On the platform there’s an ad for the mysterious and long-running “Bodies” exhibition. The MTA now offers a promotional tie-in. A man’s skinless form, sliced neatly in half with his organs dissembled like puzzle pieces, advertises the special deal, a single ticket entitling you to a round-trip and a viewing of desiccated human remains preserved with a special gel that keeps them “lifelike.”
Inside the train, there is a disconcerting ad for K-Y Jelly, purporting it to be a body-massage lotion. I’m no prude, but I don’t need to see “personal lubricant” hawked above the heads of the commuting bankers and extreme-shopping day-trippers who populate this particular railroad line. The advertising tells us that with the right gels, all things are possible.
We sit for a while before the doors close. The suburbia where I grew up is at the end of line. One spidery leg of the Long Island Rail Road terminates there, spitting its riders onto a peninsula that stretches toward Connecticut, as if longing to be reunited with the other suburbanites across Long Island Sound. Anthropologists of the future will spin hazy genealogies of the greater metropolitan area when they find similar-but-different artifacts on either side of the water after it rises due to global warming.
“We think these people over here came southwest across some kind of land bridge from the North,” they’ll say, “bringing with them a lust for money, but perhaps cast out because their furniture was tackier, their bar mitzvahs too ostentatious. We think they had some relationship to the people of New Jersey, but there’s just so much we don’t know. The flood wiped out almost everything.”
It’s Passover, a holiday of mass exodus, and I celebrate a tiny one: my exodus from the suburbs. At 11:11 on the dot, the train pulls out, westbound for New York.
Plandome is an in-between place, a border town among upscale suburbs. There are some really big stone houses here, some really rich kids. Some went to private school, some went to our high school, some went to the next one over. Once the Nassau County police found a body in the reservoir, by the chain-link fence. Everyone says a famous mobster’s son lives in the big new modern house across the street, but no connection has ever been suggested. The train sometimes skips this stop.
Manhasset, as far as I could tell, is just like Port Washington and Great Neck but with fewer Jews. Instead they have the big Catholic school on Northern Boulevard, the girls spilling out in the tiny plaid skirts, the white knee socks. It’s amazing those uniforms are still those uniforms. Now that they have such pornographic associations, why don’t the Catholic girls get some coveralls? Or is that the point: to remain holy and pure while dressed as a Catholic schoolgirl, to be dressed as a Catholic schoolgirl because you actually are a Catholic schoolgirl. Is that the secret to the accumulating millennia of Christianity? Pressing on even if all the accoutrements of your faith have been profaned, doling out the white knee socks and plaid miniskirts to the teenaged girls and pretending they are the vestments of virginity while the priests in their robes and sashes are considered chaste? These are the tandem mysteries of Catholicism and Manhasset, both so nearby, and yet so exotic.
In between Manhasset and Great Neck, there is a bay—the bay across which Jay Gatsby gazed longingly at Daisy Buchanan, I’m always quick to point out.
When I think of Great Neck I think of doctors. Their glassy office buildings nuzzle right up to the train tracks, housing plastic surgeons, ENTs, orthopedists, dermatologists, oncologists of every stripe. Vanity and cancer are big business in Long Island. A few years ago I saw an enormous banner on one of these buildings advertising “BOTOX IS HERE.”
Great Neck is the kind of town where an enormous banner proclaiming “BOTOX IS HERE” is not considered to be in poor taste.
The uniform cops milling around are, I believe I’m using the term correctly, playing grab-ass.
Technically, we are in Queens. Obligingly, the houses are suddenly smaller, the lawns more modest, the patio furniture more flimsy. Still trees, still sky, but more kitsch. Less Williams-Sonoma, more Target. We measure our differences in big-box retailers.
A shopping street, some new-ish semi-detached houses of a truly atrocious form of architecture you really only see in Queens. Semi-detached houses so ugly they seem deliberately uglified. Just as there are those golden rectangles and other mathematical mysticisms of ancient architecture, so too must there be inverses to these discoveries. It’s something about the geometry of the doors and windows, the scale of the white metal trim.
Beyond them, a marsh, some distant high-rises, the towers of the Whitestone Bridge. I dimly recall you could save birds on Saturdays at this marsh. Have the birds been saved? From whom or from what?
Up above the station, a giant parking lot sprouts lights to prevent late-night rapes. Lots of Asian people get on the train, bustling, speaking their vertical languages.
On the small back terrace of an apartment building, a man sits half-crouched, half-slumped on a white plastic chair. He looks like he is making an important decision or absorbing some upsetting news. I watch him for four or five seconds and then he is gone.
