the-subway reading but I’m reading it anyway. I’ve read this book before but I recently felt compelled to reread it.  I’m not sure why.

We are stalled at the Queensbridge stop when a yell asserts itself above the din. I look down at the far end of the car and see a man in gray packed against a closed door. His brow is knotted as he unsheathes his shaved dome from his headphones.

IT’S CROWDED BUT IT AIN’T THAT CROWDED! he shouts. WHY YOU GOTTA BE ON TOP OF ME?! From where I stand no one appears to be on top of him. I can’t see the target of his yells. I can only see the other riders craning their necks to get a look at the noise.

MOTHERFUCKER YOU THINK THIS IS A GAME? he yells. These words are a signal that tell every pair of eyes to avert its gaze and every head to pivot away. Nothing good has ever happened after these words are spoken. No one ever says YOU THINK THIS IS A GAME?! before handing out freshly baked cookies.

YOU GIVE ME AN ATTITUDE?! YOU TRY THIS CONDESCENDING BULLSHIT WITH ME?! The man was obviously convinced that he of all people should not have to stand for whatever transgression was just visited upon him. The world should have known that he was a man not to be trifled with or a man with a reputation or a man at the end of a long bad day or a man at the end of his rope.

The doors won’t close to move on to the next station. This gives the drag queens enough time to give each other a knowing look and run out onto the platform to find another car to ride in. I contemplate doing the same until a conductor squawks over the PA. For a moment me and all the other riders in the car believe someone will do something about the man’s escalating anger.

The conductor has other fish to fry. I told you you can’t hold the train doors to panhandle, he bleats in exasperated pixilation to some other miscreant. Let go of the doors so the train can move. You do that again and I’m callin the cops. The doors stutter back and forth for a few seconds to chase away this unseen annoyance.

Then the doors shut and we continue on out way but the yelling man is still yelling. YOU DO THIS TO ME?! he spits. Everyone else’s head is cast down. The F is an express once it leaves Manhattan. A long ride lies between Queensbridge and Roosevelt Avenue. It will be an even longer ride with this man screaming and everyone silently begging the train to move faster toward its next stop.

The car takes on the feel of a hospital waiting room. No one can stand to look at anyone else. Everyone expects bad news and they prefer it come sooner than later. The bad news will be nothing compared to the torture of waiting for the bad news.

I try to distract myself with my book. The Making of the Atomic Bomb starts with the amazing discoveries of physics in the early 1900s and how these advances laid the groundwork for the weapon to come. I’ve reached the point in the book where scientists first ponder the possibility of fission: Is it possible? Can a reaction be contained? Would this unleash more power than the world can handle? It’s also the point at which the rise of Hitler in Germany sends many of the world’s best physicists to America. At least the ones perceptive enough to recognize the approaching danger. Even some of the smartest people who ever lived had trouble believing the Nazis were going to do exactly what they said they’d do. It was all too monstrous to be real until it was monstrously real.

The Making of the Atomic Bomb is about as accessible as a book mostly about physics can be. Rhodes’ prose alternates between breezy comparisons and touching profundity. But the finer details can be rough to negotiate even without a crazy person threatening to explode in your subway car. Someone who is wailing at a foe who I can’t see and who may have a weapon and may just be hunting in his overcharged brain for an excuse to produce it.

I kept my eyes on the exploits of Niels Bohr and Enrico Fermi and Leo Szilard because they were all past. We all know how that story ended. The one in my car had a more doubtful outcome.

Bohr did not think his compound model of the nucleus boded well for harnessing nuclear energy….THIS AIN’T NO GAME…Einstein had compared it to shooting in the dark at scarce birds…I AIN’T PLAYIN…the efficiency of slow neutrons “might never have been discovered if Italy were not rich in marble”…YOU GONNA DO THAT TO ME?!…The truth was, uranium was a confusion, and no one yet knew…THIS WHOLE CAR MAN THIS WHOLE CAR…Szilard saw beyond “energy for industrial purposes” to the possibility of weapons of war

The book slowly overtakes the voice. The yelling stops completely as light pierces the car and we approach Roosevelt. Whoever this man felt the need to yell at refused all that time to yell back—assuming he existed at all. Without someone to react with his anger burned up all its fuel and died off.

I dare to look in the yeller’s general direction as I depart for the local. I do not see him. He produced only fright before dispersing into the ether. If only every outburst failed to spark a chain reaction.

