Sunday, November 13, 2016

Sings of the Times

Growing up in the Northwest Bronx today bares little resemblance to its 1960s and 1970s forebear. The very same sentiment could be applied to growing up just about anywhere, I suppose. That’s because we now live in an ever-evolving Information Age. In fact, a case could be made that it’s a Too Much Information Age. The signs of the times are everywhere and impossible to miss.

When I was a boy, Kingsbridge-ites would “go into the city.” It’s the phrase that was regularly applied to our Bronx to Manhattan sojourns. Despite the Bronx being a borough of New York City—and a pretty famous one at that—the expression was both used and understood by everybody and anybody. One would “go into the city to see a play” or “go into the city to Christmas shop.” Here, at least, is something that has stood the test of time. Bronx residents still “go into the city” and many of them take the Number 1 subway train—the Broadway-Seventh Avenue local, which cuts a neat swath through the West Side of Manhattan, the most recognizable city part of the city.

I ventured “into the city” on the Number 1 train last weekend. Fittingly, I began my journey at the beginning, the Van Cortlandt Park station, where I spied a sign—for the very first time—that informed me the pride in the subway line was back. Funny, but I never knew it existed in the first place. Still, I was happy it was back. In the 1970s and 1980s, subway trains were covered in graffiti and grime, including the Number 1 fleet. Nevertheless, I suspect the “Pride Is Back” is a contemporary brander’s brainchild—an advertising concern that couldn’t tell you what exactly happened to the former pride, why it existed in the first place, and—the burning question of the moment—why it’s back.

In the city itself, more signs of the times were seen, including one at the entrance of a little park in lower Manhattan. It’s the first time I have ever been apprised of how many light poles, moveable chairs, and trees were within a park’s boundaries. I only counted twenty-four moveable chairs when the sign said twenty-five. I could have lodged a complaint with New York’s complaint hotline, 311, but took the high road.
 
Down wind from this park with three-dozen trees was a peculiar-looking building, the handiwork no doubt of a Jenga fan and architect. This aesthetically unappealing edifice was also blue—the icing on the unsightly cake. I fear, though, that its design is something of a trend. While down by New York Harbor a short while later, a skyscraper on the New Jersey side sported the same Lego look. And I thought the pencil-thin, uber-tall buildings—which have been sprouting up in New York's skyline of late—couldn’t be surpassed for ugliness, but I was wrong. The signs of the times never cease to shock and awe.

(Photos from the personal collection of Nicholas Nigro)

Friday, November 11, 2016

Wednesday’s Child

I ordinarily prefer not wading into overtly political minefields in this whimsical blog of mine. Because what’s the point, really? But I would be remiss in not commenting on the conclusion of the most elongated and bizarre of presidential elections.

I turned in a little after one o’clock on election night. The presidential contest had yet to be decided, but it was pretty apparent whom the winner would be. And I don’t mind telling you that I was full of woe when my head hit the pillow. Wednesday morning, of course, confirmed for me its surreal outcome. As per my norm, I pored over Facebook with a Cup of Joe beside me and Morning Joe on the boob tube. The former supplied me with enough hysteria and vitriol to last a lifetime. My personal favorite spleen venting involved a back-and-forth among the most ardent of Hillary haters, who called her every name conceivable—some unprintable—because she didn’t officially concede in the wee small hours of the morning. Were the shoe on the other foot, their candidate would have graciously thrown in the towel toot sweet after the network bean counters decreed. It wouldn’t have mattered in the least that the Electoral College tally was very close and that he maintained a lead in the popular vote. The irony of it all was lost on the spleen venters.

Interestingly, I read that same morning—the day after—how suicide prevention hotlines were swamped with post-midnight calls when The Donald was declared the winner. Coincidentally, I found a green post-it note blowing in the wind on Election Day morning. I was on my way to the polls when I spotted it, and a little voice inside of me whispered in my ear to reach down and pick it up. The note read: “Dear world, this world had been so mean to me so I decided to suicide.” Now, suicide isn’t a laughing matter, I know. It’s not painless, nor is it a verb. Honestly, I can’t say what a suicide note was doing on the ground in the great outdoors. My gut reaction was that it was a joke of some sort, but who knows? Remember, I found it eighteen hours before Donald Trump was christened the president-elect.

Really, I wish the president-apprentice well. He was elected fair and square in our democratic process. And one never knows how things will turn out. I certainly never thought a President Heat Miser possible, but life is full of surprises. In any event, I sincerely hope the post-it note I chanced upon was indeed a fake. Because hope—it’s been said—springs eternal. Let's hope....

(Photo two from the personal collection of Nicholas Nigro)

Thursday, October 20, 2016

Stream Along with Me

As a boy growing up in the always-fascinating 1970s, I wasn’t especially fond of fall. From my youthful perspective, autumns in New York typically represented abrupt and unpleasant endings of pleasant summers and—most critical of all—the beginnings of agonizingly long school years. However, there were a handful of silver linings in those past autumnal clouds, like the three networks’ spanking new prime-time TV schedules. Brand new episodes of familiar and favorite shows—like Kojak and Sanford and Son—plus a fair share of debut programs to sample, made fall evenings the highlight of increasingly dark days. Back then, sitting in front of the boob tube was a welcome elixir for the autumn blues.

Well, that was then and this is now. The three networks—CBS, NBC, and ABC—still promote their fall prime-time schedules in the months of September and October. But the competition is stiffer than ever before. There are cable channels aplenty to tune into and countless other visual distractions to occupy one's time. When I mull over this extended, hysterical, and most bizarre of election years—this latest autumn in New York for me—I can’t help but hark back to the good old days. Or, I should say, the good old nights. When I was a fourth grader in St. John’s grammar school, 1971-72, Friday evenings were a special time. Weekends were in the offing and the ABC prime-time lineup on that most appreciated of weekdays was quite something: The Brady Bunch, The Partridge Family, Room 222, The Odd Couple, and Love, American Style. I recall watching these shows one after another, missing Love, American Style occasionally because it was at once past my bedtime and rather adult-themed. Fast forward to the seventh grade, 1974-75, and CBS’s mind-boggling Saturday night offering: All in the Family, The Jeffersons, The Mary Tyler Moore Show, The Bob Newhart Show, and The Carol Burnett Show.

