I've fallen for the world one sunrise at a time, but last week gave me my heart in a sunset.
Yeah I know. It's not some gorgeous ocean-side sunset crawl, or a mountainous beauty. But that up there is home. All of it. Rooftop graffiti and neon-orange construction cones and sneakers hung off telephone wires. The congested sidewalk and blaring bus horns and crowds of umbrellas poking my side.
It's my little corner of Queens, New York.
New York's outer boroughs don't get any second-glances except for maybe Brooklyn, which has become practically infested. I almost hesitate to write this post because I've already seen the same signs of infestation in Queens. Long Island City is completely lost, the first citadel to fall with its factories and warehouses replaced by artisan sushi houses. Next is my second-home, the Greek and Egyptian neighborhood of Astoria, which has already seen an increase in flannel. (I'm only half-joking, by the way.) That picture up there is home though, and everyone wants to brag about home.
In high school, this was my commute: one bus to another with a transfer at the third busiest intersection in New York City.
And let me tell you--it was hell. Sometimes (most times) straight up gross. Groceries drafted the scent of fish over sewers, people screamed at me to take fliers I couldn't even read, and the pigeon shit.
Oh my God the pigeon shit.
This isn't one of those coming-home-stories where I couldn't wait to leave, realized I missed home, then came back; and this isn't a coming-home-story where I left and never looked back. I always knew what I had in Queens. My teachers at school made sure to tell us.
"Hop on the seven!" one of the Brothers would say after reviewing our Spanish vocabulary. "Get off at every stop, and you'll watch the world change. The food, the language, the people."
And if you have even a vague idea of what my home borough is about, you know that to be true. You'll have seen Anthony Bourdain's Parts Unknown food tour where he tried street-cart morcilla in Corona and xiaolangbo in Flushing. You'll have glanced at the Linguistic Map of Queens and heard, over and over, that our 2.3 million residents (about 50% of whom are born abroad) make up what is hailed as the most diverse place in the world.
Coming home has been difficult in a lot of ways. I'm twenty-three and living with my parents again after five years on my own. I'll let that speak for itself.
But coming home to Queens hasn't been difficult at all.
At the start of summer, my cousin and I took trips to Main. Picking up last minute make-up or wandering little stationary shops before she left for Greece. We ran into some of her friends from high school; spoke spices with the man who worked at the Q27 halal cart and who recognized us after having been gone so long; spent twenty minutes talking to a girl who'd moved here from Korea, swapping landmarks to visit in Athens and Seoul.
We navigated over-crowded construction-riddled sidewalks to the seven-train entrance where an escalator descended into a boiling underground heat. Summer was only just beginning, but you could already feel the sticky humidity peel at your skin. I'd been home for about two weeks, and my cousin saw the stupid way I looked at the subway map.
I was smiling.
"No," she had said, "no no no. You can't say you missed this."
MTA is infamous for fucking us New Yorkers over...
...and yeah, I missed it.
The seven had pulled out of the track-tunnel and into the afternoon, roaring toward Manhattan. I'd looked out the window, at the Skyview Mall, at the swampy patch of reeds, at the Van Wyck, at Shea Stadium (whoops, sorry, I mean Citi Field). Flushing's own collection of buildings had changed since I was last home, developing a skyline of its own and truly adopting the "Asian Manhattan" nickname. I'd taken in all these sights, and I'd closed my eyes, and I'd opened them again.
And I was fourteen.
I was fourteen on the N-train with my cousins, challenging one another to pull up competitions. I was fourteen and sprinting through Main, red bean donuts heavy in my too-full stomach, arguing with my friend over which All Time Low band member we would marry while waiting for the Q44.
These memories came at the start of the summer. Almost like some honeymoon phase of being back home mixed with childhood nostalgia. Between then and now I've had a slew of familial arguments, wistful wanderlust daydreams, and angry curses shared among strangers. I've had drivers scream at me as I crossed the street, my shoes soaked in some concocted mix of water and muck and grime and some crap I didn't even want to begin thinking about.
