23 April 2007

Dust To Dust

"Queens is New York City's junk drawer," says my friend Dan, who's lived there for most of his life. I don't think he means it in a particularly acerbic way (though "acerbic" would be a mild way of describing his usual sense of humor; I generally refer to it as "coruscating"). I'd prefer to think he's suggesting that Queens has a little of everything, not that any or all of it is junk.

Prior to today, most of my Queens experience has been limited to Astoria, unless you want to count visiting the 1964 World's Fair at Flushing Meadows, taking in a Mets game, and driving through on the way to or from JFK. But this morning I had to get up bright and early, put on a dark suit (on the hottest day of the year, natch), and journey to the outer reaches of Queens to attend a funeral.

"Had to" is the wrong way to put it; I wanted to go, and felt it important to do so. A friend of mine's mother passed away earlier this week, and though I'd never met the woman, I felt as though I knew her from all the stories I'd heard. Getting there meant an hour-long ride on three trains, the G, the E and the F, the last of these out to the end of the line.

When I finally emerged from the subway it looked like I hadn't gone anywhere: you could see a similar street scene almost anywhere in Brooklyn or Queens. But then I climbed a small hill to the church and found myself transported to Smallville, USA: great, sprawling houses with front porches and expansive lawns on streets lined with exquisitely flowering trees and bushes. It was altogether too beautiful a day for a funeral. A wedding would have been appropriate, or a graduation, but I guess when you think about it, death is the ultimate graduation.

I and two guys who'd journeyed out from Manhattan were the only gringos there; everyone else was Puerto Rican. Oh, except for the elderly Irish priest, who celebrated Mass and gave the eulogy in what sounded like flawless Spanish, but which my friends later told me was accented with a thick Anglo-Irish brogue. The cemetery was especially heartbreaking, as by the time we got there the day had gotten even more beautiful; minus the headstones and the gravediggers lurking discreetly over the road, it would have seemed a far more appropriate location for a picnic or school outing.

Most funerals I've been to in recent years involved cremations; this was the first I remembered in ages where an actual casket was lowered into the ground, and the first ever where the mourners waited around to see the grave filled in. I thought it a bit morbid at first, but then I realized how it lent the appropriate air of finality that was missing from some of the more sanitized funerals I've attended.

I was back in Brooklyn by 1:30 or 2 in the afternoon, but the journey and the service had taken something out of me, and I ended up staying in the rest of the day instead of going out to enjoy the gorgeous weather. In the evening the local gang of aging Italian adolescents (some of them have got to be in their mid-20s by now) put in their first street corner appearance of the summer and carried on loudly and exuberantly until 1 am. Any other time, I might have felt like complaining, but tonight I just thought back to my own street corner nights, those times that seemed they'd last forever but turned out to be as fleeting and evanescent as a firefly's glow in a sulky Midwestern dusk.

Could I blame those kids for being reluctant to say good night, for none of them wanting to be the first to break the spell that bound them together in that pool of light and shadows? No, of course not, and my thoughts turned instead to my own street-corner buddies, so many of them dead already, so many others who might as well be. Those moments, when we have them, stretch interminably, to the point where we never notice them vanishing irretrievably.