The Best Thing
by Bobby Mehrer
"The air was so full of melodies one had to take care not to tread on them."
My memories of Sunnyside are numerous. For brevity and because these memories are for you, not myself, I will, as Mom used to urge, 'do my darndest ' to separate the 23 from the lesser carat gold.
Paul Friedlander (of the family referred to by my sister, Joanna, in her recollections) and I last spoke, by phone, about ten years ago. I last saw Paul in Washington, D.C., outside some Government Building or other. He characteristically was tapping out a lucky strike. I had just been released from detention (along with Norman Mailer (think Letterman's 'Brush With Greatness') having been one of the 2000 arrested outside the Justice Dept. as part of what was, at the time, the largest bust in U.S history. So he tapped out 2. We chatted. He had been with the group of ‘Pentagon Levitators' (headed by the leader of the Fugs - a rock group kinda like The Mothers of Invention. It was created when its leader, to his chagrin, survived a leap from the Brooklyn Bridge). We then went to breakfast at the home of some friends from Earlham College where I prepared french toast for all and was presented with a small plaque picturing Picasso's
Don Quixote. They try to wish-lift the Pentagon, I just protest the war, along with 'Norm', and I'm the windmill chaser? Something wrong with this picture, methink. But I digress. So, Paul and I spoke by phone 10 years ago. His first words: "Bobby Mehrer?! Are your ears burning?" He then referred to playing one day at the wooded lot on the corner of 43rd and Skillman Ave. Bolstered by his recollection I can comfortably conclude that my most golden memory, laced with emerald, was the day after; after the wooded lot, Skillman & 43rd., was cut down to make clearance for a project to be built there.
The air in the midst of those new-fallen saplings and trees was so redolent of the smells of freshly hewn wood, crushed wildflower and fern, thickly packed still-live leaves and newly loosed earth, that the phrase ‘redolent of' could easily be construed to have been coined for the aroma of no air but that; air breathed by others there before I arrived. Many others.
The entire neighborhood, or so it seemed, the 5-15 yr. old kids Sunnyside Community, undivided by gender or religion, elevated beyond age and petty prejudices, we played in that wood razed lot (corner 43 & Skill.) for hours: roaming and romping and gaming through uncharted, newly created, never to be charted, impossible thickets - abstract edifices of thornless brambly saw dusty tree/sapling construct. But none of this was the best part. The best part was the Chute.
The gods of playground were out in force that day. No Coney Island ride ever outshone that forty to fifty foot slide of limbs and leaves that curled downwards from a lofty pile of broken branches, dumping y' giddy /exhilarated onto a spongyfirm landing of entwined foliage. Next? Run, fast as you can back up to the top, to do it again and again and over again. A childhood Hallelluia! A Nantucket 'finest kind'.
There are others, of course, in this long ago and far away first old neighborhood memory zone: the organ grinder with his monkey passing the cap for pennies, the man with the cart-wagon, hand drawn, crying out, train conductor style, "Any old clothes?"; Joanna's beautifully described Halloween nights on the front stoop; Maxine Vogel, brilliant of mind, impossibly ill, with whom I recall never having spoken, only regarding, from a distance, both her and her intractable impenetrable relationship with my sister; Uncle Louie's coming to dinner, catching me in his arms, as I ran up to him strolling down 44th street past the sycamore trees; Granny and Ma Bert playing Rummy; Satin, Smokey's kitten all grown, dashing across 44th from the Kushners' for breakfast, to Mom's two-tone call of, "Heere, Kitty, Kitty Kitty!'; Rickey Holt, right next door, making clever-silly rhymes. We actually spied each other on the subway once, but blew the chance to talk, save exclaim each others’ names. Big smiles, though. Big smiles! 'The Broiler' on 43 Ave. - Fresh French Fries: 10, 15, 25 cents in a wax paper bag. Every Christmas eve Joanna would read to me. “The Night Before Christmas.” Afterwards I'd fall asleep waiting for Santa to land on the roof. And if memory serves me not well enough, I know this to be true. Dad, who always got there and always came home, took a picture, a really good picture!
I went back, of course, the next day. Nottalotta kids. Nottalotta fun. I recall the mental frown. It all seemed the same on the surface. But somehow less vibrant, a tad limp, brown and green from emerald and gold. An early lesson - nothing ever, it would appear, ever happens twice the same; and all too often, it's the good things that don't. And the Best Thing? Most of us can count our stars lucky if that gets to happen but once.
Danville, Va. 2016
Ricky, Joanna and Bobby on the stoop
To the tune of johnny b. goode (Chuck Berry):
I was born a little skinny kid from Sunnyside Queens,
And i lived my life 'acontemplatin' what it all means.
Ahitchin' an' ahikin' 'cross the U.S.A. 'n
Rarely comprehending what the teachers were sayin' 'till
i hit my rocky bottom down in Rural Retreat
but met the finest kinda people anybody could meet.