In which I discover people living behind the Fairfield Inn on Astoria Boulevard.
About a year ago, I decided to travel to a client in New Jersey by way of LaGuardia Airport. I got into my rental car at 11:45 PM with the intention of driving to Wayne, about an hour away, the same night. Things did not go well. I did eventually make it there, but only after describing various trapezoidal and pentagonal shapes with my rental car across the map of Queens as I tried with increasing desperation to locate the entrance to Grand Central Parkway. I cite criminally poor signage and a lack of GPS in my defense, although in retrospect, once I knew what I was looking for, the highway was comically easy to find.
Needless to say, when I made a similar travel plan to get to New Jersey via Manhattan to celebrate my father’s 75th birthday this year, I contemplated the drive from LGA with dread. This time I am sensible, and decide to stay the night at the Fairfield Inn on Astoria before braving the Parkway. On approach over Manhattan Island, I decide that the sight of the Statue of Liberty and the new Freedom Tower, still under construction, is a good omen. Daylight and Garmin work in my favor, and I am at the hotel and checked in within an hour.
I ask the woman behind the desk for recommendations of places to eat within walking distance. She assures me that, despite first impressions, ‘this is a neighborhood, one where kids ride their bikes, and grandmothers used to sit out on their porches with their color TVs.’ The hotel, she tells me, used to be a furrier. She grew up only blocks from here, and I wonder how many travelers she meets each year who arrive on the shuttle, stay for a night, and disappear just as fast as they can find their way out of Queens.
On her advice, I venture out into the neighborhood behind the hotel to find Stove, a restaurant on 28th Street between 45th and 46th. I would be willing to bet that walking that first block on 45th from Astoria Boulevard to 25th, scares about 90% of travelers right back into their hotel rooms. Tall chain link fences, copious trash, graffiti, uninhabited brick buildings, and an overpass make for a long, grim block in which I tell myself I’m not really that hungry and contemplate my chances of slinking back into the hotel unnoticed. I cling to her breezy confidence (‘it’s a neighborhood!’) and walk on, relieved to cross 25th and find people walking tiny dogs, an Indian family returning home with grocery bags, and a taxi driver chatting with a passerby.
Stove turns out to have an unprepossessing store front and a comfortable interior. I put on the brave face of the solo traveler and ask for my table for one. I order wine, and the special salad with figs, gorgonzola, walnuts, and balsamic vinaigrette. Shana the waitress trains the new girl (‘whenever you have spare time, fold napkins … that way, when we get busy, we won’t run out of napkins’). I order Portobella Ravioli with sundried tomatoes and kalamata olives, and attempt a photo with my tablet camera. An old man with discolored elbows shuffles past my table three times in 45 minutes, presumably on his way to the bathroom.
I finish my wine and listen as the cook and the hostess swap stories of their attempts to quit smoking. He had two aunts who ended up with emphysema. Both of them were on oxygen, but neither of them managed to quit. He describes his strategy for visiting his family: ‘smoke a cigarette, then take a shower … then you don’t smell so bad.’ She describes a dream she had last night in which she smoked a cigarette and felt guilty about it. Dream guilt is the worst. You didn’t even get to do the thing you’re feeling guilty about.
Shana asks me if I would like a homemade dessert, and I decline. (‘Always ask them if they want a homemade dessert,’ she instructs her pupil as they go for my check.) I retrace my route to the hotel in the dark, more annoyed now than afraid of that last ugly block — 46th is no improvement over 45th, and I wonder what a neighborhood cleanup might do for business in this friendly pocket of Queens. But who knows — maybe they prefer it this way. Perhaps the residents of this neighborhood like a bit of a buffer between their daily lives and the one-night travelers just passing through on their way to New Jersey and beyond. I can’t say I blame them. That first block may be intimidating, but the neighborhood is worth it.