Saturday, January 30, 2016

Red Light...Green Light...

As kids growing up in the Kingsbridge section of the Bronx, we used to play a game—among so many others—called “Red Light…Green Light.” In this youthful diversion of ours, somebody was It. More times than not, being It in an urban street game was the booby prize. But not in “Red Light…Green Light.” It is what the game’s myriad players aspired to be, because the Anointed One got to cry out, “Red Light…Green Light…1, 2, 3...1, 2, 3” with It's eyes covered and back turned to all others. And right after this rapid-fire recitation, It promptly pirouetted in an attempt to catch advancing players in the act. That is, the game's players endeavoring to reach the coveted finish line. Players who could not—under any circumstances according to the rules—be caught in motion. We were permitted to advance only during the “Red Light…Green Light…1, 2, 3...1, 2, 3” clarion call. If caught moving forward by the All Mighty It, we would be sent back from whence we came—the starting line, actually, and a long, long way from being the game’s impresario. If that makes any sense, that’s the way “Red Light…Green Light” was played. And, believe me, it was a lot of fun being It and not It, too.

But this blog is not about the game just described, which I played forty-five years or so ago—and one, by the way, that withered on the vine with just about every other street game after my generation, the baby boomers, retired our spaldeens. No, this “Red Light…Green Light” game that I played some forty-five years ago was a One Night Only affair, an on-the-spot creation of yours truly as darkness set in one chilly, pre-Christmas December evening just before suppertime. I was nine-years old and playing outside with my six-year-old brother. We did that sort of thing in the 1970s. We were outdoors as much as physically possible, even in cold weather and without the light of day.

Granted, the 1970s were a high crime time here in the Bronx and just about everywhere else in New York City. I’ve touched on these “simpler times”—lots of muggings, break-ins, and the like—in prior blogs. Yet, I don’t think my folks were even remotely guilty of parental negligence. Anyway, this “Red Light…Green Light” derivative involved a literal, working traffic light on Kingsbridge Avenue, a street a couple a blocks away from where I called home. My younger brother and I participated in a frenetic running game that took us down alleyways, over a short backyard wall, and through a curious nook and cranny—a small space to slither through that bordered a low wrought iron fence with spikes atop it. It was there—X marks the spot—where one could catch a glimpse of that aforementioned traffic light. Red meant stop and green meant go—simple. But for an energized nine year old, stopping on a dime—for a red light in this instance—could augur trouble, especially with a spiked fence in the vicinity.

So, yes, I got a spiked that night—beneath my chin—and the blood flowed. Without delay, Ma brought me to our family doctor up the hill on Kingsbridge Avenue, a mere block away from the red light that did me in. The old sawbones stitched me up—I have the scar to prove it—and informed my mother and me that a half-inch or so to the left and I might have been impaled. The following day, my best friend in grammar school at the time—a kid named Mark D—mockingly pointed out to my peers that I was wearing “one bandage over another” on my chin. What are friends for? This, in fact, is how I can remember how I old I was when the near-impaling incident occurred. I’ve got a signed report card envelope to prove it. 

Postscript: I've noticed that modern-day fences of the kind that nearly impaled me are sans spiked tops. They're flat.  And this flatness is a good thing. I’m glad, though, that I was permitted to go outside and play a game—for lack of a better word—that I conceived in the moment. I’m happy, too, that there was a family doctor still in his office to patch me up—one bandage over another—without any fanfare. Kids with their smartphones just don’t know what they’re missing.

Wednesday, January 20, 2016

It’s Not Your Grandfather’s School Cafeteria Anymore

I have so few fond memories of high school. One, however, is the institution of fine learning’s cafeteria. Of course, I was a teenager back then—in the colorful 1970s—with teenager culinary tastes and unusual gastronomic desires. I salivated over certain foods at the time that might very well leave me dry today. I don’t know if I’d appreciate the school’s exceptionally gooey Friday “grandma slices” of pizza or cardboard-textured Wednesday roast beef wedges (with optional Au jus)—personal favorites—as much now as I did when Jimmy Carter was president. I wonder, too, how my adult palate would take to the “Mashed Pot” served with the aforementioned roast beef wedge. Yes, that’s what the a-little-too-small cafeteria special board read every Wednesday. Were he still among the living, Cardinal Spellman would certainly have cried foul.

