Citizen of the Month

the writing and photography of Neil Kramer

Tag: Queens (page 1 of 4)

The Election

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Democracy requires compromise. We cannot survive in a world where ideological splits, gender politics, and vicious accusations of corruption are the daily norm. The 2016 Campaign has brought out the worst in everyone, and I’m not talking about the primary season, but the Board of Directors election in my apartment building in Queens.

There are two political camps in my building — Team Murray and Team Sylvia, which I’ve named in honor of their leaders. Each team has differing views on hot issues such as the efficiency of the new dryers in the laundry room, the wisdom of hiring a new management company, and the acceptable amount of electricity used in the yearly Christmas/Hanukkah decorations. Five new members of the Board are elected each year, and each side want to stack the Board with those loyal to their agenda.

This year’s trouble began a few weeks ago when tenants started to receive homemade “campaign” fliers slid under their door. At first, they were innocent enough — typical campaign promises of more parking spots — but the situation quickly deteriorated as more and more fliers showed up, usually at 3AM, unsigned and with vague accusations of corruption and abuse of power.

Team Murray and Team Sylvia went to war.

“Is there anything lower than sending around anonymous letters accusing good people of profiting from the new laundry machines?” screamed a new notice received under the door, written in a size 15 font.

“Only cowards write anonymously!” the person continued on, anonymously.

The day of the big election quickly arrived. I remembered that Jana was flying in from Atlanta that same night.

“Have any exciting plans for us?” she asked me on the phone on the night before her arrival.

“Very exciting plans,” I said. “I’m taking you to my apartment building’s Board of Director’s election night. This will be more dramatic than any Broadway show.”

The General Election was held in the apartment building’s large wood-grained “community room,” located near the lobby. The room, with a full kitchen and a full set of tables and chairs, has been home to countless meetings for the tenants, sweet sixteen parties and retirement dinners. It was in this room where, many years ago, I had my bris, the traditional Jewish circumcision ceremony.  Can we get any more symbolic than that?

But tonight the room was a shelter for Democracy in Action. The candidates sat at the dais in the front, nervously fidgeting as the tenants placed their filled-out ballets into the makeshift cardboard ballot box, then sat down at one of the rows of chairs set up for the general meeting  before the vote counting.  My mother came early with her friends to get “good seats” up front. I arrived late with Jana since she had just arrived from La Guardia Airport. We found two open seats in the back, directly behind a group of supporters of Team Murray, including Murray himself. Whispers were passing between them; there was a last minute plot afoot.

The meeting started off peacefully. As we waited for late-comers to show up and vote, the President of the Board convened an open meeting to discuss some minor issues involving the building. And that’s when the shit hit the fan. One female tenant stood up to publicly accuse some long time resident on the fifth floor as the mysterious “anonymous letter writer.” The accused fought back, insinuating that she was cheating on her husband, and stealing The New York Times from other tenants. Things only go worse.

Much has been made of the lack of decorum on the internet, with all the insults, hate, and trolls being a product of modern-day forums such as Twitter and Reddit. This makes the assumption that in the days before the Internet, the human race was kind and respectful, lovingly listening to the needs of the others. I can guarantee that Jana and I were the only ones in this room who have ever used Twitter, and there was enough “shaming” going on in this room to fill ten timelines.  Humans have been hitting each over the head with clubs since we were cavemen

After much loud drama, a tenant shouted everyone down, suggesting that we keep our personal issues saved for another day, and focus on the purpose of the evening — the election. All the ballots were now sitting in the box and it was time for the count. But first, as required by “the bylaws,” the President of the Board, a plumber by profession,  had to read some legal document written back in 1960 to validate the legitimacy election.  It was a ritual done in every Board Election since then.

The tenants of the building half-listened to the legalese until he reached the President reached the last paragraph of the bylaws, which went, “According to the bylaws, as written in June of the year 1960, if anyone so chooses to be included on the ballot as a write-in candidate, now is the last moment to do so, or else forfeit your chance.  Would anyone else like to be added to the list of candidates?”

This was read without emotion, much in the same way that a pastor might ask those attending a wedding if anyone present has a reason to oppose the marriage.  No one is supposed to yell out, “Yes,” except maybe a character in a romantic comedy from the 1990s.

But here is where Team Murray executed their shock and awe plot. They earlier had convinced Rashida, a friend of Murray’s wife, Allison, to add her name as a last-minute write-in candidate, hoping to stack the Board with supporters of the Team Murray agenda.

“I’d like to add my name,” said the woman, a middle school teacher named Rashida.

“Uh, OK…” said the Board President, unsure of the next move. In the fifty years of Board Elections, no one had ever added their name on the night of the election.

“You have to add her,” said Murray. “It’s in the bylaws.”

“I suppose it is. We’ll have to add her,” he said, facing the crowd, showing his first true sign of leadership during his five years as Board president. “So now if anyone wants to vote for Rashida, you can vote for her.”

Rose, one of the members of my mother’s weekly mahjongg group, stood up with an objection. Although now frail, the eighty-five year old Rose once worked at a large advertising firm and was considered intelligent and street savvy by the other tenants.

