Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Notes from Bizarroland 5: Nearing One Month

Ma and I descended upon the homeland yesterday. Homeland in two senses: the house and the neighborhood. The house in which I grew up, in which the vast majority of my parents’ life together played out. The neighborhood is a humdrum borderland that we always called Forest Hills but that is apparently within the bounds of Rego Park. It may have been considered part of Forest Hills decades ago. The problem is that the house in which I grew up, which before it was my parents’ belonged to my maternal grandparents – a Slavic immigrant couple who met in New York during the depression – resides right near the boundary separating Rego Park and Forest Hills, these neighborhood designations in Queens that may or may not have significance now but that linger on as reminders of the collection of towns that made up western Long Island before the consolidation of the five boroughs. So I spent the earlier part of my youth saying I was from Forest Hills, and then sometime during my adolescent years I acquiesced and admitted I grew up in Rego Park – a name that for those in the know carries considerably less cachet.
            In any case, the “homeland” – this neighborhood that contains buildings I’ve looked at since infancy, this place I still call “home” in spite of increasing feelings of alienation I feel at the changes in the local landscape. Where there is now a mall containing Sears, Marshall’s, and other stores there used to be a monolithic branch of the old NYC department store Alexander’s. Before there was a discount dollar store of some sort on Queens Blvd. there was a Nobody Beats the Wiz. Before the Wiz there was…I can’t remember now… Ben’s Best Delicatessen is still there, serving classic New York Jewish deli fare.
            Within the neighborhood there are streets I walked hundreds of times with both grandmothers, my mother, my father. Over the past few years, each time I’ve visited my parents’ house I recognized fewer and fewer of the neighbors on the block – a block like many others in Queens, made up of red-brick connected row houses, these a bit larger and admittedly nicer than similar blocks elsewhere in Rego Park, Astoria or Sunnyside. Last year the next-door neighbor Helen died at a ripe old age of…hmm, don’t know…shortly after my grandmother Jean did. Her daughter still owns the house next to ours, and I guess that makes her and my mom the longest-term current residents on that block.
            Something about Rego Park – my section of it, started to annoy the shit out of me since I moved out in 2005. The increasingly chintzy storefronts, the motley folks bumbling around, the disappearance of restaurants and stores that should have remained, if only for my sense of continuity. Yet as much as the damn place annoys me, I can’t loathe it. It’s too much about me, so when I look at it and feel disdain for it I’d be feeling disdain for myself too.
            The house itself is now a large brick-and-mortar ellipsis for me, the gradual process of my parents’ move out of it and fully into their new house in Tucson having been interrupted by the revelation of Dad’s terminal cancer. Of course walking through it yesterday there were memories. Of course. While my mom sorted through mail, I found myself looking for artifacts proving Dad’s existence. I knew where to find his notebooks from about ten years ago – artist journals, I guess you’d call them, into which he pored out all kinds of mental activity, some insightful and beautiful, some morose and tiresome. The red-and-black ink drawings still strike me as brilliant: garish caricatures of people both real and imagined. I slowly read through some of his writings, laboriously deciphering his horribly messy hand. It occurred to me that I might be eavesdropping, invading his privacy by reading these jottings, but somehow I didn’t feel any guilt of trespass.
I won’t lie; a lot of the writing conveys a keen feeling of depression, of anxiety about how to go through life. Not only did Dad mull over his own tribulations, he wrote out his sympathy, sometimes pity, for family and friends – a piece describing his observations on the neglect of his half-sister by other relatives, an entry pondering the bullshit of the W. Bush regime via worrying about my oldest friend’s being called to duty for the Iraq invasion of 2003. My friend, and my dad sat there scribbling out his worry for him. Well, sure, why not. I mean he treated the guy like a fucking nephew since sometime in high school, and the guy came out to see the old man, full well knowing it might be to say goodbye before Dad kicked it.
