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.

A Room With a View

family terraceWhen I was a kid, the terrace was the best part of my house.  Living in an apartment building, there was no sprawling yard to run and play in, no deck or above ground pool, no barbeque  for grilling burgers and corn. But there was a terrace, and for me, spending the summer months out here was the equivalent of  a month on a beach with crystal blue water.

Part of the appeal of the terrace was the fact that the terrace was outside, yet still inside the apartment. You could bask in the sunshine but be just steps away from the phone, the fridge, the television and the bathroom. It had all the comforts of home without actually being in the house.

When we were young, we had a chaise lounge and a glider on our terrace. The furniture was a hideous plastic with an oh so 70’s floral print, but it didn’t have the same skin ripping effect as the furniture inside with the unforgiving plastic slipcovers. The glider swayed back and forth like a swing and my brother Jeffrey and I would sit on the terrace for hours singing and gliding. Mom always got the chaise lounge where she could lie down; at the time I didn’t realize why a woman with three young children would enjoy the opportunity to rest. Silly me.

My father, hardly a man one would call an “outdoorsman,” also sat on the terrace frequently. Part of this was due to the fact that after he had smoked his daily pack of cigarettes, he enjoyed a cigar, a privilege that mom would only allow him to partake in on the terrace.  We would sit on the glider together and I would watch and count the cars going down 99th street and the number of planes that incessantly flew over our apartment building on their way to the airport. I would stare at the Archie Bunker houses across the street wondering who lived in them and fantasizing about what it was like to live in a house (to this day I still don’t know). Sometimes we talked; often we were silent and just enjoyed the scenery. It was here on the terrace that I learned how to just enjoy the moment and that silence doesn’t have to be awkward (well, unless it’s in an elevator).

On the Fourth of July, we could sit on the terrace and see a spectacular unobstructed fireworks show from nearby Flushing Meadow Park. In 1977 when the infrastructure of New York City sucked and there was a blackout,  I sat on the terrace taking in the darkness and wondering if there would be vast reports of looting and what Son of Sam’s plans were for the evening.

The terrace was also a place for “me time.” It provided the closest thing I had to a garden. I planted corn and tomatoes and while I got a few tiny green or mealy tomatoes and a huge stalk with no corn, I still felt a sense of accomplishment for my efforts. It was a great place to blow bubbles and I replenished my supply of bubble fluid frequently. As I got older, it was where I did my dreaded summer reading assignments and suffered reading such classics as Sons & Lovers and Look Homeward Angel; a book that I abandoned after 700 some odd pages because I just didn’t give a crap about what happened to any of the characters.

Cha-Cha’s terrace was directly below mine and we devised an ingenious communications system via the two terraces. We decided the phone was overrated and that a better method of contacting each other would be to take a hollowed out plastic jump rope and swing it up (or down) to the other person’s terrace clanging the hard plastic against the metal terrace railings. Once the signal was detected, the recipient would race out to the terrace to catch the swinging jump rope and speak into it using the greeting we had both agreed on; “one-double nine-three-oh-over” to communicate we were available for conversation. After we got bored of speaking to each other and our ears ached from having a piece of hard plastic shoved inside them, the conversation turned to food and who had good snacks in the house.  Since there was usually chocolate in mine, I perfected the art of hurling bite sized Snickers and Milky Ways down to Cha.  One would argue that her task to hurl treats up to me perhaps required more precision, but she hoisted her imported European jelly-filled sucking candies up to me with apparent ease.

Sometime after the year 2000, a large tree in front of the apartment building that faced the terraces was cut down. The Saxon Hall folklore is that this is where all the pigeons lived and after the tree was cut down they had no choice but to migrate to the apartment terraces. The pigeons are draped all over the terraces and nests have been found on some of the less traveled ones. My family terrace seems to be a favorite hangout and my mom has resorted to acting like a crazy women going out on the terrace and yelling things like “Get the hell off my terrace” as if the pigeons would give a shit…which is actually what they leave before they fly away.

Pigeons or no pigeons, I still love that terrace. It reminds me of a time when people came home and relaxed. A place where there were no cell phones or texts or laptops or social media. A place where you could disappear, regroup, recharge. And a time when sitting next to someone and enjoying the silence was OK. I would give anything to sit next to my father on my terrace in total silence. So every time I visit his house I do just that. And it always makes me smile. The pigeons like it too.

