Sunday, February 19, 2017

Midwinter Musings

Yesterday, my plans were derailed—literally. At the W238th Street elevated subway station, I discovered the hard way that the Number 1 train wasn’t running due to track work. There were a mess of notices with various service changes posted at its entrance, but straphangers, like me, were confused and scaled the El’s considerable flight of severely rusting—and over one hundred years old—metal steps, expecting a Saturday morning train, which typically run every eight minutes on weekends. When we reached what was formerly known as a token booth, however, it was about-face time.

There were alternate routes available, of course, including free subway shuttle buses at street level to the A train a mile-and-a-half to the south. I seriously considered this option and was a split-second away from hopping on one of the buses. But as a wearer of a prosthetic knee, I prefer not riding on them if I don’t have to—too many erratic stops and starts. The subway’s rocking and rolling is much more predictable to me. I can better anticipate the trip’s jolts—severe as they sometimes are—as long as I have a seat. Buses, too, have very high steps—it’s practically a foot drop into the street sometimes. And while I’ve managed to successfully navigate these hurdles so far, who needs the added anxiety of worrying about getting flung head first across a bus's floor after a sudden breaking? There’s always a first time, too!

So, with this unexpected and unwanted change of plans, I wandered into nearby Van Cortlandt Park and spied a gaggle of Canada geese. They were chilling on the park’s snow-covered “flats.” Because the temperature was expected to surpass sixty degrees later in the day, this snow pack from last week’s storm was hours away from extinction. And what a difference a day makes: Today the flats—so picturesque yesterday morning—were an unsightly mess of mud and geese droppings.

The midwinter recess, as it was called in my schooldays, is upon us as well. A week off from the drudgery of primary education in the dead of winter was very welcome as I recall. These weeks of leisure always included the federal holiday: Presidents’ Day. That’s tomorrow, by the way—a day, once upon a time, celebrated as the Father of Our Country’s birthday. I can still picture the black construction paper cutouts of George Washington's and Abraham Lincoln’s heads in profile on the windows and bulletin boards of the area grammar schools. I believe the reason for the creation of the inane Presidents’ Day was to cut back on a holiday. We used get both Lincoln’s—on February 12th—and Washington’s birthdays off.

America has never really been big on holidays and time off from work—especially in the private sector. This work-until-you-drop mind-set was supposed to be what separated—metaphorically speaking—the men from the boys on the world stage. I remember Grandpa Walton on the TV series The Waltons enunciating his mantra for living. “There are only two things in life” that really matter, he said: “Love and hard work.” I can think of a few more, but that’s for another blog.

Speaking of hard work, there’s a lot of political chatter now about saving Social Security. For some the solution is obvious: Raise the retirement age to eighty-seven. We are—after all—living longer and longer nowadays. However, there aren’t exactly jobs to keep all the oldsters and oldsters-to-be duly employed until they’re eighty-seven years old. With more and more people purchasing stuff online, even Wal-Mart greeter positions will be hard to come by.

There was this friend of my father’s—in his golden years—who secured a job as a Con Edison electric and gas meter reader. He was officially retired, wanted to keep working, and, very importantly, knew someone. At the time, flesh-and-blood human beings read every single meter in New York City and parts of nearby Westchester County. But now all the meters are read electronically. I’ve often wondered what happened to all those out-of-a-job Con Edison employees. I would get to know the meter readers who read my meters and once a month loudly screamed “Con Ed!” outside my window at seven-thirty in the morning. Electronically read meters, cashless tolls, and living to be one hundred with a greater chance of suffering from dementia. As always: Something to look forward to.

(Photos from the personal collection of Nicholas Nigro)


Thursday, February 16, 2017

There Used to Be a Mailbox

Neighborhood mailboxes have been targeted the past few years. Not booby-trapped or filled with mysterious powders, but victimized. The post office even posted warnings on certain mailboxes that were fished of their contents. Thieves in the cloak of darkness opened mailbox levers with their unique fishing tackle at-the-ready: a plastic bottle or something comparable smothered in a glue-like substance and connected to a string.

