Mom’s Place in History

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.

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.

Forty-three years ago, on the very first night I spent in my twelve-by-twelve-foot square room, Mom told me to bang on the floor if I got scared. Back on 174th Street, where we’d previously lived with my aunt and uncle, my room had been right next to my parents’. Here I was upstairs, by myself. But I never got scared. From the start I recognized the value of vertical separation. They were down there and I was up here. Ah, my room, that little incubator of me. What do you say about a place where you jacked off for the first time? Where you listened to Ali beat Liston on the radio? So much happened in my room, I thought, spending one last night up here, the movers due at seven the next morning.

The House was in boxes; my mother, never one to wait to the last moment, had started packing months before. I’d taken some things – my sixth-grade autograph book from P.S. 177 (“drop dead” is listed as my “favorite motto”), my Ted Kluszewski mitt, the chair I sat in to do my homework. Mementos, souvenirs, nothing more. This seemed appropriate, since I’d always told myself that even though I’d grown up here, The House had never truly been mine. I was just passing through, ma’am, marking time until my life started for real.

By midnight I was in the basement. It was straight down, like a plumb line, from my attic kingdom to that murky chamber of unresolved issues. Down there was what remained of my father’s workshop. When I was a boy, this was the land of hulking steel machines upon which imposing sheets of plywood were made to scream in pain while being torn asunder. Now it was quiet. My mother had managed to sell the giant bandsaw and the huge metal lathe. Most of my father’s hundreds of hand tools – he had dozens of files arrayed in varying increments of size and grate, at least 50 hammers and screwdrivers – had long since been given to friends and relatives. Their customized, meticulously labeled racks and holders were now empty.

The basement had always been an awkward place for me, and him, not that we spent much time talking about it. I’d always assumed it to have been a source of mutual regret – that I hadn’t inherited his marvelous skills, his reverence for the joining of two pieces of wood in a perfect right angle. It seemed like something a father and a son might do together, a gift to pass from one generation to the next in the old way. Now, however, on the last night of The House, with the machines gone or shut down, it was easy to believe my father was relieved I’d shown no aptitude, that I was just another slovenly, uninterested teenager like the ones he taught all day long. In the stillness, I could feel him close, working away like some Queens hermetist in his fez, surrounded by his wonderfully precise toys, his files, planes, and grinding machines. Being a father now myself (as well as my father’s son), I understood how Dad felt down here, his sanctum. With the ingressing ooze of life raging forth upstairs, it must have seemed like heaven.

That’s when I started to pull that cabinet off the wall. It was one of the many built-in storage bins my father had attached to the paneling, each with several drawers bearing his familiar calligraphy (BRADS, 1/4 INCH; BRADS, 1/3 INCH; BRADS, 1/2 INCH, etc). This was really what I wanted from The House, this symbol of his manic precision, a little bit of the peace he found down here. Except the thing resisted; I couldn’t get it off the wall. I couldn’t even figure how and where he’d stuck it up there – the fastenings were invisible. It was something he’d always tried to teach me, how things might stick together without the slather of Elmer’s, without the splintered bash of a dozen nails. This was the art of it, he said, to make things seem as if they’d always been there, as if they belonged. But then, like now, that sort of craft was beyond me. Anyway, I must have been making a bunch of noise, because soon my mother was descending the basement stairs.

There was an amusing retro-ness to the scene: Mom in her housecoat, demanding to know what I was doing, why I was making all that noise. She’d told the Dominicans those cabinets were “staying,” and stay they would. I began arguing, saying that this cabinet meant a lot more to me than it could to anyone from Santo Domingo.

“You had your chance,” she said, with cold finality. She’d been trying to get me to take things from the basement for months, but I’d always been too busy.

“But Mom … ” Revision to former behavior is always lurking, even on the eve of your 50th birthday.

“He built those things for this place,” my mother said. “They’re not supposed to go anywhere else. So leave them.”

Mom had pulled rank. There was nothing left to do but go upstairs, brush my teeth, and put out the light.

Six hours later, Hell’s Angels-style-clad representatives of Movin’ On (slogan: “the company with the clean trucks”) began carrying boxes out the long-shunned front door. It was more convenient, they said. By early afternoon the deed was done. “That,” my mother said, “was that.”

Now I visit my mom in her new apartment over on 75th Avenue, near Bell Boulevard. Wanting to not move “too far” (no Florida for her), Mom found the place in a week. A totally nifty two-bedroom with a giant living room in a really nice development filled with “people to talk to,” and close to her long-favored Key Food, the apartment “makes sense,” Mom says, a little drunk on the novelty of it all. For Mom, to hondle is to live, and even as she misses my father terribly, there are all these new items to ruthlessly search out the best price on. At 77, after a life of walk-ups and The House, she notes, she is finally living in a building with an elevator. The view from the sixth-floor windows is fantastic. You overlook the old Vanderbilt Parkway, built as a private auto road by the robber baron in 1908. Back in high school, my friends and I hung out on the overgrown parkway; indeed, it’s where I first smoked pot, but Mom doesn’t need to know about that.

After leaving Mom’s place, as usual, I meander through the unending ethnikquilt that the borough of my birth has become. Driving past the Albanians and Afghanis on Hillside Avenue, I turn off to stop in at a candy store on Union Turnpike. My friends and I used to go to the place because the old man mixed his own Cokes and had a heavy thumb on the syrup. Now – the fountain long gone – it’s owned by Sikhs, and an old Russian, crucifix dangling on a key chain, is in there trying to buy cigarettes with food stamps. The Sikh won’t allow it. “Why no? I pay tax!” the Russian screams in protest. This cracks up some Chinese kids who’ve been sneak-reading the comic books. “I pay tax,” they mock after the Russian has stomped off. Wiseasses, now the epic of New York belongs to them.

In the end, I go by The House. It’s been a couple of months now, and even if the grass looks a little patchy and my father would have have pruned the rose bushes, the place looks pretty much the same. But that won’t last. Changes will be made. Which is fine, I think, silently watching from across the street, as the new people, all dressed up, come out the front door – as if they didn’t know that, in The House, you always use the side.

Mom’s Place in History