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.

Got GPS? Don’t Bother Using it in Queens

When I was in the second grade, we had a homework assignment to study a map of our neighborhood, memorize the names of the streets, and learn their order. This sounds like a reasonable homework assignment, until one realizes that even a rocket scientist with a map, a compass, a weather vane, and GPS would have a hard time figuring out where the hell he was going in Queens.

Originally, what is now the borough of Queens was 60 separate villages. These villages became Queens which was incorporated into New York City in 1898. In an effort to unify the streets across all these villages, someone came up with what many consider to be the most convoluted grid system in the universe.

In Queens, avenues run east and west and streets run north and south. Avenues have consecutive numbers, but often there are additional parallel streets in between the avenues that need to be called something, so they have been assigned the same numbers and called roads or drives, in that order.

So if there was a street between 65th and 66th Avenues, it would be called 65th Road. If there was another one, it would be called 65th Drive. Sometimes there are roads and drives between the avenues, sometimes there is only a road. Sometimes the avenues run consecutively with nothing in between. A destination that you originally thought was ten blocks away might be more like 30.

The same concept is applied to streets. If there is an additional street that needs naming between the consecutively numbered streets, they are called places and lanes. In some cases, streets aren’t even in numerical order. For example, if I walk from 99th Street where I grew up over to the next street, I hit 102nd Street. What happened to 100th and 101st Street? It’s across an expressway, several zip codes away. Easy Peasey.

Curved roads that are not parallel with either the avenues or the streets have numbers and are called crescents, courts or terraces. Addresses are hyphenated. The number before the hyphen is the cross street, and the number after the hyphen is the position on the block. For example, 62-38 99th Street  is in the 38th position on 99th Street and has 62nd Avenue as the cross street. Note to native Queens residents. Don’t be impressed; I only recently learned all this from Wikipedia.

In some parts of the borough, there are stretches of named streets in between numbered ones, making this grid system pretty useless. These named streets were left over from the pre-grid days and retained by members of the community who thought the grid system was pretty lame. Several subway stations in the western part of Queens have retained the original street names, yet the corresponding street signs are numbers. Leave it to the MTA to mess with our heads by calling 46th Street Bliss Street Station and naming the stop at 33rd Street Rawson Street. The fancy schmancy section of Queens, Forest Hills Gardens, gave the finger to the grid system as well and retained their original names rather than numbers. Streets have names that follow the letters of the alphabet, something I can generally handle.

Below is a comparison of a map of a neighborhood in Queens versus one in Manhattan. Note the differences. For the Queens map, you can figure out where you are going by multiplying the distance by the square root of pi divided by 15, subtracting 2,982, and then adding 6.; this will get you to within 5 miles of your desired destination. To achieve the same task in Manhattan, all you have to be able to do is count.




 The system is so convoluted that I can ask my mother, a resident of Queens for close to 50 years, to name the street or avenue two blocks over from her apartment and she cannot answer with 100% confidence. 

As kids, we never said things like “meet me on the corner of 98th Street and 62nd Drive,” because no one knew where that was, even if it was just a block or two away. Instead we relied on landmarks as our meeting place and would say things like, “meet me in front of the drugstore; the one with the cashier with the 10 inch fingernails,” or “meet me under the Long Island Expressway at the place where my brother got mugged last week,” or  meet me in front of that store that sells all the smelly cheese.” The only two streets that were ever referenced were Queens Boulevard (because the Boulevard of Death deserves that respect) and Austin Street because that was the high school equivalent of 5th Avenue in Manhattan.

When I moved to Manhattan, decades ago, being able to find my way around was like a breath of fresh air. I still marvel at the fact that 85th Street comes after 84th Street and Second Avenue is east of Third Avenue. When I return to Queens I will need to surround myself with the few geographically clairvoyant people I know from the borough who seem to have tackled this grid thing and can safely get me from point A to point B.

Queens to English Dictionary

My first roommate in college was from Albany, NY. During summer vacations when I returned to Queens, we would chat on the phone. Come September she would admit to me that the second I was back in Queens, my Queens accent kicked in, my voice sped up to 50 miles an hour, and she couldn’t understand anything I said on those calls so she just “yessed” and “ah ha’d” me until I returned to college and could once again be understood by those outside the borough.

My guess is that she was not the only one to struggle with understanding people from the borough, so as a public service to my non-Queens readers, I have put together a little Queens to English translation guide.

