Thursday May 17th – I get myself kitted out for the day and hop on the ‘International Express’: the 7 local train to Queens. This subway line runs east from 42nd Street, Manhattan, straight into the immigrant heart of Queens. Numerous migrant groups have turned this corridor, pretty much delineated by the 7 train, into their home over the years. From Irish, Indian and Pakistani to Dominican, Chinese and Puerto Rican, there are loads of little neighbourhood ethnic enclaves that are home to a vast swathe of New York’s immigrant history. My plan for the day is to pay homage to Pops at the Louis Armstrong House Museum in Corona, and then walk my way back through some of the other neighbourhoods in Queens.
Most of what I knew about Queens as a kid, I learned from Eddie Murphy in Coming to America. He’s a rich, naive African prince who needs a bride, and where else to find one but a place called Queens…? It sounds like a thin premise, but god the movie was funny! He arrives in Queens and gets a dingy apartment with his manservant, who is shocked that things are so run down. That was the 80s, of course, and some things have changed since then, I think!
I get onto the front carriage of the subway train and the first thing I notice is that there’s a window right at the front of the train. Whaaaaat!!! I’d never seen that before; usually there’s a little cabin there with the driver in it, no? I rush over and take up prime position; I am thrilled by the fact that I can see where we’re going, plunging straight into the subway tunnels in a way that I’d never seen before – usually the view is just out the side windows and onto brick wall, but this way I can see right down the tunnels and see exactly what’s coming!!! Ah, simple pleasures for simple minds…!!! My joy is amplified when we reach Queens and the train goes above ground – I see us approaching stations, crossing bridges and floating through the landscape on our elevated track. Who would’ve thought one could have so much fun this way! If you ever head to New York and are inspired to catch the 7 train, I definitely recommend giving the front carriage a whirl – what a ride!
I was enjoying the journey so much that I decided to just stay on the line right until the end instead of getting off at Corona like I’d planned. I really liked seeing all the neighbourhoods and all the people. When I eventually disembarked at Flushing, a Chinese lady stopped me. I had noticed her eyeing me along the way, but I figured she just thought I was nutso, staring out the front window with a silly grin plastered across my face. I thought maybe she was going to ask me if I needed a ride back to the hospital, but no – she actually wanted to say that she loved my sandals and wanted to know where I got them from! She complained that it was hard to find flat, functional, comfortable sandals that a) didn’t dig in next to your big toe like flip-flops, b) didn’t make you look kind of butch and c) were not hiking sandals. I TOTALLY understand where she was coming from… it took me years to find the right sandals – the kind you can wear all day without getting blisters or sore feet, and still feel pretty enough to wear into the evening. For the record, I was wearing a pair of Gisele Bundchen’s Ipanema sandals, and I STILL love them.
Anyway, after that nice little exchange (like finding a soul sister in an unexpected place!), I got straight back on the Manhattan-bound subway; I figured that Flushing (apparently a great place for good Chinese food) could wait until another day. I got the subway back to 103 Street – Corona Plaza, went down to street level, and started the walk to the Louis Armstrong House Museum. The first thing I noticed was that everyone around me was speaking Spanish. I mean, EVERYONE. And most of the posters in store windows were in Spanish, too. And looking around, yup, I was in a very small minority. Wow. Kind of nice, to feel like you’re in a different country when you’ve only travelled about 40 minutes out of Manhattan. I followed my nose, trying not to look at my map too much, and noticed a funeral home with a cop car parked outside. Hmmm. Different.
The neighbourhood itself was kind of nice; lots of small homes lined up, and the side streets were leafy enough. There were lots of families out and about with pushchairs and ice cream cones. The houses were mostly older, but well-kept; kind of like a working class neighbourhood with pride in its appearance. I liked the feel of the place. I eventually made it to the Louis Armstrong House Museum, and was immediately surprised by the house: it fit in perfectly with the rest of the neighbourhood, and was not at all ostentatious; a red-brick, fair-sized home, not at all what you would expect from a super-famous jazz musician. I later learned that Louis Armstrong (also known as Satchmo or ‘Pops’) loved the neighbourhood and the people so much that he didn’t feel the need to leave, even when he was making lots of money; he stayed there until he died, right there in his own bedroom.
