Hard Lessons and Lighter Moments
by Michael Elliser
As a kid, I tended to be an observer, absorbing memories of incidents which flash back to me now.
One of these was a moment when a man I knew as a neighbor and a school teacher rang our doorbell. My mother later told me that had lost his job after being questioned about communist membership; as a result, he was selling the Encyclopedia Britannica door to door. Since my grandfather was a language teacher, I somehow felt the degradation our neighbor must have experienced. The only other mention I ever heard of that kind surrounded a kid in school whose father was rumored to be a "commie," which again was foreign to my thinking.
Another negative epiphany came to me when I wanted to join the Boy Scouts, who met in the gym at P.S.150 across 41st Street from our apartment building. I was welcomed, and a few Scouts began to acquaint me with some skills I would be learning. A bit later on, a priest was introduced, and he announced the start of a prayer, for which all the Scouts kneeled. I was stunned, and my reaction was noticed. Then one of the adults spoke to me about how I might be happier to join the troop at the Jewish Center. That, too, disturbed me because of the assumption being made. Before then, I had not been at all aware of religious differences among my contemporaries nor did I ever expect the Boy Scouts to be segregated by religion. I also felt it an imposition that I would be forced to walk a greater distance because of an injustice. My parents didn't react to this whole episode as I did, but then, there was no ACLU at the time, and besides, my parents tended to be more conservative.
My only other negative memory concerning religion had to do with a very nice neighbor, an elderly man named Mr. Stone, who always had little treats to give out to everyone he met. My mother told me that Mr. Stone was very unhappy because when his wife died, he was not allowed to have her buried where he intended to because she was of another religion. Everyone was genuinely sorry for him.
Among my happier connections with Sunnyside were the White Castle on Queens Boulevard and The Broiler on Queens Boulevard and 41st Street. As a kid, I was very pleased when The Daily News included coupons to clip providing for five Castle burgers for a quarter ($.25). The Broiler, by comparison, was upscale. It was the first place where I saw gyro meat roasted on a vertical rotisserie. There was also a kind of social component when I went there with my father. The proprietor was a little Greek man named John who spoke in a very distinctive voice and sometimes had his son there. My father, who was also Greek "hit it off" with John after a salutation in their native language, and thereafter, John's son greeted me by calling me "Greek boy." My whole family loved the food prepared there and were always happy when my mother admitted that she didn't feel like cooking and sent us there to get our favorite treats.
I recall that before WWII ended, I was intrigued by the sounds and sights of 41st Street from our third floor apartment. Among them, the milk delivery was a favorite. With the gasoline shortage during the war, milk was delivered by a horse-drawn milk wagon which moved down the street very early in the morning. I enjoyed the sounds of the horse's hooves on the hard surface and the rattling of the bottles in the steel carriers that held them. There was also the occasional vegetable vendor's horse and wagon, which I had also seen on 43rd Avenue near the little kosher delicatessen there. My mother would allow me to feed a carrot to the horse. Most of us seem to recall the knife-sharpener and the organ grinder guy and the "I cash clothes" man as well.
Another familiar name in later years, James Caan lived on the same block and our mothers chatted with each other occasionally. When my mother once mentioned having difficulty finding a particular kind of trousers for me, Sophie Caan put us in touch with the tailor who made clothes for the Caan family. This brought about the first time I had anything custom made. I was not friendly with JImmy (his mother called him Jamesie) because he was a year older and hung out with some tough guys.
The Center Theater was a favorite place of mine because I could walk there easily when they had special kid shows. I once spent a whole afternoon watching fifty cartoons there; it was more a treat in those days before we had TV. There was also a class outing to see Spencer Tracy in Stanley and Livingstone, which really stirred my imagination. Hard for me to believe, but I remember the impact of the Movietone newsreels showing Franklin Roosevelt looking very ill, and later, the view of the mushroom cloud of the atomic bomb over Hiroshima.
Overall, among the conveniences of living in Sunnyside was (and still is) its proximity to Manhattan, commonly referred to by Long Islanders as "the city." Because my father loved entertainment in almost any form, he often took me to the city on Sundays, where I was sometimes required to sit through shows I did not like at all. I recall suffering through Oklahoma! I also saw some of the last of the vaudeville performers at the Loews State Theater and did enjoy some of their acts. Sometimes there were double features, again not necessarily kid entertainment. More to my liking were some of the Broadway restaurants and the Planters Peanuts storefront where peanuts could be had fresh from the roaster.