The Visit to Astoria, Queens, NYC

Last weekend took us to Astoria, Queens, in New York City. We were transported from the quiet and somewhat pastoral suburbs of Maryland to the concrete noisy jungle of the big city within a matter of hours. There is no blog this week about the canal and the river, and of the flowers and the animals of the wild, because of this trip. Instead, during the events of this weekend, the mind was transported to a state of alertness and hyper-sensitivity of a different kind, a period of time during which the neurons in the brain seemed to be firing every single minute of the weekend, whether it be day or night. For a newcomer, NYC can offer you an experience that is dynamic and stimulating – perhaps even over-stimulating. It works well for the young of body and mind. It takes more of a mental adjustment for people like me who are older and who have been away from this kind of a scene for a while. In a way, it was good to be back to spend a short time here, but it did also require an additional effort and expenditure of energy to keep up.

New York city hits you immediately with the richness and fullness of its experience the moment you arrive. That having been said, it is fair to also state that not all of this experience may be looked at in a positive light. After all, this is an old city with a very high population density, and a diversity of people of all economic backgrounds. It is indeed a jungle of concrete and steel that can tend to overwhelm the senses. I actually used to spend a lot of time in the city when I was young, and I used to thrive in the seeming chaos and diversity of Gotham. I am not sure that would be the case for me any more.

The experience of navigating our way into New York City, and that of driving on the highways within the city itself into Astoria, was my first exposure to what was to come. The confusing roadways – including the nature of the road signs, and the sudden appearance of entrance and exit ramps, and the aggressive driving that one has to become a part of – all of it might want some people to close their eyes. One should not be surprised when driving across the George Washington Bridge into Manhattan to find out that one has to drift across two or three lanes of very heavy traffic within a very short distance to get to where one needs to be in order to exit on to another highway. It helped that I have driven these roads in these kinds of conditions before. It all came back rather quickly, even though my mind might not have been very receptive to how it all felt at that point! One has to be hyper-alert!

Once off the highway, the city driving in Astoria itself turned out to be somewhat easier, although one still had to adjust ones senses to the rules of driving in the city – including the fast changing and frequent traffic lights, the one-way streets, the fact that right turns are only allowed in NYC when your light is green, the existence of pedestrian crossings at every intersection, the behavior of pedestrians in the city, and the general sense of chaos. Drivers start honking at vehicles in front of them almost immediately when a light changes to green regardless of how how far behind they are in the queue. And you really do not want to hit somebody or something at a crosswalk in NYC! Additionally, you have to be on your toes looking out for other drivers (or even jaywalkers) making a move or two that was surely not lawful and allowed by the authorities. And then you might even be cursed at by people who simply seem to like the feeling of releasing some some of their built-in stress (a result of living in a state of hyper-alertness) by yelling or gesticulating at other more mild-mannered folks. Sometimes both parties involved in such an interaction on the street are similarly worked up. People may not appreciate the sense of caution of a newcomer, one who is normally a mild-mannered individual, but one who is now going to be transformed into a fire-breathing Godzilla himself!

Rules of the road are broken with great regularity, and the aggression that the mindset of the city can bring out in some people on the street is amazing. There was the one occasion when I was walking across the road on a sidewalk at an intersection (after the “Walk” sign turned on), when a driver of a sporty convertible with its top down made a turn from a side road behind me and accelerated on to the road I was on, passing dangerously close to my backside, while giving me some kind of a nasty look. He revved the engine and raced away even while he was passing me. Why do that?!

It is not possible to survive with a cruise control mindset if you are an outsider driving in NYC – regardless of circumstances. When driving under the elevated N and W lines of the subway system (that runs up to Ditmars Boulevard in Astoria), one has to be even more cautious. There are two lanes of roadway available in each direction, one under the supporting pillars of the elevated line and one beside it. You have to look out for traffic entering (sometimes darting) on to the main lane under the railroad lines from beside the pillars, and you have also to make turns carefully to avoid the metal supports for the elevated line at intersections.

The more commercial streets of Astoria are filled with a diversity of small mom-and-pop establishments. While it might be disconcerting to some who are used to shopping at the big-box stores and supermarkets that dominate the suburban spaces, I actually appreciate their presence. These neighborhoods were in existence well before the big chains even came into being (which also says something about how the nature of the economy has changed in this context over the years). There are the local grocery stores, the fresh fruit and vegetable markets, stores for all things organic if you are so inclined, the bodegas, cafes and coffee shops, the restaurants, beauty shops, home goods stores, flower markets, barbershops, laundromats, etc.., to give a few examples. There seems to be enough business for these establishments to survive – by catering to the needs of the locals. Even the development of the online shopping experience, and the presence of the ubiquitous Amazon delivery vans, does not seem to have affected these places that badly. It makes sense when you think about the density of the population of the city.

These days there also seem to be a large number of food trucks present at street corners. I do not remember these from my youth. The street food in those days used to be served from smaller food carts that were pulled into place by other vehicles. They used to primarily serve food like hotdogs and pretzels – low cost foods that could be consumed in a hurry while standing around the cart. The food trucks of today are much bigger and much more sophisticated. King Souvlaki, at one of its established locations at the corner of 30th Street and 31st Avenue in Astoria,comes highly recommended. I had a craving for one of those old-fashioned souvlakis (something that I cannot include as a part of my regular diet these days!) that I remembered from my youth. Mission accomplished!

