After my Father wrecked or sold ever car he owned. He began using his Mother Veronica’s decade old, beat up car to get from A to B and not much further. The trunk was so dirty that your hands would instantly turn black once you unlocked it. The seats were torn and tattered and the floorboards were often covered with debris and weeks worth of empty fast food containers. Regardless, we were able to fit my Father’s 6’4 frame, our dog, myself and up to eight kids piled up in the backseat. The Hawkins brothers Keith, Petey and M.J., Glen, Tommy and whoever else would risk the trip on that day. (Aside from those named. The cast would always change depending on the day and who was willing to brave the back seat.
Once there, we would often disperse into two separate tribes or war parties as my Dad would set up camp and build a fire to roast hot dogs, marsh mellows or whatever supplies we manged to gather before our voyage. In the few hours we’d stay we’d play war, burn tires and grab whatever we could from the abandoned cars and the nearby railroad tracks. In truth, there was no Tarzan or nearby water to be found. For the life of me, I may never learn how or why it came to be called “Tarzan Island.” But as I would come to learn at the time and many years later. It was what everybody called it. Year later, I’m talking decades. I returned to Sunnyside Queens to seek out the area. The train yard itself was still there, but it had been closed off and closely patrolled. Whoever said, “You can’t go back.” was probably speaking from countless heartbreaking attempts.
As I’ve returned to many of my original stomping grounds, I find that most things are best left to memory and the mystique many things and places held when we were young impressionable and somewhat fearless. Things definitely felt a lot bigger back then. Something that helped us grow up and mature. And while there’s no diminishing the risks we took and the element of danger we were always drawn to. I feel very lucky to have taken chances and not letting those fears get the best of me. In the end, I’m happy to be able to recall so many adventures from younger years. Like my wife always says. “Maybe one day you’ll write that book.”
I have a long history of bad dreams regarding my childhood, the places I’d been, the characters in my life and some of the crazy things I had seen and experienced. Thankfully, I reached a place in my life (a good one.) that’s given me a sense of closure that’s allowed me to look back upon those times with a sense of humor. While writing about many of those experiences has helped immensely when it came to that closure. It’s given me something I never could have expected. That being able to sharpen my memory and bring a greater sense of detail to my writing. Time and perhaps forgiveness has given me the strength and to a great extent, a chance to look back, laugh and share some of these stories with a sense of detachment that allows me to write as if I was penning fiction. Instead of waking in the middle of the night due to a nightmare. I wake refreshed with a fluent memories of an experience I haven’t thought of in decades.
One involving my Mother leaving me in the care of a very nice woman who managed or possibly owned a dry cleaners, While I can only recall being left there once. She was a very nice lady whose storefront was highlighted by a supersized fish tank that housed some rather colorful coy. I mean, I can’t think of a better place to leave your kids. “In before 9:00. Ready by 5:00.” had to have its origins.
The other, and perhaps the head scratcher of the two, came when left in the care of my father. Considering my parents worked shifts that almost insured they’d rarely see one another. (My Mother worked the regular 9-5 as a secretary in Manhattan. While my Dad’s city job as a bus driver had him on a 3-11 schedule. As far back as I could remember, my Dad was doing a lot of side jobs making money here and there doing work for bookies and loan sharks. While there were countless times when I could tag along to the bar (Cheese burger & fries, a plate of calamari and a couple of cokes. Armed with a handful of quarters for the jukebox. The hours would just slip away.) Or the local O.T.B. (Off Track Betting for those not old enough to remember.) Where I could sit and watch the races on closed circuit tv or run to the corner hot dog guy for a mustard, sauerkraut and onions Sabrett.
Through the years though, there were a number of occasions where my Dad couldn’t take me along with him on his rounds and had to get creative. The local gas station on the corner of 83rd st. and Astoria Blvd. just happened to be one. Though there were three filling stations within a two block radius of my Pop’s house. My Dad must have known the owner of this particular one. During the hours and occasions I was left in his care. I don’t recall any strange goings on. There was the office (or reception area) with a gumball machine. I spent time watching the mechanics work on cars. I can recall thinking how cool the collection of tools looked on the peg board. Those roller carts that allowed them to magically disappear under the cars and oh, those awesome car lifters that would raise the cars off the ground magically. The people there always looked after me, kept me entertained and safe from the constant traffic that flowed from La Guardia Airport into Astoria Blvd.
