Monday, June 19, 2006

Dog Days in Astoria

Well, this past weekend was the first full-on blast of deep summer in the city. Wasn’t as hot Saturday because of some unexpected cloud cover, but, man, Sunday was around 90 and humid. I don’t know what it is about the city, but it makes the heat seem worse than you might find in other environments. Add to this that I don't have air conditioning. (I have an air conditioner, but plugging it in and turning it on would most likely cause my landlord's entire house to erupt in a ball of flames.)

Swept out the landlord’s back patio and sidewalks on Saturday. May not seem like much, but pushing a broom and constantly bending for about two hours in summer heat is a pretty solid work-out – always leaves my back stiff. Even in the city, you wouldn’t believe how much shit falls off trees this time of year. Right now, it’s those little yellow “polleny” buds. A few weeks from now, this certain kind of tree my landlord has in front of her house, sheds this weird cotton-ball, wispy dropping by the shovel-full. That thing will bomb the sidewalk for a good month before these pea-pod things form on the end of the branches.

And, then, of course, the usual human droppings. Not shit. Or at least I haven’t seen it yet! But I have seen water and Gatorade bottles filled with piss. I’m still trying to grasp this logic of this. Some kid is purposely going to hold his penis over the mouth of a bottle, probably piss all over his hand in the process, just so he can experience the novelty of looking at his piss in a bottle? Dude, you’re already pissing in public … just lean up against a wall and piss. It has to be the kids using the small park behind the house. They’re always leaving a trail of junk, usually empty ice tea and soda bottles, and junk-food bags.

A few weeks back, some goons smashed a few bottles of a six pack on the sidewalk, which was a bitch to clean up, but I had a dog walker actually thank me while I was sweeping up the broken glass. (I guess goons who do this sort of shit don’t own or walk dogs.) I’m usually finding discarded six-packs out there in black plastic bags and such. Schoolyards are asshole magnets. Lord knows, these creeps probably hate(d) school, but something about the schoolyard keeps drawing them back after hours and later in life. Maybe they’re West Side Story fans? All I know is that I’m tuned into the bozo 15-year-old psyche, and it would be a perfect world if we could all beat the shit out of these kids every day without legal repercussion. Believe me, you live next to a schoolyard, you have to clean up after these little slobs, because if you don’t … my landlord has a $100 sanitation fine she had to pay back in March for letting her sidewalk get too dirty, and none of the junk was hers. Since then, I’ve disposed of an inflatable bed, a soccer ball, diapers and a pair of size 8 white sneakers. Still waiting for my first body part!

Usually after sweeping (which I do after the usual laundry/groceries circuit), I grab lunch and a nap, then hit the gym on 30th Avenue later in the afternoon. This time of year, there’s a real floating, hazy vibe to walking the streets of Astoria. A lot of people clear out on the weekends, probably for the beaches of Long Island, and the streets are pretty quiet. What was especially cool was that with World Cup soccer action going on, bars and cafes flew the flags of nations they were supporting and, without fail, the American flag along side it. Walking past the “Little Egypt” section of Astoria on the way to the gym, all those smoky little hookah cafes were flying what I think was Saudi Arabia’s flag? Maybe Egypt’s? I’m not good with flags. But I also saw Brazil, Italy, the Union Jack, Germany, the Czech Republic.

The Italian cafe across from my laundromat had Italy and U.S. flags flying in front – not sure who those folks would be rooting for. I’d bet Italy since a lot of those guys normally hanging out there make a big deal out of being a generation or two from the motherland. I can’t blame them. I’m always going to be a Pennsylvania sports fan, no matter how long I live in New York. Two years ago when Greece staged a huge upset and won the World Cup? Forget about it. Every Greek cafe was mobbed in Astoria, and I recall a naked guy wearing the flag of Greece for a cape running down the block at one point. That weird Euro-disco music playing all the while.

Most portentous, while walking down Ditmars Boulevard, I notice the Christmas-style decorations strung up over a few blocks: early-warning sign for the St. Abate street festival that overtakes the neighborhood in late June. This means that surly mix of the usual NYC street festival festivities – truly obnoxious, hounding hawkers working booths for dart-throwing and spinning wheels, along with over-priced sausages, zeppoli, roasted corn on the cob, etc. Rides for the kids like mini-ferris wheels and inflatable romper rooms. On one corner will be a band-stage for various Italian/polka/Mexican style bands to blast away at, and another, the actual St. Abate shrine, the significance of which, I’m not quite sure. You'll find a lot of older Catholics kneeling and crossing in front of it, putting dollar bills in it.

That’s always a strange few days, ethnic music echoing down the streets, all sorts of strange people moving in directionless mobs, some neighborhood weirdoes you never see until something like this happens, and this bizarre gaggle of goth kids who make a point to hit every saint’s festival in the city. A strange sight to see ashen-faced, all-in-black goth kids on the ferris wheel. But these kids seem pretty harmless, if a little weird. Anyone who lives in the general vicinity and isn’t into St. Abate is glad as hell when the festival closes up shop after a few days.

On Sunday, I noticed the oddest, but surest sign of summer while returning from my boxing class: the mini-music festival that takes places outside the pizza joint I never go to on the northwest corner of 31st and Ditmars. I still haven’t quite figured out what it is, but it seems to be a duo of two middle-aged guys playing guitar and electronic keyboard, knocking out a variety of hits for a bunch of senior citizens who gather around them in lawn chairs and such. I’ve heard everything from Sinatra, to “Da Ya Think I’m Sexy,” to the Macarena, to the Battle Hymn of the Republic … all to that Casio samba beat, with whoever’s singing lead going for full lounge effect, dropping in “Jack” and “ho” at the end of some verses. Old couples get up and dance. These guys bring the house down every time.

And you know what? I think it’s pretty cool that this sort of stuff goes on, that some semblance of neighborhood normality is preserved in an act like this every Sunday in warm weather. Those folks who attend this frankly don't give a fuck what anyone else thinks about them, although they'd never put it that way. When I ask myself whom I’d rather be around, old people doing a foxtrot to a lounge version of “Silly Love Songs” or a bunch of snotty kids smashing bottles on a sidewalk, take a wild guess. I think it’s time I start to take dancing lessons. Just another summer in Astoria.

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