Astoria

Journey with us now to those days of yore in the late 1980s/early 1990s when Running Girl and I lived in Astoria, Queens.

Yes, that’s right.  Astoria — the largest population of Greeks in the world outside Greece.  Can you say: weeping icons, barbecued octopus, Ya-ya’s screaming at their grandchildren and olive-skinned men brandishing worry beads on every corner?

Astoria — it’s so almost Manhattan that…you can almost see Manhattan from there.

I moved there first.  I lived on the last enclave of Italians left in town.  My landlady, Ivanna, was from the old country.  She was so happy that she finally had a tenant con cui lei poteva parlare italiano.

She had two daughters named after operas: Carmen and Tosca.  They were drop-dead gorgeous.  I’m certain that Ivanna would have gladly married either of them off to me.  But, I was terrified.

You think I'm freaking kidding about the octopus?

The girls had a brother named Gaetano.  He was a scary dude.  But, nothing put the hands-off-the-merch fear of Jihad in me like Ivanna’s husband.  As I can no longer remember his name, we’ll call him Signore. [Note 6/12/11 — I just remembered his name.  It’s Mario.  How could I forget?].

I swear, Signore had hands the length of my femur bones.  He was so tall, he blocked out the sun.  Without much effort, he could have choked me out with one hand, while lighting his cigarette with the other.  Then, he would have calmly waited at the curb for Gaetano to pull the car around to dispose of the unpleasantness that was my lifeless corpse.

Let’s just say that I was extra respectful of Carmen and Tosca.

Anyhow, I met this girl who had not yet started running (in earnest).  We’ll call her Pre-Running Girl.  We decided to move in together in her apartment a few blocks away.

When I broke the news to Ivanna, she was clearly disappointed.  She had such high hopes for me.  Now, she would go back to worrying that one of her two jewels would end up with a Greek boy.  Or worse…an Ecuadorean.

“I’m happy for you,” she told me in Italian.  “But, I’m sad for your girl.”

“Why, Ivanna?” I asked earnestly.

“Because now she is a lost woman,” she said with a doleful expression.

Well, here we are 20 years later.  I’m still with that donna perduta.

Two quick Astoria tales before I move on.

Album cover from Tony Bennett's "Astoria"

1)  As I have already hinted, before the Greeks moved there in force, Astoria was a huge Italian neighborhood.  Tony Bennett (né Benedetto) grew up there.

As I said, my block was the last Italian conclave left.  Except, next door to my house was a Greek family.  They were the block’s proverbial “sore thumb.”

I came home from Manhattan one day to find a man in welding gear putting metal security bars on the window of the Greek family’s house.

Ivanna expressed her distress to me the next day.  “This is not that kind of neighborhood,” she said, wringing her hands.  “We are protected here,” she added with a sly wink.

At first, the Italian ladies of the block went over to speak to la Signora Greca.  When this negotiation proved fruitless, Phase II began:  the men of the block paid a visit to the Greek home.

Two days later, I saw the same welder hard at work removing the metal bars from those windows.

2) On Superbowl Sunday, we were having a party.  There was a knock on the door.  A NYPD Detective in a raincoat asked if we had heard any unusual noises.

“Like what?” we asked.

“Like, I dunno…gunfire,” he said.

Behind our place was a “candy store” where nobody ever went to buy candy.  Old Italian men in shiny suits gathered there to drink coffee.

An Astoria night out on the town.

Apparently there was this guy who was a soldier in the Gambino crime family.  He took the rap for something and went to jail.  As a loyal (and close-mouthed) soldier, he was rewarded — his wife was set up with the aforementioned “candy store.”

Over time, the loyal soldier grew disenchanted with his arrangement.  He then began singing like Beverly Sills.

The family did nothing…at first.

However, on his birthday (you guessed it — Superbowl Sunday), two “unidentified men” went into the “candy store” and put two in the wife’s head.

Nice, huh?

+++++++++++++

Our abode.

But, I digress.

Pre-RG and I lived in a “charming” fourth-floor walk-up.  It was “Pre War,” which in NYC meant that the roaches were grandfathered in.  They had been in our apartment complex since Mayor LaGuardia’s administration.  As a matter of fact, they had an easement written into our lease.

What could we do?  They were the oldest and most well-established family in the neighborhood.

Pre-RG and I got a cat.  We adopted her from the SPCA in Harlem.  As she had grown up on the streets, we figured, “This is one tough cat.  Adios, cucarachas.”

