Monday, March 20, 2017

Spring Ahead

Once upon a time my brothers, playmates, and I went sleigh riding in a nearby empty lot—down a small hill into what had been, a half century or so earlier, the meandering, above-ground Tibbetts Brook. Empty lots in the Bronx are hard to come by nowadays, and so is winter merriment as far as I’m concerned. Happily, said season is officially over. Good riddance!

Tomorrow, in fact, marks a week since the big-bad blizzard that didn’t quite live up to its billing. In my neck of the woods, I’d estimate we accumulated anywhere between six and eight inches of snow and ice, which was a whole lot better than the anticipated twelve to eighteen. Still, this week’s been a real pain in the butt. It got bitterly cold in the snow’s aftermath, creating treacherous obstacle courses—for several days—in getting from point A to point B.

I’ve touched on this sore subject before. One of the biggest differences between now and when I was a callow youth on the back of a sleigh is neighborliness—plain and simple. In this day and age there is a palpable lack of consideration in the ether—on numerous fronts. Many street corners remained blocked with snow mounds and ice for days. Certain storekeepers, too, did the bare minimum in shoveling their sidewalks—enough, I guess, to avoid a summons from the Department of Sanitation. These self-interested retailers and absentee commercial property owners, who ply their trades in heavily foot-trafficked areas, made the tiniest, one-way pathways with their snow blowers. God forbid they had taken an extra ten or fifteen minutes to clear the way so that two people could walk in opposite directions, without one of them stepping up onto slippery snow and ice to let the other pass.

When I was a boy, homeowners, building supers, and storeowners not only thoroughly shoveled their own walkways, but corner passes into the street as well. Folks from the old country had a certain code back then, which is less in evidence today. I’m painting with a broad brush—perhaps—but most men and women gave thought to their neighbors who might have difficulty ascending ice walls and navigating extended stretches of slush.

Fortunately, Mother Nature has done the jobs that all too many of these inconsiderate oafs—interested in making money above all else—neglected to do. We’re now left with piles of filthy snow in the streets and puddles—lots of them—everywhere. Snowy sidewalks, busy sidewalks, dressed in week old snow is not a pleasing visual. Canines’ calling cards are ubiquitous in the snowmelt. And garbage hasn’t been picked up all week. Whenever I spy a week’s worth of garbage piling up, it amazes me that we aren’t buried in it.

Hope springs eternal, however. On the eve of spring, the New York City bus and transit fare confusingly went up with miscellaneous MetroCard changes, including a quarter spike for a one-way fare, but most of us won't pay more, I think. These kinds of moves used to be both straightforward and big news. Ditto when the post office raised the price of a first-class stamp. But when you get right down to it, forty-nine cents to mail a letter and even three dollars to ride a bus or train isn’t highway robbery. On the other hand, the tolls at New York City bridges and tunnels are—very literally—that. I’ll leave you with a spring proverb: Avoid, for peace of mind, interactions of any kind with men and women who went to the School of Hard Knocks.

(Photos from the personal collection of Nicholas Nigro)

Friday, March 17, 2017

St. Patrick's Day Musings

In the early 1970s, a hipper, more progressive education took hold in St. John’s grammar school and, I suppose, a lot of other places. I remember a lecture in the fourth or fifth grade about the evils of ethnic stereotyping. Examples of stereotypes were provided. I recall a couple of them. The one of most interest to yours truly was: Italians have dirty houses. The ten-year-old me tried in vain to explain to my parents what I learned at school that day. Suffice it to say, Ma and Pa didn’t appreciate the Italian stereotype. The paternal side of my family—including a grandmother and aunt who lived in the apartment below in a pretty clean house—was Italian.

The whole point of the lecture, of course, was that stereotypes were unfair and, in most instances, untrue. The Italians in my family circle, nonetheless, were on the defensive and singled out the many Irish families they knew with dirty houses. Kingsbridge in the Bronx, where we all called home—in clean and dirty houses both—was a predominantly Irish neighborhood in those days. My grandfather opted to live in an Irish enclave because he didn’t want my grandmother interacting with only the Italian-speaking. He figured she would better learn English kibitzing with the Irish rather than relying on her native tongue in the company of just Italians. My grandfather was a wise man. While my grandmother spoke with a heavy Italian accent all her life, she had a reasonable command of the English language. To this day, my brothers and I—in what amounts to an affectionate tribute to her—employ certain English phrases that she was wont to use. When she didn’t like a particular food, my grandmother would say, “No too good,” or “I no like a-too much.” These two patented phrases of hers are on the tip of my tongue nowadays—and they are apropos in describing more than what’s for dinner.

