M: Middle Village, Metropolitan Ave., Queens

Posted on February 23rd, 2012 by Viveca in The End of the Line

You Are Here: Middle Village location MTA map

Saturday, February 19, 2011

Yesterday kids were playing basketball outdoors in t-shirts and shorts, but today February returned with a vengeance, the wind biting fiercely into any inch of exposed flesh. As this was only our second excursion, I wanted to go as far as possible, to head to the southern reaches of Brooklyn or the northern limits of the Bronx, but Damaso was already hungry and cold and suggested one of the mid-city termini, the G to Church Avenue or Court Square perhaps. We squinted at The Map debating how far we could journey before starvation and hypothermia would cripple our Shackleton expedition, and The Map gave us our compromise: the M train was perfect. The line isn’t too long, so we could get to the end before wasting away from hunger, but no other lines end near it, so my obsessive need to push boundaries would be sated. We set off to take the M train to Middle Village, Metropolitan Avenue—the end of the line.

Not too long later, we were walking towards the yellow metal bumpers that waited to send the train back whence it came. A giant Toys R Us and K-Mart building looms over the station, and a Lutheran cemetery stretches endlessly in front of it. Train behind us, big box retailer to our left, and cemetery in front made it easy to decide to turn right, where we found two pizza shops flanking a bar… and that’s it. It didn’t look like there was another business for miles around, and the wind through the cemetery was brutal, so we quickly turned in to what was apparently our only sit-down choice, P. J. Quinn’s Bar & Grill.

As soon as we walked in, we realize this isn’t what we had in mind. Almost every bar stool is occupied, but the tables all yawn empty, and the strange, odd smell that hits us upon entry does not pique our appetites. It’s 6pm on a Saturday, but the bartender is nonplussed when I ask whether they’re serving food and assures me this is a bar not a restaurant. Is it my imagination, or are the other patrons laughing at my ignorance? We defend our mistake, pointing out that the sign outside announces a bar and grill, but the bartender just shrugs and says it’s an old sign. “Anyway,” she adds, “Bar & grill sounds better.”

Bartender

Conversation on the bar stools closest to the front door has stopped for our interruption, so we take advantage of the attention to ask where the nearest restaurant is. Again, we’re stared at as people wonder at our clear obliviousness; there is a pizza counter just next door. We explain that we’re looking for a sit-down restaurant, and someone points out that we can get slices to go and return to the bar to wash them down with some beer. Other options are an Arby’s “pretty far” to the right, a Chinese place past the Toys R Us to our left, and a different pizza place with a sit-down Italian restaurant in back that’s the crowd agrees is pretty good: “Just keep walking,” they tell us. “Walk pass the K-Mart, the Toys R Us, and the BJ’s, and you’ll see it.”

We leave, but the strong wind makes it hard even to push open the heavy wooden bar door.

We make it back to the subway station, perhaps all of 20 feet, which feels like a heroic effort. In front of us we see only the cemetery and the chain stores, and I know Damaso is already regretting not staying in the bar for a beer. We abandon plans. Hey, it’s not really about the food, right? Flexibility is a virtue in adversity, and the bar offers us the chance to talk with the denizens of Middle Village, which (although consciously I realize I’m conflating it with Tolkien’s Middle Earth) still sounds magical and mysterious to my subconscious associations.

We turn in to Metro Deli & Pizza, and although it offers only standard deli fare, we’re both seized with options analysis paralysis and wander aimlessly around touching bags of chips and gazing at tuna salad mounds in the display cabinet. Finally I notice the names of the specialty sandwiches, and while I don’t believe in signs, I do believe in themes. We order the MTA (pastrami, corned beef, and provolone) and the NYPD (roast beef and salami) and ask for them hot. While our sandwiches are being prepared, we grab one bag of childhood comfort in the form of original Bugles and one bag of Middle Village exotica labeled “Jalapeño Trio Smart Fries.” The cashier offers us two free cans of soda with our meals.

Deli sandwich menu

Viveca browsing chips

The bar patrons are delighted to see us return, and we’re delighted to be in America, where bar patrons talk to strangers. (Damaso’s been living in Europe, where he says they don’t.) P.J. Quinn’s doesn’t have anything on tap, so Damaso makes the bartender name every beer they have in bottles but then asks for a Guinness, which she hasn’t named and they don’t have although they do have a prominent illuminated Guinness clock. Eventually he orders a vodka and cranberry, and I order a cranberry and soda. Our drinks come in tiny crystal stem glasses, and we unwrap our sandwiches on the bar to dig in.

unwrapping our sandwiches

sandwiches on barExcept for their proximity to the arctic blasts from the occasional times the front door opens, our corner seats are the best in the joint. To our right, a middle-aged couple appears to be putting money into a large computer monitor. They notice me watching them and explain it’s a game showing them two almost identical pictures, and they have to spot all the differences. Sure, like in Highlights.

They ask us where we’re from, and we both say we live in Brooklyn, “But where are you originally from?” they insist, focusing on Damaso, who assures them he was born and raised here. They’re getting tipsy, and their voices grow louder as they insist that he doesn’t have a Brooklyn accent and that even if he were born there, he must have grown up some place else. He doesn’t have a Brooklyn accent, but neither does he have any other discernible accent, and I can’t help but wonder whether the insistence on his foreignness isn’t covering for something else—he’s the only person of color in the bar. Is a dreadlocked black man an exotic foreigner in this white, middle class part of Queens?

