Where was I? Oh, yes.
So, the first topic is…New York.
Now, Ben, this probably is not going to help you with your family visit in October. Unless, of course, you are contemplating time travel. But, it’s where I’m from and where this all started, so we are off to…..
Astoria, New York
A long, long time ago in a galaxy far, far away….. Well, perhaps not that far away. Or, I suppose, even all that long ago, in the galactic scheme of things. But the story definitely starts on a very different planet, one called Astoria, in Queens, in New York. You have all been to Astoria, even those of you who have never travelled further than your television set. It’s exactly the kind of New York neighbourhood that you are picturing, as long as you are not picturing anything posh or involving Michael Douglas. It’s more the Danny DeVito type of neighbourhood. In fact, if this was Dirty Dancing, we would be Johnny Castle and his crowd rather than Baby and hers.
Astoria is the home of the world-famous Steinway pianos, although no one in the neighbourhood has probably ever owned one. And of the brilliantly-named Hellgate bridge, which looks exactly like the slightly more famous Sydney Harbour bridge, except that it’s smaller, and shorter, and isn’t in Australia. The Hellgate looms over the whole neighbourhood and crosses a particularly treacherous part of the East River. A ship got caught in the currents about a hundred years ago and went down. It’s apparently still there, or at least that’s what everyone says. Unbelievably, my father and his friends used to have a little club house beneath it when they were young, and went swimming from a dock they had built themselves. It’s amazing that they ever grew up, or that the next generation of Astorians were ever born. But, we were and we all went on to hang out down there too. It never occurred to me to think it odd that my childhood playground was next to an enormous outdoor Olympic-sized swimming pool, besides an iconic bridge, overlooking the Manhattan skyline. It was just the place where the old guys from Italy played bocci, and the young guys from Ecuador played soccer and the rest of us played softball.
Almost everyone in Astoria is some sort of ethnic, and proud of their roots and their customs while at the same time being fiercely American. It’s a place where the question ‘what are you’ is often asked and everyone knows what it means. When I was little the answer was almost always Irish- or Italian- or German-American but over the years there were more Greeks and East Europeans. The result was that you could buy Polish sausages, Italian ices and Greek slouvaki on your way to Conroy’s for a beer. Although, come to think of it, the men did the beer drinking and the women did the shopping. I never really thought about that before.
New York might have a reputation for being big and impersonal, but our little section of it was anything but. In fact, everyone knew everyone else, either because they were from the same area ‘back home’ in the old country, or they went to the same Catholic school, or they lived in the same apartment building and sat out together on those green and white stripey garden chairs every summer’s night and watched the world go by. Or, because they were relatives. For some reason, people in Astoria tended to have enormous extended families. Guess it’s all those Irish Catholics marrying Italian Catholics. It must have made it easy to raise children, because everyone was always keeping an eye out for everyone else’s child. It made it kind of hard to be the child though, since it was impossible to get away with anything. I had dozens of aunts and uncles and 64 first cousins, a depressingly large number of whom lived within watching distance of our front door. The memory of walking into the house after one particularly fun evening out and hearing my mother say ‘Yes, she’s just coming in now’ is still the stuff of nightmares.
At least two uncles in there
Besides bridges, and churches, and pools, Astoria is also filled with characters, like Blind Ben, whose real name was Herbert and who wore thick glasses. I have no idea why he wasn’t called Nearsighted Herbert, he just wasn’t. Or Emile The Blind Man, who really was blind and always had a dog named Lucy, although it wasn’t always the same dog. Or Charlie the Chinaman, who was called that for so long that he seemed to eventually forget that his name was Pattiyput and that he came from Thailand. Or Handsome Eddie Broderick, always known as HEB except to his mother, who for some odd reason persisted in calling him Edward. Or my Uncle Knocky, who was really Martin but had been an amateur boxer in his youth. Or Doc Kaner, who wasn’t a doctor. Or Lefty, who when he died young and in mysterious circumstances was the subject of a Sunday sermon on how Lefty was an unlucky name. You’re getting the idea.