For sure, it was a less insane time because of the prime-time bounty. I gave some serious thought recently to this singular time of year—to fall. The leaves turn a kaleidoscope of  colors and fall, which means—for me at least—a lot of sweeping and bagging. But I’m old-fashioned. Nowadays, excruciatingly loud leaf blowers are the rage—they should be outlawed—and compound the insanity that is seemingly everywhere. For some strange reason in this fallback of mine, I remembered looking forward to, and eventually watching, a couple of brand new sitcoms on the 1970s fall network schedules: The Montefuscos,with the always-impressive Joe Sirola—who is happily still among the living—and The Dumplings, with the always-large James Coco, who is not. The former series ran for nine episodes in 1975, and the latter, for ten episodes in 1976. I suspect I watched them all.

Consider, though, how times have changed. We’ve got a whole lot more to choose from on television and via other venues. But less is sometimes better, I believe, even if The Montefuscos and The Dumplings weren’t exactly laugh riots. When cable TV first came my way, I took advantage of the additional choices and watched nascent political debate shows like Crossfire with Tom Braden debating Pat Buchanan. And then along came FOX, MSNBC, and more and more contentious blather night after night after night. Too many people have gotten hopelessly hooked on the daily vitriol, and it's definitely taken its toll.

Happily, I've weaned myself off of all that but, unhappily, can’t fall back—like in those days gone by—on the prime-time lineups of the networks. Netflix streaming has been my savior in these stressed times. Stream along with me, I say, and watch Poirot, Inspector George Gently, and Foyle’s War. Let the talking heads talk to the wall for a day or two or three, Sing a happy song. You’ll feel better. You’ll be less angry, too, with lower blood pressure. Remember that Mary Richards could turn the world on with her smile. And neither Bill O’Reilly nor Chris Matthews can do that.

Sunday, October 9, 2016

The Orange Man, Pretty in Pollution, and the Surreal Life

As a boy growing up in the extraordinarily colorful 1970s, I didn’t give much thought to what my adult life would be like. In fact, I didn’t give it any thought. And that, I think, was a good thing. Kids should concentrate on being kids because—poof—childhood will be a memory soon enough. Youthful exuberance fades fast and time accelerates as the years multiply.

But here I am—forty years later—in the surreal life. The Orange Man is running for president and in a heaping helping of hot water courtesy of some Cro-Magnon "locker room talk" he engaged in when he was a mere lad of fifty-nine. There’s a big debate tonight between him and his opponent, Hillary Clinton, and God only knows what the Orange Man will be packing. No surprise here: The anti-social media is atwitter with the usual suspects sounding off from both sides of political divide and—in the vast majority of instances—beating a dead horse. The world was a whole lot quieter in the 1970s. Everyone had opinions, of course, but they weren’t blasted out to the wider world—unfiltered—from anywhere and everywhere with a mere tap or click.

Permit me now to change colors from orange to green. While I was walking through nearby Van Cortlandt Park recently, I visited the shores of its fabled lake. I had previously read a news story in the local paper that reported how the lake was in the alarming grip of an algae bloom. The cause: a pollution source as yet determined. I was somewhat taken aback by the visual of Van Cortlandt Lake wearin’ o’ the green. Algae had indeed turned considerable parts of the lake’s surface a bright light green with a pot of gold no doubt in the vicinity. Strangely, the scene reminded me of my youth when Ma made us pudding for dessert. Sometimes she prepared the instant kind, which was tasty enough, but not nearly as satisfying as the cooked variety. Cooked pudding required some serious stirring over a stove jet and developed a skin—a delicious skin—as it cooled in the refrigerator. Although I never consumed a green version, the lake nonetheless resembled cooked pudding to me.

Really, the lake looked most beguiling in its hues of light green—Pretty in Pollution. I wouldn’t be at all surprised if some virtual genius generates a meme utilizing its present incarnation as rock-solid proof that pollution isn’t a problem worth fretting over. After all, it looks mighty cool in its Van Cortlandt Lake masquerade.

Lastly, on the eve of Columbus Day here in New York, I take some small solace that I haven’t yet spotted a “Wanted for Murder” poster on Facebook. Yada…yada…yada. Can’t we just enjoy a holiday, attend the parades, and go autumn leaf watching somewhere? The Orange Man, I believe, has sidetracked the most rabid of the rabid anti-Columbus crowd. And for that, I suppose, he is owed a debt of gratitude. Then again, I wouldn’t mind if this Monday in October was renamed Acorns Fall on Your Head Day. Who could oppose such a non-controversial and oh-so fitting day of remembrance in this life so surreal?

(Photos two and three from the personal collection of Nicholas Nigro)

Tuesday, October 4, 2016

The Brisk Iced Tea Redemption

Several days ago I called on a nearby pizzeria located under the El—the quintessence of gritty ambiance in the Bronx. I ordered a slice with a sausage topping and a bottle of Brisk Iced Tea, something I had done on previous occasions without a hitch. But on this day, I encountered a major snafu in earshot of the Number 1 train coming and going from its first and last stop at W242nd Street. As I plopped down at a table with my fine fare and liquid refreshment, I reached first for the latter to twist off its top. But it just wouldn't cooperate with me. I concluded my hands were a bit sweaty—and the likely fly in the ointment—so I endeavored to get the cursed thing off with the aid of a napkin and then my shirt. Good fortune didn’t shine my way.

