Thursday, April 10, 2014

The Tow-Away Zone Revisited


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

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

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


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

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

Sunday, April 6, 2014

When Hope Sprang Eternal...

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


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

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


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

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

Sunday, March 16, 2014

Deathman, Do Not Follow Me...

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

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

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



Wednesday, March 5, 2014

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

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

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

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


Tuesday, March 4, 2014

High Anxiety...in 1978

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, February 22, 2014

Honor Thy Father...

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

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


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

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

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

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Kingsbridge: Characters and Character


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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

Friday, February 7, 2014

Ralph and Me

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, February 5, 2014

Snowfall Perspective...

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

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

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

Friday, January 10, 2014

Neighbors and the Missing Inner Monologues

Among the many things lost in the fast-changing technological times that we live in—notably in urban settings—are frequent neighbor interactions. While growing up, I actually knew people that I really didn't know. That is, I knew the names and often the reputations—fair or unfair—of folks that I never once spoke with or personally encountered. We just knew one another back then because it was a neighborhood—when many neighborhoods in the city still had, for good and for bad, a small town quality to them.

I’d venture to say that when I was a lad in the 1970s and 1980s, there were a whole lot more interesting neighborhood characters than there are today. Neighbors were, for lack of better word, unleashed. They tended to speak their minds, even to people they didn’t know very well or hardly at all. Mr. G, who lived a couple of houses up from me, had no problem telling my older brother: "You look like a damn fool!” This verbal assault happened when he spotted him for the first time with a thick black beard and longer hair than was the norm. He also repeatedly badgered my brother as to when he was going to “get a job.” One afternoon while in earshot of her vociferous husband’s job query to my brother, Mrs. G couldn’t restrain herself and exclaimed: “Nobody wants him! He always throw shoe in window!” The shoe she was referring to was a neighbor girl’s sneaker—one of her tenants in fact—that my brother had thrown through her open window. The G family didn’t employ screens during the summertime, which I always thought was a bad idea with all the bugs and backyard barbecue grills around. Many neighbors, in fact, spoke their minds—devoid of inner monologues—to whomever they encountered in their travels.

Immediately up the block from the G family was the C family. And when the C family’s cat got out of the house, the entire neighborhood was put on alert. The C family grandson blamed the grandmother’s negligence for allowing the cat to escape. I was witness to it. “Out of this house until we find that God-dammed cat,” he shouted at his grandmother as the frantic search began. Suffering from chest pains, the grandmother, whom we all knew as "Nanny," reported that her grandson wouldn’t permit her back in the house until the cat was found. If it hadn’t turned up, she would have been homeless.

As things turned out, the cat—as felines are wont to do—was chilling out in an alcove under the indoor stairwell. It hadn’t escaped after all. Another instance when the C family cat had gone missing was also a false alarm. The cat—which the C family called “cat”—often leisurely sat in the house's basement window overlooking the front sidewalk with frequent passersby and birds in the trees. One morning, old Nanny shut the interior window, leaving the cat without an exit from its cozy perch. When nobody in the home could locate their beloved feline friend, another mad outdoors search ensued, until a neighbor spotted the cat lounging, as always, in the window.

It was definitely a more interesting time to be alive, with neighborly stuff like this happening as a rule. I will say, however, that I do prefer that my neighbors turn on their inner monologues. 

Tuesday, January 7, 2014

A Boy for All Seasons...

Today was cold—really, really cold in New York City and a lot of other places from the looks of things. I even ventured outside with a pair of gloves on—something I generally eschew—and barely survived frostbite on my fingers during a short errands run. It was a rare kind of day that even the youthful me would have deemed indoor-worthy.


I encountered a Facebook placard this past week that happily had—not a ubiquitous New Age bromide—but a quote from ecologist Tim Gill, who said, “Humans are disappearing from the outdoors at a rate that would make them top any conservationist’s list of endangered species.” I pored over the various comments of folks lamenting how true the statement really was, and how the younger generations spend a god-awful amount of time indoors, even in hospitable climes and, worse still, even in places that are outdoor paradises. A friend of mine recently recounted a story to me about visiting ski country over the Christmas holiday and sharing a house with an eclectic bunch of the human species of all ages, including an eight-year-old girl, who, he said, spent hours upon hours talking to her girlfriend on a laptop via Skype. “It was like two old ladies dishing the dirt on the telephone,” he remarked.

