Wednesday, June 29, 2016

The Coors Light Story

He told me that his former co-workers called him “Eliot Ness.” Why? Because his first name was Eliot and last name something like Ness, but not quite. I also learned that Eliot was of Cuban descent and was—once upon a time—a fireman. He referenced, too, an ex-wife and a son. It’s possible Eliot’s been around my neighborhood for a while, but I can’t be certain. I never noticed him before we met for the first time.

I encountered Eliot about a month ago when he very vociferously informed me what a beautiful day it was. And he was right on the money: It was a beautiful day. Eliot then asked me how I was doing and offered me a thunderous parting salvo: “God bless you!” There was something slightly menacing about the man, I thought, even though nothing he said—in actual words—suggested that. But if I may employ a relation’s favorite term for the Eliots of this world: He just didn’t seem “right in the head.”

Not having seen him before this meeting of the minds, I didn’t give Eliot a second thought as he wandered away. But then a couple of weeks later he materialized again in my little corner of the world. This time around he extended his hand to me. I discovered now where Eliot shops for food bargains—a German grocery called Aldi’s—and where he lives, too. Again, Eliot seemed hot-wired—inebriated would have been a good guess. I bumped into the man one more time after that and—as the old saying goes—the third time’s a charm. Any and all doubt that Eliot liked his few were removed. The proof was in the pudding: a bottle of Coors Light in his hand, a spare in his back pocket, and beer breath on top of all that.

Eliot shook my hand—that's twice if you’re counting—and admitted to having had a cold one or two. He began waxing nostalgic—about something his ex-wife once said to him—and got emotional. “I’m sorry, I’ve got to go because otherwise I’m going to cry.” It was a poignant moment for sure—sad and all—but I nonetheless heaved a sigh of relief that Eliot went on his merry way with his Coors Light bottles.

There’s obviously a whole lot more to Eliot’s life story than what he relayed to me in our brief tête-à-têtes. After all, everyone’s got a story with some of them—granted—a little more dramatic than others. And so many of these life stories don’t have happy endings—or beginnings and middles for that matter. Suffice it to say, you don’t want to find yourself in middle age with a Coors Light in your hand and one in your back pocket while ambling down a city street. It’s how Eliot arrived in his present predicament—which could happen to just about any of us—that is the most troubling.

Tuesday, June 28, 2016

Happy Junior Fence Day

Today is Junior Fence Day. It is indeed and has been since I recorded the date on a piece of loose leaf paper chronicling the noteworthy events of 1978’s spring and summer. On that June 28th—a Wednesday by the way—I found myself reading the novel Jaws at a front window overlooking the sidewalk below. I spied two youths—who shall remain nameless—run past and didn't give it a second thought, because in those days kids played outside all the time and did a lot of running. However, several seconds later, I saw a fellow whom we knew as “Junior Fence”—son of "Mr. Fence," of course—race by. This running game had assumed new meaning now because the boy and girl in question were thirteen and ten, respectively, and Junior Fence was a grown man in his twenties. He was a scary dude, too, with—the preponderance of the evidence concluded—a serious drug and/or alcohol problem.

I subsequently uncovered the whole truth and nothing but the truth concerning the “Great Chase” I had witnessed. The two youths had been tossing rocks atop the Fence family back porch awning, which was made of aluminum. One stone, apparently, missed its intended mark and crashed through a glass door leading into the Fence Family kitchen. And the fleet-footed Junior Fence was out for blood—for justice—in a New York minute. The boy in question laid low for a while because the Fence family was vigilantly on the prowl for the guilty party. The little girl had been quickly exonerated when her father told Junior Fence in no uncertain terms that she was a good girl and to bug off. Fortuitously for the boy, his family went on vacation for a couple of weeks beginning on July 1st. By the time he returned to the neighborhood, the manhunt had pretty much been called off and life returned to normal.

While making my appointed rounds today, June 28, 2016, I was reminded of Junior Fence Day when a car pulled up alongside me and an angry young man got out. Coincidentally, he wanted to know if I had seen a couple of kids run past me. Evidently, they had thrown an egg at his car in the vicinity of Ewen Park, which isn’t very far from where the Junior Fence incident went down. He pointed out the splatter as Exhibit A and said he was after the juvenile delinquents. I hadn’t seen them but a couple of others seated on a nearby bench had and told him as much. Like Junior Fence thirty-six years ago, he was hopping mad and intent on exacting justice the old-fashioned way.

Returning home after this encounter on this solemn day, I walked past a couple of school kids—a boy and a girl—and overheard a snippet of their conversation. Girl to boy: “Genesis don’t like you no more because she thinks you like Chase.” Why would anybody name a kid after a bank? Let there be light on this Junior Fence Day.

(Photo from the personal collection of Nicholas Nigro)

Sunday, June 26, 2016

The Summers of Our Content

Season’s greetings: It’s summertime again. I know that for sure because I spied a solitary lightning bug the other night—a rare sighting nowadays. These luminescent insects were—once upon a time—ubiquitous in the old neighborhood. But the one-two punch of over-building and excessive lighting has pretty much cast them asunder in these parts.

As a boy growing up in the Bronx, the fledgling days of summer—and the longest days of the year—augured many things, including a “vacation” of some sort in the near future. Typically, a week or two spent away from the bright lights of the big city. For many years, my family and I vacationed along the Jersey Shore, in towns like Manasquan, Forked River, and Lavallette.

In Manasquan in the early 1970s, we rented a three-bedroom “railroad-car style” cottage for $75/week. It was a couple of short blocks from the ocean and a couple of short blocks from the Manasquan Inlet. We couldn’t ask for more—and we didn’t. From its enclosed front porch, we could even see a sliver of the inlet and a railroad bridge in the distance. At that point in time there was also a sizable ferryboat in view—a working one in its day, but now permanently docked and operating as a restaurant. Although we never dined there—we couldn’t afford to eat in restaurants back then—it was nonetheless a compelling visual. The streets in the neighborhood where we stayed were named after fish: Salmon, Trout, Pike, Whiting, and Perch. The $75/week rental with—as I recall—garage sale furniture, threadbare bedspreads, and sandy floors is now a two-story abode worth a million dollars. Hey, it’s a stone’s throw from the Atlantic.

While a very different experience from Manasquan, Forked River was nevertheless an intriguing place to vacation. We rented a family friend’s cozy little house, which was situated in woodsy terra firma that was slowly but surely becoming less so. Lagoons were being dug all around the area and small homes were rising one by one by one. There were reservoirs of standing water everywhere from all the digging. Now, the mosquito population knew a paradise when they saw one and were a big-time nuisance for two-legged vacationers. A truck periodically passed by spraying some chemical concoction into the air to do away with those airborne, bloodsucking  pests. God only knows what it was, but it probably caused cancer in laboratory rats. The mosquitoes, though, were unbowed through it all and we had to wear rubber bands at the bottoms of our pants to co-exist with them. The sound of electric saws taking down pine trees was commonplace, too, while we vacationed there. But as a kid, such incessant noise and the mother lodes of mosquitoes didn’t detract from in the least the wonderland of wildlife and forest of pine trees that I felt I was in. After all, miniature toads hopped around in the back and front yards. Big box turtles luxuriated in the woods next door. And whip-poor-wills called out in the night. It was like we were camping.

