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  • “Coming to America” is alive and well in Queens
    Fake is the new real. (courtesy of wikipedia.org)

    Fake is the new real. (courtesy of wikipedia.org)

    After a long day of not finding a job, it’s relaxing to engage in an even more mindless activity. Channel surfing, second to sleeping, is the greatest time-waster ever created. My thumb and a few buttons on the remote control give me 200 stations of useless television programming, and occasionally something worth watching. I always start with channel 2 (CBS on Time Warner Cable in NYC) and work my way up…  3 (TNT), 4 (NBC) and so on. Somewhere in the 150s – amidst the American Life TVs and the Gospel Music Channels of the cable world – I get bored and return to 2. I like a good “Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman” marathon as much as the next guy, but I can’t help hoping for something a little better. Unemployment taught me that. Cycling through the channels drives wifey crazy. She prefers to scroll through the on-screen guide – a wholly different approach to channel surfing that bears no resemblance to mine in any way, whatsoever, at all, in any universe, even the ones without TV.

    The other night, around 8:00, I plopped my ass on the couch and commenced with the remote clicking. Wifey wasn’t home, and I was killing time before dinner. Nothing was on, at least nothing that could overcome the slim possibility of something one click away. Then my world changed forever, ever so slightly for the better. I happened upon one of the funniest movies ever made… if you were a goofy teenage boy in the suburbs in the late 1980s.

    Coming To America” is the touching tale of Prince Akeem’s (Eddie Murphy) quest for a soul mate amidst parental and societal pressures. Dissatisfied with his country’s marriage customs, he set outs for Queens, accompanied by his assistant Semmi (Arsenio Hall), in search of true love. Where better for the future king of Zumunda to find a wife than my home borough? Such indisputable logic sets the tone for the rest of the film. The Prince falls for Lisa McDowell, whose father owns McDowell’s, a fictional restaurant that rips off McDonalds. As the owner describes it, “they got the Golden Arches, mine is the Golden Arcs.” The Prince gets a job at the restaurant and sets about winning Lisa away from Daryl Jenks, heir to the Soul Glo jheri curl haircare products fortune. Hilarity ensues and endures, as it is wont to do when Eddie Murphy is on screen and you’re 16 again. Nothing rounds out a heartwarming love story like poop jokes and racial stereotypes (Lifetime… are you paying attention?). I laughed, I cried. Rather I laughed until I cried. Okay, so I chuckled occasionally.

    The story takes place in my neighborhood Jackson Heights. And I soon realized that the fictional McDowell’s is really the Wendy’s over on Queens Blvd. (technically in neighboring Elmhurst). I’ve walked by it a million times, including the other day on my way to Target. This discovery was the most exciting thing to happen in weeks. I couldn’t wait to tell wifey, though I knew she wouldn’t appreciate the revelation to the same extent. Her comedic palette is nowhere near as refined as mine; we can’t all be comedic geniuses.

    A pilgrimage to the McDowell’s location is in the early planning stages, as is a party to celebrate the movie’s 21-year, three-month anniversary. Arsenio Hall is already on board, because really, what else does he have going on? Eddie Murphy’s people have yet to get back to me. Rumor has it he’s in the studio recording the followup to “Party All The Time” (as in my girl wants to…). The new single, “Take Her Meds Because Now She Has Liver Disease” should be a big hit. In the meantime, to pay homage to the film and the local tradition of ripping off national restaurant brands, I spent the afternoon at the local Starbucks wannabe.

    Halfway between my apartment and the gym is a coffee shop called Esparks. (I’d post a link to the site if there were one.) It’s a copy of everyone’s favorite national chain, right down to the font in the logo and the dark wooden interior. Like the fictional McDowell’s, Esparks is easily mistaken for the real thing. The coffee shop sits on a busy corner across the street from a car wash and the pediatric emergency and trauma center of the local hospital. Huge glass windows face each street, and a giant creepy picture of smiling kids. I’m no doctor, but I’m fairly certain that kids going into or coming out of intensive care don’t look quite that healthy or happy. Light streams into the coffee shop, as does local foot traffic. Many people just stop in to use the bathroom.

    I arrived a little after 3:00, hoping to score a window seat with an electrical outlet… no such luck. A worried-looking woman with a giant mole on her face was camped out there. Empty coffee cups and dirty napkins littered her table like she’d been there a long while mulling things over. Maybe she’s the resident crazy person; every coffee shop has one. I bought an ice coffee and some cookies, found a seat in the corner next to the bathroom and continued my unemployed Wednesday tap, tap tapping away on the computer.

    The afternoon was uneventful… some blogging, some job searching, some fantasy football scouting, all accompanied by my trusty iPod. In other words, the usual, except I wasn’t in my apartment. Doctors or people who like to wear stethoscopes around their necks wandered in for a caffeine fix. The mole lady gazed expectantly at every passerby. Other computer types stared at their screens and typed away. “Your Body is a Wonderland” and “Californication” – somehow audible over Boards of Canada – assaulted me over and over from speakers in the ceiling. Eventually I poured scalding hot coffee into my ear canals to soothe the pain.

    Despite the obvious similarities to Starbucks, Esparks is fine as coffee shops go. The coffee is decent. The cookies may have been bought at the grocery store and repackaged into individual servings, but they contain copious amounts of sugar. And that’s all I really care about. Free wireless and outlets built into the benches invite people to hang out. And nobody cares how long I stay. Aside from the occasional weirdo, what’s not to like?

    A couple of teenagers carrying their computer stuff in an Ikea bag sat down next to me just when I was thinking about leaving. They appeared to be settling in for a marathon gaming session. An older man showed up to meet the mole lady. She perked up immediately, like a lost puppy who’d just been found. They bought still more coffee, and then settled back in at the same table. The sun was going down, and commuters were going home. The daytime crowd gave way to the evening crowd. And I’m sure later the evening crowd will give way to the overnight, caffeine-deprived, worried parent crowd. I was no closer to having a job, at least as far as I can tell. Maybe one of my resumes will find its way through the ether to an HR person’s desktop; stranger things have happened. But I’d paid homage to one of my favorite movies in my own special way. It was time to go home and channel surf.

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