Posts Tagged ‘Jackson Heights


Rat Race to Nowhere

It is morning rush hour, and commuters are coursing through the hallways and platforms like blood-borne pathogens heading for the heart.

A train pulls into the station, its wheels squealing loudly, distinctly. It’s one of the old E trains. A mass of people begins to push through the open doorway before passengers have time to exit. Swimming upstream, the passengers are able to eventually push their way through to freedom.

A guy a couple of people in front of me enters the crowded train and stops in the doorway. He wants to be close to the exit to give himself the greater advantage when he reaches his stop, whenever that may be. There’s nearly room for two abreast to pass through the doorway, and for all he cares, people can just slide past him. It’s not technically a problem, right? Until a second person decides stop in the doorway for the same reason.

I have room to avoid him, but I bump my arm against him and graze him purposefully with my bag. It helps calm me to imagine him dropping and scratching his iPod or getting a smudge on his clothes from leaning against the door.

By and by, we approach my stop. Others, too, are exiting here. I can tell when people ostentatiously begin to stir around me. Several move toward the door. Someone gently nudges me from the side. Maybe it’s an accident; maybe she wants me to move. I take a step closer to the door. I’m getting out here, too. Hold your damn horses. We’re all in a hurry, lady, but don’t you worry. We’ll all get off this train, I promise you.

The doors slide open, and I feel the woman trying to get around me to my left. She is smaller than me, and I can see her black hair as her head comes out around my upper arm. I take a half step to the left, hold my left arm out a little further from my body, and she pushes against me harder. I push harder back, but not enough to stop her. It’s not worth making a fuss. I just want to clarify my existence, hoping I’ll embarrass her for the unnecessary contact. She makes it through the doors before me.

I glare at her as she awkwardly dashes toward the stairs in her uncomfortable shoes, hoping she’ll turn around to see the rude creep who was tying to keep her from getting off the train. Really I’m laughing to myself. We’ll see how far she gets. I continue at a calm pace behind her and dozens of others.

She never does look back, but it delights me to see her swallowed up in a crowd of frantic commuters whose hurry is equal to or greater than hers. In the end, her reward is to be no more than two people ahead of me on the stairs.

On the landing we all veer right to take the escalator to the next level down. There’s a short fence jutting out from the escalator entrance meant to corral us and prevent people from jumping in line in front of others. The desire is for order and forced politeness, and the majority of us is willing to comply. We round the far end of the corral, but two guys slip in through the gap between the far end of the fence and the handrail conveyor belt. They end up right in front of me, craining their necks to find a way past the people in front of them.

The idea is to stand to the right so people can pass on the left. But there are so many people at this time of day, no one is standing to the side. We are all walking down the escalator, and everyone’s progress is slow. The guys try to press past the others, but to no avail.

At the landing, they take off like broncos and meet further resistance when they reach the final set of stairs down to the platform. Again, I end up right behind them.

When my connecting train approaches, I see there are a couple of open seats in the car nearest me. I don’t imagine I’ll be lucky enough to get one of them, but I figure we’ll see what happens. It’s a little like roulette, whether the train stops with a door right in front of you or six feet to your left or right.

This time, I’m one of the first to board. I have a shot at a seat. Someone in front of me is milling about confusedly, and I can’t get by. A woman approaches the seat, and just as she turns to sit, a younger woman wearing all white literally runs up behind her and steals the seat in one swift motion. If the older woman hadn’t noticed, she might have sat on her.

The woman in white glances up for a second. The other woman turns on her adversary and raises her voice for us all to hear. “Oh, I see. You need that seat? Go ahead. There you go, honey. It’s all yours!” Her friend tugs at her arm to discourage her from saying more.

The seat stealer looks at her quietly, blankly and then stares into the space between herself and the floor.

I am filled with something like hatred for her. I want someone else to speak up and say something. I keep my eyes on her for several stops. I wonder if she’s avoiding eye contact with everyone on the train.

After a few stops, the irate woman now long gone, a space opens up next to the woman in white, just a little too small for a person to fit into. But before long another woman turns to present her back side to the row of seated passengers and, without so much as an “excuse me,” wriggles herself into the tight space. She can’t even sit back all the way. This new woman is an obnoxious cow, but I briefly I feel some schadenfreude over the woman in white’s obvious discomfort.