Everyone in Astoria had an accent, either the local ‘ken ya lend me fi dalas’ variety, or else something much more exotic. The funny part is that none of the children realised that their own parents sounded differently from everyone else’s. My friend Rita must have been about 16 before she found out that most people couldn’t understand half of what her German parents were saying at any given point, especially when her mother was yelling at us, although we all got ‘getten den ball aus der here. Schnell!” We heard it enough, and body language really is a help.
Of course, I didn’t realise it either. My mother’s Aunt Julia just sounded like Aunt Julia to me, although apparently she spoke with her own unique mixture of New York Italian. My future husband only met her once and 25 years later is still doing impersonations of her – ‘I wanna go to toidy-toida street and foista ava new’ – which was funny the first time I heard it. She was four feet high, and wide, and had been born in the wrong place at the wrong time, or not, depending on how you felt about being chased around Europe by soldiers. She thinks she was born in Italy in the dying days of the Austro Hungarian Empire, but it could have been Austria, or perhaps Yugoslavia. She isn’t confused about where she was born, she just isn’t sure what country it was that day. She came to America as a young woman and, having met my Uncle Henry on the boat over, settled in Astoria, where she raised yet more of my relatives and lived the rest of her life. Uncle Henry had died by the time I was born and so for my entire childhood Aunt Julia was a small, round woman who dressed entirely in black, not fashionable black mind you, more the severely belted dress with thick stockings and sensible shoes kind of black. I never thought to wonder where she got clothes like that. There must have been a shop somewhere in the neighbourhood though, because a lot of people looked just like her. Perhaps you needed a password to get into it, or just an intense desire to look like a 19th century European widow.
When I was young, there were a lot of Aunt Julia’s generation still in the neighbourhood. In my building alone, we had the Papademetropolis’s on the floor above us, who had followed their married daughter over from Greece and managed to live in Astoria for the next 20 years without learning a single word of English. And on the floor below us, were my absolutely favourite couple, the Zulalians. They must have been 100 years old each, and I’m not just saying that because I was young at the time. Their grasp of spoken English wasn’t all that bad, at least not by Astoria standards, but they never did master the written version and so, every Saturday, I would go down and help them with whatever they needed doing, either paying their bills or writing letters to the mayor. They never really had that much to say to the mayor, they just liked the fact that they could say it.
Walking into the Zulalian’s apartment was like visiting another time and place, one filled with exotic things. The most remarkable feature was their living room wall. It was entirely covered with framed, black and white, photographs of fantastically-mustachioed men and solemn-eyed women, all wearing what I learned was typical Armenian dress. I spent hours looking at that wall, totally fascinated by the world it represented. Over time, I came to learn almost all of their names, having had them pointed out to me many a time by Mr Zulalian, as in ‘Uncle Mardiros, killed by the Turks’ or ‘Cousin Baydzar, killed by the Turks’. It turns out that it was a shrine to their relatives who had died in the Armenian Massacre. I have never forgotten that wall, or how many pictures were on it.
But, Astoria wasn’t just a place where history had a habit of staying alive, it was also a busy, buzzing sort of place, with the elevated train lines that you no doubt remember from The French Connection just up the block, and the planes landing at nearby LaGuardia airport and all those mothers calling all those children, loudly. I still can’t hear the name Elizabeth without shuddering. In a noisy world, her mother stood out. I guess it’s because she had the kind of voice that made you nostalgic for chalk on a blackboard. And she wasn’t afraid to use it, on a daily basis, usually around 4pm. No one knew whether it was worse to hear ‘Eeee Lizzzzzz ah Bethhhh’ being shouted for hours on end or having the kid finally turn up and start practicing her wretched violin. It’s amazing how she never got any better. I suppose she inherited her mother’s sense of pitch. The only things louder than the mothers, were the children, especially when the ice cream van came down the street. I still can’t figure out how a dozen kids calling ‘Mom’ always resulted in the right dozen mothers sticking their heads out of the window, but it did, without fail. I also can’t figure out why no one ever got killed after being hit in the head by a quarter being thrown out of a fifth floor window, but that’s another story.