Really, I don’t know where the “dirty houses” stereotype originated. Were the educators afraid to touch upon genuine stereotypes—the ones that all of us were familiar—like Italians are garlic-eating greaseballs in league with organized crime. Funny, but the second example of an ethnic stereotype supplied to us in our lesson was: The Irish drink something funny. What’s that supposed to mean? Irish men and women will freely tell you what the real stereotype is—and some of them will say it’s not a stereotype at all.

I’ve known a fair share of people with drinking problems from a variety of ethnicities. My best friend’s Irish mother—who kept quite a clean house, by the way—perhaps summed it up best when she said: “The Italians are secret drinkers. The Irish like to make a show of it.” It certainly described my grandfather and father, who preferred to imbibe clandestinely in the comforts of home. My grandfather made his own wine for a spell. He kept gallon jugs of it in the closet, which he would pull out in the evenings after a hard day’s work. I was told after sampling a few glasses of the grape, he often reached for his harmonica. My grandmother “no like a-too much” this little bit of theater. Now, if all that sounds a little stereotypical—so what!

Nobody, in fact, laughed harder at Italian stereotypes roles than my father. He loved The Soprano’s. With the exception of the Corleones in The Godfather—who had a degree of nobility amidst the brutality—I don’t care much for Italian gangster-themed television shows and movies. And it’s not because I am offended at how Italians are portrayed. I just find absolute boorishness and wanton violence a bad combo.

My mother—whose maternal grandparents came from Austria and spoke German—always decorated our front door for St. Patrick’s Day and, too, made corned beef and cabbage for dinner. When my mother’s kin first settled in Allentown, Pennsylvania in the early 1900s, my grandmother reported that Irish schoolmates would say, “You Huns…go back to Germany!” When my grandfather bought his first and only home in Kingsbridge, he had to go to court to evict an Irish family in order to move his family in—and it took a couple of years. Said Irish family whispered, “The guineas are taking over.” Now, this particular family kept a dirty house and the roach infestation that greeted my grandfather, grandmother, and their three children is the stuff of legend. And so is the fact that we all lived happily ever after—friends for life regardless of stereotyping and name calling. Erin go Bragh!

(Photos from the personal collection of Nicholas Nigro)

Sunday, March 12, 2017

The Ides of March

If the current weather forecast comes to pass, on Wednesday morning—the Ides of March—I could have a foot to a foot-and-a-half of snow on the ground to shovel. And while I am well aware that New York City has had major snowstorms—blizzards in fact—in the month of March, I have been lulled into a false sense of security that this winter was going out like a lamb. I incorrectly assumed that earlier-than-usual flowering daffodils were harbingers of more serene weather tidings.

But then again, it’s the year 2017—where super-strangeness appears to be the order of the day. If I were a boy right now, I’d be super-excited about the impending big snow. And I wouldn’t, too, be concerned about a super-unhinged man living in the White House—a guy who just seems to double down on his unhinged persona with each passing day and tweet. The best part of being young, I suppose, involved not worrying about unpaid bills, serious illness, and the happenings in the wider world.  Politics, for one, ain’t what it used to be—not by a long shot. Nowadays, partisanship trumps—pardon the pun—reality. We live in a world with infinite virtual soapboxes—available to everyone, every day, and always.

I noticed recently that the IMDb website had cast asunder its discussion boards. While I never participated in any of them, I frequently perused threads. There was a lot of interesting stuff to be gleaned there—non-confrontational opinions, civilized give-and-take, and compelling trivia—but also bushel loads of bile. I sometimes think that we have been unmasked by today’s technology.

Speaking of which, I’ve been watching HBO’s Deadwood series via Amazon Prime. Admittedly, the series took a little while to grow on me—the vilest of bile factor on the small screen—but I eventually acclimated to its unrelenting brutality and relative absence of humanity. For sure, it depicts a beastly time and place—man’s inhumanity to man, and especially to woman. And I’d like to think that we’ve come a long way—a long way. But then I log on to Facebook, read commentary on news sites, and tune into cable news programs. It's enough to make me say and mean it: "Let it snow…let it snow…let it snow."

(Photos from the personal collection of Nicholas Nigro)

Monday, March 6, 2017

March Madness

Since that seventy-degrees—no jacket required—day last week, we here in New York City experienced the coldest weather of the winter. It was fourteen degrees the night before last. But if that’s the worst that Winter 2017 has to throw at us, we’ve got nothing to complain about.