Camping indeed. The water that poured out of the Forked River faucets was brown and needed to be boiled before cooking with it. The nearest telephone was at an Elks “clubhouse” several blocks away. Both Barnegat Bay and the Forked River itself were a stone's throw away. I don’t mind telling you that the combination salty sea-pine needle aroma in the air was intoxicating to yours truly. If I were placed in that same environment today—forty years later—it would be like I was a contestant on Survivor. And with my luck, I’d probably catch the Zika virus.

Life, though, is all about moments. And nothing could get in the way of a grand time all those years ago. Not dirty bedspread, armies of mosquitoes, or rusty drinking water.

(Photos from the personal collection of Nicholas Nigro)

Tuesday, June 14, 2016

Lost Magic

Exactly thirty-six 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.

After the disastrous 1979 season the team was happily 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 14th. 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 an eternity.

"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 christened “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 repeatedly 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 this June night, I enjoyed a bona fide natural high. 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.

Thursday, June 9, 2016

Ivor Meets Ivan

Looking back on my life thus far, something really—really—stands out. I marvel now at the fact that I rarely passed through a hospital door in my first three decades of living. And that was kind of nice—the way life ought to be. I remember as a teenager visiting my grandmother in one after her glaucoma surgery. She spent a whole week in the hospital for that. And since I don't recall being born, that's the long and short of my early hospital memories. The times have certainly changed.

In my last two decades on the planet—in stark contrast with the first three—I’ve logged entirely too many hours in the hospital milieu—as a visitor, patient, and escort, the hat I donned this past week. When all was said and done, I found myself in a waiting room at New York City’s premier cancer hospital. If one needed proof that cancer is an equal opportunity disease, this was the place to be. I’ve long been fascinated at the diversity of mind, body, and soul that I chance upon in this hospital. While family members typically accompany the patients on the scene, there are always some people who go it alone. And this is particularly poignant when these solitary souls are getting up in years. Traipsing around to doctors’ appointments and myriad tests without a shoulder to cry on—or an ear to chew on—is not desirable in the golden years. Unfortunately, it’s just an unavoidable reality for some.

Anyway, this go-round I spied an elderly gentleman—all by himself—in the waiting room. Gingerly pushing his walker around the premises—the kind with a handy seat—a forlorn aura surrounded him. The man was borderline unkempt and had bypassed his morning shave and probably the one before that—a visual snapshot that considerably added to his lonely air. And boy did he ever want to talk—to anyone and everyone in earshot—which, I suppose, is understandable. Still, I was glad he didn’t sit across from me or next to me.

This guy reminded me of someone that I couldn’t quite put my finger on at first. Then it dawned on me. He facially resembled the late great character Ivor Francis. Let's call him Ivor from this point forward. Ivor was very, very interested in the waiting room’s amply-stocked pantry. I watched him in this little alcove carefully considering the various options at his disposal—coffee, tea, or hot chocolate, not to mention the saltine or graham cracker munchie quandary. A burly, grim-looking fellow subsequently joined him in the pantry. He looked like a 1960s sitcom Russian stereotype—picture Stanley Adams as Ila Klarpe in The Addams Family—as he navigated the cramped pantry. Ivor meet Ivan.

Destiny had surely brought these two men together. When Ivor at long last decided what his next move would be, a paper cup was the final piece to the puzzle—to steaming hot bliss and some tasty crackers to nibble on. As fate would have it, Ivan was in close proximity of the coveted paper cups at that very moment. Ivor sheepishly but oh-so-politely asked Ivan if he would hand him one—a simple request if ever there was one. Ivan didn’t think so, however, and glared angrily and suspiciously at Ivor. He then made a grumbling noise and furiously gestured at the stack of cups. Ivan’s message to Ivor was all too clear: Get it yourself!

Ivor meekly muttered a response, “I just asked because you were near the cups.” Well, from the looks of things, the Cold War still raged. If mutual affliction with cancer couldn't thaw things out—what pray tell could? Perhaps Ivan was just having a bad day—he was in a cancer hospital after all—but I still wish he didn’t take it out on lonely and frail Ivor. He could have effortlessly handed him an empty cup and made an old man with cancer happy.

Saturday, May 21, 2016

Goodbye, Mr. Chips

I recently purchased a few Banquet brand frozen turkey dinners at a local supermarket. “TV dinners” are not typically on my shopping list nowadays—for a whole host of reasons, the foremost being that they aren’t very good. Once upon a time my youthful palate appreciated their ultra-sodium contents—but no more. Still, they were on sale, and the packaging underscored the fact that there was now “fifty percent more” turkey in them.

If nothing else, consuming these frozen dinners amounted to a stroll down Memory Lane. And I will concede they were curiously edible. However, if there was indeed double the turkey in the dinners, their predecessors must have been sorely lacking—unsatisfying for sparrows let alone the human masses. Fifty percent more turkey notwithstanding, I could have effortlessly eaten the three I bought in one sitting. If there was a downside to TV dinners during my wide-eyed and insatiably hungry boyhood, it was without question the portions. Even Swanson’s “Hungry Man” versions were somehow never enough.

This frozen dinner experience nevertheless got me thinking about other grocery store products from my youth, some that still exist and others that are in the compost heap of history. I ate a lot of pizza in my younger days—and in a variety of forms, too, including an instant toaster version manufactured by Buitoni. Regrettably, they are no more, but I fondly recall their gooey, reddish-orange puree of cheese and tomato sauce interiors, which were invariably blistering hot and prone to burn the mouth. My “Whatever Became Of” Internet search on these peculiar pizzas from yesteryear led me far a field to past comfort foods like Borden’s “Ready to Drink” Frosted Shakes in their heavy aluminum cans. We added milk to them at our house. They were that thick. Sadly, the Frosted Shake has gone the way of the Buitoni toaster pizza.

And the death knell didn’t end there. Sometime around 1970, Kellogg’s introduced toaster pastries called Danish Go-Rounds. I distinctly remember the TV commercials for them. They featured a catchy jingle that went something like this: “A new kind of pastry, frosty, and tasty. New Kellogg’s…Danish Go-Rounds.” They were tasty all right, but disappeared while I was still eating them. I had no choice. It was back to Pop-Tarts.

This former fare retrospective of mine found me in the end in Fudgetown. These were my all-time favorite cookies from a company called Burry, which also made Girl Scout cookies back then, when they were actually good. I hadn’t thought of Fudgetown in a long time, but I see that they, too, are only a memory now, along with Burry’s other boxed cookies: Gaucho and Mr. Chips, with the mysterious silhouette of Mr. Chips on the box. They were quality cookies. And since I never got the chance when Burry discontinued the products, I’d like to finally say it—better late than never—“Goodbye, Mr. Chips.” 

Wednesday, May 18, 2016

Sticker Price

Last month I cast a ballot in the New York State presidential primary. Actually, I filled in a solitary oval on the thing and fed it into a machine, which promptly alerted me my vote had been counted. Except to say my candidate didn’t emerge victorious, I won’t tell you for whom I voted. Despite the thrill of voting being a relic of the past, I performed my civic duty. I remember casting my very first vote at the age of eighteen and how excited I was just to have the opportunity. It didn’t matter to me that the election outcome was a foregone conclusion. It was the 1981 New York City mayoral race. Ed Koch was running for reelection on both the Democratic and Republican lines. He received nearly 75% of the vote. I selected a third party candidate that year. Coronations were never my cup of tea. I have voted for a surfeit of sure losers—in a lot of different parties—because of this aversion. Unfortunately, coronations are the rule around here.