I ask where they think he’s from, and they say he talks like he’s from the Midwest. I say that’s me as I grew up in Chicago, and the man of the couple tells me that although his mother was raised in the Orthodox Jewish Brooklyn neighborhoods near where I live now, he grew up in Michigan.

new friend at bar

In front of us behind the bar is a cage full of bingo balls, and to our left stretches the line of bar stools. The seat immediately to my left is empty, and the older man on the next stool also gives in to his curiosity. It’s too loud for him to have heard what we told the first couple. “Where are you from,” he asks, in a throaty rasp that I can barely make out over the loud music, “do you live around here?” He eyes me up and down before asking his follow-up question, “You aren’t a Yankees fan, are you?”

I eye him up and down too. While we’re talking he pulls on a NY Mets jacket over his NY Mets sweatshirt. He’s also wearing a NY Mets baseball cap.

Mets fan

“Nope,” I assure him. “I grew up in Chicago and then lived 10 years in Boston. I’ve been carefully trained my whole life to hate all NY sports teams.”

He nods slowly and thoughtfully before signaling his grudging acceptance, “just so long as you’re not a Yankees fan.”

Above the bar, three televisions play three different channels without closed captioning. Behind us in the vacant main area is a pool table with red felt, and along the back wall is an Internet juke box (My Touch Tunes) and some video game called Broadway. Nobody touches them.

The bartender, Eileen, keeps coming back to our side of the bar. I thought she was curious about us, but it turns out that she is friends with the couple. Eileen and Vicky worked together at the NY Stock Exchange for 20 years, before Eileen was laid off four and a half years ago and returned to tend the bar she’d worked at two decades earlier. Vicky still works at the stock exchange, so I ask whether she has any thoughts on the Deutsche burse-NYSE merger announced yesterday. She rolls her eyes and says, oh yes, she has thoughts about it, but she can’t say what they are while she still works there.

We ask Eileen how the bar has changed over the years, and she describes how crowded it used to get with heavy-drinking, high-spending stock traders. Before last year’s MTA cuts, the M was a straight shot to the financial district, and the bar was a regular haunt for commuters returning from Wall Street. We’re not the only ones who want to enter the first place they see after getting out of the subway. As Wall Street’s been hit, the bar has had fewer and fewer patrons, and the ones who are left spend less. Vicky’s husband Jim was also laid off from his job as an equities trader and has been out of work for 14 months.

Damaso’s photo taking doesn’t raise any eyebrows, but my note taking does. Vicky asks me what I’m writing down, and we tell them about our project. They say we should do a story on how the recession has affected New Yorkers in each neighborhood we visit. They’re worried about Eileen and about themselves. Vicky feels trapped in an organization that prizes youth and wants the longest-tenured workers out. I ask why she doesn’t leave, and she looks at me with pity for my naïveté. “There aren’t any jobs out there,” she explains sadly. “There aren’t any jobs for someone like me.”

The sandwiches are fine, uninspiring. The Bugles are smaller than I remember from the boxes I used to tear through as a kid. I try to make a full set of Bugle fingernails, but they crack and break off my fat fingers. The Smart Fries are puffed and fakey without much taste. Damaso’s drink is strong, but my thimble of soda leaves me thirsty. We order another round. When Damaso asks the bartender when she got the rose tattooed on her chest, she proudly puffs her cleavage and asks whether he’d like to take a photo of it. She’s a far cry from the Dominican waitress in Inwood who was so camera-shy she almost ran away.

bartender Eileen

By now the raspy Mets fan has limped out on what appears to be a prosthetic leg. What is his story? I probably should have tried to draw him out more, but it was so hard to understand him over Eileen singing along to Guns N Roses. At least I found out he used to work in sanitation in Coney Island, but that doesn’t even hint at what happened to his throat or his leg.

As everyone who remains grows more comfortable talking to one another, the conversation gets more personal and more heated if also more scattered. In an argument I never quite understand, Jim blames government regulation for the financial collapse, “because the government didn’t stop the banks from cheating.” I point out that his argument seems to blame the lack of regulation, and he says it doesn’t matter how many laws you have if you can’t enforce them. Vicky tells us about her hard childhood and how she’s spent the last six years taking care of her cancer-ridden mother. Jim tells me he hates the Cubs and how the mid-70s Cincinnati Reds were the greatest team of all time. He’s wearing a Red cap. Damaso says he likes the Cyclones. Jim and Vicky lament the lack of local restaurants and say the few times they eat out, they want to support local businesses but that it’s hard without options. It’s a family neighborhood, so an Applebee’s would be do very well they bet and would be a great addition to the area. Again I don’t understand how eating at Applebee’s would support local business, but apparently my sobriety makes me dense, as I’m unable to follow many of the conversation’s threads.

When Eileen’s shift ends, we close out our tabs, and she joins us on the civilian side of the bar for a vodka and Coke. “Nobody drinks that,” I point out foolishly and of course incorrectly. She flits in and out of the bar, smoking in the cold and then chatting with the regulars inside. We don’t have any excuse to stay, and eventually we can’t put off our exit any longer. We thank Jim and Vicky for our introduction to Middle Village and head back into the cold. It was a very interesting night, but I’m still hungry.

Photos by Damaso Reyes.

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2 Comments on “M: Middle Village, Metropolitan Ave., Queens”

  1. Michele O. Bowman

    Thank you very much for the nice post.

  2. Adriana

    thanks for share!

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