Thursday, July 17, 2014

Congratulations to Neil, Buzz, and Mike


It was forty-five years ago this week that Apollo 11 astronauts Neil Armstrong, Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin, Jr., and Michael Collins touched down and then cavorted on our planet’s sole satellite, the Moon. “That’s one small step for a man; one giant step for mankind,” Neil Armstrong intoned upon first touching the Moon’s surface. I don’t remember all that much about this obviously newsworthy goings-on—I was only six years old at the time—except that my mother composed a makeshift banner from a rather large scroll of yellow paper that my uncle had purloined from his place of employment, the “phone company.” Yes, people back then worked for the “phone company” because there was only one of them. The paper banner proudly flew above our front door—thankfully, it didn’t rain—and read, “Congratulations to Neil, Buzz, and Mike.”  

I recall, too, a neighbor—the local rabbi’s wife—querying a group of us playing on my front stoop as to whether we were related to the “Banner Woman.” I proudly said that I was. She appreciated the fact that my mom, without fail, recognized both holidays and national events with decorations and, in this instance, a somewhat crude banner celebrating the achievement of three valiant astronauts. After Neil, Buzz, and Mike's was mission accomplished, then President Nixon said, “As a result of what you’ve done, the world has never been closer before.” That may, in fact, have been true—for one brief shining moment at least.

 
In retrospect, though, what I find most fascinating about July 1969—and growing up in the Bronx’s Kingsbridge—is the evident duality. My youthful memories are of a gritty urban lifestyle organically commingling with a palpable small town charm. The late-1960s and early-1970s were tumultuous times in the country at large and, to a great extent, in Kingsbridge as well: the Vietnam War, social unrest, drugs—the whole kit and caboodle. I, though, was spared all of the above. Three men actually walking on the surface of the Moon—and my mom commemorating it—is just one of many fond recollections from my boyhood. I don’t think that there is anything that could occur today that would generate a banner of congratulations in the old neighborhood, and just about everyplace else for that matter. A leisurely walk on Mars wouldn’t come near capturing that singular Apollo 11 snapshot in time.

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Pitcher and Catcher RIP

Among the countless outdoor activities I engaged in while growing up in the Bronx was a game called “Pitcher and Catcher.” Two people played this game, as it were, which entailed one of us acting as a pitcher and the other as both a catcher and balls-and-strikes-calling umpire. Three strikes and you were out, and three outs and it was time for the pitcher and catcher to switch roles.

I can honestly say that I don’t see any contemporary youth playing “Pitcher and Catcher” in the old neighborhood, or much else for that matter. And it’s summertime! What a dramatic change in the old order of things. I do see kids staring into their iPhones and yakking on their cells—all the time as a matter of fact. I’m left to conclude that they spend the preponderance of their time indoors during the dog days of summer, which is sad.

As a youth in the colorful 1970s, the great outdoors is where I was expected to be—as much as it was physically and meteorologically possible. Even a party of two of us knew how to entertain ourselves. I had countless catches with my brothers through the years in our concrete backyard. “Want to go out and have a catch?” was a oft-posed query. As a recall, virtually every teenage male—and plenty of females, too—owned a baseball glove, assorted balls, and a bat or two.

Chancing upon a couple of kids having a catch in the old neighborhood is unlikely these days. Whatever became of those urban summers when people—young and old alike—ventured outside for the sport of it? To play, to socialize, or to play and socialize. There are many dark sides to advancing technologies, but none more so than its anti-social foundation—one that underscores interaction on Facebook, Twitter, and text messaging over bona fide human contact, like in the game we called “Pitcher and Catcher,” or just that catch in the backyard.

Saturday, July 5, 2014

July 4th Throwbacks

During the summer of America’s bicentennial year, 1976, it seemed that almost everybody in the environs of New York City was talking about “Operation Sail.” This Fourth of July celebration slowly but surely got rolling in the weeks leading up to Independence Day. Hundreds of tall sailing vessels—throwbacks to a past age—made their way to New York Harbor. They traversed, too, the Hudson River.

I was thirteen years old that summer and, as I recall, “Operation Sail” was a pretty big deal. An aunt of mine, younger brother, and I hiked over to the Henry Hudson Bridge, which connects Northern Manhattan with the Northwest Bronx at the confluence of the Harlem River Ship Canal and Hudson River. In this rare instance—the only time in my memory—the bridge was closed to traffic so that one and all could congregate on its span and feast their eyes on some of the ships on the river. It was quite a spectacle with New Jersey’s Palisades supplying the perfect backdrop. Bicentennial fever added an extra heft to the day's significance.

Perhaps the biggest difference in today’s Fourth of July festivities—as compared to the past in my old Bronx neighborhood—is the almost complete absence of firecrackers, bottle rockets, Roman candles, and their various cousins. These things were all illegal when I was a kid, but it seems that anybody who wanted them could get hold of them in Chinatown or someplace else. The police, for the most part, turned a blind eye on possession of fireworks. Firecrackers popped weeks before the Fourth, and the day itself was one big bang. The morning of July 5th saw local streets covered with spent everything. I remember combing through the street debris for the occasional unused firecracker.

Can people even buy a box of Sparklers nowadays? They were pretty harmless, even though I set the family garbage can on fire by prematurely discarding one. It’s a good thing garbage cans in those days were made of metal and not plastic. The garbage men who had to lug those heavy things around are no doubt better off today, but those hearty cans survived Sparkler fires and lived to tell....

Tuesday, July 1, 2014

The Iceman Cometh…The Wiseguys Go-eth

Accompanied by his father, my paternal grandfather, Joseph Nigro, first came to America as a six-year-old boy. The year was 1898 and William McKinley was the president of the United States. The father-son returned to their hometown, Castelmezzano, Italy, several years later and then came back for an encore.

Their peripatetic ways were all about finding work and making decent money in difficult times—something they could not do in Italy. When, however, my grandfather reached young adulthood, he resented the old school ways of turning over what he earned to his father and receiving—in essence—a meager allowance. No, he wanted to keep the fruits of his labor and begin a life of his own. His father found such a demand unacceptable and wouldn’t give an inch. This dispute of theirs found my grandfather on a boat back to Italy, which turned out to be poor timing on his part. It was the eve of World War I and he was drafted into the Italian army upon his return. My grandfather spent years in a German prisoner of war camp, where enemy combatants weren’t exactly treated well. Fortunately, he made it home after the war alive and in one piece—so many men didn’t—and he also made it back to America. This go round he was his own man and didn’t have to turn over any monies to a higher authority. Ultimately, my grandfather brought his wife and daughter—my grandmother and aunt—to live here. They would all become Americans. My father and uncle were born several years later during the Depression.

In the 1930s, my grandfather inaugurated his own ice business. He was an iceman when refrigerator technology was in its infancy and most people had iceboxes in their homes. My grandfather lugged countless heavy blocks of ice up countless flights of stairs in the tenements that housed the preponderance of his customers. Some of his clients were businesses, including the Lucky Club, a speakeasy during prohibition, on Broadway in the Morningside Heights section of Manhattan.

