On a whim, after joking about how I seemed to be reading a lot about Brooklyn, I mentioned something like, “Oh, I should write about Queens. I’ll call it ‘Pink House in the Middle of the Street.'”
I started it. Then I searched for memoir/ personal essay contests. And I found one, run by Writer’s Digest. The due date happened to be today, so I entered it. Ha. Is it my best essay ever? No. But it’s better than whatever personal essays I was writing in college, that’s for sure. Here’s the deal:
For 79 years, the Annual Writer’s Digest Competition has rewarded writers just like you for their finest work. We continue the tradition by giving away more than $30,000 in cash and prizes!
Win a trip to New York City !
GRAND PRIZE: $3,000 cash and a trip to New York City to meet with editors or agents. Writer’s Digest will fly you and a guest to The Big Apple, where you’ll spend three days and two nights in the publishing capital of the world. While you’re there, a Writer’s Digest editor will escort you to meet and share your work with four editors or agents!
Entry Deadline: May 14, 2010.
Grand Prize: $3,000 cash and a trip to New York City to meet with editors and agents.
You’ll spend three days and two nights in NYC and a Writer’s Digest editor will escort you to meet with four editors or agents of your choice! (Includes airfare within the U.S., meals, transportation and related expenses.)
First Place: The First Place Winner in each category receives $1,000 cash and $100 worth of Writer’s Digest Books.
11th through 100th Place: All other winners receive distinctive certificates honoring their accomplishment.
Top Award Winners will be notified by mail before October 22, 2010. The top 10 winners in each category will be listed in the November/December 2010 issue of Writer’s Digest. All 1,001 winners will be listed in the 79th Annual Writer’s Digest Competition Collection and at http://www.writersdigest.com after the December issue is published. Prizes/awards certificates will be mailed by November 15, 2010.
*There are 10 different categories. I thought, for a brief second, about sending in a portion of the novel in the literary fiction category, but I couldn’t think of a way to break it up, have it make sense, and keep it under their word count limits. Also, since said top prize is a trip to New York…methinks I’ll not come in 1st. But what is life without a little risk?
Here’s the essay itself. 5 pages. 1, 533 words, well under the word count limit in its category (the limit was 2,000):
It began with one house on a quiet side street surrounded by busier and more important roads in a quiet, unremarkable area of Queens, New York. It is a place so utterly ordinary for New York City that some people have declared to me, proudly, that they’ve never been to Queens, despite having flown out of Kennedy Airport a few times. Or they’d say something like, “Oh, Queens.” The “oh” is usually disdainful.
The neighborhood is called a variety of names: south Flushing to some, Kew Gardens Hills to others. It’s eccentric, as I tend to think most of Queens, if not the whole of New York, is. Bisected by a large commercial street, half co-op apartments, half private homes, it is not a glamorous neighborhood. It is not and never will be trendy.
The two rows of houses on that quiet side street, even and odd, with its trees and lawns could be seen anywhere in the country. One house in the middle of the even side started it. From the standard brick first floor and siding-covered second floor house sprouted a giant brick structure, with a large round window in the front of the second floor and a red-brick porch and silver-colored screen door.
Then the house behind it, which had a squat appearance, grew a second floor in one weekend. As we watched, incredulous, a wooden frame stood, followed by walls, insulation, beams, outer walls, a roof. One good wind could bring it down, we thought. And no one could have authorized building an entire story that quickly.
Then the house next door grew up as well, with a deck that covered the entire backyard and a bay window overlooking the thought-provoking view of our driveway.
A house one block away grew to three stories, covered itself in chunks of alabaster-and-grey stonework, then a fence surrounded the entire plot.
But the pink houses didn’t come until we moved off the block, away from the neighborhood to another one of uniform brick apartment buildings—a place where no one could grow a second floor in one weekend because we now had co-op regulations. It was only fifteen minutes away—the standard travel time in Queens—
By then, though, I’d seen other pink houses appear in the most incongruous of places. Even as a teen, a too-wise New York teen, I was saying, “That used to be…”
On the way to and from school, walking up one street six blocks to the bus stop, the corner plots were the first to go. A house would be sold, demolished,
then grow back in increments, larger. Wooden-framed floors would spring up, front doors would be seven-feet-tall, windows would be cut open in unreachable places. When the plywood walls covering the new house would be taken away, the outside would begin to take shape. It would be pink; not a dark pink-almost-red or a light, barely-there blush pink, no. It was a flagrant pink, deep and stucco-colored.
