Post Road Magazine #14

Confessions of a Pilsner Drinker

by René Georg Vasicek

The bartender, Robert, is a dead ringer for Milan Hlavsa, the late bassist and founder of the Plastic People of the Universe. His bulging eyes, elfin grin, shoulder-length mullet, and large caveman hands conjure a magic troll. Robert came to America in 1977, the same year that Czech dissident intellectuals like Václav Havel signed Charter 77, a petition protesting the arrest of the Plastic People and other human rights violations perpetrated by the Czechoslovak government. If Havel served as a sort of doorkeeper to the Czech underground, Robert is the barkeeper to the Czech émigré underground in America. He watches over a society of drinkers and thinkers who gather at the Bohemian Hall and Beer Garden in Astoria, Queens.

Robert was born in 1954. Heis from Pardubice, an industrial city in Bohemia, one hundred kilometers east of Prague, with a population of 90,000. When Robert arrived in New York City in 1977 at age twenty-three, this was his first impression of America: “I couldn’t understand how something so ugly and old could be called the New World!” He has worked at the beer garden for six years, and before that, at Nimrod’s, a tiny hole-in-the-wall pub on East Seventieth Street, in Manhattan.

Robert is fond of Czech beer-drinking aphorisms like “Thirst is worse than war” or “Hunger is thirst in disguise.” As Robert shifts back and forth between Czech and English, it occurs to me that he is an émigré storyteller who can no longer tell his story in one language. If he is to tell his story, the whole story and not half, Robert must speak in both Czech and English.

For the longest time I kept my Czech identity a secret from Robert. He had no idea that I spoke and understood Czech. Why I did so is not entirely clear to me. I wanted to remain anonymous, as an American, and yet I sought the company of Czech strangers. For as long as I can remember, my curiosity about others has been tempered by an underlying mistrust of them. I always vaguely suspect that the stranger will betray me. In what way, I cannot say. Sometimes I think that my suspicion of strangers comes from my parents, who were raised in the schizophrenia of life under a totalitarian regime, where the truths spoken at home often contradicted what was said in public. In a Communist society it was safer not to talk to strangers.

At any rate, when I first started hanging out at the beer garden, I gathered stories largely by eavesdropping, hearsay, musing, and speculation. These techniques soon proved unreliable, as I often arrived at the bar mid-story: “Eighty years old and she still chases the sailors,” I overheard Robert tell an American drinker. He shifted seamlessly into Czech to tell Jarda, the twenty-five-year-old waiter from Prague, “Pot?ebuji další sud plze?ského.” (“I need another keg of pilsner.”) Robert returned to his story, in English, landing hard on each dental: “She spends her summers on the beach in Bulgaria, and during the winter she skis in the Alps. Let’s see, my father was born in 1926. . . .”

At that precise moment I stepped away from the bar and walked out into the beer garden carrying two glass mugs of Pilsner Urquell and this odd, trivial fact in my head. I sat down across from my friend Nick at our usual spot, a gray weathered picnic table beneath an eighty-year-old Siberian elm tree, and said, “Did you know that Robert’s father was born in 1926?” Nick and I laughed, and for some reason, to this day, we both try to remember this obscure fact, as if years from now it will matter.

***


The Bohemian Hall, built in 1910, and its beer garden, completed in 1919, are the legacy of Czech Astoria. The hall itself is an eyesore, an improbable two-story structure built of liver-colored bricks. An ugly concrete wall surrounds the beer garden. The ten-foot-high wall, covered in uninspired graffiti, conjures the Berlin Wall and functions in much the same way. Rather than repelling outsiders, the imposing wall actually draws people closer; it makes them wonder what’s on the other side.

