Monday, March 18, 2019

March Through Madness

Neither my mother nor my father was of Irish descent. Still, our family's front door was festooned with shamrocks, leprechauns, and glittering pots of gold—wearin' o' the green—once a year in celebration of St. Patrick’s Day. It was a day off from school, too—a Catholic school bone. But St. Patrick’s Day assumed an even higher significance to me because it was a harbinger of both spring and the start of baseball season. Of course, the day also meant that stickball games were one fair-weather weekend away. While not ideal conditions, we played with temperatures in the low forties and even colder windchills, which in retrospect was better than playing in ninety-degree heat and humidity.

That was the scenario forty years ago. Fast-forward to the present and I still look forward to— if nothing else—springtime. However, I feel like I’m marching through madness. This goes a long way in explaining why I rarely watch regular television anymore, particularly news coverage. I’d rather peruse the various news accounts and view—on my terms—selected snippets of videos. It is vital that I acclimate myself to the subject matter and mentally prepare myself for any fallout.

For one, there are certain personages that I just can’t bear to watch live under any circumstances. It’s like being in the company of individuals whom you fear will embarrass you. I have a few of them in my life circle—loose cannons who say and do inappropriate things at inappropriate times. I feel no need to import that kind of thing from the wider world. And so I reflect and muse—read all about it—on the day after St. Patrick’s Day 2019.
Many years ago the month of March signified that it was time to take the baseball gloves out of mothballs. That's a figure of speech, of course. The gloves actually remained in the front hallway all winter long—yearning always to return to the Great Outdoors. My brother and I had that first catch in our concrete backyard—with laundry hanging out on clotheslines—typically around St. Patrick's Day. We were a familiar sight in the fledgling days of spring in what was a simpler and greener snapshot in time.
I noticed in the news this past week that many high-school kids demonstrated and demanded action on climate change. A noble cause indeed—particularly to the younger generations—but I'd ask them if they have any plans for accepting less. You know, to kick things down a notch and not have to go to the most expensive colleges half-way across the country, or have the biggest HD TVs in their bedrooms, or the very latest in smartphone technology. Just sayin' that talk is cheap. Real action demands a little sacrifice every now and then.
When this very McDonald's first opened its doors in the old neighborhood over forty-five years ago, it was a big event. Those were the innocent days before the invention of the Egg McMuffin and the serving of breakfast. Suddenly, and without fair warning, this past week, the place closed shop and a fence was erected around the property. It always seemed busy inside with cars perpetually lined up at the drive-thru. So, I don't know if the work permits on the fencing indicate a remodeling job or a death knell. Has this McDonald's location sold its last Big Mac? Because he regularly patronized its bathroom while making his appointed rounds, my mailman is especially traumatized at its unexpected closing. One man's hamburger joint is another man's comfort station.
I suppose that there is nothing like Christmas and St. Patrick's Day in New York. It's just too bad I have seen parents throwing cheese slices at their babies. Makes me sad to be a member of the human race.
Time enough at last...
Seagulls appreciate St. Patrick's Day, too...
For starters, more tourists around means more discarded fare.
And the seagull motto has long been: What's fare is fair game.
I frequently pass this gate and ponder...well, the gate is closed...
A not especially wise man once told me that "thoughts lead to other thoughts...which has to be helpful." Well, I spied this sign yesterday and thought about an old game show called Sale of the Century hosted by Joe Garagiola. Was that helpful?
I know what an aria is, but what's an orea?
A picture taken off the Number 1 train. Old Glory peacefully flies over a New York City Transit bus depot on St. Patrick's Day. Department of Sanitation smokestacks loom large in the backdrop.
The city is in the process of modernizing its subway system. Perhaps one day its ubiquitous blue lights might go green for St. Patrick's Day.
Or would that cause a lot of accidents?
Thoughts lead to other thoughts...Blue's Clues...
Life is really whizzing by...
And since I can't do anything about that, I'd rather New York City transit go to the dogs than be for the birds.
I'll cross that bridge when I come to it. Oh, wait, here it is...

