Queens Wedding

| 16 Feb 2015 | 04:39

    Queens Wedding My cousin got married in Queens a couple weekends ago. Queens, where a good percentage of my family lives, is?as we're reminded once in a while by The New York Times, which sends a reporter out into the jungles and dry savannas of western Long Island to report back with quiet approval?a polyglot vision of America's future. I associate the place with L.A., another fecund, centerless place, except that it lacks the Western city's natural beauty: This sprawling plain pulsing with humanity and overlaid most days in summer with a hazy scrim of heat-shimmering exhaust from the motorways and the greasy tarmac of its airports; everything seems in summer to bake in that relentless diffuse gray sun that you find in Los Angeles, away from the water. Queens' most famous characterization used to be of it as Archie Bunker's blue-collar home, doomedly resistant to the colored tides. But now everything's changed; the new Queens narrative portrays the borough as the place where the good, hardworking immigrants go. It's possible to see the borough as one of the great contemporary American successes: a sooty, low-slung bowl in which the world's languages mingle and miscegenate, their users mixed together under the influence of that most effective of solvents, American money. But there's a practical language issue as regards their marriage. My cousin grew up speaking Ukrainian at home and in his community, somewhat furtively. He's only 30, so he missed the era in which speaking anything but Russian in the Soviet Union could get you into big trouble. But there remained during his time the sense that by speaking Ukrainian one was proactively asserting oneself?committing an act. Speaking it wasn't unself-conscious. Russian was what you spoke at school and at work, dutifully and for practical reasons but with no affection or affinity for the task, like you'd put on a tie.

    My cousin's wife, on the other hand, speaks Russian natively, and doesn't speak Ukrainian. (Although it's true that she'll understand it if you speak it to her; Russian and Ukrainian are as similar to each other as Portuguese and Spanish, and you can find Russian chauvinists who will claim that Ukrainian's not even a separate language but a dialect?"Little Russian.") And now that she's over here, there's really no reason she should learn Ukrainian. Better she should take up html. But inevitably their children will grow up speaking the Russian they hear their parents using around the house, as well as English, and that must be strange to my cousin and his parents. People in Eastern Europe are attuned to these differences in ways we can't imagine. When I speak Ukrainian with my cousin, and mix in a Russian word offhandedly that I remember from school, he'll always catch it, and laughingly say something like, "Oh my God, you've turned Russian on us."

    The extent to which these differences and tensions, which seem quaint to an American, are crucial is remarkable. Recently in Lvov (but already language is playing a joke on us; "Lvov" is a Russification that Ukrainians bristle at; they instead call the city "L-viv" or "Lwow"), the beautiful but down-at-the-heels capital of Ukraine's Ukrainian-speaking west (in the country's east, in Kiev for example, Russian is predominant), a man who was singing Ukrainian songs in a cafe was clocked over the head with a bottle by a Russian who took exception to having to listen to Ukrainian. The singer died.

    I know this because I was told it by a member of the wedding party, a short little immigrant fellow in his 40s who had the erect posture, sprightly energy, merry eyes and elaborate mustache of some cheerfully dutiful hussar or artillery major in War and Peace. He was a friend of my cousin's, lived with his wife and daughter in Sheepshead Bay, spoke no English, came from the same part of Ukraine from which my family does and would function later at the reception as the starosta, which literally means "elder," the guy who provides guidance throughout the festivities, and who acts as master of ceremonies. His name was Ihor. (Which, interestingly, doesn't translate into anything; it's unassimilably Slavic.) It was after the church ceremony, at which I was best man, and we were standing in the stunning afternoon heat in the Queens Botanical Gardens, to which we'd driven from Astoria in white stretch limousines with electric-blue piping in order to take what turned out to be several hours' worth of photographs?amidst the roses of weird, baking outer Queens. Killing time while the photographer busied himself arranging other members of the wedding party against the topiary, we talked. Apparently, Ukrainians in Lvov were now grumbling about banning Russian singing in response to the crime.

    My father shook his head and sighed. "That would be just as bad."

    "That's what I say," said Ihor, shrugging, his eyes twinkling. It was hard to tell how sincere he was.

    An immigrant that day told us a joke, which I'd heard often when I was in Ukraine. It's like this: Ukrainian guy and his wife go out to adopt a kid, and the guy wades his way through half a dozen orphanages, looking for a black child, obviously a rare commodity in those parts. Goes from one place to the other, all stocked with little white kids ripe for adoption, until finally at the eighth or ninth or tenth place they visit, there he is: a little black boy, living under the care of the state in a foundling home outside of Uzhgorod or Kharkov or wherever. "That's the kid!" the guy announces, and adopts him on the spot. Puts him in back of the car, heads off home completely satisfied with his new little black son, until his wife looks at him sideways, a little weirded out, and asks, "Um, Ivan? Why'd you insist on a black kid?" Guy shrugs; answers, "Well, at least this way we know he's not Russian."