An oddball from my neighborhood—a misshapen, fifty-something fellow whom I’ve known by sight and reputation since our mutual youths—served as the polling place’s big cheese this go-round. His ample derrière comfortably rested on a chair by the entrance. When I arrived to vote he was too preoccupied with his iPhone to even glance my way. But that was okay by me. I didn’t need his assistance. Upon putting my John Hancock in the voting register, I was handed a small round sticker that I was—ideally—supposed to affix to my person. The thinking being it would encourage others to vote. It would serve, too, as a reminder that I had in fact voted, which would stop me dead in my tracks from repeating the process later in the day.

There was some controversy in New York City on primary day—of voters going to their respective polling places and not finding their names on the voting rolls. Some years ago I recall hearing that if we didn’t vote in two consecutive elections, our names would be purged and we would have to re-register. Draconian—yes. However, I have spotted the names of individuals who have long since moved away and even some who are long dead still on the books. And—given time—the former will eventually become the latter.

I just fear that it’s going to be a long slog between now and when I next call upon my polling place in November. A Facebook friend of mine recently shared a meme underscoring the more genteel time in which both she and I grew up. When—generally speaking—kids respected their parents and their elders, too; when common courtesies were commonplace; and when people agreed to disagree civilly. Her candidate in 2016: Donald Trump.

Tuesday, May 17, 2016

Bein' Light Green

While walking past my old alma mater, Manhattan College, today, I couldn’t help but notice 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, who were no doubt taking their final exams, walking to and fro. 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 2016. If my arithmetic is correct—I wasn't a math major—that’s thirty-two 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 onto 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-two years will do that sometimes. 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 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 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 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 amass—it seems quite a high price to pay for a mother lode of 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 about ten years.

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.

(Photo from the personal collection of Nicholas Nigro)

Saturday, April 30, 2016

Why Nothing Matters…It Really Does

What follows is an essay written for some online concern. As the author of Seinfeld FAQ, I was asked to delve into the subject of nothing...and I did.

It’s been eighteen years since the last episode of Seinfeld—“The Finale”—aired in prime-time. Since then, the iconic sitcom has proven beyond a shadow of a doubt that nothing matters and, too, that nothing lasts forever.

Ironically, Seinfeld’s creators, Larry David and Jerry Seinfeld, never, ever promoted the notion that their trailblazing sitcom was about nothing—on the contrary as a matter of fact. David and Seinfeld admit to having been absolutely flabbergasted that a joke—a line from the mouth of George Costanza—became a mega-hit with the fan base. The “show about nothing” aside in “The Pitch” assumed a life of its own and became ingrained in the popular culture. It also established a remarkable staying power as the simplest way to describe what Seinfeld and the off-the-wall antics of Jerry, George, Elaine, and Kramer were all about.

While the show was very obviously about something—a whole lot of somethingSeinfeld’s distinctive nothing aura is precisely why it has legs. Sure, in the eyes of some, it is hopelessly dated—a ‘90s thing they just can’t get past. After all, Seinfeld was largely of a time before the Internet, smart phones, and GPS technology. It was a pre-Netflix age when individuals actually patronized—in the flesh—brick-and-mortar video stores to rent movies on clumsy VHS tapes. And God help the poor sap who forgot to rewind one before returning it—like the hapless George, who had rented Rochelle, Rochelle in “The Smelly Car.” For the younger generations, videotapes, phone booths, and Rolodexes are the sole province of museums and, of course, nostalgic baby boomers’ Facebook memes.

Time marches on with the inevitable technological advances and changes in everything from sartorial tastes to hairstyles to societal mores. The only constant with the passage of time is nothing. And better than any sitcom before or after it, Seinfeld’s savvy writers understood this. In wading through the daily grind—in engaging in the mundane minutia that is part and parcel of everyday living—human behavior invariably runs true to form and hasn’t really changed all that much over the centuries. Shakespeare is timeless because The Bard of Avon was keenly cognizant of the potent and enduring force of nothingness. He knew that nothing mattered. It really did. Some four centuries later—as a committed observer of the human condition—Jerry Seinfeld followed in the man’s not inconsiderable footsteps.

There were low-talkers and close-talkers in Shakespeare’s day. Neurotic, nihilistic men and women have long been part and parcel of “man’s inhumanity to man.” George once so eloquently described what is undeniably an unenviable task—for anyone, anywhere, and at any point in history. “I hate asking for change,” he said. “They always make a face. It’s like asking them to donate a kidney.” The man who ran the mercantile store in Dodge City, circa 1870, no doubt had a similar reaction when asked to make change. A nothing snapshot in the humdrum moment—perhaps—but something much larger in the grand scheme of things.

Once upon a time in the sixth grade at St. John’s parochial grammar school in the Bronx’s Kingsbridge, classmates and I discoursed on—of all things—the subject of nothing. We were twelve years old and this is what passed for philosophical discussion. We had long been inculcated in our school—and in church—that we came from nothing and would one day return to nothing. So, naturally, some of us couldn’t help but wonder: “What would nothing look like?” Fast forward four decades and I think I know the answer. It would look a lot like Seinfeld because I, for one, think of the show very often as I make my appointed rounds. I experience Seinfeld moments—nothing moments—time and again, so they really must mean something. Nothing matters, I’m certain of that much.

Saturday, April 23, 2016

The Mount Airy Lodge Life Lesson

As a boy growing up in the 1970s Bronx, there were more than a few television commercials that played repeatedly on local New York City stations—businesses chumming for customers in the sprawling demographic. Mount Airy Lodge in the Pocono Mountains—the “premier honeymoon hideaway” with its floor-to-ceiling mirrors, heart-shaped bathtubs, and every conceivable amenity—was one of them. “All you have to bring is your love of everything,” the resort’s commercial jingle intoned. No mention was made to bring a credit card, which I suspect would have come in handy as well. Their ads always ended with the melodiously uplifting lyrics: “Beautiful Mount Airy Lodge.” Why would anyone want to honeymoon anyplace else? After seeing its various commercials—probably hundreds of times over the years—one couldn't help but feel that Mount Airy Lodge was somehow immortal, and would be there for generations to come.

So, imagine my shock when I discovered the place had fallen into utter disrepair in the 1990s—a dilapidated eyesore that had little choice but to face the wrecking ball lock, stock, and barrel. Even beautiful Mount Airy Lodge had a finite lifespan. Nothing lasts forever, it seemed. (Having been completely demolished, the Mount Airy Casino Resort now sits on the same terra firma.)

My earliest recollections of ubiquitous television commercials involved the Palisades Amusement Park in Palisades, New Jersey, just across the Hudson River. Its jingle became embedded in my brain at a very young age: “Palisades from coat to coast, where a dime buys the most. Ride the coaster, get cool in the waves in the pool. You’ll have fun, so come on over. Palisades Amusement Park swings all day and after dark.” I did get to go there at least one time, but remember only that it was a rather bleak, rainy day. Naturally, I anticipated enjoying the park on a sunny summer’s day in the future, when I was a little older and could ride their famous roller coaster and swim in the park’s saltwater pool. But despite what the eight-year-old me surmised after watching its commercial invitations on the television over and over and over, Palisades Amusement Park, too, was not immortal. It shut down its rides and attractions for the all time in September 1971. A developer made the park’s owner an offer he couldn’t refuse, and the old park space is now a series of luxury apartment buildings with stellar views of the Manhattan skyline.

