Monday, November 19, 2012

Return to Astoria

Coming back into Astoria, the first thing I noticed was the smell of cowshit.  This is really nothing new.  People have complained about “that smell” for years.  I’ve caught wind of it a few times myself, usually in deep summer.  Most people put it down to the sewage treatment plant about a mile from here, which always seems to be in various stages of disrepair.

Coming back in a car, with all the stuff I’ve been using to live the past year and three months piled into the back seat and trunk.  I was shocked by how much kitchen and bathroom stuff I had, two laundry baskets worth.  Otherwise, it was a large suitcase filled with clothes, a smaller travel duffel with the laptop, Kindle, ipod, DVDs, shoes and such, and gym bag with the sort of stuff you scatter on counter tops.  Left behind the lawn chair and fold-out bed.

Slept in my own bed for the first time since late August 2011.  Felt weird.  Got used to that wire-frame bed sagging in the middle, which played hell on my lower back some nights, but made reading in bed easier.  The landlord’s been living here the past few months and feeding some stray cats, so every now and then, I’d hear one yowling in the night.

It hasn’t been the red carpet rolling out with a mob of people cheering under a banner reading, “Welcome back, Bill!”  But the landlord was sure glad to see me.  She’s been feuding with everyone in the family, raising holy hell over how long this ordeal has taken to play out, still, months after moving back in herself but still waiting for major furniture to arrive, just not letting it go.  I can understand this as it’s her house, the first and only place she’s lived after coming to America in the early 60’s.  The family members, of course, have had a bellyful, but what can they do.

There are large weeds sprouting from the sidewalk, and just like old times, some errant douche bag had dumped a few square feet of dirty clothes onto the sidewalk.  The curb is rotten with packed-in leaves, and the shrubs need trimming before it snows, otherwise the overhang will be hard for pedestrians to deal with.

I came into the apartment to find a plumber fixing the stove, which had proved more problematic than expected, as evidenced by the hole in the ceiling and adjacent walls so he could get at the gas pipes.  Dusty boxes of landlord’s long-forgotten artifacts still take up the kitchen counter, waiting to be waded through and taken upstairs or discarded.  The landlord’s huge paintings and wall art are still in the closet, particularly the “macramé stagecoach at night” that used to hang down here, but the one day she asked me what I thought of it, I said I didn’t like it, and she said the frame alone for that painting cost $200, so I said wouldn’t it make more sense for you to have it in your apartment, and the next day it was gone.

A big plus: the TV wasn’t stolen!  The workers had placed it in a tarp and wedged it in the crawl space beneath the stairs, so I was relieved to realize I wouldn’t have to plunk down a few hundred bucks on a new one, and felt guilty that I pondered the likelihood of someone working here in any capacity using the five-finger discount.

So, even after a year and three months, still waiting in a sense for this thing to wrap up.  But, make no mistake, this is my glorious return.

The streets are rotten with hipsters and yuppies in training … seemingly more than a year ago, but that might be an illusion.  I’ve just spent a year in a far more suburban place, with a broader age range of people, many more kids and full families, so it just might be the culture shock of being plunged back into a place where there are so many apartment renters. 

Can someone explain to me the attachment to the word “like” so many people up through the age of 30 have?  I’m not saying that in some curmudgeonly, “damn these kids and their crazy lingo” way.  I’m saying it in a way to demonstrate how creepy and annoying it is to hear it all the time.  It’s disturbing to hear, routinely, over and over, from hipsters, from teenagers, from young women and men who are clearly neither, but don’t seem to recognize how dumb they sound.  Every third word is “like.”  Used in a completely superfluous manner, the same way people who don’t know what to say go “uhhh” before saying what they mean to say. I’ve known this for a long time, but it seemed like yesterday, like, everyone was, like, using the word “like,” like, you know, in every conversation, you know, like, I heard on the, like, street, you know?

To be, or, like, not to be, you know, like, that is the question?

I have to learn how to deal with these folks, because they’re clearly going to be a permanent fixture of this place.  In a way, I was one of these people years ago: I moved to New York from a small town in Pennsylvania in the 80s and no doubt had people 10-20 years older over-hear me in conversation and think, “Christ, what a pompous ass.”  They probably still think it now!  But I'm half the horse's ass I was coming straight out of college, that much is true.

That decade in the Bronx was crucial in terms of learning how to live in New York, or anywhere, that it’s important to humble yourself to a place, to shut the fuck up, for once, and listen, and look, and realize you’re there to learn, to weave yourself into a community as much as you can.  That’s the essential difference I see between someone like me moving here in the 80s and the people moving here now.  They have that suburban sense of expectation, that this place should succumb to their wishes and lifestyles, that this neighborhood, like, would be a whole lot better with a really good frozen yogurt place and, like, a cool used book store.  Not to mention I moved to the Bronx, and then here for one over-riding reason: they were working-class neighborhoods and affordable.  I’m sure the Bronx still is, but this place isn’t.  You get a whole different breed of people when the reasons to move to a given neighborhood are hipness quotient and exclusionary rents, and it's a breed I never much cared for, going all the way back to my first exposure to them in the late 80s.

