Coming Back To Queens

There never was a city kid truer and bluer
-- Ad-Rock, "Paul's Boutique"

When Maggie and I got married and she got pregnant we needed to find a place to live, and we came very close to moving into one of the suburban communities professional young couples were "supposed" to live in. We looked at places in Long Island and New Jersey and Westchester. Then one day we mentioned to Maggie's parents that we'd been toying with the idea of living in New York City.

They were aghast. Maggie's parents are rather conservative people, and they are very concerned with elegance and propriety. They do not have much money, but they see this as a temporary aberration and always try to do things the socially "correct" way. Raising kids in the city, to them, is okay if you live on the Upper East Side and can afford private school, but this is not what Maggie and I were planning on doing. This was a bit of a setback in my relationship with them, as they'd only recently begun adjusting to the fact that Maggie had actually married me. They'd finally stopped telling me how much they admired the Jewish people every goddam time they saw me, and they'd even gotten over their shock that I actually do eat pork (which they still have trouble understanding). But now we were talking about living in that cesspool of sin and racial variety known as New York City, and I was back on their shitlist.

Once Maggie and I saw how shocked they were, we knew what we had to do. Anything that annoyed them that much had to be great. Our decision was made.

We decided to be extra perverse about it and live in Queens. I wanted to do this because Queens is one of the most unfashionable places in the world to live. It's one of New York's five boroughs, but it's not sparkling and famous like Manhattan, and it's also not gritty and cool like Brooklyn or the Bronx. It's just a sprawling plain of residential ethnic neighborhoods that hangs off the end of Brooklyn the same way that Staten Island, New York's other unfashionable borough, perches off the coast of New Jersey. Queens is the place TV comedy writers (based in Los Angeles) use when they want a character to be from somewhere funny. All In The Family took place in Queens, and characters from Seinfeld and The Nanny are from here too.

I guess I was always fascinated by Queens because I was born there. My ancestors had been living in Brooklyn since arriving from Europe a hundred years before, and my older brother and sister had been born in Brooklyn. But my parents, like so many of their generation, wanted to leave Brooklyn and live in the beautiful new suburbs that were springing up outside the city, and they moved first to Queens (which is halfway to suburbia, at least when you're from Brooklyn) and then finally out to the swimming pool suburban heaven known as Long Island.

But I was born during those Queens years. We lived in Flushing till I was two, then in Rosedale-Laurelton (near Jamaica) till I was four. I was the only member of my extended family born in Queens, and because of this Queens has always had a sort of romantic mysterious childhood sense to me. Or maybe I developed this fascination as a defensive mechanism: I have the indignity of a birth certificate that lists Flushing as my place of birth, and I suppose I needed to develop some kind of fierce loyalty just to counter the utter embarrasment of this. Flushing is actually a 17th Century town founded by Dutch settlers from the town of Vlassingen, Holland, but it's been a target for jokes since then. I remember a typical exchange from All In The Family when Archie Bunker is going through some boxes in his attic and picks up a big felt 'F'.

Mike : What's that, your high school letter?
Archie : Yeah.
Mike : What's it stand for?
Archie : Flushing.
Mike : Oh, so that's what ya majored in!

Real funny. Ha ha. Me and Archie Bunker, we're not amused.

It was great fun, though, watching Maggie's parents react as Maggie and I bought a co-op (in Forest Hills), moved in, painted it and prepared to raise our new daughter there. We made them come visit us to see the baby, and if you want to picture the expressions on Lucille and Raymond's faces as they walked through the streets of Queens towards the door of our building, just try to picture Queen Elizabeth and her entourage seated in the hooligan section during a British football match. It was great. From that day on they tried to avoid having to come visit us in the city, and begged us to drive out to New Jersey instead, and when we refused they'd put on a big show of getting lost on the city streets. We'd just sit back and enjoy it: every time they'd come there'd be another woeful tale of getting lost in the wilds of Jamaica or almost getting mugged in Hollis, of near-death collisions involving maniacal cab drivers near Hunters Point -- neighborhoods, all of them, that they did not need to drive through at all to reach us in Forest Hills.

For chrissakes, the streets are numbered here. It doesn't take a friggin' genius.

Maggie's younger brother Nick wasn't much of a help either. He's a cool guy, but he got married the same time we did, and right after we bought the co-op in Forest Hills he did the opposite and bought a ranch on two acres up in the Hudson Valley. Thanks a lot, Nick. I know he did it on purpose. Maggie would be on the phone talking to her mother, and I'd only hear one side of the conversation, but I'd know the other side:

Yes, it is a very nice house.
No, we don't want to.
Yes, I'm sure the air is very fresh up there.
No, that never happens.
No, actually most of them are very nice.
Actually the water is very clean.
Yes, their living room is very beautiful.

Once Nick visited us on a Saturday, though, and saw that we get the pre-printed sections of the Sunday Times delivered to our door on Saturday. This really blew his mind, that we could read the Arts & Leisure section and the Book Review on Saturday, that we had a one-day jump on the ads in the Real Estate section, that we could actually finish the crossword puzzle (if we could finish it) before most of the world even got to see it. I saw the envious look on his face. To Nick this is the one and only reason anybody should want to live in New York City. Perhaps someday he will actually move here because of this.

Anyway, this is what Queens looks like, and these are some of the neighborhoods that make the borough great.

Levi's Map of Queens

Now we have a son too (that's him in the picture on top -- Eliza was the photographer), and on the the fourth of July I take the whole family up to the roof to watch the fireworks, and from the roof we can look in all different directions and see little fireworks going off all over, and I just look around me and think how beautiful it all is, and how funny it is that the world is so full of anger and suspicion and hate while here in Queens people from all over the world shop in the same stores and walk the same streets and live in friendship and peace.

Sometimes I'll tease Lucille and Raymond by saying "Yeah, we're getting tired of living in Queens. We're thinking it's time to move on." I'll watch their faces brighten, I'll wait a few beats, and then I'll say: "We're looking at some great places in Brooklyn."

One of these days we'll break it to them that we're raising the kids Buddhists.

Next ...

Queensboro Ballads
by Levi Asher