A few things to know about a Queens accent: it is very nasal, it could take weeks to complete the sound of a word with a w in it, and r’s are optional. The further east you go in the borough, the more pronounced the accent becomes, until you hit Lawn Giland (Long Island) which is beyond the scope of this post. Some natives of Queens have gone on to have successful careers, like Cyndi Lauper, famous for such hits as True Culas and Tiwwwwme Afta Tiwwwwme.

Now, practice with me. Here are two typical Queens conversations. Try to read along. Then check the words in the English/Queens translation guide below.

I was bowww-na in Queens, New Yawwk whay-a it is against the laww-wa not to clean up af-ta ya dawwwg. I hey-ar from some goy-a der was a tiwwwwme when dawwwgs cud drink wodda and then piss whereva they wan-ed to but dose days are gawwwn, thank Gawwwd.

Wait until ya fatha gets home mista! The cula of ya baa-tam is gowen to be red by tomarra and faww weeks ta come.

Translation Guide:

part: pawwwt

water: wodda

guy: goy-a

born: bowww-na

dog: dawwwg

calf: caaavvv

going: gowen

there: der

bottom: baa-tam

whatever: whadeva

wherever: whereva

mother: mu-tha

father: faaa-tha

fog: fowwwg

your: ya

wanted: wan-ed

tomorrow: tomarra

law: laww-ah

thick: tdick

thought: thowwwt

color: cu-la

New York: New Yawwwwk

God: Gawwd

walk: wawwwwk

far: faaaa

for: faww

there: der

them: dem

those: dose

shirt: shwirt

whisper: whis-pa

word: wawwwd

hear: hey-a

like: liwwwk

time: tiwwwwme

love: luv

why: wuhy

right: whryte

going: gow-en

where: whay-a

after: af-ta

could: cud

mister: mista

wanted: wan-ed

would have: wood-a

Next time, we will examine what happens when you combine a Brooklyn-bred father who loved cawwwww-fee and cake with a mother from Pennsylvania who spelled out the family name, Lewine, L-E-DUBYA-I-N-E to whoever needed to know, which was pointless anyway, since everything with the family name printed on it always ended up misspelled as Levine.






Jalar The Everything Store

At the age ten, I got my first job walking a miniature white poodle that lived in a building nearby. My friend Laurie had the job first, but she would often invite me to walk the dog with her and later I was asked by the owner to walk the dog when Laurie wasn’t available. Since I knew there was no way in hell I was ever getting a dog, or any pet for that matter, (please don’t ask me about the fish we killed after just one week), I was very excited to get paid to walk a dog.  And back then, no one even expected you to clean up dog shit, so the job really was good, clean fun. I can’t remember if I earned 50 cents a walk or 50 cents a week, but I do remember putting the money to good use, mainly for buying Mr. Softee and maybe even my own cup of Chow Chow truck french fries once in a while. After that job, things went downhill, and I spent much of my early and late teen years in a series of  boring cashier jobs.

During my summer break, following my first year of college, I returned to Queens to make some money to help finance my second year of college. For most students this meant landing some crappy minimum wage job that required you to work for people who had that same crappy minimum wage job years before you and were now crappy managers. I found all that and more when I landed a cashier job at Jalar, the Everything Store.

Jalar the Everything Store was on the south side of Queen’s Boulevard. It was like a Woolworth’s or Five & Ten store, and it really did seem to have everything. Aisle one had assorted sundries like shampoo, hair dye, and deodorant. Aisle two had a large shopping cart perched precariously on a hook several feet above the ground and items in this aisle included housewares and things for the laundry. But perhaps the most interesting display was in aisle three which housed a toilet seat suspended from the ceiling. Luckily it was the soft foamy kind that became popular in the 70’s, so at least if it fell and someone was struck in the head with it, it wouldn’t be fatal and Jalar wouldn’t be held liable for murdering someone with a toilet seat.

The cigarettes, their most popular item, were kept at the front of the store, behind the counter. I had become a pro at quickly guessing and then dispensing a customer’s cigarette choice from earlier cashier jobs selling cigarettes to all the under-aged kids, pregnant women, and older adults sporting portable oxygen tanks. So by the time I got to Jalar, I already knew that the 18-year old boys smoked Marlboro (hard box only), young women with big hair smoked Parliments,  old women with blue hair smoked Kools, ladies with nice handbags and long fingernails smoked Virginia Slims, and men with leathery skin and mechanical voice boxes smoked Camels (unfiltered).

