|An October Weekend In Queens
© Copyright 2007 by Nicole Zadeh
I pride myself on being an informed and clever New Yorker. The kind of New Yorker who will tell you that the cheesecake at Junior’s is grossly overrated and suggest instead that you explore the many bakeries of Bensonhurst, Brooklyn, for a better version. The kind of New Yorker who has the free night for every museum in the city memorized. The kind of New Yorker who enjoys the Bronx far more than she does Manhattan. Indeed, that is the kind of New Yorker I am.
Yet, somehow, my relentless curiosity to know everything about New York has never applied to one borough. It’s a borough I have blatantly neglected, a borough I’ve often called “too residential” for my taste, a borough once home to the show All in the Family. But, finally, on one crisp and chilly October weekend, I can no longer resist, I can no longer postpone the inevitable—I have to visit Queens.
It’s foolish to try to cram all of Queens into two days, so I devise a plan to explore the borough in a nearly straight east to west route, starting at The Socrates Sculpture Park in Long Island City.
Getting to The Socrates Sculpture Park is a bit of a trek because there is no direct subway connection. The best alternative is to take the N train to the Broadway stop and then transfer to the Q104 bus. But much to my dismay, the first thing I notice about Queens is that the bus stops aren’t equipped with schedules, maps, or any indication of which direction the bus is heading.
Desperate for guidance, I approach a burly, tattooed stranger waiting at the Q104 bus stop to ask, “Excuse me, sir, does this bus go to Long Island City.”
“This is Long Island City,” he answers.
“Sorry,” I mumble. “I mean, does this bus go to the water?”
“Yeah, sure, it goes to the water.”
“Okay, so I’m on the right side of the street?”
“Well, the other side goes to the water too.”
Again I’m embarrassed. “I’m sorry, does this bus go to the East River?” I clarify for what I hope to be the last time.
“Oh no, that’s on the other side,” he explains, pointing out the stop I should be waiting at.
I cross the street and wait at the correct stop. The bus doesn’t come, forcing me to walk the eight long blocks east. Already I feel my distaste for Queens growing.
When I arrive at the park I discover that the annual Halloween Harvest Fest is under way. My vision of a peaceful afternoon of meditation amongst modern sculptures is spoiled as I find dozens of kids wailing and whining and behaving wretchedly.
Small tables are set up, each serving a different purpose. One table is for palm reading, another is for face painting, and a third is for hot cider. I forego all these tables and head to the stage—constructed creatively out of stones. Waiting anxiously by the stage is one of the contestants: a charming Pomeranian dressed in a blue kimono. She’s a nervous little wreck of a pup. I ask her owner about the inspiration behind the costume.
“It is Pim’s favorite,” she answers plainly, leaving me to wonder exactly how she knows.
I squeak compliments at Pim—as one must do when one comes in contact with adorable dogs— and then excuse myself to finding a better spot from which to observe the competition. Overseeing the event is King Socrates, a young employee of the park dressed in a red cape and crown. He introduces the contestants. First to strut the catwalk is a dog dressed as Rambo. Following Rambo is Ginger the nurse, then Archie the police officer, Pim in the blue kimono, Winston Rodriguez as a fireman, and finally an owner and pet duo sporting blue wigs. The crowd, consisting mostly of jaded high-end-digital-camera-toting hipsters, is bizarrely supportive of the weak turn out. They storm the stage. I bet they’re drunk.
King Socrates fights to regain control, urging everyone to “take a step back.” No wait, “take two steps back,” he revises. “Two big steps back!” he yells, “Two more steps back!” The crowd manages one step back, enough for King Socrates, apparently, because he is ready to call for a vote.
I feel obligated to vote for Pim, but inwardly I root for Winston Rodriguez. Utterly conflicted, I cheer for both. It’s a tight race. King Socrates consults a panel of special judges to determine which dog received the loudest applause. I overhear the woman in front of me complain, “I don’t think we are going to win. I think the kimono is going to win. It’s not fair, that’s not even a costume.” She’s right. Pim is ultimately victorious, but, like any democratic American competition, several honorable mentions help to appease the disgruntled barking of the defeated. Still, there’s no monetary satisfaction in an honorable mention. Only Pim and her owner get to take home a dog toy and a $25 gift certificate to a restaurant, respectively.
