Thursday, October 1, 2015

A Monday to Remember...

On this very day—a Monday—forty-two years ago, I know where I was and what I did. For a good part of the day, I attended school—the sixth grade at St. John’s in Kingsbridge. And during the afternoon hours, I sat in a Language Arts class taught by an agreeable nun named Sister Joanne. Most of the school’s nuns had by 1973 kicked the habit altogether. They were no longer festooned in scary black from head to toe like their more authoritarian predecessors. They no longer put the fear of God in their students because of their costumes. I was very fortunate that there was—by and large—a new breed of nuns on the scene by then, with most of the paleo-throwbacks to a darker age retired or no longer among the living—or some combination of the two. As I recall, Sister Joanne was an extremely nice woman and very good teacher, too. A friend of mine thought that she was a dead ringer for JFK.

Anyway, on October 1, 1973, Sister Joanne wheeled in a ubiquitous school TV set, which rested on a very tall stand. She promptly plugged into a VHF outlet, which was the exception to the rule, and not the UHF hole right next to it. Typically, television viewing in the confines of St. John’s school meant “educational” TV on a UHF station. In other words, we were compelled to watch some amateurish production with poor picture quality that was of little interest to any of us.

On this day, Sister Joanne recognized that many of us were very interested in the Mets’ games that afternoon—a doubleheader and the final two of the season. I believe that she was a fan as well. I doubt very much that any of the scary nuns from the past would have been as thoughtful. Some things, after all, trumped learning the ABCs. Besides, two hours a day for 180 days a year was more than enough Language Arts to last a lifetime—one afternoon could certainly be spared.

Heavy rain in Chicago the previous day—and a game cancellation—necessitated the doubleheader. And it was still raining twenty-four hours later. But the game against the Cubs had to be played because the Mets’ Magic Number was one. They had to win one of the games to clinch their division. And so we watched the early innings—which was delayed a half hour because of the inclement weather—on an old black-and-white TV, which was okay by me, because we had an old black-and-white TV at home.

The Mets took an early lead with their ace, Tom Seaver, on the mound. And things appeared quite bright even in the murky gloom that was Chicago. But Tom Terrific tired that afternoon and the game got a little too close for comfort by the time the school day ended—dismissal with the game a far cry from over. I recall racing the few blocks home and, happily, witnessed the clinching of the Eastern Division of the National League in the comforts of home, sweet, home and not in a Language Arts class in St. John’s school on Godwin Terrace. It’s where I wanted to be. School had this uncanny knack of interfering with baseball. But Sister Joanne deserves her due for going above and beyond the call of duty. And thanks, too, for reading aloud to us The Big Wave by Pearl S. Buck.

Postscript: the Mets won the clinching game 6-4 with Tug McGraw pitching the final three innings to record a save. Relief pitchers did that sort of thing back then. The second game of the doubleheader was mercifully called off because of the weather and the fact that it didn’t mean anything in the standings and, too, that the Mets were flying high on champagne. The New York Mets’ division-winning record was 82-79. Sister Joanne, by the way, subsequently left her religious order—as did most of the non-habited nuns from my day—and became a wife and mother, the genuine article. You see, several years before Sister Joanne became a sister, the nuns at St. John’s were all mothers.

Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Unforgettable, That’s What You Were...

Following up on my previous blog essay, here are some materials from yet another proposal for a book that never saw the light of day. Its working title was This ‘70s Book: Remembering the People, Events, Fashions, Fads, and Mores That Defined an Unforgettable Decade.

It was the grooviest snapshot in time—the 1970s. At once colorful in fashion and remarkably colorless in politicians—from Presidents Nixon to Ford to Carter—the decade began with the nation mired in a contentious war and passed into the dustbin of history with Americans held hostage by a fanatical Ayatollah in Iran.

It was the decade that added both spice and controversy to television sitcoms, as the perfect TV family at last became dysfunctional—just like the rest of us. The 1970s also furnished us with a heaping helping of variety on the boob tube—quite literally—as a diverse cast of characters from Flip Wilson to Mac Davis to Howard Cosell hosted their very own “variety shows.”

The 1970s gave us a Secretary of Agriculture named Butz, a presidential brother named Billy, and a nightclub named Studio 54. It witnessed the rise of a thing called “free agency” in Major League Baseball, altering the face of the American pastime forever. In this inimitable decade, Volkswagen defined the “cheap car,” with the German automaker’s “bugs” crawling all over America’s highways and byways. So what if the trunks were on the wrong end of the car. And, lest we forget, 1970s automobile owners also cruised about in Dodge’s “Dart Swingers.” Meanwhile, two-legged swingers created a thing called “disco fever,” while gyrating the nights away to the latest Bee Gees blockbuster hit.

Yes, the 1970s were a decade to remember. From Richard Nixon and Watergate to John Travolta and Saturday Night Fever, the people, events, fashions, fads, and mores are lodged in the memory banks of millions of baby boomers. Their children are even caught up in the nostalgia of what came before them. For no matter what transpired three decades ago—from war abroad to scandal at home—it was unquestionably a simpler time. It was the end of the “good old days.” 

In the 1970s, only those with acrophobia gave second thoughts to ascending high-rise buildings. Al Gore had yet to “invent” the Internet. Job outsourcing was not a political issue. With most Americans driving around in the same old heaps until the wheels fell off, car leasing was unheard of. And there weren’t more than four hundred-plus TV channels with nothing on, but a mere ten to twelve with seemingly something for everyone.

This ‘70s Book will chronicle the good, the bad, and the ugly of an epoch—from the birth of the disposable razor to cigarette vending machines dispensing the poisonous pleasures in high school cafeterias. It’ll recall Jimmy Hoffa’s mysterious exit from this mortal coil, as well as baseball players Fritz Peterson and Mike Kekich swapping wives, children, and dogs. 
This ‘70s Book will wear hot pants and attend college toga parties. It’ll get behind the wheel of a classic Plymouth “Duster” and American Motors “Gremlin.” The book will furnish readers with crash courses on the era’s economic highlights and lowlights. The Dow Jones Industrial Average reached an all-time high of 907 in 1979! Inflation topped 13% and the prime interest rate soared above 15% in the late 1970s. And the Chrysler Corporation received a highly contentious $1.5 billion worth of government largesse during this time period.

This ‘70s Book will cast its net far and wide over a unique and momentous period in American history. Readers will relish this enticing retrospective. They will learn things that they never knew before about everyone from Louise Brown, the first test tube baby, to Tony Orlando, who turned yellow ribbons into gold nuggets. They’ll relive Argentine stripper Fanne Foxe doing her thing with a powerful Congressman. This ‘70s Book will recall when Superman was a guy named Christopher Reeve and when Ernest Borgnine and Gene Hackman sailed the extremely rough seas on a ship called the Poseidon. 

A short sample chapter from the book that never was but could have been…

Rolling in the Hays

Every decade makes a celebrity out of a mistress or gal-pal of somebody famous or otherwise powerful. It’s part of our cultural heritage. The 1990s gave us Monica Lewinsky; the 1980s, the dynamic duo of Donna Rice and Jessica Hahn. And the 1970s were hardly devoid of sexual hijinks and scandal. 

Famously quoted as saying, “I can’t type…I can’t file…I can’t even answer the phone,” Elizabeth Ray nevertheless found employment as a secretary on Capitol Hill. Despite her less than impressive administrative attributes, she landed a $14,000/year clerking position with influential Democratic Congressman Wayne Hays of Ohio. In our bicentennial year of 1976, the world discovered that the comely Ms. Ray’s job responsibilities had precious little to do with typing, filing, and answering the phone. 

