“I installed a skylight in my apartment…
the people who live above me are very furious!” Steven Wright
With my few belonging I packed up and headed to Queens, NY. I left my sheltered, suburban life behind. In one trip, all that I knew was a thing of the past and what lay ahead I hadn’t a clue.
Jack and Jane were common law spouses. They had lived together for over twenty years. They resided in a rent controlled, pre-war apartment building in Forest Hills, Queens, NY. Forest Hills was considered a ritzy borough. To me, it was a city: dirty, crowded, and concrete. They did live in a really nice building. The lobby was grand, with black and white marble floors, brass accents, spacious, like a page out of a featured art deco design in an Architectural Digest magazine.
Their apartment was comfortable and loaded with character. Beautiful built-ins and shelving, crown molding everywhere, hard wood floors throughout, a modest dining room with French doors, a large landing that stepped down into a generous living room. The kitchen was galley style but it had a nice window. A long hallway led to two very spacious bedrooms with windows that let in a lot of natural light. And of course one bathroom for three adults to share.
I had my own room with a king size bed, a black and white TV, and a pretty, peach satin fabric chair and ottoman. I moved in the summer of 1996.
The apartment had no air conditioning and New York City summers are hot and humid, sticky and stinky. I slept with my window open as wide as it would open just to let some type of breeze blow through and reach my clammy, perspiring skin. Every now and then a light, feathery gust would whisper through but mostly the sound of JFK airport two miles away, car alarms, and neighbors arguing and shouting their home life dysfunction was the only breeze I felt.
The building was a block away from the subway so I could walk and then ride to my city job at a large publishing house. Groceries could be delivered or a quick walk across a four lane highway could fetch one the necessities of nourishment.
Forest Hills had a street lined shopping district which was fun to browse. The original US Open tennis stadium was around the corner, and a slice of suburbia was tucked away, filled with glorious and gorgeous historic Tudors and mini-mansions. I loved walking those streets. I would catch families coming out of their homes, getting in their cars for a weekend excursion. I wondered, “Did their mom just finish making them blueberry pancakes?”
Yes, I very much missed my family but this was a new chapter in my life. I was an adult, still not fully independent, but those days of Saturday morning pancakes made by mom with Bisquick and blueberries, would have to be saved in a box and pulled out years later like a recipe passed down from generation to generation.
Life with Jack and Jane was good. They rescued me and I am eternally grateful. If I could ever repay the favor, not sure how, but maybe someday I would if I could. I was still in survival mode though so such a thought was brief.
Jack was my mom’s oldest brother. He was about six feet plus and inch or two, looked like Santa Claus with his big belly on his 300 pound frame. He sounded, and picture this because this is truly how he sounded, his voice sounded like Frosty the Snowman. Like when Frosty comes to life and says “Happy Birthday” that was my Uncle Jack’s voice.
Jack was always cheery, happy, easy going, thoughtful, kind, and generous. He always liked to try to make you laugh or put a smile on your face even if he paid a self-deprecation expense. He reminded me so much of my grandmother, his mother, except with a mustache and shorter hair. Even their hands were the same. I think they even smelled the same. Like moth balls, cologne, and soot with a hint of body odor.
Yes Jack always seemed happy. A fifty something Vietnam veteran hippie with a green thumb. He grew these funny looking plants in his living room window. They had these little brownish, black seeds I used to find all over the apartment. I’m not sure what type of plant it was but it sure made him happy – and hungry!
Every night he’d hunker down in his room after a long day of cleaning the subways. Some funky smell emanated from under the crack of the door. I knew he had a six pack of beer that he finished every night so I gather he had a touch of the Irish in his bones. But then he’d get the munchies and finish off a gallon of milk and an entire Entenmann’s yellow cake with fudge icing.
I learned not to mess with his cake. One day I couldn’t resist and figured he wouldn’t mind if I had a slice or two. I probably should have asked before I ate but we were family. Never again! That was the first time I saw Uncle Jack cranky, anger, and quite frankly bitter. Never again would I touch his chocolate cake.
Life with Jack and Jane was so easy going. We were three peas in a pod. They said I was like a ray of sunshine to them which was nice to hear. We would talk and talk and talk about anything and everything. One time Uncle Jack even broke out some old photos of his days in Nam. After two tours of duty, he told me he’d go back there in a heartbeat. He told me part of him never left and there was the happiest days of his life.
I asked him, “So you really enjoyed being a cook?” He said, “Cook?! No darlin’ I was on the frontline.” And then he proceeded to tell me how he was crossing this field in Vietnam, by himself and out from the woods or jungle comes another American soldier, his cousin Noelle whom he grew up with in Bel Harbor, NY. Neither one had any idea the other was in Nam. They stood there, just the two of them in the field, talking, reminiscing, very surreal, a moment of extreme euphoria and then headed back towards their assigned platoons.
I said, “Hmm, I always thought you were a cook.”
He said, “Nah, that’s just what I told my motha so she wouldn’t worry.”
Yes, life with Jack and Jane would teach me a lot.
Following is the link to the prelude if interested in starting from the beginning: