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Mom's Place in History


I never believed she'd really sell the place. It was a story she often told: how, when she was a girl in the Depression, my grandparents moved almost every year. Back then, the Brighton Beach/Sheepshead Bay landlord class was so hard up they'd throw in a paint job with each new rental, so why do it yourself? Paint cost money; movers only charged $10. My mother hated this shiftlessness. She vowed her children would not be uprooted for the sake of free paint. The House would last forever, she thought. But now, with Dad gone, too many things evoked her Dickensian capacity for worry. The boiler, the rose bushes, the balky automatic garage opener: In my parents' strict division of labor, there was so much he did. But it was more than that. The doughty democracy of the neighborhood had shifted to the next, inevitable notch: Now, more often than not, those little civil-servant-style houses on the block were occupied by widows, old ladies living alone.

Then again, this is a different Queens than the one where my mother and father chose to become Americans, a wholly Other place from the one where I grew up. In the early sixties, in the waning years of my sojourn as an increasingly disgruntled outer-borough high-school student, I'd return on the 7 train from some beatnik-in-training night in Manhattan and stand at the corner of Main Street and Roosevelt Avenue in Flushing. There, waiting for the Q-17 bus, which would take me deeper into what I regarded as the hopelessly provincial hinterlands, I'd look through the misty window of the Main Street Bar and Grille. On the steam table was a huge turkey with a giant fork jammed into its heavily browned breast. Men were at the bar, men about my father's age -- Irish, Italians, Jews, the usual. They drank whiskey and watched The Late, Late Show. Even then, to the impressionable 16-year-old mind, it seemed like death. Queens might have been built to accommodate the American Dream, but in Flushing late at night that dream seemed petered out.

Now, of course, the cornerof Roosevelt and Main is a good deal livelier, and way more exotic. The bar is gone, replaced by places like the Flushing Noodle House, where a featured dish is "intestine and pig blood cake soup." Other landmarks of my youth, Alexander's department store and the RKO Keith's where I saw movies like Mr. Sardonicus and Frankenstein '70 have been succeeded by establishments such as the Golden Monkey Pawnbrokers and the Korean Full-Gospel Evangelical Church. Down every street is a telescopic crush of neon Chinese ideograms hawking Taiwanese restaurants and sexual remedies. Billboards exhort travelers to sail down the Yangtze River. On the venerable Long Island Railroad Bridge hangs a sign advertising Asiana Airways: fly the youngest fleet to the old countries. Somehow I don't think Bucharest acts as the travel hub for any of these old countries.

I've always secretly believed that it was no mere coincidence that 1965, the year I left home to go to college, was also when Congress passed the Immigration and Nationality Act, which threw the doors wide open and changed Queens forever. Now more than 125,000 Chinese and Koreans call Flushing home. A quarter of the city's newly arrived Latin American population lives in Queens. Peruvians, Bolivians, Colombians, Nicaraguans -- almost every country in the Caribbean and South America has a sizable representation. East Indians fill Jackson Heights. Once Jimmy Breslin, the poet laureate of Queens, articulated the perfect nasal pitch of the borough's blue-collar white man. These days Breslin lives in Manhattan; much of his cop/fireman constituency has moved to Long Island or Florida; and if you go over to Elmhurst's Newtown High (a sleepy, Irish-dominated school when we played them in basketball during the middle sixties), you'll hear a hip-hop-tinged Babel of upwards of 40 different languages. The dowdy Flushing 7 train, once my lifeline to Manhattan cosmopolitanism, is now universally referred to as the Orient Express. The curious only have to get off at specific stops to visit different cultures: At 74th Street, curry can be eaten and saris bought. Exiting at 90th Street leaves you in close proximity to the Indio Amazonica, where El Indio, an old man with a feather through his nose conoce su suerte via el horoscopo. While you're in the neighborhood, get your feet looked at by Dr. Demetrios S. Econopouly, podiatrist. He takes most major-medical plans.

Thirty-five years after freezing on the corner of Roosevelt and Main, I am an eager tourist in the land of my upbringing. I love to get into the car and cruise the diversity hot spots, places like the intersection of 91st Place and Corona Avenue, where within the space of a single block stand the Chinese Seventh Day Adventist Church, Centro Civico Colombiano, Santeria Niño de Atocha Botánica, Malaysian Curry House, Perla Ecuatoriana Restaurant, the Korean Health Center, and Elarayan Restaurante Chileano. Smack in the middle of this is Ana's hairdresser, where old Italian ladies, as if commanded by some recondite memory chip, still beehive their hair under conehead driers. The Elmhurst Hospital emergency room is also good, especially on a Saturday night after a big soccer game piped from Bogotá. A more far-flung array of stabbing victims would be hard to find. Harried nurses call out the names of the evening's victims: "Gonzalez! . . . Patel! . . . Chu! . . . where the hell is Romanov's chart?" After such exhausting internationalism, I like to relax with a late-night bowl of pho with beef navel at the Pho Bang Vietnamese at Broadway and 45th Avenue, or maybe a Guyanese roti at Sybil's on Hillside Avenue.

These are a different crew from the immigrants my parents and grandparents came in with. My people, once they got on the boat -- they weren't going back. America was their grail; they were here for the long haul. Now the world's smaller, it's 69 cents a minute to talk to wherever at the larga distancia parlors on Roosevelt Avenue, and the new people aren't even called immigrants but "transnationals." You walk to Main Street, where Hasidim are, and see that assimilation -- becoming American -- no longer seems the sole purpose of living in Queens. Maybe there are enough Americans. Indeed, sometimes, in the grip of postmodernist ennui, it seems to me as if these new people, by their very apartness -- their refusal to buy the American deal lock, stock, and barrel -- are the only fully fleshed-out humans around, the only ones with a palpable past, present, and potentially heroic future. They have rolled the dice with their lives; now the epic of New York belongs to them.

As for my mother, no one could ever accuse her of lacking a sense of adventure. Recently, she went to Istanbul and preferred the Asian side. But she knows when things have come to an end. For months, she walked the still quiet, verdant blocks around The House and felt out of place. "I'm lonely here," she said.

One fall day I was sitting at her kitchen table and heard the pounding. The realtor was outside hammering a FOR SALE sign into my father's lawn like a stake through the heart. Then they started to come, the prospective buyers. Local canard said Chinese would buy the place: a non-English-speaking man from Xi'an with a bad haircut, two daughters at the top of their class at Stuyvesant, and a suitcase full of cash, all of it up-front. Chinese had bought many of the houses in the neighborhood. But in this Queens you can never tell who might buy the house you grew up in. In the space of a fortnight, Syrians, Koreans, Chileans, and people from Bukhara and Thailand walked through the rooms my father painted and where he put up shelves. They sat on the sofa so long forbidden to me and my sister. It was a stirring ecumenical procession, a testament to the city's ever fecund, eternally replenishing genetic alloy. Soon The House would be the repository of an entirely different history, ringing with another sort of accent, the smells in the kitchen sharper, spicier. Soon the place would serve someone else's purpose, only this time with a lot more TV stations than my sister and I ever got to watch.

My mother, she just wanted to sell. When it comes to grand continuums, she is notably unsentimental. In the end, Dominicans got the place. Nice people with a couple of kids and a travel-agency business downtown, Mom said. Maybe she could have held out for another five or ten grand. But still, a 1,500 percent profit isn't too shabby, especially when all you want to do is get out. "My heart is not broken," my mother announced at the closing.

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