From the unreachable windows, curving staircases could be glimpsed. Or white walls. Or chandeliers. But the plot itself, all forty by one hundred of it, would be protected like a moat protected manors in olden times, not by water, but by a six-foot-tall brick wall, an alarm system, and white-barred windows. Sometimes the wall was pink, to match. Or it was white with crystalline sparkles in it. A gate led to the front door or opened on the driveway. And a short spiked fence at the top of the wall plainly said, “I am the pink house. Do not enter.”
The other corner houses sometimes had fences and walls anyway. But the pink houses I glimpsed in the middle of blocks were worse than the ones on the corners. The house burst out of its allotted property like muscle-bound biceps bulging out of a tight T-shirt, the surrounding walls squishing the house’s neighbors. Before, the neighbors had grass and flowers to look out upon. Now, they had a wall. Or a freshly-painted fence. Or the pink house’s wide, un-curtained windows, showing the new gleaming wood floors, wide-screen televisions, and wide granite countertops.
Soon, the neighbors would die off or move and their houses would undergo the change. There were varieties of the McMansions of central Queens. Some were the ugly, Pepto Bismol-pink, while others were covered with white faux-stone that sparkled in sunlight and then turned a sooty grey like snow driven over by cars. Some houses would have antebellum columns. Still others would pave over the thick green grass and use the cement as a place to park their cars. Trees would slowly disappear and the blocks became ten degrees hotter in the humid New York Augusts.
If it was only one pink house per block of free-standing houses, then it didn’t look too unappealing. So one person had walled their borders, cemented over their grass, cut windows to show off their chandeliers, and had gates that rusted after one winter. So what, the neighborhood would say. None of the houses looked alike, except for the general feeling that they fit. Nobody stood out more than the other homes. Each house had a driveway, some grass, a tree or flowers. Some had bikes lying in the front yard or lawn chairs. Some were painted strange colors like yellow, but none of them seemed so out of-place as the pink house, six houses in on the even side of the street.
That was my childhood home, the house I literally grew up in. It wasn’t the first renovated house on the block, but it became the first pink one. The brick is now covered by a smooth, pink wall that would look great in the sunlight of Venice Beach—it merely looks drab in the dim winter cloud cover of the northeast. The backyard, where I picked dandelions and invented games, talking to myself all the while, is cemented over. The trees on the side of the house, which used to whip against my bedroom window at night, waking me from a sound night’s sleep, are razed down. The bushes that my father used to prune and shape the tops of, complaining all the while, are gone. The stoop is now a porch with chairs. There are no physical monuments to my childhood, though I am still young. This is not an area where the houses stay the same for more than a decade at a time. The neighborhood kids may not go to the same schools as you and the same people you knew as a child may not be living there anymore.
The cross street is a true riot of pink these days. The first block no longer has trees. I wonder if the residents like feeling burnt on a hot summer’s day or if they don’t like the sap and pollen that the trees release during allergy season. There’s one corner plot that used to be a house and when the plywood walls separating construction from street were taken away, the new building was not another house, but a larger, more institutional building. It was a synagogue. Suddenly, the house beside it looked shabby and worn, elderly, as if it, too, would soon be sold and demolished and converted into something else. It’s only a matter of time, really.
My favorite of the new, ostentatious houses is the one with the fountain and koi pond as a front yard. No grass or flowers, but water, fenced in, of course. Even for the split second it takes to walk past, the water trickling into the pond, the sight of the orange-red koi releases some peace.
I call this place the old neighborhood, “where I grew up.” I rode my bike down these sidewalks and roamed these streets to the local 7-11 with my friends as a pre-teen in boredom, not allowed to travel to Manhattan on our own yet. But now, it’s a completely different place. Even the bus line has changed; it is no longer the rather eccentric 65A, but the Q64.
The avenue that the bus runs on has attached houses: a uniform row of brick, two stories each, narrow houses with windows front and back, everything packed in tight.
But then—there it is. Pink tiles are glued to the outside of one of the houses and the door is replaced by a chrome-silver one, too flashy for this row of white and black screen doors. It’s the target of rolling eyes and laughter, furrowed brows and cringes. Then there’s the attached house with a brick wall around its miniscule yard. Why? I wonder. There’s barely a yard to begin with. Why wall it in?
Perhaps it’s for privacy. Or for the safety of their children, living on a busy avenue. Perhaps it’s to claim their tiny piece of land for themselves—my land, my taste, the walls and the pink outsides say. In another generation, when the area is even more unrecognizable, and I will not be able to point out anything standing from when I was a kid, there will be other architectural trends. Perhaps then, the pink houses will seem like relics.