It was after making an ice delivery at the Lucky Club one afternoon that my grandfather was confronted by a man who made him an offer he could refuse—or at least did refuse. He was informed that all wholesale ice purchases be made thereafter through his outfit. Naturally, the cost would be a little more. My grandfather said no in no uncertain terms and this businessman uttered something to the effect of “We have ways of making you change your mind.” Soon after, two men confronted him as he exited the club. They made the same proposal. Buy the ice from us or suffer the consequences. My grandfather told them, in effect, to take a hike and they, not surprisingly, didn’t take kindly to the suggestion. They were about to show him the “ways” they had to make a person change his mind when he pulled out an ice pick from his pocket and thrust it toward into of the goons. He promptly took off, wondering if what he had done was a wise thing to do. After all, Mafia hoodlums didn't take kindly to being challenged. They didn't believe in the philosophy, “May the best man win,” which, in this instance, was my grandfather. He worked very hard for his money—and it wasn’t a whole lot in those days—and didn’t intend on sharing it with a bunch of thugs.
 
As luck would have it, my grandfather knew a neighborhood police captain who had some pull with the local wiseguys. The cop put in a good word for my grandfather and asked that he be left alone and that no retaliation come his way. This intercession turned out providential for a lot of people, including me, who might not have been born thirty years later without it. While my grandfather’s ice business melted away in the 1940s when refrigeration became available to the masses, he nonetheless saved up enough money to buy a house of his own in the Kingsbridge section of the Bronx. He ended up working at the Sheffield Milk plant—first in the Bronx and then in Brooklyn—until the day he retired. And he needed no helping hands from any street punks. 

Thursday, June 26, 2014

The Case of the Missing Mud Whopper

While walking the streets of the Bronx’s Kingsbridge last Saturday—the summer solstice—something considerable jumped out at me. Something, that is, which isn’t around anymore. For many years now, I’ve noticed the precipitous decline of honeybees. When I was a boy, they were ubiquitous everywhere from front-stoop flowerpots to grassy stretches in the neighborhood's parks. Not so anymore, and the same could be said for bumblebees and other species of bees and wasps. There are obviously some around, but the buzz is not nearly as loud as in the not-too-distant past.

I recall this peculiar-looking wasp—metallic blue in color—that always seemed to frequent a certain kind of weed patch. Their sharp blue color and fluid wing motion were very noticeable in the thickets of their preferred weeds. Being wasps and all, they simultaneously scared and intrigued me. I didn't want to be attacked by one, let's put it that way. They were definitely more interesting insects than their meaner-looking brown cousins, who always seemed to be on the attack. Individuals who even mildly disturbed their routine were fair game. My friends and I called the blue wasps “Mud Whoppers.” Something, though, told me that in our youthful exuberance, we had, very possibly, transposed a scientific name—or that we had given the insect a unique moniker made completely out of whole cloth. Kids can be creative in that way. Courtesy of the Internet, I found the answer to this nagging question of mine when I Googled “blue wasps” and stumbled upon images of the “Mud Whoppers” from my past. They were not, in fact, called “Mud Whoppers” but instead “Mud Daubers”—close enough.

There were bees and wasps aplenty in my youth. Everybody got stung at one time or another. Small, bright yellow-and-black striped bees were sure to be in the vicinity of discarded soda cans in trash receptacles. I don’t see their kind anymore either. More buildings and fewer empty spaces have no doubt been contributing factors to their demise around here. But when the wide-open spaces in the area’s parks aren’t teeming with bees and insects like in the past, it gives one pause.... 

Monday, June 23, 2014

Whence I Came...

I was very fortunate to know my paternal grandmother for the first twenty-six years of my life. When she died at the age of ninety-three in 1989, she was an old ninety-three. Men and women of her generation—from before the many modern medical miracles—tended to be old before their time. In sharp contrast with those of us existing in the pampered present, they led patently rougher lives. I, for one, couldn’t imagine doing hard labor on the railroad as a teenager, which is what my grandmother did while all the able-bodied men from her town were off fighting in World War I. She hauled big rocks long distances. I could envision even less fighting in the trenches and getting gassed in the "war to end all wars."

My grandmother was born in 1895 in a place called Castlemezzano, a rocky mountain town in the province of Potenza in the Basilicata region of Southern Italy. From my perspective as a youth, she was always an old lady. That is, an old lady in the most positive sense, revered for the wisdom she amassed while navigating through the rough and tumble of life.  From an impoverished existence in a small village with no electricity, running water, or plumbing of any kind to a new life in the Morningside Heights section of Manhattan during the Great Depression, she always appreciated what she had, even when it wasn’t much, and was never heard to complain about anything.

My grandmother’s father—my great-grandfather Antonio Casa—was a musician who could read and write in a place and in a time when that sort of thing was exceptional. He made a little money and received bottles of wine and freshly made cheeses by reading and writing letters for townspeople. The problem with “Signore” Casa was that he didn’t have much of a work ethic and didn’t feel remotely obligated to his family—a wife and two daughters. My grandmother’s mother—my great-grandmother Maria Casa—worked every conceivable odd job to provide for her children. She baked breads for neighbors in her brick oven for, quite literally sometimes, bread. Her roguish husband was known to pilfer what little the family had and, with the spoils, endeavor to impress his numerous lady friends around town. Antonio Casa—with his piercing, manic-looking green eyes—was the antithesis of a faithful husband and devoted father. He employed his reading and writing talents to win over more than a few hearts and—so said the scuttlebutt—purposely misread a letter or two for personal gain. Those scenarios, however, are left to our imaginations.

Antonio Casa eventually assumed the role of transatlantic guardian—for a fee, of course—when he accompanied a woman from town across the ocean to reunite with her husband, who was settled in America. Upon learning of his departure from Italian soil, his long-suffering wife kissed the ground and prayed to the Almighty that she would never, ever see the louse again. She never did. Thereafter, she raised the Casa family without interference. Maria Casa even insisted that her two girls go to school and learn to read and write, just like their no-good father, which was not very commonplace back then. Ignorant folks in the village sneered at the audacity of her desire to see her two girls get an education.

Mission accomplished. Antonio Casa arrived safely at his final destination, Al Capone's Chicago, where he lived for a spell. The historical account gets a bit sketchy here, but it seems that the man did more than reunite a husband and wife on American soil. Apparently, he was engaged in a full-blown affair with the woman he accompanied to America. When his transgressions came to light, the Lothario was compelled to get out of Dodge and fast. Antonio Casa subsequently found himself in New York City, where he announced with fanfare that he was returning to his native Italy to live with his daughter, my grandmother, whom he had abandoned many years earlier. While in America, his eldest daughter had passed away during the Spanish flu, and his wife soon after that of a stomach ailment. As his birthright, though, he expected his only surviving child would care for him in his sunset years.