Dangling bottles and such into mailbox booty was their modus operandi. Envelopes readily stuck to the bait. What the rogues would do with their ill-gotten gains varied. It depended on the particulars of their catch. Checks mailed to utility, cable, and credit card companies were altered—a hundred dollar check made out to the phone company converted, for instance, to a one thousand dollar check made out to Freddy Felon or Rosie Reprobate. In other cases, invaluable personal information—like credit card and bank account information—was gleaned.

Nothing is sacred anymore. I remember learning at a tender age that it’s a federal crime to tamper with the mail. The United States Post Office response to this unsettling crime spree was to change the mail levers on the mailboxes to modest slots—a good idea under the circumstances. They also removed many of the boxes altogether—a not so good idea.

While out with a letter in hand a couple of days ago, I figured I’d mail it in a box I’ve utilized many times before—one directly across the entrance to the local police precinct. It’s a mailbox that happily had not been previously fished and, too, a survivor of the purge. Unfortunately, I couldn’t get to it because it was surrounded by snow and ice. No problem, I thought, another mailbox was nearby, in the direction of my errand run. However, what I discovered was that it—like so many others before—had been unceremoniously taken away.

I walked around for a bit, recalling where I believed mailboxes once stood for decades—but none were found. And this mission of mine occurred in the Bronx in the vicinity of busy Broadway and the noisy El. The bottom line: Lots and lots of people with fewer and fewer mailboxes. The local post office’s advice to neighbors one and all: Mail letters in the safety of the post office itself. Of course, walking a half-mile in the dead of winter or heat of summer to mail a birthday card isn’t always feasible for everyone.

(Photos from the personal collection of Nicholas Nigro)

Tuesday, February 14, 2017

For Whom the Bell Tolls...

Thirty-seven years ago I was a college student who worked part-time in a pet food and supplies shop called Pet Nosh. Located in the borough of Queens—in the pleasant enough, leafy neighborhood of Little Neck—my brother and a neighbor co-owned this mom-and-pop. A commute from Kingbridge in the Bronx, where we all called home, to Pet Nosh found us crossing the Throgs Neck Bridge and the East River. What little kid didn't call it the Frogs Neck Bridge? The toll at the bridge was seventy-five cents back then. A sign at the toll plaza importuned drivers to “Save time. Have Exact Change.” Fast-forward to the present and exact change isn’t—in a manner of speaking—so exact anymore. If one doesn’t have an E-ZPass, where the toll price is $5.54, it’s $8.00 to cross the bridge—in both directions. To paraphrase an old politician: $8.00 here and $8.00 there—well—pretty soon you’re talking about real money.

Speaking of tolls and the times we live in: Yesterday, I crossed the Henry Hudson Bridge from Northern Manhattan into the Bronx. Several minutes after traversing the George Washington Bridge and the Hudson River from New Jersey, this is the same bridge that placed us in the close proximity of home sweet home after my family’s many summer vacations along the Jersey Shore and visits with the maternal grandparents in Bangor, Pennsylvania. The Henry Hudson Bridge spans the Harlem River Ship Canal, which connects the Harlem River with the Hudson River. For several decades, its toll was ten cents—a thin dime even in the 1970s when the Throgs Neck Bridge was a whopping seventy-five cents—but those days are long gone.

In fact, there are no toll plazas on the Henry Hudson Bridge anymore. That’s good news for motorists, because the traffic backups—courtesy of the tolls mostly—were considerable during rush hours. Really, the bridge was not designed with today’s traffic volume in mind. It’s not, however, good for all the toll takers who lost their jobs and those who will when all of New York City’s bridges follow suit. This cashless operation is clearly the wave of the future. Either one has an E-ZPass or gets a bill in the mail for the privilege of crossing one of master builder Robert Moses’ bridges.


