Since our nation is young it’s true by definition that every American is an immigrant from another land. I’d be willing to bet that the majority of those who live in Nassau County have immigrated from either Queens or Brooklyn when they were kids.
In the Oscar-winning film “Brooklyn” Emory Cohen plays a young Italian-American who at the end shows his Irish bride to be this dream place to the east of Brooklyn called Nassau County.
Do you recall the film classic “Avalon”, written and directed by Barry Levinson. It was about an extended immigrant family who settled in Baltimore at the turn of the century.
The enormous poignancy of this film is seen as the Krinchinsky family slowly disintegrates as the next generation leaves their neighborhood behind and head for the dream called suburbia.
By the end of the film we see watch as alienated and isolated nuclear families are living in the suburbia and spending their Thanksgiving holiday silently watching television.
And then there is George Raho, another screenwriter who recently wrote “Penny Candy” about a family moving from Brooklyn to Levittown a place that the kids refer to where “there ain’t no sewers, there ain’t no cellars and there ain’t no stoops. It’s a perfect place to live if you’re a duck!”
“Brooklyn”, “Avalon” and “Penny Candy” all conjure up the deeply felt pain of loss, the longing for a past when we were young, free, connected to a neighborhood and watched by a large extended families.
All these distant memories of more simple and joy filled times are lost as we enter into our adulthood with all of its daily stress and worry. As the Joni Mitchell song went “Something’s lost but something’s gained by living everyday.”
I thought it might be educational to go back to the Queens where I grew up and revisit that strange land called Queens.
It is now a changed place with 2,330,000 population and is now considered the nation’s most diverse county.
For my first eight years my family lived in a small, two-bedroom garden apartment on Rocky Hill Road in Bayside.
My first memory as a child was leaning out the kitchen window and dropping eggs onto the pavement two stories below. I don’t recall why I thought that was a good idea nor whether my mother beat me for doing so.
I also recall how one night when my parents were out on the town I thought I would be an especially good child and clean up the bathroom by soaping up all the walls to make them spotless.
When my mother got home I expected large accolades but instead she gazed at the bathroom with an astonished look and screamed.
I was not a terribly dumb child so right away I realized she was not happy. And I also recalled the time my brother and I thought it would be fun to light a fire in one of the stairwells.
I have a vague memory of the fire department showing up but the rest of that memory has been fully repressed. So these are the memories of a boyhood in Queens.
My memories are wrapped in a warm glow of fun and happiness so I really didn’t know what to expect when I visited there this week.
My GPS got me right to Rocky Hill Road without a glitch and those garden apartments were still there. They had a grimy rundown look to them, with a little courtyard with some dirty grass patches.
I saw the basement window that I once fell through and led to many stitches and a long scar on my right wrist which I still have. There were only three of us kids then and our family of five was beginning to get cramped in our two bedroom apartment.
I could see why my parents wanted to flee to the promised land of Nassau County the first chance they had. After sizing up the apartment building I sauntered down to the corner candy store and was not surprised to see all the Korean, Chinese and Greek newspapers there.
I then walked further west to find my old grammar school. St. Kevins.
St. Kevin’s is situated in a more high end neighborhood in Flushing surrounded by brick and stone Tudor style homes that must easily sell for over a million each.
What I recall about St. Kevins were those really fierce nuns who would enforce a rule of strict silence the entire day.
Think of a building filled with hundreds grammar schoolers marching down the hallways in total silence all day long. How in the world did they do it?
I never attended kindergarten so the first grade was my first experience with schooling. The first grade represents the one and only time in my life that I achieved an elected office. Given my slow start I was elected vice president of the Poor Readers Club.
However I found solace in the fact that my best friend was elected the president. I have memories of kneeling on sand following mistakes but I may be wrong about that. As George Orwell once wrote “such, such were the days.”
As I strolled around the neighborhood I ran into a woman who had lived across the street from for many years and she told me her kids went there.
I shared my memories with her and she told me that all that’s changed and that sadly now there are hardly any nuns at all.
And by my third grade year our family mimicked the families in films I have mentioned and we migrated east to Massapequa.
I lived in Massapequa for the remainder of my childhood. I said goodbye to Bayside and traveled east to revisit my memories of life in Nassau County.
You will have to wait next week to find out what I saw there. Life in Massapequa was a far cry from Bayside.
Like in the screenplay “Penny Candy” the sounds of fire engines were replaced by the sounds of ducks flying overhead.