Thursday, September 19, 2013
Yet here’s this guy at the very back of the Q58 bus, huge headphones secured, quietly singing lines in convincing French as we bump along Flushing and Grand. He sings the song over, and over, and over, and he’s nailing it. His pronunciation is perfectly phlegmy, his pitch is true. Every curled consonant and millisecond pause is just so. By the standards of my three-years-in-high-school French, whose legacy is essentially Je m’appelle, boeuf and the fact that the literal translation of “potato” (pomme de terre) is “apple of the earth,” he’s pretty impressive.
It’s dark outside. Saturday evening. I don’t recall the time, but I can say with assurance that it is late enough, for example, that the Maspeth Fedex Center—which, if Maspeth is a rotten pomme, is the wormy inner core—is already closed, which means I’ll have to come back here another day to pick up abstruse legal documents which may or may not concern me. This is not an exciting prospect. At a certain zoom level in Google Maps, the three labeled locations closest to Fedex are a Catholic Church, a Holiday Inn Express, and something called “New York City Emergency.” I can see how each would be a necessity here.
On my return trip, all I want is to be able to scowl at my book in peace. Joe Dassin doesn’t fit into the plan. But it’s a curious thing that a bouncy foreign-language song from the 1960s about a high-end road in stodgy Europe can take on an entirely new timbre when sung in 2013 by a slightly raggedy New Yorker in the back of a more than slightly raggedy city bus. The low volume of his recital makes it clear that he isn’t angling for an audience. (In this town it’s immediately obvious when someone is singing to be heard, because suddenly there’s an upturned hat clinking with quarters under your nose.) Maybe he's practicing for a performance. Maybe he’s just seen Wes Anderson’s Darjeeling Limited and is dreaming of Indian landscapes, ultra-slow-motion train pursuits and Bill Murray.
Whatever it is, his spirit is a long way from Maspeth. And listening to him, blithely belting out a French song by an American songwriter in a neighborhood first settled by the Dutch and named for a Native American tribe, I feel far away too. Or maybe I feel exactly where I am: on Flushing Avenue, in motley Queens.
Monday, September 9, 2013
“Don’t know much about history…”
The accordionist, the first to begin but far the less talented of the two acts, readily gives way, his plaintive notes sinking under a sweet four-part harmony. He’s a slightly grizzled older man, head ensconced in that type of flat cap known universally, or at least to myself, as a “grandpa hat.” (In Scotland, a bunnet.)
“Don’t know much biology…”
The singular musician stands at the doors, silent, but all eyes on the cars flit between him and the middle-aged do-woppers sashaying their finger-snapping way slowly through the car. No one is certain of the protocol here. The MTA rules of conduct, though expressly permitting “artistic performances, including the acceptance of donations,” lack a hierarchy chart. It’s pretty clear that the do-woppers will act just as they see fit. They are, after all, the prime act of the Metro Transit Authority entertainment scene. All the rest—the mariachi players, breakdancers, flashmobbers—are sideshows next to these guys. They’re professionals, and they’re singing Sam Cooke.
Sunday, May 19, 2013
Sunny days remind me of California—of blue skies and ocean swells and a smog-line on the horizon. Rainy days remind me of the Philippines.
Three and a half years ago I had my first rainy season—my first experience of rain without end, of cataracts drumming down endlessly on aluminum roofs, of trisikad wheels cutting furrows through riverine streets. I shivered through cold bucket baths and spent evenings on the porch of my host family’s home, watching the water pinball down the branches of the neighbor’s rambutan tree. I played Go Fish with Kate and Meryl and Nina while the little ones, Pan-Pan and Pau-Pau and Ann-Ann, tottered around on mud-splattered feet. There was also a game called Popcorn, a slightly more sophisticated version of Duck Duck Goose, and since I was clumsy and slow I was usually the goose.
Later, when I had my own house, I’d awake to the blissful sounds of rain and throw my doors and windows open. I lived on the back alley of my subdivision, and behind my house stretched acres of empty fields—lush, green, raw fields. I had a banana tree whose golden fruit mysteriously vanished while I was at work—its enormous elephant-ear leaves drooped seductively over my fence, attracting scavengers. During the rains I sat in my doorway and watched rivulets streaming from those leaves. Stood under them, dry, feeling the coolness of the bagyo air.
I miss it. I miss it.
Sunday, January 27, 2013
"I'm not trying to pick you up," she began, and from long experience I knew what was coming next. It was an older woman, so she was going to comment on my hair.
"But you have very nice hair." I looked up and smiled. "And eyes."
Three hours later I staggered out of Starbucks, the weight of seven decades piggybacking me out onto the snowdrifted sidewalk. Jackson Heights shone bright after a marathon session in the dim cafe, and my head resounded with tales of earthquakes, murder and Mick Jagger.
Ellen was from a Greek island, one of the Ionians—the "Seven Islands," she called them, though there are many more than seven. Aristotle Onassis had owned one of them, Skorpios, in Greece's better days, though by the time he and Jackie O had tied their knot Ellen was long gone, riding the trade winds (and a convenient family marriage) to the States.
Her family had owned a beautiful house in Greece—her eyes glinted with memories as she described it to me—which they'd abandoned after an earthquake, Ellen claimed, had split the earth open as she watched.
She recalled the foreshocks, her mother collecting Ellen and her siblings and herding them outside.
"The neighbors said 'You're crazy,'" she said, smirking at the recollection. She sat back in her chair, staring back in time and across the Atlantic. Her mother was justified: in the orchard where they took refuge, they were free from the cascading dangers of that family manse.
There was a definite nostalgia to her Greek memories, but she hasn't returned since 1995. "I don't have any family anymore. I don't know anybody"—and besides, the country isn't exactly the most appealing destination at the moment. Greece's recent economic troubles have dried up the tourist faucet and her professorial sister, who takes a group of students for a month in Greece every January, faced an empty signup sheet this year.
There weren't any terrorists. Greece wasn't a dangerous place. But to the well-heeled traveler a poor place, like a poor person, is usually suspect.