A Detailed 43rd Avenue View by Alan Finke
I would like to thank Ruth for creating a space for Sunnyside stories. I have lots of good memories of growing up there, but after so many years who knows the whole truth. I lived there for most of my first eighteen years, leaving in 1956. My mother died the previous year, dad remarried to a very wonderful widow lady Yeta Feit who had two daughters Rena and Diana. We all moved to a larger place in Rego Park except my older brother Daniel who was away at college. So that is when my Sunnyside story ends.
In Sunnyside we lived at 42-15 43rd Avenue, Long Island City, 4, NY (still considered Sunnyside). It was only a few blocks from PS 150, from where I graduated in 1948. Across the street was a full block of shops that provided pretty much all we needed for daily life. As I remember there was a drug store, greengrocer, dry cleaner, Chinese laundry, luncheonette, small grocer, bakery and shoe store. I think there might have been a jewelry store too. Around the corner was a Kosher deli, barber and supermarket. I probably forgot others.
For some reason I remember specific interactions with these stores. For example: after the war coal was still used to fire the apartment house boilers and the air was full of coal ash. Every so often I would get a cinder in my eye, and if my mother couldn’t remove it, she would take me to the drug store where the pharmacist would extract it with a special tool and magnifying glass (no medical license needed). The shoe store had a wonderful device called a fluoroscope through which you could see the bones in your feet. I remember bringing the laundry ticket with strange Chinese writing on it to pick up my father’s shirts wrapped in brown paper and tied with string.
The barber was Nick the Greek who after cutting my hair would bring out a bottle of green gunk which when applied to the scalp set your hair like cement for the rest of the day. My mother would store her beaver coat in the dry cleaner’s cold storage in summer, and at Thanksgiving would bring the turkey to the bakery for roasting in their oven as our stove was too small.
I used to buy Topps baseball cards (five cards plus bubblegum for a nickel) at the candy store. Who knew that forty years later I would own a sports card shop and sell similar cards for many dollars (think Mantle rookie card). Unfortunately, my own cards did not survive.
I remember playing basketball and stickball in the lower schoolyard at PS 150 where a home run was a blast over the roof of the opposite apartment house. When I went back for a visit in 1975, the lower yard was a parking lot.
As a young boy I recall the excitement of taking the train into the city. We would stand in the front of the first car so we could see the train dive into the black tunnel on its way into the city and have the thrill of emerging into the light on the way home. My father was a typographer and in those days type was still set in hot lead. I used to bring some home and hammer out nickel size slugs to use in the subway.
I remember the Broiler on Queens Boulevard where we got roast pork sandwiches sliced right off the rotisserie (we weren’t Kosher). I don’t know if the White Castle is still there, but my friend Richard Efron and I had a stack of burgers there one day and the next day, he had his appendix removed (coincidence?).
The basement of our apartment house was a dark and scary place. We were told not to go there or the “bogey man” would get us. In fact, the janitor and his family lived down there. They were the only Black people I remember seeing in our neighborhood. He would come to our apartment to install and remove window screens and wash the outside of the windows for a few dollars. I think Sunnyside must have been 99% white in those days. In the basement was a small laundry tucked under some very large steam pipes wrapped in flaking asbestos. Not a healthy situation for us residents.
Does anyone remember the used-clothes man who walked the streets crying in Yiddish, “I cash clothes,” or the Italian organ-grinder with his little monkey playing for coins, or the Air Raid Warden who yelled out if some light showed through the blackout curtains? Or the shiny green Japanese beetles that stripped the leaves off the Sycamore trees?
As for the politics of the era, suffice it to say, we had the Daily Worker delivered to the candy store (in a plain wrapper I presume), went to May Day parades, rooted for Henry Wallace and the American Labor Party in 1948, attended Pete Seeger and Paul Robeson concerts, protested the Rosenberg’s conviction, summered at Camp Wo Chi Ca etc., etc. I wasn’t too involved in politics but had a solid leftwing upbringing.
I was a good friend of Ruth’s older brother David Horowitz. We played sports together, visited each other often, and were pretty good pals. We went out west to Idaho together one high school summer to work for the US Forest Service. He got me an after school job at a wholesale optician on Nassau Street where he worked. I have vague recollections of an underground group called the YPA (Young Progressives of America), but I don’t know what, if anything, they did, although I’m sure the FBI knew all about it. When I learned much later of David’s conversion to rightist reactionary zealotry, I was confounded. I can’t really explain it.
One of the highlights of my Sunnyside years is the great snake escapade. I was always interested in nature and when I was about 12, I developed a fascination with snakes. My father was terrified of them, but he was a good sport and took me to a place near Nyack where there were lots of stone fences where snakes lived. I caught several and we built an escape-proof cage for them. A few weeks later, we awoke to a house full of worm-sized babies. Soon enough there were shrieks from the neighbors down the hall, and all hell broke loose. Eventually my father convinced the super not to evict us, but that was the end of snakes in Sunnyside.
All in all, Sunnyside was a nice place to grow up in, and although I left when I was eighteen, I still think of the old neighborhood now and then and remember old school buddies and wonder what sort of life they led.
Alan Finke went to PS 150, JHS 125, Stuyvesant High School, Queens College and Oregon State University. He worked as an Aquatic Biologist for the State of Wisconsin, was a tropical fish farmer in Queensland, Australia, a tropical fish distributor and owner of the Sports Cards and Memorabilia store, in Newberg, Oregon, retiring in 2006.