Thursday, December 4, 2008

The Jackson Heights Video Club

The white lettered 7 on-a-purple-dot was the cause for the whole thing.
This little long thing never stopped running until two in the morning, rattling from Flushing to Time Square, through the drug infested borough of Queens, Puerto Rican Junction Blvd., Indian Broadway, Irish Woodside, Greek Astoria and crossing into Manhattan under the Queensboro bridge, rattling, rattling and carrying early morning commuters, mid-afternoon nurses, college kids and late night drunks.

It covered a mere twenty two stations, the shortest subway route in New York's mass transit system, like a baby snake in the farm of Anacondas. I don't know who selected the purple color for this line of non-air-conditioned subway cars, in 1980's by the way, but the color certainly emitted a queer look, an object of mixture and diversity

In late August, some brave affluent patrons from Manhattan would ride this subway line to get to Arthur Ashe Stadium at Flushing Meadows, the host of the U.S. Open tennis tournament, where history was made by men, women and at least one out-of-closet lesbian, with corn dogs to munch during sets that lasted many hours into the night. When Mets won their only World Cup in 1986, the subway line became an instant carnival on tracks, dancing to the tune of emerging baseball fans from the Shea Stadium, yet allowing some somber crowd to get to the Grand Central Station, catch a train to Boston and bury their sobbing head in Red Sox' sagged bosoms.

I lived in a derelict apartment block, four floors high. Built with dark brown stones, the building sucked in cold air like a hungry infant, during the winter, in a neighborhood called Jackson Heights. Queens Boulevard to the south and Northern Boulevard to the north sandwiched J.H. into a BLT with Cheese from a New York deli. There was nothing in J.H. to write home about, except that during summer, you could witness some liberal Puerto Rican beauties in their revealing attire, accompanied by admirers, large Chevy Impalas and salsa beat.

A United Nations of people lived in these apartment blocks, not cordially always, but with an understanding to not to mess with each other. From time to time, there would be skirmishes outside the Laundromats on 37th Avenue, between pouring the detergent into the washer, between folding dried clothes and between youngsters from different communities, mostly over the subject of girls, after few Ballantines ale that sold at dollar a liter.

Kavi did not come from these derelict communities. She rode the number 7 from Flushing, where middle class people stayed, close to temples, synagogues and the Queens College that proudly delivered Nobel Laureates every few years or so, with easy access to JFK and the parkway that took you to Jones Beach in Long Island, when summers become too hot to bear.

During our mostly silent relationship, I met Kavi only once a day, during the return trip from Grand Central to Jackson Heights, at night, after an exhausting day working at the Ham Haven on Warren Street, making ham sandwiches on wheat-bread to lawyers, stock-brokers and Wall Street alike, near the City Hall where Ed Koch ruled the City like a smiling king, earning five dollars an hour to save for college that would start around four in the afternoon to go on till ten at night. These exhausting days and long evening of books and lectures would bring instant nap on the A train from 23rd Street to 42nd; then during transfers I'd see Kavi, in her warm colored clothing and pleasant smile with dimple filled cheeks.

The ride on Number 7 at night is usually a non-event. Most passengers would be dozing, reading or listening to Walkmans with cassettes. An occasional transit police man would wander into train cars, stay near the door that said "do not stay near the door" for few minutes to wander away into the next one. A tired child would cry in her mother's arms; a drunken lost lover would be weeping at his loss; an over-dramatic teen-ager would be swinging to an unheard tune, such that it brought an entertaining variety of people who called New York as their home away from home, into this twisting tube.

After cruising through the tunnel for about eight minutes, the Number 7 would emerge onto outside overhead tracks near the Vernon Boulevard station. From that point onwards the subway would thunder over the Roosevelt Avenue, cracking every window that's close to the tracks, waking lovers embraced in passion and homeless drifters sleeping under cardboard boxes, neatly stacked near the entrances of Dunkin Donuts, with remaining aroma of honey-dew filling the cold night's air.

One dull evening, an old pal of mine, half drunk, made a grand entrance into the subway car I was riding, at the Queensboro Plaza station, near the double decker-ed grand bridge that would take you into Manhattan if you are brave enough to maneuver the traffic and yellow cab drivers, whom according to Hollywood movies, all wore turbans.

This 'grandly' entered friend started blurting to me in Tamil and that's what made the little connection between Kavi and I, who until that time only had a smiling acquaintance.

The next night, as I was getting out of the subway car at the Jackson Heights station, Kavi, who was seated near the door, slipped a note to me. The note, simply said:

"I think you're a Tamil person. Is there a store in Queens where I can rent some Tamil movies?"

As the train moved towards Flushing, with the light flickering inside, due to malfunctioning electric current that ran through the tracks, I saw a blushing little woman, with a look to hold your breath, to whistle your favorite tune, to open your jacket and walk through the wintery blocks, feeling warm in my good old and beautiful Jackson Heights.

Following Saturday, I walked twenty three blocks to North Corona, via 90th Street and Elmhurst Ave, past many brown stone buildings, past fenced out basketball courts and past a Hospital where my tooth was extracted, painfully, to Chettiyar shop, the only place during the early eighties-Queens that rented Tamil VHS movies.

And, in days and months following, many cassettes were delivered and returned and re-delivered, on the rattling, white lettered number 7 on-a-purple-dot that twirled through the borough of Queens, like half hour episodes of a mega serial. But, that first episode of romance, the glittering eye contact, the warmth on a wintery road never blossomed to any great length.

Kavi couldn't talk, even if she wanted to.


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