My Home on 48th Street
by Susan E. Meyer
My father, Ernest L. Meyer, resigned from his work as a newspaper columnist for the New York Post in 1940, because he was not permitted to write his personal opinions about the Second World War. The Post couldn’t fire him because doing so would infuriate union members who knew that my father and Heywood Hale Broun helped lead the formation of the Newspaper Guild. Instead, the editors humiliated my father by rewriting his articles or placing them within the back pages of the newspaper where very few readers would able to find them. Leaving the Post, my father chose to leave New York City as well.
I was about three months old when my parents moved to a rural section in Connecticut, where they lived on the paltry income my mother earned as a public school teacher and my father earned from the articles he wrote for progressive magazines. As the War was beginning to wind down, my father got a night job as telegraph editor of The Daily News and the family moved back into the City. At first, during the day—while my brother Karl was in school, my mother was teaching, and my father was sleeping off the late hours of his job—I was cared for by a nanny. This arrangement didn’t last very long. One day the nanny was in a bad mood and told me if I didn’t behave she would suck me up in the vacuum cleaner. By the time my mother came home that afternoon I was wailing in fear. She fired the nanny instantly. After this incident, knowing how difficult it was to hire good help, my parents decided I would be better off living with my grandparents in Sunnyside, Queens.
Several years earlier, my mother discovered Sunnyside, one of the first planned communities in the United States. The low-cost housing that attracted working-class immigrants, socialists, and artists during the ‘20s and ‘30s was in a safe neighborhood and everything was within walking distance of their home: my nursery school on 49th Avenue, the playground called Sunnyside Gardens, and the elementary school, P.S. 150, which I attended until the fourth grade. Throughout the neighborhood and for blocks and blocks, red-brick, two- and three-story attached houses circled well planted inner courtyards. Thanks to land-marking, Sunnyside looks pretty much today as it did when I was a child living with my grandparents.
Like many of the other houses in the area, the two-story building where my grandparents (the Narefskys) lived, 40-31 48th Street near Skillman Avenue, was designed for four apartments. The main entrance was through the courtyard. Two apartments stood to the left and to the right at the base of a stairway. We lived in the apartment to the left on the ground floor, which opened to the living room. On the second floor just above us my two cousins, Dorothy (nick-named Boo-Boo) and Tony, lived with their parents—my uncle, Solly and his wife Maddie. All the ground floor apartments faced an alley, where cars and trucks could pass through (and where—in the winter—we could fly on our sleds in the snow). From the alley, two exterior flights of stairs led to the kitchen entrance.
My grandparents’ apartment was essentially a square divided into four main rooms, the kitchen, living room, and two bedrooms. My grandfather slept alone in one bedroom, huffing under an oxygen tent. (If he had the strength, he might emerge for meals. Occasionally he played checkers with me and seemed to take great pleasure in winning every time by cheating.)
I slept on a foldout cot in my grandmother’s bedroom. On Monday nights I was permitted to listen to Baby Snooks at 8:30 on the Philco radio placed at the side of my cot, but otherwise my grandmother strictly enforced my bedtime. Granma slept on the opposite side of the bedroom, in a full bed she shared with my aunt, Tibel (pronounced Tie-bell), or with my mother if one of them chose to stay the night. I didn’t mind that it was crowded in the bedroom because I was lonesome and enjoyed the commotion of these overnight visits. Tibie, especially, brought with her exciting stories about her boyfriends and the glamorous jazz singers she met at her job as publicist at the Café Society. She didn’t have an apartment of her own and would sleep in Sunnyside, Manhattan, or with a boyfriend, always filled with tales to tell.
On Wednesday nights, after her day of teaching nine-year-olds in the fourth grade, my mother routinely came to Sunnyside to visit her parents and to spend time with me. (Since my father worked at night, he was never able to come with Mom.) Though she must have been tired at the end of the day, Mom took time to teach me to write and draw pictures. In fact, I still have the notebook with these early lessons spelled out.
As I recall, I was the only kid in the neighborhood to live with immigrants who didn’t speak English well. What little English they did speak was in a Yiddish accent and not easy to understand. The other kids were Irish or first-generation Jews and some of them made fun of my old family’s broken English. I defended my situation by pretending to be a bully. I heard that some parents even warned their kids to stay away from me, although I think you can see from this photograph that I really didn’t look much like a bully:
In fact, I would say that I was more of a ring-leader than I was a bully. I had my circle of friends from the neighborhood, most of whom were younger than me, and—under my leadership—tended to be troublemakers.
Of this group, I remember only Ian Jenkins (standing on the left) and Jane Saul (standing on the right). Whenever Janie wanted me to come outdoors to play she stood in the alley outside our kitchen and called, “Soooooooozan, Soooooooozan,” which sounded like a moose horn, and made my family laugh.
Our pranks often involved water. For example, we might hide behind a brick wall that separated the alley from the sidewalk, on the lookout for passersby to shoot with our water pistols (an old lady who wore funny hats, kids in strollers, or big dogs leashed to their owners, for example). After ambushing them with our pistols, we ducked behind the wall so they wouldn’t know where the water came from. Or we might do the same thing perched above the sidewalk on the branches of a tree. We also got a kick out of calling random numbers on the telephone, then hanging up as soon as someone answered. And it’s true, I did challenge these kids to steal candies from Mr. Glass, who ran the pharmacy on the corner of Skillman and 48th Street.
But when it came to bullies, my first cousins Tony and his older sister Boo-Boo were much more professional. They took real pleasure in teasing me. One day, when no one was at home upstairs, Boo-Boo and Tony locked me in their bathroom and told me to wait there until the cheesecake factory arrived to take me away. I cried so hard my grandmother came running upstairs and released me from my torture and yelled at my cousins for what they had done.
