Tuesday, July 17, 2018

It Is the Heat...and the Humidity

Once upon a time I lived on the top floor of a three-family home in the Bronx. I was one of five kids in a family of seven. Yes, there were two parents on the scene and we all made do with one bathroom and no air-conditioning in the dog days of past New York City summers. I remember feeling somewhat cheated that I didn't have the optionlike many of my friends with air-conditioners didto cool off when the thermometer and relative humidity performed their suffocating duet. But that was then and this is now. I am today a party of one with an air-conditioner. And so I can observe the sights and sounds of my surroundings in the stifling summer of 2018 and retreatwhen the days are doneto the colder, drier climes of the great indoors.
Meanwhile, on the outside, I recently encountered this peculiar subway graffiti. It was the word "TATTOO" spelled out in dings. This sighting prompted me to silently exclaim, "De train, Boss, de train!"
Good to know that if you are tired of McDonald's old stale beef there is now an alternative. This sign also reminded me of simpler times in American politics. In the 1980 Republican primaries, Ronald Reagan misspoke in quoting Founding Father John Adams. He meant to say, "Facts are stubborn things!" but instead said, "Facts are stupid things! Not to be outdone, Ted Kennedy, running against incumbent President Jimmy Carter in the Democratic primaries, addressed farm families in Iowa as "fam farmilies." Of course, nowadays facts are considered stupid things by an awful lot of people.
It's the "In New York We Don't Serve Teens and You Shouldn't Either" truck. Wonder what's inside? What delights they hide. By the way, I just quoted lyrics from the song Christmas Children in the movie musical Scrooge, 1970, starring Albert Finney.
If there's a tomato in distress, now you know who to call.
Maybe it's just me but I find this slogan of theirs on the unappetizing side.

In the Bizarro World, students make $10,000 or more a month and don't pay tuition...
This blue jay can confirm that it's been a nasty month of July.
If you don't know, that's Grandpa Stroehmann on the bread truck. I had a driving instructor who would regularly caution mewhen the situations warranted itto "Watch out for Grandpa!" He is still plying his trade as an eighty-year-old man.
You see that open window? That can mean only one thing: It's a hot car. At this time of year, subway conductors make announcements where they advise riders escaping hot cars to make it snappy.
I saw this downed wire this morning and thought about some of the programs I've watched this year on Netflix and Amazon Prime. Breaking Bad, Ozark, and The Wire came to mind. Drug dealers and drug dealing make for better entertainment on-screen than off. 
If the shop's interior appearing trashed and pretty much emptiedwith a chain lock on the front doorwasn't enough to convince you this eatery is shut down for good, the words "Closed...Closed...Closed" spelled out in black magic marker should have done the trick.
Hot and humid Fourth of July...the camera never blinks.
Not too long after this photo was taken, a protester scaled Lady Liberty, which shut down the island for multiple hours and cost the city a pretty penny. The bill is in the mail, I hope.
There are things around us that we overlook and take for granted for far too long...
Go North, young men...
Richard Kimble looked at the world for the last time and saw only darkness. These kids saw me sitting in Van Cortlandt's tail, also known to a few of us as the Bum Park North.
A subway car I was riding in was chock-full of Klarna ads. I had never heard of Klarna before. It's not an ice cream manufacturer after all.
"Be it ever so crumble, there's no place like home." Referring to the 4077th, Major Winchester once uttered those words on M*A*S*H 

(Photos from the personal collection of Nicholas Nigro)

Sunday, July 15, 2018

The Fat Lady Sang

I think I go through life now on the outside looking in—or the inside looking out—whatever? So, when she entered the train with the assistance of a cane this morning, I couldn’t help but notice her considerable heft. The fat lady sat directly across from me, which caused me to internally cringe—and not because she was overweight with no discernible chin, but because I knew now that I had to be on special guard. It was a subway ride game-changer for me. You know: I wouldn’t want to be perceived as staring at her in any way, shape, or form. And then there’s my hobby of taking pictures and videos in the land down under. I wouldn’t want the woman to think I was attempting to photograph her on the sly. I wouldn’t want her to think I was making sport of her.

Now, here’s the real kicker vis-à-vis my fellow passenger. As the train approached her stop—Lincoln Center—she began the not inconsiderable task of gathering up her things and rising from her seat. The latter wasn’t a walk in the park, I detected, as I stared mostly at nothing in particular. When she finally made it to her feet, she tapped me on my knee—my prosthetic one—with her cane. Startled, I wondered if the woman sensed something unusual in the echoes of that tap. She asked: “Are you all right? You look…” I look what? 