The best laid plans of mice and men. My grandmother was at that very moment—the mid-1920s— prepping to come to America to join her husband, my grandfather, who was already here. In fact, my grandfather attempted to convince Antonio Casa to stay put, but he refused and rather ham-fistedly attempted to keep my grandmother in Italy. The old man nonetheless got to live out the remainder of his life in the house that his wife had purchased with the sweat of her brow while he was a philandering gadabout. My grandmother, who inherited the house upon her mother's death, sent her father a few dollars from time to time until the day he died. He was, after all, family.

I’ve always wondered what it must have been like to look back on a life like my grandmother led—one that witnessed two World Wars, a worldwide depression, and the Spanish flu, which devastated her town and killed her only sister. What was it like to have a father like Antonio Casa? I can’t conceive of that life journey through a world like that. I do know that my grandmother never wanted to return to Italy and the town of her birth, Castelmezzano. She was just grateful for everything she had in the here and now, and was a loving and large presence because of it. That’s what I remember most about her (and, of course, her unparalleled cooking acumen whose likes, I’m certain, I will never see again).


Saturday, June 14, 2014

Lost Magic

Exactly thirty-four years ago, something magical happened in my life and in the lives of others who shared an affinity for a certain baseball team. Then New York Mets’ left fielder Steve Henderson—“Hendu” we called him—belted a walk-off three-run home run to beat the San Francisco Giants seven to six at Shea Stadium. My favorite team on earth had been down six-to-one in the game, so it was a bona fide comeback win. Magic is a subjective thing, I know. But the Mets had previously experienced three horrific down years as a miserly, patrician stuffed shirt named M. Donald Grant single-handedly destroyed one of the most profitable and respected franchises in baseball.
Happily, after the disastrous 1979 season the team was sold. The new ownership promised a return to past glories. While it took a few years of rebuilding, they kept their word. In 1980, however, the first year of the new regime—with inherited manager Joe Torre still at the helm—the Mets hovered close to the .500 mark on June 14. It doesn’t sound like such a big deal, but it was an accomplishment for a team that had been down-and-out—and with such low expectations—for what seemed like a very long time.

“The Magic Is Back” was the Mets’ advertising slogan during the 1980 season. “Magic Is Back” posters with Mets’ players—Lee Mazzilli, Doug Flynn, Joel Youngblood, et al—inviting fans to return to the ballpark festooned New York City subway cars. “Magic Is Back” bumper stickers were spotted on cars. Some devotees, like me, proudly sported orange and blue “Magic Is Back” tees. While vacationing on the Jersey Shore that summer, a pizza parlor counter girl asked me what “The Magic Is Back” meant. As I remember, explaining what it meant wasn’t so easy. While this promotional campaign was understandably ridiculed in some quarters, I nonetheless felt that there was something to it—magic as it were. Change was very definitely in the air—a feeling of liberation from the past three years when Shea Stadium had been dubbed “Grant’s Tomb.” Just knowing that reasonably intelligent people roamed the front office—men who were willing to spend a few bucks to make the team a contender again—was magic enough for me.

Back to this day in history: June 14, 1980. I was watching the game in my bedroom, while my father had it on in the family living room. He was an inveterate Mets’ hater and I, in turn, loathed with a passion his beloved Yankees. If the Yankees were simultaneously playing a televised game, I had nothing to worry about. He’d be watching his team. If, though, there were no competing game, he’d tune in the Mets and revel in their misfortune. When things weren’t going the Mets’ way, I would be visited by him time and again and heckled unmercifully. A father-son baseball rivalry is not a pretty sight.
I distinctly recall on this particular night parrying my father’s inevitable taunts as best as I knew how. When Hendu hit that home run, it was extra sweet because he was watching the game along with me, albeit in a different room. I had the last laugh on this almost-summer evening and returned the favor before venturing outside to sit a spell on the front stoop. In the warm darkness of a June night, I could enjoy this natural high of mine. As memory serves, I shared my joy with my brother and a next-door neighbor. Stoop sitting in our Bronx neighborhood is what we did back then. It’s where we went to unwind and to celebrate, too, like on June 14, 1980. I’m glad I didn’t have an iPhone to stare at or an app to worry about. We were outdoorsmen through and through. Lost magic for sure.

Monday, June 2, 2014

Curb Your Dog, Not Your Enthusiasm...

Once upon a time in the 1980s, I had a canine companion named Ginger. Dog owners one and all walked their beloved pets in the street back then. In my Bronx neighborhood, it was the recognized law of the land—the way things worked. Nowadays on the very same topography, dogs are almost invariably walked on the sidewalk, which is understandable considering the increase in traffic, not to mention the quantity of, and the size of, the parked vehicles on the street.

Faithfully, I walked Ginger in the street, weaving, as I recall, in and out of parked cars. On certain days of the week and times of the day, I often found ample road without, believe it or not, an obstructive parked car. “Curb Your Dog” was the city’s clarion call to dog walkers back then. Posted signs told us as much. Our dogs should do their “business”—as my father dubbed it—in the street but never, ever on the sidewalk proper or in a tree patch. Before 1978, "curbing" one's dog was enough to comply with the letter of the law. So long as the business at hand was conducted off the curb and in the street, one was not required by law to pick it up and discard it in the trash.

As I remember in those simpler times, the streets, and a lot of other places, too, were awash in canine feces. After all, if curbing your dog was enough, a heaping helping of droppings naturally languished in the streets that all of us crossed—until, of course, the street cleaners came along to whisk it all away. It was, however, a vicious cycle. Stepping in it was quite commonplace. So, despite having received a $100 ticket more than thirty years ago—an awful lot of money at the time—for not picking up after my Ginger, I think it is a very good thing that contemporary dog owners are required by law to pick up after their four-legged friends, or suffer the financial consequences.

Recently, I discovered that the city fathers have been systematically taking down all “Clean Up After Your Dog” and their forebear “Curb Your Dog” signs. The rationale for this undertaking is to reduce the city’s excessive sign clutter. Anyway, shouldn’t every single New York City resident know by now that it’s his or her business to pick up his or her dog's business? The vast majority of dog walkers do know. And those who don’t know, I suspect, actually do know. They just don’t care, and posted signs importuning them to pick up their dogs’ crap probably isn’t going to make much of a difference. Despite the sidewalks being dog-walking central in the twenty-first century—and the "Curb Your Dog" mantra being a relic of the past—I say good riddance to those ubiquitous signs. I've already paid my dues: a $100 fine when, in fact, I actually curbed my dog.

Thursday, May 29, 2014

Book Expo America: That Was Then and This Is Now

In the fledgling days of May 2002, I attended the BookExpo America (BEA) at the Jacob K. Javits Center in Manhattan. It was my first time and it was an exciting experience. The first time always is. Sporting my “Exhibitor Author” credentials pass, I felt like I had achieved something of milestone in life with—of all things—The Everything Collectibles Book, my exhibited title. That feeling, alas, didn’t have legs. The badge was compliments of my publisher—always appreciated by a struggling writer—and I turned up four days in a row, including at an opening night reception for Rudy Giuliani, who was touting his new book, Leadership, in the aftermath of 9/11. Rudy was out of office for several months but still basking in the non-partisan glow of his leadership. Harvey Weinstein, co-founder of Miramax, who was publishing the book (via Talk Miramax), introduced Rudy, his newfound hero, to the assembled. It was a vastly different time for New York City, the world at large, the publishing trade, and, as things turned out, for me as well.