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Greene Avenue, 1930

My grampa isn’t my grampa yet, so let’s call him Frank. Frank lives in Brooklyn or Queens, depending on what year it is. He doesn’t change his address, but the borough containing that address changes with the whims of city surveyors.

The subway is a recent addition to his neighborhood. The place is rapidly urbanizing, but there are still some signs of its small town past, like farms. A few small farms lie nearby, some only a few blocks away.

Thanksgiving is on the horizon, and Frank’s dad wants to take advantage of this proximity. He knows a farmer close by with more turkeys than he knows what to do with. Rather than drop way too much dough on a bird from the butcher, Frank’s dad figures he can buy one of these young turkeys, raise it in his backyard, and get it nice and fat in time for the big holiday. He doesn’t have a very big backyard, but how much room does a turkey need, really? All they do is eat and sleep. He’s seen neighbors raise chickens and roosters in their backyards. A turkey can’t be any harder.

This calculation doesn’t take into account Frank, and his sister Kathy. Once the turkey comes home and takes up residence in the backyard, they look upon it not as a future meal, but a pet. Frank and Kathy bring it scraps from the dinner table. They pet it and play with it, even though the concept of “play” seems too complex for a turkey to grasp. They name him Tom.

This presents a dilemma for Frank’s dad. He knows the kids are attached to the turkey and don’t want to see it slaughtered. He is inclined by nature to make them happy. He is not the whip-cracking type of dad, but a sentimental sort, a lover of pranks, a story teller. He ushers at St. Aloysius on Sundays, then goes from church straight to The Eagle’s Nest to bartend and exchange jokes.

Frank’s dad is also a Great War veteran. He served in France to display his patriotism at a time when the propaganda of the age said the True Americanism of anyone of German descent was suspect, a time. And it is 1930, which means Frank’s dad is a dad at the beginning of the Great Depression. He cannot afford to simply throw away food, even food whose name is Tom.

So despite his fun-loving, accommodating nature, Frank’s dad takes the turkey, chops its head off, plucks it, and hands the carcass off to Frank’s mom, who will cook it.

If the idea behind killing the bird was to not waste food, this proves poor reasoning. Frank’s mom and dad eat, but Frank and Kathy do not. They sit in their seats at the dinner table and stare at pieces of what was once their pet and burst out crying, wailing “oh, Tom…” Frank’s dad sees no point in berating his children, but reminds them that this is all the food they have. They can eat this on Thanksgivng or eat nothing. They choose nothing.

Frank will become my grampa and he will tell me this story, and in his telling it will be a funny story. He will imitate his young self crying over a turkey and laugh at the memory. He will have gone to war in a strange land, just like his father, and will come home in one piece and have to raise children on a tight budget, like his father. In his rearview, the plight of a turkey will come to seem like small potatoes.

You could call this cold or cruel, but I know my grampa was not a cold or cruel man. Just the opposite, just like his own father. Grampa just knew that parenting requires difficult decisions, and in a no-win situation, perhaps laughter is called for.

I believe that today of all days, if you can use your childhood pain not for brooding, but for laughing, then you should be thankful.

56th Drive, 6:24am

This morning, while reaching the end of a run, I begin to see the telltale signs of a film shoot. First, orange cones, warding off potential parkers like sentinels. Then, a crane idling at the side of the road, ready to be called on for some grand swooping Touch of Evil shot, and a cop car up the block standing watch, with the cop inside tapping away at his phone. After that, an enormous tractor trailer full of lighting supplies. Little doors open at the truck’s base, peacocking its carefully arranged elbow joints and deconstructed scaffolding.

Laminated pink notices are posted to all the stop signs and street signs. None divulge the name of the production. There’s been more than a few film shoots in the neighborhood of late. Last spring, Girls filmed here, and Nurse Jackie was a frequent visitor for a while. There are many spots over here that look like what you think Queens looks like, whether you want Industry or you want Archie Bunker.

I get close enough to see that the filming is going on outside of a factory. Fake squad cars and fake ambulances spray the street with their fake red flashers. It’s still dark, but the street is lit up like Times Square. If you want to convey that it’s the middle of the night on film, you need a hell of a lot of lighting.

