If I had to pick the song least likely to be heard in Queens’ Godforsaken Wasteland—“Maspeth” in the local vernacular—Joe Dassin’s “Champs-Elysees” would be a good bet. It’s a song about beauty and love. Clearly it doesn’t fit the context.
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.