When I was walking through Van Cortlandt Park a couple of mornings ago, it was in fact glove-wearing cold. The park was pretty desolate as a result. I passed a couple of hardy folks jogging, both of whom said hello to me. That sort of thing is the exception to the more familiar silence is golden rule that most of us practice. You know: Don't talk to strangers. One of the joggers—a young fellow—actually said, “Good morning, Sir"—the Bronx equivalent, I suppose, of being knighted. It’s also indicative that I’m perceived as an old guy now—an old guy strolling through the park on a cold winter’s morn. Old Guy Me couldn’t resist snapping a picture across the Van Cortlandt Park flats of the Russian Mission Residency in the nearby neighborhood of Riverdale. The Bronx White House, I call it.

Once upon a time, the month of March embodied hope and renewal for me: sprouting spring flowers, baseball players gearing up in Florida, and the slow but sure winding down of a grueling school year. But when I spied a few daffodils flowering in the park the other day, I didn’t envision happier things—like playing stickball, or getting out the baseball mitt to have a catch, or preparing to watch the Mets’ opening day. Instead, nothing! Life has become a monotonous grind. The seasons change as per the calendar, but the grind merely changes its hues.

Grind notwithstanding, at least there’s good pizza around me—walking distance always. I’ve been patronizing a place of late that has had the same family running it for half a century. Italian-Americans running a pizza parlor—now that’s a novelty! I hadn’t been in their establishment in years, but I remembered the guys from my college days—father and sons. Longstanding family businesses like theirs are increasingly hard to come by in New York City.

I guess I should include one more comforting constant vis-à-vis my college days. Manhattan College students still have a penchant for beer—cheap beer specifically. For some reason unbeknownst to me—they’ve got plenty of dorm space—the college leases several area private homes for its students. The telltale indicators of them in the houses are empty cans of Natural Light—or Natty Lights as they are affectionately called—in the garbage and outside the garbage, too. When I began my four years at that very college, the legal drinking age in New York State was eighteen; the year I graduated, 1984, it turned twenty-one. The fake ID industry thereafter flourished.

Recently, a humorous YouTube video made the rounds, playing off the fact that New York City subway conductors are required to point at a hanging black-and-white striped  zebra board when their trains come to a stop in a station. They must perform this Uncle Sam Wants You gesture before they open the train doors. I had noticed the boards in the past and speculated on their purpose, but I never observed a single conductor pointing at one. And so my mission yesterday was to stand in close proximity to a zebra board and see for myself. You are there! Mission accomplished. Missions like this are important when life becomes a slog.

I will embark on other such missions in the city where virtually every delicatessen feels it has to brand itself gourmet. Now, I’ve seen a lot of the men and women who work in these places, and Graham Kerr-types they are not. Perhaps my next mission will be to find a Graham Kerr in a New York City gourmet deli.

(Photos from the personal collection of Nicholas Nigro)

Friday, February 24, 2017

No Jacket Required

It cracked seventy degrees here in New York City today. I don’t ordinarily expect to see my trusty mailman, Yu, in his summer shorts in the month of February. But fear not: I’m not going to turn this weather anomaly into something political. You know: Yu in his summer wear in wintertime as Exhibit A and absolute proof of climate change. If I did, I’d be on as thin ice as Senator Inhofe was a couple of years ago when he brought a snowball from the great outdoors—during an especially harsh winter—into the hallowed halls of Congress. He held it up as Exhibit A that climate change was a hoax. The only thing he proved beyond a shadow of a doubt was that he was not especially bright.

Whatever the meteorological reason for the current warm spell is doesn’t much matter. Two years ago, the temperature in the Bronx didn’t rise above freezing once during February. It was like living in the Arctic Circle without the midnight sun. Give me warm over cold any day of the week. After all, the especially agreeable climate enabled me to leisurely walk around this morning and take note of things that I otherwise might have missed with winter brain freeze.

For example: I experienced multiple Iron Eyes Cody moments. Litter is everywhere and in places it shouldn’t be if people weren’t boorish slobs. God forbid an individual hold on to his or her garbage and locate a trashcan that’s not at full capacity. And there are not only a lot of litterbugs around my neck of the woods, but self-centered, reckless drivers, too. I live in a residential area with nearby shopping centers, parks, and an El train. Translation: a never-ending flow of men, women, and children crossing streets. 

There is a particular stop sign near a Van Cortlandt Park entrance where drivers merge on to busy Broadway. A majority of them ignore or quasi-ignore—by not coming to a full stop—the sign. It’s at a location where pedestrians of all ages cross the street in front of it. I’ve on occasion spotted a patrol car from the local 50th precinct lying in wait to ticket transgressors. But it’s the enforcement equivalent of a drop in the ocean. New York City has cameras at various traffic lights to catch drivers who run red lights. Why not put a few at important stop signs? Generally speaking, I’m not a fan of Big Brother surveillance, but something more has got to be done to punish irresponsible drivers who put the rest of us at risk.