To celebrate, The Hungry March Band, an ensemble of twenty-four musicians, performs several boisterous and brassy tunes. While everyone crowds around to watch them, I take the opportunity to tour the park, which I reduce to something of a cross between a hip outdoor garden and a junkyard. My impression is partially correct. The park used to be a landfill before it was opened as an outdoor exhibition venue for artists in 1986. And no doubt they’ve taken advantage of it. All around me I see sculptures: a big pink thing, a big wooden thing, a small square thing, round colorful things, tall metal things, and many other things that exceed my, you may call it puny, I call it reasonable, definition of art. My favorite is the big black thing, which I learn, thanks to a helpful sign, is actually an eighteen-foot Black Rock Negative Energy Absorber.
The music seems be getting fainter. I turn and see the band trickling out of the park, their instruments lowered to their sides. This, I interpret, is my cue to leave.
My next destination is the Museum of the Moving Image in the neighboring community of Astoria, a little to the west of Long Island City. It is the only museum in the nation devoted entirely to the craft of film, television, and animation. It’s appropriately housed in one of the thirteen buildings that make up the Kaufman Astoria Studio System, though it would probably fare better on Museum Mile.
It’s a shame too because it’s such a darn likeable museum, a welcome reprieve from the painstakingly dull and snooty galleries of so many Manhattan museums. With three floors of interactive exhibits, movie memorabilia, costumes, photographs, antique cameras, and live demonstrations, The Museum of the Moving Image will improve any afternoon. But be forewarned, whatever time you plan on allocating to the exploration of this museum, double it. Time and time again, I got stuck at the numerous stations, fiddling around with soundtrack music, creating my own animated short, and learning how to edit. Every little artifact, which I would usually only merit a hurried glimpse, is somehow engaging in this museum: Robert De Niro’s Mohawk from Taxi Driver, a 70 mm strip of film from Ben-Hur, a life-size dummy of Blair from The Exorcist. It’s like being invited to poke around the private collection of an important movie mogul.
The area likely to consume one’s most time is the classic video arcade, which the considerate curators—bless them—have made operable, much to the immeasurable appreciation of boys worldwide. I refrain from playing. Instead I derive pleasure from observing the many grown men howl and holler at the various consoles to which they are so helplessly addicted. Alongside them I observe a young boy, probably reared in the very arms of Nintendo, effortlessly conquer a game of the same skill level.
For the remainder of my visit, I hang around the gift shop, pondering whether or not I should splurge on a Star Trek figurine for my uncle. I look for the price. That’s enough for me to call it a day and head back home to Brooklyn.
The next day I resume my exploration of Queens in the neighborhood of Sunnyside, a name that evokes a lot of expectation.
Having not had anything edible in Queens the day before, I resolve to make eating today’s primary objective. It’s noon when I arrive at De Mole, a friendly Mexican restaurant with only six tables—all of which are occupied by families. I take my lonely seat at the bar and order a grilled steak burrito. While I wait, I watch Mexican music videos on the flat screen television behind me and feel ugly and undesirable in comparison to the scantily clad brunettes belting their sappy pop songs. Soon, the waiter emerges with my burrito and all my old worries are forgotten, replaced with a new one: how to eat the burrito. The burrito is huge—truly disconcerting. It’s colossal. Perhaps cosmic. If it detonated, all mankind would be wiped out in a flash. I don’t care. I’m going to eat it anyway.
Slowly, cautiously, I deconstruct the monstrosity. For my first bite I expect a mouthful of preservatives, but am treated instead to an appetizingly fresh and well-done combination of steak, red rice, cheese, and black beans. Granted, a burrito is not the most intricate meal to prepare, but it is one susceptible to carelessness —see Taco Bell, or even Chipotle for proof.