I recall that there was a lot of talk about terrorism and security concerns at the gathering. I’m certain there are still the very same security concerns, except the average Joe and Jane doesn’t think about them much. Despite repeated subway announcements importuning riders to report strange packages and out-of-the-ordinary goings-on to the police—“If you see something, say something”—I don’t fear for my life in the city’s underground railroad or, for that matter, up above on the mean streets of New York. 

While everything was computerized in 2002—I researched my book entirely on the Internet—I don’t remember hearing much at the BEA about e-books being the big wave of the future. Barnes & Noble was still opening superstores in New York and doing quite well, and Borders Books was around, too. Independent bookstores weren’t dying at the clip they are today. And Amazon wasn’t quite the insatiable behemoth that it is today. I don’t appreciate the fact that this mega-company immediately sells used books of just released titles, which cheats authors out of their royalties. No big deal for the likes of Hillary Clinton and Bill O'Reilly, but for some of us it can add up to real dollars and cents that matter. Nevertheless, I admit that I occasionally buy used books from them—hypocritically guilty as charged—even on titles in print. In tough times, economics sometimes trump principles.

I’ve returned to the BEA a couple of times since 2002 (in 2005 and 2009). I paid my way in the last time and determined that was the end of all that, unless I got an invitation, which I have for this year’s event. I’ll be there again as an “Exhibitor Author”—this time for Hal Leonard, which will be promoting its many recent and forthcoming releases, including the nascent “Spirituality Series,” with yours truly as its editor. Three are already in print—Bono, Carlos Santana, and Richard Gere—with three due out in the fall: John Lennon, Oprah Winfrey, and Steve Jobs. On an entirely different frontier is Seinfeld: FAQ to be published—hopefully—by year’s end. Variety is the spice of life.

No question that technology is altering the publishing world and virtually everything else, and belts are being tightened from on high just about everywhere. In 2002, I brought home a bag load of freebies—books and other trinkets—from the BEA. The pickings were much, much slimmer on my last visit. I think I came home empty-handed. But, then, that’s no reason to attend this trade show of shows.

A final thought: Don’t drink and ride the subway. At a publishing booth party—where the draft beer and wine were flowing—I had a few cold ones, which were very refreshing, particularly on an empty stomach and in a atmosphere with the ideal ambiance. Make certain, though, that if you are taking the subway home—especially after a long walk to it from the Javits Center—that you have visited the toilet therein first. Bathroom facilities are often very hard to come by in the big city, and on subway rides in particular. I learned that lesson on a memorable day in May twelve years ago. Even a meal at fast-food chicken chain Ranch 1, which has gone the way of Border’s, didn’t lessen the burden that I took home with me that night a long time ago when both the publishing world and the wider world were wholly different places. What will tomorrow bring?

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Burger King and the Decline of Society...

I haven’t eaten in a Burger King restaurant in more than twenty years. When I did frequent this fast-food chain, I preferred it to its chief competitor, McDonald’s. The reason I did was that Burger King enabled me to have my burgers “my way.” That is, I could “hold the pickles…hold the lettuce” and everything else without a big to-do. I ordered my burgers plain and ate them plain. However, ordering a plain hamburger at McDonald’s invariably initiated panic among the staff. I could never quite understand why getting a plain hamburger was such an ordeal. It would seem to me the simplest kind of order in a burger joint. But not, I suppose, when the burgers are born with pickles, ketchup, and chopped onions on them. I recall receiving “plain” burgers that had undergone a crude scraping off of the aforementioned fixings. Fully scraping off ketchup and chopped onions is well nigh impossible—and forget about the pickle taste.


That was then and this is now. I no longer patronize fast-food burger chains. Still, I was interested in the news that Burger King is scrapping its longstanding “Have It Your Way” slogan and replacing it with—drum roll, please—“Be Your Way.” Now, I don’t know what on earth that means. I do know that it’s a ridiculous reflection of the ridiculous times in which we live. How much money did this burger conglomerate invest to re-brand itself? I daresay that McMahon and Tate would have delivered something a little more sensible for a lot less money.


In unveiling their new twenty-first century slogan, senior vice president of global brand management Fernando Merchado said, “We want to evolve from just being the functional side of things to having a much stronger emotional appeal.” How’s that? You sell hamburgers and French fries. How about serving better food with better service? Somehow in this day and age everything has to be about making a statement. Everything has to have some kind of narrative beyond the obvious. What does Burger King and a person’s “greater lifestyle” have to do with one another? Absolutely nothing. Where is the Duke of Doubt when we need him?

Thursday, May 8, 2014

Bein' Light Green...

While walking past Manhattan College, my old alma mater, today, I couldn’t help but notice that the school was festooned in springtime. The campus always looked nice, especially at this time of year, with many of its trees sporting healthy-looking, light green small leaves. Hope springs eternal. I spied some students walking to and fro who were no doubt taking their final exams. I noticed, too, a “Cash for Textbooks” tent set up across the street from the school’s main entrance.

I graduated from this esteemed institution of higher learning in 1984. It’s now 2014. If my arithmetic is correct—I wasn't a math major—that’s thirty years ago. I vividly recall the waning days of my college experience—early May in my final semester—and gazing out the window of Manhattan Hall on to the Quadrangle, which was alive in that aforementioned light green. I was attending a “Great Issues in European History” class taught by a very interesting and extremely affable man—"any questions, comments, observations"—who has since departed this earth. Thirty years will do that. But on this particular day, I well remember the combination of the seasonable air, spring sounds, and pleasing odors and colors. They reminded me that my days were numbered as a college student, and that there would be no more encores. I felt profoundly melancholy as a stared out that window and realized that the adult world—ready or not—beckoned.

A few weeks later, I attended my graduation ceremony. New York City Mayor Ed Koch delivered a totally unmemorable commencement address. In fact, I don’t remember a word he said. It's fair to say that he didn't quite inspire me to boldly go. Extemporaneously, the man was often entertaining, but delivering a prepared speech invariably negated his New York guy charm. After the proceedings, we graduates had to navigate our way down to the cafeteria in Thomas Hall to secure our diplomas, which were alphabetically aligned in our particular school of studies—mine was the School of Business. It was a somewhat nerve-wracking interim as I recall, because we didn’t know for certain if we had made the grade and passed everything that we needed to pass. Happily, I did, but nevertheless didn’t have a clue what I wanted to do with my diploma or what was next on my agenda as now a certifiable adult. Considering all the money that parents spend—and the debt that contemporary college-aged kids assume—it seems quite a high price to pay for a mother lode uncertainty four years later. When I began my collegiate journey in 1980, tuition was $1,750 a semester—$3,500 a year. In my final year, it was $5,000. As I recollect, we all thought that was a lot of money—and it was. A student loan of $2,500—the maximum available back then—helped. I had a coupon book to show for my higher education and a $77/month loan repayment for ten years or so.