After cigarettes, probably the most widely sold item at Jalar was condoms. Men would typically buy their condoms along with other manly things like a screwdriver, a can of paint, a pair of work gloves, and nails. They would toss everything from their cart onto the counter as if the condoms were part of their shopping list or the list of “things I need to get done this weekend.”

When I first started working at Jalar, the condoms were kept at the counter with the cigarettes and the boxes were held together with rubber bands so they wouldn’t fall over or be easily stolen. The first time a customer asked me for a box of condoms, I grabbed a set of boxes in rubber bands, and charged him as if this was one box. Judging by the looks of this guy, I had easily sold him his lifetime supply of condoms for just 99 cents. This explains the huge smile he flashed me as he tipped his policeman’s cap and left the store.

There was a lot of theft at Jalar and the manager took matters into his own hands to manage this. Each time a shoplifter was caught, he would break out a Polaroid camera (note to readers born after 1990: this is the 1970’s equivalent of Instagram without the ability to adjust the color, making everyone look green) and force the thief to pose for a picture which he would hang up at the front counter with a sign that read, “People caught stealing from Jalar.” One shoplifter posed with a big smile on his face and underneath his photo read the inscription “second time!” You would think the picture taking would serve as some sort of deterrent, but after the one shoplifter claimed the “second time” title, every crook wanted to have their picture taken to steal the title of person caught stealing most frequently at Jalar. 

The manager lacked good judgment in other ways as well. He was having a very blatant affair with one of the other cashiers and when his wife came into the store (with their baby!) looking for him, we were supposed to act like we didn’t know where he was. I would usually use this time to reorganize the condoms, so I wouldn’t be seen and wouldn’t have to lie for him and this is probably when I realized that three condoms, not 300 were 99 cents.


Sights, Smells, and Sounds From the G Train

The subway line that was closest to my house was the G line. This line had been built decades before I was a rider and the trains looked like they were better suited for a war zone than a one-fare transportation zone in Queens. The cars were a horrific shade of army green that resembled what you might find inside a used tissue. The train always looked dusty and dirty, like it had just driven through a sand storm and taken a detour to observe some nuclear fallout. The sound of an incoming train barreling into the station was ear numbing, and while this was way before anyone had ever heard the term noise pollution, we were all sure repeated exposure to a screeching train would cause hearing loss. Luckily in the 80’s we all got Walkman players with headphones and opted for losing our hearing in a more civilized and pleasurable manner.

In order to get down to the subway platform, you had to navigate your way down a few flights of stairs that were often covered with cigarette butts, chewing gum, old newspapers, and occasionally someone who was asleep. Once you got downstairs, you had to make sure you had a subway token which was always mixed in with your loose change and took you hours to fish out. But at least there was no real skill necessary for inserting the token into the turnstile slot, unlike today where you get assorted messages after inserting your Metrocard like swipe again at this turnstile, too fast, too slow, insufficient fare, or do not pass Go; do not collect $200. Despite the ease of token insertion, the turnstiles were not without their own problems. They were made of thick slabs of wood that were old and stiff and could knock the wind out of you if you tried to push your way through them using your stomach rather than your hands (which I tried to do on numerous occasions).

Once you made your way through the turnstile there was yet another flight of stairs to descend to catch the train. If you were traveling with an adult, they would force you to take 5,000 steps back from the platform to avoid the obvious…tripping over your shoelace and being catapulted onto the track, landing smack on the third rail.

When the train arrived and the doors opened, you had the option of sitting in two types of seats. One seat had some sort of fake maroon leather that was usually ripped (nothing like the cool, plush pleather at Jahn’s); the other selection was the wicker yellow and green seat that gave your bottom the same sensation as sitting on a splintered bench at the Saxon Hall playground.

Frequently you couldn’t get a seat anyway, because during certain hours of the day the subways were quite crowded. In this situation, you would do your best to find a pole to hold on to. No kid dared lean on the doors to keep their balance, because their mother had already explained another obvious fact; it was quite likely that the wrong door, the one exposed to the open track, would accidentally open while you were leaning on it and you would once again fall on the tracks and die.