I was an outdoorsman while growing up in the Bronx, and so was virtually everybody else my age. No matter the season of the year, we spent the preponderance of our free daylight hours outside. It’s just what we did. A snowstorm like the one we had around these parts last week would have found us all out on the streets and in our backyards until we were dog-tired or an ice sculpture—and some combination of the two. Granted, we were weren’t skiing, riding snowmobiles, or hunting polar bear, but we were building snowmen and igloos, playing touch football, and just wandering about the snow-covered landscape. Nowadays, there’s virtually nobody playing out in the snow. Sure, there are folks sledding down the area’s big hills. Today’s youth are still game for events. But creating one’s own events, apparently, is a relic of the past.

Sunday, January 5, 2014

A Glacier on Northern Boulevard

With today’s unseemly weather in New York City, I was reminded of a perilous “glacier” ride in my past. It happened one evening in January 1981 on Northern Boulevard in Queens. While I labored earlier in the day in a mom-and-pop shop called Pet Nosh, light freezing rain fell outside, although it looked liked plain old rain to me. It was the salad days for this new business, which was located in a borough that seemed mostly foreign to the owners of Pet Nosh and me, too—Bronx boys all. The street numbers were strange and—really—everything seemed askew. Without GPS back then, it wasn’t an easy place to get around.

After a long day at the store, we noticed by dusk—near closing time—that the traffic on Northern Boulevard was at a standstill. My older brother, who was out making deliveries, was taking an awful long time in getting back. Yet, on the surface, it seemed that the weather was more or less benign—light drizzle but no snow after all. Apparently, though, this precipitation was freezing on contact—big time—and causing numerous accidents and traffic snarls in the area. In the age before cell phones and the like, we really didn’t know what was happening in the outside world beyond our little store.

When my brother at long last returned, he brought with him tales of icy roads and treacherous travel. We nonetheless headed home to the Bronx. The streets weren't covered with snow or, it appeared, ice by then. We were in Pet Nosh’s first van, too, purchased used at a surplus police auction in Flushing, Queens. In the fledgling days of the business, the van seemed downright cool and a major deal. It was light blue in color and had an unusual third seat in the back, which was where I found myself as we crawled ever so slowly down Northern Boulevard. To reach our exit typically took ten minutes, but it took us two hours on this night. And, along the way, we slid off the road into a mini-gully—scary. 

Our navigator Rich, however, kept his cool by crying out “a glacier!” This, in fact, was our rallying cry until we safely reached our destination—the Cross Island Expressway, which led us to the Throgs Neck Bridge and the Bronx. There wasn’t a speck of icing in our home borough that night—nothing remotely resembling a glacier. Yet, there’s something about the salad days of businesses, when everything seems exciting and memorable, even sliding off the road courtesy of black ice. Such simple thrills—nights to remember—diminish with time and the levels of success. Contending with glaciers, though, definitely has its place. 

Monday, December 23, 2013

Room for Both in This Polarized Age...

It’s Christmas: classic holiday movie and television show time. If the sheer number of times that I’ve watched it is the barometer, then my personal favorite is The Homecoming by Earl Hamner, Jr., a TV movie that inspired The Waltons, which debuted as a weekly series a year later. 

I remember watching The Homecoming when it first aired in 1971, just several days before Christmas. I was more apt to be mesmerized back then and this movie did it for me. I appreciated its starkness. It looked really good. One could believe this was a family living in the Blue Ridge Mountains in 1933, when times were pretty tough. I recall thinking when I first watched the movie that 1933 was a long, long time ago—another world altogether from the perspective of a nine-year-old living in the Bronx. Thirty-eight years had, in fact, passed from when The Homecoming story occurred to when it was made into a television movie. Since it debuted, forty-two years have passed. Forty-two plus thirty-eight equals eighty.