Despite these annoying but not unusual observations on my morning excursion, no jacket was required. Lastly, I noticed two local grammar schools—one public and one parochial (my alma mater)—with their respective flags flying. The public school’s flag was at half-staff; the Catholic school’s wasn’t. I wondered about that and found nothing on the Internet to explain why. It was—for me at least—symbolic in some way of the present bizarre times. And as for seventy degree days in winter, I’ll take them when I can get them.

(Photos from the personal collection of Nicholas Nigro)

Sunday, February 19, 2017

Midwinter Musings

Yesterday, my plans were derailed—literally. At the W238th Street elevated subway station, I discovered the hard way that the Number 1 train wasn’t running due to track work. There were a mess of notices with various service changes posted at its entrance, but straphangers, like me, were confused and scaled the El’s considerable flight of severely rusting—and over one hundred years old—metal steps, expecting a Saturday morning train, which typically run every eight minutes on weekends. When we reached what was formerly known as a token booth, however, it was about-face time.

There were alternate routes available, of course, including free subway shuttle buses at street level to the A train a mile-and-a-half to the south. I seriously considered this option and was a split-second away from hopping on one of the buses. But as a wearer of a prosthetic knee, I prefer not riding on them if I don’t have to—too many erratic stops and starts. The subway’s rocking and rolling is much more predictable to me. I can better anticipate the trip’s jolts—severe as they sometimes are—as long as I have a seat. Buses, too, have very high steps—it’s practically a foot drop into the street sometimes. And while I’ve managed to successfully navigate these hurdles so far, who needs the added anxiety of worrying about getting flung head first across a bus's floor after a sudden breaking? There’s always a first time, too!

So, with this unexpected and unwanted change of plans, I wandered into nearby Van Cortlandt Park and spied a gaggle of Canada geese. They were chilling on the park’s snow-covered “flats.” Because the temperature was expected to surpass sixty degrees later in the day, this snow pack from last week’s storm was hours away from extinction. And what a difference a day makes: Today the flats—so picturesque yesterday morning—were an unsightly mess of mud and geese droppings.

The midwinter recess, as it was called in my schooldays, is upon us as well. A week off from the drudgery of primary education in the dead of winter was very welcome as I recall. These weeks of leisure always included the federal holiday: Presidents’ Day. That’s tomorrow, by the way—a day, once upon a time, celebrated as the Father of Our Country’s birthday. I can still picture the black construction paper cutouts of George Washington's and Abraham Lincoln’s heads in profile on the windows and bulletin boards of the area grammar schools. I believe the reason for the creation of the inane Presidents’ Day was to cut back on a holiday. We used get both Lincoln’s—on February 12th—and Washington’s birthdays off.

America has never really been big on holidays and time off from work—especially in the private sector. This work-until-you-drop mind-set was supposed to be what separated—metaphorically speaking—the men from the boys on the world stage. I remember Grandpa Walton on the TV series The Waltons enunciating his mantra for living. “There are only two things in life” that really matter, he said: “Love and hard work.” I can think of a few more, but that’s for another blog.

Speaking of hard work, there’s a lot of political chatter now about saving Social Security. For some the solution is obvious: Raise the retirement age to eighty-seven. We are—after all—living longer and longer nowadays. However, there aren’t exactly jobs to keep all the oldsters and oldsters-to-be duly employed until they’re eighty-seven years old. With more and more people purchasing stuff online, even Wal-Mart greeter positions will be hard to come by.

There was this friend of my father’s—in his golden years—who secured a job as a Con Edison electric and gas meter reader. He was officially retired, wanted to keep working, and, very importantly, knew someone. At the time, flesh-and-blood human beings read every single meter in New York City and parts of nearby Westchester County. But now all the meters are read electronically. I’ve often wondered what happened to all those out-of-a-job Con Edison employees. I would get to know the meter readers who read my meters and once a month loudly screamed “Con Ed!” outside my window at seven-thirty in the morning. Electronically read meters, cashless tolls, and living to be one hundred with a greater chance of suffering from dementia. As always: Something to look forward to.

(Photos from the personal collection of Nicholas Nigro)

Thursday, February 16, 2017

There Used to Be a Mailbox

Neighborhood mailboxes have been targeted the past few years. Not booby-trapped or filled with mysterious powders, but victimized. The post office even posted warnings on certain mailboxes that were fished of their contents. Thieves in the cloak of darkness opened mailbox levers with their unique fishing tackle at-the-ready: a plastic bottle or something comparable smothered in a glue-like substance and connected to a string.

