Tuesday, January 31, 2017

"Queen of Fourth Avenue" By Elizabeth Papazian - 2016 Brooklyn Non-Fiction Prize Semi-Finalist

"Queen of Fourth Avenue"


Elizabeth Papazian

Visiting my grandmother in her Sunset Park row house in the nineteen eighties was fraught with anxiety.           During that time I was in my twenties, and I used to drive from Queens through the constant and brutal barrage of traffic on the BQE, only to then have to drive in maze-like circles to find a parking spot in front of her house.  Worrying that I might either get mugged or trip on a curbside crack vial was another issue that made me think twice about seeing her. 

            Sometimes while driving on the Gowanus before her exit, I would pass the clustered houses off the highway and remember how as a kid I used to jump between the rooftop garages behind my cousin’s house in Bay Ridge.  Like playing urban hopscotch, we had great times.  But that’s another Brooklyn story. 
            I was also torn because nana helped raise me after my mom died when I was sixteen, leaving behind a Dad who was of little help since he was drunk most of the time.   Partial feelings of obligation and love often played in my heart, especially since she was alone.   My grandfather had been gone fifteen years during which time she became fiercely independent, travelling alone by subways well into her seventies.  She refused to listen to reason, even after getting mugged at gunpoint.

During a particular Saturday morning visit, I wasn’t prepared for the surprise she later bestowed upon me. 
            The night before, she asked me to run an errand.   
            “Oh dear, would ye be an angel and bring me a package of bobbies from the five and dime?  I’ve run out again.  Then we’ll have a nice visit.  If ye want we can go to that lovely rest’rant on Fourth Avenue.  I tink its run by I- talians,“ she said in her classic brogue. This reminded me of how she trusted no one other than the Irish. 
            “Of course, nana.  I’ll see you in the morning,” I said.  I was annoyed that I had to make another stop, and made a mental note to pick up a package of her favorite Woolworth bobby pins on the way.
            “Did I say large ones?   Not the tiny Bobbies for dolls.  The large ones!”
            “Yes, nana.  I know which ones.”
            “And while you’re at it, how about a bag of coffee nips?  That’ll be all now.”
            “Will do.”
            “And if you buy a small can of cat food or two we can feed the kittens on the porch.”  I thought of the dozen cats that crept along her trellised front porch covered with native flowers and ivy that climbed high enough to hide the outside street traffic.
            “Of course.  I have to go now.  See you tomorrow.”
            “I have something for you, miss,” she added mysteriously. 
            “I can’t wait.”  What the hell could it be?

I always called my grandmother nana, but the rest of the world knew her as Bridie.  A petite woman, she wore her hair in a twisted silver bun, and her reading glasses attached to a beaded necklace around her neck.  Her bright blue eyes were wide and convincing.  On special occasions she would top her bun with a navy or black pill-box hat which would match the dress and shoes she wore.  She didn’t own a pair of pants.  
            I got lucky this time and found a spot in front of her house, trying not to worry about my car being stolen because I felt safe in knowing I was visiting my family, and I belonged there.   Over the years when I visited her, no one ever bothered me.  Instead, her neighbors would greet me while speaking their New York Spanglish.
“Hola miss – have a nice visit with your abuela.”
“Gracias.  Por favor … watch my car?“
“Si, of course – go.”    
            When I let myself in with the spare key she had given me, I walked through the hallway’s narrow path littered with boxes of magazines and old broken lamps to the living room, suddenly I was hit with an overpowering smell of must and Raid.  
            Wearing a black tattered housecoat, she was sitting on the couch next to piles of newspaper and old chipped teacups on the corner telephone stand topped with a metal rotary phone.  Clothes and knick-knacks lay piled on the dining room table.  Thick yellow-beige

stockings hung on a clothesline strung across the archway between rooms.  Old copper tile ceilings framed the rooms, and I thought they were the only redeeming quality of her house.    
           Across the room on the armchair held a two foot high wooden crucifix.   Leaning there, literally like Christ himself sitting with us, it terrified me.  Years later I figured out how much it must have comforted her and brought her closer to the children she lost, to her husband and to her family of nine which she left behind in her home country.   That moment I missed my own mother fiercely, and imagined her looking down at us in the house she grew up in.   What must she think has happened to her mother?
We hugged and I pulled away from her unwelcome scent.
 “Tis so glad to see you.  Will ye be a dear and get my sewing kit upstairs in the front room?” she asked quickly.  “I need to darn this sweater”.
“Alright,” I obliged hesitantly.   Since she got sick and lived on the first floor, rarely did I venture to the second floor.  When I got there, I spied a single enormous roach creeping across the hallway between piles of clothing.  Magnified by the emptiness of the bedroom, it seemed to stop dead in its tracks and look at me, antennae glistening in the sun pouring through the dirty and bare window.  I knew there must have been more, hiding.
              I grabbed the sewing kit and bolted back down the big, wooden stairs.  My father told me once about the roaches and waterbugs that saturated the neighborhood from the grossly polluted Gowanus canal down the street.   He always got these things right.