“I think we might have a little problem with this plan,” she said.

“What’s that?” asked the Board President/Plumber.

“We voted all already and our ballots are in the box.”

Pandemonium broke out, and even King Solomon himself couldn’t find a compromise between Team Murray and team Sulvia, a precursor of what is going to happen when Bernie Sanders makes a play for Hillary Clinton’s super-delegates at the Democratic Convention this summer.  Politics is an ugly business

The Board President consulted with a tenant from the fifth floor who used to work as a court stenographer, and a decision was reached

“We will take all the ballots out of the box and return them to you, and then you can cross out someone and add Rashida instead.”

It was a mess. Many tenants never signed their name to the ballot the first time, so no one was quite sure which ballot belonged to which person, except if they used a special colored marker

Rashida, fearful of utter chaos, made the announcement that she was pulling out of the election, much to the dismay of Team Murray.   She realized that it was just too complicated, and also wanted to go home before nine o’clock to watch some TV show.   The ballots were returned to the box, and a trio of supposedly unbiased tenants from the building, an accountant, a retired NYPD officer, and a stay-at-home mom, took the box behind closed doors into the “kitchen area” to count the ballots by hand.

As the rest of us waited for the “results,” calmness fell over the room, and tenants socialized with each other, asking each other about their health and families.  My mother took Jana over to meet her friends, introducing her as my “girlfriend.” Not that I minded my mother saying it, but it did feel weird hearing her say it, especially since I never described her as such.  But women know these things.

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Jana meeting the neighbors.

The cocktail party atmosphere faded as the kitchen door swung open, and the election committee returned with results. The crowd returned to their seats. It was time. Call Wolf Blitzer.

The election results were a surprise.   Despite the maneuvering of the Machiavellian Team Murray, it was a clean sweep by Team Sylvia.   All five of the Team Sylvia candidates were elected to the Board.

Murray himself stood up and announced the entire election a fraud.

“It’s an illegal election.”

“Why’s that?” asked the Board President, who was re-elected for a second term.

“Because the ballot box was opened, making it null and void!”

“But we only did that because your own candidate decided to run at the last moment before she changed her mind!”

“I demand a new election.”

“We’re not having a new election!”

“Then I’ll take this entire apartment building and the Board of Directors to court!”

Insults were flung. Someone’s wife was called a whore. Arguing was heard for hours as most of the tenants shrugged, and went upstairs to their apartments. Rashida went home to watch her TV show.

“So what did you think?” I asked Jana as we took the elevator upstairs.

“That was the best time I’ve ever had in New York.”

A week later, all parties agreed to accept the results, as long as it goes down in the history books with an asterisk, much like the contested election of George W. Bush.

Politics as usual.

The Other Side of Kissena Boulevard

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Since neither of my parents drove a car, they moved to a neighborhood in Flushing, Queens where it was easy to walk to stores to shop.   The two block strip of Kissena Boulevard near their apartment building was home to a vibrant melange of shops that catered to the needs of the lower and middle-class neighborhood that circled around it – two “five and ten cents” stores, a pizzeria, a Chinese restaurant, a kosher deli, a bakery, a butcher, a fish store, a stationery store selling newspapers and comic books, a supermarket, a clothing store, a shoe store, a pharmacy, a cleaners, a barber shop — all the basic staples that any family would need. Behind these stores was a large parking lot which catered to the shoppers visiting from other neighborhoods, but the action happened on Kissena Boulevard herself.

The street is where the teenage Fran Drescher would grab a slice of pizza, or Gene Simmons would leave his job at the butcher before practicing with his band “Kiss,” named, of course, after Kissena Boulevard.  On Sunday morning, I would stroll with my father to the Garden Bakery to buy their famed onion rolls, freshly baked, a Sunday morning staple as important as the New York Times. During the week, after school, I would head to Wainrite’s, checking out the latest K-tel records in their tiny “Record Section.” If not for the diversity of the neighborhood, black, white, Asian, and Puerto Rican, you would think you were visiting small town Main Street.

During the 1970s, crime and homelessness grew in the outer boroughs, and by the 1980s, the Golden Age of Kissena Boulevard had come to an end.  One by one, each store closed, until only the pizzeria, Valentino’s, Fran Drescher’s favorite hangout, was left thriving. The owner of the shopping area went from being local landlord to a company headquartered in Palm Beach, Florida. The rumor was that the owner wanted to demolish the whole complex and bring in a Target or Kmart. The ample parking lot behind the stores became the big selling point for the future development, not the needs of the neighborhood.

The big plans never blossomed, and the facade of the two block structure started to deteriorate. The awnings became havens for pigeons. Graffiti covered the locked metal shutters of forgotten enterprises, prisons of past commerce. I left the neighborhood and went to college, grad school, and California.

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The famous Garden Bakery in 2008, closed for thirty years.

“Any rumors about Kissena Boulevard?” I would ask my mother when I would speak to her on the phone from Los Angeles.

“Nope. Still waiting.”