Dangling bottles and such into mailbox booty was their modus operandi. Envelopes readily stuck to the bait. What the rogues would do with their ill-gotten gains varied. It depended on the particulars of their catch. Checks mailed to utility, cable, and credit card companies were altered—a hundred dollar check made out to the phone company converted, for instance, to a one thousand dollar check made out to Freddy Felon or Rosie Reprobate. In other cases, invaluable personal information—like credit card and bank account information—was gleaned.

Nothing is sacred anymore. I remember learning at a tender age that it’s a federal crime to tamper with the mail. The United States Post Office response to this unsettling crime spree was to change the mail levers on the mailboxes to modest slots—a good idea under the circumstances. They also removed many of the boxes altogether—a not so good idea.

While out with a letter in hand a couple of days ago, I figured I’d mail it in a box I’ve utilized many times before—one directly across the entrance to the local police precinct. It’s a mailbox that happily had not been previously fished and, too, a survivor of the purge. Unfortunately, I couldn’t get to it because it was surrounded by snow and ice. No problem, I thought, another mailbox was nearby, in the direction of my errand run. However, what I discovered was that it—like so many others before—had been unceremoniously taken away.

I walked around for a bit, recalling where I believed mailboxes once stood for decades—but none were found. And this mission of mine occurred in the Bronx in the vicinity of busy Broadway and the noisy El. The bottom line: Lots and lots of people with fewer and fewer mailboxes. The local post office’s advice to neighbors one and all: Mail letters in the safety of the post office itself. Of course, walking a half-mile in the dead of winter or heat of summer to mail a birthday card isn’t always feasible for everyone.

(Photos from the personal collection of Nicholas Nigro)

Tuesday, February 14, 2017

For Whom the Bell Tolls...

Thirty-seven years ago I was a college student who worked part-time in a pet food and supplies shop called Pet Nosh. Located in the borough of Queens—in the pleasant enough, leafy neighborhood of Little Neck—my brother and a neighbor co-owned this mom-and-pop. A commute from Kingbridge in the Bronx, where we all called home, to Pet Nosh found us crossing the Throgs Neck Bridge and the East River. What little kid didn't call it the Frogs Neck Bridge? The toll at the bridge was seventy-five cents back then. A sign at the toll plaza importuned drivers to “Save time. Have Exact Change.” Fast-forward to the present and exact change isn’t—in a manner of speaking—so exact anymore. If one doesn’t have an E-ZPass, where the toll price is $5.54, it’s $8.00 to cross the bridge—in both directions. To paraphrase an old politician: $8.00 here and $8.00 there—well—pretty soon you’re talking about real money.

Speaking of tolls and the times we live in: Yesterday, I crossed the Henry Hudson Bridge from Northern Manhattan into the Bronx. Several minutes after traversing the George Washington Bridge and the Hudson River from New Jersey, this is the same bridge that placed us in the close proximity of home sweet home after my family’s many summer vacations along the Jersey Shore and visits with the maternal grandparents in Bangor, Pennsylvania. The Henry Hudson Bridge spans the Harlem River Ship Canal, which connects the Harlem River with the Hudson River. For several decades, its toll was ten cents—a thin dime even in the 1970s when the Throgs Neck Bridge was a whopping seventy-five cents—but those days are long gone.

In fact, there are no toll plazas on the Henry Hudson Bridge anymore. That’s good news for motorists, because the traffic backups—courtesy of the tolls mostly—were considerable during rush hours. Really, the bridge was not designed with today’s traffic volume in mind. It’s not, however, good for all the toll takers who lost their jobs and those who will when all of New York City’s bridges follow suit. This cashless operation is clearly the wave of the future. Either one has an E-ZPass or gets a bill in the mail for the privilege of crossing one of master builder Robert Moses’ bridges.

As far as the Henry Hudson Bridge, which opened in 1936: What was once ten cents now costs $2.54 with an E-ZPass and $5.50 without one. The world has turned upside down. We used to get discounts for paying cash. And, by the way, that ten-cent toll was advertised as temporary, until the bonds to build the bridge were paid off, which they were a long, long time ago. But Robert Moses knew a good thing when he saw it—the cash cows of bridge and tunnel tolls. For whom the bell tolls? It definitely tolls for thee.

(Photo one from the personal collection of Nicholas Nigro)

Friday, February 10, 2017

The Winter of Our Discontent

It snowed yesterday in New York City. In the part of the Bronx I call home, I’d estimate we got around five inches. Central Park in Manhattan recorded over nine inches. I was though pleased to be on the low end of the snow spectrum. As a boy, I would have exceptionally disappointed that the storm named Niko by the Weather Channel didn’t live up to all the hype—in my little snippet of the world at least. Nevertheless, shoveling five inches of heavy wet snow was no walk in the park; no Sunday picnic. And the fact that it got bitterly cold overnight seriously compounded those measly five inches. While it wasn’t exactly a winter wonderland this morning, it was quite icy. Courtesy of a ton of rock salt and calcium, the area streets were a slushy mess. Walking to and fro was not for the faint of heart.

