Astoria

“New York, indeed, resembles a magic cauldron. Those who are cast into it are born again.”

Charles Whibley, American Sketches

*****

Step lively now. Back in the eighties, during my busiest years as a Manhattan Piano Girl, I had a subway routine. Late at night I took cabs, but when I played during the daytime I would finish my last set, grab my coat, fight for an elevator, join the throbbing crowd of Times Square movers, shakers, and sidewalk dwellers, scurry down into the Forty-ninth Street station, slide onto the RR train, scuffle for a seat, and heave a sigh of relief when I got one. I had a sushi habit during the eighties. Hoping for a wasabi rush, I would eat takeout tekkamaki while cruising past subterranean stops for Carnegie Hall and Bloomingdales.

The RR train—often called the “Rock and Roll to Astoria”—slithered beneath the plush, posh, privileged pads of the East Side, screeched under the East River, and burst forth onto a sepia-toned mural of outer borough-ness. Queens. I made my bridge and tunnel trip thousands of times in the fifteen years I lived in New York, and never tired of the view from Queensboro Plaza, the way the serrated Manhattan skyline taunted the humble Queens horizon. The two parts of my life—where I worked and where I lived—remained separated by a yawning moat of fast-moving, murky water.

At the end of each voyage, I would step off the RR in my low-key Astoria neighborhood, relieved to be a few short blocks from my affordable two-bedroom apartment. It took five minutes to walk home from the train stop. Health code regulations aside, Thirtieth Avenue boasted dozens of entertainment and food frenzy options—a veritable grab bag of multi-culti delights.

I always liked Tony’s Souvlaki, a Greek restaurant that featured an outdoor one-armed mannequin wearing a chef’s hat and checkered trousers. The dummy waved a skewer of plastic meat with his plastic arm and had a sign around its neck that said, “Come on in!” Tony’s Souvlaki hosted a legendary family of flying raccoons living in the restaurant ceiling. When I got lucky, I’d squint into the hanging philodendron and spot the glowing eyes of one of them scoping out my feta cheese and olive platter. I’m still not sure they were raccoons. They might have been airborne rats.

Across the street from Tony’s was a Greek nightclub that served hallucinogenic ouzo. I went there once with my husband and a group of friends. We drank the famed ouzo (my friend Peter, who is Greek, tried to order an ouzo Collins) and listened to a Greek Elvis impersonator singing “Love Me Tender” in 7/4. Or maybe it was 13/4. Then everyone threw plates. More than that I do not recall.

Astoria pulsed with the odd-meter rhythm of its Greek population, but the depth of its multi-cultural community also contributed random swipes of vibrancy to its funky, we’re-all-in-this-together vibe. I can trace my family roots back to Plymouth Rock—I’ve always claimed my ancestors were the lounge act on the Mayflower—but in Astoria I was as foreign as everyone else, a stranger in a strange land, trying to make ends meet while adjusting to life in a city renowned for eating its young. Come on in!

***

Happy Happy Variety, run by a Chinese family, sold take out Chinese food, an assortment of knee-socks, and flowers. One year, on Mother’s Day, I stopped on my way home from my Manhattan brunch gig and bought a big bunch of peonies. I have always loved peonies. They look like flowers crossed with clouds.

“Happy Happy Mutha Day,” said Mrs. Chang. “You mutha?”

“No!” I said. “I just like peonies.”

“No matta. You get penis for Happy Happy Mutha Day.”

Peonies? You mean peonies!”

“Yeah, yeah. Penis. You like penis! Penis good.”

In addition to buying penis, I ordered a lot of sesame noodles from Happy Happy. One time the  Happy Happy delivery boy got mugged right outside our apartment door, but still managed to ring the bell and deliver our food. Sadly, this was the exact night my husband’s parents were visiting. We tipped the bleeding, bedraggled delivery boy—he refused to let us call the police—and sent him off on his mangled bicycle. Then we spent most of the evening trying to assure my in-laws that the mugging was not a nightly occurrence.

“It’s safe in Astoria!” we proclaimed.

The house next door might have been a crack den, but that’s another topic.

Mrs. Chang eventually turned her empire over to her son, Young Chang, who wasn’t as bright or enterprising as his mother. But boy, could he fold laundry. He even pressed my socks—purchased at Happy Happy Variety before it became Happy Happy Laundry.  They got me coming and going. Turned out the Happy Happy people were pretty smart-smart.

It took us a month to figure out what Young Chang said when we dropped off our laundry. It sounded like haffa cuffa cappy. My husband finally got it—Young Chang was inviting us to have a cup of coffee. So we did.