I momentarily considered taking the bottle up to the counter and asking a member of the staff to open it for me. However, my pride got the best of me. The slice of pizza wasn’t overly hot, so I opted to consume it without my iced-tea chaser. I surmised that afterwards I could take the bottle with me—across Broadway—into Van Cortlandt Park and go the extra mile there. In some secluded spot—if required—I could make unsightly faces and embarrassing grunts to tap into that elusive iced tea.

While I had unsuccessfully utilized my shirt—in Operation Twist and Shout—in the confines of the pizza parlor, I would do so once more in the great outdoors, but with a little more sweat and toil in this second round. Lady luck was missing in action—again! I had to concede the Brisk Iced Tea bottle had gotten the best of me. And a half-mile from home with multiple errands still to run, it was decision time. I chose not to carry this dastardly bottle around with me. I was thus compelled to toss in a park garbage pail twenty fluid ounces of iced tea—the very size that gave former New York City Mayor Mike Bloomberg sleepless nights. I didn’t like the idea of throwing away—in this throwaway society of ours—an unopened bottle that cost me $1.75. All things being equal, I would have preferred taking it home with me and employing the nuclear option therein—a nutcracker, wrench, or hedge clipper.

Nevertheless, I was bound and determined to wipe that day of infamy away—with all its inherent bad memories—by retracing my steps and actions. And the sooner the better! So yesterday, I returned to the scene of the crime against my psyche and ordered a another slice of pizza with sausage and bottle of Brisk Iced Tea. I was extremely anxious because, I knew, there would be no third act in this drama. I was handed the bottle before my warming pizza came out of the oven. I opened it at the counter this go-round with the intention of asking for help if—God forbid—bad fortune befell me again.

Lo and behold the iced tea bottle opened for me with incredible ease and I experienced a New Age moment. You know: If at first you don’t succeed—try, try again. I was only left to wonder if anything like that ever happened to Joel Osteen or one of his peers in the God business. For the Brisk Iced Tea Bottle Redemption, I think, is sermon material indeed.

(Photos from the personal collection of Nicholas Nigro)

Wednesday, September 28, 2016

That Time in September

Yesterday morning a house blew up not too far from me—in the Bronx neighborhood of Kingsbridge where I grew up. When I heard and indeed felt the blast at approximately 7:30 a.m., I feared it might have occurred in the building I called home—an instinctive first reaction that I have experienced in the past. Distant sounding car alarms, however, told me otherwise. When I eventually opened my front door to have a look around, I spied fire trucks nearby, never imagining the horror of what transpired only moments before: a mammoth gas explosion in a residence—once owned by “Aunt Bee” and “the dentist”—that, very tragically, killed one of New York’s Bravest.

It happened on a patch of earth very familiar to me. And Aunt Bee’s been gone for some twenty years now. She suffered from a terminal form of cancer at the end of her life. I remember her telling my mother—who was friendly with her—how she hoped to, at the very least, live long enough to witness the verdict in the O.J. Simpson murder trial. For like countless Americans at the time, Aunt Bee was riveted by the antics of—to name just a few—Johnnie Cochran, Marcia Clark, and Judge Lance Ito. I can’t recall whether or not she was granted her last wish, but I can say with certainty that it’s very fortunate she and her dentist husband—who owned that modest corner house for many, many years—weren’t on this earthly plane to see it become a smoldering pile of rubble.

In recent years, Aunt Bee’s former abode had become one among many sorry signs of the times. That is, Aunt Bee-esque homeowners residing on the properties with their families have been sadly replaced—in all too many instances—with absentee owners renting to everyone and anyone. Everyone and anyone, it should be noted, who can fork over their exorbitant asking prices. Unsurprisingly, this is a recipe for high turnover and, too, shenanigans and unlawful activities. 

It appears from news reports that Aunt Bee’s old place had become a drug lab of some kind—growing marijuana plants—and the unsavory tenants may have illegally tapped into a gas line or employed another such dangerous maneuver. The owner of the house says he knew absolutely nothing about the renters. I’m inclined to believe him. Apparently, this man owns multiple homes in a neighborhood that means absolutely nothing to him. One thing and one thing only drives him—making money and the more the merrier. The drug lab operators—low lives all—could obviously afford paying the piper. And this is the sad end-result.

(Photos two and three from the personal collection of Nicholas Nigro)

Thursday, September 22, 2016

September Song

In the ethereal radiance of the 1969 World Championship season, I became a Met fan at the impressionable age of seven. Personally, I consider the “Miracle Mets”the class of 1973. In fact, catcher Jerry Grote once said: "It (1969) was no miracle. Now, '73 was a miracle!" I was there and I was aware then—and armed with that indispensable youthful exuberance—during that memorable September pennant drive. It was a dramatically different time to be alive, to be a baseball fan, and to be a kid—a better time, I daresay, on a whole host of fronts.

It’s kind of hard to believe that forty-three years have passed since that amazing September song when the Mets catapulted from fifth place—and nine games under .500—on the last day in August to first place on September 21st. They were 76-76 after sweeping the Pirates in a two-game series at Shea Stadium that night, which was good enough to be on top in what was a mediocre 1973 Eastern Division. The Mets finished the season with a record of 82-79, beating out the second place St. Louis Cardinals, at 81-81, by a game-and-a-half.

So much happened along the way, including "Willie Mays Night" at Shea Stadium on September 25th. I recall watching it on WOR-TV, Channel 9—the Mets televised three-quarters of their games on free TV back then. Willie had announced his retirement after the season. At forty-two with a pair of bum knees and slower reflexes, he was a mere shadow of his former self and everybody knew it, including Willie. “Growing old is just a helpless hurt,” he said.

Still, just having him in New York for the last two years of his stellar career—that began in New York with the Giants—seemed so right, so special, and almost mystical from a baseball fan’s perspective. The fans of yesteryear were more steeped in the game’s history, too. No matter how poorly or uninspired Willie Mays played in the last year of his career, he was nonetheless revered and justifiably so. Just seeing him in a Mets' uniform, with that famous number twenty-four on the back, was worth more than words can express. And, yes, he supplied us with some great moments, but Willie was with the Mets primarily because owner Joan Payson wanted him in New York, where he belonged, for the final curtain. She also promised San Francisco Giants owner Horace Stoneham that she’d take care of him financially after his playing career was over.

