Loose Strife

An MP3 blog

Saturday, May 14, 2005

#3 - Flushing, Utopia, Joseph Cornell

“Utopia Parkway” – Fountains of Wayne

I just realized that for this blog to have much meaning to anyone who doesn’t know me, I should provide some backgound information.

Obviously, my name is Robert Barbara. As I wrote earlier, I just celebrated my 33rd birthday. I live in Queens, New York, in a neighborhood that lacks a name.

Let me explain. The Post Office insists that our 2 x 20 block strip of post-war houses is part of Flushing---that name being enough of an insult even if it were a correct designation. (For the record, it's the imprecisely Anglicized version of Vlissingen, a port city in the southwestern Netherlands.) But Flushing proper is a couple of miles northwest of us, a bustling urban neighborhood with large Chinese and Korean populations and many excellent home-style Asian restaurants, as well as a cemetery that’s now home to Louis Armstrong and Bohemian writer/music critic Hermann Grab.

Fresh Meadows, another neighborhood we are sometimes mistaken for, is a collection of moderate-scale high-rises and garden apartments, and single-family homes that lies north of 73rd Avenue, a street we are in fact south of. Built largely during the ‘50s, the apartment complex has a network of sub-basement bomb shelters that my friends and I used as a sort of imaginary post-apocalyptic clubhouse back in high school, and which I still occasionally visit, mainly for reasons of nostalgia.

Holliswood, which lies a block south of us, across Union Turnpike, is an upscale neighborhood which has been home to many famous people over the years, including Groucho Marx, who kept an impressive mansion there in his later years, and former longtime Queens borough commissioner Donald Manes, who killed himself with a chef’s knife in his kitchen in the mid-‘80s when an official inquiry was beginning to uncover some serious civic corruption (I’d eaten Entenmann’s coffee cake in that kitchen with his daughter, who I had a tremendous crush on, only days before, but that’s of no consequence at this point).

The only moniker which specifically targets my phantom neighborhood is quaintly ironic: Utopia. But thihttp://www.blogger.com/img/gl.link.gifs too is an incorrect designation. Coined no doubt by a go-getting real estate agent, it’s a riff off Utopia Parkway, the north/south thoroughfare that borders us to the west and (since I’m clearly bent on trying to boost the profile of my cipher ‘hood by association) made semi-famous by shut-in artist Joseph Cornell, who lived on it for forty-three years---died on it, too, in 1972, the year I was born---in a small, white-shingled Dutch colonial with his widowed mother and invalid brother.

As a metaphor, even Cornell, who made it a personal Utopia by sheer force of creative vision, understood the street name was ridiculous. In Deborah Solomon’s definitive 1997 biography Utopia Parkway, he was quoted as as observing that “these suburbs are dumps in the accepted sense.” Cryptic. Meaning our neighborhood a place to dump garbage? Dead bodies? Large quantities of objects other people see as worthless clutter?

(I’m a little obsessed with Cornell, since there are some fascinating, if unfortunate parallels in our lives, about which I’ll write more later.)

It should also be said that, as a description of a neighborhood, Fresh Meadows is a dubious designation as well, though it may have been correct at one time long ago. In my lifetime the largest open space was the parking lot of the Bloomingdales (then K-Mart, now closed) where we once shoplifted pricey t-shirts---although Cunningham Park, south of Union Turnpike so not Fresh Meadows properly speaking, was indeed dominated by a huge meadow-like lawn ringed by baseball diamonds, where on summer nights (or even winter nights, when the snow fell softly on the city) myself and my neighborhood friends would, after divining the field’s approximate center and smoking or swallowing whatever drugs were available, lie on our backs and stare up at the streetlight-bleached sky, the widest expanse of sky I can recall seeing before I moved to the Midwest briefly during college, and feel the world turning beneath us, life’s possibilities swirling and beckoning like sirens at the edge of our vision until the drugs wore off or we got too cold and headed home to our bedrooms.

That was as utopian as it got---which was by some measures, I know, not bad. But in the end, the name is wishful thinking, as it was for Todd Rundgren’s okay but hardly transcendent mid-70s art pop-fusion band, just a marketing term void of even municipal validation. As the Postal Service (the government agency, not the band) will tell you, “Utopia” doesn't even exist as a mailing address.

Fountains of Wayne, a bunch of very smart smartasses from who took their own name from a lawn-ornament store in New Jersey (491 Route 46, on the westbound side) that subsequently made some cameos on The Sopranos (the store, not the band---at least of this writing), commemorated Utopia Parkway in the title track of their 1999 album of the same name. In interviews they’ve talked about choosing their band name in order to capture a certain suburban ennui---tied to a specific place---that groups like The Kinks and The Smiths did in their heydey. (Or maybe FOV said they WISHED they could claim they chose the name for that reason, but really, in the manner or many rock bands, chose it because it would strike their friends and locals as a funny in-joke. I really can’t remember, and I don’t have time to Google it at the moment, because I have to get to my job at the day-care center, and it really doesn’t matter much anyway. Rock bands invent themselves with their histories, as they do in their music, and who’s to tell if even their admission of uncalculated actions are not calculated?)


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