(Photos from the personal collection of Nicholas Nigro)

Friday, March 15, 2019

Seeing Daylight Savings

It's been a week now and I’m just about acclimated to Daylight Saving Time (DST). While I know it's controversial in some circles, I believe that—in the big picture—it makes sense. It certainly enhanced the summers of my youth. The longer summer days—sunlight-wise in the waking hours—supplied us with more usable time in the Great Outdoors. More time to play the games that little people had played for generations, which they, sadly, don't play anymore. Nowadays, kids don’t actually need that additional sunlight, which was so very precious to us. They can stare into their mind-numbing devices anywhere, during all four seasons, and at any time of the day. Since this is the last week of Winter 2019, I thought I’d tie up some loose ends and gaze with anticipation at the prospect of spring. It was seventy-five degrees in New York City today!
I'm still on the Pizza Trail here. In my old neighborhood—Kingsbridge in the Bronx—during the 1970s and 1980s, a fiery debate raged. Who had the better pizza: Sam's or Riviera just down the block? I was a Sam's guy, but Riviera's pizza was quite unique and very tasty, too. There was a period of time in the late-1980s when I thought Sam's had lost a little of its former luster, with pizza makers—for one—undercooking the pizza pies. So, I patronized Riviera for a spell. Typically, my pathway home would have found me walking directly past Sam's Pizza with its elongated picture window. The one with a bird's-eye view of sidewalk passersby. But I chose a detour in this instance. I didn't want the staff at Sam's to spy my grease-stained white paper bag, the evidence of my treachery. Sam's used brown paper bags.
Once upon a time, in the early-1980s, I labored at a mom-and-pop shop called Pet Nosh. It was located on Northern Boulevard in the Little Neck section of Queens. There was an excellent pizza place called Sal's a few doors down. Sal himself was there every day and the shop endured for another twenty-five years. They don't make 'em like Sal's Pizza anymore.
In the late-1970s my family vacationed in the cozy shore town of Lavallette, New Jersey. The Oven Pizza filled in admirably—during my vacation from Sam's—for a couple of weeks in the summertime. It's still in the same location—on Grand Central Avenue—and called The Oven Pizza all these years later. As the late Mel Allen would say, "How about that!"
Forty-one years ago this summer, my mother, brothers, and I passed through the town of Sag Harbor on Long Island. Proof that pizza assumed an important role in our lives, a picture was taken of the place where we stopped for lunch: Conca D'oro Pizza. I Googled the name and was surprised to learn that it survived in the same spot—with the same ownership—until 2017. Conca D'oro had opened its doors in 1975 and we dropped by 1978. It lasted another four decades. That's time for you! Now it's a totally remodeled hip pizza place with hipper than hip pizza selections.
In a photo album scrapbook of the Summer of '78—that had nothing to do with a Barry Manilow album—a manual typewriter was employed to identify the pictures therein, including Conca D'Oro Pizza and the fact that "Carol Bellamy worked there." Carol Bellamy was a prominent New York City politician at the time and her doppelganger, a waitress in Conca D'Oro.
The waning days of winter in Van Cortlandt Park. Its swimming pool is in the backdrop. A friend of mine, who regularly drank in the park on summer evenings thirty years ago, remembered watching youths scaling the closed pool's fencing at night. His most vivid memory was the sight of an expectant mother making the climb. 
This is a barbecue pit section in the sprawling park. I prefer its stark winter look to its littered summer one.
This is the very field where we would "hit some out" on a summer's night. DST lent a helping hand.
When I snapped this picture the temperature was in the high fifties. At this time of year, that's a freakin' bone.
I've tried to capture an image that includes planes, trains, and automobiles—or even planes, trains, and school busses—but always come up short. It's a plane problem that I intend on solving.
Life is all about endings and beginnings and so is the Van Cortlandt Park, W242nd Street, subway terminal.
I've seen this mysterious Number 13 on the Number 1 train on one other occasion and can't for the life of me figure out how it got there. There is no Number 13 train in New York City.
If it's the work of the practical joker vandal, I'd really like to know how he does it.
This is the kind of blue I like feeling.
And remember, too, there is always light at the end of the tunnel, just don't fall down in front of it...
In this day and age in particular, I highly recommend this dying art...
I appreciate the extra light of DST and the darkness, too, when we return to standard time. Christmas, after all, wouldn't be the same without it.
 Vis-à-vis the weather, it's been a tolerable winter, but I still say good riddance.

(Photos from the personal collection of Nicholas Nigro)

Tuesday, March 12, 2019

The Time of Your Life

Once upon a time I could switch on the family’s black-and-white television set—with my youthful adrenalin flowing—and hear these immortal words: “Meet the Mets…Meet the Mets…Step right up and greet the Mets…Bring your kiddies…Bring your wife…Guaranteed to have the time of your life.” They were lyrics to the catchy tune that opened—along with a fast-paged montage of action shots—1970s New York Mets’ games on WOR-TV, Channel 9.