The Walton family of The Homecoming lived in simpler times for sure—genuinely hardscrabble but simpler on a whole host of fronts. And 1971, from where I sat at least, was a lot simpler than today. All these years later, it’s interesting to witness how a fair number of folks, who just loved The Waltons as a weekly TV drama—but who had until recently never before seen The Homecoming—found the ipso facto pilot movie off-putting. A small percentage even became hostile on the message boards, as if The Homecoming was somehow sacrilege with its tough-as-nails mother played by Patricia Neal and decidedly less saccharine friends and neighbors on Walton's Mountain than seen on the subsequent television show. While lovably eccentric in the TV series, the bootlegging Baldwin sisters, for one, are certifiably crazy in The Homecoming.

We live in such a polarized age now. But you know: There really is room for The Homecoming and The Waltons—for diversity. I like them both, but I especially get into the former because, I suspect, it is closer to the way things really were. Had the TV show starred Patricia Neal instead of Miss Michael Learned as Olivia Walton, it might not have fared too well. After all, there are movies and there are TV shows. Coming into our living rooms week after week, she might not have played on the small screen. It’s hard, though, not to love The Homecoming once a year with its memorable cast of characters and unforgettable dialogue. Forget It’s a Wonderful Life, which I watched one time and one time only—way too intense for holiday fare as far as I’m concerned. No, it’s Scrooge, the musical starring Albert Finney, and The Homecoming that have stood the test of time for me. Very literally, I could perform a one-man Homecoming show. “What are you doing up there behind locked doors?” The answer we discover is writing in a tablet. Anything else, John-Boy? Simpler times and television for sure...

Sunday, December 15, 2013

A Walkie-Talkie Christmas

In my youth, the anticipation of Christmastime and Christmas itself was quite exciting, and so—logically—the aftermath of the holiday and returning to school was very, very depressing. Seeing decorations still in people’s windows and knowing that Christmas wasn’t on the horizon, but a fait accompli, was a pretty dreadful feeling. But it was a microcosm of life, I guess, where all good things come attached to a certain—not so good—ugly payback.

Anyway, in January 1973, upon my return to St. John’s grammar school in the Bronx’s Kingsbridge, religion teacher Sister Therese queried each and every one of her students as to what his or her favorite Christmas present was. Except for the fact that my answer was “walkie-talkies,” I would not likely remember this Q&A—or maybe I would because I remember a lot of these things. For Sister Therese repeated my words in a somewhat befuddled way, as if she wasn’t familiar with them. “Walkeee…talkeees,” she said.

It was a simpler time to have asked for walkie-talkies for Christmas, I suppose. A neighbor of mine had a pair and we established contact times, where he would initiate a Morse code—something that his walkie-talkies were equipped with, but not mine. I remember my mother talking with his mother on the walkie-talkies as if it was big thing—a great advance in technology akin to the very first ever phone call. They could have, however, called one another on the telephone—and gotten better reception—or walked down a flight of stairs and met one another on adjoining front stoops.

The “walkie-talkie” Christmas takes on an even a higher importance to me because this gift was number one on my “Santa Claus” list, and I was almost certain that ol’ Saint Nick would come through with them, but he disappointed me big time. But forty years ago, I had a very generous godmother who always bought me a Christmas gift—and something good at that—but I didn’t typically see her to New Year’s Eve. Albeit a week later, she got me the walkie-talkies for Christmas 1972! Evidently, Santa Claus had arranged it with her. They were coolly trimmed in blue, hip looking, and a lot of walkie-talkie fun was had by one and all.

I can say with certainty that there will be no commensurate walkie-talkie gift this Christmas. It’s just not in the Christmas cards all these later. There will be no Morse code chatter with a neighbor of mine, too. Such is life.

Monday, December 9, 2013

The Christmas Putz

It was an exciting holiday tradition in my family to put up a “putz” every Christmas. Since the putz—a Christmas village replete with miniature houses, figurines, and a blanket of cotton snow—was something that was always there for me at Christmastime, I never questioned its origins in my family. I surmise that the tradition came from my mother’s Germanic heritage and not my father’s Italian side. My maternal grandmother spoke German as well as English fluently—her parents having emigrated from Austria at the turn of the twentieth century—and she loved Christmas from the baking of oodles of cookies—really good ones, too, that were never tasted again after her passing—to decorations galore, which included some that were, I’d say, mini-putzes.

