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New York, New York

The Boulevard of Broken Bones

Even through the prism of life in the tumultuous Middle East, the U.S. in an election year looks divided, fractious, frustrating. But there’s still a ray of hope—in Queens.

Jorge Perianes, Untitled. Courtesy the artist and Pan American Art Projects.

I live in Beirut but don’t want to forever. I’ve gotten older, less patient, more judgmental about people I think are being judgmental. I was once a big drinker and I thought I was a big editor, but now I guess I’m slowing down. I once walked for five months, all the way from New York to Florida and points beyond, but now I’m a little more rooted, a father, and I dream of bringing my girls home someday. But where on earth—or in America—could that be?

Lebanon, where I currently live, just banned smoking in bars and restaurants. You’ll understand, of course, that people here treat smoking as an extension of their oxygen intake: People light up while jogging. It’s not impossible to see a pregnant woman puff, and it seems like there’s an ashtray in every crapper. So it’s true the ban seemed a little hopeful, like many of the good things here, such as peace among the various factions, the notion your neighbor would not cut down that beautiful tree for a parking space, an absence of war between the various neighboring countries. Acting quickly, the people of Twitter responded: If the ban succeeds, and no one smokes, they joked, Lebanon should consider banning kidnappings and explosives and perhaps assault rifles.

I watched the commentary scroll by, from analysts and various journalists, and a few ribald Lebanese. It’s fun to joke about such things, I thought, but it’s not like there aren’t similar problems back in America.

I thought of America and Lebanon and recalled a recent scene at a Heathrow waiting room, packed with passengers. London seemed surprisingly lovely, with airport employees proud of their Olympics lanyards, and yet all of us in that room were heading back to Beirut.

Going back was always a bit exhilarating, at least to me. Would the airport road be open? Tires on fire? Next to my wife and me sat a well-dressed Lebanese man. Everyone seemed to be dressed in their finest, carrying shopping bags, grabbing a little more before it was too late. In any case, the man overheard my question about why our flight attendants had Air Canada IDs. The flight, he explained using halting English, was a codeshare between Canada and Lebanon’s own Middle East Airlines, which still can’t fly into North American airspace.

This last point he made ruefully, eyes downcast. I admired the big watch on his arm and a nice smell of peppery cologne. He looked in my eyes. I surmised he was annoyed, embarrassed, or maybe even a little ashamed that people in his country still caused trouble, that they killed each other and bombed and kidnapped because of ideology, that they were judged by my country as a threat to blow up airplanes, or at least enough of a threat that no direct flights existed between Beirut and anywhere in America.

In America, we certainly fight with each other, sometimes with guns or worse, and we obviously have had our own divisions along ideological lines.

So there we sat, two men wondering if Lebanon would ever get its act together. Then he spoke in beautiful French to a young woman, who I realized was his daughter, and then I looked at my own daughter, her blond curls and American passport, and I regretted the nature of this man’s ability to determine self-worth, the way he clicked his tongue thinking about his own people.

On the plane, still thinking about the man, I began to contemplate the various ways I could determine my own self-worth. In America, we certainly fight with each other, sometimes with guns or worse, and we obviously have had our own divisions along ideological lines. From my vantage point—admittedly, an unusual one—it seemed there wasn’t much to emulate at home, especially after a presidential candidate addressed a crowd in Michigan, telling them no one ever asked for my birth certificate. He was white and normal and unimpeachably American, whatever that meant. The other candidate, meanwhile, was by implication otherwise. He was black and strange and perhaps not American, whatever that meant. The differences seemed important enough to point out, enough to rally around, and enough—perhaps for someone, someday—to commit some violence over.

Yet it was probably a stretch to suggest anywhere in America was actually as divided as Lebanon. Did anyone in Michigan do anything like burning down a KFC? Nope, that was in Tripoli last week—at the same time that U.S. embassies around the region were set on fire. So it seemed worthwhile to reconsider my recent visit to America, to remember why I held it so dear.

The last week of August found us in New York City, in Queens, where we stayed in an apartment with old friends who’d moved to a neighborhood called Woodside. Where? It was just a few stops from Midtown Manhattan, and across the street from their apartment was a sprawling playground.

In general, I’d associated the area with Queens Boulevard, known variously as the Boulevard of Death or the Boulevard of Broken Bones, so I had an eagle eye out for anything perilous. First I noticed a Chinese kid in pajamas, who toddled around with a plastic bag over his head. That seemed pretty dangerous. Then there were Irish women smoking cigarettes, encouraging their red-headed girls to play in the fountain. That seemed nice enough. There were also what I think were maybe Ecuadorian grannies, painting each other’s fingers with brown dye. No problem there; Queens was so diverse they didn’t even seem to be South Asian, which I typically associated with hand-painting. Then I saw the Bangla boys waiting in line for the courts, watching patiently as a statuesque Croatian couple beat the hell out of a tennis ball.

Tennis began to seem like a great idea. There was a time, in my youth, when I associated the sport with rich people. It seemed like a fussy way to spend time, requiring expensive racquets, and annoying shoes that sold out before I could have a pair, and women in short skirts, and a country club etiquette I didn’t understand. I mean: tennis bracelets?

Queens is a place where the actual faces of an increasingly less-white America of the future can laugh and smoke, and what about tennis?

But I’d also once been intimidated by New York, too, thinking it was this ultra-competitive shark pit. I’d worked hard to make the right moves, to climb the masthead, to get the mortgage, thinking any of it would add up. Why hadn’t anyone told me about Queens? I probably wouldn’t have listened.

Queens, I was learning, is a place where families from all round the world can share a public place, where they can teach their children how to be nice to each other, where the real ideals of America are being tested, where the actual faces of an increasingly less-white America of the future can laugh and smoke, and what about tennis?

I am getting old. The friend who lives in Queens is, too. We aren’t the slim winners we had once been. Grizzled freelancers at peace with a non-Manhattan world, we spent some of the visit encouraging each other to get fit. How many pushups can you do? That’s pretty good. Why don’t we play tennis?

So I held a racquet, and began bashing the hell out of a ball in Queens, paying nothing for the privilege, because this was a public park where all people were welcome. Nothing like this existed in Lebanon. And a generously sized studio with a balcony—with a balcony! —in my friend’s building is barely $100,000. The 7 train stops two blocks away. Some of the best cuisine of all the world’s peoples can be had within minutes. The sun shines and the fountain sprinkles and no one is excluded, and the scariest thing I saw—after the bag on that boy’s head—was when some Tibetan skate kids scrawled “Free Tibet” in chalk on the edge of an oval running track.

I once thought the most important thing in the world was to be a senior editor, to own the apartment in Manhattan, to win, to get mine. But I left, and I moved to a part of the world where people smoke and fight, and there are few if any parks, and anyone with any sense is ashamed of it all. My friend’s balcony in Queens really was a great place to sip champagne before a flight back to Beirut.