2: Wakefield/241st Street, The Bronx

Posted on August 7th, 2012 by Viveca in The End of the Line

2 Wakefield

Thursday, March 24, 2011

We pull a last-minute switcheroo on our own plans to visit Harlem on the 3 train, and we make the long trek to what may be the MTA’s northernmost point. At least it looks the highest on The Map, but The Map is completely out of proportion and oriented to the city instead of to north, so who knows. Luckily, the train decides to skip a few stations on the way up, but we still have plenty of time to point out spots of interest from the elevated tracks, admire the muted cloud smudges in the bright sky, and have a little heart-to-heart about our relationship, about which I’d been stewing in confusion. Damaso makes everything easy though: “Are we sliding into being friends?” he asks, “because it’s okay if that’s the way you feel.”

He’s moving to Europe in less than two weeks, so this is more a mental adjustment than a physical or practical one. I’m happy that he doesn’t say “just friends.” In fact, maybe this is a promotion instead of a demotion. He’s inspired me so much. For example, I’d wanted to write this series for years, but I might never have started if he hadn’t offered to collaborate.

Last Stop Wakefield

End of 2 Line

Exiting Wakefield Station

We finally reach Wakefield/241st Street. The elevated tracks stop after the station, and the city stops soon after. On The Map it looks like we could walk to Westchester—if we wanted to go to Westchester, that is, which we don’t. Why leave the city? This place has everything. At first glance it looks like we’ll have a ton of culinary options up here. The train ends on a busy commercial street. One of the first stores I see is a West Indian grocery. Seeing so many West Indian stores at the ends of so many subway lines in different boroughs is beginning to make me think that instead of having their own neighborhood like a lot of the city’s other ethnic groups, the West Indians have taken over the outskirts. Maybe they have the city surrounded. The rest of us are behind an ackee barricade.

Several restaurants are right at the exit, but we want to explore, so we walk a block in one direction where we are lured by the beautiful sign on Dante’s Pastry Shop, but the restaurant has closed. A lurid poster for “GhettOut: Another hilarious Jamaica play/musical” features a screaming man with bleached hair and about ten other characters all with exaggerated facial expressions and comic poses.

Pastry Shop

GhettOut

We continue back past the subway exit to Island Taste Cuisine Restaurant. We stare through the glass for a while, wondering what kind of porridge is called “Bob Marley,” but the grandly named restaurant only has about twenty square feet of space for customers to approach a counter and maybe four stools, and both the standing room and stools are packed. Damaso is sad that once again he’ll be deprived of his curried goat, but his spirits revive when he spots a neon fish sign in the next window. The fish grins, although it is surrounded by the words “Fried Fish” and “Steam,” which imply that its fate may not be so cheerful. Even better is the next store, which advertises “Aqua Massage: Just like in the mall!” Maybe we weren’t the only people who realized we were within a stone’s throw of the suburbs. We walk back to the subway entrance and choose 241 Street Café/Restaurant.

Island Taste Cuisine Restaurant

Fried Fish Steam

Like in the Mall

A man lingering in the restaurant’s doorway asks Damaso where he’s from.

“Brooklyn!” says Damaso, “Bed-Stuy.”

“You ain’t from Brooklyn,” the man shouts after us as we walk in, “You’re from West Africa!”

Cafe Restaurant (Diner)

Burger Grill Chicken Salad

Although the owners carefully included the acute diacritical mark accenting the E in café, they failed to put the “st” after the numbered street name so the place is called “241 Street Café/Restaurant.” Actually it isn’t really a café or a restaurant; it’s a diner. A counter runs along the length of the interior, with brightly lit pictures of the food above the cooks behind it. We sit at a booth against the other wall. The interior is bare without the Christmas lights, Jesus shrine, video games, or jukebox I’ve come to expect. The menu is also bare, and guess what? We’re having cheeseburgers. Damaso orders the Mexican burger, I ask for a bacon-cheeseburger, and we get a side of onion rings and a side of fries to share. The waitress asks whether we want small or large sides (small please; they’re huge) and whether I want lettuce and tomato (lettuce yes, tomato no), but she doesn’t ask how we want our burgers cooked or what kind of cheese to put on mine.