I eat and eat and eat, and still the thing remains on my plate—no discernible end in sight. I eat and eat and eat some more, but I have made no progress. I swear this is a conspiracy. I’m panting by this point, ready to topple over in defeat. But nobody comes to collect my plate. The waiter refills my glass of water. The bartender nods in encouragement. Gosh, they’re sweet. They have faith in me. They believe I can finish it. And so again, I eat and eat and eat and, at about three-quarters of the way through, I’ve had enough, self-dignity be damned, I surrender.
Admittedly, I do have an ulterior motive. I need to leave room for the tres leches cake, essentially a sponge cake soaked in three different types of milk. And this is exactly what I get when I order it, a marvelous square of a cake topped with fresh banana slices and floating in a milk bath. I savor every bite. Meanwhile, the brunch crowd starts to leave. This is the only restaurant I’ve ever been to where every patron makes it a point to personally thank the staff before they leave. I’m the last one left when I realize that somehow, amidst that grueling battle with the burrito, I had shed all my earlier self-consciousness. I had actually been okay eating alone at the bar amongst all those families. That’s certainly a first.
I experience another first when my bill comes, and I see that the total is $9.75. What? $9.75? I do a double take. No shit! How can a meal this satisfying, with service this friendly, be so cheap?
Around the corner at a discount store, I unearth more cheap wonders. Thermal underwear: $2.00. A simple black sweater: $8.00. I buy a few of these essentials, well aware of the impending winter, but soon am lured back into the lair of food. This time it’s a bubble tea store, touting its grand opening. Inside, I’m immediately ambushed—and no I’m not embellishing, this woman literally attacked me from out of nowhere—by an eager employee who drags me over to a group of pots, each holding a different kind of sticky rice ball.
Before I know it, she’s hissing in my ear, “This is red bean. You want try red bean?” I’m speechless. I’m still trying to recover from our brisk introduction, but she won’t let me go. I feel her tugging on my arm, persistent. “We have pork, look, this is pork, “ she says. “You want try pork?” No, I don’t. I want to sit down. “What about Mung bean, you like try mung bean?” she continues. “Or sesame, look, we have sesame.” I can’t look. I want to vomit. I scan the store for an escape. “Okay, red bean, you want red bean?”
Finally, I manage to croak, “I want a drink.”
This delights her enormously. She drags me over to the counter where she rattles off a number of bubble tea options that are available for my consumption.
“No, no, I want this one, this one,” I stutter as I bolt toward the store’s fridge pointing at a random pink drink in the glass display. She scoffs at my choice and approaches me threateningly, demonic forces driving her, fueling her mission. A sudden surge of willpower prompts me to stop her this time. I gesture to the drink again and repeat firmly, “I want this.” Disappointed, but legally bound to respect my decision, she removes the drink from the fridge, and hands it to the cashier. I pay $1.28 and run out of the store, taking a look for the first time at my purchase. It’s called a peach ramune. Okay, whatever. More puzzling than the drink itself, is its packaging. There is no mouthpiece from which to drink from, and inside the glass bottle there is a marble that rolls back and forth and makes a lot of noise. I imagine it is there for effect, so that every swig is marked by a clinking sound. Now if only I could learn how to take a swig—that would be nice.
“Let me show you how open,” she barks, violently seizing the drink from out of my hands. Christ, she’s back. She followed me out of the store. I watch as she rips off the plastic seal, pops off the plastic lid, breaks it in half, and presents me with a small cylindrical weapon.
“Some people no understand how to open,” she explains. I wonder why, I think to myself smugly.
“You take this and push through this part,” she demonstrates, pretending to use the cylindrical device to pierce through the top of the bottle, which I see now is plugged by some miraculously solid substance. “I won’t push for you, but when you do push, you have to push really hard.” She returns the drink and leaves to go back to work. When I know for sure that she is gone, I try to puncture the top of the bottle like she showed me. It doesn’t work. I tuck the bottle away in my bag for later.