And worth mentioning is the Haunted Mansion in Long Branch, New Jersey. Its commercials ran continuously during the warmer climes around here, and they always ended with the bloodcurdling invitation: “The Haunted Mansion in Long Branch…it’s waiting for you.” I, though, never did get to “wander through its myriad of secret passageways and winding labyrinths” because it burned to the ground in 1987. Again, further proof that nothing lasts forever. Fortunately, I visited its ethereal neighbor to the south, The Brigantine Castle, in Brigantine, New Jersey. It, too, ran oodles of commercials on New York City airwaves—and it, too, is no longer with us. So, gather ye rosebuds while ye may.

Finally, and perhaps the bitterest pill to swallow, was the closure of the Albert Merrill School in Manhattan. One commercial with spokesperson Jimmy Randolph ran for years on local TV. It featured a young woman, by happenstance, bumping into Jimmy Randolph, who was standing pensively on the busy streets of New York and staring off into space. She recognizes him immediately as the man who does the commercials for the Albert Merrill School. Coincidentally, she’s looking for the place, which gives Jimmy the perfect excuse to walk her over there while simultaneously extolling this grand vocational school's countless virtues. It’s funny, but this was the only commercial I remember ever airing, yet the actress recognizes Jimmy Randolph from the commercials. A Seinfeld episode? Post-modern television for sure. But even the Albert Merrill School is a mere memory now, which I never would have thought possible when I was a teen. It, too, didn’t endure as a permanent fixture on the landscape to aid and abet students of all ages in this increasingly dog-eat-dog world of ours. Rest assured, everything here today will be gone tomorrow—one of these days.

Human to Human

I had a curious close encounter this morning. For one brief shining moment, I thought I was running errands in Dickensian London and not tony Riverdale in the Bronx. My peripheral vision observed an individual approach a Hispanic man, who was sitting alone on a park bench with only his iPhone as company. I heard him say, “Excuse me, Señor, can I have a word with you?” The man told him in imperfect English, but in no uncertain terms, to make like a tree and leave. “I’m not trying to sell you something,” he said to no avail.

Waiting nearby for a light to turn green—and fast—I realized that one man’s courage to kiss off an unwanted intruder was another man’s potential albatross. Mine, I feared, in this instance. Purposely, I hadn’t even glanced over at this person, who was looking for a word. Keeping eye contact to a minimum in the hopes of keeping any contact to a minimum—or better yet, none at all—was what I had in mind.

The best laid plans of mice and men. After getting the brush-off, said individual looked around and saw only one person in taking distance—me. “Mind if I talk to you—human to human?” he asked as he came up alongside me. I didn’t say yes and I didn’t say no, which to him meant yes. When I got a fair glimpse at my fellow human, I was surprised to see how young he was. He appeared to be teenager, or maybe a little older than that—but I doubt it. As a formerly young person, I find divining people’s ages increasingly problematic with the passage of time. Some forty year olds look like they’re collecting Social Security; and some seventy year olds could pass for fifty-somethings. But this was a kid...or so it seemed to me.

Anyway, this young fellow, whatever his age, began our human-to-human talk by decrying the state of the economy and how tough it was to find work. I couldn’t argue with him on that score. He then proceeded to tell the tale of his having to buy a new jacket to go on job interviews—the one, in fact, that he was wearing, which cost $65. He told me, too, that he had gotten a haircut, so as to look his best while job hunting. The problem was that he was now broke, and he wondered whether he should return the $65 jacket and go on interviews with his old, ratty coat and, of course, school transcripts showing that he was qualified for a job, despite looking like Oliver Twist.

At one point he said, “Sixty-five dollars may sound like a lot of money to you,” which momentarily confused me. A more effective argument might have been: “Sixty-five dollars may not sound like a lot of money to you…but to me…it is.” Our little chat largely occurred as we crossed a very busy street. My fellow human being never delivered the punch line I thought was coming. Brother can you spare an inflation-adjusted dime. I’ll sell you my $65 jacket for $30—a bargain if ever there was one. He seemed, though, to sincerely want an answer as to whether or not he should return his $65 jacket. I believe that I was spared further discussion with this young man when he found another ear—at a bus stop—in our path. My parting words to him were: “Good luck.” And he replied, “You see: Even you don’t know what to do.”

This parting salvo, in particular, disturbed me on multiple levels. After all, this kid was in a bad way no matter how you slice it. Drugs…possibly. Out of work…definitely. Family…where were they? Of course, I could have been on Candid Camera or Punk’d. Har har hardy har har. That’s really funny: Should I return my $65 jacket—or keep it even though I’m broke—and take my chances with my rags and fair to middling school grades. Sometimes the truth is stranger than fiction. However, I don't know the truth in this case, which is probably for the best.

(Photo from the personal collection of Nicholas Nigro)

Friday, April 22, 2016

Good and Evel

Recently, I encountered a ghost from my past festooned in a garish leather jumpsuit. Actually, it was by pure chance that I unearthed the memory of this individual—someone whom I hadn’t thought about in a very long time. And when I was a callow youth back in the colorful 1970s, he was big—really big.

The man’s occupation was daredevil. He liked jumping over things—usually while riding his motorcycle but, occasionally, utilizing other forms of transportation, like a steam-powered rocket. Dean Martin roasted the guy—the ultimate evidence back then that he was a somebody. Robert Knievel, aka Evel Knievel, was his name and he’s in the Guinness Book of World Records for having cumulatively broken more bones than anybody else…and lived to tell. Evel Knievel is no longer among the living, but his iconic status is eternal.

Evel Knievel impacted our lives. I remember this affable kid named Eddie from the old neighborhood, who wasn’t, in retrospect, the brightest bulb in the chandelier. Eddie was coaxed by his  friends, who regularly made sport of him, into performing an Evel Knievel stunt on his old Sting-Ray bicycle—with the banana seat. The agreeable, always-game, and stupidly fearless Eddie rode his bicycle up a wooden plank into the air, which enabled him to hop a short wall. What goes up six feet, though, must come down six feet—it's the law of physics—and down Eddie came. He lost control of his bicycle on the concrete grounds and crashed into a garage.

I witnessed this local Evel Knievel moment, which had been advertised—date and time—by word of mouth. And like Arthur Fonzarelli, aka the “Fonz,” who jumped the shark on Happy Days, it didn’t quite end on a high note. At least the Fonz made it over the man-eating white shark, which was his goal. Eddie’s goal amounted to  just doing it—come what may. Mission accomplished, He hurt himself—just like Evel and the Fonz—but lived to tell and ride another day.

Wednesday, April 20, 2016

Big Ben: the Bell Tolls for Thee

While growing up in Kingsbridge in the 1970s, independent pharmacies and pharmacists ruled the roost—the Bronx Prescription Center, Stuart’s, and this hole in the wall storefront run by a man named Benjamin Something or the Other. Actually, we called him Benjamin "Decker," which may or may not have been his real name. Probably not but pretty close. I wish I could remember the actual name of the pharmacy, but I don’t.