My one real regret was that I wasn’t allowed to have any pets in the house. My parents always fed cats or dogs in Connecticut, and I was lonely for that kind of companionship. There was no way my family or the kids in the neighborhood were able to fill that lonesome void.
Things livened up somewhat after my ailing grandfather died of a heart attack. My bachelor uncle Sam immediately returned from southern California, where he had led a glamorous life with beautiful women, and managing the famous singer/bandleader Rudy Vallee.
Sammy came to Sunnyside with big dreams of becoming a rich inventor. He took over my grandfather’s old bedroom. Within weeks the house was strewn with electric tubes, wires, gears, and mysterious parts that seemed to disappear with Sammy inside a large polished wood cabinet. What emerged months later was a wondrous robotic Victrola never before seen on earth. Sammy crafted and installed a shiny, curved metal arm that could swing sideways, reach down, lift a 78 rpm phonograph record off the platter, turn it to the other side, and lower it slowly back onto the spindle. Imagine not having to turn over a record by hand! Sammy put an ad in the paper and sold the console to a rich man in Texas for $1,000. He eventually abandoned the project when he found he couldn’t get his automatic Victrola into production in a factory. I missed the excitement of the record player, but Sammy made up for it by buying an RCA television set that had a round screen. I no longer needed to knock on the Friedland’s door at the end of the courtyard to watch their tv. Now I could watch Magic Cottage and Howdy Doody Time every day after school in my own home.
Sammy was full of mischief. He loved to drive, for example. In Connecticut my parents owned a car, used strictly for errands. Sammy had a car too, but he used it for pleasure. He was always happy to take a drive to Coney Island or to Jones Beach. Mom and Tibe might agree to go along now and then, but my cousin Tony and I were always ready for an adventure with Sammy. Tony and I played a game: There was a popular car called a Studebaker, which was designed in such a way that the rear of the car looked almost identical to the front. On every foray with Sammy we would count the number of Studebakers on the highway, trying to outnumber the ones we had seen on previous journeys. “There’s one,” Tony called out. “No, that’s a Chevy, Sammy would say, or “No, that’s a Nash Rambler,” just to see if he could fool us.
Although Sammy and Tibel certainly enlivened my days in Sunnyside, I longed to live with my mother and father almost as much as I yearned for a pet. Manhattan, only thirty minutes away, was another world entirely. Every Friday afternoon Boo-Boo earned a quarter for taking me to visit my parents living on East 15th Street, where I made some weekend friends who would play with me—not sissy games like jumping rope or hopscotch on the sidewalks, but stickball in the streets, or a game we called Hindu that required a certain expertise in tossing a powdery pink Spaulding ball to just the right spot on the exterior wall of the Masonic temple on 15th Street.
On Sunday evenings my mother coaxed me back to Sunnyside, and my grandmother scrubbed off all the soot and scrapings I had accumulated during my weekend escapades so that I would be respectably clean for school on Monday.
By then I was old enough that my mother instructed me to take Granma to the election booths to vote. This wasn’t easy. Since she couldn’t read English, I pointed out the picture of the Liberty Bell and told her to pull down the little lever next to it. One time she seemed to be behind the curtains for a very long time and I was growing restless. Finally, I heard her call out in her broken English, “Offisa how do I get outta here?” not realizing she was supposed to pull the big lever to the right in order to register her vote and simultaneously open the curtain. That was embarrassing. I couldn’t understand how it was possible for Granma to become a citizen without being able to read English. Mom explained that when Granma was called up by the judge at the immigration court, she charmed him by saying, “Judge, you work hard and look tired. Would you like a cup of coffee?” That seemed to have amused him enough to approve her citizenship.
My exile in Sunnyside ended when I was nine years old. I was by then mature enough to navigate the bus system in Manhattan to and from school on my own. This entailed my taking the bus cross-town on 14th Street—from Third Avenue to Sixth Avenue—and changing to the bus that would bring me downtown to Little Red School House on Bleecker Street. A new school was exciting enough, but for me living with my parents in Manhattan was the real change. And second to that, I was allowed to adopt a puppy, a shiny black English cocker spaniel. I called him Nicky. Because of him and the tricks I taught him, I became popular with my classmates.
When I was twelve years-old, I moved on to the high school building of Little Red School House called Elisabeth Irwin (named after its founder).There I developed a huge crush on a girl who was two years ahead of me in school: Adria Fisher. I was so enamored that when I found a piece of paper with her writing on it I imitated her handwriting. (Sixty years later, when Adie and I attended high school alumni meetings, neither one of us could distinguish our handwritings. It was a subject of much laughter then, but a deep secret when I was young.)
Because Adria lived in Sunnyside, I was able to see her when I went there to visit my family. Sammy often played tennis on weekends at the Boulevard Gardens courts in Woodside. I didn’t play tennis myself, but as soon as I learned that he regularly played with Adria, I went with him as often as possible. I also had an alternative plan, made possible by my obliging dog Nicky. In Sunnyside Adria lived within walking distance of 40-31-48th Street, in a two-story family house that overlooked a grassy plot of land. Almost every weekend, Nicky and I played on that grassy plot until “by coincidence” Adria came out to greet us and invite us into her home. Thanks to Nicky, Adria and I became good friends.
I’m curious about why so many of my contemporaries lived in Sunnyside and attended Little Red School House and Elisabeth Irwin High School. That dual connection is surely one of the reasons Adria and I are still friends, so many years later. There were others as well, Flora Friedland, Eddie Schoenberger, Ian Jenkins, as well as those whose names I’ve forgotten. And how is it that my mother knew in the 1930s that Sunnyside would be a safe and cheerful neighborhood for my grandparents? The population has certainly changed since those days, but I wonder if that sense of community still exists. I suspect it has.