Years ago, I wrote a short story about a girl who comes home from a long day at work and discovers she can’t get to her apartment because a film crew has taken over the block. She is warded off by imperious location people who are deaf to her pleas that she just wants to go home and sit on her own couch. A PA gives the peace offering of making her an extra in the scene. They tell her to come out of a building, her building, walk down the steps, and cross the street. She will be far in the background, far away from the action of the scene. She has done this a million times. But when they start shooting, the director doesn’t like the composition. It doesn’t look right to him. The girl doesn’t know what she’s doing wrong. She’s told she’s not doing anything wrong, really, but she just doesn’t look like she should be there. She’s told she is not good enough to be in the background of her own street.

I sent this story everywhere. It would be easier to tell you where I did not send this story. Nobody wanted it. The rejection notices seemed especially pointed to me then, but then they always do. It withered on a hard drive and died when that computer did.

I hadn’t thought about that story in years. I’d completely forgotten the hope I once had for it. The story came back to me on 56th Drive, as I saw fake cops and fake EMTs scramble under lamps to make their movements look more night-like, and I wondered if one day I’d have the privilege of seeing my own home on a screen somewhere.

Service Road, 6:08am

This morning’s run takes me down a service road of the Long Island Expressway as it soars toward Queens Boulevard. Here I pass by guys just stumbling home from third shift, or blindly feeling their way toward their cars to start their day. I also see the Can People in their true element. You probably only know the daytime Can People, deferential, quiet, slightly ashamed. But if you wake up this early, you will see the Can People brazenly fording front yards and alleyways, unlatching gates to make their raids and move on to the next plunder.

Along this service road stand a few little concrete triangles, formed when the street grid hit the arc of the highway’s shadow. These little spots are too small to build or plant anything on, so they just sit there, serving no function but to provide yet another parking space.

On one such triangle, someone has parked a brand new cherry-red Corvette. It would gleam if there was any sun to bounce off of it. I marvel at the thought of the man who owns this thing and think to myself, “Man, I wish I was him.”

I do not think this because I want a Corvette, or because I want some fabulously wealthy life I imagine he has. For all I know, this guy’s eyes are bigger than his wallet and the payments are more than he can afford. Considering the neighborhood, this is more than likely.

I feel this envy because this man was able to park his brand new sports car on a service road, mere feet from the highway on-ramp. It’s a spot where the car could easily be sideswiped by a semi, or keyed by late-night vandals, or broken into, hotwired, and zipped out onto the highway in 10 seconds flat, and no one who perpetrated any of these crimes would ever be caught.

I once parked my car on a service road just like this, on a late night when I tired of circling the neighborhood for parking. When I went to check on the car the next day, it was long gone. And my car was an ancient Oldsmobile, not some high octane muscle car.

And yet, this man parked his car on the service road anyway, and he is surely sleeping like a baby right now. I can barely conceive of a soul so unworried. What I wouldn’t give to live my life so free of concern, just for a day or two.

Another little triangle sits one block away from the Corvette. This one is seeded with some sickly grass and demarcated with a wobbly chainlink fence, an entrance padlocked. Within its confines, a baby blue car of early 80s vintage. It is dented all over with covered in stickers, with a huge 13 plastered to the driver’s side door. A cinder block rests on the hood.

It’s a demolition derby car. Another complete lack of worry on display here, albeit of a different stripe. A man who would ping-pong a dirt track in vintage Bonneville is a man who thinks injury and pain will never touch him. I can’t imagine what such a life must be like.

Grand Street, 5:02pm

I get off the train early enough to take my time and walk to my daughter’s school. It is glorious, almost balmy afternoon, and the thought of packing myself into the Q58 on such a glorious afternoon is blasphemy.

At Grand near Queens Boulevard, a deli spelling out all of its wares bilingually. They apparently sell, among other things, FORMULA POWER and 99¢ AND UP. Also, to avoid any confusion, a listing promising SNAKE has been hastily covered over to correct itself to SNACK.

20130913_165753Near 80th Street, a trio of people talk to a Buddhist monk arrayed in saffron robe. He nods and looks loving and beneficent. His hands are clasped behind his back in the manner of a teacher or scholar. I pass behind him and see those hands are clutching an iPhone. Right behind him a repair shop’s front window promises in huge letters WE DO EVERYTHING ON COMPUTERS.

Near 74th Street, a kid pedals down the main drag, running lights with abandon. A girl is squeezed onto the seat right behind him, her arms laid down on his shoulders like a queen being carried by her royal litter. The sun catches her hair, a bright red. Not ginger, but red. She smiles, not a care in the world at the moment.