I do remember Benjamin, however. He was a cadaverous figure—picture William Hickey in Prizzi’s Honor. Old Ben was a bona fide eccentric and more than a bit strange. For some reason, my younger brother and I bought candy from him for a period of time. With so many more traditional alternatives in the area, I think I know why. We were somehow drawn to oddball characters and off-Broadway theater. We were fascinated with this unconventional, peculiar-looking neighborhood pharmacist—the master of his little shop that not only filled prescriptions but sold everything from toiletries to shampoos to hair brushes. I only wish I had snapped a picture of this charismatic geezer—this independent medicine man—from an era when the little guy still counted.

I distinctly remember tins of the sore throat lozenges, Sucrets, on a rack in front of Benjamin’s unusual glass mirror-prism countertop. How long would that last today? But it was the larger than life man himself, festooned in his sky blue pharmacist smock, that made the drug store worth visiting. When the jingling bells attached to his front door sounded, alerting the proprietor he had a potentially paying customer on the premises, Big Ben would emerge from the recesses of his apothecary. He was a certified Notary Public, too. He notarized my $1,500 student loan for Manhattan College—from the Washington Heights Federal Bank just next door to him—which covered about half of my year’s tuition. Notarizing the document with an expired ink stamp, and altering the expiration date with the stroke of a pen, the wizened pharmacist said to me, as I signed the document in his presence, “Singing your life away, eh?”

I truly miss Benjamin Decker—or whatever his real name was—in this age of ever-encroaching big chain pharmacies (and big everything else). Little guy pharmacy businesses, like Big Ben’s on W231st Street in the Bronx, are dinosaurs. I suppose the bitter pill would be easier to swallow if the big pharmacies were actually bigger and better—bargains—but they’re not. Sure, they carry everything—but not really everything—and can pay the exorbitant rents around town, but it's the Decker personal touch that is sorely missed.

Tuesday, April 19, 2016

Morning Calls Remembered

A loud shout on the streets of the Bronx in the early morning hours is the wind beneath the wings of this blog. Awoken from a sound sleep, my brain—sans any couching on my part—retrieved two words lodged in its vast memory bank: morning call. I don't exactly know why, but in my groggy state, I recalled my maternal grandmother’s daily newspaper, The Morning Call—the one she found on her front porch every morning on Miller Street and then on South Second Street in Bangor, Pennsylvania. As a youth, I always thought that was such a great name for a newspaper, and I’m happy to report this Allentown-based daily is still in business. But my brain wasn’t done yet. It returned to the Bronx and dredged up one more morning call—my own.

Some forty years ago, it was not unusual to find me in a neighboring alleyway at around seven o’clock in the morning and calling on my best friend “Johnny Boy.” Considering all the advances in technology and the colossal cultural shift, it seems kind of strange to envision a youngster arising so bright and early, before anybody else in the household, and venturing out onto the mean streets of the Bronx without first alerting Ma and Pa. After all, local crime statistics were even more cause for concern back then, and the nine- and ten-year-old me didn’t even have a cell phone to communicate with the home office.

But it’s just the way it was. Roaring at the top of my lungs, “Johnny Boy!” when most everybody in earshot was asleep on a weekend, or on an early summer’s morning, was commonplace. My friend would often respond to my bellow with the logical rejoinder, “What?” I would then say, “You coming out?” Occasionally, one of his sisters would answer for him and shout, “He’s sleeping!” Looking back these many years later, I can understand why some others might not have appreciated this morning call—not too long after the sunrise—of “Johnny Boy!” It was, however, a different and, I daresay, simpler time—completely uninhibited and not remotely technologically driven. It was also more annoying to those who didn’t get up with the roosters.

While I rue all that has been lost to the youth of today transfixed with their latest electronic gadgets and, above all else, impatience with everything and anything that doesn’t move at the speed of light, I take great solace in the contemporary quietude. There are no little people anymore waking up at daybreak, going out to play, and disturbing formerly young persons like myself. Nowadays, when the legions of youth arise from their slumbers, they reach, foremost, for their iPads and iPhones. Venturing out into the great outdoors—the urban jungle—and calling on their best buds is unheard of. When a text message or tweet will suffice, why wake up the wider world anyway? And now, too, I can read the The Morning Call online.

Monday, April 18, 2016

All Hail, Cesar!

Once upon a time I was a collector of many things, including autographs. As a teenr, I wrote letters to individual baseball players care of their teams and requested their signatures. I even bought mailing lists with players’ home addresses and sent them baseball cards to sign, which most of them eventually did. Asking for autographed pictures, I sent fan letters, too, to politicians in Congress and in state houses, and almost always got them. Granted, some of the signatures were the work of autopens and, the worst of them all, rubber stamps. And there were even some very high-quality secretary forgeries in the mix.

However, most of the political autographs were real and many of them personalized to me. As both a young man and a collector, I was completely non-partisan in this endeavor. I received autographs from everyone from Ted Kennedy to Jack Kemp; Henry “Scoop” Jackson to Tom Bradley. New York Governor Mario Cuomo personally inscribed a photo to yours truly, and so did Vice President George Herbert Walker Bush, although he misspelled my name as “Nick Negro.” The Bush autograph was authenticated and—courtesy of financially hard times sometime later in the adult world—I sold it at auction for $175.

In the early 1980s, Louie, our cigar-chomping neighborhood mailman, used to open our unlocked front door in the Bronx, walk into the hall, and place the mail on the bottom step of the staircase leading to our upper-floor apartment. Aside from leaving his cigar bouquet calling card, he would sometimes cry out: “You got another letter from the government!” My autographed pictures typically arrived in 9”x 12” official manila envelopes with a piece of cardboard in them, so that Louie and his p.o. brethren would avoid their natural inclinations to bend  and batter mail. I think Louie came to believe we were a family of spies or secretive government agents. My father, a veteran post office man himself, eventually assuaged Louie's worst fears.

Beyond baseball players and pols, I also purchased a mailing list of celebrity home addresses one time and was excited to send a couple of “Joker cards" from the “Bat Laffs” series to none other than Cesar Romero on San Vincente Boulevard in Los Angeles. I was quite surprised to receive a postcard a week or so later from Maria Romero, Cesar’s older sister. She informed me that her brother was doing dinner theater in Texas, but would be more than happy to sign my "Joker cards" when he returned. Now this was going beyond the call of duty, I thought. And a couple of months later, I not only found the signed Joker cards in my mail, but two more autographs of Cesar as well—one a photograph of him as the Joker inscribed “To Nick Nigro, A big hello from The Joker” and another of Cesar as Cesar. And it was all in an envelope the man personally addressed himself. He paid the postage and affixed, too, a “Cesar Romero” return address label on the envelope—one he probably got as a "thank you" for contributing to a favorite charity. He also alerted the post office minions they would be handling a photo, which was to be treated accordingly. Of course, Cesar being Cesar said, "Please." I had always heard Cesar was a class act and liked by just about everyone—and the proof was in the Joker cards signing. All hail, Cesar!

