L: Rockaway Canarsie, Brooklyn

Posted on April 8th, 2012 by Viveca in The End of the Line

L to Last Stop

Sunday, March 13, 2011

After 18 years here, the cultural associations of this city are still stronger than my personal impressions. When I wait for an uptown A, Duke Ellington’s Take the A Train runs through my head unbidden even after hundreds of real-life A-train commutes. Just seeing the signs for subway lines can fill my head with music: on the 6 I hear J-Lo’s Jenny From the Bronx. Battery Park makes me think of the Beastie Boys’ An Open Letter to NYC as often as Frank Sinatra’s New York New York. Some rap refrain about “uptown baby, you get down, baby” can hit anytime I’m headed in that direction. Unfortunately I have no control over these associations, so I’m equally likely to hear Uptown Girl. Doesn’t Billy Joel seem like he should be from New Jersey? Turns out he was born in the Bronx (although raised in Hicksville). Born in the Bronx? I have to admit that’s some serious cred. Or maybe it just demotes my opinion of the Bronx.

Sometimes the associations are more of a stretch. I hear Sex and Candy by Marcy Playground as I pass the Marcy stop on the J train and Hard Knock Life when I exit the G train at Flushing Avenue just because Jay Z grew up in the projects near that stop. Non-musical aspects of pop culture also occasionally seize my imagination without warning. In Times Square, I picture sailors dancing On the Town and one grabbing a civilian nurse to kiss her in celebration of V-J day. In Queens, I look for the Bunkers’ house, convinced I can identify it; on the upper east side I scan high rises for the Jefferson’s deluxe apartment in the sky. Every block of Park Slope could be Sesame Street, and giant bugs are always trying to launch those “space ships” in Flushing Meadows.

My uninvited associations aren’t all from pop culture. I experience nostalgia for events that affected my family, even ones that took place before I was born. I’ve found the East 9th Street apartment my parents sublet for six months when they were first married; it’s now a Japanese hair salon. When I was little they referred to it as the “Sludge Pump.” The only two facts I remember are that they threw a hose over a pipe to shower into a galvanized steel tub (and would often show up with shampoo in hand when visiting friends for dinner dates) and that twice they were robbed by someone punching through the particle-board walls. Passing the Arthur Ashe Stadium I try to imagine my father as a young ball boy for the USTA, and on Christopher Street I scan the windows trying to figure out which apartment my mother spent a summer in.

The word “Canarsie” fills me with images of vaudeville and borscht, and it was the one subway terminus I was most looking forward to visiting. That word’s inexplicable associations are so powerful that I’ve written 500 words already just to delay the gratification of getting to say… Canarsie. What a beautiful, ugly word. It lilts like a canary then slams home with a rhotic R that I imagine its residents don’t pronounce. It’s a word Bugs Bunny might say in his carefully designed voice that combines a previous era’s Bronx and Brooklyn accents. It’s a place that a 1930s street trolley operator who worked during the day calling out stops at “Toity-toid and Toid” might go home to at night to get a beer from the ice box and listen to the Dodgers game on the radio. I’m pretty sure my father’s late brother’s now also late widow’s late “uncle” grew up in Canarsie. To tell the truth, I’m not sure Uncle Leo (no relation to anyone) was even from Canarsie. Maybe he went there once. Or maybe he had a canary. In any case, he’ll always be Canarsie to me. Nowadays the LeRoy Sisters do a vaudeville-burlesque show called Canarsie Suite. I’ve never seen the whole thing, but I have seen a stand-alone routine in which one wore a gorilla suit. Have you ever seen a sexy girl’s fishnet-clad legs and dance heels poking out of a hastily donned gorilla suit? No wonder Canarsie stuck in my head, and now, finally, I was going to travel back in time to see Canarsie for myself.

So on a cold Sunday night, Damaso and I set out to ride the L train to the end. In Chicago, people refer to the public transportation system as “the El” because many tracks are elevated. In New York, most of us refer to even the elevated tracks as “the subway.” I used to experience a moment of cognitive dissonance facing an elevated “subway,” but I’m over it. Apparently those personal associations don’t last as long as the cultural ones. In Brooklyn, the L does travel above and below ground, and it ends at ground level. The platform runs parallel to the bus terminal, so if you ignore the signs telling you not to enter, you could walk right off onto the sidewalk (or, presumably, from the sidewalk onto the subway platform without paying the fare). It feels like you’re walking off an interstate train instead of just exiting a subway station. The station is small and bare, but the inside boasts a beautiful sign welcoming travelers to “Canarsie: A Caring Community,” and the outside is topped with gorgeous, widely spaced art deco letters surrounded by the familiar green subway entrance globe lights.

