Across the 59th Street Bridge and Back: Reprise

bridgeThirty 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.

Barbara and dad ny aptI 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.

Austin StNow 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.

Vacations, Staycations and Other Memories of Summer

Bermuda 6Shortly 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.

Shibley 2A 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.

Bermuda 3Another 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.


Queens Stuff I Love, But Forgot About

After being a city girl for 30 years, I seem to have repressed some of the things that make Queens life different. And while I realize that these things aren’t exclusive to Queens, many are rarities in Manhattan and I’m fully enjoying having these peculiarities, annoyances and small miracles back as an everyday part of my life.F train

  1. Fireflies. I’ve seen five fireflies tops my entire time in Manhattan and only in Central Park. During the summer in Queens I see them every night.
  2. Grass in between the cracks in the pavement. Stuff can grow in there? Who knew?
  3. Telephone wires. For the most part, telephony infrastructure in NYC is below ground. But in Queens I’m once again treated to telephone wires with perched pigeons, a flailing plastic bag, and an old pair of sneakers adorning them.
  4. Airplanes. NYC’s two major airports are in Queens. And it seems like every plane passes over my neighborhood. Additionally these planes serve as an excellent second alarm on those days I need to wake up early.Berry Bush
  5. McMansions. There was no such thing here when I was growing up, but in the last decade, these super-sized homes, affectionately referred to by the locals as f#$king big-ass monstrosities,  have been on the rise.
  6. Cars that stop at crosswalks. In Manhattan there are street lights on every corner which most drivers and pedestrians ignore. In Queens, drivers stop for pedestrians even when there is no light or sign. Still trying to wrap my head around this one.
  7. Shorter commute. Central Queens is a good 6+ miles further from midtown Manhattan than my previous domicile uptown, yet I seem to arrive at my destination in half the time. For readers who left Queens before 1979: stop bashing the F train.  It is now the equivalent of the Concord.
  8. Cooler air. Is this because Queens is closer to the ocean or because all the air in Times Square is sucked up by the endless parade of Hello Kitty and Elmos traipsing around and demanding ten bucks for the picture you took of them with your own cell phone camera? You decide.
  9. Parking spots. They actually exist in Queens. And you can get one without uttering excessive profanity of giving up your first born.slate floor
  10. Red brick. Six-story red brick buildings abound in central Queens. My favorite description of these buildings appears in the book Little Failure along with a description of the Kew Motor Inn,  “the most famous and exotic couples-friendly motel in Queens.”
  11. Sky. I prefer a little sky with my skyscraper. Queens provides a nice balance.
  12. Dashes. A good chunk of the borough is on a grid system that uses dashes in the address to identify location. Nobody understands it and it’s useless to ask any resident of Queens for directions. Here’s proof.
  13. Fallout shelters. Many new apartment buildings were constructed in Queens in the 1950’s with fallout shelters in the basements to protect people from a nuclear attack. Of course the children of the 50’s knew that hiding under a desk or a picnic blanket provided the same benefit. By the 70’s, when I was growing up in Queens, I knew nothing of such things; all I knew was that those cavernous basements  with steep hills made for some damn good knee scraping roller skating, giving the phrase fallout shelter a totally different meaning.fallout shelter
  14. Lawn sprinklers. You don’t see many sprinklers in Manhattan because you don’t see many lawns. That was easy. I’m thoroughly enjoying the sensation of darting through neighborhood lawn sprinklers and getting a bit of a spritz.
  15. Slate floors. I don’t know if I’m using the right term to describe these multi-colored floors you see at the entrance of  many Queens homes; I just think they are neat and they bring back memories of playing on this same type of flooring in the back courtyard of my apartment building  and unfortunately damaging it with some kid’s pogo stick that usually broke once we battered a few pieces of slate.
  16. Berry bushes. There were many of these in Queens when I was a kid. Back then we would trespass private property to pick and eat as many of these as we could. Now I just take pictures.
  17. The “offensive public statue.” A few years ago, then Councilman Anthony Weiner recommended the city remove a statue in Queens depicting  a nude man standing over two women, claiming it was sexist. Yes, you read that right…Anthony Weiner. Now the area is just a big eyesore. Many residents miss that statue; Carlos Danger; not so much.

What the F#$*???

question markWhen my brother Jeffrey wasn’t busy impressing everyone with how special he was, he behaved like any other older brother, wielding his power and authority to teach his younger sister stuff she was too young to understand.

My most vivid recollection of this occurred one afternoon at the Saxon Hall playground as Cha-Cha and I did flips and hanging tricks from the tetanus-producing bars underneath the sliding ponds. We had recently expanded our vocabulary to include the “F word” and we were busy trying the word out in different sentences and perfecting our language arts skills by using the word as a noun, verb, and adjective.