Congressman Hays chaired the House Administration Committee, which controlled the purse strings and myriad perks on everything from custodial help to travel allowances to parking spaces. This enabled the long-time Washington insider to wield considerable power with the most modest of mallets. In other words, he could cut off colleagues’ air conditioning if he saw fit, or punish elevator operators for sitting down while he had to stand, which he in fact did by removing their jump seats.

So, when Ms. Ray went public with her story of having been hired solely as a congressman’s mistress, not too many folks in Washington felt sympathy for the beleaguered Hays. Ray said she spilled the beans because she felt snubbed at not being invited to her paramour’s nuptials. In 1976, Hays married Patricia Peak, a bona fide secretary from his Ohio office, not too long after divorcing his wife of thirty-eight years. Ray grumbled, “I was good enough to be his mistress for two years, but not good enough to be invited to his wedding.” She also wanted it on record that she did not enjoy her intimate moments with the flabby senior citizen for whom she worked. Ray said, “If I could have, I would have put on a blindfold, worn earplugs, and taken a shot of Novocain.”

When all the dirt surfaced of the two-year-old liaison between Ray and Hays, the Congressman admitted to romping in the hay with his employee, but emphasized that she was not hired to serve as his mistress. It wasn’t, after all, against the law to fool around. Hays immediately resigned from his committee chairmanship and a couple of months later from his congressional seat. He escaped any criminal charges, largely because Ray was certifiably flaky and completely unreliable. People from her past came out the woodwork and made a convincing case that she was the antithesis of a naive Girl Scout and, too, a far cry from the brightest bulb in the chandelier.

A former boyfriend—and a trial lawyer—told the media: “She wasn’t very intelligent. If I took her out somewhere, I’d tell her not to say anything. Now and then she’d forget and call me the next day to apologize.” A restaurant owner who once employed her as a waitress said that he had to let her go because “she was hustling.” 

After Wayne Hays resigned from the Congress, he disappeared from the limelight altogether into a well-earned obscurity. He succumbed to cancer in 1989 at the age of seventy-seven. His second wife, Patricia, survived him.

With more than thirty years of resume building since the scandal, Ms. Ray has posed for Playboy several times and tried her hand at acting and screenwriting. It has been reported that she is a part-time stand-up comedienne.

Tuesday, September 29, 2015

Be True to Yourself: Be a Goober

I just came across a disk that contained a mother lode of non-fiction book proposals of mine from—yes—a simpler time in the publishing world and world in general. Approximately fifteen years ago, I had a lot of ideas and literary agents, too, representing many of them. Some of the projects got past first base and were discussed in “pub board” meetings. However, in the end, salespeople typically had the final word and shot them down. Yes, the same men and women who champion their incredible knowledge of what sells and doesn’t sell in the book market by reciting a litany of books that have bombed. Countless titles—believe it or not—that the aforementioned all-knowing professionals somehow let slip through the cracks and see the light of day on bookstore shelves.

Anyway, that was a long, long time ago. I will say that the perseverance complex paid off for me in that I kept re-branding my ideas—after one rejection after another—until I hit pay dirt. What follows, though, is sample material from a proposed book—one that never was—entitled TV Dinners for the Soul: 101 Solutions to Life’s Problems and Riddles from Your All-Time Favorite Television Personalities.

Goober, you got real talent.
- Gomer Pyle to his cousin

Fall is Goober’s favorite season, he says, except for summer and spring. This is quintessential Goober: a simple man who loves life. Seasons change, but not Goober’s lust for living.

Simplicity defines Goober. It is the most admirable quality of Mayberry’s Forrest Gump. Like most of us, Goober experiences moments of despair in which he rues his lot in life. In Goober’s case, it’s pumping gas, changing oil, and fixing flat tires.

In The Andy Griffith Show episode “Goober Makes History,” the man grows a beard, endeavoring to erect an intellectual aura around him and cast asunder his image as lovable doofus. Goober takes a history class and pathetically attempts to dominate it with volubility decidedly out of character. In so doing, he transforms himself into an overbearing clod and achieves persona non grata standing in the community-at-large of Mayberry. Happily, Goober comes back to the reality of being Goober: kindhearted, ever loyal, and fun to be around. He accepts the fact that he’s not cut from the same cloth of William F. Buckley Jr.

In yet another episode, “Goober Goes to an Auto Show,” he meets an old school chum and attempts to impress him with braggadocio. Goober tells his friend that he owns a chain of gas stations. This charade predictably blows up in his face and—one again—Goober accepts his lot in life.

What is his lot in life? For many years, Goober labored in Wally’s Filling Station, ultimately purchasing the place for himself. This is the American Dream personified and nothing to be ashamed about. Goober, the Big Kid, achieves self-sufficiency doing what he does best. 

All men and women are created equal under the Natural Law. But reality tells us that individual human beings are hardly equal. Some are blessed with great intellect, while others are vacuous airheads. Some are imbued with enormous physical strength, while others are ninety-eight-pound weaklings. And, sad to say, some human beings are bereft of even a shred of decency or compassion for their fellow man and woman. Individuals are individual to the core.

Goober, for example, is recognized as a gifted mimic in the confines of Mayberry, North Carolina, impersonating Cary Grant and Edward G. Robinson with hayseed aplomb. Maybe at Caroline’s Comedy Club in New York City he wouldn’t be graded so high. So what! Goober starred on the Mayberry High football team and was the town arm-wrestling champion for four consecutive years. He also won a pancake-eating contest at the county fair, consuming—with butter and syrup—fifty-seven of the breakfast delights.

In other words, Goober excels at being Goober. When being himself he is a winner. When he ventures far a field into arenas outside of his special talents and God-given personality, he fails miserably. There are countless Goobers in our midst who fall prey to societal pressures and feel inadequate in the process. This low self-esteem often augurs problems like drug and alcohol abuse and other self-destructive behaviors. Really, Goober Pyle is a role model for these confused souls.  

Wednesday, September 23, 2015

If I Could Save a Time in a Bottle...

Another icon has died: the incomparable Yogi Berra. The man personified a time when professional baseball—and professional sports in general—had both character and characters. He also transcended the game in which he played and played so well.

Yogi will always be a Met in my eyes. He managed my all-time favorite team, the 1973 New York Mets, who improbably came within a game of winning the World Series against the heavily favored Oakland A’s. Previously, they had beaten the heavily favored Cincinnati Reds—the “Big Red Machine”—in the National League playoffs. The whole spectacle was especially remarkable because the 1973 Mets were floundering pretty much all season long—beset with all kinds of injuries—and closer to the basement than the penthouse when the month of September began. In fact, The New York Post had run a mid-summer poll, which posed the question to its readership, “Who should the Mets fire for their underachieving: Manager Yogi Berra, General Manager Bob Scheffing, or Board Chairman M. Donald Grant?” Scheffing and Grant got the lion’s share of the votes—and deservedly so. Yogi was a beloved figure and wasn’t to blame. After all, he went on to win the pennant. It’s a crying shame that the pompous patrician Grant wasn’t sent packing then before he single-handedly destroyed a great franchise. (We shall never forget the Grant’s Tomb years: 1977-1979.)

There was nothing quite like being a kid and a fan back then. In the real world—the adult world—there was President Nixon and Watergate and, too, Vice President Agnew resigning during the post-season excitement. But I was pushing eleven in September and October 1973 and not particularly interested in the goings-on in Washington, D.C. I didn’t care whether or not our president was crook—let's put it that way. I was more interested in watching Mets’ games on the black-and-white television in our family living room and listening to just as many on the radio—my personal radio. No, it wasn’t a transistor. It was a much bigger deal than that with a dial. The radio could be either battery operated or plugged into an electrical outlet. What more could a boy want? Actually, my godmother had gotten me the radio as a First Holy Communion gift a couple of years earlier—one of the fringe benefits of being raised a Catholic. Holy Sacraments and that very first time often came attached to presents and sometimes even monetary rewards. Anyway, the radio is what I wanted most of all so that I could listen to Mets’ games—period and end of story. I don’t remember using it for any other purpose but to tune in to the dulcet tones of word painters Lindsey Nelson, Bob Murphy, and Ralph Kiner—the Holy Trinity as far as I was concerned.

