A New Coat of Paint
The A train to Queens. The car I’m riding consists of tourists headed to JFK, surfers with their boards enclosed in carrying cases headed to Rockaway Beach to catch the swells from the latest tropical storm, and black folks headed to areas of Brooklyn left blank on the tourist’s guide book maps.
This trip is an epilogue. After four generations of New Yorkers, I am the last of my clan living in the City. The house I’m headed to in South Ozone Park was once the home of my grandmother, grandfather, great aunt, and great uncle.
One by one, they have all moved to the hereafter. And now the family is selling the house. Before it’s market-ready, we have to clean it out, paint the walls, and sand the floors. Erasing history so a new one can be made.
If you’ve been to New York, you’ve been to South Ozone Park, Queens. The neighborhood’s most defining feature is the planes flying overhead to JFK located next door.
These are the rows of non-descript houses you see in their miniature size on takeoffs and landings. My family has lived here from the glam of Pan Am to the delays of Jet Blue.
Planes never fly over the iconic landmarks of a city; it’s always the outer edges, where the cookie cutters seem to go to work.
Life is never so simple. Let’s zoom in to see what lies within.
The yards are enclosed with gates of ornamental ironwork welded into white sunrays. Steel awnings cover the doorways and windows; hyphenated Queens addresses like 118-07 post to door frames in scriptive black lettering. The lawns are clipped in short tufts spiked over the gray sidewalk.
A plane rumbles overhead, casting a shadow on the street. Inside the neighborhood’s living rooms, tv remotes raise the volume, green bars build on the bottom of the screen.
The house is located on 150th Avenue, two places from the trainer’s entrance to Aqueduct Racetrack, which now sees more traffic from the weekend flea market than from racing. The two-story, two-family house has one car in the two-car garage behind it, and a hot dog truck-sized lawn in front.
It’s the place of childhood vacation breaks where I would spend a week at a time with my grandparents and shuttle between the upstairs where they lived and downstairs where my aunt and uncle lived.
John Gotti’s annual 4th of July fireworks display was a highlight of these summer holidays. His Bergin Hunt and Fish Social Club era has given way to a largely Indian population and complaining funeral directors who lose business from cultures with different death traditions.
My Uncle Eddie died at home in April. The family assembled the day before he passed from all points in the metro area, Connecticut, Long Island, Westchester, and the City. We held the traditional wake and then a military salute at the cemetery.
He was a flight engineer and tail-gunner who flew dozens of missions over Europe in World War II. When he returned, he turned to photography for a living.
Uncle Eddie (until I was a teenager I thought his first name was Leddie) lived with my Aunt Helen who we called Chocha: Polish for aunt. They were brother and sister, not husband and wife. I was a teenager before I figured this out too. My grandmother and grandfather were in fact married.
After every visit to Queens to see the family my grandfather gave my mom containers of Polish food he had prepared, and toilet paper because he thought we used too much.
We used all the toilet paper, but never ate the food. I don’t know why. It went from car to freezer and stayed there. Most of the family freezer growing up was overtaken by my grandfather’s food, frozen in perpetuity. It left little room for ice cream, but preserved a lot of memories.
The food sat in the fridge for 15 years until the unit died while my parents were away. My brother lived at home; I was in to visit. In the kitchen I found a jumbo beach cooler keeping the frozen food on life support like it contained a recently harvested kidney.
It didn’t make it to the new donor fridge.
The wall calendar says December 1993. It is September 2010. The upstairs apartment has sat vacant since my grandfather died. My aunt and uncle never rented it out, forgoing the fifteen hundred a month rent for piece of mind.
There are five of us painting: my father, my brother Gregg, Sammy, Antonio, and me.
Sammy lives next door where he grew up. He doesn’t say much, he spends most of the day painting in the bathroom. We occasionally call him out to translate for Antonio, a day laborer from Ecuador we hire from outside Home Depot to help us with the job.
My Dad doesn’t speak any Spanish. I even have trouble understanding him as he alternates ideas from spackling this, to cutting that, to rolling, ceilings, trim, closets, walls. I pick a room and just get to work.
Antonio paints the ceilings. He calls my dad, Poppy. Poppy plays foreman like the old days when he ran a carpentry crew summers when school was out. Now that he’s retired this keeps him busy.
My father points with the paintbrush. “Uno coats. Dos coats of paint.” My brother’s Spanish doesn’t include the construction category. (I later learn coat of paint in Spanish is “capa de pintura.”) I know a little Italian and try to converse in Spitaliano.
I mix the milkshake thick paint and dish it out like porridge at a prison cafeteria. We order it in buckets and slurp through three of them.
Lunch day one is turkey sandwiches; the second day pizza. We sit at the kitchen table, the last piece of furniture left. It’s pretty civilized for a work crew. It’s usually a bucket for a seat; a meatball sandwich perched on your lap and a bottle of Snapple sitting in the sawdust at your feet.
