With recent accomplishments including editing and compiling a play anthology and oral history entitled “Tokens? The NYC Asian American Experience,” and the upcoming publication of excerpts from his memoir monologue entitled “The Flushing Cycle” in the Spring 2003 issue of the Performing Arts Journal, Prof. Alvin Eng will share some insight on his experiences, as well as read and discuss some of his past work.
1. Flush To Flushing Blues
Let me tell you a story
Bout a guy from Flushing
And his Queens Quandary
Fluuuussshhhh - ing
Close your eyes and just say "Fluuuussshhhh - ing..."
Not a pretty picture is it?
Could you imaging someone singing,
"I left my heart in Flushing ?
or "It don't mean a thing, If you're not from Flush-ing?
That's why for years, I've been like,
"Hi, I'm from...(whisper) Flushing ."
Not just because of the way it sounds,
but because Flushing is in Queens.
One of the five fine boroughs that comprise our City.
But somehow, we've gotten third class New York City citizenship.
We're behind Brooklyn, and of course, the center of the universe Manhattan .
And that's not fair.
Because Queens is the largest borough of New York.
And Flushing is the biggest part of Queens.
So if you lifted Flushing up
and put it somewhere else, We'd be a major city.
And therein lies that ol Queens quandary.
Because we are, where we are;
So close, yet so far, from the center of the universe Manhattan.
Sometimes it seems like the whole world is here reinventing itself
Everybody except for me.
I seem to remain unchanged.
Will I ever escape this Queens quandary?
To make matters worse,
When I was growing up
We were one of the only Chinese families in Flushing
But now as a grown-up
I feel like I'm the only Chinese guy in Flushing
Who does not speak fluent Chinese.
2. Divided City
This Queens quandary I speak of runs deep into the core and psyche of many of us...in many ways and for many more years than we expected. For many more generations than we expected!
I was born in Flushing on the day Bob Dylan became legalized; May 24, 1962. On that day, Dylan turned 21, and I became a person. Around this time, Flushing , like Berlin and Korea after World War II, became a divided land. Most of my Jewish friends lived in the apartment buildings west of Union St. , while most of my gentile friends lived in the private houses to the east of Union St. As fate would have it, the only Chinese family in the neighborhood--mine--had their laundry right on Union St., Flushing's unofficial DMZ, and a house three blocks away in the lower gentile district.
Though only a few blocks separated the quote unquote gentile and Jewish districts, they were like two different worlds... and I constantly shuttled between them. And while I never felt like a complete outsider, part of me always understood that I could only be pizan to a certain point with my gentile friends, and I could only be a mensch to a certain point with my Jewish friends. This was the "small town" part of growing up in Flushing.
We used the laundry's address as our home address, so I attended the Jewish school. But most days after school, I would hang around with the gentile guys who lived on my block... until we had one of our frequent childhood fall-outs. Then I would avoid them for weeks and hang around with my Jewish friends and vice versa. And this was the "big city" part of growing up in Flushing; Learning to create your own space for psychological survival. Then, you can be in the same room, hell, even be in the same bed with someone else, and still create a large space between each other. So in the big city, you could be as visible or as invisible as you liked.
My parents were really good at this, my father in particular. Everybody in the neighborhood knew them, but they didn't know anybody. It didn't help that even though we only lived three blocks from the laundry, my parents drove their car to and from work every day for fourteen years – you're not gonna meet a lot of the neighbors that way! But they fought long and hard for their piece of the American Pie and damn it, they were gonna eat every last crumb. At my father's funeral, many people talked about how one of his proudest moments was when he slowly drove his Titanic-size navy blue Chrysler Newport down Mott St. in Chinatown in... Manhattan. It was a crowded Sunday afternoon, and my Dad was causing a traffic jam all the way to Little Italy. Oh man, there were cars triple-parked everywhere, and trucks trying to make deliveries and chaos and tourists, and there, smack dab in the middle of it all, was my father... bringing everything to a grinding halt--smiling one of the biggest smiles I ever saw him crack.
So oh yeah, he may be invisible out here in suburban Flushing, but he was gonna get noticed down there in Chinatown. He made it outta Chinatown all right. But was he all right? Was he where he wanted to be? Or was it, there but for the grace of cheap, indiscriminatory housing, go I? So even though he had this great big smile on his face, he had to be feeling a lot of pain in his heart. Cause he understood that visibility was not always acceptance. Maybe that's why he never even bothered to be visible out here in Flushing? But there we were down in Chinatown, among his people. And even though everybody saw him and his Titanic-sized Navy blue Chrysler Newport, I don't think many people down there accepted him. Even though my Dad was born in Thoisan, China, he lived in Flushing long enough for that ol' Queens quandary to start flowing through his veins. How does it feel?