There was also the option of holding on to one of the straphangers that were placed on the ceiling of the train, above your fellow seated, more comfortable passengers, but that was never an option for me because I was too short to reach the straphangers. I’m actually still too short, but if I’m wearing my non-Instant Pants, non-altered jeans with high heels, I can loop my pinky finger in the handle and further steady myself by placing my other hand on a member of the nearby Mariachi band that often performs on my train route.

Once we began our journey on the G line, we would look to our parents for instructions on when to get off the train. This was challenging, even for seasoned train riders for several reasons. First of all, none of the train stations that I can remember had subway maps. And the trains that had maps were difficult to read and easily misinterpreted (kind of like the famous illusion that looks like a young woman to some and an old hag to others). If you were savvy enough to figure out the map, it was usually pointless anyway, since by 1972 all the subway maps were covered with graffiti and impossible to read. Stops were sometimes announced, but more often not and frequently any service change announcements were difficult to hear. The conductor’s message was announced over a crackling, buzzing intercom and you would have thought the guy was broadcasting from an Apollo moon mission instead of a few subway cars away. A typical service announcement might sound something like this. “Attention passengers, this train will be making all local stops until #$%* and then will switch over to the #@%$ line and make all express stops until %$#@ Street. Of course today it’s not much better and it’s not unusual to hear, “Attention passengers; there has been an incident at @#$% Street and $#@& people have been taken into custody after police spotted a suspicious %%$$ in lower %$#@.

To make matters worse, riders also had to contend with the extreme weather conditions that are always magnified when you are hundreds of feet below ground. The trains were cold in the winter, but the real memorable rides were in the summer. Trains did not have air conditioning back then, but instead had old rickety ceiling fans that looked like rejected wood token turnstiles and were just as inefficient for cooling or moving for that matter. Sweaty, grumpy passengers would open the train windows because back then you could and obviously the air circulating in an underground 103 degree inferno would bring much needed relief and a pleasurable scent to boot.

As I got older some of the ancient subway lines were replaced and the city contracted with a Japanese manufacturer to give us some spanking new trains with alternating orange and light orange? seats. The only problem was that the average Japanese ass is about half the size of an American one and we were stuck in seats with half our asses spilling into the seat of our fellow passengers. Call me crazy, but I believe there is a direct correlation between the introduction of these trains and the rise of liposuction in the greater New York area. Hey, it’s just a theory.

Despite my griping about the New York City subway system, I actually enjoy train rides and am in awe of the fact that I can travel across four boroughs, get to a beach, a zoo, the Empire State Building, or even the Shalimar Diner for under three bucks.

Zagat’s Guide to Tween/Teen Dining in Queens

Before we had easy access to sushi and Thai food and the closest thing the neighborhood had to ethnic fare was Italian ices, we frequented a few neighborhood eateries that were more often than not dives, but hold many special memories. Here are just a few.

Jahn’s. Jahn’s was an area ice cream chain that looked like an old fashioned ice cream parlor with booths with red leather and stained glass light fixtures. You could get an amazing ice cream sundae with hot fudge, whipped cream, and a cherry and if you happened to be with a big spender you could grab a few spoonfuls of their Kitchen Sink, which was a trough of ice cream that could feed eight. It was probably a few dollars in the 1970’s, but the last time I checked the price it was $51.95. I don’t even have eight friends, let alone eight friends with more than six dollars to spend on an eighth of an ice cream sundae.

Jahn’s also had a party room downstairs and I had a birthday party there when I turned nine. In addition to the ice cream, I had live entertainment; my brother Jeffrey, who attempted to make animal balloons for our guests. He was shooting for dogs, but most of his creations ended up looking like huge phallus’. Fortunately, the ice cream made up for the lack of age appropriate party favors.

The Chow-Chow truck. The Chow-Chow truck was an Asian- influenced food truck that sold the best french fries in the world. I have no idea why french fries would even be on the menu with egg rolls and other Chinese food options, but I didn’t care and I would stop at nothing to savor a few of these grease-infused fries served in a cone-shaped paper cup. Usually by the time the Chow Chow truck made a stop by the school playground, we had already spent our money on ice cream. As an alternative to purchasing a cupful, we would stand on line near a paying customer and wait for some of the fries presented in the overflowing cup to fall out and into our waiting hands. We often missed and when the fries fell to the ground we applied the dubious five second rule…if we picked the fries up in five seconds or less, they were safe to eat. And we counted very slowly. Heck, let’s be honest; a few times people trampled on the fries that fell to the ground and we still picked them up and ate them. Yes, they were that good.