To enter the beer garden, one must walk through the bar, located in a squat brick building next to the Bohemian Hall. The lonely neon glow of a Pilsner Urquell sign burns in the window. Taped to the front door: no minors after 9 p.m. It should read: no politics after 9 p.m. One night Nick and I tried to talk politics at the bar with our friend Peterson, a young Democrat who had recently emigrated from Minnesota to New York City. Nick asked Peterson, “Do you honestly believe that your one vote can make a difference in America?” Within earshot, Robert the bartender immediately picked up an imaginary telephone, dialed, and shouted, “Hello, FBI, we’ve got a couple of Commies here!”

The beer garden is the closest that America comes to socialism. It is a sort of beer drinker’s commune, owned by a social club called the Bohemian Citizens’ Benevolent Society of Astoria, which was founded by Czech émigrés in 1892. When the society purchased the land, it was part of a Long Island farm. After raising money for the hall, at a penny a brick, the society’s tradesmen (bricklayers, electricians, and plumbers) went to work, laying the cornerstone in 1910, and volunteering their time and skill toward its completion.

Today, nearly a hundred years later, the rotating blades of ceiling fans overhead spread the malty scent of Saaz hops and two-row Moravian barley as Pilsner Urquell is poured. Shot glasses of slivovitz line the bar. A grizzly bear of a Slovak shouts into his cell phone, in broken English, “Do you know Nietzsche, the philosopher? He says you must push a man to his limits to find out what he is worth!”

Absurd Czech and Slovak signs hang from dark, wood-paneled walls, like inside jokes: pozor vlak! (“Watch out, train!”); nenahýbajte sa z okien (“Don’t lean out the window”); o?ist?te obuv (“Clean your shoes”); and, directly behind the bar, my favorite, p?ijdu hned! (“I’ll be right there!”), which is a lie because the bartenders at the beer garden are notoriously slow. It is odd and strange and wonderful that here in Astoria, frozen in time, fossilized in stone like the trilobite’s vertebrae, the Eastern bloc tradition of indifferent service persists despite Communism’s death a dozen years ago.

Peterson is the most disgruntled drinker I know. “I love this place,” he tells me, smoking, and shaking his head in disbelief, “but they treat me like a dog. I’ll be standing at the bar with no one else around, and the bartender will just completely ignore me. And I always tip him!” Meanwhile, Peterson’s energetic, honey-haired wife, Anna, seems to have no such trouble. She always comes back from the bar with a smile, slinging steins of Staropramen and Pilsner Urquell like a Bavarian barmaid.

At the back of the bar there is a doorway that leads out into the half-acre beer garden. On a hot and humid Friday night in July you can find as many as a thousand people seated outside, drinking beer at picnic tables beneath the leafy green canopy of elms, maples, lindens, and sycamores. A grill set up near the north wall serves fat, fire-blackened links of kielbasa to the sausage eaters, and traditional American hot dogs and hamburgers to the less adventurous. Smaller wooden tables, perfect for a game of chess, are protected by an awning that runs along the inside perimeter of the wall, so even when it rains, people can sit outside and watch in awe as summer lightning flashes across the sky.

The beer garden is the site of improbable rock concerts, as visiting Czech bands play for nostalgic young immigrants; the venue is no doubt one of the stranger legs on their U.S. tour. Local NYC jazz and rock bands also play gigs here on a small covered stage constructed of green-painted plywood. Folk dancers twirl on stage during the many ethnic festivals held here: Bangladeshi, Greek, Italian, Irish, Czech, and Slovak. And yet the entertainment at the beer garden, good or bad, is rarely more than a curious distraction for an audience more interested in itself. Most people come here to drink beer and talk.

To hear so many human voices (soprano, mezzo-soprano, contralto, tenor, baritone, and bass) is profound. The beer garden is the last great opera house of the proletariat in New York. The boisterous beer drinkers, engaged in everyday conversation, are constantly writing and rewriting a spontaneous libretto of spoken words. The American storyteller, as soloist, must find his or her own voice in this New World opera.

