Screen to screen to screen has been my life this past month — my work laptop, augmented by my personal laptop, and then my desktop, when the workday is through, followed by some viewing on my laptop again. I am privileged to be able to work from home and to live in a co-op building which is well-maintained. But as I have revealed, I have taken to gazing out my window.
Now straight ahead, dead straight, to the left of the streetlight and to the right of the bright window in the building across the street, you can see a bit of colored glass. There. You see it? Had I an actual camera (instead of a phone) or were I a better photographer, I could capture that image — the streetlight, the stained glass of the Ukrainian church beyond.
Last night, I attempted it. The bars of the fire escape were too intrusive and the zoom on the cell phone camera wasn’t sufficient, so I climbed out on the fire escape and did my best.
This yellow-robed Ukrainian saint has been gazing into my living quarters for the past 20 years, but I only thought to think of it now. Of course, I was aware that there was a Ukrainian Orthodox Church a block away — I have photographed their fete on Ukrainian heritage day. Beribboned children in native costume dance all afternoon in reluctant troupes. Ornately braided girls and grim embarrassed boys prance and clap on a wooden platform in front of the church, to the blaring of recorded accordion and clarinet music. A street block is roped off from traffic to allow for tables selling embroidered goods and meat-stuffed pastries, and chairs for the parents of those mortified, loyal prepubescents.
These wares, these performances, are not meant for the likes of me. I don’t know the difference between Greek Orthodox and Ukrainian Orthodox but I know neither proselytizes. Far from it. It is from the Greeks that we get the word “xenophobia,” from the Greek xenos meaning “foreigner” or “stranger.” Also, “barbarian,” which originally meant “a person who does not speak Greek.” (Non-Greek sounded to Greeks like someone saying “bar bar bar.”)
After twenty years in Astoria, I was not keen to insert myself where I was not welcome.
It took a pandemic to make me realize that the church I look out on every day was not merely a church, but a religious residence. The low tan building I look out on (and appreciate, since it affords me sunlight when a commercial building would not) is not just extra church space, but a dormitory for the order.
Queens Gazette which, in case you have mislaid your copy, details the destruction of a piano which was placed in Athens Square Park by the nonprofit group Sing for Hope. As a summertime public art project which has become a kind of New York tradition (the cows, the Gates, the waterfalls), Sing for Hope has placed sixty pianos in public places around the five boroughs. “Play Me, I’m Yours!” the pianos invite.
One piano was placed in Athens Square Park in Astoria, home of the Steinway piano factory, the last active piano factory in New York City, which in the 19th century numbered 171. The last factory to close was the Sohmer factory, on Vernon Boulevard in Astoria, which closed in 1982, spent some time as an office furniture warehouse, and was declared an historic landmark in March, 2007, and has been in the process of being converted into condos for the past couple of years delayed, I can only surmise, by the credit crunch of the recession. If you have visited Socrates Sculpture Park, you have seen the former Sohmer factory with its landmark mansard-roofed clock tower. Sohmers are not Steinways, but they are nothing to sneeze at. When Irving Berlin wrote, “I Love a Piano,” he write it on a Sohmer.
Here is a photo and an excerpt from the fascinating (especially if you are a geek about the history of neighborhoods) report from the Landmarks Preservation Commission.
Why do I know all this? A few weeks before that factory was declared an historic landmark, I found a Sohmer piano put out on the street for Saturday large trash pickup. I have written about it hereand am also developing it into a larger piece because, how can I put this, I just love pianos. I still have the Sohmer I rescued from the street, even though the soundboard is ruined and several of the keys don’t work at all. I have not come up with the $8,000 I need to have it fully restored to its former glory. But I can’t let go.
“The badly vandalized piano at Athens Square Park, 30th Street and 30th Avenue,” reads the article in the Western Queens Gazette, “had all of its keys and part of its inner gears removed.”
Indeed. The vandalism is quite specific and specialized. The piano was not smashed, axed, beat up, beat in, set on fire or otherwise generally molested. But its keys and part of its inner gears were removed. This particular neighborhood is full of retired tuners and technicians. The violated piano was a Kimball, a Chicago-based manufacturer. The vandal carefully removed the keys from their supporting nails and left the frame. But why, as Keith Morrison on Dateline NBC would ask, why would anyone do that?
Originally published Wednesday, June 30, 2010
The holiday party held annually in the lobby of my building took place yesterday and provided an excellent opportunity to observe the changing demographic of the building. More young people are moving in, particularly young people starting families. There are two Jennifers, each with a newborn baby and a shy, kind-eyed husband. This is all good, in a bittersweet way. It is desirable to have young people about, and it is best if a co-op is occupied one hundred percent by owners but as I wrote last year, the disappearance of the old people makes me one of the old people.