“I’m fine,” I answered. “Take a few deep breaths,” the concerned lady added as a parting salvo. “Breathe in and breathe out.” And off she went into the wild gray yonder. Yes, it was that kind of morning. As I watched her pulling her travel bag on wheels to an exit, I realized that despite her girth, she was quite comfortable in her ample skin. The woman—whose hair, by the way, was dyed a light shade of blue—had a New Age-y feel about her.

So, I accepted her advice and took a few deep breaths, which isn’t always a good thing in a cramped subway car in summertime. On the very same trip, I encountered a female panhandler whom I’ve seen on multiple occasions. She’s got a piercingly loud voice and never deviates from her script and its three key selling points: HIV positive, empty refrigerator, and infant daughter. Oh, and that she doesn’t get her check for a couple of weeks, which she also proclaimed a week ago. When I dropped two dollars into her large mayonnaise bottle-sized receptacle, she said, “Thank you, honey.” I prefer these sizable containers for money drops and salute her for utilizing the proper prop.

Another fellow on the train had nothing at all but his hand for the money exchange. His pitch, though, was especially poignant. “Do not be afraid of me” and “Do not judge me.” I wasn’t and didn’t. Lastly, there was this individual whom I’ve previously spied working the subway cars. She’s clearly mentally ill and takes the handout notion to a very literal level. The woman goes from person to person and sticks her hand out each time in their respective faces. Let’s just say that she doesn’t respect people’s spaces, which is bad for business. There are a lot of sorry souls on the streets and in the subways, too, which is why being on the outside looking in—or is it the inside looking out—has its benefits.

(Photos from the personal collection of Nicholas Nigro)

Sunday, July 8, 2018

Master of His Domain…Not

Forty years ago on the Number 1 train into Manhattan, I witnessed a robbery at gunpoint. An underground desperado snatched a woman’s purse while wielding a firearm. And as the train sat in the station for a spell—deference to a crime having been committed—the victim cried out for police assistance. I was on my way that morning to see the movie Heaven Can Wait, which starred Warren Beatty when he was a star.

The 1970s were pretty gritty times in the Big Apple. The city actually breathed its last gasp as an affordable place to live back then, but the place sported character through it all. New York’s decomposition played out against a colorful backdrop of mom-and-pop businesses, including candy stores, record shops, and diners, which were still around in great abundance. But, sadly, their days were numbered.

Fast-forward forty years and I am on Number 1 train once more. While I witnessed a first at the age of fifteen all those years ago—a robbery at gunpoint—I beheld another yesterday. Suffice it to say that I had rather not been on hand for either, but yesterday’s episode was more disturbing. Give me a good old-fashioned holdup any day.

Entering the last car as I typically do on my return trip to the Bronx, I boarded the train at 14th Street. There were several passengers in the car, including a disheveled homeless man in the rear. Such a sighting is not unusual in the New York City subway system and the last car increases the odds. But what I subsequently beheld was a first—and hopefully a last—for me.

Let me put it this way: This poor soul was not the master of his domain. When I first laid eyes on him I thought he might be having a seizure or some such thing. But it quickly became apparent that he wasn’t. When an athletic-looking woman got on the train at the next stop, she headed for a place to sit in the direction of said man who was not the master of his domain. Stunned and disgusted, she didn’t hold back and angrily chided him for his unseemly behavior. He, though, was oblivious to the tirade. The woman then unleashed her fury on the rest of us in earshot. “Are you all so desensitized to this!” she cried.

I can’t speak for everybody there who plunked down $2.75 for the peep show, but I certainly wasn’t desensitized to the spectacle. I hoped initially that it would be a done deal in short order. When it became clear to me that it wasn’t to be, I plotted my escape. It’s just one of those things. What are passengers supposed to do when they enter a train and confront an unexpected and unpleasant unknown?

If the unknown is what I encountered yesterday, the best option is to move on to smaller and better things, which the justifiably livid lady and I—plus one other guy—did at the next stop. She and he scurried into a different car. I waited for the next train and hoped and prayed that every passenger therein would be the master of his or her domain. Thankfully they were.

Apparently, there is a first time for everything. Happily for me on New York City subways they occur every forty years. And I don’t suspect I’ll be riding the Number 1 train—or even be among the living—when I’m ninety-five.