So, that’s what I saw today and that’s what I thought about as I passed by my old school, for which I have mostly fond memories. And that is significant, because I wasn’t sitting around in my last days of high school with anything bordering on melancholy. Being green—light green—has a knack for reminding us of what once was, what could have been, what is, and what may be. 

Saturday, April 26, 2014

The Scent of a Postman

In the late-1970s and early-1980s, our local mail carrier was a fellow named Louie. Never without a cigar in his mouth as he made his appointed rounds, he was a memorable postman from a bygone era. His cigar was his calling card and how we—fortunate enough to be on his route—knew that the day’s mail had arrived.

In fact, my family’s front door was usually unlocked during the waking hours, and Louie would enter the hallway leading to our upstairs lair and place the mail on a bottom step. In his wake was always that distinctive cigar bouquet. Occasionally, he’d ask to use the toilet. Our family dog, Ginger, didn’t care much for company of any kind, especially mailmen, but Louie’s fearlessness won the day. As he delivered the mail, he could regularly be heard exclaiming, “Shut up!” to the loudly barking Ginger. Eventually, Ginger accepted Louie’s familiar cigar wafts and cries of “Shut up!” as par for the course. Louie the mailman was not an unwelcome intruder after all and received a tepid wag of the tail from her as he entered our front hallway each and every day.

Recently, I thought about Louie and our past open-door policy. The late-1970s were a high crime time in New York City, my Bronx neighborhood included. Yet, there was still vestiges of a mentality from a more neighborly past. As a little kid, I don’t ever remember using a key, because the door was always open. Neither Louie nor I needed one.

Back in the Louie the Mailman era, who could have ever envisioned that the post office would one day be on the rocks? It seemed that post offices and mail carriers were eternal, and that generation after generation would desire taking the post office test for a job with security and good benefits. It’s where my father plied his trade for a quarter of a century. But this tax season revealed yet again why Louie and his vaunted employer face uncertain times. While I still mail paper tax returns to the IRS, I didn't get the tax package in the mail, which once upon a time was the norm for everybody. Courtesy of technology, there's so much lost postal business in too many places to count. I fear the scent of a cigar-chomping postman may one day be only a scent memory. Louie retired to Florida in the early-1980s. He's no doubt now delivering mail with his old aplomb and cigar in hand in the Pearly Gates. Or have technological advances disrupted the afterworld as well?


Thursday, April 10, 2014

The Tow-Away Zone Revisited


(Rare photo taken of Pet Nosh owner and business neighbor of real estate man Benjamin Scheckeler in close proximity to the latter's Tow-Away Zone, circa 1980)

I spied this man on the street this morning that managed to resurrect a ghost from my past. Actually, a rather obscure ghost whom I knew mainly as a colorful supporting character at a particular juncture in my life. Of course, the man I laid eyes on couldn’t have been Benjamin Scheckeler because he would be—if still among the living—pushing 105, I'd venture to guess, and I doubt very much that he made it anywhere near that ripe old age.

Benjamin, you see, was a tightly wound man with an explosive temper. As a teen in the early 1980s, I toiled in a mom-and-pop shop called Pet Nosh in Little Neck, Queens, and the septuagenarian Benjamin plied his trade in the real estate office next door. Our two businesses, plus a few others, shared a gravelly communal backyard parking lot. But only Benjamin had a parking space reserved for himself. There was a sign posted on a fence that stated in no uncertain terms that one particular spot was for Benjamin Scheckeler and Benjamin Scheckeler alone, and that any and all violators would be towed away—and toot sweet at that.


In fact, when I saw the Benjamin Scheckeler look-alike several hours ago, my brain—without any coaxing —retrieved a recording from more than three decades ago. “Tow away…tow away...tow away” played over and over in my head in a singsong German accent. On occasion, you see, somebody would pull into Benjamin’s sacred spot and shop in our store and the others. On Saturdays, in particular, this little parking lot of ours could get quite full and the temptation to pull into Benjamin’s sometimes-unoccupied space could be quite overwhelming. After all, shoppers would be in and out, so no big deal, right? Wrong! Whenever Benjamin pulled into the lot and found an interloper in his reserved parking spot, he went ballistic and stormed into the various stores hunting down the guilty party. In very angry and very loud tones, he invariably shouted: “Tow away! Tow away! Tow way!” Almost threateningly, Benjamin attempted to educate us on the importance of educating our clientele that they—under no circumstances—should park in the reserved spot for Benjamin Scheckeler while shopping in our store. Very literally, he wanted us to cross-examine each and every customer that entered our place of business: “You aren’t parked in Benjamin Scheckeler’s reserve parking spot, are you? If you are, please move your car now because it will be towed away.”

I never did find out how Benjamin Scheckeler and Benjamin Scheckeler alone qualified for a parking space of his own in that little parking lot in Little Neck. But he nonetheless left an indelible mark on me, because all these years later and I still encounter a signpost up ahead every now and then that alerts me of the next stop: the Tow-Away Zone. “Tow away! Tow away Tow away.”

Sunday, April 6, 2014

When Hope Sprang Eternal...

As a youth and fanatical baseball fan—New York Mets fan to be precise—hope always sprang eternal in springtime. Even during my favorite team’s dreadful down years—1977 through 1983—I, without exception, felt excited about my boys of summer in the chillier climes of spring. I honestly believed that my team had what it took to contend, and perhaps go all the way, despite the roster saying otherwise.


When manager Gil Hodges informed members of the fourth estate in the spring of 1969 that he expected his Mets to win eighty-five games during the season, he was not taken seriously, even though he was a very serious man. The Mets, after all, had not a single winning season in their brief existence (1962-1968). Their biggest win total was seventy-three games, which they had tallied up the previous year, Hodges’ first at the helm. And what was so different about the 1969 Mets anyway, who had lost eighty-nine games the year before?  Despite the doubters, the “Miracle Mets” won 100 games and a World Series, too—Hodges had in fact grossly underestimated the team’s performance. A short decade later and virtually everyone from the 1969 and 1973 pennant winning teams were gone, including my boyhood idol, “The Franchise” Tom Seaver. Only Ed Kranepool remained to play in what would be his last season and the last link to the glory days. It was a “rebuilding era,” even though the rebuilding crew in the late-1970s were incompetent tightwads who, mercifully, sold the team to more competent baseball people. They were willing to do what it takes to build a winner, which they did in due course.

Nevertheless, I had bona fide hope in those past springtimes, regardless of the product on the field and in the front office. There was just something about spring and youth that proved an intoxicating combo. In 1983, Tom Seaver was traded back to the Mets from the Cincinnati Reds, the team he had been unceremoniously shipped to during the “Midnight Massacre” of June 15, 1977. Upon learning about the deal that brought him back to where he belonged to finish his illustrious career, I’d venture to say that it was one of the most joyous moments of my life—pure, right, and dramatic. Opening Day 1983 with Tom Seaver on the mound again at Shea Stadium was a dream come true. The spectacle single-handedly wiped away the mess that the former ownership—and the dreadful patrician, M. Donald Grant—had made of the formerly great team in the late-1970s, when Shea Stadium was christened “Grant’s Tomb.”


