An Oasis in Queens
by Heidi Rain
I grew up in Sunnyside Gardens, Queens, during the 1950s, in an attached house between 48th and 49th streets.
The houses had small gardens – front and back – with much larger communal gardens beyond our front yard. Small trees and flowering bushes were planted around the edges of two large square patches of well-mowed lawns, separated by two marble benches facing each other with a paved area separating them. I never saw anyone sitting there and was always discouraged from playing on the grassy areas out front.
Every morning I would awaken and look out upon the buds and blossoms (or snow-covered branches, depending on the season) of the tree just outside my bedroom window. In summer birds twittered, hidden among the leafy branches, but rarely could I see them. At intervals, their chattering would be drowned out by the roar of airplanes taking off from or landing at nearby LaGuardia airport.
Our front yard was much too small to play in. It was really a wild garden, with deep pink petunias mixed in with crab grass that grew thick and tall all summer long. All that abundant growth obscured the shiny tops of rectangular slabs of marble that must have been laid out as a kind of path through that tiny space. I once asked if we could plant some other flowers in that small patch out front, but my mother said the slabs were so heavy and set so deep into the earth that we would never be able to dig them out. For this reason, our beautiful little front garden remained completely wild.
A line of sycamore trees stretched down the block from one avenue to another, creating a living border along the street along which we’d walk on our way home from school. The concrete squares, which formed the sidewalk, were often uneven – and dangerous when biking – from the growth of the tree roots, which caused the sidewalk to get lifted up or to crack. In autumn, I would snap the loosened bark off those trees as I walked down the block, crumble them up, and let the remains fall to the ground. Down each block, privet hedges bordered the small, private front yards. I would feel the crunch and smoothness of the shiny privet leaves, which I compulsively broke off, a few at a time, as I walked by.
At the end of the block, across the avenue was a private park to which we belonged. It had a locked gate (Members Only) and closed every night at 6PM. But it was open to the general public on Memorial Day, July 4th, and Labor Day. On those days, there was a big neighborhood party that went on until late evening. There were three-legged races in the morning for the kids, a hot dog stand, a table at which they sold corn that had been barbecued in aluminum foil, and ice cream wagons. One July 4th, I ran across a classmate from school there, Michael – a very intelligent, shy and overweight boy with glasses who I knew liked me – and got him to buy me popsicle after popsicle.
Most often, though, we would play in the alley that ran just past our back yard. It had fat, three- foot high iron poles at either end, rising out of the concrete, to prevent cars from driving through. After school and all summer long, neighborhood kids would play catch there, ride tricycles, push doll carriages, and play games of potsy, “Simon Says” or “ Red light, green light, one-two-three!” Or we’d just run around with other children who, like me, had been told, “Go play outside!”
As the weather grew even warmer, the hawkers started rattling down 49th Street with their carts, past the alley behind our house. The scissors grinder rang his brassy chimes. We’d listen for the sound of the fruit and vegetable man driving his cart down 49th street, calling out, “Sammy’s here!” over and over. I loved his song and longed to be one of his customers. My mother never bought anything from him though. “Too expensive,” she’d say. She favored frozen foods and bought bags of them she could just pop into boiling water for dinner; she hated cooking.
Into the back yard, my parents had a concrete porch built out from the dining room window – which was turned into a door. My father painted the porch, the steps leading up to it and the metal handrail a dark green. We stored our bicycles and other outdoor toys in the outdoor storage space it provided. For years there was a Rose of Sharon tree growing in our back yard. It had pink blossoms, which turned light purple as they shriveled up and fell off. At some point my parents had it cut down. I was devastated and asked my mother why. “It destroyed the view,” she said.
That view, across the alley, was of a communal garden that was larger than the one out front. It hosted an enormous expanse of wildly flourishing foliage, surrounded by small trees and flowering bushes planted around the edges, within a surrounding privet hedge and a path around it separating it from the houses. There were two levels to those gardens; the whole block sloped downward, so there were sets of steps in between. In the upper garden, was an area of densely planted trees, and the many annuals planted there yielded a rich floral display. In early spring, short yellow and purple crocuses peeked out from the ground amidst largely untended wild grasses and sometimes late-falling snow. Slightly later, beside the wide, flowering bushes, first daffodils and the tulips flourished. Later, in the summer, orange tiger lilies and dark purple irises lined with white, climbed higher than the hedges.
