The street is black. Streets are often black. And cars ride over them. People walk along either side of the street on a series of connected square concrete blocks called sidewalks. Various shops, restaurants and entrances to apartment buildings can be accessed from these sidewalks. Sometimes cars pull over and stop in rows along the sides of the street, right where the side of the street ends and the sidewalk begins, an act known as "parking." People walking on sidewalks sometimes need to cross a street. At the intersections of streets there are convenient paths marked out in white paint called "crosswalks" to guide them.
I live in Sunnyside, Queens on Skillman Avenue. It is a quiet street with little car traffic. When a street has few cars on it, and is primarily occupied by pedestrians who tend to use its sidewalks, many people cross the street in whichever way and at whatever point they want, not worrying whether or not it's at an intersection. They cross diagonally, whatever. The other day I saw an older gentleman limping, taking a long diagonal across the street between 49th and 50th. About two-thirds of the way through, he crossed paths with a young woman who was running directly across midway between intersections. She was looking behind her, still talking to the young man she was parting with. Because she was looking behind her, she almost ran into the older gentleman, but he saw her coming and paused just barely enough to avoid being walked into. She startled, apologized quickly, and ran off. It took him awhile to get started walking again.
In my apartment, I am listening to the activity of the street from my fourth floor window. Four stories is about as tall is it gets here, so I can see almost all sky as I look out the window from my chair. It is 4:12 in the afternoon, 80 degrees Fahrenheit, late June 2011. It is very quiet, save for the start-up of the children's ride across the street, outside the bodega owned by a nice Indian family. The children's ride is no wider than my average-width body. It has a red cube base, out of which stretches a metal rod supporting a friendly, pale blue, smiling sea creature made of cheap metal. The paint is chipping a little. For a quarter, small children can sit on the back of this sea creature and be rocked back and forth, gently, while a song plays–usually Old MacDonald or It's a Small World. It's a Small World is playing now. It's a twinkling music-box sound that mixes with the breeze moving through the trees and then through my window.
If someone were to ask me what street I live on, I would say I live at 51st St. and Skillman Avenue, on Skillman, in Sunnyside. I could say I live on Lewis Mumford Way, since that's the alternate name for the street, written in slightly smaller font on some of the street signs immediately below the words Skillman Ave. This additional name was most likely given as an honor to urban planner Lewis Mumford, who played an important role in New York's "garden city" movement. Sunnyside Gardens, which runs along the north side of Skillman Avenue from 41st to 50th St., designed by Mumford's team, is one of those areas of the city that looks like a village, almost as if gnomes lived there. Small, weathered, row homes of an English Tudor style connect, facing outward along the outer edges of each block, their backs encircling public-access green spaces so wild and unkempt that when walking there it feels for a moment like a remote hiking area. But then you emerge from the space, stumble onto a wine bar, and realize you are, in fact, still in the city.
I could also say I live on the Sunnyside-Woodside border, since 51st St. is the border. I prefer to say Sunnyside, since Sunnyside has fewer cars and more pedestrians, many with friendly dogs. Woodside is home to the third largest population of Irish immigrants in the city. The bars of Woodside tend to appear Irish in their décor and the fonts of their signage, and Irish immigrants often work and drink there alongside many non-Irish workers and patrons from the neighborhood. The typical offerings at these bars are Coors Light, Budweiser, and Guinness, and one or two of them even have Smithwick's. Most of these bars tend to play hair band rock from the 1980s. This is a kind of music many people I know do not like. Could it be that Irish immigrants are the last of the Whitesnake fans? During the first month I lived here I visited the nearest bar of this sort, only to find, just inside the entrance, a middle-aged Korean gentleman vomiting on his coat, while the stereo blasted Def Leppard loud enough to drown out the vomiting sound. The Irish waitress was trying to throw him out but he wouldn't leave. The neighborhood dog walker, Mark, an Irishman himself, does not like 80s hair bands, or even U2, and frequents a bar that doesn't play music. That bar is for hard drinkers only. It doesn't say so on the door, but one just knows.
I could also say I live in a large yellow brick apartment building circa 1933, built alongside a mixture of dark bituminous pitch with sand or gravel laid beneath it, flanked by curbstone and an approximately 10 foot wide concrete surface on which people walk. That's a long answer if someone should ask where I live, but the misdirection could provide a useful shift in attention to the surroundings. Why name this street Skillman Avenue? Why not in honor of those who actually made it? Why not Laborers' Local 1018 Asphalt Pavers? Or Laborers' Local 1175 Asphalt Plant Workers? I suppose if this were the pattern, then all the streets in Queens would have the same name and that would not be efficient.
Under the asphalt there is a layer of sand or gravel, which allows the surface a certain amount of give. The moveability of these substances allows the street to flexibly bear different weights or forces of impact. This underlying flexibility is also what makes the surface of the street develop cracks over time. I could wonder if the asphalt of the street were made of substances native to the earth, hydrocarbon mixtures, or by-products of petroleum-cracking operations, or whether it was sand or gravel underneath. But for now, I think I'll stay at the surface. Skillman Avenue has very few cracks, though there is a square of gnarly asphalt patchwork from a spot at the southeast corner of 51st that Con Edison has been returning to work on regularly for over a year.