Our traditional Christmas putz had a Lionel electric train encircling it, which is what my brothers and I most loved as kids. I’ll never forget the smell of the electric sparks that emanated from the transformer and the train’s frequent derailing when we took the curves too fast. In fact, when I saw the photos from a recent real-life derailing on the Metro North line not too far from where I grew up, it eerily reminded me of the tumbled electric trains on the putz.


Another thing that always intrigued me about our Christmas putz was the crèche in its center with the holy family, including the Christ child, and nearby wise men and shepherds. There was lots of angel hair on top of it, too. This putz of ours truly transcended time. As far as I know, there were no railroads in operation at the time of Christ’s birth. The putz with all its snow was also out of place in the Middle Eastern desert. And the figurines and houses on it accommodated both giants and midgets. The train line even had a boxcar that advertised Baby Ruth candy as it barreled past the manger with Mary, Joseph, and baby Jesus. If I recall correctly, I think there was a besotted fellow standing by a lamppost on the putz as well. And the houses on it had electricity—at least that what I think the Christmas tree bulbs that were inserted in their backs were supposed to indicate. This Christmas putz of ours represented miracles on top of miracles.


Wednesday, December 4, 2013

The Man-Lady in the "Cream Sam Summer" of '78

Here is an excerpt of my recently published YA novel Cream Sam Summer. It's Kingsbridge in the Bronx, 1978, when neighborhood characters had more character. It was just the way it wasrequisite for the time and for a place that will never be replicated...
The Wheel is situated directly opposite the McDonald’s parking lot with a bird’s-eye view of the elevated subway tracks on Broadway, where the Number 1 train—the Seventh Avenue local—barrels back and forth day and night from here in the Northwest Bronx to lower Manhattan. We’ve christened the individual who owns the place the “Man-Lady,” because distinguishing the proprietor’s gender is not a slam-dunk. When all is said and done, though, the Man-Lady is the latter.
She wears what I call “maintenance man pants,” stylish “Vince Lombardi glasses,” and has a considerable rear end that accentuates her sartorial tastes. The Man-Lady walks with a pronounced limp, too, which adds further color to her incomparable persona.
When I was a mere lad, my palms would literally sweat and my heartbeat race whenever I walked into the Wheel’s poorly lit interior. One too many burned out and never replaced fluorescent light bulbs supply the place with a shadowy, dungeon-like ambiance. Really, it’s an apropos setting for the Man-Lady to ply her trade. While she’s an intimidating presence for sure, she definitely knows her stuff. When it comes to tightening bicycle brakes, I don’t know of anyone who can hold a candle to her.
I followed closely behind Richie as the two of us gingerly entered the Wheel’s gloomy showroom. Bells attached to the inside of the door alerted the owner, who was repairing a bicycle in a backroom, that she had a customer. The Man-Lady poked her head out to see who was there. I detected her beady eyes—behind the Vince Lombardi glasses—glowering in our general direction. In no particular hurry, she eventually waded through a labyrinth of bicycles—both for sale and for rent—to the front of the shop.
“What can I do for you?” she asked in the snippy tone of someone who clearly preferred fixing bikes, without interruption, to making nickel and dime sales with teenagers.


Friday, November 22, 2013

Where I Was Fifty Years Ago Today...

I was among the living but not glued to the television set like the adult world around me was on this day fifty years ago. I was just a year old so I can’t claim that I remember the assassination of President Kennedy and its immediate aftermath. I know that’s not possible. Still, I feel like I was not only there in my Bronx home, but aware as well, because I heard so much through the years, particularly as an impressionable youth, about those dark days in November 1963. 

As was the norm, my father headed off to work that Friday afternoon for his four-to-midnight shift at the General Post Office on Eighth Avenue near Penn Station. He typically left the house between 2:15 and 2:30 and hopped on the Number 1 train to mid-town Manhattan; it’s something he did for twenty-five years. Mrs. Harvey, a neighbor from up the street, alerted him on his way out that the president had been shot. He continued, though, on his way to the job. When he arrived at his place of employment, the word was out that the shooting had been fatal. My father remembered with disgust—and he was a staunch Republican all his life—more than a few of his co-workers concerned, foremost, about the possibility of getting Monday off for the president’s state funeral.
           
