Finding Bliss in Sunnyside
by Grace Polk
The name “Bliss Street” lured my parents to Sunnyside Gardens in Queens when they were house-hunting newlyweds in the 1940’s. Here tall shade trees, London Planes, they’re called, reach across the street to create a cathedral arch of welcome. Alexander Bing, a philanthropic developer, modeled this community on the British “garden city” style. He planted the trees over 85 years ago on what was once a cow pasture. The neighborhood gave first-home buyers a chance to live near Manhattan, with a bit of garden in front and behind their modest attached houses.
My middle-class parents came to New York in 1938 as refugees from Nazi-controlled Vienna, fortunate to get out before Hitler made this impossible. My atheist father was politically canny, and read the writing on the wall -- nasty trouble lay ahead for the Jews. He came from a Jewish family, and warned his family members in Czechoslovakia and Austria to get out quickly. Most of them did not believe him, and they perished in concentration camps in Europe.
Mother’s father was a prominent businessman, Jewish by birth, and married to a Catholic. That meant my Catholic mother was in as much danger as my father. With help from a Catholic friend, they managed to get exit visas from growling Nazis, transit visas to England, entry permits for the US, and the last two tickets on an ocean liner bound for New York, my father in first class, and my mother in cabin class.
Shortly after arrival, my parents put down a deposit on the little two-story house in Sunnyside, and worked hard to pay off the mortgage. My mother struggled with English, and despite her thick accent, she and my father agreed to speak English in their adopted land. Father was privileged to have had a classic education -- Greek, Latin, as well as English from the first, and was self-taught in French and Russian while a prisoner-of-war in Russia during the First World War. Mother had studied music and dance, anatomy and physical education, and worked under duress in her father’s office in Vienna until she convinced him to let her follow her heart’s desire to be a dancer.
Once in New York, she happily started teaching dance, and my father grumbled at not finding a job to suit his talents. He’d been a banker in Vienna, and no bank would hire an Austrian in New York in wartime. His anger smoldered for years at this rejection. After the war, he didn’t have the courage to face another bank interview. Both my parents were fortunate to get jobs at my grandfather’s firm, which had a manufacturing plant in Long Island City, where every family member got their start in the New World. Father hated every day there. He would leave the house around 6 am and come home at 4 in the afternoon, exhausted, dropping down on the couch and picking up the evening newspapers.
I came along once my parents were settled in Sunnyside. My father had forced my mother to have several abortions in the Old Country, not wanting to bring a child into a world of hatred and war. But she stood her ground and insisted that this child would be a born American, and when I arrived, he seemed pleased, and the occasional smile actually crossed his face. Mother beamed. Both took lots of photographs of the happy child.
The broad leaves provided welcome shade before there was air-conditioning. By August, the trees shed their bark, a camouflage pattern of peeling patches of tan, gray and greenish-brown jigsaw puzzle pieces. I take the #7 subway to Sunnyside to visit Ethel Plimack, a former neighbor, and Pat Dorfman, a more recent neighbor, and sweep the bark from the sidewalk. As a kid, I used to play “Red light, green light” with her Ethel's children in the gardens out back. Everyone had a small backyard with a laundry line and some flowers, and beyond there was the communal large lawn where we played in Washington Court. We came home, all sweaty and dirty, when our moms called out, “Gracie,” “HenryJanetSylvia,” or when the bells jingled that the Good Humor ice cream man had reached our street with his tricycle. Our games were those played by most city kids outfitted with a box of chalk, or a piece of laundry cord. On the sidewalk, we jumped rope, and accompanied our games with carefree verses beginning, “A, my name is Alice, and my husband’s name is Al. We live in Alabama where we grow apples.” We usually got as far as Henrietta and Harry before other girls on the block joined in.
With the chalk, we drew hopscotch squares, or tic tac toe. The boys across the street played Skellzies, which you play with metal bottle caps. They chalked up the sidewalk with a three-foot square, scrunched down on their knees, and flicked their caps between thumb and middle finger from one number to the next. The best caps came from the green coke bottles, and others you had to weigh down with bits of chewing gum. Although we wanted to, girls were not allowed to play. At six, I was introduced to sex discrimination. From then on, I made it my business to find more interesting things to busy myself with if I wasn’t allowed to play with the boys.
On rainy days, when the bark on the trees turned more green than tan, we went to each other’s houses and played with jigsaw puzzles, pick-up-sticks or jacks. I had my Sparkle Plenty doll and my Toni doll for company. Every girl had a little rubber ball and a set of jacks. Rosemary was our street’s jacks champion. Rosemary’s family, who lived next door, had seltzer water delivered to the front door. Their phone had a party line. Coal was delivered to their basement, and an iceman came with ice for their icebox. We had natural gas, a gas refrigerator, and milk delivery. You could choose homogenized milk, or get pasteurized milk with the cream on top. The milkman came around 5 in the morning, and shortly after that, the sparrows started to sing as they got cleaned up and ready for the day.
In our house, my father turned the old coal storage room into a darkroom. The living room walls were covered with his snow and alpine photographs. My father gave me my first camera when I was about seven. It was a box camera, and the negatives were really big. Occasionally, he would let me watch in the darkroom while he made enlargements, or developed prints under a red light. He was a serious photographer, and every year I had to pose for our Christmas card, and it was very hard to smile until he got the picture right.