Then there were the photographs. I just started to look around through the many MANY photos my mom took over the years, knowing I was looking for images of Dad. I found a good deal – photos from the late 80s and early 90s, photos of trips to Vermont, Florida, pictures of my dad’s 50th-birthday celebration in 1992 with some of our Czech relatives with us in Queens. Photos of both of my grandmothers, Anna (my mom’s mother) already suffering the symptoms of Alzheimers’ in 1990, though you can’t see it in the images. Anna, looking healthy (as she physically was) at age 78; Jean with a head of almost all-brown hair at age 74. Photos of Dad looking spry at 45, 48, 50. Photos of Dad and me – he a slim man in early middle age, thick dark hair on his head; me an incredibly dorky 10-year-old, with baggy pants and a baseball cap the diameter of which fit my head but still looks outsized on me. I had read some stuff in his journals from 1999, stuff about how he realized he needed to let me live my own life, about how at age 19 I was grown up (I’m sure he later realized that I was anything but grown up, even if I thought I was), about how he still wanted to help prevent me from making the mistakes he had made. Quintessential concerns of a father, perennial hopes for the good fortune of his son. 
So I spent a couple hours being an archaeologist of my own past, of my father’s life and past, of my family’s past, of the house, the neighborhood. Whatever.
The thing is, with all the feelings of futility and fatigue brought on by this archaeology, this recollection, there is so much I want to tell you…
There’s so much I could tell all of you out there about the crazy and hilarious interactions Dad had with the neighborhood freaks and goons: Chester, the homeless guy who gradually went more crazy over the course of a few years, who started to bend the windshield wipers on peoples’ cars, whom our neighbor Abe wanted to pulverize with the help of my dad; “FBI,” the fucking maniac who walked the streets of Rego Park screaming out “I’m FBI, don’t mess with me!” or things like that, and who then actually got shot by a Central-Asian Mafioso (they started to pop up with the influx of Bukharian Jews into Rego Park during the 1990s) for yelling his bullshit, a mobster paranoiac who actually thought “FBI” was yelling it at him, warning him that he was in trouble; the bizarre conversations Dad had with The Late-night Streetwalker, a neighbor on the block who will remain nameless, who spewed vitriol about his family and about the revenge he would exact upon anyone who dared block his driveway. These people all existed.
There’s so much I could tell you, so much I want to tell you, about how I remember all those games of catch, how I too remember the time you played basketball with me and my teenage friends, when I made that one basket that won the game – that game you scribbled about years after it happened; about how much I enjoyed watching those Marx Bros. movies for the first time with you, how it opened up whole worlds of laughs and ideas when you showed me the Marx Bros., the Pink Panther movies, W.C. Fields, how even though you annoyed the shit out of me at times in Tucson this past year I still wanted to laugh with you at the Marx Bros. and Louis C.K.; about how I remember that you taught me how to understand baseball and basketball, these rituals of fathersonhood, these rituals of Americana, those hours we looked up all kinds of shit in the huge baseball encyclopedia you bought in probably 1993, the year the Mets sucked more ass than we thought possible, the year the Knicks were great but not great enough, the year the Phillies caused you agony when Mitch Williams completely blew it, “CHOKED” as you talked about at length, fucked it all up and gave up the Series to the Blue Jays…
Now, and for the past four weeks, I have so much to tell people about, so much to tell you…so much to tell…
And I wonder who it is I’m telling, and, for that matter, who’s really doing the telling.


Marcia Feitel said...

Helen died at 90, and the order of residents is your mother, the late night streetwalker, and me.

I once had a summer job at the Hunter College registrar's office, deciding who got to pay the reduced rate offered to 'bona fide' city residents. I noticed that the Queens applications lied about actual neighborhood (though with correct zip code) to improve status--Rego Park is the Elmhurst resident's lie, an address appropriated, in turn, by Corona. I've always said 'Rego Park' but my parents' deed was later than your grandfather's. I used the correct neighborhoods in my reply, and particularly enjoyed turning Riverdale into the Bronx.

The overlapping Queens hierarchy involves living at an express stop versus a local stop. We're stuck at a local.

My experience of the neighborhood is linked to Son of Sam, who shot 2 of his victims at the nearest express stop. Nocturnal pedestrians stayed home for years and emerged when the first wave of ex-Soviets, from European Russian, arrived in the neighborhood.

M said...

Thanks for the corrections/additional info., Marcia.

NYC is full of microhistories that have played out in microgeographies, and the stuff you have to add just confirms this aspect of "the Naked City."

Question, though: where do Forest Hills Gardens residents try to claim they live?? Seems like the ceiling of Queens neighborhoods.