***

I spent a lot of time eating on trains—grazing on New York City delicacies as I pink-panthered back and forth to Manhattan. It never occurred to me to cook, and I had so many piano jobs that it made sense to eat while commuting. Rosie, a Polish woman who worked at a coffee shop right under the elevated train platform in Astoria, made my egg and cheese sandwiches every afternoon before I headed into work. Across the street from Rosie’s place was the Keystone Diner, a twenty-four-hour mecca of mediocre cuisine where I could order any of the three million items on the menu at any time of day or night. I imagined their kitchen stretching under the river—all the way to Manhattan—staffed by culinary masters capable of whipping up Greek diner versions of Cordon Bleu, Belgian waffles, or  truffle-stuffed trout at 7 AM.

I discovered if I ordered two baked potatoes to go from the Keystone, I could stash them in my coat pockets and keep my hands warm on the windy train platform. Once I arrived at my destination, I would hang out in the swank ladies’ room and eat my pocket-warmers. Popille’s Pocket Potatoes.  I thought this was genius. I even carried little packets of salt in my purse—along with golden sandals, an extension cord, and duct tape.

Also on my block in Astoria was an Indian grocery run by a soft-spoken, elegant man named Sanjay. I liked to buy a delicious Indian desert called a gulob, a word I sometimes got mixed up with gonad, understandable if you’ve ever seen a golub (or a gonad). Sanjay also sold frozen Indian TV dinners and made fresh samosa, spicy enough to blow off your golubs. He was my hero.

***

On my corner was a funeral home, run by the LaBrutto family. The LaBrutto brothers—really nice guys—were also in the chiropractor business. Funeral home and chiropractor office—the combination caused me some unease. And having the sound of the word brute in the name of a company dedicated to orthopedic adjustments and burial services seemed like bad marketing, at best.

Your crack ‘em, we stack ‘em.

You squeeze ‘em, we freeze ‘em.

You stab ‘em, we slab ‘em.

Like that.

My Astoria neighborhood was a classic cradle to grave community—within one block I had a hospital, a school,  a nursing home, and the LaBrutto brothers—ready to align my spine and help me select a casket.

Plus all those gonads and raccoons.

***

My fabulous landlords, the handsome Burburan family—originally from Croatia—cushioned me through a rocky phase of my life, best described as my “serial dating” years. Eventually, they sold the house to the Politos, first generation Italian-Americans. The Polito family operated a hugely successful office-cleaning company and had amassed a small fortune with hard work and very little English. Charming, a little confused by my lifestyle, and always cheerful, they didn’t mind the sound of my piano at all hours of the day and night or my cat, Lucky, who occasionally escaped into their part of the house.

“She’s a nice-a puppy,” Mr. Polito would say, patting the cat on her head.

The Politos grew tomatoes in pots on the concrete driveway. Every year, in the pounding August heat, the entire family would sit in a circle of lawn chairs and puree fresh tomatoes—with an ancient, hand-cranked, tomato squashing machine—to ready them for sauce. The view from my upstairs bedroom window looked like the chainsaw bathtub scene from Scarface. The sauce was excellent.

***

Around the corner from my apartment was the Korean nail salon, called Fancy Finger. I loved Fancy Finger. I would walk in the door, a little bell would ring, and Mrs. Kim, the proprietor, hunched over another client, would yell from behind her surgical mask, “WELCOME FANCY FINGA. PICK COLOR.”

I had always chosen pale beige for my working woman hands, and rouge-noir lacquer for my toes. This worked nicely until the final month of my pregnancy. Mrs. Kim refused to paint my toenails a dark color.

“Too much depressing,” she said. “Baby pop out, first thing see devil color. He go back in. No come out. Big scary for baby.”

I argued, but she insisted on candy-pink for my toes. Big scary for me.

“Nicey color. It say, welcome to world, baby.”

Happy Happy Mutha Day.

***

One afternoon, on my way to a manicure appointment, I dropped off my son at the home of his daycare provider, a Puerto Rican woman named Lisa, who lived two doors down, on the other side of the (supposed) crack house.  Lisa had laundered my son’s baby blanket and handed it to me at the door. Rather than return home with the blanket and risk being late for Mrs. Kim, I carried it with me and hustled around the corner to Fancy Finger. Just as I passed the LaBrutto chiropractor office, a large Ryder rental truck raced onto the avenue, swerved onto the curb, and almost hit me.  The truck squealed to a halt, right across the street from Astoria General Hospital.

