Monday, December 10, 2018

Chatty Cathy and Christmas

Almost a half-century ago, my father, two brothers, and I walked over to next block, Irwin Avenue, to pick out the family Christmas tree. The seller was a neighbor named Cathy. On the cobblestone grounds in front of a series of ramshackle garages beside her house were dozens of Balsam firs and Scotch pines. We selected the latter, as I recall, and Cathy said in parting, “I hope Sanny Claus is good to you!” She was a Bronx gal to the core.

I don’t remember how much we paid for that tree, but it wasn’t anything near what one Manhattan tree seller is charging this year—twenty-five dollars per foot. And speaking of the here and now, Whole Foods Market is selling six- to eight-foot Christmas trees in the very same Manhattan for $59.99. Twenty-five dollars for delivery and, if the buyer’s address is within walking distance, fifteen dollars! Supporting the contemporary Cathy tree peddlers—the little guys and girls—isn’t always cut-and-dried. Suffice it to say that our Christmas stroll in 1970 was in a vastly different world from what we know today. 
My Christmas stroll of yesterday is Exhibit A. And, a footnote here, Cathy, her house, and garages are just memories now. Today an apartment building with not-so-ramshackle garages on the ground floor stands there.
Once upon a time Cathy advertised her Christmas trees for sale with a handwritten cardboard sign that cut to the chase: "Christmas Trees for Sale."
Cathy sold her trees without the help of giant Sanny Claus blow-ups and electronic signs.
Recently, a pizza delivery guy told me that I had restored his faith in humanity. Why? Because I regularly give him a considerable tip. He further complained that all-too-many customers stiff him with measly or non-existent tips. Upon delivering to tightwads, I suspect even the SoHo Trees delivery guys might not be sporting toothy smiles.
Not all street peddlers of Christmas trees are created equal. Some live for a mostly cold month of wheeling and dealing in crudely constructed plastic lean-tos. On the other hand, this seller has an RV and portable bathroom, too, nearby—Call Ahead, who is "Number 1 at Picking up Number 2."
"Until the other kiddies knock him down." I remember local bullies and punks doing just that kind of thing when Cathy was a Christmas tree entrepreneur. I always wondered why exactly they felt compelled to knock over harmless inanimate snowmen built by animate others in equally harmless locations. Seeing some of the punks and bullies on Facebook all these years later—in their adult incarnations—I better understand. They were jerks as kids and are jerks as adults.
The "Baby, It's Cold Outside" song mini-controversy is just further evidence that we live in stupid—and getting stupider—times with each passing minute.
Reading between the lines...
Christmas at the Holland Tunnel. Not much Christmas Spirit therein.
All is calm at an increasingly rare sidewalk phone booth.
Getting steamed on the city sidewalks, busy sidewalks is par for the course...
Mom-and-pop shops are fast going by the wayside. It's not Cathy the Christmas tree seller's city anymore.
Those aren't Christmas decorations in the window.
Restaurant Row in lower Manhattan, including Asian Confusion cuisine.
Personally, I'd have named this place: This Is Pizza.
This deli and the pizza shop were quite near each other. I wonder if they are both owned by the Fresh family.
Just a wild guess, but I bet it's not.
Someone among the Hell's Angels had the Christmas spirit. If this picture had audio, you would hear "My Favorite Things" playing. For some reason that's become a Christmas song. However, it could be that the motorcyclist is a fan of The Sound of Music.

(Photos from the personal collection of Nicholas Nigro)

Sunday, December 2, 2018

So the Last Shall Be First

Well, that’s definitely the case with the Number 1 train. The last car going downtown is the first car coming uptown. I ride the first car going downtown and the last car coming uptown. It’s a matter of science based on the various cars’ locations vis-à-vis the subway station entrances. Typically they are among the least crowded. Anyway, this is my story of another first—in December—with my assorted observations of what I encountered along the way.

Foremost, the holiday season is in full swing. Signs of the season abound. Christmas tree sellers are—to use an old phrase of my father’s to describe a busy retailer—doing “a booming business.” From the looks of things, a lot of people buy their trees quite early nowadays. Once upon a time, selling trees before Thanksgiving—which I saw in my neighborhood a couple of weeks ago—didn’t happen. But that was then and this is now. What I would like to know is how these trees survive an entire month or more indoors without drooping, drying out, and becoming a fire hazard? As a youth, the family tree went up a few days before Christmas. It was almost always a Balsam Fir, which couldn’t wait, as I recall, to start shedding its needles.