I went down to the lobby with my neighbor Michael who knows more of the neighbors than I ever will. “That’s ‘cause you work,” he told me, which was, until recently, true. “I’m around all the time.” It is also because Michael, as the saying goes, could charm a dog off a meat truck.
For example, I introduced myself to a neighbor I thought was new to the building and learned she has lived here for two years, that she has a cool job in the music industry, and that she bathes her cat every day with some allergen-killing shampoo. She is a cute, chipper young woman with the sturdy, compact build of a gymnast because, as I later learned, she spent two decades performing gymnastics.
She had vaulted over to the hors d’oeuvres when Michael and I were approached by someone who was new to the building. He told us his apartment number. Michael, who goes to every open house the building holds and has the blueprints of the whole place locked in his memory, informed me, “That’s the old Melman place.”
“Ooooooh.” I turned and tried to get an impression of the new guy: dark hair, dark eyes, dark shirt, black jeans, an unplaceable accent. “Mr. and Mrs. Melman. They died within a day of each other. She died and then he died the next day.”
My new neighbor looked distressed.
“No, it’s romantic,” I assured him. “They were married for like 70 years. They were like Cathy and Heathcliff.”
“If Cathy and Heathcliff were two short old Jewish people,” Michael added. “So, what do you do for a living?”
This was unusually blunt: for the party, for Michael, for the stage of the conversation we were in. But yet, there was something about the new guy that solicited a demand for an explanation. Who was he?
“I’m a social worker,” he said.
“In a clinic. In New Jersey.”
“I have a car.”
Oh, do you? Michael and I nodded and withheld the unasked questions. Among them: How can a social worker afford a car andthe old Melman place, a two-bedroom on the top floor? And Do you live there alone? And God, the place must be pristine! The same tenants for 50 years and then newly renovated! And What is your accent? And Why are you pretending to be a social worker?And “in New Jersey”? Could you possibly be less specific? AndWhy is the aura of intrigue about you as palpable as fog? And Can we go see your apartment? Now?
We are all dying to get into one another’s apartments. The units named after the first dozen letters of the alphabets all have unique layouts: the studios, the compact one-bedrooms, the wastefully large one-bedrooms and the highly coveted two-bedrooms. The units named after the next dozen letters of the alphabet, on the other side of the lobby, follow the same patterns, only flipped. Even if your apartment is exactly the same as that of your neighbor, even, if, oh, say you were to lock yourself out of your apartment when the door slams shut behind you on your way to take out the recycling and you have to cajole the woman downstairs into letting you cross through her apartment and climb out her window onto the fire escape so you can break into your own apartment through the living room window, you would still pause and marvel at what she had done with the space, how she had met the challenges of the literal nooks and crannies that all the apartments have. It is a pre-war building filled with the quirks and perks of the time: built-in bookcases, high archways, deep closets, meandering hallways, foyers, occasionally, a raised dining area just off the kitchen.
The Gymnast bounded back and we introduced her to the Social Worker. I added, after some preliminary chatting, “He bought the old Melman place.”
“Oh! They died within a day of each other!” she told him pertly.
“Did they die in the apartment?” he asked, understandably apprehensive at the party line on his new place.
“No.” I then realized I had no idea. Mrs. Melman had been in the hospital, but who knew about Mr.? Ambulances are a routine sight outside the building. When we ask “Who is it?” of a neighbor watching the EMS workers unload the gurney onto the sidewalk, the answer is usually given by apartment number, as in “Who is it?” “5N.” “At least, I . . . don’t think so.”
“Um, I um . . . cheese . . . right back . . .”
The Social Worker headed toward the refreshment table.
“That guy is not a social worker,” I said.
“I was thinking the same thing,” said the Gymnast. “There’s something just, like — ”
“He’s a spy, obviously.” I’ve been reading a lot of Alan Furst’s novels recently. “But not a very good one. Because spies should try to blend in more. Like those Russians in New Jersey.” (New Jersey!) “There’s nothing about him that says ‘social worker.’ What everything about him says is ‘international man of mystery.’”
As it happened, when I left the party, the international man of mystery joined me in the elevator and carefully asked me to repeat my apartment number.
“I’ve been thinking about having a gathering,” he said. “In my apartment.”
“Oh!” I was pleased that one of the young people would consider inviting me to a gathering, that I was not yet manifestly one of the old people; pleased, also, that I would get to see the old Melman place. “That would be nice.”
Only later did I realize – he never said what kind of “gathering.”
