Under the Sycamores
by Lisa (Ariel) Pontell
My strongest association with Sunnyside, where I lived for 22 years, is the sycamore trees. The trees with their leafy bower framed so many of my childhood memories, providing the rich landscape to my images of life in the Gardens. I lived on 44th Street, the last of the blocks to be built, with the houses surrounding Madison Court. Living on the edge of the community, I was very aware of the “outside”: the Queen of Angels Church and School on Skillman Avenue, the garages and paved playground on 43rd Street. Although I spent occasional afternoons on the swings and monkey bars of that playground, I never entered the church or school and was frightened by the sight of the nuns and priests scurrying about. It was only when I crossed Skillman to the north side, and entered the protecting arbor of the sycamores, that I felt safe.
In the fall, huge 3-pointed leaves tumbled to the sidewalks, gardens and street and the rasping sound of rakes competed with Mike the Fruit Man selling wares from his truck, and the knife sharpener with his horse drawn carriage. Autumn meant the beginning of coal deliveries (until we switched to oil) and the rush of the pieces down the coal chute meant cold weather had arrived. The sycamores also shed their bark, leaving beautiful camouflage patterns of tan, gray, pale green, and brown. I loved touching the smooth, new bark as it appeared and tried to resist tearing off more old bark than was ready to drop. While the weather was still comfortable, the sidewalks were filled with kids playing potsy (hopscotch), skully with bottle caps, and stoop ball, especially satisfying with a new “Spaldeen.” Roller hockey and football filled the lightly travelled streets. The trees watched it all.
In winter, the skeletal branches overhead were most magical when dusted with snow. Waking up to an overnight snowfall was the most exciting, where my first view of the court in the morning was as thrilling as a birthday. I have a clear memory of an evening on 44th Street, with my neighbor, Sandy Naishtat, and cousin Richard Fried, watching the snow fall through the trees, past the street lamps, and thinking that our future was boundless, as only a 15-year can. Watching the French movie, “Sundays and Cybele” near that time, I know I responded to the images of swirling tree branches because of my Sunnyside experiences.
In spring, my friend, Sandy, and I waited for the “itchy balls” to fall. These are the seed balls dropped by sycamores, sometimes an inch and a half in diameter with a strong stem. We invented endless games with these props, including pulling them apart to feel the pale, silky threads beneath the seeds. I can only hope we helped spread the sycamore seeds to other locations. As the leaves began to appear above us the green bower began to take shape, although I was always amazed at how rich and thick the green roof became. Sandy and I also marked the change of seasons by the return of the Good Humor man on April 1st. We sat on our stoop waiting for the distant jingle, and cheered as he appeared in front of our house. Then we were back on the stoop eating our Dixie cups with great satisfaction, savoring the vanilla part first and finishing with the chocolate as itchy balls fell around us.
Summer was the most glorious time of all. The richness of the canopy was undeniable, and the haven it provided was true. Coming out of the Bliss Street station, crossing past the Merry Go Round Bar (the only revolving bar in NYC), I headed down the hill towards Skillman Avenue. The commercial part of Sunnyside never drew me, although I loved eating at the Asia on Sunday nights, and having an ice cream soda at the Village Green near the Center Theater. I was drawn inexorably toward the leafy sanctuary of the Gardens. The apartment buildings on the way toward Skillman were another world, unwelcoming, with gangs of boys and scary elevators which felt threatening to an easily intimidated girl. Crossing Skillman Avenue, I came under the tunnel of protection of my beloved sycamores. With the sky barely visible through the leaves, I was sheltered and comforted, in the leafy home of Sunnyside.
Lisa, age 7, 40-10 44 Street
Lisa, age 18
Lisa Pontell is a retired teacher living in San Francisco and West Hollywood with her husband of 50 years, Jonathan.