We used to come home from work to find our cat tied up in the bedroom.  An early victim of Stockholm Syndrome, she started to tell us how the roaches really weren’t that bad.  “They’re just misunderstood,” she would claim as she lied on the ground twitching.

The Exterminator

One time the biggest insect I had ever seen began lumbering across the ground right in front of me while I watched television.  He left impressions in the rug.  This bug had such big balls, it didn’t even attempt to scurry.

I leaped up and grabbed a can of Zyclon B and began spraying the critter full force from a distance of about three feet.

God as my witness, the roach stopped, turned around and gave me the finger.  Then he kept walking across the rug.

I felt like Woody Allen in that scene from Annie Hall where he is trying to kill that bug the size of a Buick with a tennis racket.

Can you see Pre-Running Girl waving to me from the center window, top floor?

Pre-Running Girl and I had taken a huge gamble.  We were betting that Astoria would become the next old-time, working class, New York neighborhood to become all hip, trendy and artsy.

Didn’t happen.

Manhattan from our bedroom window.

When I lived in Ivanna’s house, a 100+ year old woman lived next door in a house that probably had 10 bedrooms.  I used to lie out in the backyard and dream that the old lady died and that the house was bought by the government of Sweden to house a dozen or so SAS stewardesses.

Didn’t happen.

We kept trying to convince our Manhattany, afraid to leave your own neighborhood friends that Astoria was the place to be.  Move to Astoria: Have a yard.  Raise your kids.  Don’t go broke.

Didn’t happen.

++++++++++++++

Astor -- a bit full of himself, eh?

Astoria was named for John Jacob Astor, the wealthiest man in America in the 19th century.  He was worth over $40 million.  In an attempt to persuade Astor to invest a measly $2,000 in the fledgling village, the area’s founders named it after him.  Astor gave only $500.  Although Astor’s estate in Manhattan offered a view of Astoria across the East River, he never set foot there.  What a schmuck!

The real hero of Astoria is William Steinway.  The neighborhood should be named after him.  Like Astor, he emigrated from Germany as a young person.   Both men understood America immediately and became successful.

Steinway

Steinway’s family started the famous piano company in Manhattan.  After a series of strikes affected the Steinway factory in the late 1860s, William bought a stretch of land on a sparsely settled expanse of salt marshes, meadows and woodlands.  He then built a huge factory as well as company housing for his workers.

According to Clifton Hood in 722 Miles:

Afterward William Steinway started to boost Astoria as a residential dormitory of Manhattan.  His activities fit a classic description of the real estate promoter: He accumulated more property, graded and leveled the land, subdivided it into lots, laid out streets, dickered with local politicians for municipal services, and advertised his parcels for sale.  To make this remote section of Queens more accessible to homeowners, Steinway operated a horse railway line that shuttled to the East River ferry, the Steinway & Hunter’s Point Railroad Company.  By 1890 more than fifteen thousand people lived in Astoria.

Steinway went on to lead the commission instrumental in bringing the greatest subway system in the world to NYC.  Ultimately, the tunnel drilled below the East River for the subway was named for him.

Steinway's legacy -- Our means of transportation everyday.

Pre-Running Girl and I lived in Astoria until the end of 1992.  By that time, I had graduated from law school, and taken and passed two bar exams.  We were married two weeks afterward.  I then went on to active duty in the Army.

Today, I don’t think we would want to go back to live in Astoria.  We love Western New York too much.  However, we will always treasure our Astoria days.

— The Pre-Major

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4 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by Doug on March 7, 2011 at 2:12 pm

    Great photo! I remember the apartment and the exterminator well. Though my most vivid memory, after those stairs, is the water-pressure and high showerhead. I still think that shower puts to shame any other I’ve used over the years. Too bad I didn’t appreciate octopus at the time but since last year’s trip to Greece I’ve come to truly appreciate it… Thanks for the trip down memory lane…

    Reply

    • Alright, I’m officially creeped out. Why were you using my shower, Doug?

      Running Girl, do you have an explanation?

      Reply

      • Doug must have spent the night at your bachelor pad at one point or another. I recall people spending the night one NYE before we went skiing. That doesn’t make sense though. Doug lived near the mountain. I’m at a loss.

        –RG

      • So now the truth comes to light — Running Girl & Doug.

        I suspected all along.

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