I stood there, freaked out and muttering obscenities. The driver—a Jamaican man—leapt out of the truck screaming about his wife. I couldn’t understand him, but his hysteria indicated he needed help. He flung open the double back doors of the truck, and there, rolling around like a pea in a barrel, was his wife, moaning, crying, and about to give birth.

I didn’t know nothing ‘bout birthin’ babies, but my own baby was six months old and I knew a lot about the panic of childbirth, especially, I imagined, if one was flopping around, panty-less and unharnessed, in an empty truck meant to transport dining tables and bookcases.

I stayed calm and told the husband, who was useless, shouting, and flailing his arms in that alpha-male chop-chop motion, to run to the hospital and get help. I climbed into the truck and got the woman on her back. I shoved my son’s baby blanket—white with colorful airplane embroidery—under her bottom. I tried to soothe her, but her moans had become screams and I could see, when she opened her legs, that the baby was coming. Blood. Lots of blood. Not good.

All I wanted was a manicure, and there I was,  an unwilling star in a pilot episode of Call the Midwife.

I glanced up the street and spotted a couple of parked ambulances. Their drivers were probably sitting in the Keystone Diner eating mile-high coconut pie. Frustrating. We were right in front of a damn hospital that boasted dozens of trained medical specialists, we had at least four paramedics within a block’s range, and this poor woman was about to push her infant into the trembling hands of a piano player. Big scary for baby.

Finally, the husband came running back to the truck, followed by two workers and a gurney. One of the ambulances, likely summoned by the hospital, turned on its siren and drove the hundred yards to the truck.

We could have done without that siren.

“She’s having a baby!” I yelled. “NOW!”

“We’ve got this, ma’am,” said one of the paramedics as he helped me out of the truck and hopped inside. He evaluated the situation and said, in one of those calm med-tech voices: “Breech. And we’re doing this right here.”

I stepped away to give them some space and to help keep the rubberneckers to a minimum.

“Privacy, please!”

The baby boy—Astoria’s newest resident—entered the world ass first. The crowd cheered, and I burst into tears.  A paramedic wrapped him in my son’s blanket and rushed him into the hospital.

The mother, her eyes squeezed shut against the glare of the Queens sky, chanted: “We are safe. We are safe. We are safe.” The paramedics lifted her onto the gurney and rolled her across the street. The sliding glass doors opened and she disappeared.

I never did get my nails done.

***

Astoria, Queens was affordable for immigrants, salt of the earth workers, and glossy-faced artists. We worked hard and protected each other. The neighborhood’s residents—from all corners of the world—taught me a lot about fierceness, tolerance, and inner strength. The thick skin I acquired served a purpose. Bootcamp for adulthood.

I left New York City for Germany in 1994. Over the course of fifteen years in Astoria, I had composed several albums of music, made some money, and catapulted myself from chubby-cheeked naivety to pencil-skirted semi-sophistication. I fell in and out of love, occasionally settled for less than I deserved, and figured out how to get more of what I wanted. I ran the gamut of adult feelings—anguish, hunger, ambition, disappointment, elation, loss. It made sense to leave, but it wasn’t easy; Astoria had both grounded me and given me wings.

The RR train became the N train; the Politos sold the house for a small fortune; the flying raccoons relocated. The Jamaican-American baby boy is now twenty-five-years old. From what I’ve heard, the community gleams with the spit shine of gentrification and has become more than a little white-breadish. But I’ve also heard Astoria still celebrates diversity and bows to its ouzo roots. The hospital, school, nursing facility, and funeral home remain in place, waiting for the next round of dreamers, doers, and drifters to move in, move out, move on.

Talk to me about immigration and I will tell you it makes a neighborhood sing. I was there. I know.

Rock and roll to Astoria. Pick color. Haffa cuffa cappy. Love me tender. Come on in. Welcome to world, baby. We are safe. Happy, happy. Me.

***

***

Queensboro Bridge photo by Ric Burger.

Greek restaurant photo by Phillippe Vieux.

Robin Meloy Goldsby is a Steinway Artist. She is the author of Piano Girl; Waltz of the Asparagus People: The Further Adventures of Piano Girl; and Rhythm: A Novel.  

Newest book: Manhattan Road Trip, a collection of short stories about musicians. Go here to buy Manhattan Road Trip!

New piano album: Home and AwayGoldsby’s latest solo piano album, directly from the artist, at Amazon, or from your favorite streaming channels.

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  • dkl

    poignant poignant, excellent as always always. Thank you.

  • Carol Ann Habich-Traut

    Wonderful story, made me homesick and reminiscent of my NY roots. You always seem to be in the middle of drama, what fun! Miss that. You had a 2 bedroom!?!