Damaso orders a Coke, and he and the waitress go through our now familiar ritual: “No Coke, Pepsi.”

“Then can I get a Sprite?”

“No Sprite, Sierra Mist.”

He asks for a Snapple.

Then it’s my turn: “Do you have iced tea?”

“No.”

“I’ll have a large cup of hot tea.”

While we’re waiting for our food, a middle aged black man approaches Damaso tentatively and asks permission to talk to him. He introduces himself apologetically, saying he’s not a professional photographer “or anything like that,” but he likes taking pictures as a hobby. Damaso knows what he’s getting at way before I realize what’s going on. He wants to know about the camera. The stranger forms his question and Damaso anticipates and answers it at the same time using the same metaphor: Yes, shooting pictures with a Leica as opposed to any other camera really is like driving a Porsche as opposed to any other car. This is the second time someone’s recognized Damaso’s Leica. I had no idea Leicas were so distinctive or so prestigious.

As Damaso explains the camera’s benefits, he hands it to the stranger. The man pulls his hands away, afraid to hold something so valuable, but Damaso insists. The man explains that he’s just come into some money because his father died, and he’s trying to decide whether to spend it on a Leica although he’s just an amateur. Damaso offers that he “knows a guy” (who can hook him up with a cheaper Leica) and that he gives photography lessons. The stranger is so excited he exclaims that God must have sent Damaso to him. They introduce each other, and Mike takes Damaso’s card and promises to contact him soon.

Fries and rings

Our burgers arrive grey, lonely, and flat on their oversized plates. Mine is missing its lettuce, and when Damaso asks for it for me, instead of bringing me a few pieces of lettuce, the waitress whisks my plate away and returns it with long strings of shredded lettuce overhanging the circumference of the bun. My tea comes in a take-out cup with a bas relief of a teddy bear on the lid. The burgers are the worst yet, dry and bland, but the onion rings are good. The fries are battered, which Damaso likes. I do too, but I’m embarrassed to admit it. That seems like cheating somehow. Real fries are just cut potatoes.

We settle up, but I’m jealous that shy Damaso’s having so many conversations with locals, so I decide to start up a chat and meet someone. A handsome MTA employee with large rhinestone ear studs is leaning against the counter chatting with the waitress. Two giant rings of keys hang from his belt, one with about 20 normal keys and one with maybe six large, oddly shaped ones. I ask the obvious question: “Can you tell all your keys apart, or do you have to try six or seven before you can open a door?”

“Believe it or not,” he starts his response, “I know what every single one of these keys is for. It takes a long time for them to give you this many keys, and you have to keep up with them because they replace them all the time.”

This is even more impressive. I figured half of those keys were probably defunct, but he says he only carries the ones he uses regularly. While we’re chatting he pulls out the larger ring of smaller, mostly yellow metal keys and starts separating and fondling the keys.

Damaso challenges him at a random key: “Okay then, what’s that one for?”

“Bathroom at the Flatbush stop on the 2 train,” he answers, without hesitation.

I realize the implications of the key ring: “You can pee anywhere in the city,” I exclaim jealously, “I have to find a Starbucks!”

He defends the MTA immediately saying plenty of stations have public bathrooms.

“Yeah,” I say grumpily, “Coney Island.”

“Union Square,” he retorts.

“What?!” I’m in that station all the time. “I thought I needed Whole Foods.”

He finds this hilarious and proceeds to use Whole Foods as the landmark from which he gives careful directions to the underground toilets. I’ll never go there.

The other key ring might be more impressive. The train keys are oversized white metal. Instead of a series of notches, they’re mostly smooth, but each ends in a different dogleg. They appear steampunk Victorian, but he assures me they’re state-of-the art. He should know. He’s been driving the 2 train for 18 years. He tells us about lots of great restaurants at the other end in Flatbush, which is where he lives. If I weren’t stuffed with greasy food, I’d be tempted to head there now.

Keys

The return trip lasts forever. The food might have been the worst yet, but the two conversations have raised both of our spirits and bonded us together. We cuddle on the long ride home, and it doesn’t feel like we’re just friends anymore.

Terminus

Subway map

Photographs by Damaso Reyes

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