Wednesday, February 28, 2007


Arrive early or late enough, and all doors will be closed. Blissville's hours are 9 to 5. President Clinton would have called it an ideal Enterprise Zone, for here small businesses abound.

It's an economy of flux. Some businesses fail, and others thrive. But one, Wonton Food, supercedes all others. For there, they make more fortune cookies than anywhere else in the world, all in an anonymous white building at the end of the block that stands catty-corner to the cemetery.

Tuesday, February 27, 2007


In 1891 the trains surely stopped in Blissville.

It's more than a century later and I've never seen a train stop. But if I'm awake in the depths of the night, sometimes I hear the whistle blow.

Sunday, February 25, 2007

Deli Bookkeeping

Joy and Michael bought the deli from Derek. They had never owned a deli before. They had only worked in a deli somewhere in the East 60's, where their customers enjoyed gourment coffees, French chocolates and Scottish shortbreads. But they were confident they were ready for the next step, a deli in Blissville.

Over the next days I watched them clean. They removed the products that had grown stale and dusty and brought in fresh fruit. They expanded their cereal section, and added instant soups, too. They invested several thousand dollars for lighting under the awning, hoping to attract the early morning drivers revving their trucks before the sun was up. And for good measure, they installed an ATM machine.

They had a vision different from Derek's. They wanted an airy, bright space, and so they stripped the windows of their tinting so that sun could shine in again. And it did, all the way across the linoleum floor.

But with that single move, their problems began.

They received their first ticket for selling cigarettes without a license. Derek didn't have a license, but he had friends. Joy and Michael didn't. They didn't know anyone in Blissville, nor beyond.

The next day the police dropped in to issue another ticket, this time for selling beer without a license.

But Joy and Michael got their heftiest ticket the following day, for letting customers drink beer there. Because without the tinting to obscure that after-hours custom, they'd left the police no choice.

Now they owed the loan for the awning, the price of the tickets (a thousand plus), and the price for the lawyer (many thousands).

But they weren't going to give up. They cut back on what they stocked. They inched up their prices. And they doubled-brewed the coffee.

Many laughed, shook their heads and wondered who would own the deli next. But I didn't. I knew that their success was our success, and their failures, our loss. And in the meantime I would wait and switch to tea.

Tuesday, February 20, 2007

The Night Man

The man I love pulls at my hand, leading me to the garage across the street from where he works. It is late, and we have returned from eating out. "There is someone I want you to meet." He calls into the dark garage.

A silhouette nears us.

"Hey, man, this is my wife."

The tall, thin man nods toward me, a greeting, and I nod back. "Where are you from?"

"I am from Africa."


"You know Africa? I am from Côte Ivoire. Ivory Coast."

"Where in Côte Ivoire?"

"You know my country? Vous parlez français?"

"No, no, I know it only from the map."


My beloved stirs. "What are you doing, man, working so late?"

"This is my job."

"Yeah, but so late, man."

"How many people you send money to?"

"My mother. My children."

"I work another job, as a cleaner, before coming here. After I leave here, sometimes I find a few more hours at another garage."

We stand looking at each other through the chain link fence that separate us.

"You working so hard, man."

The man on the other side nods. "That's because I support a village."

Monday, February 19, 2007

The Birds of Blissville

Herring gulls
Black-backed gulls
House finches
And once, a great blue heron, high overhead.

P.S. 80

In the brick school that overlooks all of Blissville, boys entered from the front, girls from the side, so the stone lintels dictated anyway.

Judging by its architecture, it must have been built around the turn of the century. Its builders constructed it to last a century or more. They couldn't have known that events greater than weather and age would force the school to close its doors, only after 30 years or so. Blissville lost much of its population in the years of the second World War.

In the peace that followed, new people came to Blissville, even a community of Satmars. They bought the school and converted the building into a yeshiva.

But after five years or so, they left to migrate to Williamsburg, where they still live.

And so the school emptied out again. It stood vacant during the the 1960s passed, the 1970s, and for part of the 1980s, until an outside investor purchased it. He renovated it, then turned it into a hotel. He named it the City View Motor Inn after the top rooms that look over all of Blissville, out to the skyline of Manhattan .

Then for some reason he sold it. One after another, hotel hopefuls tried to make it work, five owners in five years. And still the building stood empty.

Mohammad Daoud is its latest owner, smarter and more determined than his predecessors.

His first move was to join forces with Best Western. He's been with them now over 15 years.