By 2008, the Garden Bakery and many of the other stores had been empty shells for 30 years. A whole new generation grew up seeing the two blocks as nothing more than a corroding antiquity from ancient times. That year,  I wrote a blog  post titled, “The Slummification of Kissena Boulevard,” where I talked about the decline of the street’s shopping district. I couldn’t understand the logic behind all these stores left empty. The neighborhood wasn’t fancy, but it wasn’t impoverished. Surely a Dunkin’ Donuts franchise would do OK. Was it possible that a landlord could make more money NOT renting the property, under some sort of tax loophole reminiscent of “The Producers?”  To this day,  I still get comments on that post from people who used to live in the neighborhood.

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Kissena Boulevard, 2008.

I’m glad to say that a lot has changed since then. Not long after I wrote that post, there was movement on the street, and workmen began making repairs to the infrastructure. Rather than the structure being demolished, it was strengthened, and smaller storefronts were consolidated. While no Target or Kmart ever moved in, new stores DID arrive. Today, 95% of the original Kissena Boulevard shopping area is back in use, the centerpieces being a supermarket, a National Wholesale Liquidators, and an established electronics/computer store.  I enjoy each store and shop there often.

One aspect of this neighborhood revival disappoints me, and that is the suburban mentality that is foisted on our urban folk.   While the once empty parking lot is now busy with shoppers filling up the trunks with purchases,  Kissena Boulevard is still a ghost town.   All entrances that were once directly on Kissena Boulevard have been locked, boarded over, or bricked over.   The only way to enter the stores is through the parking lot.  It feels as if the stores have open arms to visitors driving in from other parts of Queens, while sending a message of distrust to the actual residents of the neighborhood.

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Liquidators from the parking lot, 2016.

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Liquidators from Kissena Boulevard, with locked entrance.

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Liquidators from Kissena Boulevard, with no entrance.

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Electronics Store from parking lot, 2016.

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Electronics store from Kissena Boulevard, with locked entrance.

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Supermarket from parking lot, 2016.

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Supermarket from Kissena Boulevard, with no entrance.

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Supermarket from Kissena Boulevard, with bricked in former entrance.

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Supermarket from Kissena Boulevard, with locked doors.  Dirty recycling bins are on the street.

Now to be fair to these establishments, I’m the only one I know who seems to care about this issue.   I mentioned it to my mother and a few of her friends and they supported the stores!

“If they had an entrance in the front AND the back, they would have to hire more security!” said one woman.

“There would be so much shoplifting, the stores would go out of business.”

“We should be happy that we have stores back!” said my mother.

Apparently no one trusts the neighborhood, even the people who live here.

I don’t buy it.   It is not our problem  to worry about a store hiring more security.   If a store is going to move into a neighborhood, they have an obligation to add beauty to the neighborhood, not throw up a two block wall to alienate those who live here.  The stores are a great addition to the local economy, but Kissena Boulevard remains as dark and uninviting as it has for the last thirty years.  Only Valentino’s pizzeria continues to face the street, catering to the locals, not those visiting by car.

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Valentino’s on Kissena Boulevard, the one constant since the 1950s.

Bernie Sanders talks a lot about income inequality, but wealth and lack of wealth also affect self-image.   The rich learn to expect more from their neighborhoods.  I’ve been in some upscale towns in California where a homeowner can’t change the color of his roof without it passing some local ordinance.  I’ll tell you one thing.  No one living in Beverly Hills would accept a two block wall on Wilshire Boulevard, and if they did, it would be a very pretty wall, with footprints of movie stars.

The reaction from my mother and her friends:  Eh.

I might not have won them over with aesthetics, but I’m hoping someone out there is thinking about the safety of the community. There are some days when there are hundreds of cars going back and forth into this parking lot.  There are no lights or stop signs.    These stores cater to thousands of locals who walk to their shopping, and without entrances on Kissena Boulevard, they are forced to cut through through a busy parking lot.  There is an accident waiting to happen.

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Walking through the parking lot to go shopping.

I am very grateful that these fabulous stores are now in the neighborhood.  I just wish the owners turned away from the parking lot every once in a while and said hello to the street.

Flushing, the Song

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Justin Giarrusso, a composer, recently wrote a choral piece about the five boroughs of New York City titled “Five Boroughs, One City.”   For the Queens section of the piece, he used a poem I wrote on Citizen of the Month in 2008 as his inspiration.

Yay, Queens!

The piece can be heard here

Flushing Poem

“Last stop! Last stop!”
Flushing, what a name!
Tiny women talking
Mandarin in the rain
Alone, I walk by
A mural, Chinese art
A cafe, a hooker
A rusty shopping cart
The downpour, the rushing
The garbage in the street
The yearning, the craving
The summer New York heat.

The Ghetto United Nations of Queens

My bedroom window looks out over an unpretentious supermarket that has been in the same location next to my apartment building for over fifty years, under various owners. You won’t find fancy stuff in this store, like organic kale, but you will find more brands of ethnic rice and beans than any other supermarket in the city. And they also have good pickles.

