It was the end of my freshman year at the fancy rich kid college. My working-class-bred parents back in Queens hated me, or at least they hated signing the tuition checks. All year long, they would call and try to entrap me into admitting that I was wasting their money. The phone would ring at 10:59 on a Tuesday morning…
“Hi Bob, it’s Mom and Dad. What did you have for breakfast today?”
“I didn’t have time to eat; I had a Spanish test at 8:20. I’m pretty sure I got an A.”
“YOU MISERABLE BASTARD, YOU KNOW WE’RE PAYING FOR THAT UNLIMITED MEAL PLAN! AND YOU’RE TOO LAZY TO GO! JUST WASTING OUR MONEY UP THERE! YOU’RE COMING HOME NEXT WEEK AND YOU’LL GO TO BINGHAMTON!!!”
And so on, with the parents always speaking in all caps. At the nadir of our relationship, just after I returned to Queens for the summer, the parents announced to my brothers and myself that they would randomly be taking us on a cruise. To Canada. While I’m sure I appreciated the gesture of goodwill, I was mostly perplexed. All of freshman year had been an endless stream of arguments about money; where did this surplus come from? Besides, being stuck on a boat with these people for five days did not sound appealing in the least — especially if that boat were heading north to colder climes and relatively unknown cities, Saint John and Halifax. My younger brothers agreed, and they frequently made their opinion known to the parents, who would respond curtly, adamantly, and repeatedly:
“YOU DON’T GO ON A CRUISE FOR THE PLACE; YOU GO FOR THE SHIP.”
Still I gave the destinations due diligence, conducting my research using whatever tools people used in the year 2000 (cue the Conan song). Library? Encarta? Did Wikipedia exist yet? I’m sure I went to the library, because I took out a copy of Vonnegut’s Welcome to the Monkey House to ensure that I didn’t have to talk to or make eye contact with anyone on the ship.
When the time came to set sail, the family braved a harrowing cab ride into Manhattan, got on a gigantic ship along with several thousand retirees (whose numbers notably included my kindergarten teacher), and sailed into thick fog. When we exited that fog a day or two later, we saw Saint John: a tiny downtown comprised of weathered brick buildings wedged between an exhaust-spewing paper mill and an exhaust-spewing oil refinery.
We descended the gangway and walked around downtown. Both the family and the city were mostly silent; the latter seemed almost uninhabited. In fact, downtown Saint John seemed smaller than the downtown of our neighborhood in Queens (and there are dozens of neighborhoods in Queens). We checked out the locked Loyalist Cemetery and moved on to King’s Square, a park at the heart of downtown. To me, the park seemed the only truly alive place in the city. People were there, walking, sitting, reading. I remember stage workers unloading a truckload of props at an unexpectedly large theater across the street. If I lived in Saint John, this park would probably be the place where I’d read and write. I wanted to stay, but the parents, acting as though they had perceived sudden danger, abruptly rushed us along.
The mother wanted to stop in an antique/junk store a few blocks over, but after only a few minutes there, the father sharply announced that we were leaving. My brothers and I were hungry and confused at this point. The ship wouldn’t sail for another six hours. If we were on vacation, why were we in such a rush to leave?
I pointed out a few places where we might eat lunch. “Youse are not eating there,” my father would respond each time. “We already paid for the food on the ship, so you better eat it.” And so, after less than ninety minutes in Saint John, we returned to the dock, bought some fridge magnets in a souvenir market, and re-boarded the largely deserted ship. The parents directed us to the “grill,” a hermetically sealed space at the stern that combined a pool, an all-you-can-eat hot dog and hamburger buffet, and enough chlorine in the enclosed air to cook the animal by-products we would be ingesting. I brought Vonnegut along. The family moved through the buffet line, each member taking at least one hot dog and one hamburger. When the parents and brothers got back in line for seconds, I started reading. My stomach was full, and I wanted off the ship.
After staring out the chlorine-caked windows for some time, toward the light-blue waters of the Bay of Fundy, I decided that I would be taking Vonnegut back to Kings Square, and I announced my intention. To assuage the Queensian, neurotic reactions that I anticipated, I volunteered to be back on board at least two hours before the ship would sail.
My father calmly said, “You are NOT going to that park.”
A tremendous, poolside argument ensued. I was eighteen years old; surely I could sit in a park for a few hours by myself. The cruise was about the parents, not about the family. I was my typical ungrateful bastard self. Why would we spend a beautiful summer afternoon at an enclosed pool? Why did we come to Canada to sit in a floating hotel?
