Yesterday I helped a friend move from Astoria to Jackson Heights (sorry, I can't hear the latter name without thinking of the line from the Car 54, Where Are You? theme that goes, "There's a traffic jam in Harlem that's backed up to Jackson Heights," and if anything shows my age, that should be it). My job entailed picking up a rental truck near my house and navigating it onto the BQE and across Newtown Creek via the mighty Kosciuszko Bridge, the concrete and steel span that leads us out of all that is safe and familiar here in Brooklyn and into the trackless wilds of Queens.
"Queens," my friend Dan opines, and he should know, having spent much of his life there, "is New York City's junk drawer." Not in any disparaging sense, i.e., he's not implying that people, place and things in Queens are actually, you know, junk, just that Queens is the kind of place where you put everything that's too good to throw away but that you don't know what else to do with.
My trip over went pretty smoothly, no thanks to the dilapidated terror ride that is the Brooklyn Queens Expressway (I think someone is having an especially ironic chuckle over including the word "express" in the name of this crumbling edifice). New York City is looking mighty spiffy in many quarters these days, what with all the building and rebuilding that's been going on, but the BQE, despite being a perennial construction site, appears to be the Winchester Mystery House of highway projects, always in upheaval, never completed. That plus the way lanes tend to appear and disappear (or suddenly dwindle in size to half the width of your vehicle) keeps travel on it a constantly invigorating and entertaining experience.
Soon after entering Astoria, I found myself driving down a street lined with hundreds - and I don't think this is even slightly an exaggeration - of Central and South American men who began whistling and gesturing wildly at me. I found this bewildering until I realized they were under the impression that I, being the driver of a truck that looked like it meant serious business, would be in the market for some bargain basement employees to load and unload it.
They all - well, except for the handful who tried the opposite strategy of looking cool and disinterested - seemed so eager and even desperate that I felt truly sorry I didn't have any work to offer them, there already being a full complement of PPMBers waiting at my destination to do the heavy lifting. I found myself searching my mind for any kind of work I could offer them, only to be brought up short by the realization that I have enough trouble finding work for myself to do.
And besides, there were so many of them. What if, I couldn't help wondering, the economy really did get as bad as the alarmists are predicting - or even as bad as it apparently already is in some parts of the country? What would become of these men then? Which in turn led me to wonder, while feeling no less sympathetic toward their plight, if this is any kind of way to run an economy or a country. I suppose similar things must have gone on during the last great wave of immigration around the turn of the 20th century, but it seems so backward and, yes, even a little barbaric today. On the bright side, by the time I made my second pass through the illegal immigrant zone (having taken a wrong turn the first time around), I was pleased to see that at least some of them were actually picking up work, as quite a few trucks and cars were pulling up to negotiate with them. I still felt compelled to put up my hands in a gesture of helplessness while mouthing the words, "No, gracias," especially to those who, having seen me come around the block twice, assumed that I had to be looking for some good workers.
The move itself went swiftly and smoothly, despite it being down three flights and up four others. At the new place, the fourth floor one, there was an elevator, but it being Saturday morning and this being a very large building, there were a few dozen other residents who felt they ought to have a right to use the elevator, too. After waiting about ten minutes for it to show up, we were quickly cramming it with as much stuff as would fit when a, shall we say, rather stout lady emerged puffing and panting from the staircase and immediately launched into a denunciation of yours truly.
"Thanks for holding up the elevator, buddy!" she barked. "You made me miss my ride, now who's gonna pay me $7 for my cab fare?" There was a time when I might have been cowed by this outburst of fury, but apparently New York has begun to rub off on me, because without even waiting for her to finish, I was already firing back: "Whattaya talking about, the elevator just got here this minute, we're waiting here forever for it to show up while somebody screwed around with it up on the fifth floor, you got a problem, go talk to your neighbors up there!"
She nodded her head as though we'd just greeted each other with a matter-of-fact "How are you, lovely day today, isn't it?" and heaved her way out on to the sidewalk to yell at some young people who happened to be standing there and looked as though they could have recently been riding in an elevator. We finished our moving in near-record time - the less stuff was left to carry, the more people showed up to help - and while everyone else set out to celebrate a morning's successful work with lunch at a local Indian restaurant, I turned the truck around and headed back to Brooklyn. Nothing against Indian food, which I quite enjoy, nor the company, which I enjoy even more, but there were no legal parking spots for the truck anywhere in sight (at least we'd only been blocking a crosswalk while unloading, not double parking and tying up traffic for blocks as any number of other trucks were doing), and I had, you know, important stuff that needed doing. Stuff whose importance or even nature seems to elude me at the moment, but serious stuff nonetheless.
Thanks to yet more construction work, I had a meandering journey through the backstreets of Queens before finding my way onto the BQE again, during the course of which I stopped to replace the gas we'd used, all 1.9 gallons worth. I know I've generally expressed enthusiasm for higher gasoline prices on the grounds that they'll discourage people from so much needless driving about, but I must admit that paying $4.15 a gallon dampened my ardor just a bit. Then it was down some rathole and up some decrepit roller coaster of a ramp and there I was flying high in the sky with all of Manhattan spread out before me in the dazzling late spring sunshine.
The reason this particular stretch of the highway offers such a spectacular view of the skyline is that the immediate foreground is occupied by a vast cemetery, containing nothing higher than the occasionally overreaching mausoleum. I remembered riding on this same route sometime back in the 1970s, when New York wasn't quite the bejeweled Emerald City we see it as today, and in my yearning-for-the-apocalypse drug-fucked hippie mind seeing the city's spires and towers as extensions of the graveyard, hollow-eyed Brobdingnagian tombstones crowding to the ends of the horizon.
But New York never looked more alive than it did this morning, and $4.15 a gallon gas had done nothing to dissuade everybody and his mother-in-law from piling into the car and onto the upper reaches of the BQE, making my trip a bit stop-and-start, or, on the bright side, affording me greater opportunity to savor the view of what has been called "the most polluted waterway in America."
Midway across Newtown Creek, as at every border crossing, there's a sign, placed by the irrepressible Borough President Marty Markowitz, welcoming you to Brooklyn. Each has a different slogan; the one on the Kosciuszko Bridge reads, "Welcome To Brooklyn: Believe the Hype." Some others include: "Brooklyn: Like No Other Place In The World," "Name It... We Got It," "How Sweet It Is!" and "Brooklyn's In The House!" A little over-the-top, you say? Well, yeah, but basically, it's all true. I'd genuinely enjoyed my trip into Queens - it kind of reminded me of when, as a boy in Detroit, we'd cross the bridge over into Canada for a little bit of foreign adventure and maybe to smuggle back some illegal fireworks - but gee, it was good to be back home.