The Island

The volunteer fire department in the middle of the nation’s largest city.

I remember old houses, weathered by wind and salt air and knocked sideways by hurricanes on their way to more newsworthy places. It was an island across the bay from Kennedy airport, surrounded by brackish water and interwoven by canals…fodder for tropical storms. It was populated by tough men and tougher women, union democrats with American flags on every porch and ready fists if you didn’t like it.

I made a few friends among the kids but generally, like their parents, they were wary of outsiders. The girls had gravelly voices and they might kiss a guy or they might slug him and then change their minds the next day. Either way there were brothers to deal with. I was known to them, but still an outsider…I kept my distance. The feeling was mutual.

This was my grandparent’s turf. My cousin once asked if I thought Grandpa, a union shop steward, had ever hurt somebody, like maybe for getting outta line on a job site. I stared at him for a moment and we both burst into laughter. Grandpa didn’t look for trouble, but he wouldn’t run from it either. He’d taught me at a young age to stand my ground. “Don’t start any fights. But if you think someone’s gonna hit you, hit them first.”

The island had no city fire service because of the drawbridges at both ends. Subway station yes, NYPD yes, public school yes. But they had to build their own volunteer fire and ambulance service. The men in my family volunteered…it was a source of pride and damn near mandatory. I remember the jackets they wore, like high school letter jackets; BCFD stitched on the back instead of the school name.

I don’t recall grandpa having any real prejudices other than for people who he thought were lazy. A same sex couple, two men, moved in 2 doors down from him. That was a novelty in the 1960’s on this rough and tumble working class Island. To be honest, being cut from the same cloth as my Grandfather, they were a novelty to me as well. I asked what he thought about it. “They keep their house nice. They don’t bother nobody.” And that was it…mind your own business and don’t let your house go to shit. It didn’t seem a lot to ask.

© Glenn R Keller 2021, All Rights Reserved

Where Everybody Knows Your Name

Jamaica Avenue is a long stretch of two and three story buildings,  many with commercial enterprises on the first floor and living quarters on the second and sometimes third floors.  It cuts clear across Queens from  West to East,  continues onto Long Island as Jericho Turnpike,  and on the West end gets lost in a maze of streets as it enters Brooklyn.

There were many neighborhoods: Jamaica, Hollis, Bellaire but we lived in Queens Village.  Across the street from us was a Flying A service station and beyond that the Long Island Railroad tracks where speeding trains whisked “rich” commuters between Manhattan and the suburbs further out on Long Island.  The blocks adjacent to our own held bowling Alleys (yes there were two),  a small grocery store,  some non-retail type businesses and our dentists office.   Our block,  was a mom and pop shopping block.   From West to East there was; Berringer the realtor,  an empty store,  a Scotsman with a collection of hundreds of toy metal soldiers in his shop window (we called him Scotty), the butcher shop,  a Chinese laundry where I played with a girl named Lin,  County Lighting where my uncle Bobby worked, and a barber shop.  Beyond that you could walk 2 blocks and find about anything you needed.  Should it become necessary,  the bus stop for Jamaica Bus lines was on the next block and that was our connection to the rest of the world.

Of all the stores, the butcher shop was the most important because my Uncle Chris was the butcher and he owned the shop.  He, my aunt and my cousin Chris Lee lived in a small apartment behind the shop…this is how it was done back then,  and how it is still done today.  My uncle owned both floors of the building; we lived in the front apartment upstairs,  and behind us lived a young couple.   We moved there from a tidy,  well kept brick house when my father abandoned us.  It must have been heartbreaking for my mother as even at that age I can remember her beautiful flower gardens and spotless interior.  But at that age I didn’t really understand and the apartment was just fine for me.  It was big by New York standards with 2 good size bedrooms,  and a large kitchen and living room.  Furthermore,  I had a good view of the railroad embankment over the top of the Flying A and the intersection of Jamaica Ave. and Francis Lewis Blvd. was busy with a steady stream of buses, trucks and other interesting things to entertain a young boy.

No matter how big the city,  everything is local and this little part of central Queens was our world.  Brooklyn,  where my mother grew up and the Bronx where my great aunts and uncles lived were like other countries.  Manhattan was like another planet, and at any rate it was for fancy people who occasionally let us in to visit Radio City Music Hall or to check out the museums.  In Queens Village my family was a presence.  Uncles worked there, cousins hung out in the bowling alleys, my mother and her sister were active at every meal and special occasion at Good Shepard Lutheran Church.  When someone got divorced or widowed,  there was usually a long lost love waiting in the wings a few blocks away.  It was, in many ways,  just like a small town.  Just like every other neighborhood in New York.

At Christmas, every store was decked out and the streets were decorated with lit up hanging decorations.  One of my most intense memories is standing in the darkened butcher shop listening to Christmas hymns playing on a record player and looking at the tree and the intricate decorations that my uncle had laid out.

I went to a nice public school, my best friend Tommy and I were in Cub Scouts and he lived around the corner,  we were part of a large protective extended family and it felt like home.  A kid in a big city with no father could do a lot worse.  It wouldn’t last.