It was definitely a time worth saving a bottle. I recall Yogi’s rather humble description of managing. He said, “All you have to know is when to take your pitchers out and how to keep your players happy.” The first year of the Designated Hitter in the American League was in 1973, which more or less torpedoed the only in-game strategy that Yogi believed a Major League Baseball manager needed to master. By the way, Tom Seaver completed eighteen games in 1973 (after a career high of twenty-one in 1971). There were no pitch counts and other such nonsense in those days of yore. Hmmm…Yogi Berra, manager; Tom Seaver, the ace of the pitching staff; and the legendary Willie Mays on the very same roster in a pennant race and then in a World Series—you gotta believe nothing even remotely resembling that will ever occur again. 

Thursday, September 17, 2015

Cream Sam Summer: the Novel

A Novel by Nicholas Nigro

The year is 1978, a simpler snapshot in time, when New York City neighborhoods had both character and characters—lots of them in fact. At once gritty and charming, the Bronx’s Kingsbridge supplies the vivid backdrop for Matt “Bean” Casale and his pals, who unwittingly find themselves entangled in the lives of their most eccentric neighbors. A hot and humid summer in the city adds further intrigue by simultaneously thawing out a police cold case and sorely testing the bonds of old friendships. Uncovering the real truth doesn’t come easy for the police and for the boys, too, who get swept up in both a Byzantine local soap opera and the rough-and-tumble of merely growing up.

Suffice it to say that the boys will never be quite the same, nor the neighborhood and world that they live in, after the Cream Sam Summer.

Cream Sam Summer ​is based on real people, places, and events from the past. Kingsbridge in the Bronx had both character and characters in the 1970s—lots of them in fact. Cream Sam Summer ​introduces you to many of them.

Sample Chapter 1 

A few weeks ago, Jimmy Kern went ballistic in his front driveway—a fist- pounding, foaming at the mouth eruption that was downright scary to witness. Known to most of us around here as “Red,” the man’s a certifiable neighborhood oddball. Somebody once told me that he received the nickname because he was a card-carrying communist, and that it had absolutely nothing to do with his redder than red hair and heavily freckled complexion. Honestly, I suspect my leg was being pulled and sincerely doubt that Red even knows what a communist is. I’m not very good at divining ages, but he’s considerably younger than my mother and father, who are in their mid-forties, and a lot older than me, a sixteen-year-old high school student. I’d wager that he’s somewhere in between and has celebrated his thirtieth birthday, and probably a few more than that, in the not-too-distant past.

The local consensus is that Red is simple—a “bit off” and not the brightest bulb in the chandelier—but he’s no a simpleton. I’ve heard through the grapevine that his childhood was anything but idyllic. For starters: Both his parents drank like fish. Mama Kern was something of a recluse, too. She came out only at night to run errands, which included picking up her regular whiskey stash and preferred smokes—Lucky Strikes, I’ve been told—but that was the long and short of her public appearances. My grandmother recalls her tying young Red and his older brother Peter to a sycamore tree in their backyard. Presumably, this was the oft-intoxicated mother’s foolproof method of keeping an eye on her two boys. Verbal interchange between this strange and solitary woman and her Kingsbridge neighbors—even basic hellos—just didn’t happen.
The reports are that Papa Kern was a tad more sociable. He would on occasion acknowledge his neighbors with the barest of nods, but he never, ever had anything to say. Sadly, the man met a tragic end. On his way home from work one summer’s eve almost two decades ago, the Kern family’s breadwinner fell in front of an oncoming subway train at the 181st Street station near the George Washington Bridge. The lingering scuttlebutt is that his blood alcohol level was off the charts. My Uncle Paul says Mr. Kern was a “tortured soul”—somebody who might very well have jumped in front of the train. Since the Kern patriarch shuffled off this mortal coil in such a dramatic fashion—accident or no accident—his surviving widow has seldom been spotted, even under the cloak of darkness.

Fast-forward to the present and the Kern house on Tibbett Avenue is an unsightly blot on the neighborhood landscape—a ramshackle eyesore. The family actually purchased the house brand new in the late 1930s—they were Kingsbridge denizens even before my grandparents, who moved into the neighborhood several years later. But forty years of utter neglect have rendered the place a complete shambles. There are broken windows in the front of the house, on the sides, and out back, too. Peeling paint is the rule. It’s late July now and the Kern’s front grounds are smothered in tall weeds. Sprouting up through countless cracks and crevices, a slate-tiles pathway leading to steps and the front door is also overrun with them. Our cigar-chomping mailman, Louie, no longer attempts to access the Kern’s rusty old mailbox attached to the house. Instead, he drops the mail into a thick patch of weeds, just beyond a corroded wrought iron gate along the sidewalk’s edge, which he says are the homeowner’s explicit instructions. I often notice uncollected letters and assorted junk mail in this urban jungle for weeks at a time—rain or shine. God only knows what the place’s interior looks like.

Four summers ago, I laid eyes on the old lady for the first and only time in my life. Spying this ghostly pale apparition standing on her front porch—dressed in all black with a long shock of unruly white hair—sent shivers up my twelve-year-old spine. No exaggeration here: She was a dead ringer for Grandmama Addams. Nowadays, her reclusiveness is the stuff of legend. Seeing her in the light of day, or dark of night for that matter, is the Kingsbridge equivalent of a Big Foot or Loch Ness Monster sighting.

Red Kern, on the other hand, is a familiar face in this sliver of the Northwest Bronx. Just about everybody knows him. A notorious packrat, the concrete sidewalls of the family’s sloping front driveway are perpetually lined with his most recent street finds. He once amassed a diverse assortment of discarded glass containers—everything from beer and soda bottles to mayonnaise and cold cream jars. Red envisioned making “piggybanks” out of them someday. On another occasion, the man gathered together wood scraps of every conceivable shape and size that he plucked from neighbors’ garbage cans. He spoke often of his grand plans to build an extra room to the house—his room—in the driveway. Construction hasn’t begun.

When we were much younger, Richie Ragusa, “Johnny B” Bauer, and I christened Red “Cream Sam”—a sub-nickname of sorts to his more popularly known one. The three of us had gotten into the habit of parking our bicycles in his driveway during the warm months of summer. Red was always ready with a good yarn, opinion, or outlandish philosophical discourse on the meaning of life. He frequently spoke of the existence of these rare culinary delights—at least that’s what I think they were supposed to be—called “Cream Sams.” Red said time and again that we would just love these “Kingsbridge Caviars,” and he always promised to get us some real soon.

On numerous occasions, my parents have instructed me to keep my distance from Red and his combination driveway-junkyard. Richie’s ex-Marine father has laid down the law concerning contact with anybody named Kern. I have no doubt that Johnny B’s over-protective mother would lock him in his room, and throw away the key, if she knew what he was up to. But Red has just fascinated us too much, with both his never-ending stories and ever-evolving collections of rubbish, to stay completely away. And since our parents don’t have us under constant surveillance while in the great outdoors—this is 1978, not 1984—these decrees from on high amount to little more than a hill of beans.

Admittedly, there has always been a feeling of trepidation—an intoxicating whiff of danger—when standing in the Kern’s driveway, on the periphery of the open garage, or even when passing by the house on the front sidewalk. The mere possibility that a crazy old lady could, at any moment, materialize—brandishing an ax, sharp kitchen knife, or ice pick—is enough to make my blood run cold. The decidedly more visible and real specter of Peter Kern has long been part of the equation as well. While Red’s big brother doesn’t officially reside at the house anymore, he nonetheless keeps a watchful eye on the place and his kinfolk. The brutish Peter’s got an unsavory reputation in these parts for being perpetually drunk, habitually mean, and sometimes violent.

