Sunday, October 16, 2011

Positively Union Turnpike

Well, by this point, I thought I’d be back in my old apartment. Insurance company did its thing. Architect filed building permits. Contractors came in and took the one/two days to fix my place. But two months later, and I’m still waiting!

I’ve since learned it takes an inordinately long time for building permits to go through in NYC. Weeks, often a month or two. I don’t know when they were filed, but I gather it’s the usual runaround. At first I thought it was insurance company hijinx, but they really stand nothing to gain by letting the process get drawn out. The longer people wait, the more they find wrong/needing to fix. Of course, it’s killing me because I know my place is so minorly damaged and will be ready to go in a matter of days once they start working.

So, in the meantime, as last posted, cooling my heels in suburbia on the far edge of Queens. Doesn’t feel like far edge of Queens. Feels like Long Island. Walk in any direction, save west, and you’re in Long Island. And, man, have I been doing a lot of walking. Just in terms of getting around – essentials like grocery store and laundromat are spread out – but it’s also a good way to burn a few hours on a weekend afternoon, just go for a long walk.

Later today, I plan to head back to the apartment, pick up a travel bag (headed to PA for a few days later this week), a comforter (this place retains cold like a freezer), and a few DVDs (mainly fall-type horror movies). And on the way back, take the bus to Main Street in Kew Gardens, get off, and walk the seven miles back here, as that will constitute my workout for the day. It’s a straight shot up the beautiful Union Turnpike, which I’m learning like the back of my hand as I peer out the bus window on my daily commutes.

It’s a strange feeling seeing the apartment now. The few times I’ve been there since the fire, virtually nothing has been done, and I can’t stand the abandoned feel of the place, the strong whiffs of smoke that are still emanating from the landlord’s apartment. I’m sincerely hoping no one breaks in as we go along here, with all my stuff is still in there, just waiting to be useful again. If this goes on long enough, into early November, I’ll have to get back there on Sundays just to get leaves off the sidewalk; the sanitation department will most likely ticket the house, regardless of the fact that no one’s living there. Not unlike the time they ticketed the landlord because I forgot to peel off the mailing label from a UPS cardboard box set out for recycling.

The one thing I’ve dealt with since then is the usual conversation with someone who has never been through a house fire: they would have put the fire out when they had the chance. In pitch blackness. At 3:00 in the morning. With fire burning in the wall. Even if that was all I had to contend with, I probably could have figured it out somehow. What they’re not getting is the amount of smoke generated in a house fire. Literally could not see more than a foot in front of me, even in the lit hallway leading into the kitchen Movies and television shows do not convey this properly. This is why firemen have enclosed helmets with strong searchlights on the crowns and breathing apparatuses on their backs. When they walk into a fire, it’s a pure wall of black smoke.

This is what I walked into. And got the immediate vibe this would have knocked me out in less than a minute or two without proper protection. (And I would have fallen down, into that bar of clean air beneath the wall of smoke, and presumably been able to crawl out of there, assuming the carbon monoxide effects didn’t kick in too hard.) If I had walked in and seen an open flame, great, let’s run back downstairs, get a bucket, and try to douse it out. But you have to realize, even if the fire wasn’t behind the refrigerator and in that wall, I still would have had to wander around in that smoke until the fire was a foot away to identify it. It’s not like these Hollywood scenes of someone dashing through clear, open air to pick up a passed-out child. Maybe in the first minute or two of the actual fire. But after that, the smoke billows and intensifies … to the point where a fire will not be seen until it’s more than likely too late to put out without the right equipment.

Hindsight being 20/20, first thing I’d do now, upon the landlord yelling down the stairs that there was a fire, would be immediately dial 9-1-1 to report it, THEN run upstairs and see if I could put it out. I probably could have cut off 2-3 minutes from the fire department’s arrival time and isolated the fire completely to the kitchen extension, as opposed to creeping through the hallway and touching into the rest of the house.

The ordeal now is passing time, and how fucking long this thing will take to play itself out. I gather my landlord won’t live in her place for at least a few months. Since her apartment received the most damage and will require serious construction, it’s going to take a considerable amount of time to get things right there. And it would be to her advantage to get her tenants back in and paying rent as soon as possible, which will not be long once the permits come through. Just the whole, obscene process of waiting for these things to come through! You’d figure there’d be a special division just for emergencies like this: fires, floods, situations where a homeowner has been rendered homeless. But it seems like they get thrown in the same bin as some guy who wants to McMansionize his two-story rowhouse … chances are his request could go through faster if he knows someone on the inside. Just tiresome stuff.