Finally, someone made a remark that stood out above (or below) the others: “You are not going back to that park because that park is FULL OF GAYS.”
I didn’t understand. But that remark began the hyberbolic argument competition that is known simply as “fighting” in Queens. Logic and compassion have no place in this sport. No topic, insult, or injury is considered out-of-line; in fact, there are really only three ways to win: outnumbering, out-insulting, or out-screaming your opponent.
When the parents played, they would always assume the same side of the argument and, in voices that escalated rapidly in volume, create increasingly illogical arguments as to why any will but their shared one was simply invalid. I could only imagine what the handful of retirees at the pool made of this embarrassing non-conversation, but maybe they’d lived this lifestyle themselves. At any rate, and as usual, the arguments were getting both louder and more insane:
“Didn’t you notice that park was full of only men? DID YOU SEE ANY WOMEN IN THAT PARK?”
“They’ll be waiting for you. You won’t even see them coming, reading that book. YOU’RE PROBABLY STUPID ENOUGH TO TALK TO THEM!”
“WHAT IF ONE OF THEM STEALS YOUR WALLET AND YOU CAN’T GET BACK ON THE SHIP?! YOU’LL BE STUCK IN A FOREIGN COUNTRY!! AND YOU WON’T EVEN!! BE ABLE TO CALL US!!!”
“YOU GO TO THAT PARK, YOU’LL COME BACK WITH AIDS!!”
That last line really did it. The more ridiculous, contrived, fallacious, and wrong the arguments got, the more I knew that it would be better — safer, at least for my brothers and myself — if I stayed on the ship. There were another three or four days left on the cruise, and things had to stay tolerably miserable for as long as possible. (I should point out that this was certainly not the time to stage an intervention against the parents’ insensitivities. Trust me, that first year in college I’d taken up many causes, from Indian food to foreign languages. When the parents heard that I’d wanted to declare a second major in Spanish, they accused me of being anti-American.)
Through explosive conflicts like this one, I came to realize something: you can take the native New Yorkers out of the outer boroughs… but left unchecked, their highly developed paranoia will continue to cloud every decision, much like the jet exhaust from LaGuardia. Simply put, there is no winning in worldwide Queens. Someone is always out to get you, to take away your ticket to the buffet line. Duplicitous homosexuals will steal your passport and eat you.
It wasn’t just through education, but through travel, that I started realizing how I could truly break free from the world in which I’d been raised. You are the only person who keeps you where you think you belong — socially, economically, geographically, educationally. When you fail to broaden your horizons, you don’t improve yourself. You stagnate. You wall yourself off from the people and the variety and the diversity around you, and you die where you were born. Sometimes you get to Florida or a cruise ship first; sometimes you get farther.
These ideas really began to take root on that first trip to Saint John. I knew I would escape these limiting factors, but when the ship set sail that afternoon, I had only begun to realize how far I’d have to go.
Just over four years later, my job was sending me back to Saint John. I had defied all parental defeatism — “You’ll never get a job as an English major,” “You’ll never make any money working with books,” “Why don’t you go to law school,” etc. — and gotten what I considered a fancy job at a Fancy Publishing House. The job entailed traveling from my adopted home of Boston to college campuses throughout New England and promoting the company’s textbooks. My crescent-shaped territory extended from Boston northeasterly through New Hampshire and Maine to Saint John. Saint John was about a nine-hour drive from Boston, and impossibly expensive to fly to.
As is often the case with working class kids who earn white-collar jobs, the job’s newness and allure made me blind to its staggering inefficiencies. For example, I didn’t question why I had to drive to the Maritimes, while some accounts in suburban Boston were covered by a guy who drove up from Connecticut. Why did I have to hand-write coded requests for sample copies on tractor-fed, dot-matrix-printed order forms, rather than submitting orders online? And how could I complete my to-do list without working fewer than 100 hours a week? I was assured by my peers that this was what had to be done to get ahead, to advance to a role on a larger stage.
So, when the time came to visit accounts in New Brunswick that October, I didn’t ask any questions and I drove north, with a folding bike in the trunk and a plan to catch up on work over the weekend. I’d visit a few schools in Maine, spend the weekend in Saint John, and work my way back to Boston the following week.
The ride from Bangor to Saint John seemed almost too easy. I had a new girlfriend; it felt weird to be cruising at 100 mph down Maine’s Route 9 (called “the airline” by locals) and getting farther and farther away from her. When I stopped for dinner at the border, I wrote a charming little piece about Calais, Maine (pronounced “callous”), which I called “the last town in America,” and whose locals seemed baffled by my presence. I crossed the border without hassle and drove another hour to the plumes of steam emanating from Saint John. I fell asleep almost as soon as I got there.