With this arrangement I can lay The Post out on the table. Antonio eats two slices. My Dad, in the spirit of someone trying to fatten up a too thin kid, forces a third slice on him.
I fold my pizza slice in half, lengthwise. I remember eating pizza in Scotland with some friends from there who made fun of me because of how I folded my pizza. What do they know about pizza in Scotland?
Antonio folds his pizza horizontally, and then again into fourths. It looks like a burrito. He turns it on its side and begins eating the tube from one end to the other. It looks so foreign it probably tastes different. He is anxious to get back to work, but he eats.
I spent a few weeks one summer during graduate school on a carpentry crew framing a house. Though I became handy with the nail gun, my main duties were as a laborer, hauling sheets of plywood.
One Wednesday afternoon, the boss told me he didn’t need me again until Friday. I used Thursday to find a job that promised steadier work and air conditioning.
When I returned on Friday I learned they needed my help the day before and had to hire a day laborer in my place. The temperatures approached 100 degrees everyday that week; I worked right through it. The guy they hired in my absence worked a few hours in the morning, said “nessecita aqua” and left to find some.
He never came back.
It was a major point of pride that I handled the work that a day laborer could not. To me, immigrant labor is some of the most hardworking and honest of all.
And beer thirty translates to any language.
The mission today is just to make it look nice for prospective buyers. 90% is sufficient. We are wiping away history, leaving only white walls and wooden floors. The next family needs to envision the house as their own if they are going invest their stake.
Prior to our painting, the walls from the kitchen to the living room were trailed with a smudge of handprints from years of my aunt holding onto the walls as she hobbled on countless back and forth trips.
Antonio doesn’t quite grasp our purpose; he mistakes my shortcuts for an amateur outing and decides I need a quick lesson. I once worked an entire summer painting houses, though mostly exterior. As much as I know what I’m doing, maybe I lack a certain finesse needed for indoor work.
Though the job isn’t a 100% effort we try to make it look nice. The walls are painted linen white, the ceiling an eggshell white, and a third shade of white for the trim.
We move room to room, memory to memory. Paint moves from big bucket to little bucket, into trays, onto rollers and pressed onto the walls and ceilings, corners cut with brushes. First coat, second coat, touch up. First floor, second floor, basement.
The basement was my uncle’s territory, marked by a tv for football games and a darkroom with enough chemicals to refine crude oil into vinyl.
Weddings were his livelihood; bar mitzvah's, school pictures, and family photos filled his schedule. I accompanied him to an event at an elementary school that called for group photos. He mustered the patience and made it happen with the help of an oblong piece of sanded wood the size of a roll of dimes.
He placed the piece of wood on his head and let it drop off. A quick save for a flourish broke the ice and brought out their smiles. He repeated the procedure until he got his photo.
His territory was Queens and in essence the world. His collection of Yarmulkes could outfit an entire yeshiva, hundreds of prints of Hindu brides in yellow and red, the Italians, the Irish; the crack dealer who paid him $500 dollars in $5 bills.
I’m wedged in a corner painting the shelf where among other items my uncle stored a six-pack of Schlitz he used as hairspray to manage the perfect mane of grey hair that persisted until his last day.
Furniture is easy to cart away (beer even easier). It’s the boxes of little stuff left behind that forces us to sift through the accumulation of life. In the darkroom I find a can of Counter Assault Grizzly Tough Pepper Spray, Un-Du Quick and Easy Adhesive Remover, Dymo Laboratory Label Maker, a box of Swingline Staples, and enough fishing lures to extract every large mouth bass in a 50 miles radius.
We’re all going to go at some point. In Somalia, imported used clothing is called huudhaydh – translation: ''Who died?”
Our things may outlast us. What you leave behind are the pages to the story of your life.
Money doesn’t make the object or the memories. Most high-priced items have less utility than a Phillips-head screwdriver: clothing depreciates like ripe bananas. In five years the computer I’m writing on will be less valuable than the boots I’m wearing.
It’s the good stuff that lasts. Timeless they-don’t-make-em-like-they-used-to items of weight and importance, some worthy of heirloom status.
Furniture fits that bill, musical instruments, artwork. Fishing poles are a less likely contender. My uncle had a half-dozen rods that I distributed amongst my brother, my cousins, and myself; allowing each of us to have an item and a piece of memory, provided we don’t drop it in the drink.
As I look around my apartment at my possessions, I ask myself what will survive me?
What’s left over after we are laid to rest? Hopefully some symbols of your legacy, and more importantly a family that remembers. And if you’ve created something, that may last the longest. The black and white's were taken by my uncle in New York City in the 1940's and 50's.
You can’t see the story from an airplane. Up close, a house is a generational epic, one whose walls are now painted for the next family to hang their memories.