Welcome to Canarsie

You Are Here MTA map

L train exit

After we’re done admiring the station entrance, we turn around to face modern Canarsie, a perfectly normal working class neighborhood that experienced white flight towards the end of the last millennium (I’m lazily taking this from Wikipedia with no cross-referenced support) and now supports a large West Indian community (witnessed that myself). I wonder where I got the Jewish immigrant-vaudeville-time warp idea. More importantly, I wonder whether hard reality will replace my fantasies, or whether “Canarsie” the idea will maintain its allure even while Canarsie the actual place solidifies in front of me. Well, a lot of that may be decided by the restaurant, and standing in the cold, I was relieved to find a bustling business district, but closer inspection revealed a dearth of non-chain restaurants, and we didn’t travel all the way to Canarsie for Golden Krust, McDonald’s, or Popeyes!

Peering to the left, a sign beckons “Tastee Pattee,” so we head towards it. I’m not sure I’ve ever met a patty that wasn’t tasty. Hey, wait a minute—the real words already end in the same letter. They didn’t need to change the Y to an EE to make them match! It’s like that N.W.A song that rhymes “toofless” with “roofless” as though toothless didn’t already rhyme with ruthless. Back, pop culture, back. Get out of my head now; we’ve got some eating to do.

Recession Special

Today's Specials

Tastee Pattee has only a counter and a few seats, but a sign promises hot meals, and the glass cabinet front is clouded with steam from soupy chafing dishes full of what looks like jerked goat, barbecue chicken, and other comfort food. Damaso orders jerked goat, and I’m under-dressed and freezing so I ask whether we can close the front door while we eat. The woman behind the counter first tells Damaso they’re out of jerked goat, and then tells me I can’t close the door because they’re about to close anyway. Maybe she would have let us order hot food to go, but it’s way too cold to stay outside very long, so we ask for patties to snack on while we look for someplace we can sit and eat. The sign in the window advertises, among other tasty patty treats, Lead Pipe, Tennis Roll, and Choice Bread. I’d be happy to make a meal of mysteriously named patties, but she only has one veggie patty left, and the tone of her voice does not imply that she’s interested in selling it to the likes of us. We head back into the cold, empty handed.

What I’d taken for a business district appears to be only one street wide and maybe four blocks long. Tastee Pattee is on one end of it, so we headed back past the subway station to check the other side. In front of the station is a gyro cart and a concrete plaza. If it were 20 degrees warmer, I’d be so happy to eat cart food and sit outside, but instead I hug my hungry stomach for warmth and keep walking. Another patty shop is closed. Inside we can see leftover patties filed on baking shelves and luridly colored cupcakes in disordered rows on wax paper.

Finally we spot the word “Yummy” on an awning and head towards it. Yummy food is actually my favorite kind, and anyway we’re out of options. Yummy turns out, not surprisingly to be a Chinese take-out storefront of the kind that usually divides customers from employees with bulletproof glass. Here the kitchen is exposed, and a few stools face the front window. We study the food photos over the counter as well as the offerings in the paper menu, although like any other New Yorkers, we know full well what’s available without needing to see. We order combo platters—egg roll, pork fried rice, and sesame chicken for him, General Tso’s for me. I spent a lot of time in China asking people about generals and chicken, and that guy just didn’t exist.

Yummy Yummy

Yummy Yummy Chinese Food Free Delivery

The food was—well, if you’re a New Yorker, you know how the food was. If you don’t, well, it had a lot of corn starch in it and was gluey and bland. I was so cold and hungry that I nibbled off the end of my egg roll as soon as it came and then had to put it back in its paper wrapping so Damaso could take a photo of all the food. Before I had a chance to put it back though, he somehow stole a photo of me clenching the egg roll like a starving waif. The egg roll is mostly dough and cabbage, but it’s hot and fried, so I enjoy it. Neither of us manages to finish our main course though. Damaso tries to engage the deliveryman in small talk about how the neighborhood’s changed, but the reticent local isn’t much help. I’m pleased to see a uniformed MTA employee picking up dinner, as we’ve seen on several of our trips. Maybe I should have waited to see what he ordered.

Waif with egg roll

Couldn't wait

General Tso's Chicken

Sesame Chicken

Me eating and writing

Back on the cold street we pass African and West Indian supply stores, for-rent signs, and a plethora of beauty supply stores selling human hair. As usual, I’m not satisfied and insist on stopping in a deli before heading back. I want dessert, and I want it to be more exotic than the meal. The deli doesn’t disappoint. I load up on three-for-a-dollar homemade coconut-ginger clusters, tamarind chews, and mint squares. I also buy a bag of Grace brand plantain chips (platanitos), a package of Busta almond-coconut candy (everything has coconut!), one large bottle of premium aloe vera drink (the word “juice” does not appear on the bottle), and, at Damaso’s suggestion, a box of Tunnock’s caramel milk chocolate wafers that come in a beautiful red and gold foil package. On the subway home we savor the chewy wafers, and I just washed down the plantain chips with aloe vera juice, oops premium aloe vera drink, while writing this. Guess Canarsie wasn’t a total wash, but neither was it a vaudeville paradise. I’m ready to hop on the next train to the end of the line.

Last stop Canarsie map

Photographs by Damaso Reyes

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