I remember Willie Mays Night being quite a poignant affair with the baseball legend announcing his departure from the game before a full house at Shea Stadium in an excitingly tight pennant race. Mets' announcer Lindsay Nelson was on the field in the role of master of ceremonies, which he did so well, and bedecked in one of his ultra-colorful sports jackets. It was even loud on my family’s black-and-white TV set. Two of the game's greats, Joe DiMaggio and Stan Musial, were also on hand to pay their respects and watch Willie receive a treasure trove of gifts, including an expensive fur coat for the Misses and a Cadillac for himself. But it was the baseball giant's words that night that struck an appropriate and resonant chord. “When I look at the kids over here, the way they’re playing, the way they’re fighting for themselves...it tells me one thing,” he said. “Willie, say goodbye to America.”

The ten-year-old me couldn’t fully appreciate then what he said next, but I found it moving nonetheless. “I never felt that I would have to quit baseball,” Willie said, “but as you know, there is always a time for someone to get out.” For twenty-two years he played the game—America's pastime—and it came to end, just like everything else does. Now, forty more years have passed and Willie Mays is eighty-two years old. Time passes by for sure and there’s nothing we can do about it. But, really, there is “always a time for someone to get out”—in baseball and in so many other areas of life as well.

Tuesday, September 6, 2016

The Court Is Now in Session

As a youth, I remember watching a Ronald Reagan movie for the first time. I knew him, then, as a former actor and politician—a man who had his eyes fixed on the presidency, not an Academy Award. I was struck in the film not by how the future president delivered his lines, which he did reasonably well in my opinion, but by his reactions to his co-stars delivering theirs. Actually, they would be better described as no reactions. Reagan seemed only to be awaiting his turn again.

Fast forward to the present and I am besieged in the bright light of day—real life—with all too many individuals just waiting for their turns. Men and women who relish holding court—period and end of story. People who seek out any old pair of ears within shouting distance so they can ramble on and on and on about their extraordinary lives and times; so they can flaunt their incredible knowledge and insight on matters great and small.

This sort of behavior bothers me so much now that I’ve literally run into traffic to avoid some of these self-absorbed bores, who don’t care a whit what I, or anyone else for that matter, have to say. I’m a big believer in conversation, but not one-way conversation where I silently sit or stand at attention. It appears Jerry, George, Elaine, and Kramer weren’t the only ones averse to learning. There are an awful lot of folks in my circle who love nothing more than the sounds of their own voices. Anything I might say—a word in edgewise—acts merely as a segue and is fuel for further raving. Let me tell you what happened to me.

Well, the court is now in session and I swear to tell the whole truth and nothing but the truth. You blowhards and know-it-alls—and you don’t know who you are, that’s the problem—just might want to listen on occasion to others. You will be surprised that there are actually a few things you don’t know. It’s possible, too, that you might actually learn an invaluable thing or two. You’ll still get your say. Fear not! And if you engage in genuine give-and-take with your family, friends, and neighbors, they might even be enlightened by something you have to say. Anything’s possible. But until that time, I’m still going to assume the risk of running into traffic to avoid you when I can—because I know who your are—and tune you out when I have no choice but to be in your intolerable presence.

Monday, August 15, 2016

The Handwriting Is Not on the Wall Anymore

It was only recently that I learned that school kids—many, if not most of them—were no longer being taught how to write in script. The contemporary educators call it cursive script. I must admit to being stunned at the news that penmanship instruction has seemingly gone the way of the beeper, typewriter, and Rolodex. It’s something I assumed was in the “here to eternity” column—infinite like the barber profession, Coca-Cola, and cat litter.

I appreciate, of course, that this is an advanced technological age we live in, where the physical act of writing a letter by hand—to someone or some entity—is quite rare, just as note taking at school or at the office is. But—as I recall from my school days—writing by hand in a penmanship all my own took my writing to a higher level, even when it was less than incoherent. I couldn’t conceive of printing out an essay during those years. Printing the individual letters of the alphabet to form words, instead of in script, would have taken a whole lot longer and, too, taken away a fair chunk of my individuality. Sitting down, putting pen to paper, and writing by hand in script stimulates the brain in ways not realized when banging away on a keyboard. I read where students who took notes in their own cursive writing hands, rather than on their laptops, had a much better recall of the materials. Makes perfect sense to me.

Okay, so the handwriting is not on the wall anymore. I understand. Who needs a personal signature when our eyeballs can be scanned? But I just thought of something. I collected all sorts of things as a boy, including autographs. I’d get players at the ballpark to sign my scorecard if possible. And it was all very exciting. Acquiring an obscure journeyman’s signature was even a thrill. Fast-forward a couple of decades from now and the autograph, I guess, will be reduced to something akin to a caveman’s mark.

Anyway, in expressing my surprise at penmanship’s untimely swan song, I was apprised of this college-aged young man who cannot read anything written in script. It's all Greek to him and might as well be hieroglyphics—because he can’t decipher a word of it. And I suppose he is not alone in this affliction. For starters, let’s rule out a career as a historian. Fifty years from now, maybe, he could cut the mustard and research a biography of someone from this Pokemon Go day and age of ours by combing through e-mails, tweets, and Facebook posts, but not now.

So, yes, it’s going, going gone—the postcard from a friend or family member written in that familiar hand. The grammar and high school tests handwritten by the teacher and mimeographed on top of that. The teacher commentary with that personal touch on the report card—the one that came in a brown envelope where we wrote in script our names and classroom numbers. All I can say is that if John Hancock were alive today he’d be rolling over in his grave. And I’d bet the ranch that most folks who don’t write or read script haven’t a clue who John Hancock was.

