Moving to Queens

by

03/06/2022

Neighborhood: Morningside Heights, Sunnyside

I lived in Manhattan for most of my considerably long life, until moving to Queens four years ago. 

In my early adulthood, Manhattan was still affordable, so affordable that the people who worked the jobs that sustain city life—cops, teachers, garbage men, hospital and transit workers—could afford to live in certain areas of it. So could a 20-year old, who wanted to work and go to school and live independently. 

When I was 18, I made my uncooperative mother, who showed signs that she’d never let go of me, sign a contract promising not to try to prevent me from moving out when I reached 20, and so I moved, got a job working for Teachers College Press that paid $50 a week, and found a four-room walkup across from the Jewish Theological Seminary on 122nd Street. The rent was $200 a month. I could pay all my bills and still have enough left to buy coffee and a cream cheese on date-nut bread sandwich at Chock Full O Nuts on the corner of 116th Street and Broadway, whenever I felt like it.

Fast forward through many years and apartments. The last one in Manhattan was on 106th Street, an area where, as my friend Deb put it, you used to go if you wanted to get killed. I lived there with my husband Tom, one son, and dog.

Tom was suffering from two serious illnesses. The apartment was a quick ambulance ride across Central Park to Mount Sinai Hospital. Its elevator opened directly onto our living room, disconcerting when other residents were in it, but convenient for the emergency medical technicians who’d come every few months to bring Tom to the ER at Mount Sinai. But when our lease expired, we had to move. Rents were going up too fast for us to stay on.

I thought I’d find an affordable place further north on the Upper West Side. It would be one of those grand, pre-war apartments that I’d always loved and sometimes lived in. Affordable because it would be run down and unimproved, which was fine with me. But I discovered landlords renovated these places the minute their tenants died or moved out, in order to jack up the rent. Kitchens, once separate rooms with plenty of space for a table and chairs, had been transposed to a living-room wall, allowing owners to charge more rent for an additional small bedroom. The old bathrooms, with their deep ceramic tubs and pull-chain toilets, had been redone with fiberglass baths and new toilets that didn’t whistle when flushed. The plain subway wall tiles and charming, small octagonal floor tiles were ripped out and replaced with pink-beige marble. Generous closets had been removed and the space reconfigured to eke out another claustrophobic bedroom. After stripping the apartments of moldings and every vestige of charm, landlords were able to double, or triple, the rents. The last of the city’s workers had moved out to Queens, Brooklyn, the Bronx, Long Island, New Jersey, even eastern Pennsylvania! 

Jake, our younger son, liked Queens and found an affordable place for Tom, me and himself in Sunnyside. It was just what I’d wanted, with big rooms, two bathrooms, windows everywhere, and a kitchen big enough for a table and chairs.

Sunnyside is adjacent to Long Island City, which is the area closest to Manhattan. Auto repair shops and grimy old industrial works are next to new glass skyscrapers that are going up about every minute. The elevated subway slices right through the middle of the neighborhood like a Disneyland ride.

I used to think of Queens as one of the most unapologetically ugly places in the entire U.S. I love it, now. Around 350 languages are spoken here. And from my six story building I can watch the sun set over the Manhattan skyline, across the East River, although this view will probably be blocked by the new tall buildings, now being planned to take up the East River shoreline.

*


I live eight stops from Times Square, on the 7 line. The trains emerge from the tunnel, blinking in the sunlight, onto the elevated tracks of Queens. After four years of living here, that transition from underground to air still charms me, and I lift up my eyes from my book or phone to look up at the sky as the train swings past the jumble of new and old buildings of Long Island City. When the subway emerges from underground, it transforms from an underground monster into a cute, friendly train that opens its doors like welcoming arms. From Queensboro Plaza, where I switch to another line, I can watch the Manhattan-bound trains curving towards me, and I always feel tenderness toward them. All this, just to bring us to work! I feel a gratitude that’s far from the irritation and impatience I often felt while waiting for the subway and searching for a sight of approaching headlights as the train rumbled through the dark, rat-infested tunnels of Manhattan.

My home stop is 40th Street. Under the elevated tracks there is a wide piazza, plain and unimproved, as only unselfconscious Queens can be. Someone sets out tables and chairs (chained and locked at night) during warm seasons, so that you can sit and wait for a friend, or read the paper. Protected from rain and sun, it’s right in the middle of Queens Boulevard, a 6-lane road where heavy traffic whizzes by in both directions. The timing of the traffic lights has been lengthened, to give people a better chance of getting across the avenue alive.