***


One summer Nick and I met at the Bohemian Beer Garden almost every day. We waited out front patiently for Robert to unlock the doors: at 5 p.m. on weekdays, and at noon on the weekends. Sometimes Robert shook his head in disbelief at our punctuality. Nick and I sat outside in the beer garden, in the dappled shade of our Siberian elm, and discussed baseball and the meaning of life over half-liter glass mugs of pilsner. Sometimes we parsed the words of sports radio’s Mike and the Mad Dog or recapped Yankees’ radio broadcaster John Sterling: “A four-six-three Jiffy Lube double play!” Other times we didn’t say a word, and watched the Amtrak pass over the Hell Gate Bridge, its approach visible over the beer garden’s north wall.

Nick and I even played one game of chess that summer, which I won by launching an aggressive rook-led blitzkrieg that I call the Raskolnikov with a Kalashnikov offense. Nick’s defensive style of trench warfare was formidable, but a fatal mistake late in the game led to the capture of his queen. Tommy, a beer garden regular, spotted us skulking over the chessboard, walked over, and said wryly, “I didn’t realize we now served intellectuals.”

One night Nick told me with dark, glassy eyes, “Humans are arrogant. What gives them the right to exert their will over any other living creature on Earth?” “I don’t know,” I said, taking a deep drag off a Camel Light, a habit I try to keep within the confines of the beer garden’s ten-foot-high mason walls. We were both on our fifth and supposedly final half liter of beer. To complicate matters, the Slovak barmaid gave us another round on the house.

Nick’s philosophy continued to expand: Earth’s sacred dominion included trees, plants, flowers, boulders, rocks, and grains of sand. I told him I wasn’t so sure about the rocks. Nick looked at me long and hard, as if he no longer recognized me, and said, “For all I know, you are a figment of my imagination.” “I’m pretty sure I exist,” I told him. It saddened me that Nick had called my existence into question. As pilsner number six kicked in, I knew I was losing him to solipsism.

Earlier in the night we were crazy Zen Bohemians exploring the vast and infinite space of the imagination. After almost a gallon of beer we had reached the tipping point: our expanding universe was suddenly shrinking. The link between us broken, we were sucked back into the insatiable black hole of the self.

***


In December of that year my wife, Catherine, flew to Colorado, where her father lives alone, outside Denver. He was about to undergo radiation treatment for prostate cancer. Catherine had already lost her mother to ovarian cancer. We both agreed she should be with her father during his treatment.

I stayed in New York to take care of the dog and the apartment and all the other obligations of a shared life in the city. Catherine and I talked on the phone almost every day. I offered what support I could but largely felt helpless. After each conversation I was left with the vague sense that I should be doing more. I tried to blame my emotional detachment on the 1,600-mile geographical distance between us. As the weeks passed, I grew increasingly solitary, remaining locked up in my apartment, stepping out only to buy groceries and walk the dog. I didn’t answer the phone unless it was Catherine. My ability to be alone improved at the same rate that my social skills atrophied. My mother, on Long Island, worried that my isolation had turned me into some sort of urban hermit, a city-dwelling Kaczynski. When I assured her that I was not the author of the anthrax letters then terrorizing the nation, she said flatly, “I hope not.” The one place that I did go was the Bohemian Beer Garden.

I’ve sipped Pilsner Urquell at all the Czech watering holes, and I can tell you there is no better place to drink and remember than the Bohemian Beer Garden. That winter I watched hockey on one of two televisions perched high over each end of the bar. Over time Robert the bartender let me hold the remote control so that I could flip through the channels myself. Occasionally a Czech or Slovak hockey player in the NHL will stop at the beer garden (of course, not when I’m there). Robert told me how former Islander Ziggy Palffy once gave him a $20 tip on a $20 check.

Robert’s native Pardubice is also the hometown of hockey’s legendary goaltender Dominik Hašek (behind the bar a signed photograph of the six-time Vezina Trophy winner hangs beneath a portrait of Tomáš G. Masaryk, the first Czechoslovak president). When Robert visits his mother in Pardubice, he sometimes sees a man that he believes is Hašek’s father at the local pub. “What about your own father?” I asked. “He’s dead,” Robert said. “Oh, I thought he was still alive,” I said, realizing that months earlier, when I overheard his father’s birth date, I had wrongly assumed he was living.

