My most vivid memory of Juniper Park, in Middle Village Queens, was an epic fall right on my ass. From an epic high to an epic low in the life of a 12-year-old, I had finally done the impossible and convinced my grandpa to buy me an enormous vanilla cone from the Mr. Softee truck. I’m not sure why that one time he didn’t give me the usual speech about how there was a perfectly good Entenmann’s cake at home. Apparently, the cone was enormous enough that it set me off balance. Throw in the fact that I was on roller skates into the mix, and I think you can imagine exactly what happened next. When my butt hit the pavement, the ice cream followed suit, albeit in slow motion. At least I could console myself with the knowledge that there was Entenmann’s at home.
25 years later, I parked in front of my grandparent’s old house on 78th street and walked the still familiar path to the park, picking up an eggplant hero along the way. It was the perfect summer day 80 degrees sunny, breeze blowing. Sometimes when you revisit a place that you once held dear it’s changed so much you don’t recognize it, or it just seems smaller and dirtier. But not the park. It seems to be stuck in time.
The old Italian guys had camped out on the same old benches around the bocce courts. They were just as I remember them. Arms flailing, heated negotiations, and the best place this side of the Bay of Naples to learn to curse poetically in Italian. That’s where I learned all the words my Italian teachers never taught me. I was afraid if I sat too close that I’d have to share my eggplant, but I stayed happily within ear shot. Eventually, when the afternoon shadows grew long, they packed up their bocce balls and decks of cards and wandered off in search of macaroni. They were replaced by a young group of boys who arrived on bikes and started a game of hand ball. Hand ball! No smart phones, and no video games. I was mesmerized by children actually being children. It was like seeing a unicorn.
Eventually, I abandoned my bench and circled the ball fields. The walk used to feel a lot longer, but I knew the way. I used to sit under the flagpole and gaze at the twin towers in the hazy distance, but they are long gone now. Looking at the Freedom Tower, I couldn’t help but think of new beginnings and my own move back to New York. I had visited the cemetery just before coming to the park, but my grandparents weren’t in that cold marble mausoleum. Looking down the fields at the skyline on that perfect summer day, I was quite certain they were with me. As I left the park. Mr. Softee rolled up curbside blaring his unmistakable jingle. Without a second thought, I threw my normal organic, vegan diet into the wind and ordered a giant vanilla cone.