On arrival I learned that it was not possible to walk around the house by yourself; you had to go as part of a guided tour. So, to that end, I found myself lumped in with a trio of late-middle aged, dour, joyless Germans who asked the stupidest questions, and seemed to be disapproving of everything. “Did he have air conditioning?” was, I think, one of the dumbest things I’ve heard. Honestly! It wasn’t the bloody stone age ferrchrissake, it was the 60s and 70s. “Oh, he had an oven?” What?!? How they even made it out to Queens by themselves was a mystery to me, and they really didn’t seem to give a shit about Louis Armstrong at all; they were more interested in real estate prices and traffic down the street. Come to think of it, maybe they were just real estate investors who were thinking of buying in the area and figured they’d just drop in.
Anyway, weird Germans aside, I personally had a great time at the house, and anyone who’s even a mild fan of jazz or has even HEARD of Louis Armstrong would probably find it worth the trip out to Queens. It was a fascinating window into the life of this lovely man and his wife and how they lived and loved. The house has been kept exactly as it was after Louis passed away and his wife left, right down to the grey shag carpet and the 70s décor. The only exception is some protective covering on the main paths that the tour groups tread, and little buttons on the wall, which you can press to hear recordings of Louis talking or playing music or whatever. Apparently he was an avid recorder of everything, and had reels and reels of music and conversation stowed away in his archives, so they used some of these recordings to add life to the museum. The house is an average 70s house: crazy colour schemes, odd little knick-knacks, plastic covering on the sofa and a brightly-coloured kitchen. You sort of think, hmmm, this guy lived so modestly considering his fame… and then you step into the bathrooms. WOW! It would seem that, despite their modest size, these rooms were Louis’ one concession to his fortune, the one place where he just went all-out and enjoyed the fruits of his labour, to an almost extreme degree. We’re talking mirrored walls, gold-plated sink, speakers built into the walls… incredible. It looked more like something you would expect from Liberace than Louis Armstrong! I loved it… turns out that the bathroom was basically Louis’ favourite room, and that he had a real thing for laxatives (!) so he spent a fair amount of time in them…!
I particularly liked Louis’ little ‘man cave’, his office. On the wall is a painting of Pops done by Tony Bennett, and the view into the street was really nice. I lingered as long as I could, imagining Satchmo sitting in his chair behind his desk, like time had stood still. And honestly, listening to his recordings in there and hearing his voice come from the walls, it was almost like time had done just that.
After the tour, I went into the little museum and store that they had on ground level and had a little poke around and chatted to the staff, who were so wonderfully passionate about Louis and his music. Plans are afoot to build another, larger visitor centre across the road; maybe one day I’ll have the chance to go back and see what becomes of it. I spent a little time in his garden, enjoying the sunshine and the trees, and took what is possibly my favourite picture of myself EVER using a self-timer. I guess it was not only how I looked in the picture, but the memory of the time and place and how I was feeling, that I really love about it.
I finally tore myself away from that lovely atmosphere and that lovely street, and started the walk back towards the 7 train. I passed the funeral home again on the way home, but this time there were people milling around outside, and now there were two cop cars parked opposite with a small handful of officers standing nearby. I looked closer at the people and the situation, and listened to some of the conversation, and I realised that I had basically stumbled upon the funeral of a young gang member, and all of his fellow gangsters were standing around outside looking very upset and very angry – I guess the funeral had just finished, and the cops were there to keep the peace in case someone from another gang turned up…? Holy shit. As soon as I realised this, I made a point to move much faster through the crowd that had now amassed, and did not turn to look back. Some other peoples’ realities are just far too real for me… I considered myself lucky to be able to just keep going, when there were others there who just had no choice but to stay there and live it.
I made a mental note to leave out THAT part of the story when I told my mum about my day. I had already decided not to tell her I was visiting Queens until after it happened, because I knew she would worry otherwise! But I guess now she knows…!
