Born and raised in Whitestone, the northernmost part of Queens. Zip code: 11357. Would there ever be a time where there was no longer a use for zip codes? Our friends were from various sections of the borough but the core of our group lived in this neighborhood, our parent’s houses scattered around, between the Whitestone and Throgs Neck bridges.
The Whitestone bridge opened in 1939 and is 377 feet high. The Throgs Neck Bridge opened twenty two years later and is seventeen feet shorter. My father told me stories that my grandparents passed down to him of olden days when it was undeveloped and mostly farmland. No bridges. No parkways. No expressways. I wished it was still like that or that I was born in that era. I found myself wishing for a lot of things. Hopelessly wishing. That was me being like my father. I thought about this on a flight to Ireland, or in a jail cell, or from beyond the veil.
I thought about the height of bridges. I thought about altitudes aboard turbulent planes. I weighed the importance of one’s character and the consequences of our actions. The gravity of the choices we made in our lives and how it affected us and those around us. I thought about life and more importantly, death. How fucked up life is at times? We slept on the things that make life great, stressing and putting so much emphasis on things that don’t matter. The saddest part is when the things that actually mattered don’t anymore. Did my life matter? Would the relationships we developed all these years matter in the end? Would the memories we amassed remain meaningful or would they tarnish in time as the perception matured? How would this all end? Options were on the tip of a gavel and in the loop of a noose.
If it were to end could I look back in those closing moments, with a feeling that despite all of the things that were foul and traumatic, that there were worthwhile things, and they remained so. While I might not be able to reflect on Whitestone being as beautiful as it once was, it was something I still had affection for. Queens held a special place in my heart, but didn’t everyone think where they grew up was special? When people think of my borough they might think of certain places, places like Shea Stadium or Arthur Ashe Stadium, maybe the Hall of Science or the Queens Zoo, which is no competition for the Bronx Zoo but still nice. My recollection would be different.
Think about all the people who go to Flushing Meadow Park to take a photo in front of the Unisphere. How many of them, residents and tourists alike can name the architect who created the iconic steel sculpture? Not many. But I guess it doesn’t matter. His name was Gilmore David Clarke and he passed, and no one noticed.
My version of Queens may differ from yours, but some may find similarities about our formative years, about our journeys there. There will always be some things I will appreciate about this place, even though the neighborhood was the backdrop for a lot of grief.
Queens was a vast territory for the boys and I to explore. We went everywhere as young children unattended and unrestricted. No cell phones, no internet, and no rules. For some, no curfews either, I was completely untethered. There will be these moments from my youth that will stand out in my mind during the dark, quiet minutes alone. Moments that I will reflect on with an affinity, moments of a lost aeon.
We clocked miles on our BMX bikes, GT Performers and Mongooses, getting chain grease on our pant legs and flats all over the region, stopping at almost every gas station to fill the tires with air, especially the one on Clintonville with a giant RF tag rolled across the sloping roof. We banged up our bikes at the makeshift bike track that someone carved out of the side of the Clearview Golf Course, what was once Rudolph Valentino’s backyard. We walked to Amore to get pizza, and took the bus to Main Street for pho. We bought comics and trading cards from Scondo’s and Mike’s on Northern Boulevard. We dumped quarters into the slots at Super A and Peter Pan games. We got cassette tapes from Coconuts and The Wiz. We went to the Busy Bee Flea market for fake Wu-Tang shirts and bootleg shit, to cop butterfly knives and to get our ears pierced. We saw movies at the Quartet. We cheaply rode the 7 train and used the Q15 and Q14 buses. Keg parties and Beer bowls. Black eyes and fat lips. Skateboards and blue Sky-Bounce handballs. Jansport backpacks and Starter pullovers. We trekked to Alley Pond and Kissena Park, and Fort Totten. I loved the view of the Whitestone Bridge at the park below, and marching down the rocky decline to the anchorage. Beer in hand to hang under the bridge and admire the graff and add some of our own. All of these things were worlds away now, as if it was a foggy dream or a glimpse into someone else’s life, a remote viewing of some other person’s youth.