Occasionally I introduce myself to strangers at the bar. Some I meet once and never see again, like Zaid, a twenty-four-year-old Bangladeshi Muslim who told me that he had impregnated his girlfriend, a Hungarian émigré. He didn’t want the baby. She did. Others I see almost every week, like the Slovak cousins Ondrej and Marek, who both ride motorcycles and try to convince me that I should too. One night Ondrej rolled up his sleeves to show me the blue serpent tattooed on his right forearm, which cost him $130, and, on his left forearm, a less ornate snake that cost $100.

Sometimes I find myself talking to a stranger for hours before realizing that, in fact, we are not strangers, or at least not complete strangers. This happened when I met Zdenek, an older Czech with a clean-shaven skull.

“I used to wear a toupee,” he told me late in our conversation. “I spent twenty-five thousand dollars to maintain it.”

“Wow,” I said. “That’s the cost of a car!”

“I’m fifty-five years old. What do I care? A girl either likes me or she doesn’t.”

“Where are you from?” I asked softly.

“Southern Moravia, the city of Brno,” he said, shrugging, expecting the name to mean nothing to me.

“Oh,” I said, surprised and excited, “my parents are from villages outside of Brno. My father studied as a machinist in Brno, at the Secondary Industrial School of Machines.”

“I did too. There are two campuses. One is on Sokolská Street, and the other is on—”

“Kotlá?ská. My father studied at Kotlá?ská. He was born in 1944.”

“I studied at Sokolská. I was born in 1946,” Zdenek said, taking a drag off his cigarette.

“Do you know Vašek Mansbart?” I asked. “He used to run a machine shop here in Queens.”

“Of course, he is my good friend!”

“He worked at my father’s machine shop years ago,” I said. “Back then he drove a red Nissan Pathfinder. He loved that truck.”

“Not anymore, Vašek crashed it. You should have seen it . . . the car looked like an accordion. Wait a second . . . who is your father?”

“František Vaší?ek.”

“Oh, I know your father! I visited his machine shop years ago. It’s out on Long Island . . . in Ronkonkoma . . . right?”

“Yeah.”

“It’s a small world,” Robert said nonchalantly from behind the bar, flipping through the channels on the TV.

That this man Zdenek had met my father years ago made me feel less alone. The chance encounter gave me the vague sense that I still belonged to this small émigré world, even if I now stood at its very edge. At the end of the night I got up and told Robert, “I have to go home.” He laughed and said, “What do you mean? This is your home!” I smiled and said, “Yeah, sort of.” Robert laughed again and observed that my first name, René, is the root of the French word renaissance. And in a sense, I was reborn that night (or died), having entered the next circle of beer drinker’s hell. I had become a beer garden regular.

***


Even before that night I began to suspect that my American disguise (Yankee baseball cap, New Yorker T-shirt, Carhartt dungarees, and ankle-high Doc Martens) wasn’t fooling anybody. One night I fell into English conversation with a beautiful young Slovak woman named Eugenie. She was there with Jan, her Czech boyfriend, who got distracted by Lenny, a young Irish émigré who at first is charming but inevitably turns into a babbling brook of insults before the night is over. I listened intently as Eugenie described her nostalgia so precisely that it made my eyes water. Not only did she remind me of my wife, Catherine (petite, brunette, and high-energy), but also of every woman I’d ever met, and strangely, too, of all the women I will probably never meet.

When I told Eugenie I was Czech, she looked surprised, turned to her boyfriend, and exclaimed, “He’s Czech!” Jan didn’t bat an eye. “Of course he’s Czech,” he said matter-of-factly, in Czech. “He’s Czech like a kneecap. He has it tattooed right here,” dragging his index finger across his forehead from ear to ear.