Then he renovated the hotel again until barely a vestige of the old school remained.

He instituted a shuttle service to the airports and city. And he signed on to take LaGuardia Airport's stranded passengers. He has garnered business from the Brooklyn Navy Yard, the Chamber of Commerce and the District Attorney's office, all because of his innitiatives.

A room at the Best Western here starts at $150. A room with a view costs twice as much. But all rooms include his Delux Complimentary Continental Breakfast, with fresh juice, donuts and bagels with a special bagel cutter.

And now the 71 rooms are always occupied.

Saturday, February 17, 2007

Another Story from the Deli

The deli was Derek's dream, and he made it his own.

He stopped stocking flour and sugar and anything else for baking. He left only the ready-made, the Yodels, Ring Dings and Devil Dogs. He wasn't interested in being a small grocery store.

He took out the radio that played oldies all day long. In its place he mounted a flat-screened TV for soap operas and baseball. He cleared out the bottles of Tide and Cheer sitting on the window shelves and tinted the glass so no one could see in. I didn't know what he was doing. I missed the sweet days of Mohammad and Ernesto when the sun shone across the linoleum floor each morning.

But Derek had his own vision. He may have lost me, but he drew in plenty of others. On Friday and Saturday nights his deli was packed with burly guys I'd never seen before. Word had gotten around. At Derek's, a man could buy a beer for a dollar and watch the game in the company of men. Who needed a bar?

Some days I'd hear the grates go down as late as eleven. But the next morning he was always there to raise them at six.

I wondered how long he could keep these hours. Despite his protests I thought they were taking their toll. He said he missed his family.

One day he admitted he wasn't making a profit. But after years of working as a moving man for a large company, he was determined to be his own man. Maybe he'd have better luck with another deli elsewhere.

I kept my doubts to myself. One year passed. Then another. And still another.

Then one bright Saturday, I saw Derek packing up. He had sold his deli, for the same price he'd paid. He shrugged. It could have been worse. As for what was next? He didn't know. But it wouldn't be working for someone else.

Friday, February 16, 2007

Another Life

Alfredo is putting his papers away by the time I arrive. He's finished his four or so hour stint as a newspaper man, in picking them up in Manhattan and selling them here under the LIE. By the time I see him, he is almost out of papers.

When I ask him how the work is, he nods, smiles, $200 a week. He used to work another post, but he likes it better in Blissville. "More tips," he says.

I try to calculate how much he must walk because in the time we talk he hasn't stopped walking. He must walk for three hours without a break. Ten miles at least, I think.

He is readying to return to his apartment in Jackson Heights. He'll rest and play with his small daughter, his treasure. Then, later in the afternoon, he'll head out again, to his second job as a bartender at a catering service. The next morning he'll wake at 4:30 to start another day.

Alfredo wasn't always a newspaperman. He didn't always live here.

Alfredo is from Bogotá. He studied business administration at Colombia's most prestigious university, earned an MBA, and landed a job at one of the state banks. He managed something inside the bank, but I missed what. I just understood that he loved his job.

Then the bank closed. The state gave no one any warning or notice. One day Alfredo had a job, the next day he didn't.

The next six months he sought work in every corner of the city. The economy was falling and many other banks closed, too. He sold his car and moved to a smaller apartment. Finally, at the suggestion of his mother who lived in New York, he came north. That was six years ago.

When Alfredo goes home, the paper he takes is The New York Times. "It has many long words. But I try. Good for practicing for my English."

With English, perhaps someone will recognize his degree. And then he'll be able to return to the profession he loves.

Thursday, February 15, 2007

First Snow

Bent fenders, broken radiators, wrinkled doors, smashed trunks. And everyone in a hurry at the garage.

Some chauffeurs remembered to tip the mechanic whose cold hands worked to put the car back together again. Other drivers paid and fled, because there were passengers waiting and money to be made.

Wednesday, February 14, 2007


Valentine's Day 2007. The sleet scratches against the window pane while my beloved softly sleeps.

I no longer see the scar, left on the screen from a rock someone threw at our window. I no longer wonder who did it, nor even the why of his gesture. I have let it go.

Tuesday, February 13, 2007

The Day of Rest

Blissville is home to over 25 garages, who, in turn, employ countless mechanics and bodymen. The car-repair business surely is the neighborhood's economic mainstay.

They open at 8:00 and close around 6:00. Only a few keep longer hours, working ten, fourteen or sixteen hour days, with two shifts for their mechanics. Six days a week they work these hours. They close only on Sunday.