But last week...God last week's rainy sunset. The nighttime sounds and emptiness on Roosevelt.
I was working in the library, just as I am now, and an unending summer rain drenched the concrete outside, pouring down so I kept pushing back when I'd leave for my bus. Between writing my book and studying TESOL, I kept glancing out the window to my left. A noodle house sat on the corner, one that I used to go to with my friends. In my memories, its sign was accented by a giant plastic bowl statue and gaudy pair of chopsticks. The bowl was gone, and I couldn't remember if the restaurant name had been different--after all I couldn't really read the sign. I knew most places around here by their distinctive features like the red awning or Q27 bakery or place by St. George's.
Besides the fact that I was now able to read a few of the Korean signs, and thereby learn some restaurant names, I was struck by how different and yet unchanged my home had become. It was all subtle changes, the kind that someone only notices because they were gone for so long. Unfamiliar shops in the New World Mall, bubble-tea just a dollar more expensive than what it had been when I was younger.
But they were still changes--just enough so I felt this urge to explore. I packed away my things, pulled on my raincoat, and stepped outside.
First stop was a block away from my favorite dumpling joint, and it literally felt like another world from what I'd remembered. Dark gray buildings and twisting stairs in an open courtyard and dessert shops lining the perimeter. It was all so new. I got a macarone to go from Spot, a dessert tapas bar which serves drinks in light-bulbs (because why would you want to put your glass down?).
Messily eating my quickly-falling-apart macarone, I sat in the courtyard, rain water dripping down my hood as I wrapped my mind around how much had changed. The newest Karaoke bar looked MASSIVE, and it stood almost directly perpendicular to White Bear, a take-out place that would affectionately be called a "hole-in-the-wall" by places like TimeOut New York.
Afterwards I wandered to the Botanical Gardens, one of the few places I'd yet to visit in my time living in Queens. The rain was letting up a bit so I squelched through some sections. Unfortunately, the pictures are pretty sad so the gardens actually look miserable despite how peaceful they felt. Hopefully I can go back and make a longer post on it with better photos...
And then, because it was getting late, I headed toward my bus. I went under the LIRR bridge where there's always that familiar scent of fish wafting from Hing Long Supermarket with its barrels of spiked fruit and cardboard signs. After turning the corner, I made one final pit-stop for a bowl of fish-cake soup (I have a special weakness for fish-cakes, tbh). The restaurant I went to was one of my favorites, a spot my friends and I had always noticed in high school and said we'd try (because their pictures all had a fried egg, and anything with a fried egg is worth eating). But really I only first tried this restaurant last March. Suffice to say, I'm pretty sure the waiters recognize me, and I'm not sure if I'm embarrassed by how often I find myself here.
Then I went home. To my parents' house, to what might have been another fight over something stupid like dishes. But God I was--and am--happy to be home, to live someplace that's constantly the same and different all at once, someplace filled with countless high school memories and yet waiting with new corners to explore.
There's so much more I could say. About my babysitter and the school-yard park she would walk me to, the park with its squeaking black rail gates and perpetual summer sprinklers. About the sound of checker pieces smacked together coming from the balcony next door. About the sound of skateboards in Flushing Plaza. About jump-ropes from the 99 cents store and flowers in a chain-link fence.
I realize that I introduced this ramble as a "Queens" post, but somewhere it's just dissolved into #FlushingMainStreet. My Flushing Main Street, really, and the way I've experienced this area. And that's going to be different from another friend's experiences, a friend who took a different bus-route home or a friend who's actually part of the cultures central to this hub.
It reminds me that all of Queens is like this. The way I experience The Aqueduct--where my pappou had always gone to bet on horses--is different friend the way my Italian friend experiences it as a neighboring Howard Beach kid. My version of Astoria versus my Egyptian friend's version. The way the Rockaways are to the locals versus Northern Queens summer visitors. Living in Queens is living with passport in your MetroCard, training you to become a traveler and not a tourist.
I guess I owe it to my borough for a few more posts, though. Maybe next up I'll talk Astoria.
From guides to rants.