Under the Sycamores

by Lisa Ariel Pontell

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          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.

 

          In the fall, huge 3-pointed leaves tumbled to the sidewalks; 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 pieces down the coal chute meant cold weather had arrived. The sycamores were shedding their bark now, leaving 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, skully with bottle caps, and stoop ball, a game 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, and my cousin, Richard, watching the snow fall through the trees, past the street lamps, and thinking that our future was boundless, as only a 15-year old can.

 

          In spring, Sandy and I waited for the “itchy balls” to fall. These were the seed balls dropped by the sycamores, sometimes an inch and a half in diameter. We invented endless games with these props, and pulled them apart to feel the pale, silky threads beneath their coverings. As the leaves appeared above us, the green bower began to take shape, although I was always amazed at how rich and thick the green roof eventually became. Sandy and I marked the arrival of spring with the return of the Good Humor man on April 1st. We’d sit 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 the 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 the Boulevard, and passing the Merry-Go-Round Bar (the only revolving bar in NYC), I headed down the hill toward Skillman Avenue. I loved eating at the Asia on Sunday nights, and having an ice cream soda at the Village Green next to the Center Theater, but I was drawn inexorably toward the leafy sanctuary of the Gardens. The apartment buildings on the way toward Skillman were another world, unwelcoming. 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 Ariel Pontell grew up on 44th Street in Sunnyside, married, and moved with her husband to Manhattan to be “in the center of things.”   While in New York, she enrolled in a doctoral program in Anthropology, worked as a medical research assistant, and in photo research and copy editing at Harry N. Abrams Art Books. 

 

          Lisa has been married for 54 years to film editor, TV producer and director Jonathan Pontell.  With an offer of work in Los Angeles, the Pontells relocated, and quickly acclimating to California, remained.  They have two grown children, and four grandchildren.  Volunteering in her daughter’s classroom led Lisa to a rewarding 30 year teaching career in an independent school.  The Pontells now live fulltime in San Francisco.