We moved to Sunnyside from the east Bronx in fall of 1952. It was a move up in the world, from a railroad flat on a treeless dead-end street off Morris Avenue, to a two story house with a backyard, a basement and outback that luxurious – it seemed to me - spread of grass bounded by hedges and trees and stone benches, our own private park.
In our small rectangle of backyard a rose of Sharon tree planted by previous owners bloomed, also iris in profusion, every spring. On the wall in our tiny living room hung a painted tile, with the saying, our father’s nervous joke, God Bless our Mortgaged Home.
My father had written for the Daily Worker in the 1930s but by the mid 50s, a self taught historian of the left and the unions, he had found his niche as an anti-Stalinist, writing a column that was “pro labor but anti-communist,” as he liked to say, for one of the city’s evening dailies. When the paper let him go in 1955, he served for two years as an investigator with a Senate subcommittee, less out of conviction, I suspect, than under pressure of the mortgage.
From 1958, he was unemployed, hanging around the house, while our mother rushed off to her job as a cataloguer at the Donnell Library. My happiest memories of Sunnyside are from those years, my father awaiting my return from school – four impatient years at Bryant High School -- to tell me about the wonderful new story by Frank O’Connor in that week’s New Yorker. “Your father should have been born rich,” an aunt used to say and she was right. But so should everyone, no?
In the end, the mortgage took its toll. By 1961 the family split up, I fled to Europe on a Fulbright grant, remained in Europe for five years, married back in New York in 1969 and lived with my husband, painter Peter Ruta, in the West Village, in Mexico, New Mexico for many years. In the 80’s I began to publish political satire. My first book, Stalin in the Bronx and other Stories (Grove Press 1987) didn’t mention Sunnyside but spoofed the political quarrels of the old left, Stalinists vs Trotskyites, and blamed Stalin’s little known (and possibly apocryphal) visit to the US in 1936, for splitting the American left, laying the groundwork for the rise, decades later, of the neo-conservative movement. After five years in Chiapas, the poorest part of Mexico, pratically Central America, I abhorred the neo-conservative misapplication to Central America, of simplistic cold war categories.
In the mid 90s I actually wrote an entire novel set in Sunnyside. It was probably unfair to the neighborhood I called Runnymede and even to my memories of it, but Newt Gingrich - hateful revisionist - had claimed that 1955 was America’s last good year and I knew he was wrong and set out to prove it with a portrait of Sunnyside 1955-56 as a locus of many secret sorrows. A tendentious project, I completed the gloomy novel but didn’t try to publish it. The excerpts offered here manage to keep a sense of humor.
But if I were going to write again about Sunnyside again I would take a different tack. Sheer nostalgia: cinammon twists from the Lowery Bakeshop, the movie theatre on Queens Boulevard that ran serious European films like Sartre’s Dirty Hands, the long trek to the Woodside Public Library on chilly fall days, the Long Island Railroad tracks bounding Sunnyside on one side, that figured in my dreams for years. diBlasio era developers have plans for the railroad yards and the entire area, and Sunnyside, precious little enclave, may be swallowed up by some 21st century real estate behemoth. Not if we can help it, but can we? Life goes on.
Many thanks to Ruth Horowitz for bringing us together on these pages. Her house on 44th Street in Sunnyside was only an alley trip away from ours but I never met her in those years, sorry to say. Very glad to know her now.
New York, 2016