Anyway, while perusing my alma mater’s website recently, I came upon a link to its “cafeteria menu,” which I thought odd. When I clicked it, a PDF file opened up with this week’s—Monday through Friday—menu. And it was a wee bit different from what I recall with such fondness. I remember a unique “hot” special every day of the week—like the pizza and roast beef wedge—plus the ubiquitous daily alternative: hot dogs. The hot dogs were thirty-five cents when I was a freshman, fifty cents when I was a senior, and worth every penny.

There are no hot dogs on today’s cafeteria menu. In fact, the place has been dubbed a “café” now and is run by a culinary outfit. (I won't hazard a guess as to what happened to all the cafeteria ladies.) This contemporary bill of fare features categories like “Chef’s Table,” “Jump Asian,” and “Tuscan Bistro.” It also sports icons that identify which foods are gluten free, vegetarian, and vegan. The vegetarian side dish for January 20, 2016 was “Risi e Bisi Rice, Roasted Zucchini, and Tomatoes.” The only thing resembling a vegetable—outside of potatoes—that I remember eating in the school cafeteria was sauerkraut on my hot dog. It was the first and last time I sampled that. But sauerkraut taught me a valuable lesson: Appealing aromas don’t necessarily translate into taste sensations, particularly when they turn a perfectly edible hot dog roll into a soggy mess. (The cafeteria ladies had to keep the lunch lines moving. Draining the sauerkraut before putting it atop the hot dog just didn’t happen.)

So, a long time ago on a Wednesday afternoon in wintertime, I enjoyed a roast beef wedge—with Au jus—and a mashed pot side in my school cafeteria. Today, I could have ordered “Chicken Scallopini Scampi,” “Hunan Chicken and Hong Sue Pork,” and “Fruited Barley Lentil Soup.” I could also have a refillable debit card to pay for it—a lunchtime E-Zpass. For sure: It’s not your grandfather’s school cafeteria anymore. Trouble is: I’m the grandfather. How did that happen?

Tuesday, January 5, 2016

January Blues

In the fledgling days of January 1994, a wannabe “motivational shaper” of young men and women—a slick, narcissistic retail store manager, actually—crudely produced an employee “handbook.” It was entitled “1994: A New Year, A New Focus” and passed out to his underlings. In reality, it was yet another New Year’s “clean slate” move—a series of resolutions, if you will. But these resolutions were for a workforce, chronicling what exactly was expected of them along, of course, with explanations why doing more for less would simultaneously build character and make the overall job experience more rewarding. While early January 1994 was, indisputably, a new year, the desired new focus, if memory serves, didn’t happen. In fact, whatever new there was about the 1994 focus was a whole lot worse than anything that preceded it!

From my perspective at least, the first couple of weeks in January have invariably been unpleasant—starkly so. As a boy, this stretch of time sealed Christmas’s coffin tight. All the preparation and anticipation for the holiday vanquished in one fell swoop! And the sour icing on the cake was that it was back to the always-dreaded school after a typically event- and fun-filled Christmas vacation—in the dead of winter no less—with very little to look forward to on the upcoming calendar. Trudging off to school in the New Year’s morning cold was forever nightmarish and a compelling reminder that all good things come with a price—and, too, come to an end. All that was left in early January was to pray for snow.

While Christmastime to me is now a mere shadow of its former self—my youthful exuberance irretrievably lost in the past—I still experience the January blues. On Christmas Eve 2015, the temperature here in New York City set a record: seventy-three. I ran an errand at four o’clock that afternoon without wearing a jacket. My trusty mailman, Yu, delivered the Christmas Eve mail in shorts and a short-sleeved shirt. He also donned his plastic postal safari hat—summer wear and a sign of the climes. This morning—less than two weeks later—the temperature was in the teens, and Yu’s safari hat rested in his locker. Today’s bitter cold, too, at long last cast asunder 2015’s geraniums, begonias, and flowering roses. No frost in these parts until early January was unprecedented in my lifetime!

