20 MINUTES AND COUNTING
As little Long Island boys, New York City Saturdays couldn’t come soon enough, and the anticipation of the series of events for the next two days ate away at us like necrotizing fasciitis.
I can’t remember if we went to Astoria, Corona, Long Island City or someplace entirely different, I only knew we were going to Queens, to my aunt’s house, and we were getting close. We waited for the unmistakable identifiers; the patented indicators that always told us when Long Island faded and Queens came to life; landmarks that verified our transition; the huge metal globe, the ominous pavilion, and rockets that seemed to sprout from underground bunkers; relics from the 1964 World’s Fair.
The Queens of our destination was dramatically different from the manicured grass and single family homes of central Long Island. Once we exited the highway, we’d snake through neighborhoods where two-story homes with tiny lots stood mere inches from one another. A block or two from those homes were brique blanche low rise apartment buildings, no more than four stories high, misplaced among the marigolds and gardenias but fitting, somehow, among the splendor. They looked inviting and warm, yet not exciting or telling, not like my aunt’s building, which stood twice as large, full of fantastic tales, and was still several hundred driving yards away.
I found myself, even as a child, awestruck by the architectural majesty of the edifices that led to my aunt’s place: Italianate, Neo-Classical, and Victorian. I’d trace the outlines; the smooth facades, and curvy beams, the jaunting slabs and recessed windows of the early 20th century homes. There was also a unique beauty in the design of the convenience stores and the numerous carry-outs that peppered the next several blocks. Each was pristine; white, clean, notifying passersby, on sidewalk A-frames, of the sales and special edibles with fancy names sold in their markets. Their customers smiled, held conversations, petted each other’s dog, or gestured like royalty.
THEN the dramatic and immediate change, both apparent and unapologetic.
Whitewashed walls turned a mild shade of grey and darkened as we gradually motioned closer to my aunt’s neighborhood. The stores suddenly morphed into worn and depressed concrete slabs, hoping, perhaps, for a solid, strong, and unmerciful wind that would level them. Merchants didn’t appear as lively or inviting as those just a few blocks away. Along this path, the accents and complexions were different. The street, one block to the next, grew darker, from European white to Middle Eastern brown, to African Black.
Despite this, the sweet scent and attractive colors of fresh fruit and flowers poured invitingly from beneath green awning, and offerings of Jamaican beef patties, knishes, bialys or massive green pickles wrapped in wax paper pockets were sold alongside beef hot dogs, quarter pound burgers, Chinese food, and jumbo slices of cheese pizza. I learned that the name of the store was moot. Who stood behind the counter was how each was identified: the Arab or Spanish store, or just, ‘The Deli.’
Within minutes we arrived in the ‘projects’: that magical place where secrets were born. Finally.
And butterflies fluttered in our bellies.
Dad maneuvered his well-detailed, ’74 Caprice Classic slowly, tip-toeing over hole-filled asphalt and shards of shattered liquor bottles, in search of a parking space close to the building. He grimaced, frowned and cursed as we coasted further from Aunt Pumpkin’s. Growing frustrated — and Dad being Dad — he created a space made of sidewalk and grass.
We stood outside the car turning our heads left and right, taking in the wonder, familiar with the unfamiliar. We inhaled the Queens air deeply, filled our lungs with invisible compounds created by transient mad scientists and released into the open environment. But the air in Queens wasn’t what we were breathing on Long Island. It was thick with the signature (and welcomed) odors of diesel exhaust, incinerator smoke, stagnant river water, collard greens, vinegar, fried chicken, onions, and garlic. I grew to love that odoriferous symphonic blend because combined, it produced nostalgia. Even to this day, any similar smell sparks immediate memories: some of the best times of my life.
THE RIVER BENEATH US
Behind my aunt’s apartment building there flowed a vast and murky river. It glistened at sunrise and again at sunset like tea colored diamonds cascading down a ten-degree incline. It was most beautiful at night when the lights from the buildings on the other side of the river seemed to dance on waves that rose and fell like the notes of Bolero. When the sun eased beneath the horizon the pungent scent of day thinned, leaving that familiar oceanic essence that made lovers swoon.