My brother was in earshot of this and exclaimed, “You don’t even know what the word means!” to which we retorted with our ten year old logic, “Of course we do; It’s a way to tell someone to leave you alone because they are stupid.” My twelve year old brother went on to explain, in explicit detail, the act that the word actually referred to. His description was met with WTF? looks from us, followed by disbelief. The whole thing made absolutely no sense, but what was harder to comprehend was how the heck my brother could have come up with such an explanation. After much deliberation, we decided that my brother must be telling the truth, because even though he was the smartest 6th grader in school and was about to receive his engraved dictionary to prove it, he was not clever enough to make this shit up.

I spent much of the next several months trying to figure out how this act was even humanly possible. To this day, tasks that require any spatial aptitude have always been challenging for me. I suck at jigsaw puzzles, I can barely figure out how to change a vacuum cleaner bag, and you definitely wouldn’t want me putting together a piece of your IKEA furniture.

So at ten, I was asking myself questions like, “How are the bodies arranged? How does it stay in? I imagined that for the parties involved, the only possible position was that they both  be lying flat on their backs with their heads at opposite ends of the beds which meant someone in the equation needed arms that were at least six feet long to even make the mechanics of this possible. I continued to ponder.

Then one day the following school year, the mystery was solved thanks to HBO. Cable was in its infancy in 1975 and my family was too busy trying to adjust the rabbit ears on the free version of television to even contemplate paying for shows with snow.  Fortunately Cha-Cha’s family already had a subscription and even more fortunately, were a bit lax with using the controls that kept their kids from watching age inappropriate television. We happened upon this movie, which was panned by many critics, but got a “thumbs up” from me for not only solving this riddle I’d been grappling with for close to a year, but also for clarifying any lingering questions by showing multiple examples of how it’s done and using a variety of cutting-edge camera angles.

After Jeffrey had shattered my illusion of the F word and while I was waiting for cable to come to Queens and set things straight, he got another opportunity to keep his little sister in line. While with Gaby, my most daring friend, we decided it would be a good idea to steal a piece of candy from a neighborhood store called Burt’s Candy Store. I was quickly caught by Burt himself for stealing a packet of Lick-A-Stix. I’m deeply embarrassed by this, partially because I was stealing, but more importantly because I was stealing bad candy, not even a piece of chocolate. Once Burt caught us, he demanded our home phone numbers and told us he would be calling our parents and telling them what we had done. Just as stupid as I was to steal bad candy, I was stupid enough to give Burt my correct phone number.

I went home and in a panic I told my brother what I had done, hoping for some emotional support and guidance. He offered to answer the phone to try to intercept Burt’s phone call. It was agonizing. For the next few days, every time the phone rang it felt like a scene out of  Play Misty for Me (well except for the fact that Burt, to the best of my knowledge, wasn’t psychotic). After a week and no call from Burt, I realized that the chances of him calling were marginal, but my brother now had a piece of information about me that he could use to his advantage. He suckered me into doing all types of crap for him like clean his room or lend him money and if I didn’t do what he wanted he would squeal on me. He milked this successfully for quite some time. I think I was a freshman in college before he officially let it go and only because Burt’s Candy Store had gone out of business by that time.

My parents never found out I was caught stealing which means my brother has kept this secret for 40 years. And in retrospect, I’m sure from day one he never really planned to divulge it. Which makes me a pretty lucky little sister.






Stuff That Was Important in the 70’s That Doesn’t Exist Anymore

There were several things I regularly encountered in the 70’s that were important components of my daily life. Many of them are gone now. Here are just a few.