“Nana, I am concerned about the bugs.  Have you called the exterminator?” 
 “I’ve called them, but they want too much money.  The last time they were here they
did a lousy job”, she replied angrily.   I made another mental note to call the exterminator, hoping it wouldn’t cut too much into my rent money.
“I’ll take care of it.  No worries”.
              She smiled when I handed her the sewing kit.   I moved a pile of books, and found a small area to sit.  Within minutes I cringed when I spotted a smaller version of the upstairs bug on the wall.  I felt like I was going to jump out of my skin.  What could I do, not sit down and insult her? 
             “How are you feeling today?” I asked. 
            “The usual… my back and legs.  ‘Tis awful.  Do yourself a favor and ne’er get old,” she said, her face awash in sadness.  My heart cried a little.
            I got up to check out the kitchen and looked out the back window at the narrow garage at the end of the driveway.  Its wooden door was locked tightly with a rusted chunky chain, and the windows were covered in tattered purple curtains.  Suddenly as I watched, there was movement by a graffiti smattered window.  I froze, wondering if I should call the police or scream to scare off a potential predator.
            Remembering another time we found a squatter living in the yard behind the hemlock trees, I thought I might take things in my own hands.

“Hey – get the hell out off of my property!” I yelled out a broken kitchen window. 
            Leaves shuffled in the breeze.  Relieved, I spotted a scraggly dog shoot out from behind the garage.  When I returned to my grandmother, I was visibly shaken.
            “Nana what are you going to do with the car?” I asked for the thousandth time over the years.  This time I had to remind her that its very presence in this neighborhood was an accident about to happen.
“One day I’ll put an advertisement in the paper.  These things take time.”  She apparently hadn’t heard my yelling.
“I’m worried someone will try and steal it, nana.”
“Can’t ye just leave an old woman alone, child!”
What I knew was that inside her garage was my grandfather’s black 1949 Volkswagen beetle in mint condition.  My mother and grandfather used it for local driving and to teach nana how to drive.  I imagine what her life would be like had she learned how to drive.  After leukemia took my grandfather, she firmly decided she would never learn. 
            “That sounds like a plan,” I said, knowing that she would never follow up.   Wouldn’t it be great if I could have it?

Taking her arm, after a short time we soon went to my car to head out to the diner.  On the way, I put out the tins of food for the myriad of kittens who crept in bushes along her porch. 

As we drove past the bodegas and laundromats to the restaurant, she commented on the nasty graffiti that dotted Fourth Avenue.  I imagine the contrast of the beauty of her picturesque hometown of Westport. 
After we ordered from a waitress who knew her, nana handed me a stack of faded onion skin papers that she had pulled out of her trademark big black bag.  When I held them, I noticed that they smelled musty and sweet.
“I’ve a favor to ask, Elizabeth.  Will you be a dear and type these poems for me?”
“I would love to, nana,” I lied.  Really it was the last project I wanted to get involved in, working full time and going to night school.  Little did I know what I was about to read.
“How long have you been writing poetry?”
“Here and there over the years, sometimes in the morning when I drink my tea and watch the bluebirds on my porch,” she said.
I read the first poem quietly, and was stunned at how eloquent and passionate it was, given her sixth grade Irish education.  With a college degree in English under my belt, I couldn’t match her talent.  I was astounded.  Other poems I glanced over contained messages of love, sorrow and great political discourse involving American and European government.   I knew she had taken writing classes at her local high school in nineteen-fifties Bay Ridge, but this was incredible work.
“Wow, they are beautiful.  I’d be honored to type these for you.” I said, hoping she wouldn’t notice the tears in my eyes.
Instead of signing her name, she used an unfamiliar Irish pen name.  Deciding I might be opening Pandora’s box, I said nothing.  Later I would ask around in the family about that name only to learn no such person existed.   
“Thank you dear.  You’re a smart young lass,” she smiled with eyes that lit up the room.

            At the time, I did not fully understanding the gift of my grandmother’s poems.   I do know that as I drove along the Gowanus expressway to the BQE headed back to Queens, I felt a strange sort of peace.  Instead of dread and worry about visiting her, on this day she gave me an unusual and profound gift.   As a writer, it has stayed with me for the rest of my life.