I didn’t end up in Queens by accident. It had been a longstanding dream of mine to move out to Astoria-go to Mets games, write hard-boiled novels, read, drink alone, find passion, refuse compromise and become … authentic . I would be the guy muttering on the stoop. I would argue with cops. Maybe I would say, You got a problem wit dat? and nobody would laugh. So while my friends were dressing like pirates and slumming it in expensive East Village studio tenements, I would be keepin’ it real in Astoria, far from ambient deejays, dork chic, Frappuccinos and performance art. That’s how I pictured it, at least.
But I couldn’t quite escape my pretty past-those childhood mornings spent swimming laps in the gleaming pool at the University Club; afternoons at the family Steinway, practicing Dmitri Shostakovich’s Preludes and Fugues; evenings spent debating the merits of T.S. Eliot with eccentric uncles (O.K., that only happened once). Looking out across the East River from my new neighborhood, I can just make out the lily-white limestone facade and plush terraces of the building where I grew up on the Upper East Side. It’s a potent reminder of my roots. So whenever I start to lose myself in Astoria’s grit, whenever a nod from the local Italian baker makes me flush, whenever I pause involuntarily to watch the neighborhood kids playing stickball in the street-in short, whenever I begin to shed my skin-I recall that I’m not the bad-ass Queens guy I long to be, but just the Manhattan wuss I’ve always been.
Even so, I’ve been able to conduct my transformation in relative peace. I have lounged in dimly lit Middle Eastern cafes, inhaling the shawarma and kabobs while the puzzled natives looked on. I smoked a hooka with an Egyptian. I watched soccer with Italians and played checkers with a Greek. I was malleable, receptive, quick to tears. I got drunk and sentimental. I was born in the 70’s, but somehow I found myself reminiscing about how it was in the 50’s with a bunch of windbags at the corner dive.
So it was 1:32 A.M.-cold and raining outside-and I wasn’t sleeping. I thought I might get a drink at the place on the corner, maybe watch Knicks Rewind and pick the brains of the local drunks. On my way out, just after the latch clicked, I felt slightly nauseated; frantically turning my pockets out, I realized I had left the keys inside. I tried to jimmy open the door with an A.T.M. card. Nothing doing. Heyyyy, fuggeddaboudit . I went to the bar, got a bottle of Budweiser and had a talk with the barkeep, Daney Larocque, a fellow Manhattan transplant.
He told me stories about when he used to be in a gang-how Frankie Gavone got stabbed 60 times and how Timmy Shaye got his head cut off and was left in a body bag on Rockaway Beach. Daney played basketball with Wilt Chamberlain, I discovered, and used to date a beautiful French model. He had to dump her when she became annoying, he said. When gang tales and sports chat ran dry, I decided I had better find a way back into my apartment.
I sneaked around to the back of the 1918 row house and shimmied up a drainpipe leading to my unlocked bedroom window. It was hard going-everything was slick, and the pipe rattled against the house. When I was halfway up, the neighbors’ lights started going on, windows flew open and a few heads poked out. I climbed back down and hit the street.
I wandered around trying to figure out what to do with myself. I talked to friends’ answering machines and called an overpriced lock-out service, then nursed a cup of stale coffee and a piece of slimy spinach pie at the all-night diner. Seeing no other alternative, I grudgingly resolved to spend the night at my parents’ place across the river.
I hailed a shiny blue livery car on Broadway. I got inside and told the driver to take me to the Upper East Side. The seats were plush-real leather, I think-the air was sweet, and the ride was smooth, but listening to the Urdu tumbling out of the two-way radio as we approached the 59th Street Bridge, I grew woozy. My retreat to Manhattan stank of defeat. I asked the driver to take me to the nearest motel.
He thought it strange that I should change my mind, and maybe he was a little pissed off to lose a nice fat fare. But I was pretty determined. We talked it over and reduced my lodging options to either a businessman’s motel near La Guardia Airport or a fleabag joint by the East River. Reader, I chose the fleabag joint by the river.
He pulled into the nearly empty parking lot of the Q Plaza Motel. My God, it was beautiful-a grim concrete slab of a dump surrounded by six-foot-high cinder block walls, conveniently located next to an abandoned ice-cream factory under the shadow of the Queensboro Bridge. In the lobby I was greeted by a security guard who gave me the once-over before returning to his Newport Light and wrinkled New York Post .
A bearded Pakistani fellow peered out from behind a pane of greasy bulletproof glass, saw that I was alone and looked at me kind of funny. I shoved $40 into an opening in the glass, and he gave me a key. “Keep your door locked,” he said offhandedly and returned to his TV.
The second-floor room I was assigned was decorated very much like the exterior; that is to say, not at all. On the other hand, it had all the essential trimmings: a bed, multiple mirrors (walls and ceiling), tissues, trash can, ashtray and TV. The walls had mysterious little brown stains on them which I didn’t bother to inspect. The ratty, sallow blanket had a burn mark on it the size of a fist, and a small battalion of tiny black bugs hopped around on it.
After I settled down, it got pretty lonely and I felt kind of foolish. I lay back and saw myself in the mirrored ceiling. I remembered something a tenant in my parents’ building said as I was loading up the U-Haul to make the crossing for the first time: “What are you trying to prove?” he had asked. “The point is to get out of Queens.”
I wasn’t too crazy about the direction my thoughts were taking, so I turned on the TV. There, writhing on the screen, a pair of pale, pasty-faced ladies awkwardly negotiated a two-way dildo. It was not a professional production-some sort of home-grown Queens porno. They could have been my neighbors, for Chrissakes. I couldn’t quite muster the inspiration to masturbate. A loud knocking on the wall behind me interrupted my meditations. Could my motel mates really be up at this hour? I really wasn’t making that much noise. But raised as I was, with a gentle, unthinking, wimpy sort of courtesy, I turned off the TV, anyway. And then I heard the moaning.
I washed my face and got into bed. And as the bedbugs began to make a meal of my legs, I fell to an uneasy sleep, serenaded by the loneliest music in the world-some guy grunting in the next room and a bedpost knocking against the wall.