Alexander’s. In addition to being what I was sure was the largest department store in the world, Alexander’s had a full-service restaurant with pretty good hamburgers and great pickles served in a metal bowl. Most of my time at Alexander’s was spent in the record department purchasing 45’s (note to readers born after 1980: this was the 1970’s version of downloading a single song), looking at albums, or paying for toys I pretended my parents purchased for me, but occasionally I did get to eat at Alexander’s (usually when someone else was treating).

Queens Center Mall. The first real mall in the neighborhood opened when I was 11 and moving into prime shopping age. After browsing the assortment of tee-shirts from the popular Ancil House, a novelty store that pressed decals of various images onto shirts and added felt letters spelling out your name (the full name, not the initials; it’s totally different!) we worked up an appetite and needed to treat ourselves to some good eats in the food court. It was here that I got my first taste of all the crappy chain food that most New Yorkers are lucky enough to avoid, like Orange Julius and Panda Express.

Knish Nosh. Hungry but short on cash? No problem. Eat a knish from this popular eatery and enjoy the week and a half it takes to digest one of these things.

Arthur Treacher’s Fish & Chips. Truly disgusting and not worth the trauma of crossing The Boulevard of Death to get there. Why would anyone want to imitate British cuisine anyway? Mom refused to bring home McDonald’s or Burger King, but this was on the approved foods list.

Jay Dee Bakery. The Jay Dee Bakery was generally reserved for special occasions like school birthdays, visits from our grandparents, and the appearance of other relatives in our house which generally only occurred on leap years. My grandparents would stock up on the prune and cheese danish from this Hungarian Jewish bakery on their visits and usually throw in a pound or two of bakery cookies that looked much better than they tasted. Up until the age of six, I seriously considered pursuing a career as counter girl at the Jay Dee Bakery because I assumed the job entailed eating whatever baked goods you wanted and occasionally serving a customer.

White Castle. Oh, the thrill of walking into a hamburger joint and being able to order burgers by the dozen. The hamburgers were so small that 12 of them was the equivalent of one Swedish meatball. But the real treat for me at White Castle were the shakes. They were so thick that if you attempted to drink them with a straw you could easily have a brain aneurysm, so you quickly grabbed a spoon and opted for a major brain freeze instead.

Wine Gallery. We started going here in high school even though we were too young to be served wine.  If we were lucky, we would hang out with some 18 year old who managed to score a pitcher of sangria.  I’m not sure what the appeal of this place was, other than that it was a step up from White Castle, but I remember thinking you were with the “in crowd” if you were hanging out here.

Shalimar Diner. This was another “place to be seen” in high school. Kids seemed to end up here after every major school event even though it wasn’t located that close to the school. But it was open late and the over 50 waitresses in their orthopedic shoes seemed to tolerate the nonsense and mayhem that only a group of teenagers can cause. I think most of the guys ordered hamburgers here and most of the girls ordered sweets. The muffins were the size of softballs and a piece of cake was so big it came with its own zip code. I remember the food being fair, but the company always made up for it.

The hot dog cart lady. Outside the school playground there was an old German woman who had a hot dog vending cart. After we had spent our money on ice cream and eaten trampled on french fries, we scrounged around for five cents between five kids and asked the hot dog lady if she would give us five cents worth of sauerkraut. One of my friends once asked for two cents worth of mustard and I think this is where she finally drew the line.

Jewish Chinese food. Growing up, I ate the same Jewish Chinese food that all the reformed Jews in the neighborhood ate; spare ribs, pork fried rice, pork egg rolls, pork-filled wonton soup, and egg foo young. My parents ordered Chinese food every Friday night and it was always the same thing. Once I left home and occasionally visited my parents for this Friday night tradition, I would attempt to order something “outside the box” like chicken and broccoli and my father would look at me in disbelief and pray that this was just a phase I was going through and hope I would soon return to my senses and chow down on something that had pork in its name. The last time I had a spare rib was 1981. Sorry dad.

The Lemon Tree. This was a disco (it was the 70’s people!) that was open to kids under 18 on certain days of the week and served non-alcoholic beverages. I assume they served food too. I wouldn’t know. I never went. Perhaps I was waiting to be asked; I don’t know. I defer to my hipper friends to recount tales from The Lemon Tree. I have none,  even though I perfected my “hustle” in gym class in the 7th grade.





