Wednesday, May 16, 2018

All Roads Lead Home

For too many people to count, all roads lead home—to a nursing home. As a frequent visitor to one particular institution in the Bronx, I am reminded of this harsh reality bite on a regular basis and in living color. It’s not quite Cinema 180, but sights and sounds are all around, including mysterious culinary concoctions, distant wailing, and television sets with the volumes on maximum. Considering the price tag of residing in the place—either temporarily or on a permanent basis—one would hope that both the service and amenities would be worth the hefty price of admission.

My nursing home model costs about $15,000 a month, which includes rehabilitation. I appreciate the fact that one is quite expensive to operate and a heavily regulated nightmare as well. However, if profit is the bottom line, patients are going to get the short end of the stick. With a minimalist staff catering to predominantly elderly and—in many instances—very ill patients, how could it be otherwise?

A couple of days ago, I thought I was witnessing the last gasps of my relation’s roommate. When I first entered the room she was calmly sitting in a wheelchair with a table on wheels in front of her—not uncommon sights in a nursing home milieu. I was pleased when she put her head down on the table—naptime, I surmised, and better than the alternative, which was staring at me from across the room.

The woman was alive and well. Well…not so well...really. I don’t know what her myriad medical issues are, but she painfully grunts and groans as a rule. Apparently, the nursing home powers-that-be took away her emergency pull string because she had a penchant for summoning help morning, noon, and night. The lady may have cried wolf one too many times, but there’s always a first for everything.

Anyway, to get back to this tale of woe: When a nurse making her rounds came in to take the woman’s blood sugar reading—it’s always in the vicinity of three hundred (so much for medical privacy)—and administer meds, she was having quite a time waking up her patient. After several shouts of the woman’s name and assorted shakes, the nurse darted off to her mobile station for a stethoscope, thermometer, and blood-pressure sleeve. Diagnosis: The lady’s heart still beat, her temperature was normal, and blood pressure in the range of the living. So, she didn’t breathe her last in my presence. Still, the poor soul seemed pretty out of it after the scare. I don’t blame the nurse for moving on. She did what she could and had a whole floor of patients in which to tend. But it seemed to me that the place should be better staffed to keep watchful eyes on men and women teetering on the brink between life and death.

While on the subject of bang for your buck, I recently surfed on over to a favorite childhood summer vacation spot of mine. It was Manasquan, New Jersey and I was interested in a certain street named after a certain fish. Once upon a time my family rented a classic railroad-style cottage there and never paid more than two hundred dollars for a week’s stay. What a difference four decades make! Most of the old, inexpensive cottages from the past are two-story homes now. And this transformation began long before Superstorm Sandy did a number on the area in 2012. The going rate for rentals—a couple of blocks from both the ocean and Manasquan Inlet—is $5,500 a week in 2018. I’ll happily take three weeks in Manasquan—the price of a month in a nursing home with its singular room service—and let that be the end of it. 

(Photos from the personal collection of Nicholas Nigro)

Sunday, May 6, 2018

“A” Day in the Life

Yesterday, I rode the A…the Brooklyn-bound A express train. This is not—and has never been—my preferred mode of transportation. Occasionally, though, when the Number 1 isn’t operating in my neck of the woods—due to ubiquitous construction—the A’s the best alternative in getting into lower Manhattan. The Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) supplies “free” shuttle bus service to the A train along the Number 1 line and an invaluable life lesson, too: Nothing in life is free!

The proof was certainly in the pudding Saturday afternoon. With the Number 1 train in service as far north as City College—in the neighborhood where my paternal grandparents originally settled in New York City—I thought I’d give the shuttle bus route a try. After all, how bad could it be? Silly question. The bus trip took me from 137th Street to 168th Street. It didn’t cost me a penny but I soon discovered that it wasn’t free by any stretch of the imagination.

For me to complete my homeward journey, I would have to take four different shuttle buses—on, off, on, off, on, off, on, and off. That’s way too much shuttling for me. Riding New York City buses on heavily trafficked roads—with relentless stops at traffic lights—is a rather unpleasant experience in and of itself. And having a prosthetic knee is a further complication. The city has many kneeling buses, but sometimes exiting requires a drop off of two feet onto an uneven street pavement. On the other hand, the subway has a certain perverse charm to it—even the subterranean A—with more predictable starts, stops, entering, and exiting.