Tom died a few months ago, leaving me to make my way alone in this friendly, busy, unpretentious borough of New York City. Waiting for the traffic light to change on Queens Boulevard, I still sometimes expect to see Tom, Jake, and our dog, coming toward me through the dusk to surprise me and walk me home. Today, a young Chinese woman in a royal blue winter jacket smiled at me for no reason as I sat on a bench waiting for the train. I was still puffing from climbing the 61 steps to the platform.

*

Don’t let me wax too sentimental about Queens. There are lots of areas like the one Archie and Edith Bunker lived in. Archie would have loved Trump. In my apartment building, there are several Archies. One of them is Bob, a friendly retired cab driver who sold his taxi medallion when it was still worth something, allowing him to retire in comfort. He spends a lot of time with his cronies outside a newspaper store around the corner on Greenpoint Avenue. His wife died some years ago, and he’s involved with another tenant now. They share a dog.

Bob knows everyone, as does George the super, who emigrated many years ago from Montenegro, but hates immigrants. “I come to this country, I have two jobs, right away. I work hard. These people they come, they no work” he frequently tells me, or words to that effect. He does work hard, and keeps our building clean. We always have plenty of heat and hot water, and the elevator works most of the time. George knows that immigrants don’t work, because a bunch of “bums” (homeless men) sleep on benches in the small playground three blocks away. Yesterday he told me to always keep my front door locked. “They come in,” he said, “and they no leave, you have to get a lawyer to get them out.” This happened to someone in the neighborhood, he told me.

[Sidebar: My sister in law is from Serbia, and I introduced her to George one day. When he started speaking with her in his own language, he changed, before my eyes, from a rough speaking, cranky, uneducated guy, into an intelligent, charming, and articulate person. It’s hard, sometimes, for me to keep in my mind what it costs a person to speak a non-native language.]

This anti-immigrant immigrant does have kindness. A year ago, when Tom was getting sicker, George managed to get a rent-stabilized apartment in our building for our older son and his wife, when an elderly tenant died. Having both our sons living in our building during Tom’s last months helped us in a way that nothing else could have. And there had been people and real estate agents lining up for that apartment, once word got out it might become available. George kept the shades down, so no one could see from the street that it was empty, and harass him for it.

Our own place had been renovated modestly when we moved in. George had put in new kitchen cabinets and floors, and the cheapest refrigerator and stove that money could buy. They are fine. The linoleum is already coming up, and the sink leaks. The roof leaks, too, and George has sent plasterers in several times to cover over the damp and bubbling walls in our apartment. 

George’s brother died of cancer a little while after Tom did, creating a bond of grief between us. “A good man,” George said, of Tom, shaking his head. His brother too had been a good man. “He helped a lot of people,” George told me.

*

One difference from Manhattan is that there aren’t many garbage cans around. I might have to walk a few blocks to throw something away. That also means it’s dirtier here, since people don’t like to carry their soda cans, Styrofoam food containers, and little bags of dog doo around with them.

There are also no parks near where we live, quite a letdown after having Central Park as our back yard. To give the dog some exercise, I walk her to Calvary 1, one of several Calvary cemeteries. About a mile from our apartment, it is nice, clean and peaceful, and there are a few trees. I always read the names on the graves: they’re Irish, Polish, Italian. Most of the headstones are modest, but there are also some big stone mausoleums. One makes me laugh, and I wish I could show it to Tom, because he’d laugh, too. There are two grieving angels on either side of the door, wings folded, crouching sideways, as though they are taking a leak against the mausoleum wall.

Tom didn’t want to be buried in a graveyard. In fact, he didn’t want a coffin, or to be mummified. His grandfather owned a funeral home. As a child, Tom had seen corpses being embalmed in the basement, and he didn’t want any of that. We buried him in a shroud in a woods, next to a bicycle path. It was in a cemetery with a “green” section, in an upstate New York hamlet.

