This guest post is brought to you by Christine Lee Zilka. Christine is a writer spending a year in New York City with her husband and her two geriatric wiener dogs. She earned her undergraduate degree from UC Berkeley and her MFA in Creative Writing from Mills College. She is currently an Editor-at-Large at Kartika Review and, in addition to writing short stories, she has a novel in progress. She writes at The Writers Room in Manhattan and can be found online at http://czilka.wordpress.com/ or as @czilka on twitter.
The stoic taxi driver asked us our destination.
As we wound our way downtown in the year 2011, my father started talking to the taxi driver, who maintained his stoicism, until my father waved at him and said, “I used to be a taxi driver too, in 1970.”
Dad took his question as permission to continue. “When I was driving, was twenty dollars from JFK to Manhattan, metered.”
My mom and dad were buzzing electric from witnessing an African American saxophone busker playing “Arirang” and then “Sahn Tokee,” two Korean songs they’d never expected to hear on the street in 2011, let alone in 1970 when they’d first arrived in the U.S., and lived in New York City. Back then, there were too few Koreans (fewer than 70,000 in the entire country to the 1.4 million counted in the 2000 census) to make a dent in mainstream America. There were no Korean grocery stores. My parents bought their groceries in Chinatown, and incorporated what they could into Korean homecooked cuisine (there were no Korean restaurants): kimchi made with western cabbage, lacking secret ingredients like salted shrimp, or rice made with unfamiliar brands, or soup flavored with delicate Japanese miso and not the more robust Korean miso paste.
My dad has been making friends all around town. His goal is to get to know some “oldies” in New York, even though I keep telling him he probably won’t run into any; he is 78, and his era is dying off, literally. And most 78 year olds won’t be found running the cash register at their old grocery stores, or dry cleaning shops. However, my dad is the kind of person who, if he ever meets the age of 110, will still think he’ll run into people his own age.
My dad was one of the first Koreans who immigrated to America after the 1965 Immigration Act, which allowed immigration into the U.S. from Asia to resume after a ban of over forty years. He landed in Queens with his wife, my mother, 2 pieces of luggage and $200 in his wallet, which he promptly spent on a hotel room in midtown, so cowed was he by this huge bustling city called New York City.
His money dwindling, the legend goes that a friend pointed him to much cheaper accommodations, a rent-by-the-week “hotel” in Harlem, where my mom and dad said they spent a week of sleepless nights cowering behind a door blockaded with the room’s dresser cabinet that blocked out the warring tenants but not the sound of screaming and physical altercations.
He and my mother made their way to Jackson Heights in Queens, where they leapt at renting an apartment close to a subway stop so that my mother could commute easily to work at the hospital. They were so grateful to be out of their previous living situation that they didn’t even notice that the apartment was indeed very close to the subway; the elevated tracks ran several feet outside their window.
Eventually, he and my mother made their way to Woodside, where after a short stint as an engineer at a large corporation and a longer stint as a cab driver, my dad opened up his own gas station, an Amoco, on the corner of Queens Boulevard and 65th Place, which still stands today, only as a BP station.
My father’s life, like many New Yorkers, revolved within less than a square mile; he would get up, walk down to the gas station for work, occasionally running back home for lunch but more often than not, eat a boxed lunch of leftovers at the station. He walked home in the nighttime and switched places with my mother, who by then was heading off to work on the night shift as a nurse at Elmhurst, two subway stops away.
There weren’t Korean community centers back then, in the early 1970s. There was only one Korean church, my parents told me, in Manhattan. So in many ways, his gas station became a hub of communication for Koreans. They’d drive in, my dad told me, and between driving up to the pump and paying the bill, they would ask for advice on life in this country, and my dad, an ex-professor bored out of his mind and one who lavished the act of mentoring, would proffer oodles of advice, while pumping their gas. Call ConEd for electricity, he’d say, and recite the 800 number by heart. My mom once told me that my father was so bored at his job he’d spend the lulls memorizing phone numbers and car license plates.
Now my father has come to visit NYC, our old home, and my current home for the year. He came with two objectives: to visit the Met, to which he has never been, and to tour his old haunts in Queens–in particular, Woodside and Jackson Heights.
My father, per the usual, called me several weeks in advance of his visit to announce his agenda to me: “I have two requirements! I see Metropolitan Museum of Art! Which I have never been to! And! We go to all places I used to live!” My dad, by the way, is deaf in one ear, and hollers more than speaks, his words.
“Okay!” I yelled back over the phone.
Over the weeks, his announcements revealed more granularity: “I have two requirements! I see Metropolitan Museum of Art! Which I have never been to! Mommy has seen it! But I have not! And! We go to all places I used to live! Jackson Heights! Woodside! Also! We go see grocery store, which I used to own! In Upper East Side!”
“Okay!” I yelled back over the phone. “See! You! Soon!”
“Why are you yelling?” my dad responded, “I can hear you! Don’t! Have! To! Yell! Also, I want to see old timers! Maybe they are still there?”
Right. He was holding the phone up to his good ear. “Dad, I think all the old timers are gone. New York has changed a lot.”