Now there's a new garage in town, this one with a bold, fresh-painted front, a marquis even, and inside, a large skylight that illuminates a wide, clean space.

Being right off the exit, it's the first garage a person spots in Blissville. Men stand outside welcoming the lost commuter in need of a tire change.

Something about seeing them, gaily hailing customers, even on Sundays, made me happy. Anyone can make his home in Blissville, I thought.

I use Sundays to wander around the neighborhood. The streets are empty, the neighborhood still.

This Sunday my walk took me to a side street where yellow fumes poured out into the air. I walked closer. I peeked in. Someone was painting a car in the open, without any of the usual protections against toxic particulates. Even the bodyman painting wasn't wearing a mask. I walked around the block. Who was this?

The newcomer. Because it was Sunday, the day of impunity.

Monday, February 12, 2007

I Spy

I've been on both sides backed in traffic when the bridge raises. Tankers, tugs and dredgers still pass through the Newtown Creek. Usually I'm stuck too far away to catch a glimpse of what is passing through, too blocked by the trucks in front of me to note if the boat is heading up creek or down creek.

Only a few times I've been close enough to hear the clanging bells signaling the gates going down and see a tower of a boat float through.

This the most modern drawbridge in Blissville, built originally in 1929 but overhauled in 1987. I used to think it was automated, propelled by a secret signal from whomever needed access.

But I've starting watching the cabin at the summit of the bridge. Sometimes the light is on, and sometimes it's not. On lonely Sundays I've seen the quick shift, from one person to another. I've even seen cars pull up to deliver what must surely be food. They keep to themselves. None of this sates my curiosity.

I am my mother's daughter, I think. She loved to drive by people's houses at dusk and gaze into their windows, imagining other lives, anything but her own.

Sunday, February 11, 2007

The Things That Divide Us

Dekek had once been a morning customer at the deli, one of the the green t-shirted men from Marathon Moving Company. They came in each morning for eggs and bacon on rolls. I greeted them all, but I confess, I never noticed Derek any more than the rest of them.

They were there the day of the O.J. Simpson verdict, too. That morning everyone had an opinion, and no one could leave without offering one. When it came to my turn, I said guilty, even as I recognized it as a test on race, not abuse.

Years passed. When Ernesto left, I boycotted the deli. Then word came that someone new had bought the business. I went to visit.

A man I vaguely recognized stood at the cash register. I introduced myself, and he told me his name was Derek. "You don't remember me? From Marathon?"

"You remember me?"

"I would never forget you. You were the girl who thought O.J. was guilty."

I shook my head, amazed he would have stored that casual moment, as if he had lifted the image of that day out of the stop bath and into the fixer for preserving forever. I looked back at him, unwilling once again to let go of the challenge. "Do you still think he's innocent?"

Years had passed and more evidence had come to light. He smiled. "Guilty with extenuating circumstances."

I smiled back. I didn't know him well enough to tell him about my own marital abuse. Besides, I had survived.

Friday, February 09, 2007


Most days, two ambulances stand across from the cemetery. Because they're only a few doors down from the Ladder Company, I used to assume they belonged to it.

But they are parked in front of an ordinary brick building with a red door that says "Bio-Recovery" in small letters. Nothing else gives away what the company does.

It was a unique concept, I suppose, a business dedicated to cleaning up after disaster, whether fire, flood, or death. A fire or flood can take up to three weeks to rid a home of mold. It requires bulky vaccuums and bags of soda. Death, on the other hand, takes just a day or two to clean. The fresher the discovery, the faster to disinfect.

When I visited, two bodies lay boxed in cardboard, suicides each. One was a young man who had come to the city from upstate. He lived alone, in his own world. But someone, at least, noticed his death.

The other, a man in his late thirties, was still not identified. He was so invisible to his neighbors that he had been dead for a week before someone called the police.

I like to think that in this city of eight million, we are not anonymous. But sometimes we are.

Thursday, February 08, 2007

Is Blissville Real?

"Why don't we meet in Blissville," I offer.

"What is Blissville?" the friend asks.

I explain that it's a wedge of land near the LIE and BQE, on the Hagstroms. Simple to find, easy to get to.

But Blissville must cast a spell of its own. How else to explain why so many friends, deliverymen and taxi drivers disappear in trying to get here?

Wednesday, February 07, 2007

Ernesto's House

I met Ernesto at the Blissville Deli. His was the first face I saw behind the counter. There were days when I came in elated, and others when I entered weeping. Through it all, Ernesto never wavered in his kindness.

