Thirty years ago, I moved from my hometown in Queens to an apartment on Manhattan’s Upper West Side. I never really intended to live in Manhattan, but once I graduated from college, I knew I wanted to begin the next chapter of my life living away from my parents. My friend Susan wanted to get an apartment and live on her own as well, and since she proved to be such a great friend back in junior high school when she courageously put my well-being ahead of her own by uncoupling me from my possessed germ-ridden retainer that had attached itself to my shirt, I knew she would be an outstanding apartment-mate.
We began searching for apartments in Queens, but through a family member, Susan was able to get us an apartment on the Upper West Side where we could pay a fraction of the rent most people paid. So after five weeks living at home following graduation (which for me felt like four weeks too many) we packed up our stuff and moved. I took an assortment of mismatched furniture from my house including the bed and dresser that were part of one of mom’s HGTV moments years earlier and the coffee table that never fit anywhere in the house and ended up in my room along with the rotisserie. We found two guys with a U-Haul and they brought us and our stuff to Manhattan. I have no recollection of packing or unpacking for that matter, but the trip across the bridge that day, when I was just shy of my 21st birthday, is seared in my mind and I still remember the excitement I felt.
Just a few days after we moved in, my friend Liora’s father asked me to take care of the family dog Dandy while he went to visit Liora who had moved to Argentina. What I didn’t know at the time was that Dandy was 17 years old and blind. After a few seconds in the apartment, Dandy walked head-on into the coffee table and nearly scored a concussion. We had to keep the dog in the kitchen when we went to work just to keep it safe. The poor dog howled all day which probably would cause some concern in a NYC apartment building in 2015, but in the post-David Dinkins, pre Rudy Giuliani 1984 version of New York City, screams, alarms, honking horns, gunshots and howling were all just part of a typical day. Fortunately we managed to make it through the two weeks of howling without getting evicted.
I was definitely right about Susan being a great person to share a space with. Her wisdom far exceeded her age and she asked me the important Jewish mother questions that my own Jewish mother never did. Things like, “Do you see a future with this guy, does he have a job and is he Jewish?” (well actually my mom asked me that last question a lot). And like the daughter who doesn’t heed her mother’s advice, I generally didn’t listen to Susan’s either, even though she really was always right.
A few years later, Susan met her husband-to-be and they decided to start their married life in that apartment. I rallied to stay, promising them I wouldn’t make much noise, because by now I was attached to my life in Manhattan. She helped me get a studio on the top floor of the same building that was so small that when I pulled out my Ikea futon knock-off, it touched the bookshelf on the other side of the room that was against the wall. But I didn’t care because I got to continue my life in the city.
I spent three decades living in Manhattan and watching it go through a sort of renaissance which included hookers in Times Square that were replaced by Elmos in handcuffs, grafitti-covered trains replaced with trains covered in scratchitti and drug dealing playgrounds replaced with family-friendly ones. I witnessed many other wonderful changes. Sometime in the late eighties, sales of sandwich bags in New York City rocketed with the introduction of the Pooper Scooper Law. By the mid-nineties at least one out of every five people you passed on a Manhattan street who appeared to be talking to themselves was actually using a cell phone and not crazy after all.
But now friends and family have drawn me back to Queens and I’ve made that journey across the bridge again to go back home. This time I had a lot more stuff and while a moving truck transported my belongings, I made the trip back on the F train. And it was just as thrilling as that first trip 30 years ago.
Now I’m reaquainting myself with the infamous Queens grid system. I’m sandwiched in between a road and a drive that share the same number and nestled between two inconsecutively numbered streets. I can only find my apartment building because I can spot the behemoth of a building on Queens Boulevard where I make the turn to get to my own. This nonsensical system leaves me so lost in my new surroundings, yet simultaneously so found. Lost because you can routinely find me walking around in circles, but found because although I don’t quite understand the exact geographic coordinates of my new address, I know I am home.
This is where the story began and where it ends. I’ve done my best to accurately document my formative years while sufficiently embarrassing myself (and others!) and luckily no one has unfriended me (yet). I’m incredibly flattered by the number of people who have followed this blog and shared their own stories of youth and the borough of Queens. If you are ever in Queens, look me up…I’m halfway between the high school’s non-regulation track and the store that sells the smelly cheese.
Shortly after my fifth birthday, my mom enrolled me in a summer day camp. Mom put me in a group of campers that were mostly four year olds, perhaps to give me a possible height advantage that I could never reclaim at any other point in my life. But her plan backfired. When I told my fellow campers that I was five, none of them believed me. One girl said, “You’re not five, you’re four.” Another girl boldly proclaimed, “You’re not five, you’re three!” Another girl claimed I was two, the next said one and the final girl who was just a bit meaner and cleverer than the others said, “You weren’t even born yet!” At the time the words really stung and I continued to be annoyed when people thought I was younger than I actually was until about ten years ago when I decided to just keep celebrating my 29th birthday over and over again.