We played on an island where the river met the brick wall intended to keep residents and fury separated. The island, made from compressed trash, was created in 1968 during the New York City trash worker’s strike. Within days, garbage consumed the projects, snaking along walking trails and leaving a putrid, sticky slime. Complaints to the management, mayor, and resident rights associations garnered nothing except larger piles. After several weeks, with no resolution and an infestation of rats and mice, the residents made a decision that changed the landscape and seascape.
Residents — men, women, and children — donning gloves and homemade masks soaked in perfumes and disinfectants, gathered together and begin the task of moving the trash.
‘If the government doesn’t care about us, we will get their attention on something they do care about.’
And with that, for several days an army of Corona, Astoria, Long Island City residents carried leaking, germ-filled bags of trash to the river.
When agreements were met between the government and the strikers, the trash strike ended. Building management (who also participated in “the great dump”), hoping to regain authority, posted notices that spoke of hefty fines to anyone caught dumping, but people ignored those warnings and continued, for two generations, tossing trash over the railing. Soon, management stopped trying.
By 1975 the island grew into an uneven twelve foot semi-circle that sloped into the stagnant river. We would stand with other kids, bouncing on the hard funky mass, with no fear or regard to the possibility of irreversible consequences.
With about ten of us gathered on the relatively small mound, vying for position and trying to avoid taking a fall from which we didn’t know what may result, the viscus, egg-smelling river water splashed a few inches from our feet. She played with us; teased as we flirted with her, and sang to us a beautiful aria, promising that if we hopped on her back she’d take us on an unforgettable journey and return us home safely. Her song was intoxicating, magnetic, and comforting. But there was a longing and loneliness in her tone that appealed to parts of us we never knew existed. Although she was hypnotic and alluring, her uncertain but apparent danger kept us at bay. We were tempted, as children usually are, but too afraid, as children usually are. We wanted to ride and to feel the salty, putrid mist kiss our faces. We wanted to scream, laugh, wave, and be admired. We were just too afraid.
The neighborhood kids trusted her. They were lured by her song. They stepped into the water, positioned on her spine and journeyed a distance nearly beyond our view, waving excitedly to us and their image drifted further and further until it became an unidentifiable speck, and then, quietly, very quietly, they disappeared.
“The Island” became a generational contribution to adventures, like a candy store or a secret garden. It was an amusement park death trap, far more dangerous than the emerging drug dealers and known molesters who roamed the projects when the sun went down. Throughout the years many children disappeared. Many mothers and grandmothers begged God for mercy. “The Island” grew. It aged and blew steam from a collection of pores from January through December. Children took a ride and never returned to shore. Perhaps this was His being merciful.
There were a half-dozen morning nomads playing on the winding path that led to my Aunt Pumpkin’s building. It was 8:00 in the morning and they looked as if they had just awakened. A group of men with crudely drawn caricature-like faces leaned nonchalantly, but confidently, on cars talking fantastic shit about nothing. They were sharing a Kentucky breakfast from a brown paper bag, hiding their obvious concern as the Lion (my Dad) and his two cubs (my brother and I) got closer. Their scowl deepened. Their boisterous chatter turned to murmurs and the murmurs to deafening silence. Every eye eyed Dad suspiciously, focusing on his height, his width, and his prideful gait. The men rolled their shoulders back, expanding their chests, bore brown teeth and folded their arms over malnourished bodies, attempting, we guessed, to intimidate, until Dad nodded and greeted them loudly, with a bottom-hammer toned: “Good morning fellas.”
Involuntarily they nodded back, still silent, perhaps unsure of next steps, but alert, giving us an unspoken okay to be in their camp. Their approval wasn’t necessary. My Dad was big and confident; an unmovable Super Alpha male who was in immediate command of all packs, and they knew it. Their shifting eyes said they knew, as they kowtowed (actually dropped their heads submissively) until we passed. They understood, just by scent, that a jump-up guaranteed a beat-down. So, to protect their reputations, they boasted when we were a safe distance away, testing the waters, only to realize that it was deeper than they initially assumed, and waded in the deep end until we were out of their sight. We had no concerns, Dad’s waistband partner, Roscoe, was keeping stride.
“Y’all McGuire family?” asked one of the older 8:00 kids. She lookedhi familiar.
“Yeah,” I replied, looking at them side-eye.