Interestingly, the A line has some really antiquated trains still on the job. I was surprised to see the dangling Emergency Brake that I remember so well from my youth on the Number 1 train. I presumed they had all been retired a long, long time ago. The thing just hangs there, easily accessible bait for the untold nut-job passengers that ride the New York City subway. In the newer trains, the Emergency Brake is behind a plate of glass. Accessing it is a process that includes a sounding alarm and contact with the train’s conductor.

While on my joyride on this throwback train, I spied someone standing in the vicinity of the aforementioned brake. No, the guy didn’t pull it. He was holding something unusual: a book. But even more unusual was his choice of reading: Machiavelli’s The Prince. Niccolò, I have no doubt, would have a lot to say about the current state of affairs in the land of the free and home of the brave.

Anyway, the icing on the cake of my journey into the unknown was that—after disembarking the shuttle bus—I took a car service home. The driver checked his traffic app and told me that the typical fifteen-minute ride from where we were to where I wanted to be would take at least seventy minutes. Courtesy of subway work, there was heavy traffic at the Broadway Bridge. And the Cross Bronx Expressway to the Major Deegan Expressway—option two—was a nightmare as well. The last best hope—option three—was the Henry Hudson Parkway with its toll. I gave the driver the green light to take the app’s good advice. In the big picture, the free shuttle bus cost me ten subway fares. It must be true: Nothing in life is free.

(Photos from the personal collection of Nicholas Nigro)

Wednesday, May 2, 2018

The Times They Are A-Changin'

As a youth, my family and I occasionally visited friends at their apartment with windows overlooking a busy El. In fact, you could practically reach out and touch the subway trains passing to and fro. It was the Number 4 line to be precise. And the apartment dwellers in question lived in a walk-up at the intersection of Jerome Avenue and East Gun Hill Road—where west meets east. That is, where the West Bronx ends and the East Bronx begins. The address was actually not too far from where I grew up in Kingsbridge. It was only a ten-minute drive, yet it seemed like a different world altogether.

For a kid who liked both playing with and riding on trains, I considered this apartment the absolute coolest place a person could live. Watching subway traffic at all hours from a bedroom window perch was akin—from my ten-year-old perspective—to an urban paradise. Now, more than forty years later, I can better understand why people might prefer to live someplace else.

Residing in eye- and earshot of a heavily-trafficked El would typically be considered less desirable living quarters than someplace off-the-beaten trail—like a block away. But the times they are a-changin’ in New York. Recently, I stumbled upon a rather large sign at W242nd Street and Broadway that advertised luxury apartments. During its building stage, rumors swirled that the completed edifice would be dormitories for my alma mater, nearby Manhattan College. What an awful location for college kids to burn the midnight oil studying for exams, I thought then, not to mention for sleeping off a Natural Light Beer binge. With trains coming and going at that very spot all day and all night long, it’s a never-ending story of metal-on-metal screeching, earsplitting horn blowing, and—the pièce de ré·sis·tance—air-brake sighing when the Number 1 train comes home to roost. "Luxury,” it would seem, is in the eye and ear of the beholder.
If nothing else, they are "close to transportation."
And close to sprawling Van Cortlandt Park, too.
Every time there is a heavy rain, Tibbetts Brook "daylights" itself in the park.
In barbecue territory...
It's that time of year around this part of the Bronx. On weekends, buses become trains.
The luxury apartments will have a bird's-eye view of this sort of thing on a regular basis.
As a youthful passenger in my father's automobile, I remember requesting with a certain yanking hand-gesture that truck drivers blow their loud horns. The luxury apartment dwellers can mime something similar to passing train operators.
There once was a time when Dunkin' Donuts was "worth the trip." That is, pretty scarce and hard to find. Not so anymore.
An empty Natural Light beer can—a Jasper's preferred brew.
Groundbreaking at the college for its future state-of-the-art "South Campus." This locale once hosted a house on it that was owned by boxer Sugar Ray Robinson. When I attended Manhattan College, the house was still there and called Farrell Hall. For a reason that now escapes me, I visited Farrell Hall on one occasion.
Springtime on Broadway. A couple of days ago, I wore my winter jacket.
Today it's close to ninety degrees.
Tony Riverdale's haphazard building through the years would have made Ayn Rand proud.
When "The Century" building in Riverdale first opened, there was no covering on its tennis courts. For a summer or two, the woods surrounding it supplied us with bag loads of free tennis balls for our stickball games.
Stickball games that, by the way, were played down this block at John F. Kennedy High School. The school was built on land that previously housed an area we all knew as "Shanty Town."
"That's a fancy-looking apartment building over there. I wonder how much an apartment is?"
Elevated subway tracks were once the rage, even in Manhattan. Now, only the Number 1 train—and briefly at that—daylights itself in the northernmost reaches of the borough.
I grew up with the El on nearby Broadway. I waited for my "Special" bus, which took me to high school in the East Bronx, under the El. I enjoyed a snow cone at Woolworth's in the shadows of the El. It was an evocative area institution for sure. Nowadays, however, I can better appreciate the quieter and cleaner benefits of an underground railroad.