About the one thing I’ve grabbed onto in this time is the Union Turnpike, that long stretch of beat-down, strip-malled, auxiliary to major roadways that cuts straight through Queens like so many of those other miles-long boulevards. It’s my lifeline straight back to the subway system, which in turn takes me to Manhattan. I gather people out here don’t care at all about Manhattan. Even in Astoria, you’ll find people who never set foot there, whether out of intimidation or disdain. Hell, I tend not to go in there on weekends unless I have to (which I do for boxing on Sunday mornings).

But it seems to me like the farther you get away from Manhattan around here, the stranger life gets, at least for someone like me who works there every day and has that sense of “New York City” in his head. The suburbs don’t cut it for me: surprise! It just seems like a disjointed way of life I’ll never warm up to. I understand small towns and major cities. There’s an underlying obnoxiousness to a lot of people out here that I just can’t get around. Related to money and status, and the total emptiness that each entails when that’s all people have to distinguish themselves. God knows, you get it in spades in Manhattan. But there, you can always walk around it. Here, it’s everywhere you go, all the time. Which is why I have such disdain for spoiled brats moving into Astoria: they’re bringing that awful sense of the suburbs and entitlement with them, to a neighborhood that was middle to working-class for years. They would have shunned my neighborhood like the plague as little as a decade ago.

I can even sense, waiting for the bus that takes me down the Union Turnpike, the turned-up noses and smirks in the passing cars, you know, the millions of cars packed in the eternal traffic jams around here, filled with miserable, honking bastards having breakdowns as their meaningless urge to do 75 mph down the road to nowhere is impeded. They’d never be caught dead taking the bus! And down the Union Turnpike? Man, just get I-whatever and you’ll be there in no time. (Thing is, when I catch glimpses of the interstates through the trees, they’re usually bumper-to-bumper half the time.)

The bus surely leaves a lot to be desired – it gets unbearably crowded the closer it gets to Kew Gardens. But I’m lucky enough to be on the first stop and always wrangle a window seat, which allows me to listen to music and take in this blemished roadway, the King Yum Chinese restaurant, The Sly Fox Inn, the frat-boy bars down by St. John’s University, the Indian Palaces with $9.99 buffet, the ubiquitous 99-cent stores, the crazy Irish-Peruvian pub down by Springfield Boulevard.

It’s not so much the land that time forgot, as the land that people don’t like to admit is just around the corner and just as much a part of their lives as the perfectly-manicured lawn. That’s what I see as I gaze down the sidestreets along the turnpike. Very much the vibe that you have these ugly, strip-mallish arteries extended all through Queens, but between each, these safe havens of severely over-priced houses, each with lawns of varying sizes, some houses full-blown mansions, others humble bungalows. And I can’t knock that at all. If anything, it’s a relaxing vibe to know that such sedate living environments are so relatively close to Manhattan. The kind of places people go to “raise their kids.” Although I’m not sure I’d want to raise a kid with the kind of monetary values people have drilled into their heads around here … it’s pretty depraved in that sense.

Still, you look at the faces on the bus – mostly Indian and Asian, mostly women – and get the sense that these are the people who are pushing Queens forward, the ones who quietly get on the bus every morning and take that hellishly long ride into Manhattan to earn their daily bread. It’s a whole different vibe from the subway lines, which are rougher in some senses, but as noted recently in Astoria, also filled with too many spoiled white jackasses who bear the vibe of tourists more than neighborhood people. I can see it on the bus, too. The closer you get to Kew Gardens, the more you get that privileged twat vibe from people getting on the bus. I’m just as guilty in a sense – I was totally unaware of what people who lived beyond the end of subway lines did to get to work in New York City – but I’ve been at it a lot longer, have lived in much harder places, than most of these folks, and have the gravitas to back it up. New York City used to be a place where you earned your stripes: now it’s like instant jello.

I can’t help but feel at home on the Union Turnpike. These kind of no-frill roads exist everywhere in America. You can latch on to the Dunkin Donuts, or Subways, or McDonalds, that invariably line these roadways in-between the smaller local businesses, but it’s the road itself. It will take you longer to get where you’re going, stopping at every other red light. But at least for me, it opened the door to another side of Queens I knew existed, but had never experienced. When I think back years from now on these crazy few months following that horrible house fire I survived, I can guarantee you the one crucial piece of real estate that will come to me then, the lay of the land, will be the Union Turnpike and what I saw looking out the bus window every work morning.

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