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Mom's Place in History

When Mom sold the house in Flushing, Queens, you could see the sweep of the immigrant saga -- and New York changing hands.

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In the end, all mom said was "good-bye, house." Then she tossed the keys through the mail slot, got into her Subaru, drove down 190th Street to Underhill Avenue, turned the corner, and disappeared behind the Fensels' hedges. Forty-three years, and now the house on the corner of 190th Street and 53rd Avenue -- The House -- was officially sold. Gone, like that.

It reminded me of the night, two years earlier, when my father died in The House, the one I grew up in. Years of kidney treatment, cardboard boxes full of dialysis equipment stacked in the hallway, and then one gloomy November evening he comes out of the shower and keels over from a heart attack. He managed to make it to my parents' room and lie down on the bed before dying. He looked so normal there, stretched out, seemingly ready to open one of the mystery books he took from the library a dozen at a time, skull and crossbones on the spine.

Except he was on the wrong side. The far side of the bed (the left) was his, but he hadn't made it there. He was lying on my mother's side. There were so many rituals in The House, and this was one of them: Mom slept on the right, Dad on the left.

The front doorbell rang, another breach. We always used the side door. Only the Jehovah's Witnesses came to the front. But the funeral-parlor men didn't know that. Somber in their dark suits and peaked caps, they carried a stretcher and black leatherette zippered bag. I'd gone to high school with one of them. Already late for what they called "another pickup," the men paced in the kitchen while my mother stayed in the bedroom staring at my father's body. She was sure she'd seen him move.

"Look," she said, pointing at his stomach. "He's breathing." I embraced her, trying to calm her down, be cool, be the man of the house. Then I saw him breathe.

Alive again, same as you or me. Soon he'd get up, open the drawer of his mahogany dresser, put on his Witty Bros. suit (the best Division Street had to offer), go off to teach NYC Bd. of Ed. shop class at the Junior High. Then he'd be home again at about 3:20, put on paint-smeared dungarees and hat (a quiet eccentric, he favored woolen fezzes and Nepali skullcaps), and work in his basement on whatever moonlighting carpentry job he had lined up. At dinner he'd read the "school page" of the World-Telegram & Sun over a plate of pot roast or some other suitably overdone meat. This routine (in spring, add gardening) varied, but not much. There was something about The House, its resolute rectangularism and boxy rooms, that narrowed the behavioral palette.

But he was still dead, still lying on the wrong side of the bed. It was "pretty common to imagine you see the loved one move," the funeral parlor guys said as they zipped their bag over my father's face and carried his body out the front door, the only time I ever remember him passing through that portal. Then they put him into the waiting hearse, drove down 190th Street, turned the corner, disappeared behind the Fensels' hedges, and were gone. Like that.

After that, The House's fate was sealed. As Mom, the master of utilitarian understatement, said, the place no longer "served its purpose."

"It was a reliable place to raise you and your sister," she sums up. And reliable (reliability being a key Mom meme) it was: strong and sturdy, a veritable Flushing fortress in redbrick and gray siding. When that out-of-control Oldsmobile came tearing across the lawn and smashed into The House back in '58, did it crumble and fall? Not even a quiver. A couple of days later, I found the car's rocket 88 insignia in the azalea bushes. My father nailed it to the basement wall. It was a Queens version of a moose head, he said, an 88 bagged by The House.

Today I bring up this incident, throwing in a couple of trumped-up gory details, and Mom, whose goat is easily gotten, says I shouldn't be such a comedian, which is what she always says when I goof on her. "You know what I mean," she implores, about The House.

And I do, mostly. I understand the bigger picture of The House, the existential positioning of that modest shingled dwelling in the vast sweep of the Jacobsonian immigrant saga. Built in 1949, purchased in 1954 from an acrimoniously divorcing couple for the then-staggering sum of $18,000, The House was the prize -- compensation for the steerage, sweatshops, and years of dragging the coal bucket up five tenement flights. The House was what my father got for pushing in from Utah Beach one scary night in June of 1944. The House was what my parents and others like them had coming in this nation if they played by the rules, which for a fleeting, astounding moment were actually rigged in favor of people not very long out of the shtetl.

East of Gatsby's ash dumps, this part of Flushing was the "fresh-air zone," a municipal God's country ("G-d" to you). Once, when I was 7, a lady ran over a raccoon in the parking lot of the Bohack supermarket on 46th Avenue; everyone crowded around the dying animal, congratulating themselves for living in a place still touched by the wild. "Still the country, in parts," someone marveled. Here, on the frontier, we maintained the Queens version of a classless society. All of us -- sons of Jews, Italians, Irish, and a couple of Poles -- played million-inning thrillers with taped-up hardballs down in the vacant lots until the Parks Department built proper diamonds and wrecked everything. Our dads were firemen, cops, teachers. They all worked for the City, belonged to the appropriate Union, and made the same amount of money. We were little princes of the American Dream, snot-nosed scions of our parents' striving, piloting our bicycles through spacious, near-empty streets, scarfing pizza (extra mushrooms and hormones on mine, please) at 15 cents a slice.

Like Babe Ruth built Yankee Stadium, my parents built The House for me. My suzerainty remained intact even after that night Dave Bell and I, blasted on Champale Malt Liquor (advertised on WWRL, it was a black man's drink), tried to sneak into The House at 3 A.M. "Ah-ha," my mother shouted, flipping on the kitchen light in ambush. Startled like cockroaches, we both immediately threw up, Dave Bell on my mother's fuzzy slippers. But no matter, you've got to grow up somewhere and The House was a better place than most. Indeed, that was the real social alchemy at work inside those ever-reliable walls -- the fact that my parents, barely removed from the primordial precincts of the Lower East Side and Brooklyn, were able, in a single generation, to produce such a thoroughly self-referential, proto-hipster creature like myself.


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