By chance on the second day of this month, I found myself in the vicinity of Rockefeller Center and the Christmas tree. Once upon a time, Christmas was incomplete without seeing that tree. But I hadn’t been down there at Christmastime—on purpose—in a very long time. I decided, however, to venture past it—for old times sake and, perhaps, for the last time. Because one never knows—I’m not getting any younger. Well, truth be told, I wasn’t very impressed. The tree seemed smaller and scragglier than I remembered it. In reality, I doubt that it was. But seeing it in the bright light of day and, yes, in January, was a deadly one-two punch.

On the heels of my tree trip to bountiful, I walked past Radio City Music Hall. And I didn’t experience the same feelings—not by a long shot—that I had when I saw A Boy Named Charlie Brown, Scrooge, Bedknobs and Broomsticks, and 1776 at Christmastime (1969-1972.) Upon exiting a subway car at Grand Central Station at the age of just seven, I got wedged between closing doors. I was on my way to see the aforementioned A Boy Named Charlie Brown. Such is life! It’s 2016 now, a presidential election year, and there’s a thing called Facebook. When it’s too hot, people deliver sermons and when it’s too cold, they do, as well. 2016: A New Year, A New Focus. Maybe I’ll get stuck in a subway door one more time and all will be good again….

Tuesday, December 22, 2015

Uncle Mickey and the House Without a Christmas Tree

In my pre-Christmas wanderings today, I came upon something unusual. It was lying out with a building’s trash. This peculiar sighting would have commonplace in the first couple of weeks of 2016, but not on December 22. I beheld a fair-sized, reasonably fresh-looking Christmas tree that appeared—prior to getting the heave-ho—to have been in a stand of some kind. I was left to wonder about that house without a Christmas tree and its backstory. I remember a TV movie from the early 1970s called The House Without a Christmas Tree. It starred Jason Robards and was rerun at Christmastime for years on CBS. But that tale ended on a happy note—the house without a Christmas tree at long last had one.

From houses with and without Christmas trees to “Uncle Mickey.” Well, actually, he’s not my uncle, which isn’t a bad thing. In fact, Uncle Mickey is anything but avuncular. A friend of mine and I cryptically refer to the man as such—and not to his face by the way—because of something that once hung on the wall of his place of business. Strangely enough, Uncle Mickey is better known around town as “Crazy Mickey,” a well-earned moniker based on years of bizarre and sometimes scary behavior. For convenience purposes, I have long patronized Mickey’s shop. Let’s just say the guy has a few anger management issues on his plate. On more than one occasion, I’ve seen him hurl his telephone against a wall. Mickey’s unpredictable, borderline violent brand of customer service regularly shocks and awes unsuspecting patrons. A nearby entrepreneur, who offers some of the same services as Mickey, told me that he frequently hears war stories from the frontlines. War stories, that is, from shell-shocked former Crazy Mickey customers. He posed the most obvious of questions that day—and still an unsolved mystery—“But how does he stay in business?”

Uncle Mickey may have finally “Jumped the Shark” vis-à-vis me. In my presence this past week, he punched in anger—the genuine article—an inanimate object that he shouldn’t have punched, and then treated it pretty roughly after that. By the end of our transaction, Uncle Mickey had calmed down sufficiently to mutter, “Happy Holiday!” This is modus operandi. Suffice it to say, I didn’t feel his season’s greeting was all that heartfelt. “But how does he stay in business?” Yes…good question…because he is an equal opportunity Raging Bull, who rages again everybody and anybody for no apparent reason.

Why pray tell have I returned to the belly of the beast as often as I have? That’s another good question. Somebody once told me that I turn everybody into characters. Perhaps there’s some truth to that. Uncle Mickey, after all, is a character extraordinaire—and I, evidently, have a high tolerance for inappropriate behavior. Nevertheless, it’s one of my New Year’s Resolutions to bid a not so fond farewell to Uncle Mickey. I understand that I might be missing out on something big on the life stage—bigger than the trashing of the telephones—but I just can’t don't want to chance it any longer. Being Uncle Mickey’s piñata—when he totally goes postal—is something to be avoided by all who know him.