For many years my father accumulated a box load of newspapers—ones that he had put aside because of their historical value, including the New York Daily News edition with a front page headline that read: “Kennedy Assassinated.” The picture that accompanied it was of Lyndon Johnson standing alongside a dazed Jackie Kennedy. I recall thumbing through that paper years later and being both intrigued and unnerved by it. As a boy, what I most found fascinating when poring over this old paper was how this earth-shattering and tragic news story intermingled with the mundane articles and advertisements, which were obviously slated to run in the paper prior to the assassination. This notable dichotomy somehow spoke volumes to me—how life goes on no matter what happens. Despite contemplating a cancellation, Macy’s soldiered on with their annual Thanksgiving Day Parade the following Thursday, but the talk on that day of thanks and turkey was mostly of the week that everyone had just lived through and hoped that they would never, ever again have to relive.

I’ve been watching some of the retrospective news coverage concerning the assassination anniversary. Again, I’ve been at once intrigued and a little bit unnerved. The contrast of the Abraham Zapruder 8mm silent color footage and the black-and-white videotaped news coverage is compelling and eerie at the same time—from a simpler technological age. Jack Ruby leaping out of the crowd to shoot Lee Harvey Oswald in the stomach is surreal.

Times have certainly changed. America has changed and so has the world that we live in—and not for the better on many fronts. People on the streets in November 1963 just couldn’t believe what had happened; they couldn’t conceive of a reason why somebody—anybody—would commit such a heinous act. Now, fifty years later, we know better. We’re all too aware that there are countless fanatics and nut jobs just waiting for an opportunity to do harm—and the more destruction the better. So, while we’re still shocked when these horrible acts occur these five decades later, we’re not surprised anymore. And that’s the sad reality of life a half-century after the JFK assassination—shocked but not surprised has been ingrained in us.

Sunday, November 17, 2013

Old High School ID Cards and This Thing We Call Life

As a nostalgia buff who has saved countless bits and pieces from my youth, I still have my two high school ID cards. Like Talking Tina, they speak to me—not only about the past, but the present as well, and life in general for that matter.

My first high school ID card picture was taken in September 1976, when sartorially speaking we were still in the colorful, often garish 1970s. This goes a long way in explaining why I’m wearing a pinkish shirt in the photo. For the first several weeks of school in my alma mater, the boys were excused from wearing a jacket and a tie. After all, it was still officially summertime for two-thirds of the month of September. In the colder climes thereafter, I wore a blue polyester sports jacket with that same shirt, a multihued tie from my father’s extensive 1960s and 1970s collection, and gray plaid pants. In a year or so, though, that kaleidoscope of colors completely vanished from the scene as the late-1970s became, in essence, the 1980s.

We had our original ID for the first two years of high school. At some point during that time, my card cracked in half and I taped it together. Another serious crack is visible, too. When I first examined it after many years in obscure storage, I pondered why it had done so in the first place. It was made of heavy plastic, like a credit card, and I don’t recall having much need for it. Then I remembered that we had to turn over our ID cards to the senior student counselors who gave us sponge swabbing duty and cafeteria cleanup during lunch periods—pretty awful assignments and precisely why I stopped going to lunch after my freshman year. It was bad enough that it was disgusting labor, but we weren’t even given ample time to go wash our hands before our next class. While I’m not a Nanny State guy, I have to say that, in this instance, life has righted a wrong. I’m happy to report that bare hands commingling with the filthy sponge have been consigned to the ash heap of history at my old high school.

As I pore over my increasingly antiquated, peeling, and badly cracked ID card with the tape on it now seriously yellowed, I realize that it is actually a metaphor for life, infused with monumental change and time passage. For I, too, am, metaphorically speaking at least, peeled, cracked, and yellowed. And this metamorphosis is not something that was on my mind, or even on my distant radar, when I was fourteen, wearing pink shirts, and consumed with youthful exuberance. In a couple of years time, our high school ID cards took a serious hit, from my perspective at least, and became cheesy, laminated photos with no pizzazz at all—a precursor of so many things to come. The cheap laminate, however, didn't break in half like its predecessor, the ID credit card. It was physically impossible.

