Bryan Joiner

Why then I

Category: Queens Stories

Look up

I looked at the sky just now, and not fleetingly; I was outside, and I just looked up, up, up. It was just before dusk, and it seemed a miracle that it was 6:15 and there were still hints of blue. I noticed a bird’s nest in a tree branch that I initially assumed was a plastic bag, because so many of them come to rest there. It was too small to be the nest of a Morning Dove, which makes me happy, as their signature cooing has haunted me from West Tisbury to Forest Hills to the Tiger Woods 10 video game in which, on certain courses, it is a sound effect designed, likely, to put you at ease. When I lived in Forest Hills, in an old building in a wooded area of Queens, the birds would stand in the windowsill and coo. It took effort to bang the window, but they seemed to know the score even if you scared them away. They always came back.

I realized, as I craned my neck tonight, taking in whatever portion of the cloud formations I could, that it’s a rare thing for me to do. Most of my life at least recently has been spent looking straight ahead, or down. In Astoria, there was a shortcut to the train station that I would use on some mornings. The shortcut ran around and along a 60-ish-foot high wall over which the Amtrak passed — it was tall enough to pass over the elevated subway track. The latticework of  Amtrak’s power lines ran above along the edges of the rails, and birds would stand on them just long enough to have their lives removed from this world… whereupon their bodies would fall to the ground in the walkway that so many people hurried along… only the walkway was also a driveway for a municipal parking lot, which meant a lot of tire traffic, and a lot of pancaked bird carcasses. You could tell how long a bird’s body had been there by the amount of blood. Lots of blood — recent death. No blood — a long time. I saw flattened skeletons fairly often, which looked like displays in a pop-up book where you pull on tabs and the figure jumps into three dimensions.

Eventually I stopped using the pathway except for the most pressing emergencies (being late for anything but work, I suspect). But I had to keep looking down. Dead animals, vomit, dog shit — they were everywhere.

That said, Astoria had its charms. The food within five blocks of my apartment was better than the food within 20 blocks of anyplace else I’ve lived, and cheaper. Greek, Czech, Italian, Afghani, Colombian, Thai — we had everything. What we lacked, and what Queens lacks in spades, is atmosphere. There’s nothing sexy about it, which leads some to believe there’s nothing interesting about it, but they’re wrong. At the same time, there’s a reason that no public figure you may know as from Queens still lives there, or would even dream of it.

I wish Brooklyn was as interesting. It’s not, at least not where I live now. This is a Yuppie’s Paradise, as lampooned here (that was written in my apartment, and I have no idea to what degree I am the intended target, but I’d put it at around 30 percent. I’d be fine with it if the spot-in description of myself and my neighborhood didn’t leave me cold). I am implored by friends to whom I rave about studio apartments in the East Village that if I was to leave here, the grass would suddenly become technicolor green, and my eyes would widen with the thoughts of returning. I’m not so sure. It’s hard to look up when you don’t think you’re at the center of something; oddly, it takes a big of egoism to look to the sky and think that the weather, the world, is there just for you — you have to feel big to feel small again. Or like the subway ads say, sometimes you have to take a step backward to take a step forward. I guess the problem with a studio apartment is that you don’t have space to take many steps at all.

But it’s not that space I’m worried about; it’s outer space. I miss it. When I was growing up, it was paramount, crushing. The stars and moon were bright enough that I could drive without lights, especially in the snow. Often, it was too light for me to go to sleep. I never considered getting a curtain, or one at least one that blocked all the light. I thought if one sleepless night happened, so be it. I’d get back to bed the next night. When I got to Chicago and saw a friend blocking every bit of light in his apartment 24/7, I couldn’t bring myself to follow suit. Years later, I relented, and I was like everyone else. I hate having closed curtains, but now it’s just what I do, so again: not much opportunity to just stare at the sky and think. Of course, the more I write about it, the more I miss it, even if I remember the occasional feelings of terror it inspired in me about my insignificance. But my problem isn’t feeling insignificant. It’s feeling too significant, as if the bulk of my life’s work has been done.