(Photos from the personal collection of Nicholas Nigro)

Tuesday, April 24, 2018

Imperfect Together

While growing up in the Bronx, many neighborhood families vacationed on the Jersey Shore. It was relatively close, covered a lot of ground, and action-packed—lots of boardwalks and amusements. I was also witness to Interstate 80 at long last cutting a course through New Jersey to Teaneck, a hop, skip, and a jump from the George Washington Bridge. This welcome extension turned a three-hour trip to Bangor, Pennsylvania—home of my maternal grandparents—to a much more tolerable hour-and-a-half. The traffic snarls at the bridge were always pretty bad, but they are a whole lot worse now, even with the vaunted E-ZPass replacing human flesh toll takers and speeding up the money exchange. I haven’t soaked up the sun at the Jersey Shore in quite a while, since “New Jersey and You” were “Perfect Together.” Local television was inundated in the 1980s with commercials featuring then Governor Tom Kean extolling the many virtues of his state. Seems like only yesterday and a long time ago.
Sun, take a good look around. This is New Jersey.
I was taught that "fifty-five saves lives." Can't say what "sixty-five" does.
There are four municipalities in Essex County, New Jersey with Orange in their names. William III of Orange has quite a legacy.
When my maternal grandmother and a great-aunt first laid eyes on this building off Interstate 80 in New Jersey, they marveled at its beauty. It was originally a Holiday Inn in the 1970s.
It was an end-of-the-school-year tradition at St. John's grammar school in the Bronx. Seventh and eighth graders were treated to a bus field trip to Lake Hopatcong, New Jersey, home of Bertrand Island Amusement Park. The place had a great roller coaster. But sadly, its days were numbered when we Bronx youth frolicked there in the mid-1970s. After seventy-three years, the park closed in 1983 and is now—what else—a series of townhouses.
The sign on this building reads: "This is no ordinary home." Indeed it's not. If inhaling perpetual car and truck fumes at the George Washington Bridge toll plaza is your thing, check it out.
The views of the bridge, Hudson River, and Manhattan are no doubt impressive, just don't open a window.
Only fifteen dollars...
Always an atmospheric launching pad for those teetering on the edge, Port Authority of New York and New Jersey bureaucrats have put an end to all of that.
The City on the Edge of Forever...
Imagine what the traffic would be like nowadays without E-ZPass...
Just up the river from the George Washington Bridge is the Tappan Zee Bridge. Recently, its original structure was completely replaced and—yes—renamed the Governor Mario M. Cuomo Bridge. Leave it to the politicians to mess with history. The first bridge was named for a local Indian tribe: the Tappan.
Late in coming this year...
Once upon a time my family vacationed on the Jersey Shore. Glad these people weren't there.
The future New York City skyline: Jenga buildings?
The Love Boat at the Statue of Liberty.
"Let it floats back to you."
Faster than a speeding subway's Super Starling.