3. Jocks & Heads, East of Flushing
"You Can't Put Your Arm Around A Memory" as the phrase brings to mind two wise men of the outer boroughs, Mr. Ralph Kramden, he is, of course, from Canarsie and the old TV show, "The Honeymooners," and also Mr. Johnny Thunders, the singer and guitarist from Bayside, Queens and those quintessential 1970s NYC punk rock bands, The New York Dolls and The Heartbreakers. When Ralph said that line to his wife, Alice, she replied, "I can't even put my arms around you." When Johnny Thunders wrote and recorded his singular song, "You Can't Put Your Arm Around A Memory," some twenty years later, he got quite a different response he had a legion of fans who wanted to he like him. But I always wondered if Johnny Thunders loved The Honeymooners as much as I did.
Such profound thoughts occupied most of my mind's space in Bleeker Junior High School. For it was there that I took that long walk across the schoolyard from the jocks' side to the heads' side. The jocks were, of course, the athletes, while the heads, let's just say they had less athletic pursuits. Yes, in the 7th grade I didn't want to be Willis Reed anymore. I wanted to be Lou Reed¦ and Keith Richards and of course the Queens version of those two, Mr. Johnny Thunders. Lou, Keith and Johnny! They were like my holy triumvirate of teenage punky junky rock & roll idols. And during my Flushing High School years, those punky late '70s, I picked up the guitar, like Lou, Keith and Johnny, and was soon playing rhythm guitar in inspired, but shall we say, musically-challenged garage bands!I started smoking and drinking, but I never quite took it to the next level. In short, I spent my teenage years as a real "junkie-wannabe." I guess you could say I wanted to "do the time, but was very afraid of doing the crime." Somehow, I acquainted this not being able to take something all the way--even when it may not have been such a good thing to take all the way--as yet another form of that 'ol Queens quandary. So even though our bands were awful, through them and our mutual love of rock & roll and the rock & roll lifestyle, I finally had a peer group and fit in somewhere.
All my clothes were black. All my fingernails were black. And me and Ray Wong were the only ones in the band who didn't have to dye our hair black. Everyone had these big rooster haircuts and we were cool. Even I was cool. EVERYTHING was cool until I heard the song... "Chinese Rocks."
I shuddered because I thought here I've finally reinvented myself, I was no longer that FOB laundryman's son. I left that guy behind, way behind, on the jocks' side of the schoolyard. How can two little words, "Chinese Rocks," destroy all of that? Of course, the fantasy was shattered every night when I'd go back home to the laundry and my mother would just laugh at my black fingernails and in her broken English mutter, "Batman." But that was home, where fantasies always die ugly. But how did the reality get mixed up with the fantasy? Who said they could infiltrate the schoolyard--the sanctuary of my imagination?
When I finally got the courage to actually listen to "Chinese Rocks," I heard that the song was about heroin. China White heroin. And I thought, well maybe this is the poetic price I have to pay for being a wannabe junkie, someone who wanted to do the time but was very afraid of doing the crime. Face to face one more time with that ‘ol Queens quandary. "Chinese Rocks" was recorded by The Ramones and The Hearbreakers and co-written by Dee Dee Ramone and the aforementioned Mr. Johnny Thunders. Johnny was not only one of the founders of that legendary '70s punk band, The New York Dolls, but he was from Queens! In fact, Johnny was from Bayside--one town east of Flushing! I didn't see him caught up in any Queens quandary. Johnny Thunders reinvented himself as the outer boroughs' or "poor man's" version of Keith Richards. And in certain circles, Johnny was the real deal. The ultimate punk cult anti-hero. But I longed to see his Queens existence, and how he escaped it.
Years later, I finally got to see Johnny Thunders' worlds merge. It was on a cold Sunday night in April 1991.
The funeral parlour was the definition of that ‘ol Queens quandary. On the right aisle you had all of the bridge and tunnel punks (myself included) who were there to mourn Johnny Thunders. But on the other side of the aisle were the mourners of John Anthony Genzale, the little kid that Johnny Thunders left behind when he reinvented himself in the center of the universe... Manhattan. The Genzale mourners all had these dark shadows around their dark, Italian immigrant eyes. Eyes that were bloodshot from crying "Johnny… Johnny... Johnny... We hardly knew ya."
As I started to walk down the aisle towards Johnny Thunders' casket, I got to thinking of how people come from all over the world to reinvent themselves and become part of the New York City arts world. But what about those of us who just have to take the # 7 train? In many ways it's a lot harder to reinvent yourself when your past, and everyone in it, is just a subway train away. As I got within eyesight of the casket, I almost laughed because Johnny Thunders had more color in his face in there, than I'd ever seen him have when he was alive.
Then it was my turn to pay my last respects. Using the only Buddhist gesture my parents ever taught me, I bowed three times to my dead teenage punky junky idol (bow, bow, bow). As I turned around to leave, I took one more look at the Johnny Thunders mourners on the right, and at the John Anthony Genzale mourners on the left and I realized: You can never escape this Queens quandary. You just have to choose your way of giving inâ€¦ and then getting on with it. Like Johnny Thunders, I had come home and made peace with my Queens quandary. Unlike Johnny Thunders, I was still alive to tell about it.
Maybe Ralph Kramden and Johnny Thunders were right. But oh yeah, Johnny Thunders added three words to the line, "You Can't Put Your Arm Around A Memory. So don't try." Maybe that his way of saying, "Yeah kid, I love ‘The Honeymooners' as much as you do."