Gut Instinct: Finding the Far East (of Queens)

art20011nar I should've eaten that sandwich before agreeing to anything Matt Levy offered.

“Come on, let’s bike to the eastern edge of Queens and tour Fort Totten,” said my friend, a licensed New York City tour guide.

He’s hyper-enthusiastic about sightseeing ancient structures, like a history-loving Jack Russell terrier. “I have the hurt,” I moaned. The previous eve, a pal’s backyard bash featured a keg of Captain Lawrence Liquid Gold.The Belgian-style pale ale possesses an alcohol percentage not intended for all-day drinking.

Needless to say, I drank it all day. I felt lie I’d been mauled by a meat-tenderizing mallet. “Buck up,” he said, “and get on your bike.We’ll eat something delicious!” “But I’m busy…” I trailed off. I was wearing busted boxers, watching a blazingguns episode of The Wire. Outside, the sun shone klieg-light bright. Getting wasted was no reason to waste a day. I drained my Diet

Coke and burped. “Fine,” I said, “let’s roll. Maybe we can go to David’s first?” Recently, I’ve become addicted to Bed- Stuy’s David’s Brisket House (533 Nostrand Ave., betw. Herkimer St. & Atlantic Ave., 718- 783-6109). The Jewish deli, a reminder of the neighborhood’s torah-worshipping time, sits amid jerk-slinging Caribbean canteens.

David’s toils in undeserved semi-obscurity. While Katz’s, Carnegie and 2nd Avenue Deli receive plaudits aplenty for their brined beef, David’s meat is just as succulent and half as expensive.

Five bucks buys a sandwich layered with rich corned beef, peppery pastrami or gravy-covered caramelized brisket. It’s affordable comfort food for uncertain times. “We’ll eat on the way,” Matt said when we met up. He eyeballed a bike map, tracing his long finger through Brooklyn and Queens, past LaGuardia and Flushing, settling on a distant nub jutting out like a benign tumor in Little Neck Bay: nearly 20 miles. I gulped.We departed. I screamed.

“Oh, this is not making my hangover go away!” I shouted, as SUVs honked past. Though Queens is a marvelous melting pot, where 100-plus languages are spoken and durian popsicles are sold beside Serbian cevapi, there’s one unwelcome breed: bikers. I hugged the road’s shoulder as a Lexus, then a Camry, then an Accord nearly sideswiped me into the hereafter.

Is this adventure worth my life? I wondered, as we white-knuckled past speeding cars and braked to a halt at the water-fronting Fort Totten (time elapsed: two hours). This Civil War structure was built to defend New Yorkers from the Confederates. To gauge the fortifications, the army test-fired on every under-construction fort. If it withstood the barrage, the fort was finished; if not, they’re scrapped.

Using a newfangled shell, soldiers shot Totten. A wall shattered. The fort remains unfinished. “How about that?” Matt said, eyes ablaze with history. He ran his finger over the jagged hole, as empty as my stomach.

“How about some lunch?” He caught my drift.We departed the failed fort, setting sail down the bucolic Cross Island Parkway.

We headed west into the neighborhood of Bayside. Or so we thought. “Where on God’s green earth is Douglaston?” I asked, as we pedaled around an upscale suburban town peppered with lovely Queen Anne and Victorian homes. Wrong turn, Matt said, consulting his creased map. “But we just biked up that hill,” I said, pointing to a thigh-burning incline.

In any journey there comes a point of boiling conflict, often caused by faulty direction-sense.When you’ve gone astray, it’s easy to assign blame for troubles, both real and imagined: You’re the reason I’m tired, hungry and short. A more difficult proposition is finding a solution and mending bridges.

“Let’s just get Gatorade,” Matt said. He crossed the street and parked in front of lowslung brick buildings, one with a vintage DELICATESSEN sign. I followed, steamed. But how quickly anger can become pleasure.

Inside Douglaston Delicatessen (44-23 Douglaston Pkwy., at 44th Ave., 718-631- 3353; Queens), the air conditioning was a cool kiss. I ordered an Arnold Palmer (50-50 iced tea and lemonade). The tart-sweet ambrosia was an instant restorative. I smiled, my sun-beat skin receiving a reprieve. Calm and hydrated, I noticed the glass display case containing homemade turkey and roast beef, its core as pink as Valentine’s Day.

Matt and I exchanged glances. Here was heaven in the heart of hell.We each ordered a hero (just $6 apiece), topped with tangy pickles, crunchy lettuce and amply spicy brown mustard. Then we pedaled to a nearby park, and while Chinese teens played basketball, stuffed ourselves with tender, moist roasted turkey and beef: Meat as good as mom ever made. In far-east Queens, I’d found a happiness that’d eluded me all day. “Now,” Matt said, as we unlocked our bicycles, “we just have to find our way home.”