Recently, I read of a Manhattan tree seller charging twenty-five to thirty dollars a foot. He claimed the extreme pricing was the consequence of an industry shortage. On the city sidewalks, busy sidewalks yesterday, I just didn’t see it. Shoppers had a bumper crop of trees from which to choose. When I spied a young woman with a Charlie Brown-sized tree awaiting a train, I calculated she would have paid—using the price-gouger’s arithmetic—at least fifty dollars for the privilege. When I snapped a Christmas in New York shot of the tree, what I got was an unintended image of straphangers one and all mesmerized by their devices and not the Charlie Brown tree. ‘Tis the season to stare into your smartphone.

Prior to this unmistakable sign of the season, a woman sat beside me on the subway in what are—in practical reality—Billy Barty-sized seats. Sitting with her back to me, this gal found it necessary to speak with her husband—eyeball-to-eyeball—on her right. With her big head of hair practically in my face, I assumed the role of the back of a seat for what seemed like an eternity. It was very annoying but, regrettably, par for the course. Fortunately, there were more uplifting encounters in my journey, like coming upon belching steam pipes. There’s something about these things that cry out: “Take my picture!” And no two shots will ever be the same!

For some reason, I associate New York City steam pipes with Christmastime. An annual holiday tradition during my childhood involved a Manhattan shopping jaunt with my aunt and brothers. Upon exiting the subway directly across from Macy’s main entrance was, as I remember, a billowing steam pipe, which always seemed to complement the December cold. Toss in the sounds and scents of Christmas—sidewalk Santas ringing their bells and street vendors peddling hot dogs, chestnuts, and pretzels—and that’s a festive ambiance if ever there was one.

One year—just before entering Macy’s—we bore witness to an accident involving two yellow taxicabs. A passenger in one of them exited with a streak of blood running down the topside of his bulbous nose. I must admit that this was all great theater for a kid and made the outing particularly memorable. Of course, that was about forty-five years ago. The fellow with the bulbous nose is no doubt long gone—and not from injuries sustained in the fender bender—and so are the stores we patronized, with the sole exception of Macy’s at Herald Square. Gimbel’s, Korvette’s, Woolworth’s, Kress’s, and Brew Burger, too, are in the dustbin of history. Brew Burger, by the way, was a 1970s chain specializing in—you guessed it—charred hamburgers and beer in the pre-craft era. Sans the brew, we patronized the place a time or two. But Christmas future is far away. And Christmas past is past. Christmas present is here today. So, I'm grateful that—at the very least—the steam pipes endure in the here and now.

(Photos from the personal collection of Nicholas Nigro)

Tuesday, November 27, 2018

Never Play Leapfrog with a Unicorn

Walking along the not-so-mean streets of the Bronx—in the tony Fieldston neighborhood—I encountered a unicorn looming high above the roadway in somebody’s front yard. Not the genuine article, but the unusual visual nonetheless resurrected thoughts of a 1970s detective show called Banacek, one among several in the rotating NBC Wednesday Mystery Movie wheel. The show’s lead, the always-suave Thomas Banacek—played by the always-suave George Peppard—recited Polish proverbs at the drop of a hat. While they more often than not left those in earshot befuddled, they typically supplied all concerned with food for thought. “A truly wise man never plays leapfrog with a unicorn,” Banacek said almost a half century ago. True dat!

I wonder what Banacek would think of contemporary society? His proverbs for any and all occasions would no doubt assume new and more urgent meanings in the zany new millennium. For instance, I just read a news story concerning tomorrow’s lighting of the Christmas tree at Rockefeller Center. The piece detailed the enormous security measures now taken—by necessity—in the world we know, not the world we knew. In the latter, Depression-era workmen once upon a time raised a twenty-foot balsam fir—and decorated it with paper garlands, strings of cranberries, and a smattering of tin cans—unintentionally inaugurating a renowned yuletide tradition.