As far as the Henry Hudson Bridge, which opened in 1936: What was once ten cents now costs $2.54 with an E-ZPass and $5.50 without one. The world has turned upside down. We used to get discounts for paying cash. And, by the way, that ten-cent toll was advertised as temporary, until the bonds to build the bridge were paid off, which they were a long, long time ago. But Robert Moses knew a good thing when he saw it—the cash cows of bridge and tunnel tolls. For whom the bell tolls? It definitely tolls for thee.

(Photo one from the personal collection of Nicholas Nigro)

Friday, February 10, 2017

The Winter of Our Discontent

It snowed yesterday in New York City. In the part of the Bronx I call home, I’d estimate we got around five inches. Central Park in Manhattan recorded over nine inches. I was though pleased to be on the low end of the snow spectrum. As a boy, I would have exceptionally disappointed that the storm named Niko by the Weather Channel didn’t live up to all the hype—in my little snippet of the world at least. Nevertheless, shoveling five inches of heavy wet snow was no walk in the park; no Sunday picnic. And the fact that it got bitterly cold overnight seriously compounded those measly five inches. While it wasn’t exactly a winter wonderland this morning, it was quite icy. Courtesy of a ton of rock salt and calcium, the area streets were a slushy mess. Walking to and fro was not for the faint of heart.

In the snow-loving days of my distant past, unshoveled walkways didn’t give me pause. They were obstacles effortlessly overcome with a pair of good construction boots and youthful agility. That was then and this is now. Unshoveled, or minimally shoveled sidewalks, make me angry nowadays—really angry sometimes—because I look upon them as a matter of life and death. After all, an unshoveled piece of concrete can throw a big-time wrench into getting from point A to point A. And having to walk out into the Bronx streets to bypass icy stretches amounts to swapping one potential danger for another. I don’t want to get hit by an SUV on the post-snowfall narrower city streets, or meet my maker at the foot of a snowplow or salt (and calcium) spreader.

Looking on the bright side of things, this winter has been relatively benign—weather wise. But it’s other events and circumstances—beyond the fickle whims of Mother Nature—that have made this a winter of discontent for a lot of people. Surfing the New York City Department of Sanitation’s web page today, I noticed a list of holidays. I was buoyed by the fact that Monday, February 20th was classified as Washington’s Birthday, the way it once was—and should have always remained—before it morphed into the wishy-washy Presidents’ Day.

After watching three seasons of Turn, the compelling AMC series based on the best-selling book Washington’s Spies, on Netflix, I developed this insatiable urge for stuff on the Revolutionary War and the Founders. I even ordered on DVD an old PBS series from the 1990s called Liberty. And all I could think of when watching it was how far we’ve fallen. But I don’t believe we’ve fallen and can’t get up. This too shall pass, he said.

(Photos from the personal collection of Nicholas Nigro)

Tuesday, January 31, 2017

Unhappy Sunday

I was in Manhattan on Sunday. I would have otherwise been in front of my television set watching the Sunday morning news programs, which was something I desired avoiding at all costs. I just said no to the sights and sounds of alternative fact-spouting flacks and yes to the great outdoors.

Due to construction, the Number 1 train was running from W242nd Street in the Bronx to 14th Street, instead of South Ferry, in Manhattan. Since I typically exit on 14th Street on these spontaneous adventures of mine, all was well. The fact that the Number 1 was operating a shorter run than the norm, and bypassing several stops, made it “Special” apparently. Yes, that special word replaced “South Ferry” as the train’s last stop on the individual subway car signs. The best laid plans of mice and men: This special train trip didn’t quite make it to 14th Street. At 137th Street, we passengers were held in the station for a few minutes, awaiting clearance from a dispatcher that never came. The conductor at last broke the bad news. “This train is going out of service!” he announced. Translation: Everybody out!

