Monday, November 20, 2017

The Old Apartment In College Point

College Point is a neighborhood in the Borough of Queens, part of the City of New York. Most New Yorkers don’t even know about it, nor would they have any reason to. It’s tucked over in its own little blind-spot, between La Guardia Airport and the Whitestone Bridge, on a point of land that juts out into the East River. College Point is the home of my youth; there are really no other candidates for the honor. Both of my parents were raised in College Point, more or less. Both of their families moved to town when they were young, somewhere around the ages of seven or eight. It’s not a particularly nice place, but it has always been very interesting.

My parents got married in the St. Fidelis Church in College Point in 1942. My father was already working at what turned out to be his only job after college. He worked for that company until he retired at age sixty-seven. He was 4F due to a major dose of childhood arthritis that left him almost handicapped. They moved around a bit during and after the war for his job, and when I was born they were living in Rosedale, also in the Borough of Queens, adjacent to what was then called Idlewild Airport (now JFK).

We moved back to College Point in the spring or summer of 1949, around my first birthday. The apartment was in a two family house on (redacted) Street, just south of 12th Avenue. We had the upstairs apartment. The landlords lived downstairs. They were the parents of a childhood girlfriend of my mom’s. The building was on the old side, but not as old as many in the town. The layout of the rooms and the fittings of the house were old fashioned. It was heated by the burning of coal in a boiler in the basement, the heat rising as steam and warming the house through radiators. There were three bedrooms, a kitchen, a dining room, and a living room, plus a small room at the front that had windows on three sides and a large archway to the living room on the other side. Would that be a porch? Maybe a day-room? I don’t know what you’d call it today. It was treated as an extension of the living room. The kitchen had no cabinets at all. The large sink was attached to the wall and fringed with a curtain-like arrangement that reached the floor. All storage was in a doorless walk-in pantry.

We lived there until the summer of my tenth birthday, 1958, when we moved to a single-family house around the corner. I lived in that house until I got married in 1969, at which time my new wife and I moved into the upstairs apartment of a two-family house on (redacted) Street in College Point that was similar in some ways to the old apartment, “day-room” and all.

At that point I became nostalgic for that old apartment. It had only been eleven or twelve years since I had lived there, but childhood memory is a tricky thing. There were things that I could not remember, and things that I could not believe were true. And a lot had changed in that time; there had been a lot of building going on. I don’t know where I got the gall, but I decided to go back to that old house and just ring the bell, just like that, and ask to look around. I have a pleasant smile, and I am very personable and polite, but to be on the safe side I took my wife with me. The theory was that beautiful women open all doors, and this was no exception.

We just showed up on the doorstep one day and rang the bell. A cheerful young housewife opened the door. She was probably in her late twenties at the oldest, but my wife and I were so young that she seemed older. I explained that I had spent much of my childhood in that apartment, and announced my wish to take a look at it with fresh eyes, if that was alright with her. She was amenable and led us up the stairs without a second thought.

My first impression was that the place was much, much smaller than I remembered. It was all very nice, and it was furnished in much the same manner as it had been furnished by my parents, but the rooms all seemed so tiny. There didn’t appear to be any space that was not actually occupied by furniture. The building, it turned out, had a smaller footprint than the one that we currently occupied, and our new apartment had only two bedrooms, not three, all of which necessarily made the old apartment’s rooms smaller. In truth, it looked much nicer than it had in my time. The kitchen had been remodeled, so it all had a modern look to it. There was no longer a tiny, ancient refrigerator, no more sink better suited to a basement than a kitchen. Rather nicer furniture, too, except that my parents did have a nice maple dining room set from Ethan Allen. The view into and past the back yard was full of new houses, but I had watched them being built, so it was no surprise. The old tree was back there, and the driveway had been paved in the meantime. The boiler was now a new model burning oil, so the whole premises smelled better and cleaner, and actually was a lot cleaner, without all of the coal dust.

I was sure not to overstay our welcome, and I thanked the young woman effusively. She seemed to have gotten a kick out of the whole thing, and if I recall she did have the right to be proud of the home that she presented to strangers. It was immaculate, as though she had been expecting company. I have no idea what her name was, and I’m not sure that I ever did.

The things of our childhood all seem smaller than they were, if you think about it. It’s like the snow. There was a time when I seriously wondered why there was not as much snow as there had been long before. Then I realized, not quickly though, that of course it seems like more snow if you are a six-year-old with short little legs. Walking through a similar snowfall at a height of five feet, nine inches, it doesn’t seem like much snow at all. It was the same with the apartment. I ran through those rooms between the ages of one and ten, and they had seemed big to me at the time. Seeing the apartment again made me feel that a lot of time had gone by, and that a great deal had changed, but that was only the beginning.

By now I have the changes of a lifetime to look back on, and it’s been a lifetime of experiences covering many decades and spanning three continents. It’s all amazing, really, recalling the people, the events, the languages, and the vast catalog of things. I think that at some point I believed in the importance of some of it, but now I'm not so sure. Life for most people never really comes into focus, but some things do become clearer. It’s like Anne Frank said, “how sad it is that everything that we have learned, and done, all comes to nothing in the end.”  

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