(Photos from the personal collection of Nicholas Nigro)

Saturday, August 13, 2016

Channeling Iron Eyes Cody

I’ve often written about the colorful and simpler 1970s, my all-time favorite decade. For I was boy growing up in the Bronx back then. The fact that New York City suffered through a fiscal crisis during those years—with conspicuous cuts in services like policing, sanitation, and park upkeep—mattered little to me. Sure, that snapshot in time has a well-deserved reputation for being on the scarier and the dirtier side of the ledger. The subways, for one, were an unattractive visual of grime and graffiti, crime infested, and prone to break down. And, while on the subject of visuals, the urban decay in some parts of the city resembled war zones and became photo-op stopovers for grandstanding politicians of all stripes.

I nevertheless remember that my neighborhood and the surrounding ones were a whole lot cleaner and certainly less congested than they are today. There are so many more vehicles on the area roads in 2016—and it’s every man and every woman for him or herself. Crossing the street at a green light is sometimes more dangerous than crossing on red. Pedestrians, it appears, no longer have the right away.

Recently, I’ve been channeling Iron Eyes Cody, aka the “Crying Indian,” from the popular “Keep America Beautiful” public service announcement commercials of the 1970s. Cody is seen in them canoeing through litter-strewn waterways with unsightly, belching smokestacks in the backdrop. He is understandably distraught at what he beholds. Later, on foot, Cody emerges at the edge of a busy highway, where a bag of garbage is hurled out of a passing car’s window. It burst open at his feet. This indignity is the proverbial straw that broke the camel’s back and Cody sheds a famously big tear.

Fast forward forty years and “there’s a lot of litter messing up our land” and those “litterbugs are getting out of hand.” What I know wasn’t the norm in the old neighborhood—fiscal crisis or not—were individuals in parked cars using the great outdoors as a garbage dump. It’s commonplace in these parts to find today’s lunch remains or yesterday’s lottery stubs strewn across the ground at curbside. Apparently, it’s too much for too many people to find a nearby garbage can. They are—I can attest—all over the place. Can’t find a litter receptacle? Take the stuff home and dispose of it there! Is that too much to ask?

It’s all very disheartening and a sign of the times. When I walk around nowadays, I often feel like Iron Eyes Cody, who, by the way, was not a Native American but a second-generation Sicilian actor born Espera Oscar de Corti. Tossed out of non-moving cars, Win 4 lottery stubs seem to be the litter de jour of the oblivious and inconsiderate. All I can say to these Win 4 folks is: Take 5, will you, and consider what you are doing. And, until you learn that littering is a no-no, I hope you don't win and lose over and over and over.

(Photo three from the personal collection of Nicholas Nigro)

Thursday, August 11, 2016

The Waning Agog Factor


Thirty-nine years ago on this day, I was at once in Boston and agog. The adult impresario of this Bronx to Beantown adventure was a neighbor and friend named Rich. My brother Joe and I—two teenagers absent as-yet-invented iPads or flip video cameras—accompanied him to what then seemed like a very faraway and even exotic destination.

While we were out of town the “Son of Sam” was captured. A Boston Globe headline in a sidewalk newspaper machine alerted us that the fiend was in police custody. We were pleasantly surprised when we dropped a dime in the slot and the machine’s front door pulled open, permitting each of us to grab a paper. Evidently, man and boys alike had never purchased one from an inanimate object. I guess we thought it would be dispensed like a bottle of soda or a candy bar. Still, we felt like we were a long way from home when we read the details about this serial killer, a man who had been in our midst during that especially hot summer and the summer before.

We had seen the Red Sox at Fenway Park the night before and also peed in a communal urinal there, which was yet another first for us. I sat beside a gangly grandfather and his grandson, I surmised, because the latter called the former “Pops.” Pops was pretty old and, when nature called, had more than a little difficulty navigating the ballpark’s steep steps and cramped aisles. He was a dead ringer for Our Gang's Old Cap. The Red Sox beat the Angels 11-10 that night in a back and forth slugfest. The Globe deemed it one of the most exciting games ever played. Rich, however, noted how “dilapidated” the environs were, and obviously liked the sound of the word, branding countless Boston edifices and nearby locales with the same unflattering moniker.

Dilapidated or not, the three of us were generally agog throughout the trip, blissfully going about the business of exploring foreign terrain before anything called e-mail or Twitter existed. Joe had a hand-me-down, fold-up camera with him that took blurry pictures. Rich wore a strap around his neck attached to an over-sized instant camera during our sightseeing. His photos developed a bit on the green side, including shots at Harvard University and of the Charles River. No flash meant no pictures could be taken of the Green Monster by night. On our way home, we naturally couldn’t pass up America’s most historical rock in Plymouth. This rather pedestrian boulder had at some point cracked in two and been cemented together—not a particularly compelling visual and even less so in shades of instant-picture green.

There were no digital cameras or iPhones in existence, so thus no capacity to post our pictures on Facebook, which wasn’t around either. We were merely content with being agog as we climbed the Bunker Hill Monument and toured Old Ironsides. The dilapidated surroundings all around us actually astounded us. We called home from pay phones. In the present age of instant gratification, with all too many people engrossed in their Blackberries or some such technological device—and walking the streets like oblivious automatons—I fear that the Agog Factor just ain't what it used to be…can’t be what it used to be…and that’s really kind of sad.

(Photo from the personal collection of Nicholas Nigro)

Sunday, August 7, 2016

The Bluefish Flush Flashback

It was a pleasant summer’s day in the Bronx—on the warm side but with low humidity, which sharply contrasted with yesterday’s soupy feel. On this agreeable morning, I was mistaken for a man named Malcolm; twenty-four hours earlier it was a fellow named Joe. While scam artists are legion in this town, I believe the two distinct individuals who thought I was Malcolm and Joe, respectively, really do know—although not especially well—a Malcolm and a Joe who somewhat resemble me.

