The Queens People

Digging a boro

Queens People - Craig Taylor on NYCThe quest started. We were on Roosevelt Avenue, in Queens, in traffic, under the elevated train. Just this morning Frank had taken the Quest in to get the engine certified. I know a guy, he told me, I know a guy, I know a guy. But each time he brought the vehicle to a stop on the avenue in Jackson Heights on this cold Sunday in January, the Quest stalled. A red light flared on the dashboard. Frank wrenched the transmission back into park. Someone behind us honked. OK, fuck you, Frank said quietly.

He started up the minivan and we inched further along Roosevelt. On the pavement I could see a man in a foam Statue of Liberty crown handing out flyers under a banner that read Immigration Advice. A woman handed out her own flyers for tax prep. The headlines were in Korean. We rolled towards the La Abundancia bakery but the Quest came to a stop in front of Spicy Tibet. It stalled. Someone honked behind us, a different car. Fuck you, Frank said quietly to that different car.

It was a bright day in Jackson Heights. I was there doing what I’ve been doing for the past year in New York: asking the people who populate the city right now to talk, usually at length, usually with volume, about their version of the place, with no fixed line of questioning. I often heard about neighbourhoods. Frank told me to imagine a triangle. No, he said, a rectangle shape that separates Woodside from East Elmhurst and North Corona. That’s the shape of Jackson Heights. That’s how this neighbourhood in Queens looked. Keep going on the 7 train and you’re in Flushing. What do you think of Flushing, Queens? he asked me. Sounds like a good idea, he went on before I could answer. Frank grew up in Woodside—Catholic schools and a pub next to the church, the old Irish holdout. You see that place over there, he asked me. He pointed through the windshield across Roosevelt Avenue. That used to be a cathouse. A lot of boys from Woodside lost a certain something there.

I’d been spending time in Jackson Heights. I had a line on a few other residents—Bill, a member of the aging gay community; Javier, who ran the Latino paper; Kathy, the ex-coat-check woman who now sold real estate in the area. I’d been to loud town meetings to hear discussions of redevelopment. I’d seen Miss Universe, a tall, fragile-looking Colombian woman, address a crowd of Colombians in a requisitioned nightclub. Each time she mentioned Colombia, a confetti cannon boomed with paper spray the colours of the flag. I ate with Javier at Taqueria Coatzingo one afternoon and he told me Roosevelt Avenue was like no other street in the city. He held out his hand. On separate fingers: Pakistani, Indian, Peruvian, Ecuadorian, Colombian. The next hand: Mexican, Nepalese, gay, straight. And things are not what they seem. You’ll see a Mexican store selling Jarritos, he said, but is it Mexican? It’s owned by Ecuadorians.

I met Kathy at a coffee shop on 37th Avenue. She said: 37th Avenue is the Manhattan of Jackson Heights. You got that reference? She’d grown up a few blocks away on the other side of Northern Boulevard. Northern Boulevard was the Queens of Jackson Heights. Which was in Queens. Do you follow what I’m saying? Kathy asked me. She got up from the table to smoke. Are you getting these references? she asked.

I recognized the Quest because of the dent on its side. The Quest had never stalled when we drove to the other parts of Queens. We’d driven the long boulevards of Long Island City, even the cobbled streets, past the old warehouses. The new apartments of Long Island City peered across at the lit flank of Manhattan. One night we drove past the one skyscraper in Queens, the one that was giving the finger to Manhattan, or so Frank said. I got into the Quest one day and Frank had a couple newspapers on the dash, local Queens papers celebrating a recent high school basketball victory over Brooklyn. Brooklyn, he said darkly. They think they have every- thing over there. No one messes with their bridge. No one messes with the Brooklyn Bridge. Oh no, not like the Queensboro Bridge, he said. People in Manhattan, even those bastards Simon and Garfunkel, referred to it as the 59th Street Bridge. 59th Street Bridge, Frank said darkly. It was the Queensboro Bridge. It was the one thing that had our name on it. Now it’s the Ed Koch Bridge.

One evening we pulled over at 74th Street subway station after a drive through Queens. Frank was dropping me off. I got out of the Quest. There was a young guy sitting on the pavement with a cardboard sign propped up nearby and a dog lolling at his feet. That looks like a very reliable vehicle, he called out to Frank. Fuck you, Frank said quietly.

We kept moving through Jackson Heights. The Quest stalled out in front of the pre-war apartment building. The traffic had stopped. An Indian woman carried a roll of bright fabric across the street. The World Cup in Jackson Heights was a time of colour and noise and street closures. Advertisers sometimes covered select billboards with photos of cricket stars. These pre-war apartments, said Frank, could have been given away a few years ago. Someone behind us honked. OK, OK, Frank said. He wrenched the transmission into Drive.

A while ago we’d gone from street to street in the Quest looking for a plaque celebrating the life of the jazz cornetist Bix Beiderbecke, who died in Queens in 1931. His plaque was somewhere near the old German bakery. We drove through the quiet neighbourhood and finally found the place on 46th. This guy, Frank said, was one of the early jazz greats in the city. He lived a tragic life, alcoholism, some said he only left his apartment to buy gin. But he was part of New York’s art form. This is tragedy, this is Queens. He slowed the Quest down in front of the plaque. I peered out the window to read the text of the tiny plaque. Someone be- hind us honked. Fuck you, Frank muttered. He put the Quest into drive. You read it? he asked. Sure, I replied. You get the idea, he said.

I liked the mess in his minivan. Work was going well. Family court was busy, but tragic. When we drove around Jackson Heights he told me he was taking on a big New York department store on behalf of a family. The daughter had lost a finger in the escalator of this New York institution. And do you know where the headquarters are? he asked me. That great New York store is in Cincinnati. I got a call from them. They said I didn’t have a case. Tell it to the escalator.

Some nights Frank drove me all the way back to where I was staying on the West Side of Manhattan. I’ll drive you home, he said one evening. It’s not a problem. I told him thanks. He shrugged it off. It’s a chance, he said, to go past the hotel on Central Park South where I spent my wedding night.

The bridge to Manhattan got closer. It changes, he said. Queens changes. You’ve got to give the next people their time. The Colombians, the Nepalese, whoever. The Mexicans, I said. The Mexicans, he repeated.

There shouldn’t be much traffic on the 59th Street. Bridge, he said. We rode in silence for a few minutes. The Quest was moving now. The engine hummed.

I meant the Queensboro Bridge, obviously, he muttered.

This story is from the spring 2015 issue of Eighteen Bridges. Like what you read? Subscribe here.

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