(Photos from the personal collection of Nicholas Nigro)

Friday, April 15, 2016

The Very Good Whisperer: Part II

Working in a busy retail setting is a roller coaster ride—a never-ending series of ups and downs courtesy of the diverse personalities and mercurial temperaments of the clientele. Forgive the mixed metaphor, but to put the cherry atop this particular stroll down memory lane—begun in yesterday’s essay—I give you the “Hummingbird,” a Pet Nosh patron who, without fail, entered the store harmoniously humming an easy-listening melody, gathered what he came for while not missing a beat, and paid his tab still in tune. He resembled James Earl Jones.

But not all of our clientele were of Hummingbird class and caliber. Take the “Seamstress,” a woman who earned her well-deserved moniker because she surreptitiously tore open bags of her preferred dog food—a trailblazing line of natural diets known as Cornucopia—at the seams, then left them pour out onto the shelves. She claimed her canine companions could only stomach pellets of a certain hue, and that even the slightest color difference made all the difference in the world. The Seamstress said they got physically sick from the food if it wasn’t a very precise shade of gray, which only she could decipher. Under such exacting conditions, I might have just shopped around for another brand of dog food.

Initially, we accommodated the Seamstress’s idiosyncrasies and permitted her to open the bags. But one, then two, and then three inspired a retailer’s worst nightmare—no purchase and no more products to sell (to other Cornucopia consumers not as fastidious regarding pellet color variations). This rather over-generous policy of ours quickly became intolerable. And, too, the folks at Cornucopia informed us they would not accept any more returns of perfectly good bags of their foods. For they, too, were acquainted with the Seamstress, who regularly harassed them on the telephone concerning matters gray. Still, our new hard-line policy couldn't keep her at bay. The Seamstress merely went underground, determined that it was best for her to enter our shop when it was very busy—preferably on a weekend—and where she could get lost in the crowd. She even took to wearing sunglasses and a kerchief—a disguise to enable her to reach unseen her targets. Her deception worked for a while, but when we found two and sometimes three opened bags of Cornucopia—at the seams of course—we knew in no uncertain terms who the culprit was.

From vandalism to out-and-out thievery, I submit for your approval an elderly man christened “Can’t See It.” He was a facial cross between Groucho Marx in his You Bet Your Life days and weather-beaten actor Glenn Strange, Sam the bartender on Gunsmoke. Upon being told how much he owed us, which was typically no more than two or three dollars, he repeated the phrase “Can’t see it…Can’t see it…Can’t see it,” and occasionally threw in a “Can’t be” or two to break up the monotony. It was truly bizarre. Subsequently, we discovered that Can’t See It visited the checkout to both pay his nominal tab and to perform his madcap “Can’t See It” routine, while Mrs. Can’t See It over-stuffed a shopping bag of her own with cans of dog food—out of eyeshot and bypassing the cashier altogether. We finally caught this senior citizen equivalent of Bonnie and Clyde with the goods one day, and they never again returned to the scene of the crime. This very old and very odd couple was last seen visiting a nearby psychic business. I can only surmise what vibes the psychic might have felt in their presence, but I can take an educated guess what Can’t See It told her when asked to pay for her services.

Finally, I close with memories of a personal favorite—a somewhat inscrutable fellow assigned the nickname “Choo Choo Trousers.” Choo Choo Trousers always materialized minutes before closing time, which was then seven o’clock, festooned in pinstriped overalls, the kind a train engineer might wear. He spoke with a southern accent of some strain—wholly unique in our urban Yonkers, New York setting—and wore a stud earring that was, believe it or not, extremely rare in a man’s ear in the early 1980s. He’d always ask, “How ya all doing?” and wink at the younger adult staff on duty, which occasionally was just me. I often wondered whether or not this middle-aged man from somewhere in Dixie worked for the railroad, or whether the overalls represented some kind of fashion statement. I can, however, say that Choo Choo Trousers never asked me to ride on his train. After closing the store, we would sometimes spot Choo Choo Trousers awaiting his bus ride home with a big bag of dog food at his side—an unforgettable visual. So, I am left to wonder now where Choo Choo Trousers’ train took him in life…and where the Hummingbird’s flown off to in these past three decades. As for the Seamstress and Mr. and Mrs. Can’t See It…well, they’ve more than likely shuffled off this mortal coil…such are the sands of time.

Thursday, April 14, 2016

The Very Good Whisperer

I spotted this man on the street recently who reminded me of someone—someone from the distant past. The words “very good” immediately formed on the tip of my tongue, and I whispered it twice under my breath. “Very Good,” you see, was a nickname that we—some three decades ago at a place called Pet Nosh—had affixed to a certain customer of ours. Behind the scenes of this very busy retail milieu, we did an awful lot of this sort of thing. It kept has sane.

As it turned out, it wasn’t Very Good after all—in fact, based on his chronological age back in the 1980s, he might very well be on a very good cloud in heaven right now—but the guy I spied nonetheless sported the same ill-fitting toupee and hangdog look. Very Good, you see, would repeat the phrase “very good” over and over and over as you packed his cat food cans, took his money, and returned his change with a “thank you.” The response to each one of these acts was the same: “very good,” “very good,” and “very good.”

The sighting of this Very Good mirror image inevitably commenced a stroll down memory lane to further former customers who were branded with comparable monikers. Most of the nicknames doled out by us were benign, like “Very Good,” but some were justifiably toxic. Privately always, we christened two siblings who regularly shopped together the “Grotesque Sisters” because—as you may have guessed— they were grotesque. They were involved, if memory serves, in raising Australian Cattle Dogs. They attended all kinds of dog shows and were, without fail, self-absorbed and insufferable. So, no, their nickname had absolutely nothing to do with the fact that they also had mustaches.

Long before it was fashionable, I branded a patron “The Fifties Guy.” He was an affable bloke who wore his hair and dressed like he was auditioning for a part in Grease. Perhaps he’s "The Seventies Guy" now, I don’t know. Then there was this fellow whom we called “Beautiful, Wonderful Man,” and not because he was a "Beautiful, Wonderful Man." He was pleasant enough, I guess, but received his unusual sobriquet because—week after week after week—he would tell us what a “beautiful, wonderful man,” platonically speaking, our sexagenarian sidekick was.

Then there was this college-aged customer of ours—who ended up working for the business at some later date—known as “Mr. Mellow.” It seemed that Mr. Mellow was in a cannabis-induced state of perpetual bliss. From the mellow-minded to the frenetic “Zorro,” a woman unceasingly masked and shrouded from head to toe courtesy of an allergic condition to—if I remember correctly—just about everything. Certain odors, including fresh air, could take her down in a heartbeat. As we kindly catered to her every whim, she was always demanding, distracted, and disagreeable. But in retrospect: Who could blame her?

In stark contrast to Zorro, “John Gotti” was a widely liked patron of ours affectionately known by his handle. Sure, he resembled you know whom. I once asked him if he knew how to crack open a safe. Our antiquated store safe just wouldn’t open, and I desperately needed change on a busy Saturday. He feigned total ignorance. Subsequently, he landed in prison—with no bail—awaiting trial on a series of racketeering charges. I can’t say if safe cracking was among them. Sadly, he dropped dead of a heart attack before ever getting his day in court. All who knew him at Pet Nosh felt bad when we heard the news, because he was a one of the good ones...I think.