I frequently cross paths with the elderly man who thought I was Malcolm. He always looked me over, like he had something on his mind. Well, now I know what it was. Okay, if I’m a dead ringer for Malcolm, he’s Ben Bernanke twenty years from now. As for Joe and the previous case of mistaken identity, I watched a stranger make a beeline toward me from a Broadway sidewalk under El. I was sitting on a bench—in “Van Cortlandt Park’s Tail,” the sign says—when he approached me.

“Joe?” he said.

“Excuse me?” I replied.

“Joe?”

“No.”

“No?”

“Yes, no.”

“Sorry. I thought you were somebody else.”

And off he went—two ships that passed in the night. As I watched him heading south down Broadway, I remembered being stopped—in the vicinity of where he was headed—a couple of years back. It was by a man who thought I was—yes—Joe. It must have been him. I sure hope he finds the real Joe because, really, time waits for no man. Then again, maybe the scam revolves around finding an actual Joe and then taking it from there.

Happily, I encountered one man today who wanted to speak with me because I’m me, not Malcolm or Joe. I’ve run into this fellow before. His modus operandi: a perpetual request for seventy-five cents. Not a dollar or fifty cents, but seventy-five cents. But he phrased it a bit differently this morning. “Can you spare just three quarters?” he asked. When in the past he asked me for seventy-five cents, I declined to give it to him. He once asked me twice in the same day—in different locations within an hour’s time—believing, perhaps, I was Malcolm and then Joe. If nothing else, the man is tireless. I gave him a buck this time around and off he went without so much as a thank you. He was reasonably well dressed with a fanny pack (for all those quarters, I guess) and took off like a bat out of hell. He had something very specific in mind to do with that dollar.

Finally, after the seventy-five cents guy departed, I witnessed a young rat frolicking in the grass and flowers. An area squirrel seemed stunned by it—the rat was on its patch after all—and initially moved toward it. After a start and a stop in every direction on the compass, the squirrel thought better of it. Even squirrels are leery of rats apparently—regardless of their size.


But my adventures weren’t yet over. I had approximately eight blocks to go when I realized that I had to go. Fortunately, I’ve never had an accident in my adult incarnation, but there were a few close calls. The last one being about fifteen years ago and the byproduct of my favorite diner’s dinner special: bluefish. It tasted good as I recall, but came with a post-dinner kicker a couple of hours later. A friend of mine experienced the very same thing and it has forevermore been deemed the “Bluefish Flush,” a natural enema like no other. Like last time, I made it just in time this time.

Thursday, July 21, 2016

Midsummer Musings

Since I don't typically do politics in this blog, look upon this as a theatrical review. Yes, it was positively surreal seeing Scott Baio—Chachi Arcola—as a featured speaker at the Republican National Convention this week. Perfectamundo, he wasn’t. If the Democrats are smart they have recruited Donny Most—or Anson Williams if he wasn't available—for their upcoming convention. Donny, who prefers the moniker "Don" now, has still got it, I hear.

Honestly, it’s too bad actor Eddie Albert isn’t around anymore and
doing Ecotrin commercials. The punch line that he delivered with great élan some three decades ago—and what distinguished this safety-coated aspirin product then as well as now—was: “It’s orange!” Were he still among the living, Albert could have effortlessly reprised the pithy phrase in ads for the GOP standard-bearer.

There are certain politicians, I believe, who really should have heeded George Costanza’s power of example. He didn’t learn all that much along life’s highways and byways, but he did appreciate how it was better to “go out on a high note.” Take Rudy Giuliani and Chris Christie. Respectively, they were “America’s Mayor” and “America’s Governor.” For one brief shining moment at least—post-9/11 and post-Superstorm Sandy—they seemed to transcend partisan politics and actually lead. But for ambitious politicians of any stripe, going out on a high note is a pretty tall order.

Uber-tough prosecutor Chris Christie, by the way, said Melania Trump’s speech at the convention was at least 93% original. As a writer who has worked with publishers and their plagiarizing check software programs, I can say without hesitation that seven percent of somebody else’s words in a book of mine—without attribution—wouldn’t cut the mustard. It would cut the cheese instead, and I’d be branded for life as a cheat in the business. Oh, and I wouldn’t get paid anything further and have to return my advance on top of that.

A Facebook friend of a friend of a friend recently remarked how he “couldn’t wait until the election was over” so he could “get back” to liking his “friends.” I fear there is a gaping hole in this well-intentioned fellow’s overly optimistic outlook. Let’s call it the Wishful Thinking Department, because this election—regardless of who wins—will never be over. It is a contemporary never-ending story—a Groundhog Day, While “The Nothing” threatened Fantasia in The NeverEnding Story, “The Something” threatens us. But the former was a fantasy and the latter is real—all too real. Wah wah wah.

Saturday, July 16, 2016

Lotsa Luck!

I heard the first of summer’s cicada bug’s yesterday—incessantly loud buzzing in the trees of a nearby park. For me at least, their melodious vociferousness has this uncanny knack of underscoring summertime’s one-two punch of heat and hush. It’s actually been pretty hot in New York City the last few days, but I’ve experienced a whole lot worse over the course of my life. Growing up on the top floor of a three-family house in the Bronx, without any air conditioning, wasn’t for the faint-hearted, particularly in the days of recurring summer brownouts that did a number on our ice cubes. My father absolutely believed that feeling the deleterious combination of heat and humidity was psychological, not biological. In other words, it was all in our heads. I must say that the paternal side of my family—the Italian side—left very small carbon footprints in their wake. Nothing was wasted, including electricity to run those totally unnecessary—downright sinister—air conditioners.