Times, though, have really changed—in a big way. I actually opened my first bank account with an expired school ID card. Now that couldn’t happen. No matter our age, we are presumed to be up to no good and possibly even a terrorist. I remember, too, in grammar school being taught how to distinguish between the words “principle” and “principal.” We were told that a living and breathing “principal” was our “pal,” which I never quite felt to be the case. Still, I absorbed the lesson. The "pal" on my 1976 high school ID card was—decades later—part of a Catholic Church lawsuit settlement for you know what. When he was our principal, I don’t remember him being much of a pal to anyone. He was a mostly hot-tempered and disagreeable fellow, and only received cheers when, on the rare occasion, he declared a school holiday not on our original schedule—for stellar fundraising on the student body's part or some such thing.

It’s kind of hard to believe that it’s been thirty-seven years since that first high school ID picture was taken. It seems like yesterday in one respect, but then it also seems like a long, long time ago in another. It’s a bygone era for sure. And who is that kid in pink? My life then amounted to fourteen years in total. Thirty-seven years have passed since then. And I likely don’t have another thirty-seven years remaining on this earthly plane. I can’t say for certain if I’d want those thirty-seven years anyway. There really is a lot staring back out at me from my two high school ID cards. You have been warned. If you have your old high school ID cards somewhere: Be prepared at what they've got to say.

Sunday, November 3, 2013

A Novel Idea

It seems sometimes that just about everybody and his or her grandmother is writing, or has written, a novel. It’s apparently both every writer’s dream and every non-writer’s dream, too. And, yes, I have written one, which is actually my second. But I've decided after careful consideration that the latter, entitled Zigzag Run, will not see the light of day—at least in its entirety—and I have my reasons. (Excerpts have been, however, published in the Write Angle.)

Now one would think that a published non-fiction author like me would have a slight leg up in getting a work of fiction considered but, I can tell you in all honesty, that’s not the case. For most publishing professionals, the mere thought of another novelist roaming Planet Earth merits at best a big yawn at best. Utter contempt is more like it. 

Happily, though, advancing technologies and the brave new world that we live in supply writers of all stripes and talents the opportunity to circumvent the traditional publishing world—an indifferent world most of the time with “no” a more a familiar answer than “yes.” There are venues like Smashwords.com that permit authors to publish their works as e-books in multiple e-formats at no charge. The royalty rates offered by Smashwords are considerably better than what mainstream publishers pay. The author actually gets the preponderance of the book's cover price. The catch, of course, is selling the book—and it's a very big catch indeed. But, still, Smashwords is getting noticed by the publishing brass and established authors, too, who like the idea of controlling their own destinies and keeping the lion's share of the profits.

On Smashwords as of October 31, 2013 is my novel, CreamSam Summer, which is based—loosely sometimes and not so loosely at other times—on an amalgam of characters, circumstances, and places from the neighborhood where I grew up. It’s Kingsbridge in the Bronx, 1978, and the narrator is a sixteen-year-old boy, which, coincidentally, was my age that year. Admittedly, I knew a man in my youth whom my friends and I called "Cream Sam" despite him having a more widely known nickname: "Red." You'll have to read the book to discover why, or at least the available free sample. Cream Sam Summer, though, is a work of fiction and not a roman a clef. The book is categorized as a YA (Young Adult), but it's for adults, too, I'd like to think—sort of like Paul Zindel’s The Pigman. The Harry Potter series was, after all, YA.

When one writes a book of any kind—puts oneself on the frontlines as it were—it's up to readers to decide in the end the work's worth or non-worth. That's the long and short of it. Not surprisingly, there's a mother lode of pretty awful stuff published on Smashwords, but that's to be expected. Again, readers can separate the wheat from the chaff—what they like and what they don't they like. So, to paraphrase Rod Serling: "Submitted for your approval: Cream Sam Summer."

For a little more background on the book, visit the Cream Sam Summer blog.

Saturday, November 2, 2013

The Salamander Lot

Sometime in the early 1970s, I went salamander hunting. The place: the Bronx. It was not too far from where I lived but, as a youth, it seemed like something of a hike. This geographical reality made it more of an adventure, like we were going someplace faraway and unknown. Interestingly enough the salamanders collected their mail in tony Riverdale, which was the more pedigreed neighbor to the west of Kingsbridge, my hometown.

