Monday, December 5, 2011

The Only White Guy in Queens

I live in Elmhurst.

Here, your location is never as simple as city and state. There is the city, New York. You live within it's boundaries. You pay its taxes and elect its mayor. But you do not live in New York City.

Where you actually live is a series of concentric circles. You live at a number, on a street, in a neighborhood, that is part of a borough, which makes up the greater New York metropolitan area. I live on 48th Avenue, in Elmhurst, the borough of Queens, the city of New York. The city that never sleeps.

Queens sleeps. Unlike the hustle and bustle and constant flickering lights of its sister across the river, walking home on the cold streets of Queens at midnight or later is a parade of locked storefronts where bodies, obscured by layers, bundle and curl for the night.

My particular corner of Queens is little Korea. Every day on my morning commute I pass groceries selling odd-looking fruit and restaurants boasting specials that I can not read. The church on the corner is Episcopal. I didn't know there were Episcopal Koreans. You learn something new every day in New York City.

On the subway -- either of the two that I take every morning to work in Midtown and every evening back -- I play a game. I count the Caucasians. In the morning there's usually a few. Middle-aged women clutching heavy bags and men in Yamakas. I've always admired the Jews. Mormons get razzed for our holy underwear and it's just a t-shirt that no one sees. I wonder where they work, especially the Hasidics. Obviously we've come far enough in our society that a Hasidic Jew can work anywhere I can, but I have to wonder if anyone would take me seriously at the magazine if I showed up to the morning meeting in a top hat and curly sideburns. In the end it doesn't really matter, as they undoubtedly make more money at their job than I do at mine.

Yes, that's a prejudiced statement and yes, it's also true. I've always found it funny how people take offense to jokes about Jews with money. It's usually people who aren't Jewish who call you out for such behavior. I doubt the Jewish people care, they're laughing their way to the bank. Is it really offensive to be positively-stereotyped? Do men take offense at being GOOD drivers? Do Republicans really mind being called shrewd Machiavellians? Trust me, we don't.

I went to the laundromat this weekend. It didn't seem necessary to shower just to watch my clothing tumble so I put on my laundry jeans -- you know, that pair you only wear when your real pants are dirty -- a black concert t-shirt, a red knit cap and a giant pair of neon-orange over-the-ear headphones. Why was I wearing a knit cap? I don't wear a lot of hats to begin with and besides my black fedora -- obviously -- I didn't bother packing a lot of headwear. When choosing between two items you'll never use, go with the one that takes up the least amount of space. I wasn't about to wear my fedora to the laundromat, so red knit cap it was.

The headphones are a recent acquisition. They were free. I don't particularly care for over-the-ear headphones. Sure, the sound quality is better, but in most circumstances I find them to be gaudy, bulky, showy monstrosities that the kind of people who like to longboard and collect vinyl records tend to wear. I neither longboard nor collect vinyl records by my ear buds are starting to freak out and if I'm going to be sitting in a laundromat for an hour I want to be able to listen to my music in comfort.

So there I was, the only white guy in Queens, sitting at a laundromat filled entirely with Hispanics and Koreans on a Saturday morning. I have no doubt that they thought I was some sort of delinquent rapist. They had no way of knowing that Carbon Leaf is a celtic-inspired alt-rock band with folk influences. There was no reason for them to assume that my obnoxiously bright headphones were just a poor kid taking advantage of a free deal and I would hardly expect them to understand that I was wearing a knit cap because I needed to cover up my bed head and didn't really have another option.

To them, I was a minority. I was a minority in my grunge-rock t-shirt, my pot-head hat and my big, neon, skater-punk headphones. I was Kevin Federline, or worse, Fred Durst. I've been a minority before, but the circumstances were considerably different. In that case, I was perpetually well-dressed compared to the locals and their women would offer themselves to me on the street. Partly because my rich white seed would do wonders for their economic situation and partly because they knew full well that I was a squirley virgin and the sound of exotic women calling me "Delicious" would mess with my mind.

I doubt that anyone at the laundromat noticed that I was reading a TIME magazine. Delinquent rapists don't read TIME magazine, they don't read at all. They flip through the pages of the alternative free weekly to get to the back where the tattoo/piercing parlor and escort service advertisements are or they just sit, empty handed, and scowl at passers-by.

I saw this kid on the train the other day, he was wearing a face mask with the image of some sort of clown or skull, or clown skull. He had a curly black ponytail that poked out of a black trucker hat. He was like 14. Part of me wanted to mess with him just so I could pull his ponytail and tear that stupid mask off his face. I'd bet $200 that he had braces, and acne. His name was probably something like Julien, or Samuel and he was on his way to violin practice, or Latin lessons. Every kid in New York has some weird extra-curricular activity. They can't go play outside -- there is no outside -- so instead of playing football with their friends or kicking rocks down the road they learn calligraphy or go see a therapist so that their parents don't have to deal with talking to them.

A while back someone asked me "What do you guys do in Utah?" They were younger, barely out of high school so I answered the question. I told them that I do a lot of mountain biking and camping, that we hike and horseback ride. I've been through this game enough times that I've learned to always start with the activities that your interrogators have likely never experienced. If I was a recreation para-glider, I would lead with that. "What do you guys do?" This is when the horrible person within me started to rise to the surface. These kids were middle-class Queens Hispanics. They lived within miles of Broadway, The Metropolitan Museum of Art and some of the finest dining in America. By virtue of my profession I had probably had more "New York Moments" in 4 months than these kids had in their entire life growing up in THE city. "Well," she said. "Everything is so expensive, we usually just end up going to someone's house to watch a movie or play Rock Band."

My natural reaction to this would be to cock my eyebrow, say "Good thing you don't live in Utah," and walk away like a B.A. from an explosion. I did not. I smiled and said "Cool, Rock Band is fun" and then changed the subject by asking what movies they had seen lately. I take this as a sign that I'm beginning to grow up. Either that or my subconscious was afraid that even though I was at a religious function, if I got too smart someone would knife me. They do that in New York, at least that's what I've been taught my whole life. In New York, people knife you. In Wisconsin, they offer you doughnuts. In Japan, they bow and in Germany they yell and punch you in the face. No matter where you are, though, you can change the subject by asking what movies they've seen lately. Everybody likes to talk about movies and besides McDonald's, Hollywood is America's chief global export.

So there I was, sitting at the laundromat in Queens, watching my clothes tumble. I know for a fact that they thought I was some screwed up punk. Why else would a dumb white-boy be sitting at a grimy laundromat in Queens in big neon headphones and a knit cap. Yes, it was prejudiced of them and this is prejudiced of me. That's life, we all kind of suck sometimes.


  1. I thoroughly enjoyed this entire post. You are seriously a captivating writer.

  2. Good to know that Queens sleeps. Good to know you can avoid knifings if you only hang out at the religious functions, too. :) Thanks for sharing. Good read.

  3. Besides the MTC I've never been to a laundromat, and I don't think that really counts. I was just thinking about that today in fact and wondering if I should add it or cross it off my bucket list. Once when our washing machine broke I went out and bought new garments instead of going to a laundromat. Be careful, don't get knifed, I hear that's where it happens. :)