Leaning forward with her oversize purse on her lap, she fumbles with a magazine or newspaper and holds it out in front of her. Forgeting her surroundings, she allows the straps of her bag to flop down to both sides, hitting her neighbors in the face and chest before landing limply in their laps.

It is obviously annoying to the strangers. Every move she makes causes her purse straps to rub against them, but neither of them makes any move to stop it. My allegiance begins to change. Could it be that I have some sympathy for the woman in white? The purse lady is actually worse than she is.

I long for a confrontation. Why do we take such pains to avoid talking to fellow passengers? To avoid touching them? Why do I never make any confrontation?

My exit comes before either of theirs. I never get to see how it ends. But it never really does end. The players in these little scenes of denial only change. They never quit.


This sentence is worth 38 points.

In a city as big and old and famous as New York, there’s a landmark on nearly every corner. Someone was born here. Someone died here. Some drag queens started a social movement here. Someone recorded a watershed album here in the ’60s. Here’s a cafe from Sex in the City. Everyone’s got a story about some point of pride in their neighborhood.

Just recently, I learned that the birthplace of Scrabble is the Community Methodist Church in my neighborhood. To commemorate the fact, the street sign on the corner of 35th Avenue and 81st Street, where the church is located, has been made to look like it’s composed of Scrabble tiles. It’s a bit esoteric, like nerd humor, but I think a subtle nod to a great invention is more clever than a boring old plaque.



Bulimia is so ’87

There is a boutique in my neighborhood that sells a Colombian line of jeans called Anorexy.

There is nothing more to say about that.


East Meets West

Today, the best-looking ground beef we could find at our local supermarket was halal. Reminds me of one of my earliest memories of the neighborhood. Standing outside a Rite Aid while Jeff was buying a pack of smokes, I saw a white-robed man wheeling a metal shopping basket heaped with goat carcasses across 37th Avenue. He disappeared into a restaurant. I knew I was in New York.

Dinner tonight was Swedish meat balls. Swedish meatballs with halal meat. Why is this funny to me?


Dancing Lessons

Considering the years I’ve lived in the very South American section of Jackson Heights, it is embarrassing to admit that I still cannot comprehend the difference between salsa, meringue, mambo, rumba… you name it. But whatever it is I hear at any given moment, there is a lot of it. It is blasted from cars stopped at traffic lights. It pours out of the multitude of bars and clubs peppering Roosevelt Avenue. It comes in pops and beeps from cell phone ring tones in the line at Rite Aid.

It is not an occasional indulgence; it is blended into the fabric of every day life.

Walking home from the subway one night last week, I heard familiar tones and felt familiar beats — even if I can’t name it, it is familiar — coming from … somewhere. A parked car? A stereo speaker in someone’s kitchen window? Looking for the source, I saw families gathered on the sidewalk a block ahead. It was like church had just let out, but it was after 10 p.m.

Kids ran among cars parked at meters. Adults stood around smoking and chatting and laughing. As I neared them, I saw that they were standing outside a beauty shop. And why should I be surprised? Usually when I arrive in my neighborhood after work, most of the shops are locked down and shuttered, but this place was the quintessence of street life.

A flashy LED sign made a sequence of optimistic declarations about fingernails and makeovers and French hairstyles, punctuated by blocky images of blinking eyes and vibrating telephones. The place can’t have been more than 10 feet wide, but it was very deep. The walls were painted a bright orange in sharp contrast to the dull linoleum of the floor, and across the ceiling were scattered bouquets of pink helium balloons tied with white ribbons. It was a beauty shop block party, and it was hopping! People grouped in pairs spun and bobbed, butting up against each other, bouncing literally off of the wall. Others sat in a row of chairs against the other longs walls, old, uncoordinated, or just catching their breath.

Where was the equipment? The chairs, the vanities, the nail tech stations. Where, in other words, was the beauty shop? It didn’t strike me until after I had rounded the corner that the place hadn’t been there the day before. This must have been a grand opening. In my part of town, a grand opening can last a month.

I wondered how keen the neighbors were to have their local hairdressers and a hundred of their best friends livin’ la vida loca outside their bedroom windows. But for all I knew, their windows were closed, because they were down here bumping and grinding with everyone else.