The next time I went to the men’s room, I checked in the mirror to see if, in fact, the words were tattooed on my forehead. They weren’t. But even if they were, what did they mean? And why like a “kneecap”? I’d heard the expression many times before, but I’d always let it go, like so many things in life. I had guessed from context that the idiom is used to describe someone who is a typical Czech. If so, what gives me away? Is it my giant head? My broken potato nose? Or my large caveman hands?

A few months later I learned that for thirty-three years I’ve been mishearing the expression. My Slovak friend Eva, a translator in Prague, laughed and corrected me: “You silly boy, it’s not ?ech jako koleno (‘Czech like a kneecap’), it’s ?ech jako poleno (‘Czech like a log’)!”

Ah, yes, of course, Czech like a log. That explained it. Or did it? What’s so Czech about a log?

Some people think that the bartenders at the beer garden prefer Czech speakers, but I don’t think so. If anything, the bartenders prefer the ladies and the old-timers (many of whom happen to be Czech and Slovak, but also many of whom are not). At the end of the bar, near the jukebox, you will almost always find one of the three Irish tenors (they can’t sing a lick, but they sure can drink). There is Charlie, Budweiser-drinking Charlie, born in East New York, Brooklyn, in 1934. He met his wife at the Lorelei, in Yorkville, when East Eighty-sixth Street was the place to go. Now the Lorelei is gone, like everything else. Jimmy, born in county Galway in 1936, used to manage the Lorelei back in the late ’70s, when a Czech owned it. Now Jimmy and a partner own a limousine service. “Why, just the other night,” he told me in a gravelly voice, “we got a call to pick up John McEnroe on 122nd Street.” Jimmy is, hands down, the best dressed at the beer garden. His tweed suits and well-trimmed white beard recall a gentleman’s New York that is fast disappearing. Consider the fashion trajectory of the typical worker in this new millennium: blue-collared, white-collared, no-collared. And then, of course, there is Tommy.

Tommy is a talker. Born in the Bronx in 1937, he is the son of émigrés from counties Kilkenny and Sligo. At first I wasn’t sure what Tommy’s official role was at the beer garden (he walks from table to table collecting empty beer glasses and sometimes sells packs of cigarettes from a canvas bag), but his unofficial role is park ranger. On summer nights Tommy patrols the beer garden wearing a flannel shirt over a green T-shirt and light blue jogging shorts that reveal his skinny goose-white legs. His hair is pulled back into a short white ponytail beneath a baseball cap. Tommy once told me that just his upper body gets cold. Otherwise, he said, “I could walk around this place bare ass!” Tommy keeps track of the beer drinkers outside, making sure they don’t get lost or lonely in the beer garden’s half-acre wilderness. He also keeps an eye out for hooligans, making sure no one tries to chop down the young linden sapling, planted by Václav Havel.

Tommy says he hasn’t had a cup of coffee since 1966 (he drinks imported Irish tea instead). He rolls his r’s whenever he talks about his favorite hockey team, the New York Rangers. I am an Islanders fan, and I can’t roll my r’s, so the last thing I want to see and hear is Tommy doing a jig at the bar, yelling, “The RRRRRRangers!” One night Tommy spent two hours telling me about his refrigerator. Another night Tommy recited the precise date that each state was admitted into the Union: Minnesota, May 11, 1858; and so forth. At first it struck me as odd that this Irish American played so vital a role in the Czech and Slovak émigré community at the beer garden. However, the more I thought about it, the more it made sense. It takes someone like Tommy, an Irishman with the gift of gab, to get the story out of a secretive people like the Czechs.