In the snow-loving days of my distant past, unshoveled walkways didn’t give me pause. They were obstacles effortlessly overcome with a pair of good construction boots and youthful agility. That was then and this is now. Unshoveled, or minimally shoveled sidewalks, make me angry nowadays—really angry sometimes—because I look upon them as a matter of life and death. After all, an unshoveled piece of concrete can throw a big-time wrench into getting from point A to point A. And having to walk out into the Bronx streets to bypass icy stretches amounts to swapping one potential danger for another. I don’t want to get hit by an SUV on the post-snowfall narrower city streets, or meet my maker at the foot of a snowplow or salt (and calcium) spreader.

Looking on the bright side of things, this winter has been relatively benign—weather wise. But it’s other events and circumstances—beyond the fickle whims of Mother Nature—that have made this a winter of discontent for a lot of people. Surfing the New York City Department of Sanitation’s web page today, I noticed a list of holidays. I was buoyed by the fact that Monday, February 20th was classified as Washington’s Birthday, the way it once was—and should have always remained—before it morphed into the wishy-washy Presidents’ Day.

After watching three seasons of Turn, the compelling AMC series based on the best-selling book Washington’s Spies, on Netflix, I developed this insatiable urge for stuff on the Revolutionary War and the Founders. I even ordered on DVD an old PBS series from the 1990s called Liberty. And all I could think of when watching it was how far we’ve fallen. But I don’t believe we’ve fallen and can’t get up. This too shall pass, he said.

(Photos from the personal collection of Nicholas Nigro)

Tuesday, January 31, 2017

Unhappy Sunday

I was in Manhattan on Sunday. I would have otherwise been in front of my television set watching the Sunday morning news programs, which was something I desired avoiding at all costs. I just said no to the sights and sounds of alternative fact-spouting flacks and yes to the great outdoors.

Due to construction, the Number 1 train was running from W242nd Street in the Bronx to 14th Street, instead of South Ferry, in Manhattan. Since I typically exit on 14th Street on these spontaneous adventures of mine, all was well. The fact that the Number 1 was operating a shorter run than the norm, and bypassing several stops, made it “Special” apparently. Yes, that special word replaced “South Ferry” as the train’s last stop on the individual subway car signs. The best laid plans of mice and men: This special train trip didn’t quite make it to 14th Street. At 137th Street, we passengers were held in the station for a few minutes, awaiting clearance from a dispatcher that never came. The conductor at last broke the bad news. “This train is going out of service!” he announced. Translation: Everybody out!

I patiently waited with everyone else for the next Number 1 to come along but—despite it, too, being special—the train was not surprisingly overcrowded. As a C-Leg wearer, I abhor crowds. (I didn’t particularly like them pre-C-Leg.) But I wasn’t in a particular hurry, so I decided to wait the eight or so minutes for the next train. At the far end of an elongated underground subway station, I stood alone with the sole exception of an unhinged-looking fellow ambling my way. I took this reality snapshot as the latest sign that I should navigate my way onto street level and commence my Manhattan journey from there. (I employed a variation of my Charles Manson Rule for subway travel. And because of it, found myself at an unusual starting point—way, way up north and walking southbound, the direction the special Number 1 train was supposed to take me.)

So, on this sunny, benign winter’s morning, I strolled down Broadway in the environs of City College and then Columbia University. I hoped prayed that I wouldn’t be subject to any “Crazy Creamsicle” Trump chatter or protests, because I wanted a few hours free of presidential thoughts and, again, I don’t like crowds. Despite the bizarre antics of the aforementioned commander-in-chief in his first ten days in office, life in the big city went on without a hitch. I didn’t overhear or detect any political babble at all. I passed by Tom’s Restaurant of Seinfeld fame and felt compelled to take the obligatory picture. I should eat in there one of those days, I thought, before it, too, is claimed by New York City’s diner purge.

I had actually forgotten as I wandered through this area of Manhattan that it had a few hills to navigate, which like crowds, I’d prefer not tackling on a C-Leg. Fortunately, I passed through unharmed. At one point, I found myself at the intersection of hoity-toity West End Avenue and 100th Street, where I spied a telephone booth. Pay phones are getting increasingly hard to find nowadays, but I thought phone booths had gone the way of the Rolodex. Perhaps Clark Kent lives in the area.