My family is one of those for whom dancing is something that happens after you hit the bar at a wedding. Maybe. Occasionally, it seems appropriate for someone else to do — up on a stage — if someone’s paying them to do it. Dancing for us is not a way of life. It does not happen spontaneously. It is not necessary for social interaction. Indeed, it is not even wanted in most cases. It does not bubble beneath the surface of our skin and jerk us into sudden, joyful animation when three sounds in sequence (a tapping pencil, a squeaky brake pad, a palm against the side of a garbage can) form a rhythm. We are not a people of gyrating hips and deep shoulders and clapping palms. And at times like this, when a neighborhood is brought together in a beauty shop not by a 10% discount on manicures or highlights or hair extensions but by salsa and pink balloons, I desperately wish that we were.


Just My Luck

Should I consider it a good omen that a bird shit on me late last night while walking home from the bar?

If so, then good luck has been clamoring to find me this week. On Wednesday, as I was crossing 9th Avenue toward my new barber, I heard a splash near me on the pavement, maybe a foot away from my shoe. It was surprisingly loud, considering the level of midday city noise, and blended in well with the customary filth of the street. Looking up, I saw a row of pigeons on a streetlight suspension wire.

I considered myself lucky at that moment that I had dodged a bullet, so to speak. I mean, there’s a time and a place, right? Apparently that time was about midnight and the place was 82nd and Roosevelt Avenue in Queens.

As the train passed, I felt something light strike me in the chest. I thought it might be some small piece of debris falling from the underside of the elevated tracks of the 7 train, but whatever it was seemed to have stuck there. I could feel its light weight sitting on my chest. Without thinking, I reached up to my chest to feel what it was, and my hand slid across the warm, slippery substance and came away with a bit of bird shit.

It was the color of graphite and much more solid than I had expected, like an exuberant dollop of acrylic paint. And it covered a good three or four square inches of my shirt. It was revolting.

The last time a bird hit me, I was about 7 or 8 years old and standing under a tree. It hit me on the back of my right hand. I wiped it off on the tree trunk without comment and carried on with the business of hide-and-go-seek. With the enormity of New York’s pigeon population, I’m surprised it doesn’t happen more often. At least it did not land on my head or on my face this time.

There was a rumor for a while that a bird once shit in Cyndi Lauper’s mouth, back in 2004, while she was going for a long note at a concert in Boston. “My grandmother says it’s good luck,” she said, “but I think it’s disgusting.”

She put the rumor to rest recently: “It is not true that a flying bird once pooped in my mouth when I was singing in a concert. It did not go in my mouth. It went on my lower lip. I could not taste it. I just wiped it off.”

The shit-upon shirt was my spare. Living in Queens and working in Manhattan, I have learned to carry my house on my back; never knowing when I will will get back home in the day, I always have a spare shirt, some basic toiletries, reading material, and sometimes gym clothes in a bag when I go off to work in the morning. So I changed back into my slightly damp shirt from earlier in the day.

I don’t particularly like the shirt. I got it from the clearance rack at Gap, and every time I wear it, I see three or four people wearing the same thing — without fail. I avoid wearing it if I am going out into the city. Maybe the bird was merely suggesting I retire the garment and try one of the boutiques along 82nd Street.


Happy Night Shift Workers Day!

Believe it or not, but Wednesday (yesterday) was National Night Shift Workers Day. Working late nights can suck, but there is more to consider than the obvious problems of having a wonky schedule.

Someone dear to my heart went around the city Tuesday night to talk to people working the third shift and produced an awesome video story for ASAP, The Associated Press’ service of innovative and original multimedia stories: Night workers get their day

Ironic, I think, that this national day of commemoration could not be observed by the folks for whom it was intended. They were all sleeping.


Heaven with White and Red Sauce

If you’re looking for a quick chicken fix without the side of rat droppings, run, don’t walk, to the 7, E, F, G, R or V train (but for the love of Mike, don’t run in the station) and head east into Queens. I can sum up gastronomic bliss in two words: Sammy’s Halal. This food cart on 73rd and Queens Boulevard in Jackson Heights is the winner of the 2006 Vendy Award. There is some discussion on as to whether it is part of a group of Sammy’s Halal carts also found in Midtown and Astoria, and no one has offered a precise analysis as to how one compares with another, but for my money, after having visited the one in Jackson Heights, I have no reason to stray. He’ll have a small crowd gathered at his window. But it’s well worth a 10-minute wait. For five bucks you get a big polystyrene container with heaps of basmati rice, grilled seasoned chicken and a little bit of side salad. Get the white sauce and the spicy sauce. Mix it all up: Heaven.