My dad spent the entire week remarking how much New York City had changed. We took the subway uptown to 89th and 1st Ave, where my parents’ grocery store used to stand. At 2nd avenue, my dad gestured towards a grocery store. “If that’s there, probably our store is no longer existing.”
“Maybe it’s still there.”
But it wasn’t. Where my parents’ grocery store used to be is now a laundromat. My parents stood stunned. I took photographs, wanting to capture the look on their faces–the look of people who hadn’t been back to the same place in 40 years, who thought that New York City and 1970, were just yesterday.
We moved on. “Maybe I see some old timers in Queens!” my dad announced on the 7. They both insisted on standing on the 7. Several people offered up their seats, but my parents refused. I explained, “My parents haven’t been back to New York City in 40 years, they want a good look.” People were amazed, interested.
“Has it changed?”
“Oh yeah!” said my dad, flabbergasted.
My mom whispered, “In 1970, used to be everyone on 7 line was white people.”
There wasn’t a single white person in the subway car on this particular Friday in late April, forty-one years later.
My parents were looking a bit forlorn, despite their fascination. Imagine going back to a place and finding everything different–the place you know, is no longer the same place. The place you know, no longer exists. You are lost in time. You feel—lost.
And then Peppino’s Pizza in Woodside adjacent to the Woodside 61 Street stop came to the rescue. My parents’ heads darted back and forth, at the foot of the subway stairs, looking for familiar landmarks by which to navigate Woodside. And then, a split second later, a yelp of recognition, and lots of finger pointing.
“It’s still here!”
“You know, this is the place where I had my first pizza!”
“Let’s see if the owner is still here!” My dad, ever hopeful, strode toward the storefront.
My mom, summoning her polite voice, asked an improbable question, “Are you the same owner from 1970?”
The man standing in front of the pizzeria, clad in a tomato sauced stained t-shirt and white apron, his face grizzled with a burgeoning beard, nodded.
The same proprietor from 1970 was standing in front of the store, the same man who’d handed my father his first pizza slice. The same man who handed me my pizza slices as a small child. His son was inside, working the ovens now. Walking into the store, I learned the son was almost exactly our age–our lives were in parallel at this very moment.
We promised we’d be back for pizza later that day.
Across the street was a shuttered florist, long gone out of business. My dad pointed, “That used to be a fruit store. The owner was Korean, and on hot days, we would take you there and they would put you in their freezer so you could cool down.” They recognized nothing else.
We walked towards the apartment where I spent my early childhood years where the brick building stands on a hill overlooking the LIRR. Down the hill was my father’s gas station, now a BP on the corner of 65th Place and Queens Boulevard.
We took a picture there, too, the same picture you see at the top of this post. My dad likes to point to the picture taken in 1970 and say, “I had a hard life back then, you can see it on my face.” But I see his life carved into his face in the 2011 shot.
“I’ll show you a park.” There was a park? And yes, there was a park around the corner. All gated up adjacent to a freeway off-ramp. “This one gone, too?!” It was under remodeling, thank goodness. I looked it up later–it’s called Sherry Park. It’s where I played as a toddler, where, my dad told me, he and my grandmother had to pick up all the broken glass before releasing me into the playground. Because I’d put glass in my mouth.
There are no stories of my mom taking me to the playground, because my mom worked nights and had to sleep all day.
My parents were nostalgic, and their pace quickened as they decided the next steps on our route–go back to the pizza place, pick up a slice, and then walk to the “Big Park.”
On the way, we passed a laundromat, and two Korean ajummas hollered out in Korean, “Hangook sahramee sae yo? Hangook sahramee sae yo? Aigo, angawoyo! Are you Korean? Are you Korean? Oh we are so pleased to meet you!”
My parents’ heads snapped. They were two old Korean ajummas, sitting on chairs outside the laundromat, their hands folded over their bellies, sporting short, permed hair.
My dad immediately befriended them. “Where are all the Korean people?”
“They moved to Long Island!”
“There aren’t many Korean people here.”
“I am old timer! I was here in 1970! When were you here? 1985? That’s nothing.”
The ladies gave us directions to “The Big Park,” and we started walking west on Roosevelt Avenue, back towards Peppino’s Pizza onto Woodside Avenue and towards the park.
We walked. And walked. I saw something that looked like a park, but with a school on most of its grounds. “Is that the park?” I asked. Something about the place looked dimly familiar, resonated with me on an intuitive level. Like I’d seen it before. Or heard the exact sounds. Or smelled the same smells. Familiar.
“No, it was a BIG PARK.”
We trudged past, and then my father stopped. “I think that’s the park.”
My mom and dad stared.
“That’s the park.”
“You used to swim here.”
We took our slices and sat on a bench in Doughboy Park. I used to swim, my parents said, in Lawrence Virgilio park, adjacent to Doughboy. My parents sat silent on the bench, eating their pizza with the steady bites of the hungry, but with their eyes focused at infinity.
“There’s a school that wasn’t here. That’s why we didn’t recognize the park.”
“Everything’s too different.”
“It doesn’t look the same.”
“What’s the same and what’s different since 1970, Dad?”
“I cannot even say,” said my dad, wiping his mouth with a napkin. “Everything is too different. Like a different world.”