I was back on Broadway at 96th Street, a slice of earth I hadn’t traversed above ground in fifteen years, I'd guess. There was a diner called Happy Burger in the vicinity, I recalled, which I patronized once upon a time. I wondered if it was still there, but suspected it was more than likely a casualty of gentrification. The surrounding area told me in no uncertain terms that Happy Burger’s ship had sailed. A CVS drug store covered a good portion of the block where Happy Burger once served coffee at a tiny fraction of the new king of the hill: Starbucks.

Upon my return home, a Google search filled me in on all I needed to know about the demise of Happy Burger. It had closed its doors in 2004, I learned. Its Greek immigrant owners had planned to keep the place open until their lease expired in 2008, but the landlord made them an offer they couldn’t refuse to close shop four years earlier. They shut Happy Burger down without giving their many loyal patrons a right and proper heads-up. A unexpected special train going out of service and a deranged-looking man on a subway platform augured the unhappy discovery that Happy Burger—like so many happy things—is no more.

(Photos from the personal collection of Nicholas Nigro)

Friday, January 27, 2017

Death of an Icon

A week or so ago, something that I now cannot remember inspired me to search YouTube for The Mary Tyler Moore Show opening. Such an extended and catchy sitcom opening theme is a relic of a bygone and, I daresay, better time. Why have a minute-and-a half opening when three commercials can run in its stead? I’m just happy that this bottom-bottom line mindset didn’t exist on network television when I was growing up.

Anyway, after my aforementioned YouTube search, I chanced upon a bona fide treasure trove: complete episodes of The Mary Tyler Moore Show with the openings and closings intact, including the renowned MTM meowing cat. (MTM trivia: The feline was captured yawning and the meow a dub job.) I imagine the episodes will be eventually taken down for copyright infringement, but in the meantime I’ve been watching and thoroughly enjoying them. Despite it being a 1970s sitcom, the look, feel, and humor of The Mary Tyler Moore Show, I believe, holds up well all these years later.

I was telling a friend last week that I had gotten hooked on The Mary Tyler Moore Show via YouTube. I told him that—with the exception of Ted Knight—the main cast of the show was still among the living, including ninety-five-year-old Betty White. Considering that the show debuted in September 1970—more than four decades ago—that’s no small accomplishment, I said. And just a few days after this exchange, Mary Tyler Moore passed away.

From my perspective, Mary’s show represents a portal into the simpler days of my boyhood, when my brothers and I descended a flight of stairs to watch prime-time television with our paternal grandmother and aunt. They owned a color television set—a Zenith model with a light-up channel dial—and we didn’t. Somehow to me, The Mary Tyler Moore Show underscores both the serenity and fervor of youth. It aired on Saturday nights, which meant there was no school the next day. This fact alone added to the show’s incomparable and agreeable ambiance. Not having to get up early the following morning and trudge to a place I loathed going to—let’s just say—mattered a great deal. And Mary’s original apartment was a soothing visual with its picture window and outdoor deck overlooking what was supposed to be Minneapolis. The fake snow frequently falling outside inspired pleasing thoughts of Christmas and wintertime frolics in an age when I revered the white stuff.

There was even that mysterious woman crossing the street and caught in a freeze frame—looking puzzled in Mary’s direction—when the show’s star gleefully tosses her hat into the air during the intro. I recently found out her name. She was Minneapolis resident Hazel Frederick, who just happened to be on a shopping trip when the production team was filming exterior shots in the city. I recall saying how Hazel resembled Mrs. Heegan, a schoolmate of mine’s mother. (In The Bob Newhart Show’s opening, Bob gets on a train to go to work in the morning. An anonymous woman is seated across from him, a dead ringer for a neighbor’s grandmother known by one and all as Mama.) It’s minutia like this that was a huge part of being young and unsaddled with life’s baggage. It’s just one of many reasons why the death of an icon like Mary Tyler Moore is so sad.

Tuesday, January 17, 2017

The Best Doesn’t Come Easy

While meandering in lower Manhattan on New Year’s Day morning, I made my way through the Chelsea section of the borough. Within its cozy confines, I came upon a pizza place—one among hundreds in the bustling metropolis. But what differentiated this eatery from so many others was its name: “The Best Pizza.” Could it actually be the best? The best at a dollar a slice? Presently, the going rate for a plain slice of pizza in New York City is $2.75, the price of a subway or bus ride. I longed for answers to my questions, but it was well before lunchtime when I passed by. I couldn’t sample their fare. I could, however, hazard a guess as to whether it was the best pizza or not. Going out on a limb, perhaps, I concluded that it was probably not the best pizza.

Yesterday, I found myself on the very same urban terra firma. It was my intention this go-round to try The Best Pizza’s pizza. Unfortunately, the establishment had very limited indoor seating and a take out for me wasn’t practical. Despite my burning desire to know for certain if The Best Pizza lived up to its name, I wasn’t about to take the pizza—best or not—on a subway journey to the Bronx. And, from my vantage point, it was a little too cold to chow down on the street. Besides, I don’t do that in the best of climes.