But there’s more to the Kern family mystique than a colorful cast of characters on a dilapidated urban stage. It encompasses, too, the unsolved mystery of a neighborhood boy from the past—a playmate of little Red and Peter—who one day just vanished never to be heard from again. My mom and dad remember Mr. and Mrs. Kern being questioned by the police, but so were many others on the block—men and women who were not considered suspects in the disappearance, or guilty of any wrongdoing. Still, bizarre and unfounded rumors persist to this day that the boy’s body is buried somewhere in the Kern’s backyard, and that Mr. Kern may have done himself in because he knew what really happened.

For further reading, click on this link: Cream Sam Summer

Wednesday, September 16, 2015

The Story of Us: Home Sour Home

For many years, my mother worked as a nurse’s aide in a local nursing home. It was not, by the way, a highly regarded one. I recall the familiar morning ritual of my mom recounting her war stories to my dad. Life on the nursing home frontlines was never boring. My father, in turn, regaled my mother with tales from the dark side, a.k.a. the third-class mail center in the General Post Office on Eighth Avenue in Manhattan, where my dad plied his trade. He had the not especially enviable four-to-midnight shift, commuting from Kingsbridge in the Bronx via the subway—the Number One train—for a quarter of a century. Although the behind-closed-doors postal-employee antics were frequently the stuff of TV sitcoms, my father’s job wasn’t really a barrel of laughs.

Suffice it to say that the nursing home experience was completely foreign to me as a youth. I could never have envisioned anyone in my life circle—and certainly not me—ending up in one for any reason at all. While growing up in the Bronx in the 1960s and 1970s, families—by and large—took care of their own come hell or high water. There were certainly a few nursing home candidates in the neighborhood—by today’s standards at least—who remained in their homes courtesy of family on the premises.

Fast forward to the here and now and I have been in the belly of the beast. Fortunately for me, I was merely visiting a close relation for four months running. And happily for the patient, she escaped the nursing home confines and has lived to tell. I fear that a lot of people there will not be so lucky. For those ill-fated souls: the nursing home is their Roach Motel—they’ve checked in but won’t check out. Well, not exactly. They’ll leave at some point in the future—but they’ll be carried out feet first when that time comes.

Visiting this particular nursing home as often as I did was downright disturbing. For starters, I’m not a boy anymore. I am closer to the end than the beginning. The patients that I observed in the place ran the gamut from One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest types to the deathly ill with one foot in the grave. I couldn’t help but think about this diverse lot of men and women, who once functioned in the outside world. They had careers and raised families; they cooked meals and took trips. They were Everyman and Everywoman, the living embodiment of what is possibly in store for any one of us.

I looked upon permanent residency in that nursing home—or in any nursing home—as a fate worse than death. It was, though, not out of the realm of possibility that I could one day end up in one—a destiny, too, beyond my control. This reality bite is why I'm not interested in longevity for longevity’s sake. Anyway, to keep my sanity in the nursing home milieu, I embraced my rather potent cryptic side while there. The guy in the room across the way, I thought, was a Burt Mustin clone. He shuffled along in his pajamas like an old geezer out of central casting. His roommate—on the other hand—was a textbook blowhard who once worked as a cook, I learned. He awaited with bated breath his breakfast, lunch, and dinner—and also offered culinary commentary on everything on the menu.

Strange, but the paper menus that accompanied patients’ meals rarely, if ever, matched what was on their trays. As for the fare itself: I’ve never seen anything so consistently disgusting and utterly bizarre. Vegetable lasagna served with vegetables; baked ziti served with mashed potatoes and a slice of bread; and the most god-awful-looking macaroni and cheese served with a side of stewed tomatoes. And how pray tell can one screw up chicken nuggets? Well, this nursing home had the uncanny knack for doing just that. The chicken nuggets were nauseatingly soggy. I discovered that the hard way by sampling one because I incorrectly assumed that chicken nuggets were beyond messing up. I often wondered what the nutritionist on the nursing home staff—very well paid no doubt—actually did while on the job.

I’ll give the place its due in that it was very clean. Just a few seconds in its interior ensured that your clothes and hair reeked of disinfectant. I always changed my clothes and showered, too, when I arrived home from the home. This malodorous truth never failed to bother me. After all, I had little choice but to conclude that if the strong disinfectant stink—or whatever combination went into that distinct nursing home aroma—attached itself to hair and clothing with such alacrity, it likely wormed its way into the food chain with equal rapidity.

A footnote on that ultra-unique nursing home cuisine: I must say that some of the residents considered it akin to roast beef at the Ritz. Still, so much of it went to waste. A gander at the rounded up post-mealtime trays told you as much. In fact, the waste of just about everything there—just like in hospitals—was mind-boggling. It’s little wonder why we are poisoning our planet beyond repair.

The nurses and nurse’s aides there were mostly good—a dedicated enough bunch who just had too many patients to contend with and too little time on their hands. Like, for instance, a woman who was perpetually crying out, “Please, will somebody help me!” I thought she sounded an awful lot like the mysterious voice that frightened young Jimmy Olsen in a black-and-white Adventures of Superman episode called “The Haunted Lighthouse.” You must remember: “Help, I’m drowning!” Jimmy was visiting his aunt who lived on an island with a lighthouse. As things turned out, his aunt—whom he hadn’t seen in a while—was an impostor and the disconcerting shriek from the foggy ether was a parrot. Anyway, I subsequently learned that this poor woman in the nursing home was riddled with cancer, in horrible pain, and had every reason to be desperately crying out for help. An aide later reported that this once very sweet woman mercifully passed away.

A nursing home is just not a good place to be—as a patient  and as a visitor, too. New Age disciples like to declare: Life is good! It’s not typically the case in a nursing home. The blaring TV sets alone were enough to drive me batty there. They nicely complemented my disinfectant cologne.

Saturday, August 8, 2015

The Chef Boyardee Experiment

Forty years ago during the first week in August—on August 5, 1975 to be exact—three boys from the Bronx embarked on a camping misadventure in the woods of Harriman State Park. (For more on that experience, check out an earlier blog: A Bohack’s Injection.) Recently, I was reminded of something monumental that had occurred during that rendezvous with nature: The twelve-year-old me sampled a peculiar delicacy—something, actually, as American as apple pie—for the very first time in my life. How fitting to be in a wilderness setting and chowing down on Chef Boyardee—cheese raviolis to be precise, which we had purchased at a local supermarket before the trip.

The elder on this excursion into the wilds—a sixteen-year-old named John—had made this peculiar culinary selection. It was peculiar, at least, to my older brother and me, who had never before consumed anything in a can sporting a Chef Boyardee label. There was no reason that we—who were growing up with our paternal grandmother on the premises—would have ever entertained the notion of eating raviolis from a can. For she was master of too many dishes to count, and unequaled when it came to pasta “gravy.” But there we were on our first afternoon in the Great Outdoors. It was lunchtime and we were appropriately famished after having hiked a pretty fair distance while carrying all sorts of camping accouterments.

So it was decreed: Chef Boyardee cheese raviolis would be it—a well-earned repast for reaching our destination in one piece. Renowned for my fussy eating habits, the oddsmakers had the likelihood of me even trying the raviolis as very slim, and the possibility of me actually liking them even slimmer than that. Well, will wonders never cease, especially when one is communing with nature. I not only ate the raviolis that afternoon but loved them as well. In fact, I thought that they were shockingly delicious. After that August day, I had my mother purchase Chef Boyardee on occasion, even if it was sacrilege to the Italian side of the family.