You find people from all parts of the world with a wide range of backgrounds on the streets of Astoria. People come from many different social and religious backgrounds. NYC is a true melting pot. You can actually hear different languages spoken on the street. Astoria has a significant Greek immigrant population. You can see the commercial storefronts with Greek names. The landlord for the apartment that we helping Angela to move into was Greek. I think I was even hearing Greek spoken at Madame Sou Sou Cafe and Bakery between the person behind the counter and a customer. You tend to think that people speaking other languages are doing so because they are not comfortable with speaking English. That is not necessarily the case in NYC.

The parking situation in NYC seems to have not changed significantly from what I remember it to have been during my youth. The residential areas are lined with cars, and one might have to drive around in circles for a while hoping for a parking spot to open up before being able to park and get out of your car. You will sometimes be fooled by what looks like an open spot from a distance, but which turns out to the area near a fire hydrant, a location where you cannot park legally. You might even find your parking spot on a different street somewhat far away from your intended destination, and then have to walk. The streets we visited were packed with apartment complexes with the distinctive fire-escapes (still functional!), and with single family homes with very small yards, all packed tightly next to each other. There may be just enough place for the owner of a home to drive a car into the private space in front of the house, to park it behind a gate that can barely be closed shut! We were not fortunate to find street parking close to where we wanted to be when we arrived, and ended up getting a parking ticket from the city for parking in the place I found instead nearer to the a commercial area. (I had, unfortunately, not spent enough time fully understanding the parking sign attached to the street lamp close by.) Fortunately, the amount involved on the ticket was tolerable.

These days, most of the restaurants in Astoria (and probably all of NYC) have a place in front of the establishment where customers can sit in the open and enjoy their meals. This space is created in what formerly must have been a parking area for the restaurant. I suspect that this development is a result of the COVID pandemic. This can actually be a very nice experience if the weather is cooperative, but you might have to put up with some aggressive behavior of drivers on the road beside you in some areas. There are some who tend to rev up their engines and accelerate when they get on a empty roadway just after crossing an intersection. There are vehicles whose silencers seem to be non-existent, or modified to creative impressive sound effects. We did get somewhat used to the sound while having dinner one evening at the Shady Lady. Truth be told, even though I was only driving a fuel efficient hybrid car, I was tempted to play the acceleration game myself the more I got used to the driving tendencies and habits of the city.

I had the opportunity to sit on a bench at the corner of Ditmars Boulevard and 30th Street and observe the pedestrian traffic while others were shopping. This a somewhat busy location because it is a commercial section of town. There were other people also hanging out there by the benches, either by themselves or with friends. I had nothing to do but to simply observe people going by. Folks come in all shapes and sizes. There are families out for the evening; there are young people who are hanging out and chilling; there are people who are conservatively dressed and there are those who are letting it all hang out; there are people who seem to be lost in their thoughts and seem serious and focused – walking with a purpose, there are others that are enjoying the weather and the setting. There are the children and the babies in strollers. There are the people with their electric bikes and mopeds gliding by silently. There are the dogs. I feel sorry for the dogs because they are in an environment that is so far removed from what one would consider natural for animals (but then, one could also sincerely and honestly consider the human beings around me to be living this kind of a existential experience!). Many dog-owners also seem to deal in halfhearted ways with the problem of cleaning up after their animals in a situation where the concrete is the only surface available for peeing or pooping. Some do not even bother. Any open area that is not maintained becomes fair game. It is funny when people in countries like the US sneer at the behaviors of folks in other places with regard to the sophistication of their public behavior. The truth is that you try to get away with what you can regardless of where you live.

I need to emphasize that my impressions of this part of New York City by no means represent the entirety of of the character of New York City, and the experience of all of what it has to offer. Each borough of the city has its own character. When one thinks of New York City, one typically thinks of the great borough of Manhattan, and more specifically the areas closer to downtown and midtown Manhattan, including perhaps its gleaming skyscrapers, stores, and centers for the financial industry. One thinks of things like the entertainment of Times Square, and the glorious expanse (at least in my eyes) of Olmsted’s Central Park. Astoria in Queens is far removed from all of this. It is a more residential part of town. We did drive past a more industrial part of Queens in Sunnyside – close to the railroad yards, junkyards, and the auto dealerships; and also to the parks and newer developments on the east bank of the East River at Long Island City. And, of course, I did lose my way during this drive on our way back to Astoria!

I did not get to take many pictures during this trip because the primary reason for the visit was to help with a move into an apartment. I was exhausted at the end from all the driving, the repeated lifting and carrying of heavy stuff up two flights of stairs to a third-floor apartment, and from the shopping and the extended walking we did around town in order to get the things needed to make the apartment livable in! But all is good! I did manage to get the pictures below early one Sunday morning (before most people had gotten out of their beds). I made it a point to take my camera with me when I went to Madame Sou Sou for my morning coffee. Hopefully, these pictures serve to illustrate the little bit of what a particular section of Astoria looks and feels like.