  1. Photo booths. If you were feeling bored and silly, you could go to a store like Woolworth’s and for a quarter you could have a series of black and white pictures taken showing you and your friends doing something stupid. Note to readers born after 1995: this was the closest thing we had to Snapchat, but kids today are much smarter because they can make their Snapshot photos disappear in a matter of seconds. People like me end up with friends who find photo booth pictures in the back of their closet and post them on my Facebook page. Today it’s a lot harder to find a photo booth and when you do, it’s generally only used for passport pictures or as a source of nostalgic entertainment at Bar Mitzvahs and Sweet Sixteens.
  2. Foot X-rays. Up until 1970, mom would take us once a year to the Buster Brown shoe store for new school shoes. The excitement around this outing had nothing to do with getting new shoes and little to do with the free helium balloon you received after your visit. The highlight of the trip was getting a turn at the X-Ray shoe fitter machine. The machine allowed you to see all the bones in your feet while simultaneously getting a healthy dose of radiation. The machine was generally operated by a shoe salesman blowing cigarette smoke in your face while buffing a pair of new Mary Janes with some toxic shoe polish. Our foot x-ray days ended around 1970 when these machines were banned.
  3. Rotary phones. Dialing a number with a lot of 9’s in it was a bitch, you had to memorize important phone numbers in your head because there was no auto-dial, the long phone cords were always tangled, and if another caller was trying to get through while you were on the line, they were out of luck. If someone tried to call you with an important message and you weren’t home, you were screwed because there was no way to leave a message back then. But on the positive side, at least you always knew where the phone was because it was cemented to the wall. ,
  4. Arcade games. It used to be that you couldn’t walk into a candy store or newspaper shop without seeing a pinball machine, Pong, Asteroids, or PacMan. Today the only  place I ever see arcade games is at the Museum of the Moving Image in Queens with a sign that says, “Do Not Touch.”
  5. Typewriters.  When I was a teenager, I got a typewriter before I went to college. It was considered essential. There was no such thing as a Royal Ultra Book or a Smith Corona Air. There was one weight of typewriter…heavy. Back then, copy and pasting meant copying someone else’s term paper, not moving text around on the computer screen. There was no spell-check which meant students required a lot of white-out, which for many, replaced the mimeograph paper we were all getting buzzed off of back in first grade.
  6. Records. Part of the fun of listening to music was going to the record store or Alexander’s and leafing through the album covers. The photos, artwork, or images on the covers were often just as exciting as the album itself. Back then, you couldn’t Google the lyrics to your favorite song, so it was always eye-opening when you purchased the album and realized you’d been singing the wrong lyrics.. After months of belting out Simon & Garfunkel’s Sound of Silence singing “silence like a casserole” I finally realized that the duo was singing “silence like a cancer grows.” I still like my version better.
  7. Toaster ovens. We didn’t have a toaster oven growing up, but I always thought we needed one because everyone else seemed to have one. Apparently no one thinks this anymore, since I never see them anymore, except in my mother’s house because she bought one after I moved out!
  8. Subway tokens. Long before NYC Metrocards, everyone had to carry around tokens that were usually stuffed all the way at the bottom of your pocket and covered with lint or used tissues when you finally fished them out of your jeans. Despite the inconvenience, I miss subway tokens and I have been known to oogle over the New York Transit Museum store’s kitchy, gaudy, noisy, subway token charm bracelet with genuine tokens from different decades. Note to close friends and family: this would make a great gift for me if you’ve missed Christmas or my birthday.
  9. Skate keys. Before there were roller blades, kids had skates with keys that were used to adjust the size. Every kid was told to wear their key around their neck so it wouldn’t get lost. By the time I got my first pair of skates, Super Skates were invented which were adjustable without a key but never really gave you a snug fit. Fortunately Super Skates prepared me for the dozens of uncomfortable, impractical shoes I would purchase for decades to come.
  10. Captain Crunch ice cream bars. This was the best ice cream bar on the planet. I thought it was pure genius to blend a breakfast cereal with ice cream. Was I the only one? How could these gems have ever disappeared? I am still scratching my head.
  11. Rectal thermometers. Who doesn’t remember the embarrassment and discomfort of having a rectal thermometer shoved up your ass? Today this is reserved for people who are unconscious or for whatever reason can’t seem to use a mouth or ear thermometer, but back in the 70’s if your mother suspected you had a fever, there was no escaping the rectal thermometer.
  12. Lollipops at the doctor’s office. Sometime between 1980 and 1990, offering lollipops at the doctor’s office fell out of vogue. Ever since my kids started going to the pediatrician’s office, I have tried my best not to roll my eyes at the end of the visit when they are offered stickers. Big whoop. If I’ve just been poked and prodded (and perhaps just had an encounter with a rectal thermometer), I expect some compensation in the form of candy; not a piece of paper with glue.
  13. TV antennas. Before high definition, we had rabbit ears and snow. TV antennas were used to help make the picture clearer or more stable, get rid of weird zig zag lines on the screen, and eliminate snow, a euphemism for no freaking picture at all. Adjusting the rabbit ears was never an exact science and required a great deal of creativity. Each member of the family would take turns moving the rabbit ears close together and far apart hoping our actions would result in a clearer picture. Getting the rabbit ears in the right position for a clear picture usually required certain sacrifices like holding the antenna in a certain position with one hand, eliminating sudden movements, or suppressing breathing.
  14. TV test patterns. Before television was 24/7 and five-hour marathons of Law & Order and Hoarders didn’t exist, people used to go to bed no later than 1:30 am, when television programming ended for the evening. After Johnny Carson and the late night movie, a picture of an American flag would come on and the national anthem would be played. After this, all you could watch on TV was a test pattern with colors or more snow.
  15. Anything with a dial. Before there were remotes, people were forced to get up off their asses and change the channel when they wanted to watch a different television show. The same was true of the radio when you wanted to change the station. My father actually invented the concept for the first remote which was essentially any child in the family who walked past the television while he was watching. He would point a finger at one of us and ask us to change the channel for him, never leaving his chair. We served his purpose and we never ran out of batteries.