I patiently waited with everyone else for the next Number 1 to come along but—despite it, too, being special—the train was not surprisingly overcrowded. As a C-Leg wearer, I abhor crowds. (I didn’t particularly like them pre-C-Leg.) But I wasn’t in a particular hurry, so I decided to wait the eight or so minutes for the next train. At the far end of an elongated underground subway station, I stood alone with the sole exception of an unhinged-looking fellow ambling my way. I took this reality snapshot as the latest sign that I should navigate my way onto street level and commence my Manhattan journey from there. (I employed a variation of my Charles Manson Rule for subway travel. And because of it, found myself at an unusual starting point—way, way up north and walking southbound, the direction the special Number 1 train was supposed to take me.)

So, on this sunny, benign winter’s morning, I strolled down Broadway in the environs of City College and then Columbia University. I hoped prayed that I wouldn’t be subject to any “Crazy Creamsicle” Trump chatter or protests, because I wanted a few hours free of presidential thoughts and, again, I don’t like crowds. Despite the bizarre antics of the aforementioned commander-in-chief in his first ten days in office, life in the big city went on without a hitch. I didn’t overhear or detect any political babble at all. I passed by Tom’s Restaurant of Seinfeld fame and felt compelled to take the obligatory picture. I should eat in there one of those days, I thought, before it, too, is claimed by New York City’s diner purge.

I had actually forgotten as I wandered through this area of Manhattan that it had a few hills to navigate, which like crowds, I’d prefer not tackling on a C-Leg. Fortunately, I passed through unharmed. At one point, I found myself at the intersection of hoity-toity West End Avenue and 100th Street, where I spied a telephone booth. Pay phones are getting increasingly hard to find nowadays, but I thought phone booths had gone the way of the Rolodex. Perhaps Clark Kent lives in the area.

I was back on Broadway at 96th Street, a slice of earth I hadn’t traversed above ground in fifteen years, I'd guess. There was a diner called Happy Burger in the vicinity, I recalled, which I patronized once upon a time. I wondered if it was still there, but suspected it was more than likely a casualty of gentrification. The surrounding area told me in no uncertain terms that Happy Burger’s ship had sailed. A CVS drug store covered a good portion of the block where Happy Burger once served coffee at a tiny fraction of the new king of the hill: Starbucks.

Upon my return home, a Google search filled me in on all I needed to know about the demise of Happy Burger. It had closed its doors in 2004, I learned. Its Greek immigrant owners had planned to keep the place open until their lease expired in 2008, but the landlord made them an offer they couldn’t refuse to close shop four years earlier. They shut Happy Burger down without giving their many loyal patrons a right and proper heads-up. Life...life. A unexpected special train going out of service and a deranged-looking man on a subway platform augured the unhappy discovery that Happy Burger—like so many happy things—is no more.

(Photos from the personal collection of Nicholas Nigro)

Friday, January 27, 2017

Death of an Icon

A week or so ago, something that I now cannot remember inspired me to search YouTube for The Mary Tyler Moore Show opening. Such an extended and catchy sitcom opening theme is a relic of a bygone and, I daresay, better time. Why have a minute-and-a half opening when three commercials can run in its stead? I’m just happy that this bottom-bottom line mindset didn’t exist on network television when I was growing up.

Anyway, after my aforementioned YouTube search, I chanced upon a bona fide treasure trove: complete episodes of The Mary Tyler Moore Show with the openings and closings intact, including the renowned MTM meowing cat. (MTM trivia: The feline was captured yawning and the meow a dub job.) I imagine the episodes will be eventually taken down for copyright infringement, but in the meantime I’ve been watching and thoroughly enjoying them. Despite it being a 1970s sitcom, the look, feel, and humor of The Mary Tyler Moore Show, I believe, holds up well all these years later.

I was telling a friend last week that I had gotten hooked on The Mary Tyler Moore Show via YouTube. I told him that—with the exception of Ted Knight—the main cast of the show was still among the living, including ninety-five-year-old Betty White. Considering that the show debuted in September 1970—more than four decades ago—that’s no small accomplishment, I said. And just a few days after this exchange, Mary Tyler Moore passed away.