I made my way back onto 103rd Street and then started my walk along Roosevelt Avenue, following the tracks of the International Express back towards Manhattan. Wow, what a walk. I passed through a number of different continents just on one street; I started in South America, where everyone spoke Spanish and my instinct was to say ‘gracias’ when someone handed me a flyer on the street. One guy bumped into me and called me senorita, which I didn’t mind one bit. As I kept walking, I found myself in continental Asia, surrounded by Indian and Pakistani faces, languages and food. I stopped for lunch at a little food truck that was selling momos, which are basically little Tibetan dumplings. The guy who ordered just after me was fascinated by my accent; he was Tibetan himself and wanted to know if I’d ever tried momos before. I had, a few times, at a market stand just outside Brisbane, and he was surprised that there was a Tibetan population there. I told him it was small, but that Australia was a pretty damn multicultural place so you’re likely to find pockets of people from just about every country there! The guy who owned the truck (also Tibetan) joined our conversation, and I had a lovely time munching my momos and chatting. We were only interrupted by some asshole Indian guy yakking on his mobile phone right up to the second he walked up to the truck and snapped, “Hey you! I want a dozen momos to go, NOW.” I looked at the guy who was working there and mouthed, “Do you know this guy?” He shook his head to say no. Butthead kept talking on his phone – loudly – in a manner that told us, “I am a very important person with very important business to attend to and you are all inferior scum.” If looks could kill, that man would have been writhing on the ground in pain, burning from the hatred I pointed at him with my eyes. He was handed his dumplings, and then stopped his conversation again to say, “Chilli sauce.” No eye contact, no please, no thank you. He took the bottle that was offered, squeezed it over his dumplings, put the bottle on the counter, and made to leave. I stopped him. “Uh, thank you?” I said, gesturing first at the asshole and then man behind the counter. Buttface looked at me quizzically and told his mobile phone to hold on. “What?” he said, and I repeated my request. He finally caught on. “Oh yeah, sure. Thanks. Thanks a lot.” And then headed off on his day, probably bitching to his friend about this weird chick he just got accosted by at the momo stand. “See, that was easy, right?” I said to his departing back. To the two guys at the truck, I was a hero. Ha ha ha ha ha!
God, I hate rude assholes like that. It really doesn’t take much time or effort just to say thanks and acknowledge the other human being that just fed you.
Anyway, I hung around for a little while before continuing on my walk. I cheated a little and got the subway between 74th Street and 50-something, looking out the window at the Irish and (allegedly) Swiss/German neighbourhoods and walking through a bit of Sunnyside before again getting the subway back to Court Square, still in Long Island.
Across the street from Court Square station, down a little side road, is an abandoned warehouse complex that is now called 5 Pointz, also known as the Institute of Higher Burning… to you and me, it’s something of a ‘graffiti museum’. It’s absolutely massive, and graffiti artists come from all over the world to share their talents. Nowadays, you have to have permission to paint, but back when it started I think it was just a collection of people doing graffiti on an empty building, and it grew into something bigger. At the time I visited I think they were in the middle of trying to get funding to turn it into a real museum; I’m not sure how far they’ve come. I wandered down the street, under the subway tracks, and once again I thought, “Oh my god, if my mother could see me now she’d have a freaking heart attack.” As I approached the building, two guys in a truck were pulling out of the complex and waved enthusiastically, and I could see that there was activity going on in a small side room near the driveway. I could hear a radio blasting that Brazilian superhit, “Ai Se Eu Te Pego”, and I felt right at home, ha ha ha! I wandered further in and oohed and aahed at the exterior walls; there were five storeys of scattered drawings. I wouldn’t even know how to start describing them! There was everything, from your usual tags to a post-apocalyptic street scene, a magic-mushroom inspired Tweedledee and Tweedledum, dragons, and a bunch of portraits. I wasn’t brave enough to venture inside by myself, as I didn’t know what the regulations were and if it was even allowed (and even if it was allowed, did I really want to be wandering around an empty warehouse by my onesy?), so I just kept my scouting to the outside… and really, I enjoyed that enough. There was a man across the street doing a sketch of the building, so I stopped to watch for a bit before heading back to the subway station.
As the subway pulled up, the driver in the front carriage goggled at me and gave me a big, theatrical wink. I laughed… until he wound down his window and tried to talk to me! I was like, “Um, don’t you have a train to drive?” He seemed sweet enough though, and it was hardly threatening; I hopped on the train and before I knew it we were headed back to Manhattanland.
I got off at the subway at Times Square, and decided to take a short walk down 7th Avenue! I stopped at Baked By Melissa to pick up half a dozen muffin bites, which were delicious, then again at Hale & Hearty Soup for a chicken and corn bisque to take home for dinner, before hopping back on the subway to 18th Street. I went home and made sure to really have a good stretch of my legs after all that walking, before I ate dinner, wasted time online and went to bed.
What a day. Possibly the best one yet, I think… simple, but fun.
Thanks for stopping by,