After swallowing that ravioli for the very first time in summer of 1975, my eyes were opened to so many things. For starters, I knew in a flash what that “hot lunch” smell in grammar school represented. When the cafeteria served up pasta dishes, it smelled an awful lot like Chef Boyardee, even if it was only a close cousin. I had always considered myself fortunate that I could both walk to grammar school and eat my lunch at home. But after the Chef Boyardee ravioli experience, I wasn’t quite so certain anymore. In high school—without the “go home for lunch” luxury—I was compelled to dine in the cafeteria and enjoy the pasta there—shells—every Thursday if memory serves. That sauce, too, was prepared from the Chef Boyardee recipe book.

I don’t eat Chef Boyardee all that much anymore. The magic flavor that tantalized my youthful taste buds forty years ago doesn’t make the grade in the here and now—let’s put it that way. Nevertheless, to commemorate such a big anniversary, I purchased a can of Chef Boyardee beef ravioli—it was on sale for a dollar at a local dollar store—and wolfed it down a couple of nights ago. It was edible, I suppose, because I ate the whole thing. Yet, there was something strange about the whole dining experience. It was like my adult incarnation was resisting even being in the same room with anything Chef Boyardee. The smell alone of the raviolis being heated on the stove top brought me back in time—not to the leafy woods of Harriman State Park but to my grammar school’s “hot lunch,” which I never got a chance to sample. And perhaps that really was for the best.

Thursday, July 16, 2015

A Fruitless Journey’s Fishy Fruit

When my younger brother and I vacationed on Cape Cod some three decades ago, we frequently went for drives “in the country.” At least it wasn’t the Bronx, which was a welcome change of pace for a short spell. Subsequently, we christened these car rides of ours: “fruitless journeys.” Typically, we had no specific destination in mind—hence the “fruitless” part of the tag. Sure, we dropped by our favorite antique junk shop on bucolic Route 6A on occasion and, sometimes, stumbled upon a nature trail or a flea market to explore. But mostly, we rather aimlessly drove around the back roads of the Cape with a local music station playing—one, in fact, that continually ran commercials for a culinary institution in the area: Thompson’s Clam Bar in Harwichport. For several summertimes, we heard this iconic eatery’s classic radio jingle run over and over and over: “Hey, where you going? I’m going to Thompson’s Clam Bar because that’s where the tastiest clams are. Is the seafood good? The best by far! Let’s go to Thompson’s Clam Bar.”

Despite the Thompson’s Clam Bar jingle becoming—by osmosis—an integral part of our “fruitless journey experience”—and the Cape Cod ambiance as well—we never for a moment thought to call upon it. It just wasn’t our thing back then. Thus, we didn’t seize the day and marry the familiar jingle with a reality bite—a clam or something else fishy from Thompson’s Clam Bar.

While on those "fruitless journeys," we were definitely saddled with less of life’s baggage. Thirty years gone by almost always amounts to additions and not subtractions in this bailiwick. Simpler times, I daresay. It’s funny but very often our “fruitless journey” climaxed when my brother and I got hungry. Pizza, roast beef sandwiches, or take-out fried foods ("Maalox Moments" now) were usually on our plates in those days of yore, not sit-down dining. And let’s just say that Cape Cod pizza is another animal entirely when compared with New York pizza. 

But herein lies a life lesson, I suppose: Never pass up an opportunity. Thompson’s Clam Bar on Wychmere Harbor in Harwichport is now a private club. I'm never going to able to sample "the best by far" seafood. The jingle, though, endures as a reminder of what was and what might have been. Shoulda, woulda, coulda gone to Thompson’s Clam Bar. The commercials, too, were ahead of their time, supplying listeners with pre-GPS directions on how to get there. Why didn't we listen....

Friday, June 19, 2015

Seinfeld FAQ

It’s hard to believe that Seinfeld—the show that redefined the American sitcom forever—debuted more than a quarter of a century ago. In the summer of 1989, The Seinfeld Chronicles, as the show was originally called, aired in what network executives dubbed “Garbage Dump Theater”—their pejorative phrase for primetime TV pilot episodes shown in July and August, when viewing audiences are at their tiniest. In fact, Seinfeld came perilously close to not making it past the pilot stage. While its four-episode “first season” granted the show a welcome reprieve, it wasn’t exactly a vote of confidence from the muckety-mucks at NBC.

Happily, Seinfeld was given a further chance—a half season’s worth of episodes—to either sink or swim. It almost sank, but by its third and fourth years, the show was slowly but surely becoming a ratings success and a bona fide phenomenon as well. If you were alive, alert, awake, and aware in the mid-1990s, it was impossible not to get caught in the crosshairs of Seinfeld chatter. Airing on Thursday nights after the popular sitcom Cheers—and later taking over the slot—Seinfeld brought people of all ages, and from all walks of life, together as never before. They had something in common: Seinfeld on the brain. The mornings after episodes ran inevitably supplied a surfeit of breakfast table banter, office water cooler chitchat, and coffee shop repartee. Seinfeld deliberations rivaled sports talk in saloons and neighborhood gossip in salons.

Seinfeld FAQ: Everything Left to Know About the Show About Nothing wades with abandon into the origins of this television classic and its frequently bumpy ride on the way to the top. The book explores in entertaining detail the show’s exhilarating journey from obscure TV pilot to sitcom icon. What pray tell was so different about Seinfeld? For starters, it shattered the sitcom mold by wholly deviating from a tried-and-true formula. Seinfeld’s characters—Jerry, George, Elaine, and Kramer—were the antithesis of model citizens. They were selfish, callous individuals with dubious morals. Seinfeld episodes, too, didn’t wrap up with all-is-well hugs and kisses. Quite the contrary. In fact, the gang never learned any life lessons and rarely felt ashamed at their often-egregious behaviors. This ran completely counter to the traditional sitcom modus operandi.

In the final analysis, we loved television’s Fab Four despite their innumerable personality foibles and psychological hang-ups. Really, only Seinfeld could pull it off—and it did so because it was at once incredibly clever and incredibly funny. Stellar writing and situations that all of us could identify with proved something: TV characters really don't have to be particularly likable with redeeming qualities to win us over and make us laugh—and louder and longer than we had ever before. Seinfeld set a new standard for television comedy. Seinfeld FAQ: Everything Left to Know About the Show About Nothing imparts to readers exactly how the show accomplished this not inconsiderable feat. More than fifteen years after it exited the primetime stage, Seinfeld’s also proven that it’s got legs. Its continuing popularity in syndication, and via DVD sales, has made Jerry Seinfeld a billionaire—and that’s no small achievement. 

Thursday, June 18, 2015

The Wanderer

There is this old man in my neighborhood named Robert. I heard he turned ninety-three on his last birthday. Everybody in these parts has at the very least seen him because he’s perpetually in motion and has been for as long as I can remember. Robert is also been an outdoorsman—always on his way somewhere and never tiring of shopping and unearthing gems from other people’s garbage cans. The man likes to talk—to everyone and anyone who will listen. I’ve had several conversations with him through the years. Really, I shouldn’t call them conversations because they were more like monologues. Robert did most of the talking and—boy—did he have tales to tell me.

Robert was in the Air Force during World War II and witnessed fellow pilots and friends shot down on either side of him. When I spoke with him, he was pretty long in the tooth and—it’s probably fair to say—not quite sharp as he had once been. Robert was among the Greatest Generation and his exploits explained why. By my arithmetic, he was around nineteen or twenty when he was flying bombers over Germany. When I think of myself at that age—in college and cosseted—I couldn’t conceive of receiving a draft notice in the mail, let alone being shipped to the frontlines. I was petrified enough at twenty with the notion of driving a car, which explains why I didn’t get my license until I was nearly thirty.