(Next: Part II, including memories of “Choo Choo Trousers,” the “Seamstress,” and the “Hummingbird.”)

Monday, April 4, 2016

In the Windy Old Weather

It was cold and windy in these parts yesterday. And I can honestly say that excessive wind speeds make walking with a prosthetic knee a little dicey. Nevertheless, I needed the exercise and concluded by early afternoon the worst of the winds had come and gone. The furious rainstorm of the night before—featuring thunderclaps and a symphony of overturned garbage cans—was replaced by incredibly bright blue skies and that ultra-sharp sunlight unique to springtime.

So, I hit the road with every intention of turning back if the wind beneath my wings proved more than I could handle. There were occasional gusts of import along the way, but I opted to soldier on and venture to Van Cortlandt Park about a half-mile away. While in the park, I rested for a spell on a bench—one that furnished me with a bird’s eye view of the elevated W242nd Street subway station. This is the first or last stop—depending on which direction you are headed—of the Number 1 “Broadway Local” line. Day and night, the trains come and go—and come and go again—patiently waiting their turns to dock. There’s lots of loud horn blowing and nails-on-a-chalkboard screeching, too, as the trains slow up and switch tracks. What goes around comes around, I guess, because I enjoyed viewing this same spectacle as a boy. But that was then, this is now, and the verb “enjoy” is relative.

Sitting on a park bench with a trusty cane at my side—and concerned that I might get blown down on my return trip—was not, it's fair to say, on my youthful radar. In fact, the exact spot where I sat at the southern tail of the sprawling park was—in my younger days—an asphalt softball field. Like so much of the park and indeed the city at large in the 1970s, it was not properly maintained. The asphalt was a sorry mess with weeds sprouting up from home plate to centerfield; first base to third base. It was not a wise idea to attempt a Ron Swoboda-in-the-1969-World Series diving catch there—let’s put it that way. The combination of cracked asphalt and broken glass beer and soda bottles were a certain ticket to the emergency room.

The Internet is rife with images of New York City in the dirty and dangerous 1970s. The stainless steel subway cars that I cast my eyes upon yesterday were sans graffiti and underground tunnel grime. Emblematic of the city’s precipitous decline, they were covered in the stuff forty years ago, not to mention inefficient and crime laden. I witnessed an armed robbery on the Number 1 train in 1978. And in the old neighborhood, home burglaries and street muggings were more commonplace than today.

It would seem then the logical conclusion to draw is that things are a whole lot better today when compared with the awful 1970s. Yes, I’m happy to ride clean, generally safer, and definitely more efficient subway trains. The park I visited yesterday is without question a visually more appealing place in 2016 than it was in, say, 1976. But what individuals who didn’t grow up in New York in the 1970s can’t possibly understand is that—for all its well-documented problems and assorted blight—it was for the most part a great place to be a teenager. Some neighborhoods were bona fide war zones, but most were alive—believe it or not—with neighbors whom you actually knew. That sense of community is largely lost in this sterile age of gentrification—everything is so damn expensive—and obeisance to devices. I was among the last generation to play the old city street games like box ball and stoop ball. People bought homes in the old neighborhood as foremost places to live—often for their extended families—and only secondly as investments. There are countless absentee owners now who look upon their properties as ATM machines in perpetuity. They rent out apartments to a revolving door of tenants who pay top dollar for the honor and don’t care a whit where they call home. And it shows! The 1970s in New York had character and characters—lots of them—and is sorely missed. Cleaning the city up was a necessity, but apparently we threw out the baby with the bath water.

(Photos 2 and 3 from the personal collection of Nicholas Nigro)

Tuesday, March 29, 2016

Death Never Takes a Holiday Anymore

Actress Patty Duke died today; actor James Noble, yesterday, at ninety-four. Courtesy of trending Facebook obits only hours ago, I learned of their respective passings—such is life in 2016. It was indisputably a simpler time when must-see TV for me was Benson (1979-1986), a network sitcom that starred the melodiously named Robert Guillaume as the equally melodiously named Benson DuBois and the aforementioned Noble, who played the dimwitted but unfailingly affable Governor Eugene Xavier Gatling in the series. Happily still among the living, Guillaume is eighty-eight.

What I would really like to know is how so many of the men and women who graced the small screen of my youth grew so old—so really, really old? Joe Garagiola, who died at ninety this past week, was ubiquitous during my younger days—an always-agreeable presence teamed with the likes of the late Curt Gowdy and now eighty-year-old, long-retired Tony Kubek—on NBC’s weekly and postseason Major League Baseball games. But that was hardly the Garagiola be-all and end-all. I recall tuning into an eclectic smorgasbord hosted by the man—everything from a game show called Sale of the Century to the Today show to the annual Macy’s Thanksgiving Parade.  

Earl Hamner, Jr. also passed away this week. He was ninety-two. Apparently, you’re nobody if you don’t live to ninety nowadays. I religiously watched his baby, The Waltons, downstairs with my grandmother and aunt in what was, seemingly, the last chapter in the extended family era. For some reason, Hamner’s voice-over narrations at the beginning and ending of each episode never failed to amuse my younger brother and me. In fact, more than forty years later, I can still recall some of the lines that we would parrot in an embellished Hamner-tone, such as: “Those were not the last mistakes Jim-Bob and I were to make, but we were truly ahead of the game. Our parents gave us decent rules to live by…yada...yada...yada.” Our teenage whimsy would sometimes have us refer to Jim-Bob as “Jim Boob.” Being from the Bronx, Hamner’s Virginia accent and singular intonations sounded very, very foreign to us.

Actor Joe Santos died this month, too. He was only eighty-four. The man played Dennis Becker on The Rockford Files, one of my all-time favorite TV shows. Who’s left from the cast? The seventy-six-year-old Stuart Margolin, Angel, that’s who. It’s been a rough month indeed—Frank Sinatra, Jr., Gary Shandling, and Mother Angelica have all breathed their last. Mother Angelica, founder of the EWTN cable channel, falls into the category of: “I thought she already met her maker.” As I encounter a never-ending story of death notices, this phenomenon is happening more and more to me. I guess when I read about some serious illness or major health setback, like a stroke, my brain reasons the afflicted individual is for all intents and purposes dead.

All I can say is that when I was watching Joe Garagiola in his camel trench coat in front of Macy’s more than forty years ago—his breath visible in the Thanksgiving morning chill—I was not remotely into what was trending vis-à-vis folks going on their vacations with God. (An elderly neighbor of mine coined that catchy phrase. She said at the time she was "not yet ready to go on her“vacation with God.” She has since has gone on that permanent  vacation.) I kind of prefer the days when death took a holiday—from my perspective at least. 

Monday, March 14, 2016

Life and the Jar of Peanut Butter

This year marks the thirty-sixth anniversary of my graduation from high school. Putting this number in some larger perspective is kind of weird—even a little bit disturbing—because I turned eighteen the year I graduated. And, lo and behold, I have subsequently lived eighteen more years and then another eighteen years after that. The sum total of my entire existence in 1980, which seemed to have covered a lot of ground at the time, was a mere drop in the bucket.