***


The last time I saw Tommy at the beer garden, we were seated at the bar when a guy walked in with his girlfriend. Right away there was something about this man that I disliked. He was in his late twenties and walked into the place with that arrogant, cocksure attitude of someone who’d never gotten a good ass-kicking in his life. Every feature of his face was symmetrical: his brown eyes, aquiline nose, neatly parted hair, and pearly white teeth. He wore a polo shirt and chinos, and if I had to guess, I’d say he worked on Wall Street. A man can wear what he wants to the beer garden (suit jacket, torn jeans, flannel shirt, T-shirt, cutoff shorts, ugly Hawaiian shirt, sandals, flip-flops, whatever) because it’s “come as you are,” as Kurt Cobain occasionally reminds us from the jukebox beyond the grave. And the establishment is tolerant of first-timers. For example, one night Peterson overheard one man whisper to another: “Al told me about this place. He knows all the Lithuanian hangouts.”

The regulars do mind if someone walks into the place with an inflated sense of entitlement. This guy clearly wanted to impress his lady friend, who, if anything, was embarrassed by her escort, especially when he marched right over to Tommy, dug his index finger deep into Tommy’s chest, and shouted: “What’s my name? What’s my name? I know your name . . . it’s Tommy . . . what’s mine?” Poor Tommy, assaulted by this stranger like some sort of celebrity, said he didn’t know. “It’s Brendan!” the young man exclaimed, disappointed. After Brendan led his girl deeper into the bar, out of earshot, Tommy, wide eyed, turned to me and said, “That guy comes in here once a year, and he expects me to know his name.”

Ironically, that same night Tommy and I got into our own disagreement over beer garden etiquette. I was having a conversation with Julian, a quiet, young Croat from Split, when Tommy interrupted me and said, “You ask too many questions!”

I said, “What?”

Tommy said, “Maybe he wants to be left alone. You ask too many questions, and I’m not afraid to say it to your face!”

I said, “That’s ironic coming from an Irishman, don’t you think?”

“What is that supposed to mean?” Tommy asked.

“Forget it.” I said.

Seeking to bolster my position, I turned to Walter, a painter from Florida, seated to my left, and said, “Tommy thinks I ask too many questions.” Walter, who’d once told me that a small group of artists could take over the world if they wanted to, replied, “How the fuck else are you supposed to learn about the world?” I turned back to Tommy, seated to my right, and his face shriveled up into a prune. He tossed his head back and shrieked, “For crying out loud, now he’s going to harp on it all night!” Tommy was right. I did harp on it all night. I repeated it over and over again like a Hindu mantra, “Tommy thinks I ask too many questions,” in part to drive Tommy mad, and also because I was afraid it might be true.

Strangely, I never saw Tommy at the beer garden ever again. I started worrying that maybe I had, in fact, driven Tommy mad. I asked Robert about it, and he told me no, that was not the case, but rather Tommy was sick. I felt bad about our last encounter, especially when I considered all the times I had arrived at the beer garden alone and Tommy had been there, eager to talk with me. Sometimes I imagine myself at his funeral, mourning his death alongside a crowd of beer garden regulars, standing in front of a gravestone engraved:

tommy

1937–2002

park ranger at the bohemian beer garden

And that’s when it hits me: I don’t even know the man’s last name.

***


Robert got fired! Can you believe it? After six years behind the bar the Bohemian Beer Garden let him go.

“I really can’t talk about it,” I overheard Jan, the manager’s son, tell a beer drinker asking about Robert’s sudden disappearance. “Let’s just say it wasn’t just one thing, it was a lot of things.” Jan added, “We were tolerant.”

Ah, yes, the Czechs and their secrecy. The beer drinker, a young man in his late twenties from Long Island, then turned to me and said, “There’s only one reason that a bartender gets fired.” “I doubt that,” I said. Regulars like Charlie and Jimmy agreed with me, “Whatever it was, it wasn’t over stealing money.”

With the help of Walter, the painter from Florida, I was able to track Robert down. We found him drinking at an Irish bar a few blocks north of the beer garden. Robert was there with his American girlfriend. I think he half expected Walter to walk in, but he let out a surprised “Aha!” when he saw me. We shook hands, and for the first time I sat next to him, on the same side of the bar—the drinkers’ side. Robert’s long black hair was pulled back into a ponytail. Some people say that Robert looks like Zorro, and on this particular night I could see the swashbuckler in him. I told Robert his hair looked good that way, but he waved his giant hand in the air, as if to say, Hair is hair.