If the temperatures were in the nineties and the humidity levels unbearable, it mattered little when I was a kid. My contemporaries and I bore much of the discomfort in the great outdoors. It was summer after all, a once-a-year thing to be relished. I don’t want to beat what has become an annual dead horse, but youths outside in the warm climes have gone the way of the VHS tape. They certainly are not playing the venerable street games that my generation played. And we were the Last of the Mohicans, as it were, who played the games little people had played for generations in urban milieus. Of course, as a fifty-something fellow now, who has grown accustomed to the more-or-less serene summertime streets, I’m kind of happy my windows are not being pelted with spaldeens and Wiffle balls, or my paths being intersected by marauding kids playing Round-up, Ringolevio, and Flashlight by night.

I was a big fan of a sitcom called Lotsa Luck! The show aired for one season (1973-74) only and starred Dom DeLuise. It had a great opening theme song that lamented the passage of time—when one “used to buy a pickle” that “only used to cost a nickel.” It emphasized, too, how things had taken a serious turn for the worse in the mid-1970s with its high inflation, increased traffic, and big-time stress and anxiety wherever one turned. Alas, the good old days “could be forgotten,” the song said, because “the world has gotten rotten.” And the cold hard reality was that “every day is getting tougher and it keeps on getting rougher.” The lyrical punch line and only apparent elixir for a world in such a sorry state were ample doses of luck—lotsa luck in fact! “In order to survive just to keep yourself alive,” one needed a heaping helping of it.

Well, more than forty years have passed and, I daresay, the rottenness of the world has reached new and unimaginable heights, making 1973 and 1974 a "Marshmallow World" by comparison. I hesitate to turn on the TV nowadays for fear of encountering the tragedy du jure. And there’s no light that I can see at the end of this tunnel. What exactly will the world be like in another forty years? I take some solace in the fact that my luck will have run out by then. But in the meantime: Lotsa luck!


Friday, July 15, 2016

Hello, Dummy...Goodbye, Dummy

The year was 1975. The place: Kingsbridge in the Bronx. It was summertime when our Frankenstein monster was born and hit the streets. Actually, it was just a dummy—an old pair of pants and a shirt stuffed with newspapers (the Daily News and New York Post, I suspect). It was all stitched together with multiple safety pins. The dummy’s cranium was a Styrofoam mannequin head. I don’t recall where that came from, but most likely from a neighbor’s or neighboring business’s garbage pail.

This Frankenstein dummy was brought to life, specifically, to appear in a five-minute Batman film that we were producing. Our movie camera employed eight-millimeter film sans any sound. The film’s stars were aged sixteen, fifteen, and twelve. I was the twelve year old who got to live his dream by playing the Joker in a feature film. Granted, it was a low-budget independent film—and indie—that brought in a mere three dollars at the box office. That is, during a screening in one of the star’s basements. The film, nevertheless, transcended time and place.

The Frankenstein dummy, really, was the true star of this flick. He—if I may—assumed multiple roles in the film. He played Batman’s stuntman and scaled a three-family brick home in search of the Joker. Ever versatile, he then took on the role of the Joker himself, getting tossed out of the window of said brick home. Perhaps more prestigious, he also played the Joker’s kidnapped victim—a man who lived up the street from the film’s stars named Dr. Y. This man wasn’t a medical doctor, but a Ph. D.—a bona fide egghead, scientist, and university professor—which made him both a celebrity in the neighborhood and someone with whom to have a little fun.

While none of the young, flesh-and-blood thespians went on to bigger and better things in the acting business, the Frankenstein dummy nonetheless endured. His creators laid him on the sidewalk in front of one of their front stoops, with one of my father’s empty thirty-two ounce Schaefer Beer bottles beside him. Passersby were startled, assuming the Frankenstein dummy was a poor, unfortunate human soul who had entirely too much to drink or, the even worse scenario, had drank himself to death. But nobody said a word until one obviously concerned fellow came along. “There’s a man down here. Is he okay?” he asked. We assured him that he was.

The Frankenstein dummy had one last role to perform before calling it quits and riding off into the sunset. He scaled the fence of a man I had previously nicknamed “Mr. Fence,” because of his strange obsession with his beloved backyard fence. The Fences—Mr. and Mrs.—shrieked wildly at the Frankenstein dummy, telling him in no uncertain terms to get down from there and be on his way, or suffer the consequences. Ah, the life and times of this newspaper-filled dummy were grueling and thus very short-lived. But he spent his enduring life in the awkwardly creative and genuinely interactive urban world that existed once upon a time in the Bronx and elsewhere. He was certainly a dummy to remember, who will live on in our hearts for as long as there are dummies in this world.

Sunday, July 10, 2016

I Say the Neon Lights Are Not So Bright on Broadway

They say the neon lights are bright on Broadway. Honestly, I don’t know who they are, but they are definitely painting with a broad brush. Because the part of Broadway I traversed today was virtually neon free. Granted, there may have been a neon sign or two in the shop windows in the vicinity of the first or last stop—depending on which way one is headed—of the Number 1 train. But, really, even the contemporary retail light-up signs appear to be fast and furiously moving away from neon. Cheaper to buy and maintain, I guess.

The dearth of bright neon lights notwithstanding on that renowned thoroughfare, I was nonetheless pleased to patronize a certain pizzeria on Broadway. In the Bronx, yes—but still the same Broadway. One, in fact, that’s been more or less in the same locale since 1969—it moved a couple of doors down after a fire some years back but has since returned to its original address. It's been my alma mater's— Manhattan College—preferred pizza spot since astronaut Neil Armstrong took “one small step for man” and “one giant leap for mankind.” I cannot remember it not being there. In this day and age in New York City, that’s saying an awful lot. But it’s not just that this neighborhood pizza joint endures, and has through dramatically changing times and changing landlords reaching for the jugular. It’s that the very same family still owns and operates the place.