The biggest kid, a girl who’d later tell me her name was Natalie, nodded at us like the men had done my father. She was tall and thicker than the rest of the kids frolicking on the ground playing skullies. She was almost a woman (physically) with a little girl’s face. A perfectly straight line separated her afro-puffs into equal symmetrical orbs, exposing big eyes, a wide nose and protruding lips that shined under the rising sun. I could feel her eyes on us as we walked toward Aunt Punkin’s building. We’d later become friends but at that moment I realized, at that very moment, that I was not yet an Alpha.
Along the winding concrete path, colored over with spray-painted hieroglyphics, to the building that looked identical to a dozen others, we walked. We continued our trek through the intense but invisible cloud of garlic gas, inside the dimly lit building, to the elevator and pressed the number of the floor to my Aunt Pumpkin’s home. When the elevator doors opened there was a short distance, a path along the hard tile floor between stone grey walls, to her apartment. Those moderately polished floors would make the rubber soles of our Pro Keds squeak echoing like trapped rodents in the hollow.
It was hauntingly quiet inside the hall, but whispers often ominously leaked from behind the locked doors. My brother and I, always game for a game, made a game of trying to decipher the mumbled words of the voices reverberating behind those creamy gray colored reinforced portals. I don’t know when we started doing this, but we always did. The voices were rarely loud enough for us to guess correctly, but wrongly repeating the assumed discussions of the unseen always entertained us, especially our Dad. That is until there was an argument or fight, and there were plenty of those, which rang as clear as the bells of the Catholic church a few blocks away. As the years progressed the once rare conflicts were no longer behind those closed doors but spilled into the hallways and stairwells as painfully contagious events.
Dad hammered his closed fist against the metal door of Pumpkin’s apartment. The sound echoed throughout the dimly lit curves of the hall and before the echo ceased he’d do it again, aggressively, with authority. BOOM… BOOM… BOOM…
Someone in an apartment down the hall opened their door and peeked out, grunted and quickly retreated.
This time with an open hand and greater intensity.
A click sounded from the door that previously opened; it was locked.
“Who is it?!” My aunt playfully barked from behind her door.
“Who you think?!” Dad fired back, his face twisted into a youthful smile. “Open the door Punk…”
And that banter would continue for a few seconds. This was their game, I supposed. Big sister and little brother play. And when the door opened we were rushed upon by our cousins with hugs, laughter, and gentle taps. We felt, in that moment, like the most important people on the planet. When the door opened it was the official beginning of the some of the best times of our lives. … And doors opened.
INSIDE THE PUMPKIN PATCH
Aunt Pumpkin’s apartment was inconceivably spotless, smelling of pine or lemons and, for some reason, boiled pork shoulder and vanilla pound cake. To the left of the front door –where no one ever sat–was the sitting room, the color of pale green wasabi and resembling the waiting room in a psychologist’s office. We didn’t care if we weren’t allowed to sit on the plastic covered furniture, as long as we could kneel in front of the glowing glass box, filled with an animation that sparked our imagination. The box – -the largest fish tank I had ever seen — illuminated blue and was crystal clear. Inside were dime-sized guppies and other sea creatures that floated majestically from end to end in a ballet de poisson. Later that night we would sit in front of that tank as if it was a television and we were watching a three-dimensional episode of Jacques Cousteau.
It was by way of that tank that we learned the miracle of birth.
“C’mere! C’mere! I want to show you something!”
We rushed in, bags still clumsily hanging from our hands, into the sitting room and in front of the tank. A fat guppy with massive eyes and a large sweeping tail slowly swam from one end to the other. Her name was Polly. At the bottom of the tank was Max or Maximus, the grotesque, hanging lipped, tumorous male, and father, that stayed suspended within a two-inch radius waiting for the flakes of food sprinkled at the top of the tank to drop to within reach of his self-created cell.
” Look!” my cousin said pointing to the cotton-like speck that dangled helplessly from a tiny opening at Polly’s belly. We moved in closer, wide eyes and motionless as Polly lethargically swam in erratic patterns, dropping, one by one, a dozen tiny pale, big-eyed newbies; the fry. They struggled, swirling in rapid succession from Polly’s protruding underbelly, free falling several inches before eventually getting their sea legs and exploring their new world.
We counted twelve.
