Living in Queens through its beats...

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An afternoon with "las matronas" is an attempt to register the cultural diversity of Astoria, Queens through the distinct sounds of the neighborhood... A class assignment that I hope you enjoy reading as I enjoyed writing about this amazing feature of the city.

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Living in Queens through its beats...

  1. 1. An afternoon with “las matronas”Every time I close the door of my apartment, and listen to the creaky noise itproduces, I’m ready to conquest New York, or at least that has been my hopesince I moved here a year ago. While I walk several streets in Astoria, the phrasesang by The Police” I’m an alien, I’m a legal alien” keeps popping in my mind.Can it be possible that the slam of my building’s door sends some kind of nervousimpulse to my brain, which enables me to listen at this same moment of the dayand at the same place the classic 80’s song? I certainly know that now I haveanother vital soundtrack, even though this is not my wish, because as I saidbefore I’m trying to be ready for New York.I keep on walking, trying to ignore my mental audio track, and I start listening tothe breeze blowing and pushing the leaves of the trees, which calms a bit myanxiety. As I step to one of the main streets of my neighborhood, the horns of thecars become louder as well as the roar of their engines. The first time I came toAstoria, I was amazed with the collage of restaurants in one same street. If Ichose to stop, I could have a taste of Middle Eastern, Egyptian dishes to Greek,Colombian, Brazilian or Mexican cuisine. Lately, I’ve noticed that most LatinAmerican restaurants compete through a war of sound. Each one seeks victoryby raising the volume of reggaeton, vallenato, or any traditional folk music and,of course, the prize is attracting more customers. I can only guess that this battleof percussion beats is a symbolic way to express the possession of a desired andimagined space within the neighborhood. The stereo of a black car plays dancemusic and joins the competition. As I get closer to the Middle Eastern restaurants,I look for a stroller, because I think I might have heard the wheels rolling.However, I see a lady driving her grocery’s cart. Some steps ahead a strolleractually passes ahead of me and as it gets further away, I see that the sidewalkis being paved and I have to move to the right. It’s hardly audible how theworker gently slides asphalt from a bucket to the floor and then levels it with aspade. Middle Eastern restaurants prefer to mark their territory by displayingcolorful pipes in the sidewalk, where customers take a deep breath in order to
  2. 2. inhale the herbal smoke. Again, I’m lost in the city. I’m trying to find a beautyparlor that I had seen before, but I don’t have the address. I’m not used tohaving this combination of smells, sounds and cultures in one same place. Thismakes me I feel as if I were in those dreams, in which one step can lead me tothe park of my own neighborhood in Bogota, but if I step back I can be inGovernor’s Island. The roaring of the engines, the war of sound, voices of peoplebecoming a constant murmur as well as the stomp of their heavy walk furtherthat sensation of confusion. I keep hearing the high frequency beep that MetroPcs mobiles generate when the keypad is blocked. I just lost my own Metro Pcs.So I pay attention to the beep, hoping that my phone is actually calling me withone of its usual sounds.Without any sort of plan, I end up at a small beauty salon. The hair dryers rise thetemperature in the salon, the hairdressers and manicurists use a higher pitch togreet the customers and the reverberations of laughter come and go. Their pitchof their voices is increasingly higher when they recognize that I am Colombian.Warmth is everywhere. I remember that a professor in college used to say that abeauty salon aimed to represent the female’s womb. This is definitely the case.The walls are all pink and the head hairdresser and the owner are like“matronas”, women that traditionally took care of the Latin Americanhousehold, especially of females’ wellbeing. The head hairdresser fits theimagined physical appearance of a matrona: she is taller than the rest of thewomen in the salon, has a robust body and, though she covers most part of herlegs with a long blue dress, you can see that they are strong and hold the longhours of work. “Doctora Corazon” (Heart Doctor), says one lady. I’m not sure ifshe is referring to the matrona, but I can listen their narrations about thehappenings of the week and the lives of other neighbors. The matrona turns onthe hairdryer and it quiets the raspy tone of the nail filer as well as the waterdripping from a rose that washes a clients’ hair. The hair dryers are turned off fora while, but it is strange how I miss the sound. The common belief is that noisesdistract you and, instead, the silence allows you to carry on with your activities. Iwas talking to one of the manicurists, as she removed the cuticle of my fingers
  3. 3. and one of my hands moved the balls contained in a hot water bowl. But whenthe different sounds of the hair dryers faded away (there is a crispier noise whenthe dryer is far away from the hair), I immediately got distracted and thoughtsomething was not right in my environment. Maybe I’m too familiar with thedominant background of any salon, given that I went to a parlor twice a week inColombia. Thus, salons and I invented our own silence, it’s a mix between thehairdryer’s hollering and the rasping tone of the nail foil.However the hair dyer can’t hush the overlapping voices that come from everycorner of the salon. This can partly be explained by the fact that each one ofthese voices can chose to increase their volume and pitch. The parlor’s ownertold me she was from Buga, a small Colombian town, where people speak loudin public areas, no matter how close or far the listener is. In this town, the act ofspeaking with an intense volume is not impolite; rather not being heard isimpolite. “My father and I have great hair,” says a nine-year-old kid to otherchildren that just entered. A lady sits on the red chair in front of the mirror and itseems as if she is ready to lead a confessionary meeting. She begins bycommenting to the matrona the trouble she finds in doing a blower by herselfand then narrates the finale of a Colombian soap opera. Suddenly all the circlesof voices make a pause and pay attention to how she becomes a storyteller ofthe TV episode. Again I hear the circles of voices and their laughter. A malecustomer asks for a hair cut and the buzz of a razor starts and ends in a shortperiod of time. As the hair salon’s silence and mine is interrupted, other soundsappear: the stridency of a brush rubbing dying cream to hair lied down onaluminium, a pop song, a near by underground subway passing through the railsand scissors cutting hair. The hair dryer is back. I decide to leave and after sayinggoodbye, customers, manicurists and hairdressers respond in unison. Outside Ifind myself again immersed in a world with unfamiliar noises, I promise myself I’llcome back the next day to analyze further more the soundscape. I guess mydesire is to listen again to the harmonics, which represent a space where I canbelong and somehow find myself in the city.

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