The supermarket is an ugly box-like structure built in the 1960s, so the last owner decided to pretty the place up in celebration of the neighborhood’s ethnic diversity.  He placed fifty national flags around the perimeter of the parking lot which represent all of the immigrant communities that live in the community.

My friend Barry and I jokingly called it “the ghetto U.N.” but there was also a deep sense of pride in this corny display of flags waving in the wind in the middle of Queens.   The flags were as iconic to this neighborhood as the skating ring at Rockefeller Center is to midtown Manhattan. Whenever I passed by, I quizzed myself on the flags’ countries of origin.  Some were easy — Lebanon, Turkey, India, Israel, Mexico, Japan.  But is that one El Salvador or the Dominican Republic?

The flags were arranged in random order, and it was amusing to see odd relationships developing, like Pakistan and South Korea suggestively rubbing against each other in the fall coolness.

Last spring, I noticed the Taiwanese flag hanging in a tree. It was ripped in half and stuck in the branches on purpose. Flushing has a large Chinese population and there are always political controversies involving Taiwan and China.  Events in Hong Kong have only increased the tensions in the Chinese community. Was this vandalism some sort of political statement?

I mentioned this online, but others thought it was kids playing games, not political media grandstanding.  This was a quiet supermarket in Queens where residents bought their milk and Pepperidge Farm cookies, NOT a hot-boiled environment like Twitter.

A few months ago, I was awoken by an angry voice outside.  I went to the window and saw a bearded man shouting in Arabic and ripping the Israeli flag down from her spot on the Ghetto U.N. display. As the police arrived, he ran away. I mentioned this on Facebook and I sensed a discomfort, as if I was trying to promote Fox News’ Islamophobia rather than sharing a real-life scary incident that I just witnessed.

In retrospect, these two little events at the supermarket were unimportant, not international incidents.  These perpetrators were individuals, and not representatives of agenda. We continue to all live happily in Queens, loving our diverse neighborhood.  I am writing this post from the McDonald’s next to the supermarket. At the tables near me are an elderly African-American couple eating Chicken McNuggets, two Asian dudes with Big Macs, and a Muslim woman wearing a scarf and drinking a Strawberry-Banana smoothie.  America:  Unity in Bad Nutrition.

But something has changed on our block. Something sad. The supermarket has decided to take the flags down — all of them. I have no idea if this has anything to do with the vandals, but whatever the reason, it’s as if New York City has decided to dismantle the Statue of Liberty because it was too much trouble to protect it from being graffiti.

There is a symbolism here that bothers me.  It is a culture that extends from name-calling on social media to the destruction of ancient relics in the Middle East.    It is the power of destruction over creation.

In his song, Imagine, John Lennon wrote the powerful lyrics,

“Imagine there’s no countries
It isn’t hard to do
Nothing to kill or die for
And no religion, too”

He also imagined the flags coming down. But he imagined it happening because of love and peace, not because too many of the flags were getting ripped down in anger and hate.

Doorbell at 3AM

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This is a 100% true story that happened two days before my mother returned from Florida.

The door bell rang at 3AM, and I wasn’t sure whether it was a dream or reality. I staggered out of bed, my eyes half closed, fumbling in the dark for my glasses. I banged my foot against three enormous piles of laundry, a reminder to myself to do a major wash in the morning. I was naked, with nothing clean to wear to bed.

I live on the first floor of an eight-story apartment building in Queens, and except for the infrequent rumblings of the early morning delivery truck to the Red Apple supermarket, this time of night usually cloaks the neighborhood in a sleepy black silence.

“Who is going to ring my doorbell at 3AM?” I asked myself, as I reached the front door. It must have been a dream.

I turned around, backtracked my steps, and slid back into the bed, covering myself with the warmth of the comforter.

Quiet returned, but only for a moment. I heard a sound more ominous than the doorbell. It was the jingle-jangle twisting of the front doorknob! I jumped up and ran to the front door. There was not doubt anymore. Someone was on the other side, trying to turn the knob. What the hell was going on? The door was locked, and there was no sound of any key being used. Was it my mother, returning home early from Florida? Was it my mother’s friend, Margaret, an eighty year old woman who lived down the hall, who has a history of heart trouble? Did she need my help?

The person outside my door cleared his throat. It was clearly a man.

I should have called the police. I should have asked, “Who is it?” I should have looked through the peephole, but I imagined a huge, blood-shot eye starting back at me. The best approach was to remain quiet, giving no sign that I was hiding in the darkness.  Was I afraid? Yes. But I was more confused at my failure to understand.

The man cleared his throat again and headed down the hall. His gait was distinctive, like a peg-legged pirate.

Clip Clop Clip Clop.

My imagination was going wild. Why would there be a peg-legged pirate in Flushing, Queens trying to break into my apartment at 3AM?

Clip Clop Clip Clop.

It didn’t matter. He was leaving. But then the steps grew loud again.

Clip Clop Clip Clop.

He was returning to my door!

