BBQ Heaven, Liberty Hell...

When I was in college, I discovered a love for barbecues. Every Spring, everyone in the art department would gather somewhere on campus for hamburgers, hot dogs, corn-on-the-cob and more. Maybe it was the fresh air, or being truly part of a social group rather than my traditional role as an observer, but no other meal or gathering compared. I started having annual barbecues of my own, firing up my dad's propane grill and bathing in the warmth of the blessed steam as my friends sat around the yard laughing and having a good time. Some years I'd blast CDs, hopefully to the chagrin of neighbors we didn't get along with, and other times Rey would strum a guitar for everyone.

I can get hamburgers or hot dogs anywhere, and any time. But nothing compares to those on a grill, prepared by my own hands or those of friends and family. As the years advanced, the barbecues declined. As people graduated and got jobs, married and had kids, it became harder and harder to coordinate and find a free weekend. My own barbecue began to rust and collect spider webs, forgotten in a corner of our yard. “On a weekend when I'm not playing a gig” became “next year I'll buy a new grill” then “when I have my own house I'll have everyone over, college and work friends alike”. It never seems to happen, and that last prediction would be a good one for Cloakfest if I thought it might actually come true, within the year anyway.

Though I've gotten away from hosting barbecues, it doesn't mean I haven't enjoyed a few. My company's annual barbecue always rocks hard, with a veritable buffet capped off with an awesome desert table of brownies, chocolate chip cookies, and ice cream that puts my old “kitchen table with boxes of supermarket ice cream and toppings” makeshift sundae bar to abject shame. There have been the occasional Summer dinners with friends where food was prepared outside on a grill, and I made it to at least one small gathering this past Summer.

The nice thing about September is that the weather can still be favorable for a barbecue, and while my musical obligations devour most of my weekends in August, for a time I thought September might offer an opening, especially with school behind us. Time only flows faster, and this year September is suddenly over. Yesterday, on the last day of the month, I found myself in the heart of Queens on a brick triangle surrounded by three streets. A DJ sang along to recordings of old Italian tunes and Doo-wop melodies as senior citizens basked in the sunlight at chess tables and on park benches. On the sidewalk, vendors sold various items from zeppoli to t-shirts and hats. In the center of it, a ragtag band of five musicians stood ready to play for an hour and a half.

It had been a last minute call, and the band leader who hired us asked us to meet at his home in another part of Queens. The job was relatively easy, and he continually quipped that it was a “walk in the park”. Between strolling and songs, the DJ did his thing, so the people were constantly entertained. After an hour or so, I noticed the large, glorious flames of two fixed brick barbecues at the corner of this small park. As we walked past, a cloud of meaty steam enveloped us, and I gazed at hazy aluminum trays of fresh hamburgers and hot dogs. ”In Heaven, there are surely barbecues.” was almost my exact thought in that wonderful moment.

Years ago, it was customary to feed musicians at feasts and other gatherings where food was present. Songs drew in customers, and vendors gladly gave the band free samples. These days, it's far more rare. Perhaps it's the change in the economy, or simply etiquette lost on the current generation. Whatever the reason, I never expect more than my pay for any given job. Yesterday though, as our time drew to a close, I found myself hoping for a little something. When we were finished, and one of the guys working the grill called to our boss, “Johnny! Youse guys wanna eat?”, my inner fat bastard rejoiced.

The boss coolly waved us further in to the park, and for one scary moment I thought he was going to pass up the offer. Instead, he motioned for us to set our instruments down on a bench, and get some gratuitous grilled grub. First I had a hot dog. I took a bottled water rather than any soda, the better to cleanse my palette, and followed the hot dog with a hamburger. I can't stress enough how much better food prepared outdoors on a grill can be. Heaven.

When we got back to the boss' home, we had to drop one guy off at a train station on Liberty Avenue. New Yorkers, especially denizens of Queens, know the horror of this road. I doubt that the car chase in The French Connection, which took place on a similar street in Brooklyn under an elevated train, could ever have worked on Liberty. I've known the horror of this road since I was a child, when we'd visit my mom's godmother in the area. In college, I had several friends who lived near it.

It's not the beams of the tracks overhead, or the perpetual darkness. The throngs of people crossing the street at any given time, and the double and sometimes triple parked cars are not the sole problem either. All of it forms a rich tapestry, combined with traffic lights every 50 feet that aren't staggered. When one is red, all are red. I'm not the most aggressive driver in the world, but that nightmare brings it out in me, and after dropping off the drummer I was now yelling and cutting in to oncoming traffic to get around double parked vehicles and make it through intersections. There was no delay between yellow and red either, and the lights changed remarkably fast. Even when we finally, mercifully, emerged from under the train tracks into daylight, what little the gathering clouds let through, the short blocks, oblivious pedestrians, and parked cars still tormented me. Too late, our friend Bill the trumpet player suggested cutting down to 101st, something I should have remembered from the days when I spent more time in that neighborhood. By then however, we had finally reached the Van Wyck, a horror worthy of its own post.

The Van Wyck was a bumper-to-bumper parking lot, but the service road was mercifully empty, if riddled with potholes, and the traffic lights were few and far between. By some miracle, we still got Bill home and I got home just in time to join my mom for a five o'clock mass. There are many places I hate to drive, and while Canal Street in particular and Manhattan in general rank high, Liberty Avenue is right up there with them. I had gone from the heaven of a barbecue to the hell of a nightmarish street in the span of an hour. Now, as I sit writing on a rainy morning, the first of October, I realize that barbecue was the true coda of the Summer. On the plus side, as the weather changes, I have three or four gigs at most left in the season, and only two with adverse driving conditions. I'm going to focus on the high note of the barbecue, and remember that as Winter ends next year and new grills await.

Winter offers some heavenly treats for the palette as well. Though barbecues are behind me for now, hot chocolate is surely on the horizon.


Anonymous theGreek said...

This post scares me. You write with such adoration about meat, I'm certain that a psychopath (not you) somewhere has printed pages of this blog thumbtacked to a wall under the heading 'Gluttony Sacrifice'. Have you ever BBQ in the dead of winter? That is probably the most satisfying burger you will ever eat. Try it, it's propane after all. Easy on, easy off.

10/02/2006 8:04 AM  
Blogger Scott Roche said...

One great thing about living in the south, you can grill year round.

10/02/2006 3:54 PM  

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