I’ve been having some interesting conversations with people about life in the 718s. For the uninitiated, 718 is the phone area code for the outer boroughs of New York City (Brooklyn, Bronx, Queens and Staten Island). I should point out that, thanks to cellphones, there are a few other area codes in the mix, but life in the 718s implies a less glamorous, more, uh, utilitarian way of life than you’ll find in Manhattan.
At my boxing class last night, Gene, the hairy orange beast from the Bronx, got on my case about living in Astoria, strongly suggesting I should move back to the Bronx (where I lived for nearly a decade). He now lives in Bronxville, an upscale suburb just north of the Bronx. I don’t think he has anything against Astoria – he just likes getting on my case. He’s one of these high-strung financial guys, and he gets a kick out of verbally sparring with people.
After a few minutes of his routine, I just said, “Look, man, I’m never going to live in the Bronx again.” At which point, he went ballistic, running off a litany of insults: you’re just a rube, you don’t know anything about New York, my old neighborhood in Woodlawn (an Irish enclave in the northern Bronx) is better than Astoria, you must be an idiot, you ought to go back home to Pennsylvania, etc.
It got weird. Normally, Gene will razz someone for a few minutes, then let it go and become a nice guy again. (Even after all this crap, he let me use his jump rope and was fine when we did our bag work.) But for a few minutes, he got red-faced angry in a way that spooked me. If you’ve ever seen the horror movie The Leprechaun, he was like a 280-lb. version of that little psycho bastard.
I think I know why he flared up. Every time he’d take a jab at me over not knowing particular streets in Woodlawn (I’ve been there a handful of times, not since 1990 or so), he’d say something to the effect of, “I know what you’re getting at about people like me.” Meaning he’s assuming I’m indirectly calling him a racist, i.e., just another white guy who fled his 718 home for the suburbs. Were I to confront him directly about this, I know his answer would be, “No, you redneck, it’s because you don’t know shit about Woodlawn, and you’re a moron.”
But I could feel it. Frankly, I got nothing against white folk, or anyone else, fleeing the 718s. People make a little more money, they have families, they want a slightly safer/more quiet way of life. It’s hardly a white thing anymore – plenty of black and hispanic folks have done the same. But I’ve noticed this strain of nostalgia with many white 718 expatriates. They’ll express this burning love for their home borough … yet, you better believe they will never move back there again. I would have let Gene off the hook, but I kept hammering away with, “Buddy, the only way I’m going to eat my words is if you physically move back to Woodlawn – until then, fuck you!”
I no longer have an attitude about living in the 718s. I used to – hitching a free ride on the tough image they project. Until I realized that I don’t particularly like the lack of manners and rudeness that are so often a trademark here. I love the quality of toughness in people, but in the 718s a lot of exterior bluster will be heaped on top of that no-nonsense approach to life, and it doesn’t so much ring false as grow tiresome. Which makes it all the sweeter when I manage to meet decent people from here, and they’re surely here, albeit less obvious.
The truth is, it’s not a bad existence, especially when I stop to ponder rents and property values in Manhattan, which are beyond impossible these days. Shit, if I had to leave my apartment in Astoria now, I may not be able to go on living here – and this neighborhood is far from paradise. I’m hoping local folk aren’t looking at me as one of those ill-willed, well-off white kids who moved here for a $1,000-a-month studio apartment, because I moved here a few years before the rents sky-rocketed, and unless I scored a good word-of-mouth apartment, I’d be as screwed and angry as they are in terms of the cost of living around here. And I refuse to hold spoiled white kids accountable for real-estate agencies’ avarice and greed. College-educated white folk started moving in, and brokers jacked up the rents, extortionately so -- hardly front-page news.
As for Gene’s strangely hostile vibe, I recognize it as pure nostalgia, and he took umbrage when I shit-canned Woodlawn, a place neither he or I will live in. The next time he spends real time there will be in a coffin – getting buried in his family plot in the huge Woodlawn cemetery. I have a deeper appreciation for expatriate 718ers who tell the truth: they have fond memories of their childhood there, still feel very warm about the place, may even still have family living there, but they would suck Satan’s fiery red cock before ever moving back there again. For me as an out-of-towner (still, almost 20 years on), it’s about my only living option, unless I want to start doing whatever it takes to make big bucks. And when I say I don’t understand the suburbs, what I really mean to say is I don’t understand an existence geared towards doing whatever it takes to make huge sums of money simply to live a certain way in a certain place. It goes against my working-class nature, and the older I get, the more I see how we’re all getting sucked into this mega-money way of life, like a flock of birds getting sucked into a jet engine. In its own warped way, 718 life, however hard it may be, negates that way of seeing the world, which is why I’ll always have a soft spot in my heart for the place.
Speaking of Satan’s fiery red cock, the other 718 tidbit involves a bar called the Albatross in Astoria. Earlier this week, a few Manhattan-based websites ran an item about Scarlett Johansson’s brother visiting the Astoria bar and using this pick-up line on women: “I’m Scarlett Johansson’s brother.” The weird part: the Albatross is a gay bar. And to truly understand the weirdness, you have to live in Astoria and have seen the Albatross. It’s a non-descript little corner bar just off the Grand Central Parkway – conveniently located for closeted Long Island folk to pull off the road for a few minutes to indulge. I hadn’t known it was a gay bar until my pal J.H. pointed this out to me. I pass by the bar only during daylight hours on the way back from the gym, at which time the place is shuttered.
J.H. has a great story about meeting a friend (name rhymes with Muckster) there for drinks, because the bar was equidistant between their apartments, and both of them getting repeatedly hit on by a very drunk, very short, most likely very depressed guy who, it turns out, lived only a block or so away from J.H. The guy was laying it on thick, calling J.H. a bear, which I guess he is – a vast majority of straight guys would be “bears” in gay parlance, unless we all lasered the hair from our torsos and had 32-inch waists. The guy was spouting insane shit like, “You never had a real blow job until you’ve felt a man's stubble on your balls.”
No great revelations occurred that night, but the guy was so dangerously, falling-down drunk that J.H. made sure to walk the guy home, which was a good 10-minute walk north. While his story was meant for the comic effect of two straight guys getting hit on hard in a gay bar, J.H. may have unwittingly touched on the heart of 718 life – simply doing what had to be done, however weird, to make sure a fellow human got home safe. Did a similar thing once in the Bronx, walking home a a guy with a wooden leg from the 4 Train who looked like he was in The Four Tops and had clearly pissed his sky-blue tux. Live here long enough, and these sort of things happen. You do what must be done.