(Photos from the personal collection of Nicholas Nigro)

Thursday, June 28, 2018

June Swoon

I've written in the past about a man from the old neighborhood whom I aptly nicknamed "Mr. Fence." The moniker stuck and endured through the years. This date on the calendar calls to mind both the man and the legend. The summers of "Mr. Fence" were simpler ones as kids one and all—sans any electronic devices to occupy their timefrolicked with abandon in the great outdoors. This fact of life made Mr. Fencea peculiar, sometimes scary, and very private individuala perpetual fence mender and steadfast sentry. But that was then and this is now.
Apparently this is what happens when the Donner party makes a reservation. In fact, I googled said party and encountered the "People also ask" questions and answers, which included: "Who was eaten in the Donner party?"
For three of my four years in high school I had Mr. C. as my gym teacher  To commence each class, the man would put his students through a tired litany of four-count warm-up exercises. "One, two, three, four...one, two, three, four...one, two, three, four," he'd intone repeatedly. The exercises were over and done with when the last "four" was shouted as such: "FOUR!!!"
Playing the familiar Mr. Softee jingleillegally appropriatedI was left to wonder how this mysterious and shady ice cream peddler could sleep at night.
Meanwhile, Jolly Joewith the most god-awful jinglepeddles his fare in the bright light of day. 
A bona fide heat wavewith ample doses of oppressive humidityis in the offing for the Fourth of July week.
The wacky world we now live in necessitates concrete barriers at busy New York City street corners with bicycle paths. Why? So deranged individuals don't purposely plow down bicyclists.
The best bargain in New York City: the Staten Island Ferry. The twenty-five minute trip from Manhattan to Staten Island—and vice versais free of charge and comes with incredible views. 
On seeing what I believed was a faux paddle steamer in New York Harbor, I thought of Robert Fulton who invented something else: the steamboat. Once upon a time that sort of thing was taught in school.
As New York City becomes more gentrified and businesses cater to hipsters, longstanding diner sides like canned corn niblets aren't always on the menu. For a vegetable side, a greasy spoon very familiar to me now offers only sautéed or grilled medley that includes broccoli, cauliflower, eggplant, peppers, and zucchini. I'll take a traditional diner's bland and tasteless peas/carrots over that concoction.
At the Van Cortlandt Park terminal...I think not.
Straphanger philosopher or Mel Brooks fan?
"I dare you to knock this off" subway sleeper...
When the repeated subway station announcement—"A train is approaching the station. Please stand away from the platform"assumes a higher meaning.
Target practice in the land down under?
If I had a hammer, I'd imagine George Costanza above me...
The next stop...the Twilight Zone...
"Who is Number One?"
The law of the New York City jungle permits dogs on the subway provided they are in carriers. Also, canine companions must not "annoy" fellow passengers. It's too bad this edict doesn't apply to the human animal, who is much more likely to annoy his or her fellow riders. On a recent journey of mine, a husband and wife entered my subway car with their four children. The kids promptly turned the setting into a playground while their parentsoblivious to the extremely annoying behavior—sat idly by as if they were in their own backyard.

(Photos from the personal collection of Nicholas Nigro)

Friday, June 22, 2018

The Summers of Sam’s

Today is the first full day of summer. Once upon a time that distinction meant a great deal to me. For summertime in my youth—while often incredibly hot and humid—was chock full of fun, freedom, and frivolity. It little mattered that I didn’t have air conditioning in my family’s upstairs lair and that local utility Con Edison periodically zapped neighborhoods—typically the less well-to-do ones—with brownouts. In other words, our ice cubes would half melt, refreeze, and taste pretty awful at the end of the day. A cool refreshing drink during the worst dog days of summer wasn’t always possible.

While I consumed an awful lot of pizza in the fall, winter, and spring, there was something special about summertime and a place called Sam’s Pizza—a hot dog at the ballpark sort of thing. In its Kingsbridge heyday in the 1970s, it was my preferred dining establishment as a teenager. A slice cost fifty and sixty cents then—a different era for pizza and just about everything else. On the hottest of hot days, there was nothing quite like dropping by for a couple of slices to go or, better yet, a couple of “Sicilians,” which cost a whopping ten cents more.

Forty years ago, Sam’s Pizza sole source of beating the heat was a small fan atop the front door. Suffice it to say, the contraption didn’t do much in combating the heat and humidity of the Summers of Sam’s. In fact, the fan underscored the unbearable clamminess that came with the territory of peddling pizza on a busy Bronx thoroughfare in the months of June, July, August, and September.

I can vividly recall the humming of the fan on an oppressive summer’s afternoon. While my slices of pizza warmed in the oven, I perspired in the stifling interior of Sam’s awaiting my take-out, which locals could readily detect by the grease stains on the brown paper bag. Sometimes the bags were so laden with oil, they would come apart on the street. Grease was definitely the word back then. The funny thing is that it either enhanced the fare—good grease—or took it down a peg or two. Bad grease! Bad grease and summertime weren't a good combination.

