Utopia Parkway

by Paul Hond
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On a clammy, hazy summer day, a red Chrysler Sebring with a black top pulls into the parking lot of the LIRR station at Little Neck, Queens. The window rolls down, revealing a youthful, dark-haired man of 63 sporting killer shades that might be worth as much as the car. “Get in!” he says, with a pearly grin. He explains that his usual set of wheels, a Subaru Outback, is in the shop. The Sebring is on loan from his girlfriend.

The driver is Julio Marzán ’71SOA, and he’s grinning for a reason. Once, he drove from New York to Mexico City in a Chevy Cordova. That was in 1975. He’s driven cross-country eight times. His novel The Bonjour Gene opens with, “Benjamin Martin’s thoughts drifted far from his driving on the New Jersey Turnpike.” And then there’s his poem “Utopia Parkway,” named after a Queens thoroughfare. As a lesser poet might say: Marzán / is a cars man. And today, happily enough, he is conducting a motor tour of New York’s most sprawling borough.

“You won’t believe this!” he says, as he bounces the Sebring over the railroad tracks. He turns left onto a quiet, narrow road. Old single-family homes appear through threads of summer vegetation. Queens might take a backseat to Manhattan and Brooklyn in the public mind — less style-conscious, more functional, a place you drive through to get to the airport — but to Marzán, who has lived here for 38 years, it’s a rambling atlas of unexpected charms. “You won’t believe this is New York City!”

As the road dips and bends, one begins to see Marzán’s point. Trees, wildflowers, and — is that a barn?

Marzán smiles, enjoying the reliable effect of the anomaly; through a visitor’s eyes, he experiences these wonders anew, and his enthusiasm carries him past a stop sign. “Uh-oh.” He brakes in the middle of the intersection, which is traffic-free, and continues cheerfully on. “Wait till you see this.”

In a moment, the land opens up onto Little Neck Bay. The coastal road describes a hilly, wooded peninsula dotted with the stately homes of Douglaston, while on the calm water, a few sailboats slowly unzip the slate-colored surface. Narrow your gaze and you could be back in Gatsby’s time (Fitzgerald’s West Egg and East Egg correspond to nearby Kings Point and Sands Point), or earlier, when the bay was glutted with hard clams (thus the name “littleneck clams”), or even back to 1839, when Walt Whitman taught school at Jamaica Academy, on the grounds of what is now Queens College.

Leaving the shoreline, Marzán steers the Sebring into regal Jamaica Estates, and prowls along the side streets, ogling the prewar Colonials and brick Tudors. “Each one is an individual expression,” “he says, noting a crooked staircase, a plot of blazing flowers, a whimsical rooftop terrace. The occasional McMansion, crammed between older, more modest homes, violates Marzán’s idyll, causing him to groan, but he quickly recovers. “There,” he says, pointing to a grand redbrick Colonial with white columns, “is where Donald Trump grew up.” If the houses quicken Marzán’s imagination, he’s also excited by the opening of a Grimaldi’s Pizzeria in the Douglaston Plaza Shopping Center. “But,” he says, “if you want the best pizza anywhere? Umberto’s on Long Island.”

On the Long Island Expressway, heading west, Marzán lays out the map of his life, which began in Puerto Rico in 1946. His parents split up before he was born, and his mother, Lydia, took him and his sister in a reconfigured World War II cargo plane to the Bronx. It was a time that “predated all the clichés about the Bronx and Puerto Ricans,” Marzán says, in the droll tone of one used to explaining such things, “or any consciousness of West Side Story.” There were no books or television at home, so he read G.I. Joe comics and tuned in religiously to radio programs like Boston Blackie and Challenge of the Yukon. Lydia, who worked as a seamstress down on Spring Street, listened to Spanish-language soap operas on WADO.

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