IN THE CITY OF NEW YORK

Utopia Parkway

by Paul Hond
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On May 4, 2007, Marzán, who for the previous 15 years had been a professor of English at nearby Nassau Community College, where he still teaches, was appointed by Borough president Helen Marshall and Queens College president James Muyskens to be the fourth Queens Poet Laureate. The laureateship, a largely ceremonial post established in 1996 by the Friends of the Queens College Library, is open to published poets who have resided in Queens for at least two years and who have incorporated the borough into their work. Now in the middle of his three-year term, Marzán, in his formal capacity, has done readings at venues throughout Queens, including the Queens Museum of Art and St. John’s University. In October, he’ll appear at the Greater Astoria Historical Society.

From the LIE there appears, through the passenger window, Queens’s iconic structure, the Unisphere, a 140-foot-high steel sculpture of the Earth that was built for the 1964 World’s Fair. It’s a prescient symbol, given that Queens, which has been home to American avatars Whitman and Louis Armstrong (Pops is buried in Flushing Cemetery), would later become the most culturally and linguistically diverse locale in the world — a true global village. One of Marzán’s best memories is of riding the subway daily into Flushing during the summer of ’64, to visit the Fair.

“The whole world was here,” he says, his voice suffused with the teenager’s awe. “I was a kid from the Bronx who’d never been anywhere other than San Juan.” He was particularly drawn to the Spanish Pavilion. “Spectacular flamenco shows. Huge crowds. I loved it.”

In the marshy heat, Marzán guides the Sebring from the fairgrounds at Flushing Meadows Corona Park to nearby Citi Field, whose familiar banking logo, a red arc over white letters, provides a moment of metaphorical contemplation.

But where is Shea Stadium? Hadn’t the Mets just played there last fall?

“It’s gone,” Marzán says.

Yes, gone. Vanished. Dust to dust. A parking lot. But there’s no time for further metaphors: the Sebring is off through North Corona to the hills of Jackson Heights, beyond whose humps of houses and dipping telephone lines loom the gunmetal spires of Manhattan.

On Roosevelt Avenue, Marzán observes the crowds of people — Peruvian, Colombian, Ecuadorian, Mexican — milling along the street, which, despite a sagging economy, bursts with small businesses and restaurants, bright toucan-colored awnings of yellow, red, green. “Great steaks there,” he says, nodding toward an Argentinian place. After a few blocks, the Latin restaurants give way to Indian and Bangladeshi eateries, regarded as some of the best in the city. “In Queens, no one is displaced,” Marzán comments. “People, languages, cultures just pile up on top of one another.” He adds, “And there’s no problem with the authenticity of the food.”

Speaking of food, it’s lunchtime, and Marzán turns around and heads back east to one of his favorite spots, a trattoria on Union Turnpike in Flushing, across from St. John’s. There are outdoor tables facing a residential side street of front lawns and mailboxes. Marzán orders the linguini di mare. “My girlfriend and I come here and order a nice bottle of wine,” Marzán says, extending his hand to indicate the simple beauty of what a lesser romantic might see as an ordinary suburban scene. One could, in fact, spend a long afternoon at this table. Perhaps even a life. Maybe it’s the excellent food, or the beating sun, or Marzán’s relaxed enjoyment of place, but never has 178th Street in Flushing felt more like the Amalfi Coast.

Then again, the poet is seated just two blocks from Utopia Parkway, whose very name awakens the fancy to a thousand possibilities. And it’s in the final lines of that eponymous poem that Marzán, whether driving through Florida or Texas or the state of Hidalgo, finds his way back home:

“Airport fumes / always transport me / to that island / no longer mapped / and my wheels / touch that life / always dreamed / from New York.”

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