Sadly, I just learned that Robert—who clearly has been suffering from dementia for several years now—is in the hospital. It seems he set off one morning last week on another journey of his. The man’s been wandering more than ever of late, often walking in the heavily trafficked streets for some reason and not on the sidewalks. And it never mattered to him whether it was twenty degrees or ninety degrees outside. Robert was like the postman—nothing could stop him from his appointed rounds. That is, until what happened on this hot and humid day where he walked over a mile and a half before both collapsing from heat exhaustion and breaking his arm.

There’s a good chance I’ll not see Robert ever again. He’ll more than likely be placed in a nursing home to live out whatever time he has left. Looking back, maybe I shouldn’t have tried to avoid Robert on the street. I had kind of tired of lending him my ear and hearing the same stories—glorious as they were. A life lesson and life in a nutshell, too. Wander on, Robert….

Sunday, May 17, 2015

Living in the Present...

Trust me…I am living in the present. Despite the fact that I post a lot of pictures from the past and often wax nostalgic for the “simpler times” of my youth—when a Mets’ game and the warm and reassuring voices of Lindsey Nelson, Bob Murphy, and Ralph Kiner were downright otherworldly—I am fully present in the present. Okay, so I think the present isn’t all that it’s cracked up to be. In fact, it stinks in so many ways, which I won’t count right now. Suffice it to say, people walking around the streets with their heads buried in their iPhones and obliviously talking on their cells is disconcerting, annoying, and—really—dangerous. Why don’t you look where you’re going, jerk! But this grievance of living in the here and now has already become a cliché. Yada…yada…yada.

So, I thought I’d look on the bright side of the present for a change and underscore some of the things that I think are better today than in those simpler times of my callow youth. For starters, recycling is a major step forward. Everything from ketchup to prescription cough medicine came in glass bottles once upon a time, which were just heaved into the regular trash. How many Hawaiian Punch and Hi-C heavy aluminum cans did we toss into the garbage that weren’t recycled? An awful lot.

While I don’t like the trend of human beings being replaced by technology, I’m nonetheless happy that there are ATM machines. They are convenient and I use them for virtually every transaction. Withdrawals the old-fashioned way—with a living and breathing bank teller at the other end—always make me feel guilty, as if I’m doing something wrong. I’ve never seen you before. What exactly are you trying to pull with this withdrawal? You don’t look anything like the person on your ID.

I’m pleased, too, that in the here and now my high school alma mater—Cardinal Spellman in the Bronx—has cast asunder “lunchtime sponge duty,” where the unlucky and the unwashed were compelled to clean dirty lunch tables with filthy, germ-laden sponges and pick up garbage off the floor as well. No rubber gloves were passed out and no extra time allowed getting to our next classes, which the sadists in various authority positions relished. If we were late for a class, a teacher could set the “detention” wheels in motion and a few of them did, even if we had the very legitimate “sponge-duty” excuse. There are no students who are “sponge-worthy” in the present and thank God for that.

As far as diagnosing and treating diseases, our healthcare is considerably better than it used to be. I’m old enough to recall a neighborhood family doctor making house calls. And when my paternal grandfather was diagnosed with leukemia, nuns in the Catholic hospital he lay dying in stayed at his side 24/7. Still, the disease that he succumbed to came fast and furious. While the Marcus Welby doctoring approach is sorely missed, one still has to appreciate the advances in modern medicine. That is, if living and longevity count for something, the present has its benefits.

If the Hudson River is representative of waterways everywhere, I suppose Iron Eyes Cody would have less to tear up about nowadays. My father swam in the river in the 1940s and recalled pushing an unrelenting stream of excrement away. I even remember the river smelling more of garbage than of the salty sea. Now, though, its odor in lower Manhattan is of a pleasing brine and not raw sewerage. That having been said, Iron Eyes, I’m certain, would still have ample reasons to open the floodgates.

Then there’s the Internet. I couldn’t have written the books that I have without it—and certainly not in the short time frame that was allotted me. I wouldn’t be writing this blog either. At some point in the 1970s, I wrote a rather lengthy letter to TV Guide asking the folks there a long list of questions. Most of them were of the “Whatever Became Of?” variety. For some reason, I was fixated on death and who in the celebrity world had shuffled off this mortal coil. I remember asking, “Whatever became of character actor Larry Keating, who played neighbor Roger Addison on Mister Ed and, before that, Harry Morton on The George Burns and Gracie Allen Show?” and “why was he replaced on the former by Leon Ames?” What a curious youth, I was. Now, all I’d have to do is Google “Larry Keating” to get the answers to these burning questions. Someone at TV Guide—it should be said—sent me a personal response to my missive with possible resources—books of all things—that might help me find answers. Larry Keating, by the way, was diagnosed with leukemia and—like my grandfather—died from it pretty quickly.

YouTube and Netflix have been gifts in the present. I don’t think I’d ever have watched shows like Rawhide, Wagon Train, and Stagecoach West without them, not to mention countless other television classics and historic moments, which might otherwise be buried in the archives at the Museum of Television & Radio. Speaking of which, I watched several episodes of Adam-12, a Dragnet-esque show created by Jack Webb, on Netflix. I recalled it from my youth, but it didn’t hold up for me. I found it interesting that they played for laughs a domestic abuse call, like it was a complete waste of the police’s time. With smirks on their faces and exasperated meaningful glances, Officers Malloy and Reed asked only that a wife-beater—festooned in a wife-beater tee—be a little bit nicer. One more plus for the present. Drunks, too—even behind the wheels of cars—weren’t taken all that seriously on television and on the streets. Now they are.

Finally, I must say that the present has at long last put a lid on smokers—as best that it could—who have literally taken our breaths away and stunk up our clothes, hair, and skin for far, far too long. I began every single day of high school reeking of cigarette smoke courtesy of a ride in a packed-like-sardines bus where it was tolerated, even though it was against the law. It cannot be denied: The present has its place. 

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

Facebook and Punks

More than any other venue, Facebook has linked the present with the past in ways that would have been inconceivable a mere decade ago. The “Whatever Became Of?” roster has shrunk considerably because of it. Schoolmates, neighbors, and co-workers from yesteryear have returned a lot older and sometimes a lot wiser, but not all the time.

Overall, Facebook has been a fascinating experience. As a boy growing up in the 1970s—long before the technological revolution and the advent of social media—I recall purchasing loose “punks,” as they were called, in the candy store. They were incense sticks that were also used to light firecrackers and a few other things. Of course, put punks in the hands of punks—of the street variety—and all bets were off. I find it interesting that—with thirty and forty years of water under the bridge—I still have a strong dislike for certain members of the punk fraternity—the bully brigades—from my youth. Perhaps if I got to know them in their adult incarnations, I might feel differently. Then again, I might not. And considering some of the things I’ve encountered on Facebook from the old punk class, I might even—believe it or not—think less of them.

But why accent the negative when there are punk redemption stories, or at least one that surprised and kind of buoyed me. A fellow named Paul from the old neighborhood—whom I didn’t know but have interacted with in a Facebook group—has come a long way. By his own admission, he was a rudderless youth not averse to getting in trouble. Paul, though, transformed his life—a bona fide one-eighty.

One day, however, during some memory sharing give-and-take on growing up in the old neighborhood—Kingsbridge in the Bronx—during the 1960s and 1970s, a woman recalled that Paul committed a punkish act—I think it might have been the slashing of her car tires—and was something of a bullyboy in the big picture. Paul had no recollection of the specific incident, but it sincerely troubled him that he might have done what he was accused of, as well as similar acts of non-kindness to other people. Paul promptly issued a heartfelt apology to anyone whom he may have bullied or hurt back in the day. From observation in the Facebook laboratory, I have to conclude that Paul is one of the exceptions to the old punk rule.