I can’t remember the last time I opened a Word document and thought about writing. Oh, I’ve written a ton, but I’m talking about thinking about the words burning onto the page, and into the reader’s mind. It was easier to focus when I was writing for print every day. Every word was irretrievable, and every word was my name, which was out there. Now, it’s in here. I’ve stopped looking at my daily hit count because I don’t care, but I don’t care only because it would hurt to much to do so. I had victory in my hand and it slipped away. I was being read, which is the single hardest thing to achieve as a writer, and I took it for granted. The only way to reconcile this, to myself, was to blame the world. I was a star who hadn’t gotten his just deserves, I thought — no matter, I was a star anyway. If no one was looking, that wasn’t my fault. It was theirs. I messed around with forms, writing about anything I wanted, thinking I was a master at everything as my star slowly faded to a dull, insignificant twinkle. Any residual glow now is no different than the guy in Bombay who opens up a Blogger account — it’s the glow of the screen, pointing nowhere. It’s not real, but it’s not fake either. It is what it is. It’s also what I look at for hours upon hours of the day, stuffing my brain full of information about people, places and things. That’s great and all, but looking up helps me unlock the information that’s already in my head. By remembering how small I am, I remember that the combinations in my head are mine and mine alone, and that’s a comforting feeling.

Borders (not the bookstore kind)

Ta-Nehisi Coates has a running dialogue today about a NYT trend story that basically says non-blacks are taking over Harlem. He disagrees, but more to the point is indifferent about what—even if true—it even means when there are like, real problems for black people. Something like: Gentrification isn’t new, and the root problem is bigger than any one instance of it happening.

But the better question is whether it’s happening or not. He asks in this post:

Still, thinking more on the geography the Times calls “Harlem” raises some questions for me:

“But the neighborhood is in the midst of a profound and accelerating shift. In greater Harlem, which runs river to river, and from East 96th Street and West 106th Street to West 155th Street, blacks are no longer a majority of the population — a shift that actually occurred a decade ago, but was largely overlooked.”

By my estimate this basically places Morningside Heights (amongst other things) inside of Harlem. I imagine that might have been true at some point. But those borders sound really permissive to me. Am I off?

What I thought (and wrote a comment to this effect that is basically reproduced here) is that it’s no different than a phenomenon I was writing about earlier in Queens, where most black neighborhoods are referred to as “Jamaica” on the nightly news, et al., because it’s expedient. If the Times is including Morningside Heights in its map of “Harlem,” maybe they’re going by an old map that places it “inside” a greater Harlem, but I agree with (Run) T-NC that that seems a little off. Which gets us to the idea of how a place is defined. If Harlem did once swallow Morningside Heights whole, why doesn’t it now? And to where does it extend? Most importantly, why do we consider it to extend to wherever it extends?

A friend told me a long time ago that I was into the idea of “place,” and I’m really starting to feel that. I’m about 200 pages into William Vollman’s Imperial, which is already the most exhaustive account of the idea of “place” I’ve ever read—and I have 800 pages to go. It’s all about Imperial County, California and its sister region on the Mexican side and treats the area (wisely, I believe) as a single entity, with this crushing vivisection that makes it almost impossible to view as a unit. But for most of history it was a unit, and at some point it very well may be again. On top of all this, I was in Imperial County last week, spending 48 hours of Christmas break in Palm Springs with pops and bro. I wanted to see the Salton Sea—a reeking, festering, dead body of water around which a good portion of Vollman’s Ouija-like narrative revolves—but was talked out of it, or rather basically forbidden (as family time was short) by my stepmom, who said she had investigated it for kayaking purposes and found it “disgusting.” I didn’t have the heart to say well yeah…

But it all gets to the idea of defining a place. I’ve tried to do this before with MV and think I did a bad job [note: I just re-read it and it wasn’t as bad as I thought, but I feel like I was grasping for something I didn’t quite reach] but I’m trying with Queens now and I think I’m getting some good stuff down. Definitely helps to not be from there and not be there; while there’s something to be said for writing things down as they happen*, there’s also a value in using what you remember—it’s our memories that make places what they are, to us, and it’s important to be true to that.