Listening to games on the radio in those days was as equally satisfying as turning on the TV. Perhaps even more so because so much was left to the imagination as broadcasters Lindsey Nelson, Bob Murphy, and Ralph Kiner so effortlessly painted the word picture. Sadly, now, they are all gone as is the long-time home of the Mets, Shea Stadium. Believe it or not, it was considered a state-of-the-art ballpark when it first opened in 1964 in the shadow of the New York Worlds Fair. It didn’t take very long, though, for the place to sink into utter disrepair and earn a reputation as a sorry spot to both play and watch America’s favorite pastime.

Despite its obvious flaws, I loved Shea Stadium. It was an incomplete circle in design—totally open beyond the outfield—and in the flight path of nearby LaGuardia Airport. Drafty and noisy, it seemed—on some days—that you could almost reach out and touch the passing jets. Listening to planes’ crackling engines from such a front row seat may have annoyed some spectators—and ballplayers on the field—but I thought it was all rather cool and added to the suspenseful ambience. Youthful exuberance has a knack for turning lemons into lemonade.

A kid could really lose himself in the game of baseball back then. He could immerse himself in the reality of what was occurring on the field and let his imagination take it from there. It was certainly a less complicated time—an era before over-analyzing broadcasters, boorish sports talk radio, and social media forever altered the landscape. Ballplayers, too, weren’t cosseted filthy-rich celebrities. Somehow, we fans identified with them and there was still vestiges of a thing called team loyalty.

Well, that was then and this is now, 2019, the fiftieth anniversary of the 1969 World Champion Mets—the “Miracle Mets.” It’s hard to believe so much time has passed. Its passage has surely done a number on people, places, and things. Both the 1969 Mets and my favorite team of all-time, the 1973 National League Champion Mets, featured Bud Harrelson, Ed Kranepool, and Tom Seaver on their rosters. “Tom Terrific” was my childhood idol, the only one I ever had. Naturally, the games he pitched in assumed an even higher meaning. I proudly wore my “Property of the New York Mets” gray T-shirt, with the number 41 on its back, around my Bronx neighborhood of predominantly Yankee fans. There was only one local—with an adjoining backyard on the next street—who, like me, was a bona fide Met fan. I’m sure it annoyed those in earshot, but he and I would sometimes yell across to one another in the cover of night after an exciting Mets’ victory. And we both revered Tom Seaver and worried about his ERA. If he gave up three runs, it was considered a bad outing for him. This Hall of Fame pitcher once completed 21 games in a single season and amassed 231 of them in his career. It ain’t the same game today.

In what was a competitive world of competing baseball fans, I remember my older brother telling me that I was a Tom Seaver fan and not a Met fan. Well, the unfolding long-term picture proved that comment inaccurate. For when my idol was traded away in what came to be known as the “Midnight Massacre” of June 15, 1977, I remained ever-loyal to the Mets. It wasn’t easy watching a pompous, parsimonious patrician named M. Donald Grant, who was calling the shots, run a lucrative and once respected franchise into the ground—and in pretty short order, too.

But how can you mend a broken heart? Bring Tom Seaver back—as new ownership did in 1983—to finish out his career on the team and in the place he never, ever should have left. That reunification was an incredibly exciting time for me. But when management mysteriously left him unprotected—in a free-agent compensation pool—at the end of the season, Tom Seaver was snatched away from me once more.

This past week, the Seaver family announced that Tom has been diagnosed with dementia and would be retiring from public life. It was sad news all around and a real gut punch. This was news in the wake of scrappy shortstop Bud Harrelson’s revelation that he is suffering from Alzheimer’s disease and Ed Kranepool publicly seeking a kidney donor. Once upon a time I imagined my ashes being sprinkled over Shea Stadium—tossed out of one of those spewing airliners. It would be fitting ending, I surmised. But Shea Stadium isn’t there anymore and neither am I.

(Photos from the personal collection of Nicholas Nigro)

Friday, March 8, 2019

The Pizza Trail

Pizza has followed me virtually everywhere in life, including into an intensive care unit. When I was in an ICU some thirteen years ago, I saw it with my own two eyes. In the middle of the night, a doctor changed my leg’s dressing with a fresh, hot slice of pizza rather than a clean, sterilized bandage. While I’m normally a pizza aficionado, on this occasion—hallucinating with a medley of strong pain-killing meds coursing through my body—I would have preferred the bandage. That was definitely a night to remember—or forget in that instance—when pizza became my enemy.