Tom Terrific didn’t have the greatest season in 1983, but pitched well enough and showed flashes of his old brilliance. He was thirty-eight years old and nearing 300 wins, too, a milestone that he would achieve in a Mets’ uniform—perfect and fitting, I thought. But while hope always sprang eternal in those days of yore, it didn’t always sustain its springy tendencies, I discovered. Tom Seaver was left unprotected on the roster at the end of the season and snatched away as free-agent compensation by the Chicago White Sox, which is where the greatest Met of all time won his 300th game. Of all places, he ended his career with the Boston Red Sox. There was, however, one final tease that Tom Seaver would return to the Mets in 1987 at the age of forty-two and end his career on an appropriate high note sporting the orange and the royal blue baseball cap and pinstripes. It didn’t happen because the once potent arm of the future Hall of Famer had reached the end of the road.

Still, hope sprang eternal through it all. And now, it’s spring again, which is very definitely better than winter, even with my diehard baseball fandom and youthful exuberance gone with the winds of time.

Sunday, March 16, 2014

Deathman, Do Not Follow Me...

In my eighth-grade "Language Arts" class, we had to do a book report-presentation combo. As memory serves, we could select a book of our own choosing, which had to be approved by our teacher. We were permitted to pair up, too, and so a friend and I opted to read a YA entitled Deathman, Do Not Follow Me by Jay Bennett. I don’t remember much about the book, except that I really liked it as a thirteen-year-old. A kid by the name of Danny Morgan was the main protagonist, and he was daydreaming in history class at some point in time. I believe, too, that he inadvertently got involved with some art thieves or some such thing. Anyway, my project partner and I made, as it were, an abridged book-on-tape before there was any such thing (or was there?). This was going to be our presentation part. As good fortune would have it, we didn’t have to go public with the tape. I don’t exactly remember why. Nobody would have understood what was going on, and I believe we flubbed more than a few words, too. My buddy, the narrator, as I recall, said “art expedition” when he meant "art exhibition."

What made me think about Deathman, Do Not Follow Me after all these years is an encounter I had with a passerby recently. I saw this man coming toward me who looked an awfully lot like someone I once knew—a man named Jerry who has been dead for thirteen years. What went through my mind as the distance that separated us narrowed—and he looked more and more, and not less and less, like Jerry—was what if he said hello to me as if it was him? What if it was like the occasional meetings we experienced for so many years—we lived in the same neighborhood—where we’d briefly chat about nothing especially important like his desiring moving to Reno, Nevada, a great "walking town." After all, if he’s standing there and knows me, I couldn’t tell him that he’s dead and that I attended his wake. This potential scenario very literally played in my brain in the few seconds leading up to us passing one another. He was a dead ringer for Jerry all right, but it wasn’t him.

However, had it been Jerry, I pondered what I would have done. Would I have turned around and gone home, thinking that I had either lost my marbles or was still in bed dreaming? Or would have I continued on my errands journey, believing that maybe—just maybe—I’d entered the Twilight Zone. Afterwards, I kind of wished that it really was old Jerry that I saw on the street the other day. It would have certainly given me some food for thought. Then again, I probably wouldn't have written a blog about it....



Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Mr. C, Mr. O'B, and Sacco and Vanzetti...

While poring over miscellaneous scraps of paper from my past recently, I encountered an eighth-grade history test, replete with both a matching column and "True or False" section. Mr. C, I’ll call him, hand wrote the test and had it mimeographed. That was the technology of the mid-1970s. One of the questions on it was: “In 1924 the first pizza parlor in America was opened by Sacco and Vanzetti?” I’m proud to report that I got the answer right as well as the previous question: “The 1920’s was a time of great hardship and depression?” As for the former test query, Mr. C, I suspect, would have to think twice today about associating an Italian surname with pizza pie. I'm certain that somebody would turn him in for the offense—and toot sweet. Then again, everything is so standardized nowadays that a Mr. C history test—we called it "Social Studies" back then—wouldn't even reach the modern-day equivalent of the mimeograph machine.

Another snippet of paper in my archives was a handwritten summary of the "Best of Mr. O’B," my geometry teacher in high school. While I didn’t care much for the subject matter, Mr. O’B was a true original—both a good teacher and a performance artist extraordinaire. When the school year ended, and he reported that he wouldn’t be returning in the fall for another go round—he got a better offer—I recall being profoundly saddened to think that I would never, ever see him again. His lectures were entertainingly frenetic and he loved nothing more than having fun with people’s names—both their first and their last. He was an Irishman who, above all else, enjoyed calling on kids with multi-syllabic Italian surnames. We had an awful lot of them in our high school. Somebody named Vanzetti in his class, for instance, would have had his name pronounced in a melodious sing-song:“VAN-zet-TI.” He liked one-syllable first and last names, too. A kid named “Bell,” I remember, rang well in the classroom.

From where I—and just about everybody else—sat, Mr. O'B's class is where entertainment met education, and his antics didn’t offend anybody. In fact, we wanted to be included in the show. "Oh, Nick...oh, Nick," are in my notes, so I was indeed, although I don't recall the context. More than three decades have passed since the Mr. O'B show and—so it seems—virtually everybody is conditioned to be offended for one reason or another. Mr. O’B very likely had to clean up his act at some point in his teaching career, if that is where he pitched his tent. (He probably was in his mid-twenties when I had him.) If this is what in fact happened, the irony is that his students from the 1970s—who adored him—did him in as the humorless, uptight adults they became.


Tuesday, March 4, 2014

High Anxiety...in 1978

The 2014 Academy Awards are yesterday’s news. I didn’t see a single movie that won an Oscar, or even one that was nominated and lost. I just haven’t seen any new releases in a while. And not for reasons of quality or anything such thing. It’s just that movies and me nowadays are largely confined to Netflix, and even then I don’t watch all that many of them. For both business and pleasure, I just finished viewing seasons one through nine of Seinfeld.

Recently, I stumbled upon various scrap-paper “journals” that I haphazardly kept in my teenage years. They mostly chronicled events in my life with occasional editorial commentary on my part. For one, I unearthed a roster of movies that I saw in the summer of 1978 in places ranging far and wide—everywhere from my very own neighborhood to Fordham in the South Bronx to the isle of Manhattan. I patronized theaters in Lavallette, New Jersey and Mattituck, Long Island, too.

What was most memorable to me about this summer movie potpourri was not the Academy Award-winning caliber of them—quite the contrary—but the aftermath of seeing Hooper, starring Burt Reynolds, which I didn’t especially like. On our way home from Fordham’s UA Valentine theater, my friends and I were accosted by knife- and belt-wielding street thugs. They were street and we weren't—and I'm kind of happy about that in the big picture. Where are they now? Although it was a humiliating decision on our parts, we ran for our lives and—with the exception of a few haphazard whacks from a belt—escaped lasting physical harm. The ride home on the BX20 bus felt pretty good, although the alpha-est male in our pack wished that—in theory at least—we had stood our grounds and defended ourselves with honor. However, one of the hoodlums had threatened to “slice up the fat one,” which was he—and he wasn’t all that fat. Since we weren't in a John Wayne movie—or even a Death Wish sequel—I still support our running away under those circumstances.