* Of course, I did write everything down already, but that’s not the point.


I’m determined to take a hot shower today. I’ll run the water as many times as I have to. I’m not letting the forces against me — my landlord, the water heater that was installed in the 1800s — take me down. It’s just not happening. My shower will be hot, and that’s all there is to it.

A friend just unearthed this gem of mine, from a 2004 column after the Knicks traded for Marbury:

Now, for the first time since Mark Jackson, the Knicks have a point guard who can get into the lane and feed their deadeye shooters, Allan Houston and Keith van Horn. The Knicks are now a playoff team, but it goes beyond that. They are a team worth watching.

When you’re right, you’re right!

Queens Stories

This may not have a point, and I’m not sure why I feel like writing it right now.

As many of you know, I used to work for a newspaper in Queens. I actually worked for two of them. The first one was shit-eatingly bad at the time, but is humorous in retrospect. I was there for 9 months or so (a solid year on my résumé, thank you very much) before quitting, Office Space-style: I just stopped going. And actually, the story I was about to tell you happened when I worked for the first newspaper when I assumed, because of its geographic location, that it was for the second, and I just realized the trick my memory played on me. How about that?

I was the Sports Editor, Southeast Queens editor and eventual Assistant Managing Editor/Managing Editor/only editor to survive two nearly-entire staff purges and quitting epidemics that took place there in about the same time it takes to make and hold a baby. I’m not going to say my innocence was ripped from me, or any shit like that: I was working in Queens, not just la-di-da Astoria where I live now, and where I saw dozens of people, daily, who had lives that were really shit, not “Rich white kid following his dreams” shit. (The fact that I consider Astoria “la-di-da” ought to tell you the effect the rest of Queens had on me.)

Anyhow, to our story, which, again, came from absolutely nowhere. I was assigned to do a story on the Beach Channel High School rowing team, the only one of its kind in the city, which made some sense because it was the only high school to be located right on the fucking water. It was on the Rockaway Peninsula, the farthest eastern stretch of the city from Manhattan in absolutely every way possible. Rockaway makes the rest of Queens look like suburbia. I shit you not. It’s about 10 straight miles of housing projects and, well, housing projects before suddenly turning into a mansion-lined beach community. This part is where American Airlines flight 587 crashed, incidentally. Go farther west and you’ll hit a State Park and eventually Breezy Point, a gated community basically for Irish only that’s chock full of police and firemen. All the houses are bungalows, and there aren’t any streets; you have to park your car at a lot, with permit supplied by one of the owners, and walk your ass in. The bonus is you can drink while you walk around there, provided you’re using a koozy. I’ve actually been there twice, because I know an [Irish name] whose father has a house there, and in the summer it’s quite fascinating. That’s the word I would use to describe it. I have good memories of the place despite the fact the first time I went there I had a near-complete personal meltdown, and the second time it basically rained the whole time and we spent the whole time watching DVDs. Actually, that time was fantastic.

Anyway, not 10 miles away from this, you’re basically in hell. I’m not saying anything bad about the people that live there: it’s a problem without a good solution, and as the communities are so far removed from decision-makers in Manhattan to make it a joke, the city more or less pretends Rockaway doesn’t exist. The people living there have enough trouble getting by, leastwise fixing these problems. One class of people, albeit a very small one, which does acknowledge its existence, are full-time Queens-specific sports reporters, of whom I was one of two at the time, and the only one who actually left the office on a regular basis. (My editor at the time was a rather large former Daily News reporter who had lofty dreams for the Sports section, and whose time at the Daily News gave him sort of an entitlement not to go on the most tedious types of stories; unfortunately, these comprised about 90 percent of the stories that made up our section.) So when we got a press release from the school, or read in Newsday — we read a lot of Queens-edition Newsdays — that Beach Channel High School had the only rowing team in the city, I was dispatched to get my butt down there and “cover” it. Only now am I asking questions like “Who do you compete against?” and “What happens when you get drenched by a fuel dump from a JFK-bound plane?” Ah, young reporters. I probably actually asked the first one, but I have no idea what the answer was.