Another source of embarrassment was my inability to walk in flip-flops during our two daily treks to the swimming pool. While everyone else glided effortlessly in their flip-flops, I shuffled along like I was on a Nordic Track just to keep the damn things on my feet. I was never successful and would fall so far behind in the line that they had to send out a search party to find me. Walking without shoes was not an option, because much of the campgrounds were covered in wood chips of a similar size and texture to the glass shards that blanketed the Saxon Hall playground. Since I was a flop wearing flip-flops, I was given an option far worse than walking barefoot on glass; walking in slide sandals that were the footwear of choice for old Russian men. After that summer, I begged my mother not to send me back to camp again.
A few years later, I decided to give camp another try and I went to a new camp in Long Island. This was a far better experience and it was here that I improved my swim stroke and learned how to dive. But it wasn’t all marshmallows by the campfire and pony rides; it was here that I also discovered a whole bunch of other stuff I suck at. A few times during the summer, we got to go to the go kart area. Getting the gas and the brake right while steering proved too much for me and after nearly mowing down a group of fellow campers and two counselors, I was asked to just sit and watch the other campers. Note to everyone still trying to figure out why I don’t drive: Now you know.
Another camp activity I sucked at was making things with lanyard. Whether it was the zipper, Chinese staircase or butterfly stitch, I just couldn’t get the hang of it and just like the abandoned bookmark that defined my second grade experience, I left camp without ever finishing a lanyard project. Fortunately, lanyard was an activity generally reserved for the 35-minute bus ride home, so only a select group of campers got to witness my lack of digital dexterity which kept the teasing to a minimum. Unfortunately, I was the last kid dropped off the bus every day which meant I suffered with my lanyard in silence the last few extra minutes of the ride when on three out of four days of the week the bus driver’s radio blared Gilbert O’Sullivan’s summer hit, Alone Again Naturally at the precise moment the second to last camper stepped off the bus.
That same summer, my family took our first (and only) official family vacation, unless you count what dad referred to as our annual six hours of hell on Amtrak. I got to go on an airplane for the first time and we went to Bermuda. We stayed at our first (and only) big fancy hotel without the words Holiday or Inn in the name. The hotel was right on the ocean and we got to rent water rafts while my father who couldn’t swim sat under a huge beach umbrella, liberally applying the 1973 version of Coppertone which offered about as much protection from the sun as whipped cream. When we exited the ocean, guests were required to soak their feet in warm water to remove the tar that was stuck to them. At the time, we kids thought this was just another cool feature of the beach; we didn’t realize the tar was petroleum residue from a 1973 oil spill off the coast of Bermuda. Now I understand how we were able to afford the trip.
While we loved the beach, the hotel had something we loved more; a game room. Prior to our trip to Bermuda, the closest thing we’d ever seem to a hotel game room was the ice machine at a motel in Altoona, PA. But now we had pinball and ping pong! We spent hours in the game room, which is probably how three kids with the pastiest white skin ever avoided getting a sunburn on a tropical island.
Another highlight of the trip was the hotel restaurant. In our real life we ate dinner out once a year. But in our vacation life we got to eat out every night. My brother Jeffrey decided to take full advantage of this and managed to order the most expensive thing on the menu each night. Additionally, many of the dishes he ordered involved fire. When he ordered the Flambe Cherries Jubilee for dessert, cooked right at the table, the nearby wall caught on fire and after that we were only allowed to get ice cream for dessert.
Many of my summers were spent just doing things in the neighborhood. While now we have the fancy term staycation to describe vacationing without going anywhere, back then we called it what it was; hanging out with your friends, often being bored out of your mind and getting into all sorts of trouble. Some of the most dangerous things happened to us in the summer; we played Ringolevio and hid in ominous apartment building garages that attracted sketchy people. We crossed Queens Boulevard with greater frequency and hung out past dark even when we knew Son of Sam might be nearby. We ate red M&M’s before they were banned in 1976, we trespassed on other people’s property to pick mulberries, and once or twice we even jumped into the Park City Pool a mere ten minutes after eating a Chow Chow french fry. We watched way too much TV, went looking for poison ivy, risked our lives tormenting our siblings and stepped in enough dog shit to fertilize an 18-hole golf course…twice. We survived all of this and emerged without broken limbs, skin rashes, stomach cramps, blindness or arrest records; just great memories of summer fun.