Gut Instinct: Shari-La on the Lake

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Photo by my girlfriend. She’ll kill me if I don’t mention that.

The recent heat  wave stoked my meat lust.

“You’ve got that crazy look,” my girlfriend says, retreating backward into our blue living room wall.

“I…need…to grill,“ I reply. I clench my eyes and envision flesh sizzling, my arm hairs singeing to stubble. When temps near triple digits, I crave control over glowing coals. The grill master is god, or at least a deluded culinary deity. Like Paula Deen.

“They’re going to be grilling at Flushtopia,” my girlfriend says.

“Flush-a-whata?” I envision a bathroom, toilet paper strung like streamers and a man muttering sweet nothings about Mr. Hankey, the Christmas poo.You know, art.

“Uh, no,” my girlfriend says, peeking once more into my mortifying psyche. “It’s different.” I’ll say. Conceived by art collective the Anti-Fascist Culture Club, The Undiscovered Atoll of Flushtopia is a series of man-made isles floating in Flushing Meadows’ lake.The islands are constructed from reclaimed materials, largely from the nearby 1939 World’s Fair ice rink, a temporary utopia in its own right. “And there will be grilling on these islands?”

“Just grab your bike,” she sighs, slathering on sunscreen before we pedal into the bright, unseasonably humid April morn. Our first stop is Astoria’s Socrates Sculpture Park. The East River–hugging green space is hosting a kids’ kite day, doubling as a going-away party for several acquaintances.

For baby-averse man-children such as myself, it’s a live-action scared-straight video. Everywhere toddlers are flying colorful kites, with mothers nursing newborns as brazenly as I pick my nose. I see more nipples in 15 minutes than my first 18 years of living.

I find solace in snacks from Sal, Kris and Charlie Deli (33-12 23rd Ave. at 33rd St., 718-278-9240, Queens), Astoria’s self-titled king of sandwiches. None is more impressive than the garbage-sink “bomb,” overloaded with cheese, hot peppers, mayo, oil, vinegar and thin slices of most delicious domesticated animals. “Don’t you want to play with the babies?” my girlfriend asks, toying with a tyke’s chubby toes. I fill my mouth with prosciutto in lieu of letting regrettable words escape.

My sandwich is gone, and so are we.We pedal through leafy Jackson Heights, before cutting across Corona and arriving at the park. From shimmering Meadow Lake’s dock we spy a bobbing, misshapen land mass covered in Astroturf. It’s tethered to various floating structures—a tent, undulating hill, rowboat loaded with paperwork and a spindly construction stabilized with splintery benches. It’s imagination made real, valuable new real estate in a space-starved city, all thanks to wood scraps, screws and foam. We clamber onto a canoe and row a hundred yards to this manufactured Eden.

“Watch your step,” warns bespectacled, bushy-bearded Flushtopian Douglas Paulson, as we wobble aboard. Flushtopia, Paulson explains, is inspired by bygone island utopias, from mad Samuel Comstock, who massacred his cohorts while scheming to rule the Marshall Islands (he was killed before his plan came to fruition), to Libertalia, the communalist pirate and slave colony located off Madagascar’s coast.

These island utopias were failures, and I fear Flushtopia may too go down in history, if not the lake. In the near distance, there’s the half-submerged wreckage of an island. If seafarers stand on the makeshift lands’ edges, the islands list precariously, submerging feet in fetid lake water. To allay my drowning dread, I head to the makeshift bar-restaurant and order whiskey. “You can pour it yourself,” the bartender says, disconcertingly absconding from his post for a boat back to shore. I slide behind the cinderblock and plywood structure, water lapping at my ankles.

“You’re in your natural habitat,” my girlfriend says, catching me cracking a warm Schaefer. I drink deeply as I dole out Boca burgers and crisp Sabretts to famished kids, bemused parents and tattooed adventurers. But the food disappears quickly, and no reinforcements are coming. I pass on bartender duties and head to the grill, located inside an overhang studded with sharp screws—tetanus, not scurvy, is Flushtopia’s prime health concern. A freckled gent wearing shorts fans a few wan coals.

“Looks like you’re having some problems,” I say nonchalantly, resisting my alpha-griller instincts to elbow him into the watery depths.

“Know anything about grilling?” he asks. “Stand aside.” I bend down and, like the three little pigs’ wolf, blow with all my might. The embers alight, orange to red to blinding white. Onto the searing metal slats I toss wieners, their smoky crackle filling my heart with happiness. This certainly is utopia, I think, drinking my beer deeply, as the afternoon and the islands slowly disappear.

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