(Photos from the personal collection of Nicholas Nigro)

Monday, April 16, 2018

When No Place Is the Better Place

The news of baseball icon, restaurateur, and philanthropist Rusty Staub’s passing a couple of weeks ago landed another piercing blow and supplied a further nail in the coffin of my youth. Almost forty-six years ago to the date, I heard a very different kind of news. My favorite team, the New York Mets, had acquired Rusty from the Montreal Expos. I was nine years old at the time. To say that I was ecstatic at the prospect of Le Grande Orange, as he was affectionately known in Montreal, donning a Met uniform would be an understatement. For my youthful exuberance knew no bounds in what were—for me at least—vastly simpler times.

The announcement of the blockbuster trade was especially uplifting in the wake of revered manager Gil Hodges’ untimely passing. Hodges had long wanted Rusty on his team and had, just before his unexpected death, given the trade his blessing. Some years later, I learned that the Met organization was widely criticized for announcing the Rusty Staub acquisition on the morning of Hodges’ funeral. But I was a wide-eyed kid then interested in baseball, not adult inside-baseball.

In retrospect, death was much less pressing and a whole lot more fleeting to me as a fourth grader. I do, however, remember the news crawl, which reported the passing of Gil Hodges, appearing on the TV screen. It was Easter Sunday, April 2, 1972, and I was staggered. Just as a pizza place on nearby Riverdale Avenue called the New Concept served up a mean Sicilian slice, death was a pretty new concept to me at the time.

Rusty Staub had been a much-loved member of the expansion team Montreal Expos during their first three seasons in existence. The adoration wasn’t only for his hitting prowess, which was considerable, but for Rusty's community-oriented commingling with fans as well. The man learned to speak French and was a indefatigable, redheaded, roving ambassador for the new team on the block. When he came to New York, he fast became a fan favorite, too, and played four seasons with the Mets before he was unceremoniously traded off to the Detroit Tigers for a rotund, past-his-prime pitcher named Mickey Lolich and a prospect who turned out not to be one. It was widely believed that the deal was consummated because of Rusty’s vocal participation in the Major League Baseball labor movement and—yes—potential free agency, which was the new reality. His eventual market worth was more than supreme skinflint M. Donald Grant—who controlled the team’s purse strings—was willing to shell out. Happily, Rusty returned to finish out his career with the Mets. By then the odious Grant—who had single-handedly destroyed a thriving, proud franchise—was living out the remainder of his years in the patrician lifestyle for which he was accustomed.

At a brief and emotional press conference, former teammate and close friend, Keith Hernandez, said that Rusty was now “in a better place.” Having been in intensive care for the last two months of his life—and in a lot of pain—no place was the better place. I was—once more—in a hospital emergency room this past weekend. As a visitor and observer—not a patient—I saw more than a few people in a very bad way. One was a psychotic woman who, apparently, was homeless and not unknown to the staff. Asleep one moment and wide awake the next, she had a major meltdown when she couldn’t find her cigarette lighter. Passersby were cursed out as she fumbled for a cigarette. Security guards warily stood by. The woman sobbed, raved, and wandered away from her stretcher bed on multiple occasions. A nurse came looking for her at one point to take an X-ray, but she was nowhere to be found. The peripatetic patient eventually returned and performed an Act II and an Act III of all of the above. All the while, I heard a perpetual wail from somewhere across the ER that sounded an awful lot like a cat. The repeated “meow” sounds turned out to be a cry of “help” over and over and over. As the days wear on and events play out, I think more often of the day when a better place will be no place. Queue up the news crawl!

(Photos from the personal collection of Nicholas Nigro)

Tuesday, April 10, 2018

Freddie McFlicker

(A reprise from last spring. And during this revolution around the Sun, Freddie went missing for a spell. I eventually spied him looking quite thin and jelly-legged—almost unrecognizable. A major medical moment, I surmised. Now Freddie's disappeared once more and I wonder if I'll ever see him again. I miss him. Life in a breadcrumb.)