A shadow blocked the thin ray of light coming from the bottom of the door.  The doorknob jangled. It was like being in a real-life Hitchcock film. I was on one side of the door, the dark side, naked and vulnerable, protected only by an ancient safety bolt. He was on the other side, inches away. I imagined him bathed in the florescent-yellow energy-efficient hallway lights.

There was a secondary lock on the front door — a simple chain and latch.  We never bothered to use it. Holding my hand as steady as a surgeon and as quiet as a ninja, I inserted the chain’s peg into the lock’s hole, adding an extra 3% protection.

And then I went back to bed and promptly fell asleep.

No, I cannot adequately explain my action, other than to use a theatrical term. My tired brain needed an act break.

Act Two opens with another ringing of the door bell, this time at 7AM. Sunlight was peeking into the room, giving me the courage to find out what is going on. I decided to answer the front door.  I needed some clothes to wear. I opened my dresser to find something, but with every piece of clothing dirty, I could only find one clean item to cover myself.

I unlatched the chain, and opened the door, wearing a red and yellow bathing suit.

It was Margaret, my mother’s friend, the 80 year old woman from down the hall. She handed me a letter that was accidentally placed in her mail box. She looked exhausted, her eyes sunken. I thanked her, but as she walked away, the events of last night flooded my brain, and I wondered if I misjudged the situation. Perhaps it WAS Margaret at my door last night, needing my help, and I ignored her.

I ran after her, still in my bathing suit and bare feet, leaving my door ajar.

“Margaret,” I yelled, “Are you OK? Is something the matter?”

“I’m just tired,” she said. “I was up all night. You see, at 3:30 in the morning, this man rang my doorbell, waking me up.”

“He did?” I asked, confused. “And what happened?”

For one thing, Margaret was braver than me. She OPENED her front door, thinking it might be ME. The “pirate” turned out to be an elderly man from the sixth floor, a gentleman with Alzheimer’s. Wearing only his bathrobe, and using a cane (explaining his pirate gait,) the man took the elevator and wandered onto our floor, the first floor, ringing doorbells and asking to use the bathroom.

Margaret didn’t allow him into her apartment, not knowing him personally, but early that morning, she went down to the office to tell the manager to contact his family.

“And how are you?” she asked, changing the subject.

“I’m fine,” I said. “I might have heard a doorbell last night too, but I thought it was a dream.”

I was too embarrassed to tell her the truth, to expose myself as a coward. I felt ashamed at my behavior. I should have opened the door — fearlessly — and did something to help this man.

Margaret entered her apartment, and I headed back to my own. When I reached my door, I saw that the wind had blown my door closed. I was locked out of my own apartment. Luckily, my mother had given a spare key to a neighbor — Margaret.

I rang Margaret’s door bell, and no one answered. I rang again. Nothing. I assumed she was now in the shower, or on the toilet, and knowing how age made it hard for her to stand and sit, I might have to wait. And I waited — for at least fifteen minutes.

As I stood there, ringing Margaret’s bell, other tenants started to leave their apartment.

Art Gold, the plumber, went off to work. Ms. Kawasaki left apartment 1M, rushing her twin boys to school. The Orthodox guy in the black hat was off to morning prayers. All of them stared at me, looking unfriendly.

Suddenly, I figured it out. I was wearing a bathing suit and no shoes. And worse than that, the elderly man must have rang EVERYONE’S doorbell last night, wanting to use their bathroom.  And now, they all think it was ME!

“Just waiting for Margaret,” I told Ms. Kawasaki. “She’s probably in the bathroom.”

“Uh-huh,” she said, pulling her twins along.

Eventually, I got the spare key and went back to bed. An hour later, my mother called. The rumor mill had already found its way down to Boca Raton.

“What WERE you doing in the hall last night?” asked my mother. I told her the story, and that I wasn’t really walking around the hallway in my bathing suit (another lie), which developed into a discussion about families we knew dealing with the tragedy of Alzheimer’s.

The Authenticity of Queens

I have an acquaintance who is not very fond of Americans, seeing them as insular and parochial.  He is American himself, born in Ohio, and currently lives on the Upper West Side of Manhattan.

This acquaintance travels a great deal for his work and has visited exotic locales.  Recently, he was in South America, and given the opportunity to visit this small village.

When he returned to NY, he could not stop praising the uniqueness of the residents of this village, and the talent of the local folk artists.

During coffee one afternoon near his apartment, he told me that he learned more about the meaning of life from speaking with one simpler villager than he did from four years at an expensive university.

“You should come to Queens,” I said. “There is this restaurant from that country in Jackson Heights.”

“Nah,” he replied. “It’s not going to be authentic.”

On the way home, I pondered his response. Why wouldn’t this restaurant in Jackson Heights, Queens be authentic?  Isn’t it possible that the chef could be using the same exact ingredients he might use back in the old country?  Perhaps he even comes from the village that the acquaintance visited.

And taking this idea of authenticity one step further, would the amazingly wise villager that this acquaintance met in Central America lose all her unique wisdom if she moved to Queens?   Or is she simply more interesting living thousands of miles away in a remote foreign village than she is a mere fifteen minute subway ride away?