We gathered around the tank under a bright light and watched those tiny translucent orange creatures swim through the vastness of their unexplored world. It was amazing! I was in wonder, imagining myself a guppy, free, unafraid, and catered to. We talked about the new additions in the tank and I’d, a couple hours later, sneak back to the sitting room and gawk at the eleven…
I recounted, and though we agreed that there were twelve, there were indeed ten baby guppies. When we returned the next morning, nearly all of the fry were gone, victims, we learned, of Maximus, the large lipped, multi-colored, tumorous male guppy; the father.
Four remained, hidden in the slender crack of a rock, clustered closely together, traumatized by the horrors they had seen and the sonic fish screams only they could hear. But they too would soon meet a similar fate. I was devastated, vowing never to own fish of any sort. Against my better judgement, I’ve owned two, both of which, within five days, seemed to prefer to swim on their sides.
“Y’all wanna eat?” Aunt Pumpkin asked, her voice both animated and intimidating.
“Yes,” my brother and I sheepishly replied although we had breakfast before we left Long Island.
She went to the refrigerator, gathered a hand full of ingredients and from the drawer grabbed various culinary tools. She put canisters, cartons, and bowls topped with aluminum foil on the counter. In one hand she held a cast iron pot and in the other a knife in the shape of a scimitar. She filled the pot with water, sat it on the stove atop the flame and then, without missing a beat, cut away the plastic wrapping from a pack of sausages, placing them into the pot just coming to a boil. Oil from a tin can that sat on the stove was scooped into the cast iron skillet and heated to a moderate heat. It smelled of bacon and fried chicken. This oil would fry the eggs and sear and char the boiled sausage which would plump and explode through its casing.
Aunt Pumpkin and Dad talked while she moved about the kitchen with admirable precision and purpose, a grace-filled dance by a woman who grew more beautiful with each twist. Their voices amplified as they chatted, reminiscing, and laughing about matters and events we all were alien to. A cup of coffee sat in front of Dad, stream rising and swirling in a ghostly pirouette. In less than a half hour, the little yellow kitchen table would be covered with a spread rivaling most buffets, and we’d dine until our bellies stuck out so far we couldn’t see our feet.
There was no pork shoulder.
II — AUNT PUMPKIN
Aunt Pumpkin was born in the early 1940’s on Virginia’s Eastern Shore, in a town formed from extreme heat and swarms of mosquitoes. It was named, possibly, for an annihilated Native American tribe, killed by brutal colonizers who escaped from their brutal colonizers to build themselves a better life , or the name derived from the town being the tenth railroad station from the Delaware line. Either way, it was home to her and Dad and their tribe.
There were fifteen brothers and sisters, cramped into a house that somehow accommodated them all. Pumpkin’s real name was Mildred, after her mother. In order of birth, she was number ten or eleven. They all worked in the fields of Eastern Shore Virginia, not in the capacity of chattel labor, but as a money-making force. I know nothing about her formal education, but judging by our collective attitude, education was a non-negotiable, as important as air. She was my Dad’s older sister, and based on their relationship, his protector. When it was all said and done, that was all that mattered.
My Aunt Pumpkin, Dad, and thirteen brothers and sisters resembled one another, all sharing distinct and unmistakable facial and physical characteristics that would dominate for generations.
Grandfather was dark and stoic. From him, my Dad, aunts, and uncles got their sloping foreheads, downward slanting eyes, full-ish lips and broad, muscular bodies. Grandmother was light, the color of buttercream, with features that were arguably Native American; the keen nose, piercing eyes, high cheekbones, thick hair, full-ish lips (also), and perfectly drawn eyebrows. They all were beautiful, strong, regal in a way that was achievable only through DNA touched by the spirits. And it was this combined genetic structure that dominated the features of every generation to follow like the smoothly carved lines of West African sculpture. I believe my grandmother’s genetics were most dominant and today her great-grandchildren and great-great grandchildren are mistaken for Dominican, Jamaican, Central African, Ethiopian, and Native American. Aunt Pumpkin, with skin the color of copper (perhaps this is how she got her nickname), represented both of her parents well.