With the obvious accelerating passage of time, I can’t help but reflect on all that was and how I arrived at the present. I will say that a handful of things in my life have remained pretty constant through the years, like my preferred breakfast: peanut butter on toast with coffee. Growing up in the Bronx with an extended family—three generations under one roof—brought peanut butter and coffee, too, into my life at an early age. If we so desired, coffee was served to us at seven- and eight years old. Maybe it was an Italian thing or just the simpler times—I don’t know. What I do know is that my grandmother—a culinary wizard whose likes I will never see again—always kept a big glass jar of Skippy peanut butter on the premises for her grandsons. She, though, never once sampled the stuff. There was something about “peanuts bud,” as she pronounced it in her thick Italian accent, which absolutely repulsed her.

I remember finding a mini-jar of Skippy peanut butter in my Christmas stocking one year—glass again with an aluminum top. And not one of those jars ever ended up in the trash. They were repurposed time and again in an age before recycling; in an age of peanut butter. My family used to get a circular loaf of Italian bread delivered daily—in the 1960s and 1970s—from a nearby wholesale bakery called Willow Sunny. Imagine having a fresh slice of bakery bread slathered with peanut butter every morning for breakfast. My grandmother cut the bread like she was playing a violin—a true maestro—knife slicing across toward her body.

Fast forward a few years to an earth-shattering discovery of mine. I learned there was more to peanut butter than Skippy. There was Peter Pan, Superman, Smuckers, and the best of them all, I concluded—Jif.  Naturally, I expressed my newfound opinion to all who would listen that Jif tasted a whole lot better than Skippy. A certain family elder—undeviating in her worldview then as well as now—sniffed, “You just want to be different.” Granted, kids want to be recognized as unique individuals and I was no different. There’s that word again. But the fact remains that I did—believe it or not—prefer Jif to Skippy. I still do as a matter of fact. The proof is in the plastic jar of Jif that I pluck out of the cupboard at breakfast time all these years later. I guess I was really different after all.

Monday, March 7, 2016

The Misadventures of Pizza Man

He was oozing optimism when he first opened his pizza place’s doors. His little restaurant was poised and ready for what was certain to be a mad dash of salivating clientele. The shop was staffed like a bustling Midtown Manhattan pizzeria—its multiple employees festooned in matching red, logo-emblazoned baseball caps and staff shirts. The adrenalized new owner, who had succeeded an unsuccessful pizza peddler, who in turn had assumed the reins from still another failed pizza guy, had—it seemed—all his bases covered. This latest entrepreneurial endeavor was sure to prove—despite its cursed locale—that a third time's a charm.

Long a pizza devotee and forever a Bronx denizen, the shortest distance from point A (home) to point B (a quality New York slice of pizza) mattered to me. Therefore, I would throw myself at the mercy of the new kid on the block and hope for the best. I was perfectly willing to tolerate any and all growing pains, including extraordinarily green employees, who didn’t in the slightest strive to be otherwise. So, I wasn’t bothered when the two slices, plus a small fountain drink—the $5.00 lunch special—wasn’t afforded me because I declined the free drink. (I didn’t want to carry it home.) The clueless staff actually charged me $5.50, the cost of two slices when not on special, because I didn’t accept the drink! And then there was the improperly wrapped pizza conundrum, where exceptionally oily slices saturated takeout bags beyond their capacity to do the job. On more than one occasion during this establishment’s fledgling days, my bag split open before I arrived home, splattering my clothes with mozzarella, tomato sauce, and scorching hot, orangey grease. I was nonetheless hopeful things would improve once the gang that couldn’t shoot straight got the hang of it. I would thus ignore that countless pizza slices lost their tips when being plucked out of the oven and when being yanked out of the takeout bag. Call me naïve, but I was convinced the pizza man would soon appreciate that his pizza pies were usually too thin, often too crisp, and sometimes a deadly combination of both. I had been served pizza slices with burnt bottoms before in my fast-food culinary travels, but never this degree of burnt offerings.

This pizza shop in the Northwest Bronx began with both high hopes and a full showcase of every conceivable specialty pizza. Quickly, though, a conspicuous dearth of sales cut the pizza selections on display to a haphazard, forlorn-looking medley of slices. A portent of things to come occurred when the restaurant’s top pizza oven went on the fritz and was not repaired for months. Truth be told, it was painful to behold the well-intentioned, formerly optimistic owner preparing his pizza pies in an oven that was practically on the floor. God knows the man tried. He inundated the surrounding neighborhood with fliers on several occasions. In fact, one of them heralded that the place would be open for breakfast. But—go figure—he never opened for breakfast. It would have been the opportunity of a lifetime—and a first—to sample “Mash Potato” on a roll to start my day.

When all was said and done, the pizza served was pretty good—above average, I'd say—even if the slice size and its mass fluctuated from one day to the next. My last takeout purchase of a couple of slices—with pepperoni on them—was practically weightless. It was as if I had bought them on the moon. Unquestionably, there was a consistency issue. You could get the freshest, tastiest slice one day and a soggy muddle the next. Refrigerated pizza from the prior day is a definite no-no in this business. And pizza visuals matter! The place’s showcase was too often unsightly—practically empty with just a few petrified-looking options. Nevertheless, I genuinely liked the proprietor and hoped and prayed he would eventually get his act together. He never did. His almost two years of misadventures seemed like an eternity to me, a loyal customer. I can only imagine what it seemed like to him. And if this pizza man tries his luck someplace else—which I believe is very possible—I sincerely hope his pizza slice tips stay put. I also hope in the next go-round that if he advertises “open for breakfast” he does, in fact, open for breakfast.

(Photos 1 and 2 from the personal collection of Nicholas Nigro)

Tuesday, February 23, 2016

Bye Bye Bakery

This past Sunday marked the final day of operation for a bakery that had been in business for sixty-one years. It was located in the Bronx neighborhood Riverdale, which is not too far from where I call home. The bakery was something of an institution—a mom-and-pop business that seemed like it would always be there. The reason for the shuttering of its doors: exorbitant rent that was too high for a bakery—even a popular one—to pay and realize a profit. A longstanding area fish store right next-door to the bakery closed earlier this year for the very same reason. Both businesses were dealing with a “fairer,” less greedy landlord—it has been reported—than the notorious conglomerate that owns a wealth of commercial property in this rather upscale neighborhood in New York City.

Having run out many mom-and-pops, that aforementioned notorious landlord’s “Store for Rent” signs are ubiquitous in windows, with many of the storefront’s remaining empty for years. I guess it pays—in some instances—to raise rents beyond what individuals can afford. I guess it pays—in some instances—to keep the spaces unoccupied, too. Now that doesn’t sound like very good public policy to me. And it is certainly a recipe for destroying the heart and soul—the uniqueness and diversity—of neighborhoods. But then that’s why landlords are so civic-minded and contribute in a big way to the politicians who make our laws.

The times are very definitely changing. And it’s not only the ridiculous rents. In the case of a neighborhood bakery, it’s harder to compete now for a whole host of reasons. When I was a kid, supermarkets didn’t have bakeries on the premises. We weren’t traveling to Trader Joe’s and Whole Foods. Other small businesses are competing with the Internet and the likes of Wal-Mart and Target. Ten and twenty years ago, it would have been inconceivable that tony Riverdale would have a Subway, Starbucks, and Dunkin’ Donuts a hop, skip, and a jump from one another. But such is life, I guess—ever evolving and ever devolving.