From my perspective, Mary’s show represents a portal into the simpler days of my boyhood, when my brothers and I descended a flight of stairs to watch prime-time television with our paternal grandmother and aunt. They owned a color television set—a Zenith model with a light-up channel dial—and we didn’t. Somehow to me, The Mary Tyler Moore Show underscores both the serenity and fervor of youth. It aired on Saturday nights, which meant there was no school the next day. This fact alone added to the show’s incomparable and agreeable ambiance. Not having to get up early the following morning and trudge to a place I loathed going to—let’s just say—mattered a great deal. And Mary’s original apartment was a soothing visual with its picture window and outdoor deck overlooking what was supposed to be Minneapolis. The fake snow frequently falling outside inspired pleasing thoughts of Christmas and wintertime frolics in an age when I revered the white stuff.

There was even that mysterious woman crossing the street and caught in a freeze frame—looking puzzled in Mary’s direction—when the show’s star gleefully tosses her hat into the air during the intro. I recently found out her name. She was Minneapolis resident Hazel Frederick, who just happened to be on a shopping trip when the production team was filming exterior shots in the city. I recall saying how Hazel resembled Mrs. Heegan, a schoolmate of mine’s mother. (In The Bob Newhart Show’s opening, Bob gets on a train to go to work in the morning. An anonymous woman is seated across from him, a dead ringer for a neighbor’s grandmother known by one and all as Mama.) It’s minutia like this that was a huge part of being young and unsaddled with life’s baggage. It’s just one of many reasons why the death of an icon like Mary Tyler Moore is so sad.


Tuesday, January 17, 2017

The Best Doesn’t Come Easy

While meandering in lower Manhattan on New Year’s Day morning, I made my way through the Chelsea section of the borough. Within its cozy confines, I came upon a pizza place—one among hundreds in the bustling metropolis. But what differentiated this eatery from so many others was its name: “The Best Pizza.” Could it actually be the best? The best at a dollar a slice? Presently, the going rate for a plain slice of pizza in New York City is $2.75, the price of a subway or bus ride. I longed for answers to my questions, but it was well before lunchtime when I passed by. I couldn’t sample their fare. I could, however, hazard a guess as to whether it was the best pizza or not. Going out on a limb, perhaps, I concluded that it was probably not the best pizza.

Yesterday, I found myself on the very same urban terra firma. It was my intention this go-round to try The Best Pizza’s pizza. Unfortunately, the establishment had very limited indoor seating and a take out for me wasn’t practical. Despite my burning desire to know for certain if The Best Pizza lived up to its name, I wasn’t about to take the pizza—best or not—on a subway journey to the Bronx. And, from my vantage point, it was a little too cold to chow down on the street. Besides, I don’t do that in the best of climes.

It’s worth noting that Chelsea, apparently, attracts the best and the brightest. It values excellence, too. Case in point: A few stores down from The Best Pizza is a new restaurant on the cusp of opening—Excellent Dumpling House. In the vicinity of both is Best Shoe Repair. There’s a Laundromat next door to Best Shoe Repair that’s evidently not the best, but I’m sure it’s excellent nonetheless. I’d surmise that Best Cleaners is somewhere in the area—on some side street that I missed. I did encounter the next best thing: Nice Laundry. And a little kindness goes a long away these days, especially on the mean streets of New York.

(Photos from the personal collection of Nicholas Nigro)

Monday, January 2, 2017

The Morning After

I began the new year yesterday by venturing into Manhattan—“downtown” as we in the Northwest Bronx say. It was mid-morning when I hopped on the Number 1 train for the fifty or so minute journey, exiting at 18th Street. Subject to change, my informal plan was to travel northward through—what was only hours before—ground zero of the annual New Year’s Eve extravaganza. It’s a place I never once desired being in during the waning hours of the final day of the year. Packed like sardines in a can—with drunken strangers and limited and inaccessible places to relieve oneself—just never appealed to me. And I can only imagine it’s a whole lot worse now in these “If you see something, say something” times.