It’s worth noting that Chelsea, apparently, attracts the best and the brightest. It values excellence, too. Case in point: A few stores down from The Best Pizza is a new restaurant on the cusp of opening—Excellent Dumpling House. In the vicinity of both is Best Shoe Repair. There’s a Laundromat next door to Best Shoe Repair that’s evidently not the best, but I’m sure it’s excellent nonetheless. I’d surmise that Best Cleaners is somewhere in the area—on some side street that I missed. I did encounter the next best thing: Nice Laundry. And a little kindness goes a long away these days, especially on the mean streets of New York.

(Photos from the personal collection of Nicholas Nigro)

Monday, January 2, 2017

The Morning After

I began the new year yesterday by venturing into Manhattan—“downtown” as we in the Northwest Bronx say. It was mid-morning when I hopped on the Number 1 train for the fifty or so minute journey, exiting at 18th Street. Subject to change, my informal plan was to travel northward through—what was only hours before—ground zero of the annual New Year’s Eve extravaganza. It’s a place I never once desired being in during the waning hours of the final day of the year. Packed like sardines in a can—with drunken strangers and limited and inaccessible places to relieve oneself—just never appealed to me. And I can only imagine it’s a whole lot worse now in these “If you see something, say something” times.

As expected, both the subway ride and lower Manhattan itself were quieter than typical Sunday mornings in the city. Nevertheless, increasing numbers of men, women, and children—lots and lots of tourists—materialized as I made my way past Madison Square Garden and eventually the periphery of Times Square. I zigzagged back and forth to avoid the worst of the people crunch, which wasn’t—relatively speaking—so bad on the morning of the first day of the new year. Along the way, I spied police barriers galore in big piles now and awaiting pickup. Concrete block police barriers were also everywhere. I even spotted an area mailbox with a padlock on it. There was garbage aplenty, too, left behind by the revelers. Street cleaners and assorted sanitation vehicles were omnipresent.

Northward bound at this time of year necessitated a short detour to Rockefeller Center and the Christmas tree. As a youth, seeing the tree was an absolute must and a holiday given. But as I got older, a visit to that over-crowded piece of earth was no longer on my agenda. The tree looked the same every year anyway. Last year was the first time I’d seen it in the flesh in almost two decades. Now, it’s two years in a row. By the way, the LED lights give it a somewhat different look than I remember as a kid—at least in the daytime.

Nearby Radio City looked much the same, but I didn’t get the excited rush I got while calling on the place as a boy to see the “Christmas Spectacular.” I don’t believe it was called that in the early 1970s when my grammar school class took its yearly field trip to Radio City. The place featured movies in addition to the Rockettes back then. In 1970, 1971, 1972, I saw Scrooge, Bedknobs and Broomsticks, and 1776 respectively at Christmastime. I remember it cost each one of my classmates $1.50 for the privilege—the group rate, I guess. The average Radio City ticket price this year for the Christmas show—without a movie—was $133.47. Times have certainly changed.

I saw a lot of that change in my New Year’s Day 2017 excursion. That expensive feeling was palpable from start to finish. When my aunt took my brothers and I shopping downtown at Christmas in the early and mid-1970s—an annual tradition of ours—we began the adventures at Macy’s and called on stores like Gimbel’s, the super-big Woolworth’s, Brentano’s bookstore, and Korvette’s. Heading to the subway station on 50th Street after experiencing the big finale of our trips—the Rockefeller Center tree—we sometimes stopped at a Woolworth’s annex store for one last hurrah. I traversed that same area yesterday as I made my way to the very same subway station. I tried to envision where exactly this little Woolworth’s store once stood, but everything looked so, so expensive now that it was difficult to pinpoint.

My Manhattan voyage at an end, I got on the subway at 50th Street. Destination: uptown and home. My modus operandi for traveling in the least crowded subway cars: Last one for uptown; first one for downtown. The only fly in this ointment is that when heading uptown, the last car sometimes completely empties out before I reach my destination. And being in a totally empty subway car—even in the bright light of day on a generally safe line—is a peculiar feeling. One becomes a magnet for an unhinged individual to enter the car. With several stops yet to go for me yesterday, I found myself all alone and promptly spied a strange-looking man peering in from the adjoining car and slowing making his way my way. Since he somewhat resembled Charles Manson, I wasted no time in putting into practice my Manson Subway Rule. I nonchalantly exited at the next stop and waited for the next train. It’s better to be safe than sorry, I thought, on the first day of a new year.

(Photos from the personal collection of Nicholas Nigro)