It was a shady area, due to the abundance of surrounding Sycamores and other wide, leafy trees – some as high as the surrounding houses or even towering above them. As you moved along the path beside the central gardens, you could smell the sweetness of the honeysuckle, which grew twisted in the overgrown privet hedges that narrowed the path by late summer. In the grassier, sunnier lower garden, there were two rows of tall, slender London plane trees set in rows evenly spaced all the way down to the end of the lower garden. Their branches grew upward instead of out. So, unlike most other trees – which branched wide – they seemed to point to the sky.
Deep in the middle of all this abundant foliage was a roughly hewn, three-foot-wide, concrete stairway. Above it, vines wound themselves around the curved iron railing. In late Spring, the vines sprouted tiny white buds and later, by mid-summer, small purple fruits. (“Those berries are for the birds,” my mother told us.) Sitting there, you couldn’t see the street for all the green that surrounded you, and in summer when the tall trees leafed out into a thick greenness, you couldn’t even see the surrounding houses.
Through the exquisitely morphing seasons of elementary school, Nancy, with her blond hair and startling blue eyes, was my best friend, and at the heart of my creative life. Once we became friends, it didn’t really seem important to be with anyone else. Nancy was the only reason school wasn’t boring. We made up a secret language, “Dumb Dumb,” (named after a lollipop of the same name). Together, we wrote – and rewrote plays – most notably, “The Wiltered Flower.” We’d make elaborate costumes and act them out in their various incarnations for whichever mother we could get to sit down and watch us perform.
In spring we’d stroll amidst the oddly pungent yet sweet fragrance of the white blossoming of the privet hedges as we meandered toward our secret spot. Then we’d situate ourselves on the three steps hidden in amongst all that verdancy, lean back on the concrete and eat the candy I’d stolen – and made her steal – from the local neighborhood candy store.
Summers the two of us would stroll along the path, gently breaking off small honeysuckle blossoms and biting off the small piece at its base, sucking that tiny dot of nectar from its honey-filled center. There we’d sit surrounded by aromatic bushes buzzing with bees that never stung us. The tiny, sweetly fragrant pink flowers had thorns, but if you were careful, you wouldn’t be scratched.
Every autumn amid the myriad changing colors above us, we’d push our way through the unraked thickness of crunchy leaves as we walked home from school, sometimes singing, “Why should a woman who is healthy and strong / Blubber like a baby when her man goes away?” and other lesser known Rogers and Hammerstein songs while ripping the curling bark off the trunks of Sycamore trees.
Winters we’d trudge through the sometimes knee-deep snow that lined the paths alongside the gardens and play in the even deeper piles that someone’s shoveling had created. The bushes and trees were aglow with crystalline ice gleaming on their branches in the winter light, and we’d imagine being far away in some kind of magical wonderland. When it got too cold or rainy to play outside after school – we’d either go over to Nancy’s house, or come back to mine – sometimes both; that way, we got to have cookies and milk – or hot chocolate! – twice.
Whenever the weather allowed, we’d head for our special place hidden amidst the foliage at the center of the communal garden out back. Sometimes we’d sit there for hours, cool in the shadows of the trees, surrounded by the noisy chatter of birds calling from everywhere to each other just above us and the abundant greenness that hid from everyone our very presence. Very occasionally someone would walk down the path beside the large gardens and we would hold our breath, stop crinkling our candy wrappers and make ourselves invisible in case someone was about to come and tell us we shouldn’t be there.
Nancy posing on the stoop at 3941 48 Street with an apple on her head.
Heidi Rain is a writer and watercolor painter who tends the roses at Bridge Gardens and works part time at Canio’s bookstore. She lives with her chess-playing poet husband and their cat Frodo in Noyack, New York. Together they regularly collect samples of their local waters as part of the Blue Water Task Force.