*

There’s a lot about Queens I don’t know. I’m not in an exploring mood, so I stay close to home when not at work, or at my brother’s two-family house in Astoria, where I go sometimes to play games, which cheer me up. His place is about two miles away—a 20 minute bike ride over the 39th Street bridge over Sunnyside Yards, a huge train yard. I don’t know how many acres it is, but I imagine that if those trains were buried underground, enough apartments could be built to house a million homeless people. 

My neighborhood is chock full of restaurants: Thai, Korean, Indian, Japanese, Italian, Turkish, Peruvian… There are laundromats on nearly every block. In Manhattan, we’d had washing machines and dryers in our apartments or in the basement. What luxuries we were used to! I don’t miss them.

What am I doing here? For years and years, I knew just where I was.
I have no innate sense of direction, and Manhattan, with its elegant and orderly grid, kept me oriented. Queens leaves me feeling off kilter. 39th Street and 39th Place are a block from each other; and then there’s 39th Avenue, somewhere else entirely. I think I’ve seen a 39th Road, too. Nothing stays at right angles. Only when I can see the Manhattan skyline do I know where I am.

Tom had no sense of direction either. I wanted so much to believe he’d know how to get where we were going and to be able to depend on him for that. But he was as likely as I was to be going in exactly the wrong direction, and in my irritation (couldn’t he just know the way, just this fucking once?) I forgot to feel lucky that we were going anywhere at all, together.

***

Nancy Stiefel is a psychoanalyst living in Queens.

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§ 10 Responses to “Moving to Queens”

  • Jeff Loeb says:

    Wonderful! Beautifully written. I was taken from beginning to end. —A fellow Queensian

  • TSB says:

    I need to think for a while to locate what it is that makes this piece so pleasing–the sense of synthesis and resolution? The elegant grief? The travelogue and the generosities within? (“From Queensboro Plaza, where I switch to another line, I can watch the Manhattan-bound trains curving towards me, and I always feel tenderness toward them. All this, just to bring us to work!”–sure among the most tender words ever written about the elevated subway.) Or is it the submerged family reunion in a building in Queens? The whole piece feels like a reunion with a vanished New York. Maybe that is it.

  • Susan T. Landry says:

    wow; this was so lovely and i made so many emotional connections reading through it. or rather, just allowing myself to be led through it. i have similar aesthetics as the writer; i, too, loved the old meandering apartments on the upper west side, with quarters for the “help”. such high ceilings, so much light. my own journey into and away from NYC began and ended in Queens, (two of my husbands grew up in Queens!). i find it so heartening that others still look for and cherish the the still-extant sense of neighborhood, the around-the-world food options.thank you so much for this wonderful piece, Nancy. may you continue to flourish in Queens.

  • Beckett A Rosset says:

    Thank you for that elegantly written piece of prose. I’m about to be evicted from my apartment of twenty years and childhood neighborhood, the West Village. I have two very senior cats. We have no place to go. Reading your words at least lets me dream. Thank you again.

  • Sheryl Stebel says:

    Nancy:

    I also moved to Queens, but in 1979 when I married. I am looking for new friends since believe it or not, all of mine have moved away, mostly out of New York altogether. I guess other states seemed more inviting or to be closer to relatives, especially children and grandchildren. Was wondering if you still practice and taking on new patients or if you know someone in Queens. Take care.

    Sheryl

  • Alexandra Dell says:

    I loved this piece. So beautifully written and poignant.

  • Ellen Gruber Garvey says:

    Such a beautiful exploration of Queens, and of a changing life. I avoided Queens for many years, because I was born and lived 8 years in what then was a bland white world of white picket fences — another generation’s immigrants trying to locate themselves and disguise themselves in America. I love the ways this lovely essay finds vibrancy, memory, lostness, and place. It makes me want to visit.

  • Janet says:

    What a wonderful piece. You are an amazing writer

  • Pearl says:

    Nancy, I found your essay very moving and am so glad you wrote it and are sharing it. Your words are magical. A lifetime New Yorker of a similar ilk (born in Bushwick way before it was trendy), your words transported me back to a time when women in house dresses leaned on pillows set on their windowsills and felt free to keep an eye on and to scold mischievous children who dawdled on their way home from school.

  • Martha LeDuc says:

    Moving to Queens made me feel like I wasn’t a New Yorker anymore. And it was definitely confusing, as you mentioned. 67th Place, 67th Lane, 67th Street, 67th Court…

§ Leave a Reply

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