One can now view one's street from directly overhead, thanks to Google Maps street view and its collaborations with both government and privatized national security satellites. The overhead view of Skillman Avenue reveals the variety of codes painted on the street. Lines break down into dashes at certain intersections, then open up into large double rectangles surrounding the next. The pedestrian crosswalk on 52nd is filled in with diagonal lines, while all the other crosswalks nearby are empty, just paths made by two parallel white lines. The bike lane along Skillman changes in a fascinating way at 51st St. It might be seen by one viewer as recalling a Native American pattern typically found around the base of a vase or the outer edge of a rug, whereas another viewer, one concerned primarily with, say, typography, might see it as a series of alternating paired parentheses and carats arranged in a ribbon inside two dotted lines. No other street for blocks on either side has this pattern. It seems 51st St. is special in some way having to do with bicycle crossing. The codes painted on the street are so elaborate and varied it's clearly a whole other language, probably understood best at the Department of Transportation.
From overhead, it's hard to see if there are many cars parked on Skillman Avenue because the area is just about entirely covered by trees. This view reveals far more tree coverage than I realized existed. At the level of the sidewalk, which is where I typically see things from, I mostly notice their trunks, which have quite a bit of space between them, with plenty of swatches of sunlight, implying moderate tree presence. This view from overhead suggests I should look up more often. I do, however, often notice the whole tree outside the Japanese restaurant because they've strung beautiful lights through it. It's a smaller, modest little tree, and at night its soft white lights reflect in the large restaurant window.
In addition to several decent restaurants, there are several outdoor cafés on my street: one French bakery with two benches in front, one bar with large tables, specializing in beer and catering to sports fans, another with small tables, specializing in wine, cheese, salad, and small bites to eat. I frequent the wine bar, and the owner and all the servers there know me, are always excited to see me, and give me tastings of new wines whenever they become available. Sitting outside and drinking on Skillman Avenue, as I do, it is impossible not to notice the number of dogs out walking with their human companions. Some are being walked by the humans, others pull out ahead and seem to drag their humans behind them. Every breed and size of dog walks here, ready for any experience in the world of sniffing, petting, playing or antagonism made possible by the series of chance encounters created by a walk. A Weinerdog hops up briefly on its hind legs to sniff the hind parts of a pit bull, a Maltese swerves to avoid an excitable German Shepard puppy, a large old mutt sits oblivious as a baby greyhound bows down playfully reaching out her front legs before it, a Bulldog stops and lies down in the middle of the sidewalk, refusing to go any further, a young couple find this cute and stop to pet it.
The street is lined with street lamps, which people often tie their dogs to while they drink their wine, or while they run into the store to pick up milk or a pack of cigarettes. A dog accompanying a wine bar patron can be tied to the post and remain near enough to his wine-drinking human companion, and also provide entertainment to the other bar patrons, who occasionally turn to notice and discuss what the dog is doing, or reach out to touch the dog, or begin asking the owner questions about the dog like how old is he or what breed is he. Dogs often become the point around which human strangers initiate a conversation.
The sidewalk life of Skillman Avenue can be very active, but from my fourth floor window it is always quiet. When I moved here two years ago, I was delighted to finally live on a street that was not in what is called "the flight path," those unfortunate swaths of land frequented, at sometimes remarkably close range, by the 2211 planes either taking off or landing daily at our two airports. I once had a student who told me she could read the sides of planes outside her apartment window. To prove it, she catalogued for me the exact time and airline company passing by her window for one day between the hours between dropping her children off at school and leaving to pick them up. Her list began like this
9: 37 am Continental Airlines
9: 41 am Delta Airlines
9: 44 am US Airways
9: 47 am Jet Blue
9: 49 am Delta Airlines
9: 52 am Canadian Airlines
9: 54 am Delta Airlines
9: 58 am Air Canada
10: 01 am Delta Airlines
and went on at this rate until 2:33 pm.
When I lived on Metropolitan Avenue in Brooklyn, not only did planes fly by often, but trucks, the ones called "eighteen-wheelers," rolled by consistently without stopping every minute of the day. So much weight had been born by Metropolitan Avenue over the years that it was riddled with sinkholes and cracks so that every truck going by, and each of its eighteen wheels, made a terrific crashing sound not unlike an explosion. This began every day at 4 am and ended around 11 pm. I had to purchase a large shop-floor fan and run it twenty-four hours a day to drown out the noise.
On the bright side, the noise of the trucks and planes used to make me think of all the places that might exist outside the city and how they connected to the city by way of Metropolitan Avenue. The countryside where all the vegetables and meats were coming from, all the nations providing imports. It was nice to think of it, but also disturbing when I observed the amount of black soot left on my windows and desk from truck exhaust, and then considered the asthma rates in North Brooklyn. After two years in that apartment, the noise and filth became unbearable. In the end, quite unexpectedly, I ended up moving to where approximately 490 of those planes-per-day were going to land–Queens.
Of course certain areas of Queens are very well in the flight path of LaGuardia International. But Skillman Avenue is clear of that. I sometimes see planes in the distance out the back window of my kitchen but I never hear them.