There’s this little patch of land that’s considered part of Van Cortlandt Park. In fact, it’s called “Van Cortlandt’s Tail” because it’s at the park’s far end—or beginning from where I sit. And speaking of sitting, this tail section of the park is a circle—or a horseshoe might be more apt—of benches. That’s pretty much it. Sure, it’s got a live Christmas tree in its center, which is decorated every year. And right now it’s festooned with tulips and past-their-prime daffodils.

It’s a piece of earth—well, asphalt mostly—that I passed by regularly for decades. Since I was a boy as a matter of fact. It was a place that I couldn’t conceive of ever hanging out in—for any reason. There was no conceivable need. Why would I want to sit on a bench that overlooks the El and the noisy Number 1 trains constantly coming home to port and heading out on their Manhattan-bound returns.

Life, though, is full of surprises. Nowadays, I find myself in Van Cortlandt’s Tail quite frequently to rest my weary bones. I find the coming-and-going deafening trains almost soothing. It’s the urban equivalent, I guess, of going down to the harbor and watching the boats come in and out. 

Several blocks south of the tail is another small snippet of land with New York City park designation. When all of us were growing up—in the non-politically correct, freer 1970s—it was known as the “Bum Park.” Not nice—yes—but suffice it to say the place attracted some unsavory characters, many of whom were down on their luck.

Van Cortandt’s Tail is not quite the Bum Park North, but it hosts its fair share of characters, including a man I have not-so-affectionately dubbed Freddie McFlicker. I see him regularly roaming the area, sometimes eating a sandwich and other times with a small bag of bread scraps to feed the birds. But there is something very dark about old Freddie. He flicks one crumb at a time and watches—with sadistic delight no doubt—the birds battle over it. He lives in a nearby building, I think, and my detective work surmises that he is unmarried and has abused alcohol at one time or another. He’s wears an angry face and doesn’t fraternize with anyone but the birds.

Strangely, I’ve come to despise the mere sight of him. All of us, I suspect, have a Freddie McFlicker or two or three in our lives. The bird feeding bit speaks volumes to me. I’ve also noticed that he has a preferred bench. It’s where, coincidentally, I like sitting. The bench is at the beginning of the tail, so you’re never surrounded by people and a quick, unobtrusive exit is always possible.

Well, today, I was sitting on Freddie’s bench—the only one in the whole tail until Freddie in the flesh appeared. There were dozens of empty benches to choose from. But what does Freddie do? He sits on the one right beside me and commences eating his lunch. I could feel hostility in the air. I wanted to get up right away in protest—in disgust—but decided I couldn’t let Freddie McFlicker win this round. So, I stayed for a bit and finally exited the tail, leaving sneering old Freddie alone with his half-eaten sandwich and maybe a few crumbs to be flicked to the birds. He muttered something as I left, but I don’t know if it was meant for me or his feathered friends.

(Photos from the personal collection of Nicholas Nigro)

Monday, April 9, 2018

That's the Signpost Up Ahead...

The next stop...
Bizarro World...
Last Wednesday's photo of the imposing George Washington Bridge.
Don't be afraid of The Fog...
The George Washington Bridge connecting Northern Manhattan with New Jersey, which never looked better.
Follow that garbage truck. It's astounding how much trash is picked up daily in New York City. How long will it be before the planet is buried in it?
Ode to men in fluorescent vests who are upgrading our infrastructure.
Have the Sannyasins spiked New York City's water supply?
Nursing home fare: as good as it gets!
First night of spring in the Bronx.
Garbage in...garbage out.
I remember bully boys mockingly calling certain contemporaries of theirs "pansies." Well, the above pansies are as tough as nails. 
My favorite diner's bathroom escape hatch.
Sound advice...
A clean toilet in a greasy spoon is like the cinnamon on the rice pudding...
Pretentious Manhattan...
Sign at the Stew Leonard's buffet ($7.99/lb.) goes a long way in explaining New York's obesity problem.
At Stew Leonard's and wondering whatever became of Tobey Maguire.
While ravenously attacking his non-organic BLT sandwich with sides of coleslaw and a pickle in a neighborhood greasy spoon, a friend of mine complained that Stew Leonard's doesn't carry enough organic products for his taste.

(Photos from the personal collection of Nicholas Nigro)