Jackson Heights, long known for the amazing variety and quality of its cuisine, is lucky to have this guy.

Listen for yourself:

Incidentally, another of the five 2006 Vendy finalists, the Arepa Lady, is also in Jackson Heights, a bit further down Roosevelt Avenue. I haven’t found an arepa yet that blows my hair back, but maybe I’ll give her a go.


From Sí to Shining Sí

Ugly? Not really. Fun? You bet your ass.

I can’t put it any more simply: I love Ugly Betty. Congratulations to América Ferrera for winning the best actress Golden Globe for a TV show comedy!

Forget all the feel-good nonsense about ugly vs. pretty and our culture’s insistent, insidious focus on glamour over substance. I mean, sure, give Jason Mraz a gold star for his earnest, cutsie ditty about “beauty in ugly.” He really gets it, right? Right. Of course, all that stuff is true. And obvious. Get her some lighter eyewear, lose the braces and cut that hair back, and she’s not really ugly. It’s marketing. It collapses on itself. And the conceit is so manufactured, I take it for granted. So leave it for the American Studies majors to digest in their pop culture theses.

What’s the really important impact of this show? It’s fun. And it’s about bloody time someone besides Marc Cherry is doing something to save TV from itself.

There’s a mystery woman in a veil obscured in darkness, marital infidelity, flashbacks to a fiery death, shadiness at the top of a publishing corporation, interoffice romance and intrigue, a plot to undermine a reluctant hero … and all kinds of standouts making the cliché not only bearable — but brilliant.

Vanessa Williams is at the best I’ve seen her. I loathed her “Save the Best for Last” days. But now, her high-camp evil set to medium-low burn is almost enough to make Glenn Close curse her own career as cheap and worthless. (Almost. No one can touch Glenn Close.) Eric Mabius: just plain yummy as a player with a heart of gold. A little rough around the edges, I think — but I hope I look half as good with crow’s feet (which, the way things are going, can’t be more than a couple more years off). We love cutie Michael Urie, whose Marc St. James is so gay it hurts. And welcome to America, Ashley Jensen! (She plays the so-Scottish-I-can-barely-understand-her-despite-years-of-watching-Eastenders seamstress and Betty confidante, and you should see her as the hapless Maggie in the HBO/BBC series Extras.)

And THANK GOD for the return of Judith Light! What a triumph! Good-bye, “Who’s the Boss” — hello, “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf”! Her resurrection of the lanky, wise-cracking, self-absorbed, argumentative, alcoholic blonde archetype warms my superficial gay heart. She is Patsy Stone with Long Island Lockjaw.

Plus, Betty lives in a sound-stage replica of my neighborhood. Always a good sign.


Your Way, Right Away

Mmm… Juicy!

One morning last winter, walking to the train just a few blocks from my apartment, I became aware that people walking on the other side of the street were all sooner or later becoming transfixed by something on my side of the street. Whatever it was, it lay in front of me. As I approached the corner, it came within view. In front of a car parked a few yards ahead of me was the blackened, shrunken, charred husk of what was — until very recently — someone’s car.

The fire must have burned very hot, because across the sidewalk the bush against the apartment building was brittle and leafless. The screen in the window of the ground-floor apartment was burned away. The sidewalk near the wreckage was black. The asphalt around the car was covered with melted bits and pieces and something that looked like black-and-gray foam. Where the tires were the day before were now masses of something looking more like lava rock.

This is not something you see every day in my neighborhood. Understandably, it will draw some attention. It must have stunk to heaven. It must have lit the whole block. I wondered if the the gas tank exploded, if anyone was hurt. Was it revenge, a stray cigarette, insurance fraud, an unfortunately positioned magnifying glass on a sunny day?

The situation became more tragic when I noticed something more.

There was no car parked in front of the burned heap, but the car parked directly behind it … well, from the front seat forward, it looked remarkably similar. The paint was gone; the seats were good and melted; the dashboard was half missing; shattered glass lie all around.

I wonder what’s worse: owning the car that was completely consumed in flames, or owning the car that, by the luck of the draw, was parked behind it and consumed only half-way in flames? What is worth more: A half-destroyed car or a completely destroyed car?

the untallied hours