Monday, August 08, 2011

Fill in the Blanks

The following is a writing exercise. The sentences and story are mine. The structure, however, is not. I'm trying to learn something.

When I ran, screaming to myself if not exactly aloud, from the insular little strip of warehouse Queens where I lived until I was seventeen to college in New England – where I identified more, it seemed, with the locals than with my peers – the first thing I noticed was that the first seventeen years of my life were very different from the first seventeen years of the people I was watching unload their stereos, projection televisions and “wardrobe boxes” into their new homes. With my black-and-white Motorola, my Army duffel and my throw rug – my one luxury – I was easily pegged, by anyone caring to notice, as someone not quite up-to-snuff in terms of parental success. And I wasn’t, but I wasn’t as acutely aware of it until this exact point.

I learned to play football in the street in front of my house, where chuckholes and raised manhole covers were far greater threats to young ligaments and tendons than headhunting opponents who cruised each game looking for nothing more satisfying than to drill you into the street. This was in East-Central Queens, a ramshackle conglomeration of shitty, ugly homes owned by alcoholic civil servants who couldn’t do any better. Men who spent their days off at the OTB drinking blackberry brandy out of paper bags, placing uneducated bets and accusing Cordero and Pincay of fixing races or “riding lazy,” as though any of them had ever mounted a horse in anger.

At twelve, I was identified by the local football association – a collection of loud, portly older men who hung American flags on telephone poles and advised me to “kick, Bobby, kick” – as being something approaching good. I was an option quarterback on the local Pop Warner team, running an 11-man clusterfuck resembling the Wildcat offense because A) I could run for long distances without being tackled, B) I couldn’t throw, and C) Nobody on my team could catch the ball particularly well. Within two years, I was the target of an ostensible bidding war, with the local Catholic and public high school coaches explaining to my father how much better off I’d be were I to attend their school. This wasn’t a formal recruitment, but it was there, and it was the first time anyone I didn’t know wanted me for something. That year, I played in a summer basketball tournament, where Rob Moore, who was several years older than me and played wide receiver in the NFL for several years, spread his legs, jumped over me and dunked the ball when I tried to take a charge.

My football success was more a product of my ability to recognize patterns where they existed – and with being forced into playing, to an extent, by my father – than it had to do with any sort of specific ability. I couldn’t throw the ball very far or accurately. I wasn’t exceptionally fast, had long legs and a short upper torso conducive neither to hitting nor being hit, and was cursed with the unfortunate combination of huge feet and small hands. The one thing I could do was anticipate what was coming, then move my feet fast enough to get where I needed to be. In a hundred yard dash, you could beat me by ten steps, but in a ten yard radius, within the context of a football game swirling around us, I’d be at the head of a play before you’d even known to take your first step. I could recognize the flow of things and react to it before it made sense to anyone else.

Flow didn’t interest me in Queens, at least from a social perspective. People there were mean. They were stupid, provincial and racist. When three men were chased onto the Belt Parkway in Howard Beach by a gang of bat-wielding white kids back in the 1980s, I’d wondered why the same sort of thing hadn’t yet happened closer to where I lived. The sentiment certainly existed, promulgated by all the curtain-peering old Irish biddies raising the communal alarm whenever a black guy walked down the street.

What’s he doing? Shh...Watch him. Should we call the cops?

People taking the Long Island Railroad to or from points east peer out the window at these warehouse-y parts of Queens and see a dead section of New York City that’s long since been abandoned to the Halal markets, Roti shops, storefront tabernacles and hair-weaving salons that comprise the majority of the city’s outer boroughs – only ours, for some reason, look more decrepit than anything in Brooklyn or the Bronx. Brooklyn has both past and future. People in Williamsburg tell me the hipster influx has “calmed,” and its old-school Italian roots are evident again. To me, it looks like a nice place to live with some cool bars and restaurants. Plus, it’s Brooklyn. To the north, living in the Bronx, at least the world is aware you’re in America’s worst neighborhood. There’s a certain nobility to your suffering if you live there. Alas, there’s no such nobility in evidence in Queens, New York’s closest approximation to a fly-over zone. Nobody gets off at Jamaica to experience the nightlife on Sutphin Boulevard.

To be continued tomorrow.