There were still a few vacant lots around in those days and, I don’t exactly know why, but this particular piece of earth had oodles of pinkish salamanders under its rocks. Those of us on this salamander hunt intended on keeping them as pets—our motives were pure—and we did. I don’t recall what they ate or how long they lived in the fish bowl that became their new home after the Salamander Lot, as we called it, but I don’t think very long.

Just about every piece of available earth has been built on in the old neighborhood, but not the Salamander Lot. It is an odd piece of ground—a steep hill as a matter of fact—perched directly above a parking lot of a tall building in the valley below. The Salamander Lot is not a very big slice of property, so I guess it would be difficult to erect a structure there. However, I’ve seen more unlikely spots developed.

I noticed, though, that there’s now a very tall fence surrounding the Salamander Lot. We wouldn’t have been able to get into it with that thing there—not at our ages as salamander hunters. But then I don’t think there are very many kids in the vicinity of the lot today who would be interested in salamander hunting, unless of course it was a game on their computers.

The question that I have long wondered is this: Do the salamanders still exist in that snippet of earth in Riverdale? Theoretically, there’s no reason why they shouldn’t still be there. I don’t think our hunting them down for pets was sufficient to do them in as a species in this neck of the woods. But why do I feel that if I lifted up rocks in the very same slice of terra firma that there would be no more salamanders to be found. They existed in simpler times in the Bronx, I suspect, and opted to get out while the going was good.

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

XYZ: Examine Your Zipper...

(Photo: Long Island and NYC Places That Are No More)

As a youth watching the Mets on WOR-TV Channel Nine on a black-and-white television set in the early and mid-1970s, I recall being transfixed by the Serval Zippers factory that one could see in the distance beyond Shea Stadium’s left field fence. During night games the factory’s sign, attached to an impressive clock tower, blinked on and blinked off—“Serval” and then “Zippers.” For the not-yet-a-teenager me, it added to the already potent ambiance of my favorite team, the ballpark where they played, and indeed, life in general. For a boy from the Bronx, Flushing, Queens, where the Mets played, seemed so very far away. It was like a foreign country—at once mysterious and exciting—even though it was only a twenty-five minute or so car ride away. My beloved New York Mets and this intriguing factory in the distance where they called home manufactured zippers and zippers only.

Times have certainly changed in Flushing, Queens, home of the Mets—and everywhere else in New York City for that matter. Shea Stadium has been cast asunder and Serval Zippers is in the ash heap of history, too. It’s now a U-Haul place sans any flashing sign on the clock tower, which is, happily, still standing. There were a lot of factories in this part of the city, including a Tastyee Bread plant, which have also gone by the wayside—a last shout of old New York.

The mystery and the excitement have also vanished. And although I attended a fair share of Mets’ games—most of them post-Serval Zippers—I never quite warmed to the borough of Queens. I worked in Little Neck for a spell in the early 1980s—a nice neighborhood at the time—but it was never home. It seemed that Queens’ folks knew and loved Queens and Bronx folks knew and loved the Bronx.

Once upon a time in the early 1990s, I exited a congested Shea Stadium parking lot by turning right instead of the left turn that I knew would lead me to the Grand Central Parkway, then the Major Deegan Expressway, and eventually and home, sweet home after a night game. This was a very bad decision on my part because I ended up, from my perspective at least, in a Nowhere Land with confusing Queens’ streets signs and numbers that didn’t make any sense to me at all in an era before GPS. Couple this with the fact that I always loathed driving, most especially when I didn’t know where I was, and I might as well have been on a back street in Bangladesh.

I nonetheless just kept driving and driving, making periodic turns and praying that I’d hit upon a familiar landmark, or some main thoroughfare, which would lead me back to civilization. I felt like I was in the Twilight Zone and worried that some hitchhiker might soon appear in my rear view mirror. But, lo and behold, fate moved its huge hand and I found myself on a service road approaching the Triborough Bridge—now called the RFK Bridge courtesy of politicians with nothing better to do—leading me back to the Bronx on this night to remember. Perhaps all roads do lead home, but feeling like a trapped animal in Queens that night seemed, I must confess, like the plot from a bad TV movie. Serval Zippers, though, will always be a fond memory.