First published Monday, December 20, 2010
I have recently acquired a pen pal in St. Louis, my home town, who was under the mistaken impression that I live in L.A., due probably to my recent interview for the Women and Hollywood blog. He wrote from a gloomy day in St. Louis, grumbling that he didn’t even want to hear about how the weather was where I was (L.A., he presumed) and complaining about the weeds taking over the zoysia grass. I’m sure zoysia is common worldwide, but I don’t hear a lot of talk about it in these parts. This is probably because I live in New York City, where talk of lawn care in general is thin on the ground. But the word “zoysia” immediately evoked my South St. Louis grandparents and their too-perfect lawn.
“I don’t live in L.A.!” I wrote back to him. “I live in Astoria, Queens.”
He wrote back that although he had grown up in Brooklyn (back when there were still Brooklyn Dodgers) he knew little of Astoria except for having traveled through it to visit a relative.
Well, that was Astoria, originally. A place to travel through. F. Scott Fitzgerald describes it thus, in the 20’s, before Astoria was transformed by the great wave of Greek immigrants in the 50’s. Back then, it was just a dismal backstage boneyard feeding the roaring 20’s maw of Manhattan:
This is a valley of ashes-a fantastic farm where ashes grow like wheat into ridges and hills and grotesque gardens; where ashes take the forms of houses and chimneys and rising smoke and, finally, with a transcendent effort, of men who move dimly and already crumbling through the powdery air. Occasionally a line of gray cars crawls along an invisible track, gives out a ghastly creak, and comes to rest, and immediately the ash-gray men swarm up with leaden spades and stir up an impenetrable cloud, which screens their obscure operations from your sight.
A place, in other words, no decent Princeton grad like the narrator of “The Great Gatsby,” would be caught dead stopping in, even for gas, traveling between his “bond business” on Wall Street and the great West Egg of Long Island to Gatsby’s mansion. How awful, to have to witness the “obscure operations” of the working class from your Ivy League gaze.
And popular culture has been no kinder. The people of Queens are depicted in the movies as buffoonish ethnics, the defeated lower middle class, slamming crockery and stepping on their vowels, or a curiously unethnic, untough and un-accented Hollywood baby-faced Spiderman.
What I had been about to tell my pen pal about Astoria was that I chose it, or it chose me, for a variety of practical reasons – its persistent lack of cool keeps the prices down, its proximity to Manhattan repeatedly startles visitors from other boroughs, and primarily, its sense of déjà vu. “It is like South St. Louis,” I would have written him, “except substitute Greeks for Germans, and I don’t know which is more xenophobic.”
Well, I do know which is more xenophobic. For one thing, the Germans are colder towards everyone, even their own kin, while the Greeks are more clannish.
Also, “xenophobia” is their word — “xenos” from the Greek meaning foreigner and “phobos” from the Greek meaning fear. I have lived in the same neighborhood for 15 years and only recently has the butcher or the tailor at the dry cleaner given me a reluctant nod in response to my “Good morning.” Even my saying it in Greek elicited no kinship: “kalimera” brought nothing but smirks or blank faces. “You Greek?” they ask. “No, actually I’m from –” I start to reply, but already the shades are drawn and the front door lock has clicked.
It would also be helpful to remember here that the word “barbarian”, now understood to mean an uncivilized person, means, in Greek, “one who does not speak Greek.” It was thought, according to noted Classics professor Elizabeth Vandiver, to derive from the Ancient Greeks’ mockery of the languages of other tribes: “Bar bar bar,” they would say to the mongrel tribe leaders, much as we say “blah blah blah” to indicate the speech of those whose interests and patience do not match our own.
What I would have told my St. Louis pen pal is that the pre-war buildings and the tidy gardens of Astoria remind me of South St. Louis. I bought my apartment because I loved the pre-war building, about which I have written here. The building has lovely arch doorways, and beautiful landscaping (though no zoysia) to which several of my neighbors contribute the whole of their weekends. My neighbors and I are not as close as I would like. But I realize that in NewYork City, even in the “ashes” of its glitter, that lack of neighborliness is a luxury problem. My building is diligently tended to, scrupulously clean, generically attractive, as the lobby of an “extended care facility” might be attractive, full of unused couches and artificial flowers. No, my building is not cool. But it is lovely.
But my grandmother would have been pleased. I would say “delighted” but “delighted” was never her style. I was able to buy the apartment in the first place because of a small inheritance from her and her frugal, reserved lifestyle. When I stepped into my then-empty apartment as a prospective buyer, I felt that my grandmother’s dishes would fit into the kitchen. I felt that she would have approved although, had she been there, she would have had no one to talk to, Germans and Greeks being what they are.
Recently, the Wall Street Journal was the latest to “discover” Astoria
as a “gentrifying” and “hip” emerging new nabe. We have been down this road before. Roomy apartments! Young hip filmmakers! Close to Manhattan! Up and coming! Have a baklava!
But on second thought, you know what? Stay away.
Originally published Wednesday, May 19, 2010