Saturday, February 25, 2017

Trips to New York always feed my optimism.

On this trip, I decided, as I often do, to joyride the subway out to my home borough of Queens. In particular, I boarded the 7 train at its new extension, the Hudson Yards station (11th Ave. and 34th Street, the new northern endpoint of the High Line). The Hudson Yards redevelopment encompasses some of the most rapid and frenetic construction I've seen in Manhattan, but that’s another thread for another time. I stayed on the 7 train all the way til the last stop, Main Street/Flushing. The 7 train is aboveground from the moment it emerges from the Steinway Tunnel into Queens, snaking its way through Long Island City and settling into a long graceful run along the Queens Boulevard viaduct, one of the classiest structures in the entire subway system. The route runs over Roosevelt Avenue through Jackson Heights, where I grew up, and Elmhurst, which still holds the record for largest number of languages spoken within one Zip code (11373). It then glides over Flushing Meadow Park, past the CitiField stadium (which replaced the venerable Shea Stadium) and the Unisphere, and then dives underground, almost as if it were frightened, at the very last possible moment before entering Main St./Flushing station.
I hadn't been to that neighborhood since childhood; the RKO Keith theater, where I'm pretty sure I first saw Star Wars, wasn't far from there, nor was the YMCA where I have a vague memory of going to swim classes.
Today, though, I stepped out of the station and into Little Taiwan/Little Korea. The Main St. station area rivals Jackson Heights’ 37th Avenue for density, but everything was Asian: open-air markets and stalls, grocery stores and restaurants and clubs with names displayed only in Asian scripts, a bewildering variety of vegetable and animal products on sale in bins on the sidewalk. It was happy chaos.
It was fun to walk around there, but practicality soon demanded my attention, as I needed to pee. A block away was the Flushing branch of the Queens Borough Public Library, a system I had patronized heavily as a child. I was sure I'd be welcome to use the restrooms there.
And so I was; but not before noticing that the library was packed. Every computer terminal on four floors was in use. Every reading table was filled with readers. The variety of languages represented in the fiction shelves—Russian, Polish, Armenian, Korean, Turkmen—was astonishing, as was the fact that every aisle seemed to have people browsing. There was a rack of literature in multiple languages on how to become a US citizen. There was a desk staffed by WorkForceOne—a NYC-staffed publicly funded employment agency that runs job fairs, provides connections to job training and placement, and so on, all at public expense. People were using the library as the civic resource it was meant to be. Why can’t the San Francisco Public Library serve its constituency so richly?
On my way back on the 7 train, I gravitated to the front car so I could look out the front window as we barreled down the tracks. (The 7 train is one of the few that still affords that pleasure.) I eavesdropped on a conversation between two high-school-age African-American boys until I realized that the video games they were discussing were simulators that let you pretend you are driving a train. They were discussing the impending release of the simulation files for the Chicago Transit Authority (“the El”). One of them had a phone app that included schematic drawings of all the NYC subway cars ever built, and he was trying to identify the car in which we were riding. If you ever wondered what a middle-aged white man and two African-American high school students could bond over, now you know.
To top off the day: I finished the afternoon by walking around my old neighborhood of Rego Park. Purely by coincidence, as I was walking past my old home (62-23 Cromwell Crescent), a middle-aged lady emerged. I realized I was staring, and as if to excuse myself, I addressed her: “I’m sorry, I don’t mean to alarm you. But 35-plus years ago, I grew up in this house.” She was very kind and said she remembered the person her son had bought the house from—my father. She even invited me into the house to look around. The kitchen cabinetry was unchanged from when I was 17. The dining room had the same fabric wallpaper my dad had had installed sometime during my high school years. I was moved, to say the least. She assured me that if I should return to the neighborhood with my wife or children [sic], we would all be welcome in her home. On the way back to the subway, I stopped at the fruit stand that has been there since I was a child. It’s still in business, and I bought a bottle of seltzer water whose label I couldn’t even recognize the writing on. (Close inspection of the label revealed that the writing was Armenian script.) On my way back to my friend’s house in Harlem, I stopped at a food truck. The vendor was a Middle Eastern man who barely spoke English; he was selling food to an African man who barely spoke English. I ordered onion rings and a gyro.
I don’t believe the universe sends us messages. I suppose if I believed that, today would be an indication that the universe was trying to send me a positive message. But I think it’s a lot simpler than that. People of many stripes, just trying to make their own way—that is the universe’s message. There aren’t many places where the message is as loud and clear as it is in New York, which is one of the many reasons I love visiting here. It should be a required visit for everyone.

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