That was back when Mohammad owned the deli. Mohammad was from Kabul, an engineer lucky enough to leave before the Russians invaded.

Mohammad taught Ernesto everything he knew about the business. They became friends in the way an employee and owner can. Only Ernesto believed his friend should retire. He worried Mohammad would have another heart attack.

Ernesto is from Puebla. He lived in the house next to the deli with his wife and her four children. One year Ernesto and his wife had a baby together. At dusk on summer nights I would see him cradling her in his arms up and down the street.

If Mohammad could have, he would have sold the deli to Ernesto. But Ernesto had no money or saving.

Mohammad spent a year with prospective buyers before he sold it to David.

David didn't want to pay Ernesto the same wages. He didn't like the idea of Ernesto handling the money at the cash register. Or any of the others whom Mohammad had hired. One by one he let them go, keeping only Ernesto. But he reduced Ernesto's salary until finally he was forced to leave. And then year later, David sold the deli. He couldn't figure how to make it work.

And Ernesto? He found work at a deli elsewhere in Blissville, further away. He moved to a less expensive apartment on a busier street.

It's been four years now, and I still miss him.

Tuesday, February 06, 2007


Behind the counter at the Blissville Deli hang rolls of lotto cards in brash, electric colors. Oh, the promises they offer!

Once phone cards hung in their place. Some offered special deals for calling West Africa, some China. While others, the array of South American countries. Just buy a card, scratch off the randomly produced number on the back and get hours of conversation from home, the fine print said.

And if that weren't enough, now there's a machine that can produce a magic number for wherever a person could yearn for.

Monday, February 05, 2007

Warm Bread on a Cold, Cold Day

It was a regular sight, the flat loaves of Afghan bread stacked on shelves to cool by the door.

But after September 11th, things changed. Its owner, Najib, lost his major clients, Zabar's, Balluchi's, Bloomingdale's and Market Place. People smashed his windows. Others, in the lost hours of the night, fired bullets into his door. For a while, Najib closed his doors, undone by the stress of it all.

Meanwhile, the police stationed a car on the hill by the cemetery to watch over the little bakery. They told him he should paint over Afghan. So Najib replaced Afghan with Kabul.

One day the police told Najib they couldn't protect him any more. He was on his own.

Najib kept on. His clients returned. And person can still walk in and buy a freshly baked loaf for a $1.25.

Who Is J. Michalos?

Noticed on Sunday: two nudes wired to the gate of the large scaffolding lot on Van Dam, the painter's signature in the lower right corner.

Sunday, February 04, 2007

A Summer's Day Gone

Once there was a mulberry tree behind this fence, and a cedar, too, where a thousand sparrows made their home. They chattered each daybreak through all the seasons. No sleeping in, they chanted. Or so I thought.

Behind the trees stood a tank pool. Not that I saw it, because I didn't – but I heard the splashes and glee of the neighborhood's children on summer afternoons.

The owners of the house (on the left) had lived there for generations. And then one day they sold it and left the city. The new owner dismantled the pool and cut down the trees.

Now I listen to machinery in the mornings and wonder where the birds could have gone.

Saturday, February 03, 2007

A Buyer's Market

I met a scrapper one day. He was pushing almost ton of car parts (his words) in his shopping cart. He said not many could do what he was doing, not many would be able to push so much metal along the streets. He was wiry and muscled, and in the summer noon heat, sweat gathered on his arms and chest.

He slept on the street. Selling scrap was his job. He said he always looked for the best price. Maybe he went from shop to shop, because there's a scrap metal shop here in Blissville, and three more over the bridge in Greenpoint. Scrappers are a common sight here.

Years later a friend who works in recycling explained the economics: the tankers that arrive with manufactured goods from abroad (mostly China) don't return empty, but laden with scrap and paper. Paper is the city's biggest export volumetrically. But scrap is its most lucrative.

Friday, February 02, 2007

No Escaping the Present

I lived here 15 years before I discovered the 1630 Club, just doors down the street from where I live. But Blissville is like that. It gives up its treasures slowly.

There, underneath the American Legion Post 1630, is a bar with vintage 1950s paneling. Photos of local heros decorate the walls. Some date back to the first World War. A juke box offers the songs from my parent's era. And a Heinekin costs $1, a whisky $2.

And behind the bar stands an autographed photo of Kelly Ripa, who once came in for a drink.