I most vividly recall the warmth I felt when around her, how she seemed larger than most men and twice as loud. Aunt Pumpkin seemed grander than life itself. But more than that, I remember how she laughed, big and joyous, with such passion and animation that she squealed long and breathless at the end, which made whatever she found funny even funnier. We loved that laugh. Without ever really knowing it, we needed that laugh. It was as much a part of the trip as the trip itself. And her eyes, squinting behind large octagonal glasses, danced delightfully, especially behind our childish stories and corny jokes.
The weekend stays at Aunt Pumpkin’s came with a single demand, that we go to church on Sunday. There was no way around it, but the difference between the church we would attend in Queens from the Baptist church I attended at home was welcomed and exciting. So we’d rise early, dress in whatever we could reach and saunter off to a large cathedral a few blocks away, slumber still pasted in our eyes. With pockets full of coins and the occasional paper bill, we calculated how much to put into the plate and how much we could buy from the Spanish or Arab store on our way home. We’d end up proudly toting five-pound bags of candy, cookies, and chips back to Aunt Pumpkins, assuring one another that, although we shorted the collection plate, God would understand.
GROWING PAINS… TRAGEDY … MEMORIES MADE
We were teenagers the last time we spent the weekend at Aunt Pumpkins. The faces in the neighborhood had changed and those who remained were not the people they once were. We had changed. My first Queens Grape-flavored-Now-or-Later kiss changed. I was 12, she was 14. I told her I was 15. She believed me, but I don’t think she cared. I met her years before at 8:00, while we were going to Aunt Pumpkin’s She the biggest girl in the group. Natalie. Her kiss, sloppy and wet made me sing: God bless you, you make me feel brand new. I hadn’t seen her for four years and she had gone from rough edge to smooth line, and… she now had children: two.
It was early evening. People gathered outside their homes to enjoyed the perfect summertime weather and the cooling breeze blowing from the river. I was leaning on the fence taking in the the scenery I had noticed years before. I couldn’t recall a day more beautiful.
The screams came rapidly. Out of nowhere. It’s happened before, but the timber of these outbursts curdled my blood. The night plague swept through the projects, had infected dozens. Pretty people morphed into leathery wrinkled beasts, bent at the waist, begging for forgiveness, while their children begged for food and guidance. They, too, would succumb to the serpent and become its spawn. Corona, Astoria, Long Island City had become an apocalypse. The serpent was growing restless. Today it would show its wrath.
“She on the roof of the 1-15 Building! Look!” the woman pointed toward the sun. ” what she holdin’! She’s holding something.”
All activities ceased. I walked up. The crowd was growing and conversations were drowned behind the din of multiple voices, a chorus of gasps. I was 16, my Alpha-ness was emerging. I worked my way to the front of the growing crowd. My face was now familiar. My movements were more deliberate. My size was almost twice that of the 12 year old that secretly kissed Natalie in the laundry room and felt her afro-puffs caress my forehead. You tell anybody and I’ll beat yo’ ass!, she promised.
… you make me feel brand new.
Teena Marie was playing fin the background: It must be magic…got me under your spell…
“That bitch is crazy. Ridin’ that horse. That’s what it is. She ain’t got no harness. I told them people she didn’t need that baby. She don’t need none of them babies.”
My eyes adjusted to the glare. I could tell that the body on the roof was naked, a formless silhouette moving like the wind. The crowd was forlorn. The lady on the roof was a shadow, a black mass dancing with a Cabbage Patch doll in swaddling cloth. She looked down at the crowd. Afro-puffs revealed like Mickey Mouse ears. Natalie!
She walked, her plantigrade unstable, to the edge of the building, extending her arms away from her body, holding the Cabbage Patch doll in swaddling cloth over the parapet, open to nothing but space and a 70 foot fall. Clouds covered the sun and Natalie’s face came into view. The smell from the “island” wafted around us. Everything became stagnant. She was smiling, yelling venom to the crowd, a white foam ran down the sides of her mouth.
“She gonna throw her baby off the roof.”
“She crazy, BUT SHE AIN’T THAT CRAZY!”
A roar rang from the ensemble and was answered with a greater roar. It was a call and response pastors pray for.
“She don’t love me!” Natalie yelled. “She evil. She the devil.”