The next day, Saturday, I awoke starving. Someone at the hotel told me to go to the downtown market, the oldest farmer’s market in Canada. I found my way to the streets through a deserted-at-10AM shopping mall.
Once out in daylight, I felt a distinct sense of deja vu, which only increased as I walked by a decrepit bingo hall, a tattoo parlor, and a billboard that read: BEER FOR SAINT JOHN’S TWO SEASONS, JULY AND WINTER. As I turned a corner, I saw the same exact junk store I’d visited with my parents a few years earlier. For all I knew, the window display hadn’t changed at all.
Though starving, I entered. A gruff hello came from behind the counter. The store looked like someone’s basement: old VCRs, unmatched china, yellowed kitchen appliances. Most objects in the store were intended to satisfy household necessities, but perched on a table was a crate of records. I zeroed in on those, walked over, and started flipping through. Holy shit! It was like a physical manifestation of my Christmas list that year! All of the soul-jazz and funk I had just started investigating, in one milk crate and reasonably priced! Kool & the Gang, Rick James, an Average White Band LP for the girlfriend, even a rare Idris Muhammad album. They all had stamps or stickers on them denoting which area pubs they’d been spun in long ago. The proprietor, noticing my excitement, ambled over.
“Yeah, some kid came in here at nine on his way to Halifax, sold all his shit. Rap and soul. Some other kid came in about a half hour ago and bought all the rap.” I couldn’t believe my good fortune, and the owner couldn’t believe he was going to flip all the vinyl he’d just bought inside of two hours.
“I’m buying the rest,” I said, putting the records on the counter. As if I had said nothing at all, the proprietor continued:
“Yeah, that’s what people do here, move away. Young people, anyway. Except for the gays. They move in.” He chuckled scornfully at his own remark, which confused me. “Everyone else moves to Halifax, all the young people. Halifax is like the New York of the Maritimes.” He let me know my total and I handed over some Canadian money I’d withdrawn during the course of my drive.
“I grew up in New York,” I responded.
“Really.” It was not a question. “The city?”
“Yeah, mostly in Queens.” The gruff pawn shop guy both grumbled and laughed at the word. I wasn’t sure why, but it seemed ironic.
“Let me tell you: we got no shortage of queens here,” he said. “Fairies.” He pointed at a bar across the street. ” Last night, around eleven, I seen a bunch of queens fighting right outside in the street, two queens fighting over a third queen.” He indicated the direction with his hand, gesturing hatefully, and may have mumbled under his breath something about what would have happened if he had gone outside. Unlike the argument with my parents, there was nothing histrionic or hyperbolic about his words. This was pure hatred.
I wasn’t sure where this was going, and I really didn’t want to find out. I excused myself and wandered until I found the market, which was bustling with families. I ordered some memorably “Hawaiian” sandwich (chicken, pineapple, green peppers, and cream cheese), found a table, and thought about these bizarre, uninvited, and insanely homophobic conversations that seemed to keep greeting me in Saint John. I was staring out the window at a pool hall called Babylon East. The phone number was 693-GAYS.
What was it about this industrial port city that made it an apparent bastion of gay culture, surrounded by both rural and industrial wastelands? And what was it that made people so afraid of that? Was it fear of “the other” as literary scholars like to say? Cultural ignorance? I had grown to hate the divide between acceptance and intolerance, which I’d started to see in high school, commuting between a slice of neo-con Queens and laissez-faire Manhattan every day. When my former self and my family first visited Saint John back in 2000, I thought we’d brought the intolerance (real or contrived) along for the day. Now I saw that there was plenty of it already there — or at least there was plenty in the junk store.
The more I thought about it, the more I wanted to focus on the positive: the unexpected diversity of this refinery city on the Bay of Fundy. After I ate, I took my folding bike out of the trunk and pedaled for miles and miles. Saint John — industry, history, people — came to life before my eyes, my point-and-shoot camera’s lens, and my handlebars. The more I saw of Saint John’s far-flung residential neighborhoods and disused drydocks, the more I realized just how Queens-like it was. And that went for the people, not just the place.
As I tried to get farther and farther from my home, I would see more and more of it in every town I visited. Learning not to ignore that association was the important lesson, and one that I really hadn’t been expecting, just as I hadn’t expected to find a willing tutor in the city of Saint John.
Text & photos: Rob Bellinger
Published: June 20, 2012
The Manic Americans — Rob, Dan, and BJ — will return to Saint John for Canada Day Weekend 2012.