At home, my parents would listen to their favorite programs on the radio after dinner, and I listened to mine before – Big John and Sparkie, and Baby Snooks with Fanny Brice. Television came to our street in 1948, when Patty McCarey’s parents bought a set that was a big wooden cabinet with a screen about 7 inches across. We kids would sit around on the floor and watch Howdy Doody until our parents came knocking on the door to drag us home. The following year my father relented and we got a set, too (“to keep the child at home,” my mother would say).
The first television programs were done live, and many were based on radio shows. I remember Lassie, Arthur Godfrey’s Talent Scouts, and Ed Sullivan. We were probably the only people who didn’t find Milton Berle funny. We sure were fans of George Burns and Gracie Allen. Disney was not an industry, and Saturday mornings were not yet dedicated to children’s cartoons. In the 40’s we had just three networks: ABC, CBS, NBC and that was it. There wasn’t much to watch, and there was no need for TV Guide.
Our other neighbors were Mr. and Mrs. Clancy. Mrs. Clancy made sure that my mother got me a new outfit every Easter Sunday, including a straw hat and white gloves. Her husband was an Irish policeman, and they had a daughter much older than me. There was a huge scandal when the daughter ran off and married – an Italian! I didn’t understand why they were so upset, after all, he was also a Catholic. The daughter wasn’t allowed back into the house, even after she had a baby. To this day, Sunnyside still has lots of Irish bars, and the Clancy’s and O’Brien’s still don’t get on with the Italians.
In autumn, the falling leaves turned a boring brown, and messed up our outdoor games. In November, the knife grinder appeared with his wagon and sharpened our scissors, our hedge trimmers, and our knives for Thanksgiving. His grandson makes the trip in a truck now. A loudspeaker heralds his arrival with a cheerful tune. He says business is still good.
For Thanksgiving one year, our turkey was so big that we had to take it to the bakery down the street for roasting. It wouldn’t fit into our oven, with its chest full of savory bread stuffing, and the neck stuffed with sausage and rice. Mom spent hours over the bird. In the morning, my father delivered it in its basic navy blue roasting pan to the bakery on Skillman Avenue. When he picked it up, he bundled it in blankets and newspaper to keep warm until dinner. When he finally carved the monster, my mother let out a scream. It was not her turkey. The next day she called Mrs. Waber and asked her how she’d enjoyed our turkey. Mrs. Waber (my nursery school teacher) was very complimentary, but that didn’t soothe my mother’s ruffled feathers. Relations with the bakery were strained after that episode.
Other entrepreneurs used to come to the house and it was always fun to hear their stories. My father rarely engaged in conversation, but he would put down the evening newspaper and speak with Mr. Thaler, the dry cleaner, who would pick up and deliver. My mother faithfully patronized the Fuller Brush man, who always had a new brush we needed. We even bought our Electrolux vacuum cleaner from a door-to-door salesman. The Encyclopedia sales people and the Jehovah’s Witnesses never got past the front door, though.
Our fine Persian rug was so big it was rolled up behind the sofa on one end. Like my mother’s furs, it would be picked up for cleaning, and stored over the summer in an air-conditioned vault somewhere. The rug was a wedding present, I was told. When my parents divorced, my father rolled it up and took it with him. My mother cried. I can’t stand Persian rugs since then. They may be beautiful, but they mean desertion and deception to me. My mother kept the house and got the car, though -- a sturdy Rambler four-door sedan. My father treasured the typewriter with its funny script writing, and he took it with him, so he could continue to write letters to the editor, and carry on his correspondence.
New York had the biggest snowfall on record in the winter of 1947-1948, 63 inches! In December I remember we had 30 inches of snow, and it drifted so high on the roof of the front porch that I couldn’t see out my bedroom window! Teenage boys came by and offered to shovel the sidewalk, and that winter they made lots of money. Once the path to the front door was shoveled, we could get out of the house. I put on my heavy woolen snowsuit, dusted off my Red Flyer wooden sled and waited for a grown up to pull me anywhere. We made a big snowman with real coal eyes and buttons, a carrot nose, my father’s pipe and a scarf. It was like an all-white wonderland on our street. The cars were snowed under for days. When the garbage trucks finally came to clear the streets, they buried the cars still further under the snow.
The plane trees have seed balls that cling to the leafless branches all through winter. They looked like snowballs or puffs of cotton during the storm, and were still there when the snow blew off, when they were more like dark golf balls. It was remarkable that the trees withstood the heavy snow, and only a few branches came down. Later, the trees were always threatening for me; I was afraid the big branches would fall on our roof or porch and major repairs would be needed. It was one of the reasons I decided to sell the house after my mother died.
Her life wasn’t always blissful, especially when my father up and left her without a cent. He closed the jointly-owned bank account and bought himself a ticket to Australia. Mom was resourceful, and went on to achieve fame as a pioneer of dance therapy. Why, today there is even a plaque on the house, to commemorate the years my mother lived there.
Grace Polk grew up on Bliss Street, and walked to PS 150, JHS 125 and Bryant High School. She graduated from Queens College, moved to Manhattan and works as a tour manager. The 46th Street house now carries a plaque honoring her mother, Elizabeth Polk, pioneer in the field of Dance Therapy.
Bliss Street circa 1945
Rita and Carol Zuckerman, Devera Ehrenberg and Grace
ICourtesy Grace Polk Copyright 2016
Courtesy Grace Polk Copyright 2016