    Except that the character in the joke, the way it was told us that day, didn't use the word "Russian," but rather the word muscal (with the accent on the second syllable, and making certain to palatalize the final consonant, mashing your tongue up against the roof of your mouth). Muscal is a derogatory word for Russians?it bears the same mildly offensive valence as the word "limey" or "frog" does. The bitterness latent in the joke slapped me into the awareness that I couldn't remember ever having heard my grandparents use the proper, normal, polite, literary Ukrainian word for the noun "Russian." Instead, they used the word muscal invariably, unquestioningly, unself-consciously, in every situation, whether the muscal in question was an acquaintance of theirs, a medieval tsar, a hockey player, Brezhnev, the guy who ran a certain bakery out on Brighton Beach Ave. or Pushkin. In telling the joke on the wedding day, in fact, the teller had warned us with a smile: "We have to keep our voices down; we've got among us muscali." He meant the bride's parents and siblings, who sat placidly under an arbor, waiting out the heat. Not that he had any problem with the bride or the family. But he'd inherited a thousand-year history. Which, amazingly, it would probably take but one subsequent generation of his family's living in Queens to effectively eradicate, and make look primitive and ridiculous.

    Later, at the reception?at a catering establishment in Astoria run by a diamond-stud sharpie who seems to look down on his patrons?my teenage cousin drank nine gin and tonics and fell asleep in his chair on the dais. Other receptions were in process throughout the huge, dimly lit building. There was the impression that we were on an ocean liner that needed a revamping, reveling as we moved forward into misty uncharted American time. The halls teemed with well-dressed humans of all ethnicities and colors, knit together by a ghostly familiarity born of the fact that, on this night, we'd all been blasted out of time, that we were living together through great anomalies, through these ceremonies that represent rents in the continuum of time. A sinuous amplified violin line drifted through the wall from the next banquet room, carried on a morphic, plodding underrhythm. It was a Greek wedding, the energy of which articulated itself with the energy of our polkas. Jostling through the crowds that clogged the halls we could see, through the doors, the Greeks' courtly line-dancing. They stomped with oceanic force, their brows knit.

    With the maid of honor?a Russian girl born in Latvia, now a computer programmer in Atlanta?I acted as witness as my cousin and his wife signed the marriage documents in the hall. He signed his name in English, spelling out the Roman letters with what I imagined was hesitation. But like the Greeks' kids, his would be at home in some of the many dialects of the language known as American.

    The Jonathan Gold Part Enthusiasm is general. From Jackson Heights to Ocean Ave. in deepest Brooklyn, from Tottenville in Staten Island to upper Manhattan, where vestigial Irishmen walk the streets of Inwood with mastiffs; from (to steal a phrase from Urban Blight) the East Side to the West Side, from Fordham Rd. to the Battery, everyone's quivering with excitement over the opening of Village, the new West Village bistro run by Stephen Lyle, the Odeon's former chef. Stopped by there the other night and decided to be glad of its existence. One of the negative things about this boom economy is that the restaurants are clogged?though maybe I'm only imagining that it's worse than it used to be?so that, if you're alone, it's almost impossible to do what you used to be able to do?though maybe I'm imagining that you used to be able to do it?which is take a seat at a restaurant's bar and eat. Village, then, is a good addition to its neighborhood's culinary geography. In the past, if I needed to kill time and eat downtown and the Cafe Loup bar was overrun, I'd walk down to Soho, where I'd find Raoul's, Manhattan Bistro and Blue Ribbon also prohibitively teeming with humanity. Eventually I'd buy a candy bar and sit on the sidewalk. Now I don't have to walk down to Soho from Cafe Loup in order to be shut out. I need merely to walk the short distance over to Village. Village has redefined the spatial-temporal context of frustration.

    But honestly, like so much of life, it has to do with what time you show up. Dropped by Village at 7 on a fine Thursday evening and the beautiful, spacious downstairs barroom (off-white walls, wooden floors and golden light-globes conduce, when the room's empty, toward an atmosphere of purity and calm) was so sparsely populated that I actually went and stood in the street for a while to wait for my friend, studying the nomenclatural tags on the trunks of the dusty shade trees. Then I went back inside and sat at the bar. By 7:30, the place had transmogrified into the same fun, buzzing, good-looking, but at any rate crowded, mosh pit you're used to.

    The menu resembles the Odeon's in its deco graphics; also in its food. But we didn't order from it. By 8, the place was so packed that we decided not to leave our seats at the bar and venture back into the dining room (which looked pleasant from a distance). We ordered instead off the chalkboard bar menu, which offered leek and potato soup, a barbecue steak sandwich, fries, a green salad, a frisee salad, a scallion and cheddar omelet, maybe a couple other things... So anyway, we sat there drinking beer (they have Hoegaarden) and eating omelets and tuna sandwiches, which seem identical to those at the Odeon. The bread's the same as the Odeon's, too. It wouldn't be a bad thing if all conditions in life approximated those of the Odeon.

    By 8:30 the place was a throbbing, joyful and fashionable zoo, and a meat market, which was nice. The bar-menu tab for two of us came to just $50. If you're seeking peace, show up here around 7, or else on weekends when the lure of eastern Long Island should winnow out the crowd.

    Village, 62 W. 9th St. (betw. 5th & 6th Aves.), 505-3355.