Another place I’ll always cherish among my experiences that no longer exists is a house. It is difficult to grapple with what existed, what exists and how it’s all perceived. When it did exist I loved how it made me feel, like the dead ran their fingers through my hair. It wasn’t for us. It wasn’t ours but we made it ours.
Arthur Hammerstein, had a two story, fifteen room tudor style mansion ambitiously built in 1924 on the waters of the East river where it collided with the Long Island Sound. Hammerstein had to sell his beautiful estate, which he named Wildflower, during the depression. The name of the house immediately brought to mind the Ghostface Killah song, a favorite off his solo debut, Ironman. The house changed many hands like the inspiration of the song. At one point becoming a catering hall, called Ripples on the Water, which we affectionately shortened to simply, Ripples.
A special house to me and our team. Undeniably, there was something otherworldly about it, something spooky, and phantasmagoric. Ripples felt supernatural, like one of those haunted houses in old horror movies, ones I wished I could live in, though my house was more frightening than any of them. The Wildflower estate did not have blood dripping from its walls, but it certainly had its own specters and legend. While we may have broken in and trespassed I always felt welcome in Hammerstein’s abode.
It was a portal to another time, assuming that an earlier time frame might be better, that it might be easier, but I don’t know if that is necessarily true. Any other time seemed like it would be an improvement.
Those dark halls of the mansion allowed my mind to wander off, to let the tricks be played, all in good fun. My mind wandered up and down the corridors, giving permission for the ghosts and goblins to emerge from the darkened shadows. I wanted to make them my roommates. I wanted to claim Hammerstein’s abandoned home as my own residence. My own private Boleskin, full of magic and ritual. A part of me will always want to go back to being a scrawny, anxious twelve year old boy exploring the house, when life still had some wonder and mystique.
The lot of us would walk, bike, or ride the Q15 to the last stop to visit the house. Sneaking past any security and entering through one of the many broken windows. Sometimes the front door would be cracked wide open making it even easier. The inside of the house was covered in graffiti as most things were then, some of the graffiti was from my favorite writers, writers who would become my friends. A few rooms had working electricity but mostly the only light came from cracks in the boarded windows and holes in the roof. We explored the house every single time we trespassed. From the attic to the basement, we even found a trap door that led down a flight of stairs and into an enclosed room with an old, empty safe. We banded together and searched the house to ensure we were the only occupants, with some baseball bats, and a knife or two, once the house was deemed clear we made teams and played manhunt. It was thrilling, that feeling of absolute fear, the uncertainty of what was lurking in the darkness, that Lovecraftian unknown while sitting and hiding in old closet. I hid in someone’s bedroom listening to the sounds of running footsteps, my friend’s chatter and the breathing of the house. I expected to see something from beyond this world in those rooms. I hoped to see something unexplainable, but I was always disappointed, nothing ever presented itself besides maybe Ozzy’s grinning face as he tried to tag me, saying “you’re it.”
I wanted the Hammerstein mansion to stay mysterious forever. I wanted it for selfish reasons, as I desperately wanted something of my own, but I knew even then nothing lasts. The Hammerstein estate was in the midst of a sad legal dispute. Developers wanted to make a profit on it and others like myself in the community wanted it landmarked and preserved for the ages. It was oddly coincidental that a fire would occur and cause just enough damage that the developers would win since there was no longer enough to save the house. When the Wildflower burned, it should have burned down to the ground and nothing but hell should have arose in its place.
Will these places that we coveted, these parks we defended, these zip codes we repped, these people we loved, these memories we made, all of these things we invested ourselves in, will they matter or burn into nothingness? Everything was temporary. I said it before and I’ll say it again, the only way to find comfort is that it was great while it lasted.
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