Queens Walking: IX

The ninth in my series of walking meditations on various neighborhoods in Queens.

Jamaica

Ambulances are screaming as I come up from the subway at 169th Street. I tussle my hair — a nervous tick — as they skid down the road, their incessant wail oscillating through the stale air. I’m not sure where to walk — unusual for me. I eventually head west, and then a southward turn on Merrick Boulevard. I glance down chained off alleyways in between buildings, my gaze met with nothing but dirt and gravel. Two guys are laughing outside of Krome Nails & Barbershop, stamping out cigarettes and grinning, air whistling through their clenched teeth. The barbershop is pumping music out the door. Rap and synth own that pinch of sidewalk.

Calls to Jesus Christ echo on Jamaica Avenue. Underneath the crumbling marquee of The Tabernacle of Prayer, a man intones religious epithets and waves pamphlets in feverish desperation. Feet pound the faded red brick with a heavy listlessness. Rows of discount stores and generic clothing outlets line the avenue, and I stop to watch a battery-operated dog jolt around inside a plastic bin outside a toy store. I don’t remember the names of these shops, and they aren’t on Google Maps. No websites, no Yelp reviews. You have to be in Jamaica to know them.

Down on Liberty Avenue, I stroll the wide open sidewalks through York City College. The rusty buildings sit far off the street, distant from the wrought iron fence that bars my entrance. I am the only person out walking on this Saturday morning. The school, in its quiet and its distance, seems to be holding its breath in anticipation; it waits for the moment when the padlocks are taken down, the chains wrapped and stored away, and the bright young students return again, breathing ebullient hope back into its musty brick walls. But this is only my imagination — a posture, a thesis. I can only be sure of the emptiness I see in this moment.

I’m back on Jamaica Avenue and I spot a warm olive building with a flowering sign for Jamaica Market. I go in expecting a farmers’ market of some sort, or at least the first grocery store of my walk. But Jamaica Market is a food court with deep fried ice cream and Chinese food. I slump through without stopping, heaving open the double doors that spit me out into an abandoned parking lot. I follow the sound of a rising crowd, whoops and hollers and the steady voice of a matronly woman. I turn a corner and discover the back entrance of the L’Eglise Baptiste de Bethanie. Mûres appels à Jésus-Christ.

There are signs leading to Rufus King Park. I can see the fringes of it, blossoming trees blanketed in pink flowers, a few wispy clouds floating overhead. I choose not to walk to the park. There is something in me that is weary, weighty, driving me back to the subway. It’s a weekend noon and I just want to sit by myself, let the numbing white noise of the subway car sedate me for a little while. I find myself underneath the Long Island Railroad, boots crunching over the grey crumble of dirt, empty whisky bottles, sticks, cigarette butts. And then, leaning up against the cracked cement wall, there is a bird. It’s puffed up in that way, when dead bodies release hormones and fluids that make the carcass swell and harden. Its wings are broken and hang at odd angles, tiny fragile bones snapped into submission. Its grey mantle is specked with a brilliant purple, and its eyes are squeezed shut, one last involuntary protection for itself. I stood for quite some time with this bird, took comfort in its stillness. As if it was just resting its eyes for a moment. The seconds passed. I honored its gentle sleep, and then I left it there to rest. I chose peace for that bird.