That is, a healthy number of the punks that I remember from the old days—that are on Facebook at least—tend to wax nostalgic about their punk past. It seems stealing from mom-and-pop stores was a whole lot of fun, with the punks proudly recounting their cunning in getting away with it. It doesn’t seem to bother them that many of these shopkeepers worked long, long hours for not a whole lot of money. And I don’t think they would appreciate having their paychecks or property robbed from them today. No, I don’t.

Saturday, April 4, 2015

Lessons from the Underground...

For years while riding on New York City transit, the only counsel vis-à-vis manners and civility that the MTA (Metropolitan Transportation Authority) gave its subway and bus riders was to give up one’s seat to an elderly or disabled individual. Pregnant women, I see, have recently been added to the roster. Now all that was sound and decent advice, which—really—most people didn’t need. They had enough common courtesy, as it were, to do the right thing without a bureaucratic agency’s importuning.

Well, today, while riding on the Number 1 subway line from the Bronx to Manhattan, I encountered an interesting promotional campaign for the first time. It wasn’t one for a slip-and-fall lawyer firm, a hip whiskey brand, or a zit-curing dermatologist. No, the MTA itself was behind it, imploring its riders to behave more thoughtfully, more kindly toward their fellow New Yorkers. In other words, don’t be “primping”—at first I thought the sign read “pimping”—or clipping your fingernails in a subway car, which, after all, is “not a restroom.” Amen to that. Another admonition: “It’s A Subway Car, Not A Dining Car.” While truer words have never been spoken, the person next to me eating the bacon, egg, and cheese croissant—with a large cup of flavored coffee to wash it down—apparently was unmoved by this aggressive courtesy offensive.

I also sat across from a guy taking up more than one seat. Granted, the subway seats are pretty small and I don’t like be scrunched up alongside fellow straphangers, who may be eating bacon, egg, and cheese sandwiches, and often a whole lot worse fare, particularly in the olfactory arena. But nonetheless I make it a point to sit in one seat and one seat only, even at my own discomfort. Obviously, some people don’t think as I do. In fact, more than I’d care to admit. We are a self-absorbed lot, it seems, which I suppose is the wind beneath the wings of the MTA’s courtesy campaign.

This may have preceded all of the above—in fact it may have been the courtesy movement’s inspiration—but there was a residual public service ad—a holdover from the past colder than cold winter—concerning the flu and what to do about it. That is: “Cover your nose and mouth with a tissue when you cough or sneeze.” The MTA is nothing but not thorough, and it’s the addendum to this ad that won me over: “Cough or sneeze into the bend of your arm if you don’t have a tissue.”

As a footnote to my day, I must report that a young woman with purple streaked hair and a nose stud—if that’s what it’s called—offered her seat to a mother with a baby in a stroller. The latter declined, but very courteously. Perhaps it had something to do with the courtesy advertisements plastered throughout the subway car. Perhaps some people, purple hair and all, just have manners. I can't say…

Thursday, April 2, 2015

A Facebook Fool and His Money...

I had intended on writing this piece yesterday—April Fools’ Day—but today will just have to do. Several days ago, I received an e-mail that miraculously circumvented my spam filter:

From The Desk of the Information Officer
Compensation Payment Department
United Nations Headquarters
New York, USA

Dear Beneficiary:


I write to notify you of the payment of your compensation fund to this office as one of those that has been scammed through African countries, mainly from Nigeria. You only have to re-verify your data such as your full name, your address, your phone number, and your occupation so it can be used to authenticate you as the legal owner of this fund. Immediately, when this is done successfully, you will be given every detail of your compensation fund and the amount accrued to you. However, you are to contact the Supervising Agent in charge of this payment; his name is Mr. Smith Brad. He has been given the full mandate to get your fund paid to you, so kindly send the required information through his email address at for immediate processing of your compensation sum.

Your immediate response to this e-mail will be fully appreciated.

Yours Faithfully,
Mrs. Joyce Savage

While I could certainly use an infusion of largess from the Compensation Payment Department at the United Nations, I neglected to supply this noble institution of world peace and understanding any information, and won’t be furnishing them with my Social Security number anytime soon.

Whenever these spam/scam e-mails infest my mailbox, I am reminded of a certain Facebook persona—a fellow whom I never met, but who was a friend of a friend. It was my friend, actually, who made me privy to this individual, because he sincerely believed that he was a make-believe guy—the handiwork of some clever sort. And when Albert—that was this possible person's name—announced with palpable relief and bona fide happiness that his financial woes were a thing of the past—having won second prize in a Publishers Clearing House drawing to the tune of close to $40,000—the non-real aspect of this caricature of a man exponentially jumped. Albert proudly reported on his Facebook page that he was heading to the bank with a considerable check that had just arrived in the mail—the first installment of his prize. He even sent a lady friend of his a box of chocolates in celebration of his good fortune. Alas—only a day later—Albert recounted with great sadness that his bank had informed him that the check he had just deposited wasn't worth the paper it was printed on. He told us, too, that the supposed folks from PCH had asked him for $3,000 before they could release the full amount of his winnings. Albert had been had, he admitted, and was visibly wounded that scam artists existed who preyed on innocent people like him.

Turns out this Facebook guy—whose profile picture looked almost too bizarre to be believed—was the genuine article. Albert had not only fallen for an obvious scam but also gushed about how his sudden windfall had saved his business—he was a financial planner. The truth really is stranger than fiction. In this age of available and accessible information—way, way too much as a matter of fact—this man was the ultimate truth teller. Almost childlike in his innocence as he approached his fiftieth birthday, Albert existed in the bright light of day. He had family and he had friends. He was an adult who took adult positions on all things, and even was chairman for a spell of a mainstream but meaningless third political party in a nearby state.

In the times that we live in—with Facebook and company—life has a way of unfurling before our eyes and death does, too. This man-child, who really and truly seemed to be the work of somebody’s vivid imagination, continued to unintentionally embarrass himself with his candor. But then suddenly and without fair warning, Albert dropped dead of a stroke and was taken off life support as per his wishes in a living will. And yes, he was real as real can be. Albert’s obituary told us that and then some.  Strange indeed. RIP, Albert.

Sunday, March 22, 2015

Onion Snow and Spring

Two days ago, we experienced—I pray—the final snowfall of the season. It was a few inches in total that began accumulating in the waning hours of wintertime and ended in the fledgling ones of spring. My mother, who grew up in place called Bangor, Pennsylvania, always referred to the last snows of the season—usually in March but on occasion in April—as “onion snows.” White stuff that is essentially here today and gone tomorrow, which was precisely what happened with this past snow. The March sun on the morning after performed a yeoman's job—despite it still being pretty cold outside—in melting it all away. "Walker beware" was the rule as icicles and miscellaneous hunks of snow fast and furiously tumbled from trees and buildings.

I am both older and colder in winter. I can at long last understand why so many retired people leave the environs of New York City for Florida during the winter months and, in many cases, for one and all seasons. I, too, can now envision living in warmer climes all year round, although I doubt I ever will. Once upon a time when youthful exuberance careened through my veins, snow had mass appeal to me. Sometimes it caused the schools to close, which was always welcome. Playing tackle football courtesy of a blanket of snow on the concrete, which we couldn’t do in the summertime, was quite fun. And watching the snow fly in real time was a real treat as well. I will admit that I still appreciate the beauty of a snow event, but concerns of what my life will very soon be like—with all the ensuing hardships—tarnish the pretty picture pretty fast. They quickly drown out the peaceful evocation of Tony Bennett singing “Snowfall.” 