At the end of the subway lines G, R, and V is my final stop in Queens for the weekend, the neighborhood of Forest Hills, home to the lovely Forest Hills Gardens. The Gardens is one of the many planned communities of Queens, designed in 1910 by the son of famed Frederick Law Olmsted, named, believe it or not, Frederick Law Olmsted Junior. He structured the community to have a unified style, where the houses were similar but not identical, special but never unique. True, each house looks perfect, but never more or less perfect than the house before it. And, up to this day, the community has maintained that aesthetic. There have been no outrageous renovations done to the houses, absolutely nothing that would disrupt the cherished sense of community. One would be hard pressed to even find an outdoor basketball hoop. I didn’t see one.
While walking through the community I also detect a clearly European element to its design. If I didn’t know so well that I was in the bustling heart of Queens, I would have easily mistaken the neighborhood for a quaint English village. The houses are mainly Tudor-styled, perhaps a speck more glamorous, with characteristic brick or stone exteriors, turrets, iron-wrought gates, terracotta roofs, arched entrances, lanterns, and tall windows. They resemble miniature castles.
For all its beauty and community spirit, the Gardens don’t exude much hospitality. Signs at every block remind trespassers that they are on private streets and that parking of unauthorized vehicles is forbidden. And unlike the other neighborhoods I’ve explored in the past two days, the Gardens are comprised mostly of older, wealthy, white residents. But the breathtaking stroll might just be worth a few suspicious glances.
Nearby is busy Austin Street, a commercial strip with everything from Victoria’s Secret to Cheese of the World, a local shop specializing in, well, cheeses from around the world. I leisurely explore these different stores, pick up an uninspired slice of pizza at A&J, plop myself down on a street corner, light a cigarette, and eavesdrop on the locals. I hear a father and son argue over the nutritious value of Boston Market versus McDonalds. I hear a mother ask her adolescent daughter if she wants a manicure. I hear two women kvetch about the soaring prices of real estate. And then, a passerby tells me not to smoke. I pretend not to hear that.
I take one last guilty drag of my cigarette before asking a stranger to direct me to Eddie’s Sweet Shop, a popular candy store in Forest Hills I’d read about. She explains it’s a long walk, about fifteen blocks south, and then, like, five blocks west, and up a lot of stairs, and so on and so forth. I suspect she’s exaggerating but I go along with it, hoping that, in return, she’ll divulge a secret local tip that has yet to be exploited by any magazine. My instincts are right. She recommends I try an ice cream soda at Uncle Johnny’s Luncheonette, located conveniently across the street.
I enter the luncheonette and am transported back to a fifties era diner, with red leather stools, a checkered ceiling, wall-length mirrors, an antique Coca-Cola dispenser, displayed slices of carrot cake, and plastic-wrapped blueberry muffins. It appears fairly authentic but has only been open since 1994. Running the joint this evening are two young Hispanic employees, who watch a boxing match on a small television set behind the counter. I sit on one of the stools and fumble over a menu, even though I already know what I want. Eventually, I capture their attention and order a chocolate ice cream soda, exactly like I was instructed to. They note immediately that I’m a newcomer. I don’t deny it.
I have my very first ice-cream soda, in a tall glass on a saucer, topped with a dollop of whipped cream, and with a spoon on the side. I insert a straw and take a sip. Oh, wicked son of a gun, have mercy! It’s unbelievably gross. I take another sip to make sure. Yes, it’s definitely still revolting. The flavors don’t complement each other at all. I think I’ve been duped. I shush my disapproving taste buds and drink the toxic concoction anyway. I’m paying $3.50 for this thing; I’ll be damned if I’m going to waste it.
I exit the luncheonette to be greeted by night. The sun has set. The streets are depleted of life. Most everything has closed. I’m not ready for my trip to be over. I dig for the peach ramune in my bag. I need something to wash down the glutinous carbonated cream clogged in my esophagus. I find it and attempt again, with as much force as I can muster, to puncture the plug. I’m successful. The drink fizzes in celebratory congratulations. I wish for confetti. I take a gulp, bid farewell to Queens, and proceed to walk to the subway, promising myself along the way that I’ll visit again soon.
Nicole Zadeh is a recent graduate of New York University's Film and Television program. She's held internships at Bravo and InDigEnt, amongst others. Although she enjoys crewing on movies, she rather be writing for them! Or, even better, she'd rather write a novel.
(Please type author's name
in the subject line of the message.)