So, I’d just assume recall my more agreeable pizza encounters in more agreeable settings. When I was growing up, Sam’s Pizza on W231st Street in the Bronx was a neighborhood institution. Owner George used the same mop to clean his shop's floor and pizza oven. He assured concerned witnesses that the intense heat of the oven would kill anything that needed to be killed. Aside from home-cooked meals, Sam’s supplied me with more lunches and dinners in the 1970s and 1980s than anybody else. And I'd like to believe George was spot-on concerning the floor mop.

My father, nevertheless, referred to Sam’s Pizza as the “grease shop” because—in those days—multiple slices to-go were placed in brown paper bags. The excessive oil—grease—from the slices therein often ate away the bags. The Italian side of my family—first and second generation alike—typically frowned on take-out food. My grandmother, in fact, made delicious homemade pizza. She topped the mozzarella cheese with a light coating of breadcrumbs. Predictably, I was asked whose pizza I preferred: Sam’s or Grandma’s? It was an unfair question that put me on the spot. They were two different animals. I liked them both.

Seemingly on the other side of the world—in Bangor, Pennsylvania—there was yet another memorable pizza. It came from a place called Johnny’s Tavern on Messinger Street. My maternal grandfather and father frequently imbibed in the place and—on occasion—returned home with a couple of pies. I remember that the cheese was especially white—no browning on it like typical New York-style pizza—and the sauce had a certain peppery seasoning that was pleasing to the palate. Unfortunately, I don't have a picture of it. It was unique pizza for sure.

While on the subject of unique: In my high school years, TGIF assumed an even higher meaning because pizza was the cafeteria’s main course. Now that same cafeteria in that same school is more like a hipster food court, serving today—I just checked—Cheese Tortellini Alfredo, Parmesan Crusted Tilapia, and Cheese Empanadas. Forty years ago, though, the cafeteria pizza was a hard-to-describe gooey kind—no doubt frozen—that I found quite edible. What would it taste like to me in the here and now? I wonder. But in those days, I consumed a lot of frozen pizza at home, too, ranging from the truly bizarre Buitoni toaster pizza to the especially good Celentano’s square pizza in its own cooking tray. The Buitoni and Celentano brands live on but—sadly—not their pizzas. Ellio’s frozen pizza—which was the most often bought in my house—had a cardboard quality that the cast-iron stomach of my youth found rather appealing. My non-youthful, non-cast-iron stomach recently revisited Ellio’s and found that its cardboard quality tasted like—well—cardboard.

When I was a boy, my family regularly vacationed on the Jersey Shore, which was a good place for pizza. Nothing quite like a slice on the boardwalk in earshot of the Atlantic. But one not-so-good pizza there came from an establishment called Virginia Corner on—where else?—the corner of Virginia Avenue. One year we rented a house on that street, so this cozy-looking eatery was the proverbial stone’s throw away. The fact that it served pizza seemed especially fortuitous, except that the older woman doing the cooking—whom my younger brother and I dubbed “Virginia” herself—didn’t seem to have a handle of things. And the pizza just didn’t happen.

Another pizza tale is from a 1984 Memorial Day weekend road trip, which found a group of us in the tiny sliver that is coastal New Hampshire. The Cove Motel, where we stayed the night, had an attached restaurant that made pizza. We ordered a couple of pies—one plain and one with pepperoni—for dinner that were under-cooked and especially oily. In addition to sour stomachs, one felt like showering after eating the stuff. But to add insult to injury, the Cove Motel had no hot water that night. It was cold showers for everyone. And the sheets on the beds reeked of disinfectant. Happily, the placed redeemed itself the next morning. We had breakfast in the same restaurant, which turned out to be a pleasant surprise. It’s the only time I ever had strawberry syrup on my pancakes.

One final stopover on the pizza trail at a place called Felix Astro pizza—circa 1982—on the East End of Long Island. A bunch of us ordered a Sicilian pie, which we intended on eating there. It oozed with cheese that needed several more minutes in the oven. Sprinkling garlic powder on the mess didn't help when the shaker's top flew off. And so, until death do us part, I continue to follow the pizza trail wherever it takes me.

(Photos from the personal collection of Nicholas Nigro)