But that was then, 1931, and this is now. The Rockefeller Center website describes the annual ritual, hallowed location, and—its centerpiece—tree as “a gathering place and reflection of what was happening in the world around it.” I suspect that reflections on that consecrated soil in 2018 will be worlds apart from those who reflected in that considerably smaller tree’s luminous shadow in 1931. “When an owl comes to a mouse picnic, it’s not there for the sack races,” Banacek opined in a decidedly different time. Traveling around New York City nowadays, we are regularly reminded to be ever vigilant—for that owl in sheep’s clothing.

Security checks notwithstanding, Christmas has yet again been unleashed in the City that Never Sleeps. The Grinch movie is not only playing in various theaters around town but being advertised everywhere from underground subway stations to tacky floating billboards. One such promo featured the Mean One with the words: “Rude. Loud. Angry. New Yorkers are my kinda people.” I know there are some individuals on Facebook—New York natives—who take genuine pride in being “rude, loud, and angry.” My free advice to these Big Apple neighbors of mine is this: Exhibiting those aforementioned traits, as a rule, is hardly a badge of honor. Seek therapy, perhaps, or, at the very least, recite, “Pins and needles…needles and pins…it’s a happy man that grins.” Of course, feel free to change man to woman to suit the moment. Remember, too, what Banacek said, “A wise man never tries to warm himself in front of a painting of a fire.” Who could possibly argue with that?

(Photos from the personal collection of Nicholas Nigro)

Sunday, November 18, 2018

Quote the Raving

The sum total of my subway experience yesterday prompted me to wonder. Wonder if we were in the midst of a Full Moon? Turns out, though, that wasn’t the reason why the natives were especially restless in the Land Down Under. The next Full Moon is later this week.

For starters, I encountered a scary version of Dumb and Dumber. Right out of Central Casting, the duo appeared to be escapees from The Sopranos set. The alpha male, Dumb, was quite squat with a considerable belly. His shirt just couldn’t seem to cover up all that skin. The guy also had an extensive knife scar on his face and—at one point—took out a big wad of cash and started counting it. He, too, was very proud of his brand new construction boots and asked Dumber his opinion of them. This all played out in a subway car full of people. Dumb made Joe Pesci sound like William F. Buckley, Jr.

In addition, multiple panhandlers materialized on my various train rides, which is not unusual. A couple of them operated strictly by the book. They stated their respective cases and ambled on through the car. But then there was a pregnant woman asking for help and using her extended belly as a prop. Sad to think what kind of world that child is going to come into. I can’t be certain but I believe this is the same individual whom I’ve seen before and whose panhandling approach is aggressive and literally in-your-face. Simply put, she speaks her piece one person at a time. For those who contribute to her cause, the gal is lavish with praise. Prior to my one-on-one, a fellow passenger was told that he had both great hair and was very handsome. Rather than wait for what flattery was in store for me—I don’t have great hair—I handed her a couple of dollars. What I got in return was a fist bump, which considering the general circumstances, I’d rather not have gotten.

No fist bumps were forthcoming with the last visitation. It was not with someone looking for a monetary salve. This fellow was a bona fide raving lunatic. I think, too, I’ve seen him before. He is an African-American man who—on this particular Saturday—took up the cause of the American Indian for several train stops. “White man speaks with forked tongue,” he uttered on more than one occasion during his vitriolic rant. Vis-à-vis the Native American experience, I would be inclined to agree. But he was also speaking of violent retribution in the offing to said white man. And fitting the bill of his enemy profile in a sparsely filled subway car, I thought it wise to implement my Charles Manson Rule and make like a tree and leave, which I did, before the raving escalated into something more.
As I awaited the next train, I snapped a shot—for posterity—of the back of the raving lunatic's wool hat-wearing head.
I've been reading today about Bill Maher's remarks concerning the recently deceased Stan Lee and the comic book phenomena. Hey, the guy's a comedian and provocateur. That's what he does. Chill media!
When I submitted my manuscript for The Everything Collectibles Book in 2001, I had lots of clever and some not-so-clever play-on-word headings in it. However, the Generation X developmental editor working with me didn't get any of them, with the sole exception of "Advertising: The Story of Us." The Story of Us was, by the way, a 1999 romantic-comedy starring Michelle Pfeiffer and Bruce Willis, a recent enough movie to still be on the Generation Xer's limited memory drive. Oh, to becoming up with such word plays again like : I prefer the Ladder to the Farmer.
 "Do not lean on door" is no more. No doubt the handiwork of the practical joker vandal.
If you see came first. Then there was something—see. The uber-climax is next: say something!
Next building...
Too much too soon...
Really, it should never snow while the Hydrangea and Rose of Sharon are still green.
Not a pretty sight in wintertime, but worse in autumn: New York City snow remnants.
It's beginning to look a lot like Christmas...
What does that really mean? Bring back the Grinch.
The construction of the Christmas tree racks again in front of the local Rite Aid drug store. Time is definitely accelerating...
So, what will it be? Pizza or the Double Burger Cambo?
I'm familiar with hot dogs and burgers, but not concretes. Every day is a learning experience.
A little too much glare to make this an award-winning nature shot.
Seagull on a lamppost in Battery Park City.
Was this a "If you see something, say something" moment. Probably not. Just a guy recharging his phone in a subway station.
Once upon a time people used phone booths like this. Apparently, some Neanderthals still do. It clearly didn't snow as much in lower Manhattan as it did in my part of the Bronx. Mum's still the word!