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This is the view out of my bedroom window. A few weeks ago, the owner of the supermarket placed these flags up as decoration.  My friend jokingly calls it “Ghetto UN,” because you’ll notice that outside of Old Glory, none of the traditional power countries are represented, bigwigs such as Great Britain, France, Germany.   Instead, the display is an oddball mish-mash representing residents who now live in the area — from Iran, Pakistan, Israel, Korea, the Ukraine, Mexico, the Dominican Republic, and other troubled spots in the world.

I’m not sure it is old authenticity.   It is a new authenticity.

A Story Worthy of King Solomon

It’s a story worthy of King Solomon.

My apartment complex consists of two buildings, the “A” building and the “B” building. Each one has eight floors, twenty apartments on each floor.   Each building is identical.

A few months ago, the Board of Directors applied for a state refund that was being offered to apartment complexes that were part of a state energy saving program.  Today we received our refund.

But there is a catch.

The refund is based on the combined income of the tenants in each building, and each structure is considered a separate entity.  So, while our apartment building was under the deemed amount necessary to receive the rebate, the other building apparently made a combined income that brought them slightly over the maximum level.

“Finally,” said my mother. “It paid for us to live with the poorer people.”

Everyone in the “A” building received a check for $100.   The “B” building received nothing.   You can imagine their reaction.

The issue is now the drama of the day in Flushing, Queens, talked endlessly about in the elevator, the mailboxes in the lobby, and the fruit section of the supermarket, pitting apartment dweller against apartment dweller, “A” building against “B” building, rich against poor.   Should the two buildings that comprise the co-op share the refund as one, splitting it in half, or should the “A” building just say “Tough Luck, Suckers!” to their more well-off brother?

“You would think those in the “B” building would be happy just to be known as the Donald Trumps of the co-op,” a woman said to me as I entered the “A” building laundry room.   The crisp check she just received in the mail was in her hand.

The Old Parsons Tree in Flushing: A True Halloween Story

If you visit my apartment building in Flushing, you would notice an oddly shaped garden apartment right across the street, sitting on a tiny, rectangular plot of land.  The architecture of the building makes no logical sense at first; you have to accept that Mrs. Vanello, who owned the liquor store on Kissena Blvd for twenty years, also owned this property, and despite the wishes of the community-at-large, wanted to build her home there.  The original plans called for a normal, rectangular-shaped building, but the untamed plot of land, which we liked to ironically call “The Forest,” contained an important part of local history — a tree dating from the Revolutionary War.

This tree represented an important part of my childhood. Until several years ago, this tiny plot was completely covered with ungroomed, tentacle-like weeds and plants surrounding the large ancient tree, bowing before it, like it was a deity.

When I would walk to elementary school with my friends Rob and Barry, we would trade stories about the tree on “The Forest,” bit and pieces of rumor and gossip about the true meaning of the oldest living member of our community.  Our parents rarely talked to us about the tree, just that it was a relic of the Revolutionary War.  We were never sure if they were ignorant of the history, or hiding it from us, like a parent avoiding talking about the birds and the bees.

While the tales we heard in school differed depending on which grade we were in at the time, the facts were similar to what we finally discovered by a simple visit to the archives at the Queens College Library, which we visited for a high school report on the Tree (remember, Google didn’t exist yet when I was in high school, so we had to go to a real library).

During the Revolutionary War, there was the Battle of Long Island.  The Flushing area where I currently live was primarily farmland owned by the Parsons family.  Alexander Parsons lived alone with his daughter and was an ultra-religious man, not caring whether his loyalties went to the British or the colonists.  He just cared about hard work and the Bible.

In is younger days, Alexander Parsons was a rabble-rouser, frequently traveling to Brooklyn with his famous cider packed on each side of his saddle, but after the death of his wife, Betsy, his heart grew cold, and he became a hermit.

One night, a group of British soldiers knocked on his door, asking for food and shelter.  His daughter, Sarah, cooked them dinner while Parsons entertained the guests by reading passages from the New Testament.  As he recited the section of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, he noticed that the soldiers were more interested in his daughter, with — as Parsons imagined — lurid fantasies of mounting her instead.  Parsons was disgusted at the sinful glances, and after dinner, Parsons said that he had to rise early, and quickly shuttled the soldiers to the stables where they would fnd their “beds” of hay. After the soldiers were comfortable, Parsons went the extra step and locked his daughter in the broom closet.

All night, Parsons was awake, a stoic patriarchal sentinel, refusing to release his daughter from the closet, ignoring her knocks and teary cries.  He was certain that SHE had been a part of this indecent exchange with the British soldiers. Did she shoot a lustful glance at one of the soldiers to attract him?  Perhaps she was intrigued by the powerful commanding officer with the large mustache, strong posture, and attention-getting uniform that snuggly fitted his masculine body?  Is it possible that she willing to lie with all of them at once, to give her body freely, wantonly, insulting the image of her perfect late mother, who remained a virgin until her wedding day?  And what about the soldiers in the stables? Could he trust them — these men filled with vigor and violence, like stallions eager for battle? What if they rammed through the door in the middle of the night, and demanded to take her at all costs, using force to satisfy their animal urges?

