Sounds of the Sidewalk
by Peter King
I lived at 41-25 44th Street in Sunnyside for almost the first 12 years of my life. From April 1944 until December 1955. Between Skillman and 43rd Avenues. On the west side of the street. Two buildings down from the Celtic Cafe which was located next to Charlie’s Delicatessen on the corner of 44th Street and 43rd Avenue and around the corner from Heller’s Butcher and Herman’s Candy Store.
Across the street from me down on the corner of Skillman Avenue was St. Teresa’s Chapel which in 1953 or 1954 became Queen of Angels Church. A block west on the north side of Skillman beginning on 43rd Street and continuing west at least two blocks was “The Park” which was constructed around 1953.
I went to grammar school at St. Teresa’s in Woodside located past Queens Boulevard (“the Boulevard”) and Greenpoint Avenue on 44th Street and 50th Avenue.
I give you these specific details because they were the contours of my life and most of the kids I grew up with during my years in Sunnyside lived within them. There were so many kids on my block that there was no real reason to go beyond those boundaries.
Punchball, slap ball, curb ball, running bases and Chinese handball in spring and summer. Touch football and roller hockey (with Union Hardware skates tightly clamped and strapped to my shoes) in the fall and winter. For softball or large Stickball games we would go over to the 43rd Street Park which was all concrete. If we we were lucky, we’d play on the main field. If not, we could often adapt a makeshift field down in the right field corner.
Baseball was the sport most kids were interested in. The split was pretty much even between Dodgers and Yankees fans with an occasional Giants fan. We were avid baseball card collectors. (One card for a penny or a pack of 6 with bubble gum for a nickel.) Many an hour was spent flipping them against the wall next to the Celtic Cafe.
Most of the Catholic kids went to school at St. Teresa’s. Classes were large. Approximately 70 kids to a class. Because there were so many kids, for the first 3 1/2 years, we went in 4 hour shifts: 8:00 AM-12:00 noon one month and then 12 noon until 4:00 the next month. The Dominican nuns were unforgiving and no thought was given to feelings but we survived.
There were some rough kids in the neighborhood and I think two gangs (Monarchs and Mohawks) but I never knew of anyone being bothered by a gang. They bothered each other. I do recall some kids getting caught for stealing bikes but for the most part the neighborhood was safe and no one had any worries walking the streets. Certainly a more tranquil time. (Though the older brother of a classmate did go to the electric chair for a murder during a stick up.)
Most of the kids on the block were Catholic but there were several Jewish kids as well. No one paid any attention to what you were. Not that we thought we were practicing brotherhood, it just didn’t matter. And in St. Teresa’s I never heard a word of anti-Semitism from the nuns or priests. The only religious points of contention I recall were directed against the Protestant Reformation and that was done without rancor.
I always considered my mother to be overly worried about something happening to me or my younger brother Kevin. Yet today she would probably be arrested for child neglect.
From the 3rd grade on I’d walk the five long blocks to school including the 6 lanes of Queens Blvd (the “Boulevard of Death”) and the crisscrossing of streets at Greenpoint Avenue which must have been designed by a drunken Geometry teacher. I remember also when I was just 10 going with a group of kids to Ebbets Field in Brooklyn and taking the El (now known as the 7 Line) and at least one subway to get there. There was no adult, only a teenager leading the way. And when I was 11, we would take the El out to play baseball at Flushing Meadow - the only place we could find grass. Not only didn’t adults go with us to Flushing Meadow, we kids formed our own team, joining the PAL and going to the 108th Precinct on Saturday morning to pick up the game ball. (There was no Little League then in Sunnyside.)
As for my family, both parents were children of Irish immigrants. My father was a World War ll Army Veteran who went on to a 30 year career in the NYPD rising to the rank of Lieutenant. My mother, who had to turn down a scholarship to Hunter College to work during the depression, was a full time homemaker. My brother Kevin became a CPA and my sister Barbara, who was born a few months after we moved from Sunnyside, earned a Master’s Degree in Nursing.
During their years in Sunnyside my parents were Democrats voting for Roosevelt and Truman before switching to Eisenhower in 1952 because they believed the Democrats had turned to the left. Later when I was in Congress, I spoke with David Horowitz who told me of how far left it had been in Sunnyside Gardens. I told him I knew nobody who would have voted for Henry Wallace or thought the Rosenbergs or Alger Hiss were innocent. A tale of two neighborhoods within a neighborhood!
The recent COVID pandemic brought back sad memories of the horrors of polio which struck a few unfortunate kids almost every summer. I remember twin boys living in the apartment house across the street whose legs were paralyzed from Polio and were the March of Dimes Poster Children one year. There was another kid a few years older than me who I would see down the Park playing ball with a metal brace on his leg. For whatever reason, kids never worried about getting polio, though I’m sure our parents did. My brother Kevin was one of the trial kids in the Salk vaccine tests.
Other random memories:
- Sunnyside Garden on Queens Blvd and 45th Street where annual bazaars were held and my father attended boxing matches.
- Robert Hall where you got a low priced Easter jacket.
- The White Castle on Queens Boulevard and 43rd Street where my mother was convinced they served horse meat but whose hamburgers I still devour.
For a few years after we moved from Sunnyside to a single family home in St. Albans to make room for my sister, I would come back several days at a time to visit the old neighborhood and see some of the kids still living there. Those days, I would stay at my grandparents’ apartment on 48th Street across the street from Schirmer’s. Later as an adult I would come back to Sunnyside to watch the boxing matches. Tragically it has been torn down for a Wendy’s!?!??
At the time I didn’t think growing up in Sunnyside was a big deal. I just took for granted the combination of tranquility, looking out for yourself and having plenty of kids to play with - with no elaborate lifestyles or any vacations except for the occasional day on the beach down at Rockaway. It wasn’t until later that I realized what a solid foundation those Sunnyside years provided me for the rest of my life.
I hope these musings did justice to those years and that place.