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Solo Looks Back

4 Remembering 30th Avenue, Astoria, Queens, New York

Solo Looks Back is all about nostalgia and this month’s is a personal glance at the past in Astoria, Queens in New York City.

It’s been said that nostalgia used to be a sickness. Now described as ‘a longing for the past, often in idealised form’, it apparently was once an actual illness, which thankfully went on to lose its disease status during the 1850s. And though it’s generally not considered by the modern masses in such severe terms, it’s still deemed by many to be quite an intense sort of emotion, often evoked by the simplest of things.
It’s around a decade or so now since I lived in New York and my memories have faded over the years. While it used to take me but a moment to recall a person, a place, a conversation, it’s all more of a blur these days. Or a happy haze. My life in New York was hardly pain free, but for the sake of memories I know only the good times. In other words, it’s a nostalgic sentiment, seen through rose-tinted glasses.
Then it all came back into sharp focus again recently when I came across a link to the Bridge and Tunnel Club (www.bridgeandtunnelclub.com) – a photobloggers’ website that apparently features street level pictures of almost every neighbourhood in New York City. Without even leaving my desk I was able to take a cyber-walk down 30th Avenue in Astoria, Queens, which is exactly where I lived for at least a year. And that’s when I believed that nostalgia could be an sickness because I literally felt ill with that longing for the past.
Perhaps one of the most overwhelming things about Astoria is how far removed it is from the force of Manhattan, where I made my rather lucrative living waiting tables. Mid-town is all about Fifth Avenue and Bloomingdales and people in power suits. It’s where I saw Jerry Seinfeld on Madison and once crossed 55th and Sixth in step with Tony Danza, who was dashingly handsome in a black suit while incongruously carrying a white plastic bag. But get on the subway at 57th and Seventh and 20 minutes later you are standing in the Greek pocket of Queens, where the buildings have shrank and the streets have narrowed and the population has changed.
And so I’m scrolling through the photos and I can just make out the steps I would descend when I’d get off the train. I can’t see Genovese – the drugstore where I used to buy cigarettes and endless bottles of nail polish – but I know if it’s still there it’s just up the street. I can see Trade Fair, the slightly dingy supermarket on the corner that never seemed to close. It’s sunny in the pictures, which is just as I remember Astoria. Always sunny and smelling of heat. I keep scrolling and I see the front window of Joseph J. Gentile’s law office that I’m sure was operating in my time too. As was Chen’s Variety Center and the Astoria Candy Corp. Then it’s the newsstand right next to the station where I know, I just know, that many a time I bought a paper or magazine. And it was right around there that I would find a gypsy cab to take me to work on a Sunday if I was feeling lazy and thought that traffic might be quieter. Now I’m looking at Best of The Sea and I think this was a seafood restaurant that I never went into but I definitely had a manicure in the salon beside it on New Year’s Eve, 1997. The next photo brings me to the end of that block where Pavilion Florals sits on the corner and I can’t remember whether that was there or not when I was. Then I look across the street and I’m mesmerised because the Athens Cafe is still standing with its outdoor seats and awnings. This would be where I discovered frappes and Greek tart and where my friends and I would go for ice cold beers when we didn’t quite feel like playing pool in the Irish bar further up the street. It was like a slightly trendier joint in the midst of the surrounding kitsch.
The photo of the Athens Cafe is taken at such an angle that I’m looking back down the street towards the subway and where my apartment was. I can’t see 31-13 30th Avenue but I know it’s there behind the trees. I lived on the top floor and from my bedroom window I used to be able to watch the chef in the restaurant opposite making pizza dough. And sometimes I would sunbathe on the roof and still be able to get the aroma of souvlakis coming from the street below. And so I’m scrolling and staring and understanding the sickness of nostalgia because it feels for just a brief moment that I might die of it. It’s power, its cruelty, is almost palpable because it’s a longing, an actual pull, to go back – and of course we can never go back. We can only go forward and at least I can shut down my computer before I go booking the next flight to JFK, only to discover that it’s no longer 1997, I am no longer 25, and nostalgia has played me for a fool. Still, I guess I could have a glass of wine in the Athens Cafe, just for old time’s sake.


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  1. It’s true… it’s like a moment of someone else’s life we lived. Everything so strange and foreign and, yet, somehow totally accessible. Hello to Pinnochio’s from San Francisco!

    Posted by carrieclarkspark | October 9, 2008, 5:30 am