Tonight I had dinner with a friend from Hindi class (a friend who did not hold my Hindi-class-dropout status against me) at Delhi Palace in Jackson Heights. Before meeting her I strolled up and down the block of 74th Street that is closest to the 7 train, soaking up the lavish brocade, embroidery and beadwork of the Indian formal-wear in the shop windows, enjoying their juxtaposition with signage that pointed to 1980′s nightclubs and the fact that they were draped on European-looking mannequins with sculpted wavy hair.
After dinner I had a falooda; a drink made of milk, ice cream, rose syrup, rice vermicelli and tapioca pearls. The tapioca pearls resembled frog’s eggs, and the vermicelli floating in the swirl of red and white and pink milk brought a swamp to mind; a sweet, fairy-palette swamp. I wanted to get it “to go,” but in true paternalistic-Indian-waiter fashion, the waiter forbade it on the grounds that, “You will not enjoy it. The ice cream will be all melting.”
I was looking forward to my bus ride home. I’d spent a few moments at work absorbed in the Queens bus map, looking for ways to travel from Jackson Heights to Bushwick, and had found a route would took me a few blocks from home along a not terribly direct path, but would pass through places with enticing names such as “Fresh Ponds.”
Indeed, with very little trouble, the Q53 and the Q58 took me all the way from Delhi Palace to the Food Bazaar, the gigantic supermarket just over the border in Ridgewood where Ben and I shop. Here were my mental notes from the ride:
Boarding at Roosevelt Avenue, a young woman tries to give me free samples of a fruit shake. I decline politely. She looks unexpectedly forlorn and I feel sorry for her, but I am so full of falooda and vegetable thali that I can’t possibly stuff one more substance into my system.
The ride from Roosevelt to Queens Boulevard, where I need to change buses, is unremarkable. This is one of the parts of Queens that is a jumble of highways, low brick buildings, blaring signs and discount clothing chains. I note that here, perhaps because of a grubby concrete context, the claims to high fashion of Mandee and Daffy’s feel particularly shabby. Their bland uniformity and poor quality stand out in this environment that isn’t polished and sleek.
I get off the Q53 at a park just past Queens Boulevard, but it turns out I should have gotten off a few blocks earlier, near the mall. The intersection at Queens Boulevard is heart-pounding, with six lanes of traffic to cross and drivers looking anywhere but in the crosswalk.
The mall at Queens Boulevard is that odd breed of shopping center: Urban Mall. The monolithic minimalism of the exteriors of suburban malls (to which I’m accustomed) is absent; on the walls of the space-deprived urban mall the signs for the stores within are tightly cramped together in their diverse fonts, and it’s reminding me of the work of sophomore graphic design students. But all around the mall there is prime people-watching to be done; I see a lady in salwar kameez standing near a taco truck.
On the pretense of using the bathroom, I end up in Target. I buy two skirts and a dress, all made of that lovely cotton blend material that reminds me of perfectly worn pillowcases.
By the time I leave the mall it’s dark. I find the Q58 stop a few blocks away. The bus is crowded when I get on, but there is one seat in the back. I squeeze in next to an older white man wearing sneakers that look like giant black jellybeans. He apologizes for his bag which keeps slipping onto my lap, but it’s not bothering me. Two Central American men talk to one another across the way, and I notice I can understand larger and larger chunks of Spanish conversation these days; I notice I understand because I start unwittingly eavesdropping. Another Central American man sits nearby with his eyes closed, wearing a gleaming white button-down shirt and skinny black tie straight from the 50′s. His face and body look like an illustration of “weary.” As I look down the row of men in the back seat, I see most of them in similar positions, and I imagine that there is a different kind of tiredness people express on buses than subways, a tiredness that is like melting.
As we drive through Elmhurst I see some ancient (read 1970′s) signage on bars, stores and restaurants. Out here there are still places that have the old combinations of sign materials; paint on glass, plastic on wood, wood on wood. These are the aesthetics of the decade of my birth, and they still stir up excitement. I realize I never know what sights will bring up these particular feelings of recognition until I see them. The last time I had this feeling of signage elation was last summer, driving out of the Kashmir countryside into Srinagar as the sun came up, and glimpsing handpainted billboards that carefully, but still obviously by hand, mimicked the official script of trademarked goods. It was a much gentler way to signal our entrance into a populated area than the blare of manufactured billboards that crowd the highway near American cities.
The moon is full and orange over the Long Island Expressway.
The bus begins to empty as we get closer to Ridgewood. I get up to take a free seat near a window, and the man with the bag tells me I don’t need to get up; he’ll move over. The painful idea that his bag has encroached on my lap to the point of driving me away is written all over his face. I assure him I am only moving to be able to look out the window because I’ve never taken this route before. He looks relieved. I wish him a good night.
I get off the bus when I see the Wyckoff Avenue sign, but it takes a moment to see the familiar Food Bazaar in the grey silhouettes of nighttime Queens. I walk homeward down Wyckoff, noticing along the way the glow of sign graphics that, during the day, are camouflaged in the buildings’ hodgepodged facades.
At Menahan Street I stop to join a group of rubberneckers watching a team of axe-wielding firemen clustered around a shuttered storefront. There’s no fire in evidence. Overhead, a belated burst of green fireworks briefly sprays across the small patch of sky between buildings.