Later that summer, I saw Heaven Can Wait, starring Warren Beatty, Julie Christie, and James Mason, in a Manhattan theater. This was on the heels of witnessing an armed robbery on the subway ride down there. The fifteen-year-old me made note of the irony—Heaven Can Wait—which nobody appreciated. It was the 1970s, after all, and such things happened more frequently than they do today—and the muggers back then weren’t after iPhones either. Heaven Can Wait was actually nominated for an Academy Award but lost out to The Deer Hunter, which I didn’t see in 1978 if I am to believe my paper trail.

If I had to parcel out an Academy Award in 1978 to my movies, I’d have given it to the one released in 1977, High Anxiety, which I saw a couple of times. While on vacation in Lavallette, New Jersey, I recall coaxing my father to see it. As memory serves, he was hysterical when Mel Brooks got drenched in bird poop. Such was a time when there were, for starters, local theaters—and showing movies a year old at that. And, yes, there was routine gun violence in New York City's unsightly subway cars suffused with graffiti and grime. While neighborhood theaters had their place, the simpler times of excessive graffiti and crime on the subways, I can live without....

Saturday, February 22, 2014

Honor Thy Father...

Happy 282nd birthday to George Washington. I think it’s fair to say that the “Father of Our Country” is given short shrift nowadays. On social media, I see “Happy Birthday” greetings being dolled out to one and all, living and dead. But George? Sure, he’s still on the dollar bill, but a dollar doesn’t go very far in 2014. When it can’t buy a cup of coffee in a diner, something’s seriously amiss. He’s got a lot of things named after him as well, but then the big enchilada, Washington, D.C., is probably something he’d be embarrassed to be associated with more than two centuries after his passing.

Alas, George has lost his birthday as a national holiday, too, which once upon a time was celebrated on the third Monday in February. While growing up, I remember the family’s wall calendars plainly listing that day as “Washington’s Birthday.” Now, the generic, completely meaningless “Presidents’ Day” has hijacked the date. Washington’s annual moment to shine is no more. It’s supposed to honor the whole kit and caboodle of presidents, I guess, including all those who succeeded the G Man—everyone from Martin Van Buren to James Buchanan to Andrew Johnson to Rutherford B. Hayes to Warren G. Harding.


As I recall from grammar school, George Washington and Abraham Lincoln were the big cheeses of American presidents. And February was their month. Lincoln was born on February 12, which is a state holiday in Illinois, where he was born. And mid-winter school recesses covered both Lincoln and Washington’s birthdays—yet another reason to appreciate our first and sixteenth presidents. 

In 1972, I saw the movie 1776 at Radio City Musical Hall at Christmastime. It was a fifth-grade field trip. And while George Washington wasn’t physically present at the Continental Congress, he loomed like a colossus as the secretary read the man’s missives from the frontlines, including this one: “As I write these words, the enemy is plainly in sight beyond the river, and I begin to notice that many of us are lads under fifteen and old men, none of whom can truly be called soldiers. How it will end, only providence can direct. But dear God, what brave men I shall lose before this business ends.”

I was only ten years old when I saw 1776 for the first time, and it inspired me to read various books on Washington and Revolutionary War, including—as I glance over at my bookshelf—Washington by James Thomas Flexner, Patriarch by Richard Norton Smith, and Angel in the Whirlwind by Benson Bobrick. I suppose it’s futile to importune those who make the laws in Washington to give Washington his day back, so I won’t bother.

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Kingsbridge: Characters and Character


Shared from Cream Sam Summer
Cream Sam Summer is a novel set in the Northwest Bronx neighborhood of Kingsbridge. The year is 1978, and I can personally attest to the fact that it was a great place to grow up in back then—an amalgam of urban grittiness and small town charm. The book’s narrator is a sixteen-year-old boy, which, not coincidentally, was my age in 1978. Permit me now to introduce you to a new work of fiction as well as a very real place in an intriguing snapshot in time.

For both young and old alike, there were many perks to living in Kingsbridge in the 1970s. Everything it seemed was at our fingertips. In an age before computers and iPhones, texts and tweets, we very literally lived in our neighborhood. We didn’t have the option of holing ourselves up inside with today’s advanced technological gizmos and instantaneous communication devices. When we came home from school, we promptly went outside to play, or whatever else we could find to do. Sometimes we settled for hanging out on our front stoops, or the grounds of our concrete backyards, and engaged in the lost art of conversation. The summers were especially memorable—incredibly active and a lot of fun, even if they were quite often uncomfortably hot and humid. Many families, including mine, miraculously survived without the luxury of air conditioning. We played the games that little people had played for generations in the big city, but had this sinking feeling that we were the last ones who would ever do so—and we were right.  

In 1978, Kingsbridge’s commercial hub, W231st Street leading down to Broadway and the elevated subway tracks of the Number 1 line—the El—accommodated a wide variety of stores from jewelers to druggists to shoemakers. Just about everything you needed could be found in the neighborhood. Whether you were in the market for a deli sandwich, women’s hosiery, or tropical fish for the apartment aquarium, a local shop had what you wanted. There was even a movie theater, bowling alley, and wintertime ice-skating rink in the area.

In those days gone by, merchants established genuine rapports with their customers and were an integral part of the neighborhood fabric. There was a strong sense of community in the environs of Kingsbridge—an inviolable bond that we were somehow all in it together. Despite the vast and varied personalities of the residents—good eggs and bad eggs—we shared common experiences like exploring the sprawling Van Cortlandt Park, enjoying a slice of the appetizingly greasy Sam’s Pizza, or attending Sunday Mass at St. John’s Church, which was uplifting to some and boring as all hell to others, particularly the younger set.


Kingsbridge was blessed, too, with a rather interesting topography. An exception to the “Bronx Rule of Flat,” it was hilly terrain with all kinds of nooks and crannies. The Hudson River was also nearby—on the shores of Riverdale, Kingsbridge’s more pedigreed neighbor to the west. The Harlem River Ship Canal—walking distance and just to the south—added further color to the landscape. Crossing the canal via the Broadway Bridge at W225th Street put Kingsbridge denizens in the Inwood section of the world’s most visited borough: Manhattan.

The neighborhood was remarkably accessible, too. Riders on the Number 1 subway line, which cut a swath through the heart of Kingsbridge, could be in mid-town Manhattan in forty-five minutes. Countless locals rode the rails to school and to work. Others hopped on ubiquitous area buses, which took them to wherever their hearts desired in the Bronx and parts of Manhattan as well.

It was indeed a fascinating time and place to be a kid: so much more civil, neighborly, and innocent than today, yet paradoxically feral and coarse as well. The local 50th police precinct logged its fair share of crimes in the 1970s. Burglaries and break-ins were routine, with the burglars hauling away TV sets and kitchen appliances in broad daylight. It’s hard to envision contemporary thieves making off with the Mr. Coffee, toaster oven, and vegetable chopper. Street muggings were also commonplace, so it paid to be eternally vigilant.

