Strangers in a Stranger Land
I grew up in Astoria. It is a neighborhood within the borough of Queens in New York City. When I was growing up, it was a working class neighborhood mostly made up of immigrants from Europe, the Caribbean, Asia and elsewhere pursuing the American Dream. You could say we were a mini United Nations. I really enjoyed living there. Our parents made it a point to get to know each other even though they could only speak very little English (let alone each other’s language). We, the kids, picked up English rather quickly and experienced very little difficulty in communicating with each other.
An Uninviting Place but It was Still Home
Concrete, bricks, asphalt, and steel were the main ingredients that made up the street I grew up on. There were trees, and folks managed to hang potted plants from their windows or fire escapes, but for the most part my block was hard and uninviting. The sidewalks were made of concrete – unyielding and unforgiving. “Oh! Did you trip and skin your knees? Too bad, kid. Just get up, suck it in, and keep moving,” the sidewalks seemed to say. The apartment buildings were made of brick. Built one next to the other, they stood like sentinels. Cold steel fire escapes protruded from the buildings like the face mask of a football helmet. The street was made of black asphalt. Viewed from above the streets resembled deep, dark, and forbidding rivers that divided the streets and avenues into an endless, seemingly mindless grid. The whole city seemed to scream, “We will be here long after you are gone.” Regardless, we all tried to make the best of it. It was home after all.
No Escape from the Human Race
If you have ever lived or visited New York City, being alone or getting far away from the madding crowd is a luxury. There is practically no place you can go to if you want some solitude even if its for just five minutes. Whenever and wherever you are in the Big Apple, you will be sure to run into not one but several people. Especially, if you are a small child. There really is no escaping people. Except, I was able to find some higher ground.
Up on the Roof
As I entered my teen years, I had become more independent. Since I was a good kid (for the most part), my parents loosened their parental grip on me provided I maintained good grades and stayed out of trouble. My friends and I spent most of our free time playing stick ball or two-hand touch football in the street. Or at a local park when it was possible. However, there were times when I wished I could be alone – totally alone.
In my early teens, I discovered that I could access the roof of our three-story apartment building. It was easy since the building’s superintendent never locked the door that led to the rooftop. Back then, there still was a thing called common sense. People, and even kids, knew better than to not do anything stupid while on top of a roof. Besides, a lot of the tenants used the roof to hang their laundry out to dry.
The roof to my apartment building was flat. It was covered in a black tar that was coated in white. Towards, the front of the building (the facade) there was a jagged wall no more than five (5) feet tall at its highest point. The top of the building from the front resembled a tower like in a castle. The roof from the back of the building had a small wall about two (2) feet tall. The roof had a slight slope and there were drain spouts throughout to prevent rain from accumulating.
My first venture onto the roof was full of excitement. One day, I found myself alone. None of friends were around. I sat on the stoop of my building. It was a hot, muggy summer in New York. Some people say that when it comes to heat nothing beats Miami. If you have ever spent a summer in New York, you know that’s not true. At least in Miami, you have air conditioning. Not in my apartment at least not in those days. I was thinking of how I could stay cool and still be outside. Then I thought of the roof. Taking in a deep breath, I stood up, exhaled and with the determination of 13-year old, I stormed the almost four flights of stairs to the green door that separated me from the roof. Not giving it a second thought, I firmly grasped the door knob, turned it, and opened the door.
Like Neil Armstrong stepping on the moon for the first time, I ventured onto an alien world. The first thing that hit me was a blinding light. It was the white top of the roof reflecting the sun. As I walked around the roof, I was greeted by the soft caresses of a cool and gentle breeze. Then, I looked all around me.
If I looked west, I could see parts of Manhattan’s famed skyscrapers. Eastward there was the rest of Long Island. North and South there was not much to see. I walked to the front of the building and stood by the wall. I looked down and saw my street. I rested my arms on the top of the wall and nestled my head on my hands. I imagined myself a great bird of prey looking down on his dominion.
Being on the rooftop was exhilarating and peaceful. Finally! I had been able to find my fortress of solitude. A room with a view. Or in this case, a roof with a view. It was a place where I can finally be alone. It was blissful. Then, a voice disrupted my newly found sanctuary. It came from below. It belonged to my best friend. He said, “Hey! What are you doing up there looking like a gargoyle?”
Over the years, I would go to the roof whenever I wanted to be alone. It was my favorite place to think or just daydream. Sometimes, I would invite a friend. Eventually, I would bring my girlfriend. In the summer, we would take a beach towel with us and spend an afternoon looking at clouds and talking about the future.
What’s your favorite place to go when you want to get away from it all?
Let me know in the comments, please.
The photos were taken from Google Earth.