I grew up on an island called Broad Channel in southern Queens that was at or below sea level, depending on the tide. My dad’s house was one that was high and dry. We lived on Cross Bay Boulevard, the main street which ran down the spine of our croissant-shaped island. The boulevard only flooded during hurricanes or nor’easters that came on the full or the new moon. In some of the lower streets in the town, kids would show up late to school because they had to wait for the tide to go out before they could step out of their homes. Often, the high tide water flooded their blocks.
By the time you read this, more of my neighbors will be dead.
And yet, on this sunny spring day that belies the grim headlines, I need to go for a walk, that most mundane of human activities. I need to pretend that life is normal. To forget that just a short distance from my apartment stands Elmhurst Hospital, the epicenter of the coronavirus within New York City, itself America’s epicenter.
When I’m back in the city and on the subway, I tend to look at my book or at my feet and the feet of other people. I note the different kinds of shoes, their colors and states of wear.
Today is December 23, so there are shopping bags by all the shoes, held fast between lower legs and sometimes kicked out of the way of people coming and going. Bags filled with brown boxes and shoe boxes and stacks of folded clothes.
I’m sitting down, and a man stands above me with his back to me. Under his left arm is a cardboard box that says 6H on the side in thick permanent marker. He never turns around, and I never see him, but I know that he lives in 6H.
St. Joan of Arc classroom and cloakroom revisited, 2018
Queens, New York
The very sound of it was foreign to our ears. Who wore cloaks? Vampires. Stealthy spies with hidden daggers. And men in top hats who appeared in movies and old-fashioned story books. Certainly no one we knew as first-graders at St. Joan of Arc—except, perhaps, for the nuns whose sleeveless black capes swirled in their hurried winter walks through the schoolyard to the convent. But their habits covered every inch of skin up to their necks; even their brows were partially obscured by fabric stiff as cardboard and white as their bony hands—the only other flesh exposed. So, on second thought, we couldn’t really say we “knew” the nuns when their very bodies were concealed and their lives outside the classroom a mystery.
Here at The Common, we’re all about place, so we’ve been experimenting with more ways for readers to experience the locations of our pieces. Using this map, you can explore all the dispatches we’ve published set in New York City. Get to know Eli the Seltzer Man, the nighthawks on the Upper West Side, and more!
From the elevated train in Queens, I’d glimpse the phantasmagoria that was 5 Pointz. A riot of color and occasional faces covering every inch of the old, block-long factory, it felt hallucinatory. In a minute—not enough time for the eye or brain to take it all in—the images vanished and the train rumbled underground, heading to Manhattan.
“You’re from Garbage Island,” a college friend said.
He wasn’t wrong. My hometown housed Fresh Kills, once the largest landfill in the world – so vast it could be seen from outer space with the naked eye. My classmate was from Queens, which, according to the rest of the city, was still a notch above Staten Island, the forgotten borough of parks. The borough with New York City’s trash.
Oh to drape my flesh with the rippling silk of a turquoise sari, gold-flecked above a peek of bare midriff, my eyes kohl-rimmed, hair hennaed, feet sandaled now but also in winter because I carry the subcontinent within me, I shimmer its heat as I stroll down the block to the sounds of Punjabi pop from sidewalk speakers.