Robert introduced me to his girlfriend, but I can no longer remember her name. She knew Walter, and they started giggling right away. At first Robert and I spoke English, but then Czech words started slipping into our conversation. He then turned to Walter and said, “I’m sorry.” And Walter said, “Go right ahead,” meaning it was okay for us to speak in Czech.

Tak co ty vlastn? d?láš, René?” (“So, what exactly is it that you do, René?”)

Momentáln? nic. Jsem nezam?stnaný.” (“At the moment, nothing. I’m unemployed.”)

“You know, you’re the tenth person today to tell me that they are unemployed,” Robert said in Czech.

“Nine eleven,” I said in English, not knowing how else to say it.

Robert nodded, taking a drag of his cigarette.

“And what about you?” I asked Robert. “Are you working somewhere?”

Ne.” (“No.”)

There I was, sitting in a bar in Astoria, Queens, and conversing in a language spoken by a handful of people on the planet, perhaps ten million. Robert and I spoke a fusion of Czech and American English, a language that is neither here nor there. It is a language that reminds me of forgotten talks that I had with my father, in countless pubs and bars and taverns on Long Island. And maybe that’s why what had once seemed so important—the story behind Robert’s dismissal from the beer garden—no longer mattered once we were sitting on the same side of the bar. I never asked.

Robert told me that Tommy was alive and drinking. Apparently Tommy stopped going to the beer garden when Robert got fired, because the incentive was gone. Tommy had cleaned ashtrays and picked up empty beer mugs in exchange for beer. With Robert no longer there, the work-for-beer arrangement lapsed, so Tommy started drinking at a nearby Irish pub instead.

I asked Robert if being a bartender was difficult because he became the beer drinker’s therapist.

He agreed, “I’m usually their last hope. I’ve had priests come into the bar, crying because they’ve lost their faith. I mean, what can you tell these people, when not even God can help them?”

***


I could be standing on the edge of any city—Berlin, Prague, or Tokyo—watching the steady stream of cars entering and leaving the metropolis. And yet I am on the edge of this city—New York City—where over the years I have spent minutes and hours standing on this platform, waiting for the N train to take me home.

The elevated platform at Astoria Boulevard straddles the eastern approach to the Triborough Bridge, a hulking mass of verdigris-painted steel built in 1936. Cars and trucks in both directions weigh down the suspension bridge’s arch and bowstring trusses. High-beam headlights rise over the bend on one side of the concrete divider. On the other side braking taillights ooze toward the horizon like molten lava.

Whenever I watch traffic from this platform, I select a car or truck at random and keep my eye on it for the entire length of its journey across the bridge. I prefer vehicles with a single occupant, the solitary driver who is seemingly numbed by the surrounding chaos. It amazes me that the car never crashes. So many things could go wrong. I think it is a small miracle each time the car makes it across the bridge safely. Even after the car is out of sight, my mind’s eye follows it all the way home, to a suburb on Long Island or a driveway in New Jersey.

Sometimes I imagine my own father driving across the bridge in his neon green Volkswagen Bug in 1977, at my age, thirty-three. He looks fragile in his tiny metal contraption. His window is rolled down and he is smoking a cigarette. He seems lonely, and I want to sit next to him, but then I realize his experience is sublime, and I’d rather not disturb his solitude. Maybe he is thinking about his own father, on the other side of the Atlantic Ocean, astonished at the distance that now separates them. A father throws his son out into the world like a boomerang, expecting him to return, but he never does.

 

 

René Georg Vasicek lives in Astoria, Queens with his wife Catherine and son Radek.  His writing has appeared in Divide, High Times, and Yuan Yang.  He teaches at Hofstra University and Lehman College of the City University of New York.

 

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