I ate at this establishment every now and then twenty-five and thirty years ago, but not recently because—let’s just say—it’s a wee bit off-the-beaten trail for me in the here and now. What pleasantly surprised me, though, when I walked into the shop late this morning—after all these years—was seeing the father of this father-son business behind the counter. I remembered him in that very guise from my college days in the 1980s, so I figured he’d be up in the years and long retired. But there he was in the flesh—looking a little older, naturally, but pretty much as he did when Ronald Reagan was president.

The slice of pizza was hearty with ample cheese and priced at New York’s current going rate, $2.75, the cost of a subway fare. It was somewhat on the bland side, I’d concede, but nothing that a topping like pepperoni or sausage couldn’t turn into a better-than-average New York slice of pizza. And as a footnote to this Bronx pizza tale: Italian-Americans run the place. That’s very unusual in 2016. Pizza and Italians are mostly a memory around here, even in Italy it seems. Of course, my favorite pizza of all-time was the culinary work of art of a Greek fellow named George, a.k.a. Sam, whose likes are getting harder and harder to come by in this extraordinarily cheesy business and more than extraordinary cheesy times in which we live.

Monday, July 4, 2016

Our Very Own “Cousin Brucie”

Once upon a time the Fourth of July was the noisiest of days. When I was a boy growing up in the Bronx during the undeniably freer, very much more colorful, if not-always-safe 1970s, it was. In fact, firecrackers and their more dangerous and ear-splitting cousins—M-80s and Ash Cans to name a couple—exploded weeks before Independence Day. A handful of locals even established reputations for being “fireworks impresarios” and put on annual shows for their appreciative neighbors.

Bruce was one such fellow—a young guy but not a little kid like me—from a generation that came of age in the late sixties and early seventies, when girls and boys both wore their hair long, smoked things that smelled a wee bit funny, and made a concerted effort to dress not to kill. They dressed to the ones, twos, and maybe the threes—tops.

Bruce sported long, shoulder-length blond hair and was renowned in the neighborhood environs for his roller-skating prowess. In those days of yore, a person could roller skate with reckless abandon up and down the area’s back streets with minimal traffic to ward off—and that’s what our “Cousin Brucie” did. But Brucie, the nimbly adept roller skater, was simultaneously a fireworks “Man of the People,” which is why I invariably think of him on the Fourth of July.

Forty years ago, firecrackers, Bottle Rockets, Roman Candles, Ground Chasers, Cherry Bombs, etc. were all illegal on the streets of New York, but nonetheless readily available—ubiquitous in the hands of men, women, and children alike. “You can get them in Chinatown” was something I remember hearing. The bottom line was that New York’s Finest weren’t overly concerned with confiscating fireworks in the 1970s. They more or less turned a blind eye and let Brucie and company do their Fourth of July things. And why not? They were once-a-year affairs. No harm done. Well, that was then and this is now. I may have heard a stray firecracker or two over this weekend, but for the most part the fireworks I do hear nowadays are the legally sanctioned ones—at the exhibitions in area parks and elsewhere.

In other words, there are no more neighborhood “Cousin Brucies” plying their trades in the big city. They are no longer roller skating up and down the streets—in their distinctive roller-derby crouches—and they are definitely not putting on Independence Day “Night to Remember” extravaganzas for their friends and neighbors. There are no more mornings after the Fourth, either, when the local streets would be awash in spent firecrackers and such, including a smattering that didn’t detonate, which were prized keepsakes for those lucky enough to find them.

Granted, it’s a whole lot safer now on the Fourth of July in these parts, and at my age I appreciate the general quietude compared with yesteryear. Unsolicited firecrackers are very, very annoying. Still, I can’t help but feel that kids today are missing out on something that was at once really fun and something to look forward to every year. Having a “Cousin Brucie” of our own was sort of special, which I guess is why I associate him with the Fourth of July all these years later.

Wednesday, June 29, 2016

The Eliot Ness Story

He told me that his former co-workers called him “Eliot Ness.” Why? Because his first name was Eliot and last name something like Ness, but not quite. I also learned that Eliot was of Cuban descent and was—once upon a time—a fireman. He referenced, too, an ex-wife and a son. It’s possible Eliot’s been around my neighborhood for a while, but I can’t be certain. I never noticed him before we met for the first time.

I encountered Eliot about a month ago when he very vociferously informed me what a beautiful day it was. And he was right on the money: It was a beautiful day. Eliot then asked me how I was doing and offered me a thunderous parting salvo: “God bless you!” There was something slightly menacing about the man, I thought, even though nothing he said—in actual words—suggested that. But if I may employ a relation’s favorite term for the Eliots of this world: He just didn’t seem “right in the head.”

Not having seen him before this meeting of the minds, I didn’t give Eliot a second thought as he wandered away. But then a couple of weeks later he materialized again in my little corner of the world. This time around he extended his hand to me. I discovered now where Eliot shops for food bargains—a German grocery called Aldi’s—and where he lives, too. Again, Eliot seemed hot-wired—inebriated would have been a good guess. I bumped into the man one more time after that and—as the old saying goes—the third time’s a charm. Any and all doubt that Eliot liked his few were removed. The proof was in the pudding: a bottle of Coors Light in his hand, a spare in his back pocket, and beer breath on top of all that.

Eliot shook my hand—that's twice if you’re counting—and admitted to having had a cold one or two. He began waxing nostalgic—about something his ex-wife once said to him—and got emotional. “I’m sorry, I’ve got to go because otherwise I’m going to cry.” It was a poignant moment for sure—sad and all—but I nonetheless heaved a sigh of relief that Eliot went on his merry way with his Coors Light bottles.

There’s obviously a whole lot more to Eliot’s life story than what he relayed to me in our brief tête-à-têtes. After all, everyone’s got a story with some of them—granted—a little more dramatic than others. And so many of these life stories don’t have happy endings—or beginnings and middles for that matter. Suffice it to say, you don’t want to find yourself in middle age with a Coors Light in your hand and one in your back pocket while ambling down a city street. It’s how Eliot arrived in his present predicament—which could happen to just about any of us—that is the most troubling.