This is the branch of the Queens Borough Public Library where my brother, very young, looked up an obese librarian’s skirt. He pushed a Matchbox car underneath and was caught, peering up. My mother, trying to admonish him, choked back laughter. “I understand you were curious,” she said, “but if you crawl under other people’s skirts they’re going to get upset.”
Smaller brick houses, blocks of garden apartments, drying racks shaped like UFOs. The train station is in the midst of some enormous complex of garden apartments spreading neatly in every direction. Backyard wading pools, boxes of wilted plants, dead and gray. Graffiti and forsythia.
“Rear four cars only platform at Murray Hill.” I’ll never get on or off here, but I know that only the rear four cars will platform at Murray Hill. The loudspeaker has imparted this useless wisdom to me a thousand times.
Flushing Main Street
Thoroughfare of my childhood, before the eastward expansion, before my parents found the split-level on the dead-end street at the end of the line: Flushing Main Street. And Corona Park, and Utopia Parkway. Here I played in the shadow of Robert Moses’s master building, his highways, his parks, his stadium, his fairgrounds. His hand was everywhere. I grew to dislike his vision.
Flushing Main Street now is now new high-rise condos, old high-rise housing projects, garish signage, crowded streets.
“Is it nothing to you, all you who pass by?” laments the Korean Presbyterian Church. The quotation is from Lamentations.As we approach a pond near Shea Stadium, kaleidoscopic with pollution, I see a gathering of cars, a semicircle of people. The cars are cop cars, but not normal ones—big trucks in strange shapes. The people are standing idly next to a sheet spread out on the ground, on which the better part of a human skeleton is arrayed. It’s not in the shape of a person, but rather lined up in rows. Femurs, tibias, fibulas, then the smaller stuff. A skull has pride of place, front and center. I focus on it as the train goes by, and for a moment I see things from its perspective, feel the speed of the passing train as an impact on my skinless skull face, a punch in my nonexistent nose.
Has a body recently been found in the filthy pond? Do hoboes die quietly in the cattails and rot, forgotten? I can’t get the cops’ faces out of my mind. They looked positively cheerful, like “What a great day!” Like, “We’ve almost got a whole human skeleton right here on the Port Washington Line!” A woman who appears to be in charge of the operation is holding a clipboard, wearing thick rubber gloves, blithely checking things off. The uniform cops milling around are, I believe I’m using the term correctly, playing grab-ass. Job satisfaction looks high. The skeleton is the life of the party.
A hub of trains, orange-vested workers everywhere. I respect these workers, they get things done, they take us from here to there. Not like the contempt I feel for the soft suits, their pink, shaven faces, their curdling flab or gym-toned muscle. The working guys are solid. Whether thick or thin, their muscles are necessary, their extra weight earned.
I feel more empathy for the suits when they drink beers in paper bags at the end of the day. Sometimes I see one of them looking at his beer with such open appreciation and friendship that I forgive him for whatever stupid thing he does all day at his desk to further this great machine of bullshit, feed his family, keep his affairs in order.
The business transacted on the commercial strip of Woodside is far less esoteric. We pass the Language Center, the Internet Cafe—it could be any number of South American towns beset by Americans, but instead it’s an American neighborhood beset by South Americans. People come here from Latin America, try to learn English while kids from the suburbs go south, try to learn Spanish; but these kids will never talk to one another. Sometimes it seems that everyone is just exchanging neighborhoods, languages, lovers, the world just one big game of musical chairs.
In the backyards of Queens, magnolia trees are blooming, like the one in my grandmother’s front yard. “Look at my magnolia!” she would exult. “My magnolia!” Later in the spring there were “my lilacs.” There was also a tree that bloomed pink, but I don’t remember my grandmother ever using the possessive about it. I felt bad for the pink tree, the tree she didn’t claim.
“Is it nothing to you, all you who pass by?” laments the Korean Presbyterian Church. The quotation is from Lamentations. All of this is spelled out in big metal letters on the huge gray building right before the tunnel. I dread its appearance but look forward to it, too, this admonition from the stern facade of the Korean Presbyterian Church. Soon after, the Armenian Cultural Center. I imagine illicit romances between Korean and Armenian kids, sneaking out the back of their respective cultural institutions, shedding their layers of traditional dress, meeting on some neutral territory, eating pizza.
And now New York comes into view, the Citicorp building closest and largest, the rest of the buildings muted in the faintest of hazes. In the foreground electric rails and towers related to the trains echo the spires and points of the city.
The flapping orange plastic that cloaks buildings under construction marks the water’s edge. All along the boroughs, new towers are going up.
With a suck and a whoosh we go underground, ears popping, cell phones cutting out, into the darkness of this stone canal that will birth us Manhattanites, emerging into the skyline we’ve just ogled, scuttling through the tunnels to the stage.