RENT $1,200 [market]
SQUARE FEET 1,400 [ground floor of century-old house]
OCCUPANTS Kelly Spivey [sound editor, MercerMedia; filmmaker]; S.M. Gray [nonprofit development associate; filmmaker-poet]
I came early to explore. I saw too much. I thought I was going to be all taken up with the dumpling stands, glistening squid, and pink iridescent shoes, Flushing being the second largest New York Chinatown. And true, Joe’s Shanghai is so 1920s with the carved dark wood and jade-green glass tables and the white fish pushing next to each other in the bubbling aquarium, madly opening and closing their mouths and going nowhere. [Kelly] Did they look sickly and dying?
No, they were thick. Joe is rich. It turns out that the Town Hall from Flushing’s Victorian period was the most moving sight of all. I don’t know if it was the freshly painted white walls, the high doorways, or maybe the transoms open to the soft spring air from long ago or the thin, sparkling necklaces in the gift shop, the place of small gestures. Or maybe it’s people struggling to keep a remnant of the past intact. Your books and records are displayed in the living room like a store. We painted it pink and S.M. pulled out everything we have that’s pink. [S.M.] When I told my friends that I was moving to Queens, they gave me the All in the Family LP. I’m from a working-class background. I always thought I’d like to be in art and move to the big city. But the only places that are accessible are the outer boroughs. So I’m back in the working class. [Kelly] It’s the feeling that you can never escape your roots. [S.M.] I’m not trying to escape being working-class but I was surprised that it wasn’t that easy to move to New York—maybe in earlier generations.
Greenwich Village artists in the ’20s and ’50s grumbled about rising rents too. Today, it’s worse. Hardly anyone can even afford to live in the city. [Kelly] We’ve lived here over a year. The people I connect with are like the super of my building at work.
When did your working-class lives begin? My mother married four times in between being a single mother working three jobs to support two of us.
It sounds like a short story. She drives to the 7-Eleven . . . It was! And it took place in El Paso and Pensacola. [S.M.] I grew up in the Rust Belt. My father was a freight check-in clerk. I picked a school in Oregon. That’s when I got hit with people who dress raggedy but have lots of money. Though I did love Cyndi Lauper. And I used to go to thrift stores and buy brightly colored clothing like Cyndi. But those trust fund artists . . .
It’s rare that real writers, artists are comfortable in the world—financially, psychologically, physically. If I were rich, I wouldn’t be traipsing around Flushing making notes on bedroom slippers and shrimp. Maybe I would. What Rust Belt city did you meet in? [Kelly] It wasn’t in the Rust Belt. That’s why we left. It was Portland, Oregon. We met in a nonprofit bicycling center at a free class to learn how to repair bikes. We both wanted to move to New York.
Then Erie—why? The rust? We started moving east. S.M. had been there in the past. We ended up working for Benedictine nuns. Here comes Sappho.
The working-class cat—then Buffalo for seven years—more abandonment, loss, metallurgy, cogwheels, molten metals, furnaces, steam, cantilevers, and all those old pipes. No jobs, no people, empty. [S.M.] Elizabeth Kennedy’s Boots of Leather, Slippers of Gold references this really well. Buffalo had one of the largest lesbian communities in the ’40s. I found this other book about Buffalo in the Flushing library.
Verlyn Klinkenborg’s The Last Fine Time! It’s the last fine story, as far as I’m concerned—Eddie and his corner bar in snowy Buffalo, people drinking manhattans with a cherry, Vic Damone . . . I came all the way to Flushing and found out about Buffalo. Sometimes you have to go backward to go forward.