(Okay, this is not true either, and I’m just starting to remember: this team would compete against squads as far away as Pennsylvania, and teams from Connecticut, I think — I think there’s a paucity of public-school rowing squads pretty much everywhere.)

The first time I went to the school, it was a dreary, drizzly day. I drove through the communities of Ozone Park, Howard Beach and Broad Channel — preposterously differentiated communities, stacked one on top of another, that I would later have the privilege of covering as a single entity for three years. You want to see psychic scars in action? Ask me about Ozone Park. Please. I beg you. You don’t know what you’re missing. Remember that near-breakdown I referred to earlier? Well, that was pretty much entirely caused by working in these three neighborhoods. Pounding the pavements there day-to-day made me pretty much go insane, but thankfully on the day in question, I drove straight through them, marveling at things like the small distance between traffic lights in Broad Channel and the cutesy $2 toll on the bridge that took you to the Rockaways, the name of which I can’t recall now. I’m sure a snotnose kid like me wouldn’t have found it so cute if he had to pay it every day. (The Cross Bay Bridge. Thanks, Googs).

The high school was right over the bridge, and it is, in fact, really the first thing you see when you look to the west. I parked my car and got out, hustling over to the front doors, which were pretty much iron-clad. The school had a metal detector and there was no walking around the halls without permission, no matter who you were. It was the first high school with a metal detector I’d ever been inside. This was in February, so I was escorted by a police officer or teacher to the gym, where I found the team practicing on rowing machines and talked to the coach for awhile, before interviewing some of the students who seemed pretty astounded that I’d come all the way out just to talk to them. And really, that’s all I remember about the day, except that I promised to come back and watch them practice when the weather got nicer. Which I actually did. I loved that the school was far from my office; it gave me a legitimate excuse to waste time away from an absolutely poisonous office environment. You’re practicing in Brooklyn? Even better! At the coastal edge of a largely-defunct airstrip where we’ll have to wait an hour for a vintage plane to take off first? That’s perfect? Let’s do it! So, in April, we did just that.

There are two bridges that go to the Rockaways, which are also connected to the mainland on the eastern edge. If these are the three entry points, Beach Channel High School is located on immediate Rockaway side in the middle one, while Floyd Bennett Field is located immediately on the Brooklyn side of the western one. It is vast and largely overgrown by vegetation off its beaten path; once a large military airfield, now it’s owned by the government, and they basically let people do things there that require such an egregious amount of space by New York City standards that they’re willing to practice them, well, there. You can’t see the water from the actual fieldhouse, but we snaked along back roads, me in my trusty Ford Taurus, until we reached the point where the kids unloaded the skiffs and hauled them down to the beach. The coach seemed as proud at their ability to do this as anything else. They did some warm-up exercises and soon shoved off into the water while we watched, shivering: it was certainly warmer than it had been in February, but it was still cold. I don’t remember the conversation or anything, I just remember scribbling down some rote quotes from high schoolers, taking pictures with the staff’s one digital camera, and keeping remarks about how disgusting the water was to myself. Oh, did I mention that we were parked out directly underneath the Belt Parkway, the city’s always-jammed embarrassment of a highway that runs from JFK to Coney Island to the Verrazzano Bridge? Under the bridge — which is just after the Mobil station if you’re coming from Queens, and just before it if you’re on your way — was no small among of crap in the water, a whole lot of God knows what. The kids were shoving off about 20 feet from this. There’s grit, and then there’s grit: this was just plain gross, but the kids were happy to deal with it, and block it out. Hell, going to school where they did, they’ve seen much worse. You know what they probably haven’t seen? Much better. And that’s the fucking sad part.

Add up these little sad parts and the job starts to get to you. Eventually, it overwhelmed me, in a different form under a different banner. You hear the phrase “ignorance is bliss,” and you don’t know it until you see stuff like this, day in and day out. I was looking for beauty, for the rose growing out of a pile of shit; they were just trying to keep the shit out of sight. Focus on the task at hand — rowing, stretching, life — and just get it done. When you can’t, it’s time to move on.