Parsons own mind drove him insane that night, and as the soldiers slept soundly, exhausted from travel, Parsons walked into the stable with his sharp meat knife, and slit the necks of each soldier.

Parsons returned to his house, knife still in hand and opened the closet door.  His daughter saw the blood dripping down the knife handle onto her father’s worn, bony hands.

“What have you done?!” she screamed.

“I have sent those sinners to HELL!”

“Why? Why? I don’t understand?  Why did you lock me up?  Why did you kill those soldiers”

“I know what you wanted to do with those men.”

Parsons eyes were as blood-red as the knife, as he continued screaming, spittle flying from his mouth.

“My own flesh and blood is like a female serpent luring her prey.  That’s why they looked at you like that.  Wanting to rip off your clothes, to reveal your tender full breasts, to steal your precious womanhood from inside your fiery furnace of decadence!”

Parsons grabbed the arm of his daughter.

“Stop it!  You’re hurting me!” she screamed.

He dragged her outside into the dark, cold night where wolves were already howling, smelling blood.

But Parsons did not use his knife.  He carried her to the largest tree on his property, and hung his own daughter with a sturdy rope.

The next day, British troops approached, searching for three of their men.  They found their bodies in the stable, their heads rolled several feet away, maggots and rats and possoms eating the eyes and brains of their fallen comrades.

Sarah Parsons was hanging from her father’s tree, her eyes still open, a horrified gaze affixed until her last seconds of life, her slanted mouth still forming her father’s name in vain.

Alexander Parsons was in the house, naked, flogging himself with a whip, his back bloody as each self-inflicted crack beat his skin again, bent over as he read from his favorite Bible verses, as if he was in a trance.  He never looked up from the Bible, even as he was carried away by the officers.  He was forever lost in time and place, awaiting to meet his Maker.

The British Military Tribunal found Alexander Parsons guilty of murder and hung him from the same tree as he had hung his daughter.

Fast forward to 2003.  Mrs. Vanello, the current owner of the property, wanted to build her home on the “The Forest” next to “The Hanging Tree.”  Local Queens Community Board #27, after a heated discussion, decided that the tree was an important historical landmark to the area, so she couldn’t chop down the tree.  Mrs. Vanello, a woman who doesn’t like to say no for an answer, build the home anyway — a triangular monstrosity that avoided the tree, letting it remain standing to the side of her driveway, like an ancient oddity.

Mrs. Vanello was not new to controversy.  The Community Board tried to close her liquor store because it was a blight on the neighborhood, serving the bums and the hoodlums.  She pulled her daughter out of high school because she was “dating” a Puerto Rican boy. Some hated her for her sense of privilege.  Her uncle was a big shot in Queens politics, who always protected her from local outrage.

About three months ago, there was a huge storm in New York City — a tornado even (remember that?!).  The epicenter was, of all places, my neighborhood in Queens.  Windows were broken.  Branches cracked.  But the biggest tragedy was after almost two and a half centuries of existence, the famous “Hanging Tree” fell blown over, like a mighty statue which finally turned to dust. It was the last piece of Revolutionary War history in our neighborhood.

As you can see from the included photos, the city still hasn’t taken away the remains of the tree.  The Community Board is dealing with the red tape on how to clean up a fallen landmark.

This morning, Halloween, there was a ring at the bell.  I cursed under my breath, thinking it was Trick or Treaters already making their rounds at 9AM.  Kids are so impatient today.  But it was not children in cute costumes; it was my next door neighbor, Lily.  She invited herself into my apartment.

“Call your mother,” she said.

My mother came from the bedroom, and Lily took us to the window by the dining room; it faced the Vanello house by the old Parsons Tree.  There were several cop cars in front of the Vanello property.  This was not unusual, because both Mrs. Vanello and her daughter, Angella, were tempestuous women who had loud arguments that inspired calls to 911.  You could sometimes hear the crashing of dishes from the Vanello place from up in my bedroom.

“This time it is serious,” said Lily.

Lily explained that both Mrs. Vanello and her daughter were both found hanging from their ceiling fan.  They are dead.  The scene was gruesome.

“Who?  Why?” asked my mother, trembling.

I was also in shock at the news.

“You know I’m not a superstitious woman,” said Lily, taking a deep breath.  “I am a science teacher at Stuyvesant High School, and an avowed atheist.”

My mother and I both nodded.  She was even the head of the Queens Atheism Club.

“But the rumor is that when the tree fell down, it unleashed the spirit of old Alexander Parsons.”

It was as if Lily’s hair was turning gray in front of me.

I was still skeptical.

“Are you saying the ghost of Alexander Parsons was the one who hanged Mrs. Vanello and her daughter?”

Down below, on the street, an ambulance had just arrived.  Two bodies were being wheeled out of the home, past the stump and the remains of the old Hanging Tree.

“Is it possible?” I thought to myself.  “Is it truly possible that there are ghosts among us, some good and some evil?”