As expected, both the subway ride and lower Manhattan itself were quieter than typical Sunday mornings in the city. Nevertheless, increasing numbers of men, women, and children—lots and lots of tourists—materialized as I made my way past Madison Square Garden and eventually the periphery of Times Square. I zigzagged back and forth to avoid the worst of the people crunch, which wasn’t—relatively speaking—so bad on the morning of the first day of the new year. Along the way, I spied police barriers galore in big piles now and awaiting pickup. Concrete block police barriers were also everywhere. I even spotted an area mailbox with a padlock on it. There was garbage aplenty, too, left behind by the revelers. Street cleaners and assorted sanitation vehicles were omnipresent.

Northward bound at this time of year necessitated a short detour to Rockefeller Center and the Christmas tree. As a youth, seeing the tree was an absolute must and a holiday given. But as I got older, a visit to that over-crowded piece of earth was no longer on my agenda. The tree looked the same every year anyway. Last year was the first time I’d seen it in the flesh in almost two decades. Now, it’s two years in a row. By the way, the LED lights give it a somewhat different look than I remember as a kid—at least in the daytime.

Nearby Radio City looked much the same, but I didn’t get the excited rush I got while calling on the place as a boy to see the “Christmas Spectacular.” I don’t believe it was called that in the early 1970s when my grammar school class took its yearly field trip to Radio City. The place featured movies in addition to the Rockettes back then. In 1970, 1971, 1972, I saw Scrooge, Bedknobs and Broomsticks, and 1776 respectively at Christmastime. I remember it cost each one of my classmates $1.50 for the privilege—the group rate, I guess. The average Radio City ticket price this year for the Christmas show—without a movie—was $133.47. Times have certainly changed.

I saw a lot of that change in my New Year’s Day 2017 excursion. That expensive feeling was palpable from start to finish. When my aunt took my brothers and I shopping downtown at Christmas in the early and mid-1970s—an annual tradition of ours—we began the adventures at Macy’s and called on stores like Gimbel’s, the super-big Woolworth’s, Brentano’s bookstore, and Korvette’s. Heading to the subway station on 50th Street after experiencing the big finale of our trips—the Rockefeller Center tree—we sometimes stopped at a Woolworth’s annex store for one last hurrah. I traversed that same area yesterday as I made my way to the very same subway station. I tried to envision where exactly this little Woolworth’s store once stood, but everything looked so, so expensive now that it was difficult to pinpoint.

My Manhattan voyage at an end, I got on the subway at 50th Street. Destination: uptown and home. My modus operandi for traveling in the least crowded subway cars: Last one for uptown; first one for downtown. The only fly in this ointment is that when heading uptown, the last car sometimes completely empties out before I reach my destination. And being in a totally empty subway car—even in the bright light of day on a generally safe line—is a peculiar feeling. One becomes a magnet for an unhinged individual to enter the car. With several stops yet to go for me yesterday, I found myself all alone and promptly spied a strange-looking man peering in from the adjoining car and slowing making his way my way. Since he somewhat resembled Charles Manson, I wasted no time in putting into practice my Manson Subway Rule. I nonchalantly exited at the next stop and waited for the next train. It’s better to be safe than sorry, I thought, on the first day of a new year.

(Photos from the personal collection of Nicholas Nigro)

Saturday, December 31, 2016

The Year of the Rat?

I had lunch today in my favorite diner. There was a woman patron a few tables behind me who was talking at-length about exterminating rats and how problematic it was. It’s a small diner, by the way, and she was loud—very loud. If I could hear her, so could everyone else in the place. I thought: How could a person be so unmindful and inconsiderate to discuss doing away with rats in an eatery? But, really, why should I have been surprised? We live in an oblivious and insensitive time.