(Photos from the personal collection of Nicholas Nigro)

Saturday, November 10, 2018

Movin' on Up or Down?

This morning—a breezy and rather chilly one for this time of year—I was approached by a man with a business card in hand. Not a good start to the day! Foremost, this fellow wanted to know if I knew of anyone looking to buy or sell a home. I said that I didn't. Not missing a beat, he then asked, "When are you thinking of moving?" This guy was making a lot of assumptions about me with that question, I thought, which he couldn't possibly know, and crashing through my wall, tooand before the clock even struck ten! Despite it not being any of this real estate bloke's business, I paraphrased Mario Cuomo and said, "I have no plans on moving and no plans to make plans." Absolutely true in that exact snapshot in time. For the historical record, Cuomo uttered something similar—sans the moving partwhen being badgered about whether or not he was going to run for president in 1988 and again in 1992. He was presidential timber du jour in those bygone days. And now for some further observations and recollections...
Oh, yes, the hawk has Van Cortlandt Park!
Pigeon, a Bronx delicacy, and an early Thanksgiving feast on the apropos barbecue grounds.
The "HUTE MASTE": Jack of all trades, master of none?
It was pouring rain this past Tuesday, Election Day, when I cast my ballot, which got a little wet in the process. Apparently, mine wasn't the only soggy vote. Courtesy of Mother Nature's deluge and our wet paper ballots, the various machines that scanned them ceased doing what they were supposed to be doing. Voters at my precinct, including me, had to slide our ballots into an "Emergency Ballot Box." There is a first time for everything.
When I ordered two scoops of chocolate ice cream at a local diner last night, I didn't anticipate eating a pint's worth. For every action there is a reaction.
Many years ago, a friend of mine attended a free actor's workshop in Manhattan. The guest speaker was none other than Alec Baldwin. According to my pal, the man was quite gracious and patiently answered all questions posed. Of course, my friend had taken mass transit to the event that night and wasn't vying with Baldwin for a parking spot.
Wonder Woman's preferred clothier?
While on the subject of superheroes, the Man of Steel has got to remember to take his garbage with him. This isn't the 1970s!
Straight-line clouds, deep-blue skies, and the building where a man nicknamed "Q-ball" lives. Two out of three ain't bad.
It's one big hill and a park to boot: Ewen in the Bronx
The Purple Testament...but to Ewen Park on the day after Halloween.
This Bud's for you...or the first can and bottle collector...who ascends or descends the formidable stairs of Ewen Park.
Johnny Carson: "They are so friendly!" Johnny Carson Audience: "How friendly are they?" Me: Not as friendly as you might think.
When Frosty the Snowman rides in a New York City subway car...
This is the end-result...
To get out those stubborn Escargots de Bourgogne stains, this is obviously the place for you...
This is not a homeless man. He's a wizened New Yorker who just put his smartphone in his pocket. You know...somebody once said, "Everything happens in threes." Chinese tradition holds that the number is a lucky one. In my religious upbringing, God was an amalgam of Three Personsthe Trinityas if one wasn't enough. Come and knock on our door...

(Photos from the personal collection of Nicholas Nigro)