In the good old days, George—the venerable owner of Sam’s—would prepare a rack load of pizza pies in the morning before the shop opened. This modus operandi ensured that the over-the-counter slices weren’t always the freshest. And it assumed further significance when the thermometer topped ninety degrees. But even during those sultry summers, there was nothing quite like a piping-hot-out-of-the-oven Sicilian slice from Sam’s. My younger brother and I frequently hankered for one, but knew we had to apply the “petrified” test before proceeding. Typically, this could be accomplished with a glancing visual of the Sicilian pie on the countertop. If the pie was down to a precious few rectangular slices—or had been sitting around for too many hours to count—the pizza was deemed “petrified.” Regular slices were then our only recourse. For they had a knack for surviving the sands of time and could more often than not be salvaged during the reheating. Still, it amounted to casting your fate to the summer wind.

It was definitely a hot affair in those hot times. Sam’s Pizza only sold pizza, Italian ices, and soft drinks—and eventually Jamaican beef patties—in the 1970s. Regular or Sicilian slices were the be-all and end-all. The topping possibilities were limited to extra cheese, pepperoni, sausage, mushrooms, and anchovies. There was no such thing as lasagna pizza, salad pizza, or white pizza. In fact, it always grossed me out when someone ordered a slice with mushrooms or anchovies. I’d be forced to watch George stick his hands into big cans and smother the slice with said toppings. He would then wipe them clean with a dirty rag.

Happily, I have lived to tell. And in commemoration of the Summers of Sam’s, I ordered a couple of Sicilian slices from a local pizzeria. They were pretty good as far as contemporary Sicilians go. But I can say without exaggeration that the fresh Sicilian pizza enjoyed in the Summers of Sam’s—thick, doughy, and oozing with cheese—will never be tasted it again.

(Photos from the personal collection of Nicholas Nigro)

Summer Daze

(Originally published on June 23, 2017)

Once upon a time, I relished summer days and nights. The heat and humidity didn’t faze me in the least. No temperature or relative clamminess was too high to prevent a stickball game of ours. In fact, playing on searing asphalt on a scorcher—without water—was par for the course. There was no such thing as bottled water in the 1970s! Sure, we could have brought along a cooler, thermos, or canteen to our games, but it just wasn’t on our radars in those days. Looking back, we sometimes played doubleheaders in ninety-five-degree heat without liquid pick-me-ups. After game two, we were a parched lot in a mad-dash search for a non-contaminated watering hole—tap water from the kitchen sink or powdered iced tea. What American TV western didn’t feature its protagonists short of water and in a do-or-die search for it in super-dry desert climes?

Ah, but summer days just aren’t what they once were to me. It's more like summer daze. This week, the calendar officially said that it was summer with the longest days of the year upon us. As a youth in the third week of June, I was uber-active in the great outdoors until the last sliver of daylight vanished. Now, I spend well-lit summer evenings inside and do all that I can to circumvent the infamous New York City heat and humidity. Air conditioning has its place. For me, there is no more stoop sitting and chewing the fat with neighbors on poor Air Quality Index (AQI) days. I don't recall whether or not the AQI was calculated in the good old days. However, I can say that the air quality in the 1970s was considerably worse than it is today.

Bad air notwithstanding, the summers of my youth found the Good Humor man turning up every night at around the same time. Good Humor’s cola-flavored Italian ice—a favorite of mine—was a rock-solid frozen block. In attempting to sliver off pieces of the ice with the tongue-depressor spoon supplied, its paper cup would get punctured beyond recognition. Actually, the only cola taste—if you could call it that—of their watery Italian ices was found at the bottom of the paper cups, which by then would be casualties of war. But what did we expect for twenty cents? They were worth every penny.

Summertime also meant a vacation on the seashore of New Jersey or Long Island. It meant day trips to the happening hot spots incessantly advertised on the New York City metropolitan area airwaves, like the Brigantine Castle—a haunted fortress on the Atlantic in Brigantine, New Jersey. A three-hour drive trip from the Bronx to the Brigantine Castle was a memorable summertime adventure. The equivalent for my peers’ kids today—on the satisfaction front, I'd say—would be two weeks in the South of France or Swiss Alps.

A final summertime footnote and memory from forty years ago. It’s the solitary snapshot kind not associated with anything monumental. I had completed a high school final exam during my freshman year. It was an afternoon in mid-June, 1977. I was alone and on my way home via mass transit—from the East Bronx to the West Bronx. Standing at a bus stop on Jerome Avenue across the street from two of the ugliest-looking buildings in the borough—Tracey Towers—I patiently waited for the BX1, which would take me on the last leg of my journey home. It was overcast, terribly humid, and I remember seeing lightning on the distant horizon—heat lightning, I think. This far-away hot flash nonetheless signified so much to me—school’s end, summer, and a couple of months of incredible bliss.

(Photos from the personal collection of Nicholas Nigro)