JEZ: Jamaica Center/Parsons Archer, Queens
Tuesday, March 29, 2011
We take the J because we both live on it, but it’s also the end of the line for the E and the Z. Wait, do I live on the J or off the J? I live off the BQE, but I’m pretty sure I live on the J, and I definitely wait in line. Well, actually I’m not sure what I say when I don’t think about it, but when I do think about it, I wait in line. Waiting on line reminds me of the basements in my college library, where you had to follow colored lines on the floor to find various sections. I loved following those lines and the stacks that moved to let you in among the books. Now they probably have some Jetsons-like automated system that pops your book out of a slot in the wall. Oh, who am I kidding. Do college students even read books? Back then I was amazed that people used to write entire books without word processors. Current students probably wonder how we researched papers without the Internet.
The most surprising thing about reaching the end of the J line is how crowded the train is, and the station too is large and bustling. Damaso guesses many of the riders might be going to York College, and signage around the station points out several other local attractions.
We exit into a neighborhood that immediately reminds us both of downtown Brooklyn’s Fulton Mall. Right away we see a narrow passage under a colorful sign that says Food Fest, and we debate whether to disqualify a food court but decide to go check it out. Inside, we’re tempted by the modestly named Taste and See, and we trade potential tag lines for their Indian food:
“What have you got to lose?”
“Could be okay!”
“Not that bad!”
The food court is sunny and clean, but even though we’re hungry, we’re too curious about the neighborhood to settle yet, so we press on. Besides, Damaso needs to visit an ATM, which turns out to be the perfect errand, as the Citibank is down a side street directly across from Patty World Jamaican Restaurant & Bakery, gaudily decorated with fake bunting—a rectangular banner displaying the printed image of red, white, and blue bunting. Jamaican sit-down? Fake bunting? Forget the food court. We’re going here! Damaso will finally get his curry goat!
I order the first item in the traditional Jamaican breakfast category, callaloo codfish, which says it comes with dumplings and bananas. The counterwoman looks at me slowly and asks, “Do you want the dumplings?” I affirm that I do, and she walks away sighing heavily. The sign says my meal is $6, so I’m surprised when she asks me for $12 for the meal and a bottle of soda. I thought she was charging me extra for the included dumplings, but she confirms that the meal is $6… and so is the 10 oz bottle of Roots Man Drink. Immediately I’m infuriated that no soda can possibly cost that much but simultaneously convinced that this must be the most delicious drink ever. I fork over the $12.
The walls are bright yellow with brown trim and decorated with mirrors and paintings of Jamaican life, including market scenes and a cricket match. The tables are standard Formica, but the chairs are fancy white and gold dining room chairs. If they weren’t ensconced in plastic upholstery covers, they would be very nice in the waiting room of a funeral parlor.
Damaso’s curry goat comes with plantains, cabbage, and about a square meter of dirty rice. It’s delicious. I don’t see any codfish on my plate but soon realize it’s cooked into the callaloo. I’d thought callaloo was the name of a particular green, a la kale or collards, but the word can refer to any greens mixed up into a soup or soupy mush, usually with seafood. It’s tasty, and it comes with the world’s densest starchy sides—a boiled green banana and a saucer-shaped dough rock, presumably the dumpling. We both cover our food in hot sauce and eat till we’re stuffed.
The Roots Man Drink may defy my descriptive powers. Let me try: blech! Remember those exclamations in the middle of the Batman TV show fights? That’s what it feels like hitting my tongue. The fascinating label (which looks like the back of a label but then has no front) features a long list of ingredients, including strong back, chew stick, poor-man-friend, man-back, blood wisp, and raw moon bush, but I detect not-so-subtle notes of blood, aspirin, and whatever that cough syrup was called that advertised that it must work because it tasted so bad. I can hardly drink it, but I keep trying because it cost $6! Maybe it’s an acquired taste, and I’m determined to acquire it by the end of the bottle. Some sips are okay, but then the aftertaste sucker punches you in the umami. Damaso lets me wash it down with some of his water.
While we’re eating, another patron enters and asks whether they have an ATM. They don’t, but the Citibank is directly across the street. Instead of crossing the street, she starts counting her cash and trying to figure out what she can get without backtracking. When she pours out her change to complete her bill, Damaso gives her a dollar. Neither of us buy $2 videos from the kid who strides in to vend, so he says he might have to head into Manhattan to unload them. Manhattan seems to be a long way away.
Before we leave, I return to the counter to load up on take-out baked goods. From the Royal Caribbean Bakery products (tag line: “mmm… Jamaican Me Hungry!”), I choose a Jackass Corn Coconut Biscuit and a Round Spice Bun. Obviously I pick the former because it says jackass, and I pick the latter because it seems so superfluous to label it “round,” when it’s clearly round. I also get two non-packaged homemade treats: one looks like a snowball with a red splotch on it and the other resembles peanut brittle. They both turn out to be cloyingly sweet coconut pastries, but the biscuits are delicious—spicy, dry, and not-to-sweet—they were perfect with tea.
The weather is crisp but gorgeous, and neither of us are in any hurry. A sign for $9 wigs lures me into a giant going-out-of-business sale. They don’t have the wig I want (platinum bob), but I keep wandering through the racks of stockings, hats, sandals, and clothes, convinced that I must need something. The store occupies an entire block, and we exit onto a pedestrian mall on the opposite side from where we entered. There seems to be a Rainbow store on each block. I don’t know that I’ve ever bought anything at Rainbow, but I like the brand because they always feature big-bootied mannequin bottoms outside the stores. I used to get upset when I couldn’t find clothes that fit me at the Gap until I stopped shopping at white people stores. Eventually I stopped shopping retail almost entirely (in favor of thrift stores, which offer fewer options to paralyze me), but I still get lured by the displays of $5 tank tops and $10 dresses.
Meanwhile Damaso is fascinated by all the stores offering massive discounts on coats, including buy one, get one free deals leather jackets and North Face parkas. Usually I’m the tourist, and he’s all business, but this is the first time he wants to linger in the neighborhood as much as I do. At one point, he stops to take a photograph, and I keep walking. As soon as we’re separated, the world changes. Three different men talk to me within a block—nothing threatening, just making conversation, complimenting my smile, my hat, whatever comes to mind. When Damaso returns to my side I become invisible again.
It’s bittersweet knowing this will be our last trip before he moves to Barcelona. In this project, as in so many things, he has called my self-bluff, getting me to stop talking and start doing. Of course, if you’re reading this, I’ve found some way to show these, but from my perspective right now, I’m finishing writing up this tenth trip before I’ve begun creating the means to publish the report from the first one. Now, though, I have the deadline of debt: Damaso’s put work into this project, so I’ve become responsible to him to make it happen. On to the next step, and I’m looking forward to his next visit home in July. That’ll be the perfect time to explore Coney Island, the Rockaway Beach shuttle, and plenty of ends to other lines.