I’m the little one in the middle, apparently about to be eaten
Lots of sort-of famous people come from Astoria, like Ethel Merman and Tony Bennett, neither of whom you have probably ever heard of but your parents, or grandparents, would have. And Ross, the really irritating one from Friends who must have a real name but I can’t remember what it is right now, and even more surprisingly the English guy who played the Prisoner. Not to mention Maria Callas. Yes that one. The opera singer. To be honest, none of them stayed there all that long. I think you had to leave to get even remotely famous, because I can’t think of a single person who still lives there that is.
Of course, there is another way to leave Astoria – via Farenga’s, the local funeral home. Now before you start thinking that this is going to get all morbid and dark, you need to realise that wakes are a major source of entertainment in Astoria, as long as it’s got nothing to do with anyone too close to you, of course. Everyone goes to wakes, and I mean everyone. My first dead body belonged to my kindergarden teacher, Mrs Mulqueen. She waved us all goodbye on the last day of school before the Christmas holidays, went off to Rome with her husband and died in the catacombs. Next time I saw her she was wearing a very pretty blue dress and lying down. I can’t imagine what my mother was thinking when she took me to this event. She says I insisted that I wanted to see my teacher and so we went. Sadly, that ‘I want’ ploy never got me a pony but there you have it. I guess she figured that if I was going to live in Astoria, I might as well start joining in on one of the major pasttimes.
My favourite wake of all time was Georgie’s, local bookie and very nice man. No one in the history of the universe had ever seen him without his trademark outfit, a zip-up jacket and a baseball cap, no matter what the time of year. His wake was packed, standing room only. The only one in the room who didn’t seem to know him was the priest, a recent arrival in the parish from somewhere in Africa. He started saying the prayers and all went well for awhile, until he said that we must all be prepared for death and that we can not take our worldly possessions with us when we go. For example, Georgie could not take all his fine suits. He had to leave them behind and go only in the one he was wearing. He went on at great length about these suits, I have no idea why, especially since everyone was staring at him and wondering where on earth the one that Georgie was taking with him had come from. It got better. We learned that where we sat now Georgie had once sat and where he lay now we would all one day lay. The priest was really getting into it and waving his arms around to show the various seating arrangements available, both now and in the future. It went on in an ever more dramatic fashion for quite awhile. Sadly for me and my cousin’s cousin, we were sitting in front of my mother who kept kicking both of us everytime one or the other of us started laughing. Either she was trying to get us to keep quiet or else she was wondering so much about where all those other suits were that she didn’t realise she was doing it. When we got home, the phone was ringing. It was my brother. He asked where we had been and I told him we had been out having the best time, up at Georgie’s wake. Being an Astorian himself, my brother didn’t find that an odd statement. In fact he said, ‘Yeah, it was good? Was everyone there?’ Yes, they were. Georgie had no family of his own, but he had a wonderful send-off.
And that about sums Astoria up. It was a place where you couldn’t go five feet without running into several people you knew, and who knew you, and where there was always someone to watch out for you, whether you wanted them to or not. My friend Steve, a tall, skinny, totally non-ethnic person from Denver found that out. He was up doing something or other at the United Nations one day and went out to Astoria afterwards to see my mother. I just realised how odd that sentence might seem to people who didn’t know my mother, but she was like that. Everyone went to see her if they were anywhere nearby. Anyway, after their visit she was walking him back to the subway station and they ran into a ‘gang of youths’, as Steve put it. He said he couldn’t tell if they were Jets or Sharks, but he knew they were one or the other, and that either way they looked mean, and scary, and dangerous. He was just trying to figure out how a person without a single muscle in his body was going to protect his friend’s mother when someone in the group shouted out ‘Hey, Mrs Riley. You ok?’ Guess they just wanted to make sure that the perspiring blond stranger wasn’t marching her to a cash point.
I eventually left, taking the non-Farenga route. Looking back on it now, I’m amazed that I did it since I wasn’t particularly known for my bold nature in those days. But, when you are young and come from a place like Astoria, it’s surprisingly easy to go out and have adventures in the bigger world. You know you can always go home again.
Not Leo Tolstoy (aka Eileen Riley)