From a very young age, I had come to love visiting junk yards whether it be for a spare car or motorcycle part. Or to tag along with my Dad when he went to collect money for the bookies or sharks, By four or five, I had come to love the smell of gasoline.
Years later though, after hijacking my Aunts copy of The Daily News. I was somewhat surprised to see that the same gentleman my Father trusted to care for me was being arraigned on charges of extortion, arson and kidnapping. It was just one of many instances when someone I knew and trusted showed up in the local news paper or led off the days TV News report. It was just a part of growing up. People doing what they felt they needed to do to get from point A to point B taught me a lot about life and the many grey areas that you find along the road.
We headed out to Queens this afternoon to do some exploring in Long Island City and Astoria. Our first stop was 5 Pointz where we checked in to see what new pieces had gone up and which ones had survived since our last visit. The more often I go the more I find myself talking to both the visitors and artists. Talking about art, paint and the spots I might have missed or perhaps would like to share. Today I met up with Slone (That’s him posing in front of his latest piece) and talked a bit. We exchanged info and if things go as planned I’ll be tagging along one day to shoot a piece in the making.
I had a little time on my hands yesterday and was looking for a little adventure. So I jumped on the train and headed from Chinatown to Long Island City to check out what was new over at Five Pointz. I’ve blogged about the place before and it’s stunning graffiti. One of the great things about the block is that the block is forever changing and evolving with new pieces and murals going up all the time. When I was growing up in nearby Jackson Heights I was exposed to the culture at an early age. There were plenty of graffiti crews and individuals with a wide array or styles and talents. Most of them were looked at as vandals and criminals and a lot of it was in all honesty crap. Yet so many had real talent and originality. Often taking it to the next level as artists and graphic designers. I always wished I was a better artist. Don’t get me wrong. Photography has made me very happy. But to be able to create something like that using pure imagination and talent is amazing. If you get the chance to go there I highly recommend it. Take the E train to 23 Ely and walk two blocks south. That’ll get you an eye full. Oh and stay the hell away from that general store by the train. 1.40 for a can of soda should be punishable by death.
Today I packed up my camera and head to Astoria, Queens to meet up with my old friend Tony Crisos. I met Tony a few years ago when we worked as photographers for a company called Freeze Frame. (More on Freeze Frame in my next blog.) Tony was always an absolute pleasure to work with and be around. He might have only been a few inches taller than me but his personality made him seem like a giant. Tony’s thick Greek accent made him tough to understand but that only seem to make us all listen a little closer I can recall the countless times I would bust out my “Tony the Greek” impersonation. Something I am still working on. At one point we had all departed from Freeze Frame but had formed a strong bond and always talked about getting together for work or just to hang out. After a few months of playing phone tag and planning we finally got together today.
Tony was nice enough to pick me up from the train station. A few seconds after jumping into the car Tony joyfully commented that it was just as if no time had passed and we were just picking up where we left off. He was right. The couple of years that had passed felt more like a matter of days. The only difference was the thick beard and mustache made him look like he had recently joined the witness protection agency. We stopped for breakfast at the Grand Cafe on 30th avenue before embarking on a tour of the neighborhood. Tony is an accomplished Jazz guitarist but if he ever decides to give up on music he has a bright future as a tour guide.
Astoria holds a lot of memories for me and will always hold a special place in my heart. As a kid growing up just a bit north in Jackson Heights we would often venture into Astoria
towards our final destination Astoria Pool. It was always a long trip. We never had any money (Maybe just enough for a soda and a slice on the way home.) so we couldn’t afford to train it. Walking and perhaps stealing a ride on the back of the bus was our only option. I remember we’d often opt for hopping the pools fence rather than pay the thirty five cent admission fee. For a kid between the age of seven to ten it was an adventure.our final destination Astoria Pool. It was always a long trip. We never had any money (Maybe just enough for a soda and a slice on the way home.) so we couldn’t afford to train it. Walking and perhaps stealing a ride on the back of the bus was our only option. I remember we’d often opt for hopping the pools fence rather than pay the thirty five cent admission fee. For a kid between the age of seven to ten it was an adventure.
After lunch at the Grand cafe he gave me a tour of the neighborhood. Everything from the side streets, little nooks and corners. To Socrates Sculpture Park and of course Astoria Park. I had a great time and enjoyed Tony’s easy going nature. There’s something very special about Astoria and the people who live there. You can’t help but want to be a part of it.