Yes, another year is just hours away from being consigned to yesteryear. Another year, that is, in the Age of Unreason that we call home. I typically avoid political subject matter—for obvious reasons—but after reading the president-elect’s Happy New Year’s greeting, which referenced his “many enemies,” the teeny-tiniest scrap of hope, which I tenaciously clung to, vanished. I was hoping against hope, I guess, that the Orange Man—soon to be the President of the United States—might not be as narcissistic and unhinged as the previous mountain of evidence suggested. Hope doesn’t always spring eternal. Rats!

Forty years ago when I was a youth, a “Russian Mission Residency” opened its doors in the nearby neighborhood of Riverdale. Riverdale in the Bronx was, and still is, upscale by the borough’s standards, and I recall residents vehemently opposing the Commies coming to town. As memory serves, the city gave Riverdale denizens something of an ultimatum: Accept the Russians or get a public housing complex instead. It was whispered that the community swallowed hard and opted for Red over Black.

We were in the midst of the Cold War back then, which now seems—strangely—like the good old days. When contrasted with the garbled present, it was a pretty cut-and-dried period. Taking sides was easy. Fast-forward to the waning moments of 2016 and the president-elect, a Republican no less, criticizes the sitting president for being too hard on Russia, and tosses verbal bouquets to an autocratic thug. What a difference four decades make. Ronald Reagan no doubt is spinning in his grave.

Funny, but there’s this fellow who grew up in my old neighborhood. He—like countless others—has found a soapbox on Facebook. There are legions of his kind who have been empowered on social media. You know: Men and women whose ravings were—not too long ago in the scheme of things—confined to the local drinking hole or the workplace water cooler. And, I might add, it’s folks of all political persuasions who rave at the drop of a hat with a keyboard at their disposal. But this particular guy recently opined on Facebook that anybody who voted for Hillary Clinton was guilty of treason. Treason…really? Now that’s painting with a pretty broad brush, I’d say, and a rather harsh indictment of millions of people, including many of his hundreds of “friends” on Facebook.

In waning hours of 2016, it seems to me that virtually everything is turned upside down and—alas—not likely to right itself in 2017. And it’s not merely the political landscape that’s bizarre and ugly. It’s everyone everywhere staring obsessively into their myriad devices—checking out Facebook, texting, and babbling on their cells. The world at large is unlikely, I fear, to become a better place in the new year and rats will still be a problem.

(Photo three from the personal collection of Nicholas Nigro)

Tuesday, December 20, 2016

I’m Not Dreaming of a White Christmas

I have a particular holiday snapshot lodged in my memory bank. I’m out and about at Christmastime with Johnny, my boyhood best friend—yes, we went out and played in the early 1970s, regardless of the season or temperature. My mother is putting up the outdoor holiday decorations, which included green and red tin foil squares cut to fit each window of our front French door and, too, my grandmother’s adjoining one. It is on or very close to December 15th, which was, unofficially as I recall, the earliest date that we—and many others in the neighborhood—decorated for Christmas. Now it’s before Thanksgiving.

Anyway, as if Christmas coming wasn’t enough joy for us to process, it began to snow. My buddy and I were ecstatic. A White Christmas—snow on the ground—was in the offing. Or so we thought. Snow has a habit of vanishing pretty quickly during New York City Decembers. Erratic temperature swings and rain are not uncommon. And I believe that snow from four decades ago, which wasn’t very much to begin with, disappeared well before December 25th.

Fast forward to the present. I woke up this past Saturday morning to find two to three inches of snow on the ground. Suffice it to say, it didn’t bring me the level of joy that snowfalls did in the Decembers of my youth. In fact, the sight of it in the here and now brought no joy whatsoever. All I could think about was what has become the new normal for me. I would have to both shovel the stuff and walk in it—with a prosthetic right knee. And slips and falls in the great outdoors are something I wish to avoid at all costs. But winter weather increases the likelihood of that happening. So far, I must say, I’ve been pretty lucky on that front. A couple of winters ago, I shoveled up in excess of fifty inches of the white stuff and navigated the highways and byways on foot without incident. But snow stress is all too real nowadays, and something that—once upon a time—was entirely foreign to me.