Honestly, I could never have conceived as a boy that I wouldn’t welcome—with open arms and Christmas-like anticipation—a blizzard. Compared to the past couple of decades, big snowfalls were pretty rare when I was a kid on the streets of the Bronx. When they did occur, the spectacles always brought friends and neighbors together. People of all ages—often multiple generations of families—were out shoveling and frolicking in the Winter Wonderland. There’s still some of that fraternity found in a snow's wake, but a whole lot less of it.

If nothing else, bad winters—and this one was the coldest in my living memory—make one really pine for and appreciate spring when it does arrive. As I write these words, it's cold outside—some fifteen degrees below normal in the mid-thirties. But still, it feels like spring and looks like spring with only specks of "onion snow" remaining on the ground and some larger piles of the white stuff—although they are not so white anymore—scattered about. These remnants of the multiple snows of this past winter in building and business parking lots stand as testaments to what was and what soon will be only a memory.

If I could turn the clock back thirty-five or so years, I’d have stickball on my brain right now. I'd be prepping to play that very first game, which we often did at the end of March. It tended to be chilly at “play ball” time, but if the sun shined, we took to our game with joy and a celebratory feel that another long winter had come to pass. Although we liked winter—actually, snow in winter—it was always good to see it go. Spring, stickball, and baseball season—“Let’s go Mets”—had the legs that ushered us into summer, summer vacation, and the things we did during that hot time. All these years later, I’ll settle for some warmer temperatures, a little green, and longer days. Granted, it’s not nearly as exciting as those youthful advents of spring were, but it’ll have to do.

Sunday, March 1, 2015

Rotten Eggs Are In the Nose of the Beholder...

This morning I experienced a strange olfactory moment. A transitory scent wafting in the winter air suddenly and without fair warning brought me back to the New Jersey Turnpike. Most of my memories of the turnpike—and the area of northern New Jersey approaching the George Washington Bridge—are positive, even if they often smelled of rotten eggs and looked like the Industrial Revolution on steroids. You see, for me, the majority of times spent traversing the turnpike were pleasure related—the Bronx boy vacationing at the Jersey Shore, going to Philadelphia to catch a glimpse of the Liberty Bell and a baseball game at Veteran’s Stadium, or on a field trip with grammar school to our nation’s capital.

The rotten egg stink in the ether around parts of the turnpike and nearby thoroughfares—in what is a heavily industrialized sliver of New Jersey—was typically sweet smelling. That unique piece of geography admirably served as a passageway from one world to another. As a kid, my sense of wonder knew no boundaries. The turnpike perfume coupled with the lay of the land outside the car windows delivered a unique, almost unforgiving ambiance. “Salty ocean air is just around the corner,” it said. Sometimes on my way to visit the maternal grandparents in Bangor, PA, it cried, “Bucolic green and cornfields are just over that ridge.” The mess of traffic by the bridge and pollution all around served a purpose, I suppose. Leaving the city for a welcome change of scenery was always appreciated, and the sights, sounds, and smells in getting to our destinations were key ingredients in all the journeys.

Returning, as I recall, from whence we came was a different experience—often bittersweet. The vacation’s over. It’s back to the heat and humidity of a New York City summer. On these return trips, the rotten egg aroma assumed a new meaning and—yes—was sometimes pretty disgusting. With the majestic city skyline looming to the east, any feelings of loss—of a vacation ending for instance—waged battle with a homecoming. At the end of the day, come what may, it was always good to breathe Bronx air again, while looking forward with wide-eyed anticipation to the next adventure and next inhalation of rotten eggs—and the next sighting of oil refineries spewing soot and grime into the heavens. It’s a life lesson for sure: Rotten eggs are—really—in the nose of the beholder.

Sunday, February 22, 2015

Mr. Marshmallow Head and the Catnapping of the Century

When I was boy growing up in the Bronx, there were bullies aplenty in the neighborhood. Nowadays, the subject of bullying, with its many technological tentacles, is front and center—and rightfully so—but back in the 1970s, it was tolerated and largely ignored. In fact, all of us in the non-bully—and potentially bullied—class lived our lives with these individuals always on our radars and with the hope that we’d never get ensnared in their webs.

There was one particular bully entourage that will forever define, in my mind at least, what bullies and bully-ism are all about. This was, of course, in an era before cyber-bullying, and these boys did their dirty work in the bright light of day—and, yes, at night as well. Naturally, a band of bullies needed a leader of sorts, and this crew had one. I’d really like to mention his name—not to seek retribution forty years later for all his juvenile transgressions, but because it was the perfect moniker for a bruiser bullyboy who looked and acted as he did. I’ll just call him “Ted” for the time being, and he was a scary fellow, as were his underlings, one of whom used to stick firecrackers in pigeons you know whats and blow them up. I always thought Ted resembled an over-sized marshmallow—a “Mr. Marshmallow Head,” if you will, with curly locks and something of a porker’s nose. He was big, burly, and mean. One friend of mine recalled him as an Incredible Hulk type. Another old friend when asked if he remembered Ted, replied, “The bully?” So take your pick, Mr. Marshmallow Head or the Incredible Hulk, he was the last person any of us wanted in our lives in that colorfully raw snapshot in time.

I realize now that when I was very young—grade school age—I exhibited more courage and more willingness to “boldly go” and take on a bully and his bullyboy brigade. Perhaps it was more naiveté than actual courage—youthful exuberance unleashed and unafraid. Well, less afraid let’s say. And I’m talking about “taking on” bullies in a roundabout, clandestine way, because I weighed ninety-nine pounds at the time. Yes, from bullyboy Ted’s perspective, I was a ninety-nine pound weakling. And years later—as a high school kid who tipped the scales at a whopping 115 pounds—the thought of doing what I did as an eleven year old seemed extraordinary to me, as it does even more so now. What was I thinking?

There were a lot of stray cats in the old neighborhood. One of the more fecund females in town was named “Tiny,” and she belonged to a family up the block. Tiny had many male suitors and was the mother of a mother lode of kittens. All of us in our little clique loved Tiny and her always-expanding family, fed them pieces of white bread and saucers of milk—that’s what we did back then—and generally looked out for their well-being.

Then one day out of the blue, Ted and his bully underlings came down to our neck of the woods loaded for bear and started harvesting stray cats. They whisked away those that they could catch in a burlap sack, as I recollect, while claiming to be concerned “cat people.” They even accused those in their way of “animal abuse.” In one of their roundups they snatched a young, very friendly cat that we had named “Goldy,” based on her color scheme. Ted and friends brought their collection of cats to a small lot wedged between a pre-war walkup apartment building and a neighborhood eatery on Broadway.

When combined with the passion of youth, I suppose love conquers all, because my best friend and I ventured into Tedville, which was just up the hill from us, and found Goldy the cat in that very lot. We lured her out of this feline sanctuary of theirs and brought her back home, which was only a few blocks—but, really, seemed worlds apart—away. The bullyboys were down on us in short order, seeking the identity of the catnappers. I’ve always wondered what they had in mind for us, but fortunately the non-bully set had their version of omertà. So, while Ted and company didn’t return home with my head on the platter, they, sadly, had Goldy the cat in their clutches once more. Ted had renamed her “Judy,” and I can still hear him saying, “We’re going to bring you home now, Judy.” I was only eleven years old and frightened out of my skin, but still remember thinking that “Judy” was a stupid name for a cat. And bully Ted’s tone of voice was also stupid—stupid and scary, a toxic combination.

I don’t know what became of Goldy and all those cats that were rounded up. Ted purported to be a cat lover and maybe he was. It wouldn’t be unprecedented that a Neanderthal brute liked cats. But considering who he and his partners in crime were, it seems a long shot that their motives were pure. I’m just happy that I went into enemy territory—risked life and limb in a manner of speaking—to do what an innocent kid who loved a cat thought was right. And I take some pride that Mr. Marshmallow Head never did solve the catnapping of the century.