Just beyond them, a kid in a mohawk and studded leather jacket, adorned with patches bearing the standard punk logos: Crass, Subhumans, Misfits. He could have stepped out of 1982. There’s something comforting in knowing this type of kid still exists, and that he will continue to exist until kingdom come.

This is why it is best, if you can help it, to avoid the bus at all costs.

58th Street, 6:18am

I’m coming down the home stretch of a morning run. On one side of 58th Street, there stands a long stretch of Calvary Cemetery. The stone wall that separates it from the outside world is dotted here and there with gin handles and beer cans. I even see an empty champagne bottle. There’s a lot of industry over here. It’s a neighborhood where dudes get off work and get right down to business, and the cemetery wall seems as good a place as any to party. I can’t imagine where the booze comes from, since there’s no liquor store nearby. Either they bring with for after work, or someone’s selling out the back door of the strip club 15 blocks away, next to the Coca Cola plant.

A staple-gunned sign on a telephone pole yells CHECKS CASHED as an alert for the guys who want to get peeled as fast as possible. There is no arrow on the sign. You’re supposed to read those words and just know, in your heart, where you must go.

On the other side of 58th Street stands a pair of huge, yellowy-brick buildings. One is the repair shop for Sanitation Department vehicles. Two wide ramps lead up to the garage, like something from an old movie about decadent ancient Babylon. Inside, an enormous banner declares WE KEEP THE CITY ON THE GO. Next to this building, a shorter, less imposing one that serves the same purpose for the NYPD, with a phalanx of squad cars sitting on a square of sidewalk free turf across the street, awaiting their check ups. On a side street behind these buildings, there’s also a repair shop for the Fire Department. Things get fixed here.

There are no subways within walking distance, and bus service is spotty at best, especially if you need to be on the job at this hour. So if you work here, you drive here, and when you get here, you park your car half on the street, half up on the unpaved curb littered with McDonald’s bags and potato chip bags and flattened beer cans. This poses a challenge for the runner. You can either run out in the street, which puts you in danger of being hit by a truck or one of the dudes who’s been partying at the cemetery all night and is finally staggering his way home. Or you can squeeze yourself between the parked cars and the jagged extremities of Calvary’s wall. In so doing, you may accidentally bump into a car belonging to a cop who has to be at work at 6am, which also holds many dangers.

I opt for the former and jog in the street. The sun is just starting to peek above the headstones. And as I jog past the half-parked cars, I notice two vanity license plates that fill me with sadness.

The first belongs to a banged-up Honda. It is adorned with a huge Jets helmet, and the license itself says RVIS24. This is clearly meant to honor Darrelle Revis. As you probably know, Revis was traded to Tampa Bay in the offseason. Keep in mind that currently, a Jets-themed plate with a personalized “number” will cost you $91.25 initially, and $62.50 to renew annually. So this poor slob has laid out, bare minimum, $153.75 already, and is on the hook for over 60 bucks a year, all to use his ’98 turtle-green Accord to pay tribute to a player who was sent packing from his favorite football team. And if he wants to switch back to something generic, that ain’t free neither.

But that’s only part of the reason this made me sad. The plate said RVIS24. There was plenty of room to fit REVIS. That means someone else beat this guy to the punch. Some other schmuck in some other crappy car is in the same boat with his REVIS24, trying to make a brutal choice between paying the price to keep it or enduring the hassle to change it. And there’s probably a RVS24 out there, too. And a 24REVIS, too, and another dozen variations on that, all of them kicking themselves for putting their faith in the Jets.

The second plate I saw came a few cars after RVIS24, bolted to a scarred blue Ford. It said KEPPRAYN.

This is an expression of a more conventional faith, but one that was probably best left unexpressed. This car’s owner was so dedicated to the spreading the idea of prayer that it never occurred to him his message was nigh incomprehensible. The lack of two E’s in “keep” is what really throws your brain off. You know what word it’s supposed to represent, but in your head you hear “kehp” instead. If you are a native English speaker, there is no way to force yourself to see KEP and pronounce it “keep.” There simply isn’t.

Since license plates are limited to seven characters, I honestly don’t know what this person could have done instead to better represent his idea. But I do feel that if he’d taken the time to write it down and look at it before ordering, he probably would have realized his error and ordered something else instead. So either he’s regretted his purchase ever since it arrived in the mail, or he’s deluded himself into thinking that even a mangled message of faith is better than none at all.