There was no negotiating. No time to reason or reconsider. The decision was made, and the moment was irreversible. I stood in silence. The crowd hushed. My cousin grabbed my shoulder. I didn’t know he was there. I was frozen. Aunt Pumpkin trailed not far behind. The entire project was gathered at the mouth of the building. We were forced to accept what our teachings told us was wrong. We were never taught how to reverse the madness the night plague brought. Heroin was stronger than the God of our understanding. We knew this; we understood. We could only accept what was, and hope that we’d one day be forgiven.
Natalie raised the bundle above her head as if presenting a gift to the Gods. She was crying, perhaps thinking twice about what she was about to do. But her reconsideration was brief, as she tip-toed forward and without additional warning released the Cabbage Patch doll with a scream heard on the other side of the river. The swaddling cloth flapped in the free-fall like a malfunctioning parachute. Natalie was Maximus eating his young.
Natalie closed her eyes, raised her leg and silently followed, her rigid naked body dropping horizontally; belly down.
The concrete waited.
The crowd parted.
I will never forget the sounds of flesh on solid ground and how it made me feel
The police came five minutes later. The bodies lay on the sidewalk, bodies that formed the nucleus of a horrific painting. Five agonizing minutes, enough time for the crowd of men, women, and children to absorb the moment and become traumatized by images and memories years beyond the stain. But what was discovered in Natalie’s apartment, the police were not prepared for.
The apartment was hauntingly immaculate; feminine, picturesque. In the kitchen, spices and a large bowl of browning vegetal matter sat on the counter. It seemed that Natalie was in the process of making dinner when her crash happened. The place smelled of incense and burning pot roast, the officers’ report would later report. Satan sat at the kitchen table fiddling with a blackened silver spoon, bloody syringe, and a rubber tube.
The oven was still on but the apartment was empty. No sign of the other baby. Nothing was out of order. The police collected several items, took a few pictures, and began to tape off the apartment. One of the officers turned off the oven, checked the other knobs, surveyed the area again and began to exit. She reached the front door but stopped and doubled back. A burning pot roast needed to be taken from the heat, she thought. She walked toward the stove, opened the oven door and took out the large covered roasting pan. She removed the lid and yelped, alerting the other officers. In the pan, dressed in carrots, onions, and potatoes was the seared remains of the other child, roasted into a swollen mass, practically beyond recognition.
The other baby, less than a year old, was found.
FINAL CURTAIN… ALMOST
The Corona, Astoria, Long Island City phenomenon began to change as the years progressed. Time forced each of us into the covenant of our own design, often not including fish tank follies, bubble gum runs, and trash island adventures. Periodic visits kept us abreast of growth and personality. We were young adults, filled anew with thoughts that we weren’t going to share as freely as we shared fantastic stories doing earlier years. I was saddened when the communication eventually transitioned into silence, and when we met again, our once slender bodies were transformed into broad shoulders and shadowy facial hair.
In time we would be left with only the memories of how freedom felt and how death came without warning or fanfare. Thoughts of Natalie faded into legend, but other memories, just as tragic, were quickly made. There would be new discoveries in far away places and secrets we’d never share. Our little boy innocence would evolve and be deeply tucked away at the bottom of a secured footlocker. We had become men. We would become beasts and do beastly deeds, scaring colonizers and their children and confronting police who put our well being behind all others. Perhaps we had grown filled with the poisons from the toxic river. I think we just grew. My cousins changed their names, following a belief that believed in them. They found peace in Queens’ chaos and discovered the God within themselves. Queens made them Kings and I was not fully invited to their kingdom.
I discovered myself, my love of classical music, rap and jazz; of Monet, Ernie Barnes, Edmonia Lewis, Basquiat, and Jacob Lawrence; of photography, theater, and literature. I would journey to Manhattan and Brooklyn to meet the artists I’d, years later, break bread with in Paris and London. I went to college while my cousins went to life. I am not sure who came out better. I was taught about the ills of the world, while they combated those ills with weapons I believed came in books.
As it was God’s plan, my Dad and Aunt Pumpkin were reborn about nine months apart, leaving us to remember the love and promising that we would reconnect and reminisce about the joys of those early days. The process is slow but encouraging, and Queens, although now wearing an unfamiliar face, will always be ours. The years between our adolescent and adult selves have been a transformation. Our thoughts and recollections may have changed with time but our hearts will always remain untouchable; always a part of a greater universe, always a part of Corona, Astoria, or Long Island City.
(c) 2018 J. O Beckett for GrifBeck