On Skillman Avenue
by Ruth Horowitz
It is early morning and I am trying to urge myself out of bed but gravity pins me down. No dream lingers. I find myself, instead, right inside Sunnyside – right there on Skillman Avenue. I am the child.
Charley’s Meat Market/Grocery stands on the corner of 45 Street and Skillman Avenue, but it is possible that even before I get there, somewhere between 44th and 45th, the familiar smell of the Chinese laundry reaches out onto the sidewalk and overwhelms the air with its clean scent. I seem to walk up a set of outside wooden stairs where I am greeted with a smile, and given our bundle, neatly packaged in brown paper and kitchen string: sheets, towels, and my father’s dress shirts - each item bearing our number 374 indelibly black-inked in some little-noticed corner. A first generation Chinese family living in quarters behind the business - hard-working, efficient, friendly without language, always smiling – keeps us in clean linens despite the constant and oppressive dense heat from the press, and the long hours worked.
Charley’s Market, the corner store at 45th Street, has baskets of fruit and vegetables and a variety of boxed groceries on display. In the back of the store, there is a meat market. It is probably Jerry the butcher’s engaging smile and sweet demeanor that appeals to my mother. He is attentive to her cooking requirements, and the meat is always of high quality. Jerry is a friendly face after work as well, meeting us often on 44th Street where we both live. I am told he has eight children.
Strains of Italian opera from Joe the shoemaker’s radio, now mingling with the smell of leather, waft out to the sidewalk and invite me in. Is that Joe singing along? Shoe-repair machinery lining one whole wall sings its own high-pitched whine and obliterates all radio opera. Intermittently, machinery halted, Verdi emerges. Joe turns to hammer soles into place at the counter, shaping them on rollers that squeal on contact. A customer entering his store is cause for Joe to shut everything down and turn his attention to commerce and a cheerful chat. He is characteristically relaxed and affable, despite the pile of shoes needing work and his fractured English.
Along the stretch between 45th and 46th Streets, I quickly pass the Veterans of Foreign Wars storefront, the Shea Funeral Home through which both my parents pass when they die, and Davy Jones Locker, the bar on the corner of 46th Street – these are places I have no need to know, but do nonetheless, in an avoidance kind of way.
I cross 46th street, and there is Benowitz’s, every kids’ dream store. I enter, and to the left, the cash register, newspapers and candy bars appear, but I am here for a chocolate egg cream, and move on. I hop up onto a padded seat at the long marble countertop where chocolate egg creams, cherry cokes and ice cream sodas are skillfully served up. Mesmerized, I watch the squirt of chocolate, the splash of milk, hear the whoosh of seltzer fired into my glass, and I am happy with anticipation. Swiveling around, the rest of the store is awash with whatever we kids love to possess: comic books and jokey items, red and blue plastic bubble-making goo, trading cards and playing cards, pink Spaldeens and jump ropes. marbles and jacks. At some point in our young lives, Mr. Benowitz retires, and Phil and Bill carry on filling our sweet-tooth and fun needs.
At 46th Street, my family crosses to the north side of the avenue. I do not know why we don’t frequent the south side stores of Skillman Avenue for our shopping, probably no need to, but I also sense we may not feel welcome. So we buy from Mr. Rogen in his corner grocery store, and from Mr. Borchansky, the vegetable man who always sports a full white apron, a pencil-at-the-ready behind his ear and a small notepad-in-hand to tally up the bill.
Weiss’ Hardware Store is next in this homey string of storefronts, with its own distinctive smells, and intimations of busy Saturdays for the men in the neighborhood. I feel somehow important knowing Mr. Weiss' daughter Harriet who is in my class.
My mother’s hairdresser is Marie Spadafora. A mix of cigarette smoke and hair product perfumes the air in her small salon. Marie has a cigarette dangling from her lips and a gravelly voice to match. Her permed hair, like Lucille Ball’s except that it is brown, is swept up on both sides and held in place by combs. Marie is plain-spoken and makes me feel at ease while I watch her work. It isn’t a surprise when early on, I am determined to become a hairdresser when I grow up. A string of disappointing hair outcomes lead me to turn my back on beauty salons and decide definitively to do my own haircutting ever after. I will take full responsibility for any mishaps.
Here I am at Caplow’s Pharmacy, the border of our small shopping district. The entrance must be catty corner to 47 Street and Skillman Avenue, and I think there is a display window on the avenue with apothecary jars filled with colored water. What strikes me immediately I enter, are the the dark wood walls and pale light, the coolness of the air and near chapel-like quiet, the tiny hexagonal floor tiles, and a soft medicinal smell. It isn’t often that I go into Caplow’s, and I am not sure what I purchase, but I love being here.
For a precious moment this morning, I am the little girl on Skillman Avenue. I am home.
A view of both sides of Skillman Avenue between 46 Street and 47 Street
Ruth remembers Sunnyside fondly from her home in the wilds of Nova Scotia.