Or not, depending on who’s doing the describing
I was born in Queens, one of NYC’s five boroughs. I was moved annually, back and forth, between Queens and The Bronx, until I was in the fourth grade when we settled in Bayside, Northeast Queens. While that has a nice bucolic ring to it, the section where we lived was mostly blue-collar families squeezed into noisy garden apartments. We were sited farthest from the Little Neck Bay that we were supposedly on the side of. The wealth increased the closer you got to the water. We were way south of that. It was probably the least hip part of the City.
So I was shocked to see that number twenty in the New York Times Best Seller list takes place, partly, in Little Neck, even more northeast than my de-facto hometown area. Little Failure: A Memoir is Gary Shteyngart’s story of being born in Russia and moving to Queens with his parents as a young child. The expected culture shock and his asthmatic fragility produced a sweet, awkward, introspective little boy who grew to become a smart, bratty teen, a stoner of a college student and a drunken, self-centered jerk of a young man. All these qualities coalesced into a terrific memoirist who deftly brings the reader along, throughout the decades, and we see him go full-circle into sweet introspection. We move along with him to Rego Park Queens, then a little east to Kew Gardens, then more east to Douglaston (which he calls Little Neck but to us locals it was Douglaston) then even further east, literally to the city line, to actual Little Neck. He acknowledges the uncoolness of the area even as he shows pride that his parents could afford this. (As a freshman at prestigious Stuyvesant High School, he tried to impress a girl that his parents paid $280,000.00 for the house, not knowing that the Manhattan apartment that her parents owned was worth some four times that.)
Just before reading Little Failure (ironic title!) I read Tomorrow-land: The 1964-65 World’s Fair and the Transformation of America by Joseph Tirellla. It tells the story of how Robert Moses managed to get the Fair staged in Flushing Meadows Park in Corona, Queens for not one, but two seasons. Moses, a despotic visionary, is known for having highways and parks built, and some beaches turned into the public parkland that we enjoy today. He wasn’t very nice. He was power-mad. But he did like parks. He would be awfully pissed off if he saw the ruin that is the site of his beloved Fair. Or maybe it would serve him right.
The building and staging of the Word’s Fair coincided with the assassination of President Kennedy, the rise of the Civil Rights movement, pop art and the arrival of the Beatles. These seemingly unrelated topics changed our culture forever and the Fair was impacted by each of them. It’s history-detailed book but it’s important to know our history as it pertains to our corner of the world.
And my corner of the world is, once again Queens. Not leafy Bayside but a more urban, urbane section with easy access to Midtown. It’s too City for suburbanites, too “far away” for residents of Manhattan, which we here call “The City.” Legally, this is also part of the City, as is Bayside and Little Neck and Corona. It’s a local semantic quirk, sort of an inside joke that I’m proud to be in on.