The Kingsbridge of 1978 had both character and characters—that cannot be denied. This compelling stage is where the myriad characters in Cream Sam Summer confront past ghosts and ponder their futures, too, because nothing stays the same—nothing at all. Not neighborhoods and not people.

Friday, February 7, 2014

Ralph and Me

Hall of Famer Ralph Kiner passed away yesterday at the age of ninety-one. Yet another key link to my childhood is gone. In 1970 when I—a seven-year-old Bronx boy—bucked both my father's and the neighborhood tradition and became a devoted New York Mets fan, rather than a Yankees fan, Ralph Kiner became an integral part of my life. In fact, announcers Lindsey Nelson, Bob Murphy, and Ralph Kiner were constants in my life that I wrongly presumed would endure forever.

These three men painted the baseball word picture so beautifully, without it ever being about them. Ex-ballplayer Ralph Kiner, for one, made the game—the American pastime—extraordinarily large by bringing to life its storied past and the storied characters both on and off the field. I must have heard him recount a thousand times—but never tired of hearing it—how legendary baseball executive, Branch Rickey, cut Ralph's salary after his leading the National League in both home runs and RBIs. Naturally, Ralph asked for and expected a raise for his Herculean exploits, but the Pittsburgh Pirates, for whom he plied his trade, finished dead last. Rickey uttered something along the lines of “We could have finished last without you,” and that was the end of that. I used to throw sidearm in my youth and always recall Ralph talking about a sidearm relief pitcher from his era, Ewell Blackwell, who threw a “purpose pitch” at batters—the “purpose was to separate their head from the shoulders.” I didn’t do that while playing stickball. No matter where it was thrown, a tennis ball just lacked the “purpose.”

As Ralph’s myriad obits reveal, he was the genuine article, and that’s the greatest testament to a man. Even as a little kid, I sensed that Ralph Kiner was real—whom he appeared to be during the broadcasts. There were never any posturing, or ham-fisted attempts on his part to make him the center of attention. Ralph Kiner was from a bygone era. Not too long ago, while listening to audio clips of Mets’ broadcasts from the early and mid-1970s—my all-time favorite time to be a fan—I was surprised how really good Ralph was a play-by-play man. I was young then with a non-cynical, youthful exuberance. I’d grown accustomed to him in the later years being more of a color man—an analyst and raconteur—but he was remarkably quick on his feet and well versed as an announcer.

Then, of course, there was Kiner’s Korner after each and every Mets’ home game back in the day, with this true gentleman hosting each and every post-game show. It was never to be missed. I even stay tuned and watched opposing teams’ players on the show after a Mets’ loss, which was always a tough pill to swallow. It was because of Ralph. Sure, his malaprops were the stuff of legend, I know. But what made them so amusing and entertaining, I think, was that Ralph was a very intelligent man. He just had a penchant for mangling the English language while on the air, and on occasion confused people’s names. He called Gary Carter “Gary Cooper,”  Tim McCarver, "Tim MacArthur," and Hubie Brooks “Mookie” throughout an entire Kiner’s Korner show.  Fernando Valenzuela was always "Fernando Venezuela" to Ralph. On Father’s Day, he graciously wished all the fathers in the viewing audience a “Happy Birthday.”

In the early 1980s, the New York cable station SportsChannel was just getting underway, with Ralph working the games alongside Jiggs McDonald, a hockey announcer by trade. The duo had importuned viewers to send in baseball trivia questions, which McDonald would pose to Ralph. If he were stumped by the query, the questioner would receive two complimentary box seats to a Mets’ game. Well, I stumped Ralph Kiner with this question: “What unique distinction did Mets’ hitters not achieve during the 1972 season"—or some such thing? I recall being jelly-legged when I heard Jiggs posing my query to Ralph. He guessed that no Mets’ hitter surpassed the .300 mark that year, but the correct answer vis-à-vis my question was that nobody on the team totaled more than 100 hits. It was an injury-plagued season—Yogi Berra’s first as manager upon taking over after Gil Hodges’ untimely death in spring training. So, yes, I stumped Ralph Kiner and won two tickets to a game. “Congratulations to Mr, Nick Negro,” Jiggs McDonald said on air, mispronouncing my name, which was par for the course for me. Virtually every schoolteacher did the same thing.

My SportsChannel spoils—two free tickets—were subsequently stolen, and I was sent a couple of handwritten passes instead. When my brother Tom and I arrived at the game, a police detective was sitting directly behind us. He asked us if we were from “SportsChannel.” We said yes and were asked to play it cool. He was hoping that somebody would turn up with the stolen tickets for our seats. They didn’t. So why steal them?

Goodbye, Ralph Kiner, and thank you for so many years of incredibly good times, when baseball was still a game and civility and class meant something.

Wednesday, February 5, 2014

Snowfall Perspective...

Thirty-six years ago on the eve of February 5, 1978, snow began falling in earnest here in the Bronx. Weather prognosticating, which wasn’t nearly as accurate as it today—and it’s not especially so now—spoke of the “B” word. Yes, blizzard. And as a teenager in high school in the 1970s, a blizzard was a godsend. Beginning late Sunday night was almost too perfect. This ensured that it was snowing all day Monday—a snow day—and still snowing early Tuesday morning. Another one. We even got a third snow day off on Wednesday. Snow removal wasn’t nearly as efficient as it is nowadays in New York City. The final snowfall total ranged somewhere in the neighborhood of eighteen inches in these parts, and the Thursday commute to school was, as I recall, a big mess. We should have gotten a fourth day off. But then—who knows?—that may have impacted on our “mid-winter recess” a couple of weeks later.

So, what are we to make of this passage of time and this white stuff called snow? I guess it’s a matter of perspective. I absolutely loved snow as a youth—the more the merrier was my mantra. I recall as a boy sitting on a radiator by my front window and watching a nighttime snowstorm in progress. Nearby streetlights supplied the necessary illumination. The view and the feeling were almost mystical. Snow. I couldn’t wait to get out in it and explore what Mother Nature had wrought. And, in and of itself, a snow day off from school was always seen as a gift from on high or some such thing. I still can’t imagine anyone under the age of eighteen actually preferring a school day to a snow day off. But maybe that’s just me.

But, yes, there’s something about this thing called time? As the Adam West Batman once said, “How little we know about time—yesterday’s laughter, tomorrow’s tears.” Why is it that I hate snow with a passion now? Yes, it’s still rather nice to look at when it’s coming down. I even like hearing Tony Bennett sing “Snowfall” and Norman Rockwell winter lithographs. However, I don’t like shoveling it, or walking around in its slippery wake. Now I know why so many people go to Florida for the winter. As a youth that seemed such a strange concept to me. And I especially don’t like the white stuff after it languishes a couple of days on the ground and begins to melt. Filthy city snow, mucky puddles, and dog dirt where there once was a blanket of pristine white does not make for a Currier and Ives postcard.