Often we would drive to my uncle’s house in Queens. Queens was in The City of New York. Queens was a Borough. There were Five Boroughs. Our father was from Queens, and our mother was from The Bronx. The Bronx was upstate near Canada. The Bronx was always referred to as The Bronx and not just Bronx. Why this was so was a mystery to us little kids in the back seat. We watched for the sign on the highway that said Welcome to The City of New York Robert F. Wagner Jr. Mayor, and once we were past it we were different. Even the starlings and pigeons along the highway were different. When we turned off the highway we stared hungrily from the windows of the car. There was graffiti and there were iron bars over the subterranean and first-floor windows of houses. There were chain-mail grilles and rattling metal doors pulled down over storefronts. There were old men smoking cigars in lawn chairs and young men with cans of beer. There were a great number of Oldsmobiles and Imperials. If we drove slowly enough past Springfield Park, we could count languages and smell roasting meats and hope to see someone hit a home run. Our great dream was to catch a home run from the window of the car and then beg dad to drive away hurriedly so that the outfielder would think there had been a miracle.
The streets were lined with sycamore trees. Lawns were tiny, and every house had a fence. Time was slower in Queens. However late we had been while leaving our house, we were never late when we got to our uncle’s house. He was always sitting in the small dark comfortable living room listening to the radio. The voice on the radio was always a man murmuring in a low voice about Frank Sinatra or Louis Prima or Vic Damone. Our uncle would rise and greet our dad his brother and they would shake hands courteously and our uncle would bow to our mom because he was a Gentleman. He would lift an eyebrow to us, which was his way of saying hello. He never met a word he couldn’t deftly avoid, our dad said once. Our aunt his wife was Italian. She in the kitchen with her mother who spoke no American. We said hello and clattered down to the basement where the food was. In Queens you could eat all day long and never grow weary of eating. In Queens there was cannelloni and ziti and lasagna and parmigiana and ravioli and cannoli and anise cookies in the colors of the Italian flag. There was garlic bread with so much garlic that people could smell you in Ohio. The bread was hard outside and soft inside, and once when I asked our aunt if she made her own bread, she said, Why in heaven’s name would I do that when there are five great bakeries within a mile?
She smiled a lot and talked so fast we were not very sure of what she said. Our uncle smiled a lot and hardly spoke at all. The adults would all move to the tiny back yard spangled with sunlight falling down through the sycamore trees. They would sit in lawn chairs arranged in a circle. They would balance paper plates on their laps. In Queens everyone ate from paper plates. You could hear the Mets game from the radios from neighbors on either side. Sometimes both radios would have the Mets game. No radio played the Yankee game. You could not be for the Yankees in Queens because that would be treason, like Benedict Arnold betraying his friends. Judas betrayed his friends. Judas would have played for the Yankees if he could have hit the curve, my uncle said once. Even our dad laughed at that, and our dad was not much for the baseball, as he said. People who are not into sports use the word the before the name of the sport.
We would leave at dusk and drive slowly back through Queens to the highway. If there was a sign that said You Are Now Leaving The City of New York, or The Borough of Queens, I do not remember it. Usually our youngest brother would fall asleep and lean on us. Normally we would elbow him sharply awake because leaning is against the rules but he was the youngest and gentlest and we were tired and full of cannelloni and soon we were home and we would not be in Queens again for a while, although you could faintly smell garlic and butter for days afterward. Even now, all these years later, when I smell garlic and butter, I think for an instant that I am in Queens.
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