While on the subject of Christmas and the outdoors, I nearly got run over by a grandma yesterday. A motorist came to a complete stop at a stop sign, which was the right and proper thing to do. So, I decided to cross the street. Pedestrians supposedly have the right-of-way. I was approximately half way across when the formerly motionless car accelerated and whizzed just past me. It was then that I noticed its driver—an elderly white-haired woman. And she didn’t flinch. Granny was clearly unaware that I was very nearly in her path. Had she mowed me down, she would have been none the wiser—and, I have no doubt, her Stop & Shop grocery expedition would have commenced as planned.

So, I lived to tell. And I’ll tell you, too, about some local Christmas tree sellers. I like patronizing the little guys if at all possible, but these little guys left a lot to be desired. They wouldn’t quote a tree price until they saw the tree in its full flower. Despite the tree barks being colored for height identification, the prices—evidently—weren’t based on height. Instead, they were determined on the smarmy whim of the holiday equivalent of used-car salesmen. When I spied these same entrepreneurs today, they were comfortably ensconced in their plastic enshrouded lean-to and playing loud music—and not Christmas-themed. There were a lot of unsold trees there. I can’t imagine why.

(Photos from the personal collection of Nicholas Nigro)

Sunday, December 4, 2016

December Ramble

Submitted for your approval: a December ramble. Another holiday season is upon us all. And I know full well that there are still twenty-four hours in a day and three hundred and sixty-five days in a year. Those certifiable facts of life haven’t changed since the day I was born and some time before that. But, really, it seems like only yesterday that it was Christmastime here in the Bronx, and that my steadfast mailman was delivering the mail in his summer garb—postal shorts, plastic safari hat, and sans a jacket—on Christmas Eve. The temperature was in the seventies that day, and summer’s annual plants hadn’t yet been done in by a frost. That’s seventy degrees Fahrenheit, by the way. In the early 1970s in St. John’s grammar school, I recall being introduced to the metric system and its system of weights and measures. We nine and ten year olds were instructed that our United States would soon be joining the rest of the world and would be jettisoning its quarts, pounds, and miles. Although I have purchased a liter of soda pop in the ensuing forty years, I still wouldn’t walk a mile for a Camel, and this morning’s temperature—according to my AOL page—was thirty-something Fahrenheit.

Time, in scientific reality, may not be accelerating, but in every other reality it is. And what a difference a year makes. It was inconceivable a Christmas ago that a tweet-obsessed, peculiarly haired, uber-wealthy businessman could win a major party’s presidential nomination, let alone the White House. But such is the strange, new world that we call home. All bets are off for 2017 and beyond.

With the holidays, a new and very different kind of president in the offing, and a bout of the runs this first week in December, also came a life lesson. It’s actually an ideal meme and the byproduct of me being inadvertently poisoned by long-expired bacon. The poisoner, I suspect, was a well-intentioned oldster, one who fervently believes that bacon—as long as its package hasn’t been opened—can last forever. Conversely, she feels that a fresh vegetable, like broccoli for instance, must be cooked immediately because it will go bad toot sweet if left for a day or two in the refrigerator. The life lesson and meme material that unexpectedly came to me is this: It’s okay to have the runs while sitting on a toilet. Indeed, as somebody who has suffered from both the runs and serious constipation—from an awful prescribed pain narcotic—I’d take the former anytime. It is after all forward movement. And that’s what life is all about, isn’t it? Forward movement, even when it’s accelerating, as it is now, into some bizarre and unknown next chapter. Nevertheless, I don’t suspect my mailman will be wearing his plastic safari hat this Christmas Eve.

(Photos from the personal collection of Nicholas Nigro)

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.