I Crossed Queens Boulevard…and Lived!

Queens Boulevard is a major thoroughfare that runs throughout a large section of central Queens and ends at the 59th Street Bridge which connects Queens to Manhattan. When I was in grade school, it also served as a barometer of sorts for how much autonomy your friends had or how little their parent’s cared about their well-being and safety. Here’s why.

Queens Boulevard was so dangerous that the locals affectionately referred to it as “The Boulevard of Death” or “The Human Bowling Alley.” Every year you would hear stories about someone who was mowed down while trying to cross the gauntlet of traffic lanes and islands that made up this road.

Most of the parents had strict rules when it came to getting across Queens Boulevard. Many allowed their kids to get from one side of the boulevard to the other by crossing via the underpass available at the G train subway stop. It’s questionable whether this was actually a safer option, because the subway system in the 1970’s was pretty seedy and smelly, but several parents believed crossing underground was the lesser of two evils.

Either because no rule had ever been put in place by my parents regarding Queens Boulevard, or because they already had two kids that had survived it, I started crossing it on my own at age eight. Sometimes kids with the “no crossing rule” crossed anyway in an act of defiance, but that always seemed to backfire as their parents ultimately found out. It was like there was some sort of invisible parent safety patrol or network of parents that secretly transmitted information about their kids’ whereabouts via Morse code or smoke signals (which was the closest thing to text messaging in the 70’s).

Despite the fact that I was allowed to cross Queens Boulevard, I didn’t take the mission lightly. We would start gearing up for the journey across about a block before we got there, plotting how we would make it across the multiple lanes without having to stop on one of the islands due to a red light. Sneakers were mandatory and even once I was in high school and was parading around in my Candies, even I considered this unsuitable footwear for a trip across Queens Boulevard.

Once we arrived at the street crossing we would press the button to signal that we wanted to cross the street (which I have since learned is one of the biggest mind-f@$% out there, since pressing that button has no correlation to when the light changes). Once the light turned green, you would grab your friend’s hand and run as fast as you could, trying to get to the other side which was pointless because making it across on one light was as likely as winning the lottery. You were then forced to wait on the island until the light changed again, which from an eight-year old’s perspective, took hours.

You may be wondering, what was so great about Queens Boulevard anyway, and why were we willing to risk our lives to cross it. Well, if you lived on the north side of Queens Boulevard, you had to cross it to get to Instant Pants, Baskin Robbins or the jewelry shop once your mom said you were old enough to have your ears pierced. (interesting side note-my mom thought it was safe to cross Queens Boulevard at age eight, but getting my ears pierced was deemed unsafe before age 11).  If you lived on the south side of the boulevard, you had a more important reason to cross the boulevard which was to get to Alexander’s department store, which was one of the best places for records, toys, and even pickles which were served in their restaurant.

In recent years, the city of New York has put in new measures to improve the safety of Queens Boulevard, and 2011 marked the first year where zero fatalities occurred from pedestrian crossings. Recently, the city put in new traffic lights with timers to let pedestrians know how much time they have left before the light turns red. I’m on the fence as to whether this makes the boulevard safer or not. When I see the light, I am immediately drawn back to my eight year old much nimbler self and I often assume that seven seconds is plenty of time to cross from start to finish. But I’ve successfully made it across every time, even in my high-heeled shoes.

Things I Was Thankful for in the 1970’s

As a young girl growing up in Queens, perhaps I wasn’t as introspective and reflective on Thanksgiving as I could have been, but these are the things I remember being thankful for.

  1. A mood ring that turned any color other than black or brown.
  2. The opportunity to own a pair of earth shoes despite my mother’s repeated reminder that they were the ugliest shoes on earth (although I think Crocs now hold that distinction).
  3. Clean tube socks
  4. Instant Pants
  5. The few times I still had my Pinky ball at the end of the day.
  6. A television set that showed a clear picture without having to stand on one leg with your arms crossed while holding the rabbit ears.
  7. The demise of the eight-track tape.
  8. Alexander’s record department.
  9. Crossing Queens Boulevard without getting killed.
  10. Finding enough money on dad’s night table to buy a Mr. Softee cone.

Today, I think much more about how thankful I am for having such great family and friends, but I’m thankful for all my wonderful 1970’s memories as well.