The past year has taught me there’s only so much you can attribute to a given neighborhood in terms of how you live your life, and the real deal, what your life is about, is how you choose to live it, regardless of where you live.  Or how much you have.  Or don’t have.  Whether you’re 25, or 45, or 65.  It’s not so much wearing blinders as realizing the things floating around you aren’t you, and there’s no point in focusing on things that don’t sit well with you, but you have no control over.  It’s clear to me now if I really have that hard a time with the genuinely annoying people who’ve moved here in droves, I can always leave.

Hell, I did for over a year, if not by choice, and life surely went on.  That far edge of Queens is such an odd place to live, nice in so many ways, much more quiet, far fewer assholes to deal with directly, and cleaner.  But such a huge hassle in terms of transportation for anyone who works in Manhattan, literally an hour and half ride, each way.  Even if I had a car, I suspect pointing it towards Manhattan during rush hour wouldn’t be that breezy 30-minute jaunt it is in off hours, not to mention the prospect of parking garages that equal many people’s monthly rents.

And the car culture!  Most Americans need cars to get by, and I’ve realized it’s a luxury and a pleasure to live somewhere where one isn’t necessary.  On Long Island, that culture is taken to the nth degree, very few people walk anywhere, and the driving style is eternally crazed, people who forever appear to be on the verge of nervous breakdowns behind the wheel, and drive accordingly in that “fuck everybody else” style infamous to the tri-state area.  Post-hurricane, this became even more obvious.  There was no gas.  Not a drop to be found anywhere on Long Island.  For an entire week.  The rare instance when a station would open, word spread, and there would be a 3-4 mile line of cars waiting to get in, with the station invariably running out of gas within an hour or two, while various riots nearly played out with the typical line-jumping scum you find in any emergency situation.

Yet … the volume of traffic did not let up all week.  I would ask people at work from Long Island if they were driving, and they would say no, how could I, there’s no gas.  Well, you had an entire culture of people there who … could … not … stop … driving … even … though … there … was … no … gas.  Ponder being stranded on a desert island, with someone who ate all of the meager amount of food you could forage the first night.  That was your typical Long Island car driver the week after Hurricane Sandy.  Public transportation is such out there, particularly with buses, that if you need to get somewhere, anywhere, you can get there.  Might be a pain in the ass, but it will work.

But I swear to you, the traffic volume the day after hurricane (Tuesday) through Saturday, was virtually no different than it was before the storm.  Sunday, I did notice, there seemed to be far fewer drivers on the road, as the realization sank in that this gas thing wasn’t going to work itself out immediately.  Here we are, two weeks later, with rationing, and it does seem to have worked itself out.  There are no more lines, and people are getting the gas they need to get around.

If it wasn’t, I wouldn’t be sitting here now typing this in my old apartment.  That damn storm pushed back my return by two weeks, first with its destruction and then with the ensuing gas crisis.  I was contemplating dragging my bags and suitcases onto the Q46 bus and then the E/F train, then the R/M train, then the Steinway Avenue bus to move back, implying two round trips totaling six hours, but luckily the gas situation let up enough that the landlord’s daughter could give me a ride back.

This past weekend has been exhausting: emotionally and physically.  I don’t know what it is about moving, but it tends to inspire the full range of emotions.  All save a mild angry under-current subside once you realize you need to get a ton of shit done before you can feel even remotely settled in.  It’s going to be at least another week or two before that happens.  There’s a constant layer of grit on my feet now from the recent holes punched in the ceiling and walls, and I spent last night rummaging through the cabinets under the kitchen countertop, discarding three black garbage bags of unclaimed vases, ponderously heavy ceramic ash trays, rusted metal ice cube trays, old AM/FM clock radios … just a mess of shit that I can’t even tell if they belonged to the landlord or previous tenants.  All I know is I’ve been living here since the late 90s, none of it’s mine, and it’s got to go, if only to make space for my clutter.

That’s another key thing I learned.  Man, throw shit out.  I’m not just talking physical things like junk in cabinets.  I mean everything that doesn’t serve a recognizable purpose in your life.  Throw it out.  I will surely take this advice to heart with my feelings towards the new landed gentry – I think this is going to be the last time I mention them, and you can hold me to it.  All the bitching in the world, much like King Canute ordering back the sea, isn’t going to change a damn thing on that front.

Anti-climactic?  That’s how life tends to be, save for the grand climax, which I have reason to believe won’t be the gloriously inspired ending as portrayed in the obituaries of celebrities and heads of state.  Your time comes, you go.  Don’t get me wrong.  It’s good to be back here, for any number of reasons.  The main one being the fire didn’t kill any of us that night, and we’re back to reclaim what was a stinking, wet hulk of charred wood and broken glass that harsh morning after.  It's time to be how we are, again, and this is a major victory.

1 comment:

Andy S. said...


It was the same here in my little New Jersey town. During the 12 days (!) we were without electricity, the traffic was like rush hour every minute of the day. Where were all these people going, I wondered. Finally I figured it out: they were all heading to a gas station! Yes, wasting what little gas they had driving to whatever gas station had some to sell to get more. It's like all the people who head to the market to buy bread and milk at the first report of a big storm. Even if they don't eat bread or drink milk, as soon as the weather report warns of the storm, you can bet they'll be at the store lining up to buy all the bread and milk they can carry. Human nature at its finest.