I thought back to that report I did in high school.  I went into my closet to retrieve it.  My mother had kept all of my school report in a neat folder.  I was shocked at what I learned.
“Alexander Parsons was hung on October 31, 1777, on All Hallow’s Eve.  As the noose was put around his neck, he promised to some day return, when the time was right, and to take revenge on all LUSTFUL SINNERS EVERYWHERE!”

“I think he plans on striking again tonight!” said the terrified Lily.

“But WHO?  WHERE?” screamed my mother.

“No one knows,” answered Lily.  “But anyone hearing or even reading about this story about the old tree is in a great deal of danger.  It doesn’t matter where you live or how far away from Flushing or Queens.  It could be ANYONE who has ever lusted or had a sinful thought or had once gone onto a porn site with amateur videos where the brunette looks vaguely like someone you went to graduate school with several years ago.  Everyone is in danger of the Flushing Halloween Hangman!”

From the writer of such horrific Halloween tales as The Mommyblogger’s Demon Child (2009), Giving Head (2008), The Werewolf (2007), and The Joy of 666 (2006)!

When in Greece…

Church Tour Guide:  “I hope you’re having a wonderful time at our 39th annual Greek Festival here at the Greek Orthodox Shrine Church of St. Nicholas in Flushing, Queens.  I’m so glad that you have taken the time from the festivities outside to come take a tour of our beautiful church.  I will be your guide.  Feel free to interrupt me at any time to ask a question about the church icons, church practices, or anything else you might want to know about Greek Orthodox culture.”

Neil:  “I have a question.”

Church Tour Guide “Yes?”

Neil:  “Last week on Twitter a couple of us were arguing over whether gyro is pronounced “gear-o” or “year-o.”  Which one IS the correct pronunciation?”

It’s Year-O.  Case Closed.

Fight or Flight?

My junior high school was an anonymous brown brick school, built in the 1960’s just when Queens was growing as a borough. The schoolyard was enclosed by a metal fence, like a prison, and considering that that 1/4 of the students at the time were dealing in some sort of illegal drugs, the yard was symbolic of where many of these youngsters would eventually find a permanent home.

At 3PM, we would play basketball in the school yard — four Jewish kids, one Italian kid, and one black kid. We were all in the “gifted program” class, which was a desperate attempt for this particular New York City public school to plug the leaky hole caused by fearful parents and their kids pouring out of the city school and into the safer private religious schools. Without some action on the school’s part to keep the brainier kids, the neighborhood junior high would be known as a place where students were more likely to get stabbed than learn algebra.

There were three basketball courts in this schoolyard. We played on the half court the furthest away from the crowds, near the water fountain. All six of us were shitty players. I was tall, so I was good at blocking the ball. Unfortunately, I couldn’t dribble or shoot. I stood around with my hands up, trying to block the shots. Luckily, no one else could shoot the ball either.

Depending on the day of the week, between fifteen minutes to an hour into our game, it would always happen. Six tough-looking dudes would show up, the tallest doing tricks with his ball, and tell us to leave. He was not a polite guy. If I remember correctly, he tended to use the term “fucking white faggots,” at five of us, and then torment the one black guy in our group for being an “oreo.”

This might seem quite dramatic to you, even traumatic, but at the time, it didn’t seem so, even when we physically chased off the court, shown a knife, or forced to give them money. We would run away and make fun of these idiots, laughing at our crazy adventure that we would never dare tell our parents.

I’ve hardly thought about these incidents in years. It was the power politics of the schoolyard. During the day, we were safely roped off in our “gifted program.” What else was there to do?

But how has this affected me today? Or has it? I still tend to cave in during a conflict, although I have gotten much better about standing my own ground. I am the antithesis of the Israeli army and Hamas in the schoolyard of the Middle East, or the U.S. and Soviet Union of the cold war years, where neither gives an inch because that would convey weakness, and enemies always take advantages of weaknesses.   Sadly, history does not have many examples of the weak writing the history books!

We all know the movie/TV version of this schoolyard story. There would be a moment of transformation. At some point, I would have had enough with being pushed around, and I would become a leader.

“We need to stop those bullies. We need to keep our ground,” I would tell my friends.

Of course, just as the bullies arrive, telling us to leave the court, all my friends would wimp out, running off, leaving me alone, having to face the six toughs alone. I would nervously “put up my dukes,” like in some John Wayne Western, and promptly get the shit beaten out of me.

Yet, and this is a BIG yet — the bullies would have learned to respect me. I took it like a man. We would negotiate. We would compromise, taking turns using the court. We would even learn to play together, in mixed teams. The guy who did tricks with the basketball like a Harlem Globetrotter would show me how to play ball like a pro. I would teach him algebra. I would grow up and play center for the New York Knicks. He would become a Harvard Professor, a Nobel Prize winner in Mathematics.

I love Hollywood. Maybe the weak can’t write the history books, but they can rewrite history in screenplays!

OK, you’re a parent. Your son comes to you and tells you what is going on at the schoolyard. What do you tell him to do? Fight or flight?

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