Thursday, December 17, 2015

The Charlie and Mama Christmas Miracle

Some fifteen years ago, a possible miracle occurred in the Riverdale section of the Bronx. To set the stage, my favorite local eatery had sadly changed hands. After refurbishing the place, its new owner—a man named Nick—reopened its doors. Many of the old customers returned for this second act, including a remarkably cranky old couple. No, not a husband and wife, but a 70-year-old man and his 100-year-old mother. My frequent dining companions and I had long ago nicknamed the pair “Charlie and Mama.”

Witnessing a dutiful son lovingly caring for his aging and ailing mother is often uplifting, but it very definitely wasn’t in this case. In fact, it was downright deflating, even a bit creepy. You see, very old Mama was the embodiment of mean—looked it, sounded it, and acted it. She scolded her septuagenarian son like he was a five year old. But this was all going down in 1996—not the Roaring Twenties. Son Charlie, however, merited very little sympathy and understanding because he was an incredibly fussy, inconsiderate, and annoying man. Mother and son were frequently spotted walking the streets arm-and-arm, with antiquated Mama looking like she was a light pat away from crumbling into the dust from whence she came.

Suffice it to say that the entrepreneurial-minded Nick didn’t acclimate very well to the diner milieu and its colorful cast of characters, which included bothersome eccentrics like old Mama and her insufferable son. Charlie regularly ordered a burger for his beloved mother sans the bun. Despite it saving him a hamburger roll, this request got under Nick’s skin. But it was the three or four French fries that Charlie wanted for his mother that irked him to no end. When Charlie informed the diner's put-upon proprietor that old Mama couldn’t possible eat a regular order of fries, he didn’t say it nicely and, too, expected the sparrow’s portion to be on the house.

Eventually, the mere sight of the approaching Charlie and Mama sent Nick into spasms of rage. They came to embody everything he hated about diner irregulars, if you will. Nick desperately wanted his place to be a bona fide restaurant and not a neighborhood greasy spoon. And Charlie and Mama with their bunless burgers and three or four French fries just didn’t fit into his grand plan. Then one day, Nick overheard Mama’s anything but dulcet century-old tones saying aloud, “He’s not going to make it.” His body furiously shook, but he uttered not a word to them. Instead, he beamed hate—the genuine article—their way.

Come Christmastime, I spied a row of cards taped atop the refrigerator accommodating the Jell-O, rice pudding, and apple pie—from various food suppliers and even a handful of customers, I supposed—despite the fact that Nick was the epitome of ineptness, irascibility, and miserliness all rolled into one disagreeable package. The man had raised all the prices and reduced all of the portions in one fell swoop. The formerly considerable and otherworldly hamburgers of the previous ownership had become McDonald's-sized, flavorless, and much pricier.

While I wasn’t about to send Nick a Christmas card, I nevertheless thought it would be warm and fuzzy if he received one from his worst tormentors—Charlie and Mama. And so he did. The miracle—the Christmas miracle, actually—was that I was present when the postman delivered the card, when Nick opened it, and when he read it. I witnessed the expression on his face as he came upon the sender’s names: “Charlie and Mama.” Nick expressed uncharacteristic glee, immediately showing it to his staff. He just couldn’t believe that he had received this holiday goodwill from such a sinister duo. I heard him repeat several times—to no one in particular—these two words: “Charlie and Mama.” And, I can honestly say, he had a big smile on his face the entire time.

I have long believed that my being privy to the fruits of this endeavor was divine intervention, or maybe it was because I often had breakfast there at around the time the postman knocked. Still, I’d rather believe that miracles do happen on occasion. And, as things turned out, old Mama was prescient concerning Nick’s fate. He didn’t make it.

Saturday, December 12, 2015

Christmas in New York: Then and Now...

When I was a boy growing up in the northwest Bronx’s neighborhood of Kingsbridge, Christmas was—from my youthfully innocent perspective—the “most wonderful time of the year.” Andy Williams really nailed it, although I don’t ever remember any “scary ghost stories” being bandied about during my family's yuletide celebrations. The weeks preceding December 25th had an anticipatory feel that, I know, can never be felt again. Decades removed from that wide-eyed kid—who loved virtually everything about the holiday season—this time of year just isn’t so wonderful anymore.

The passage of time has done a number on that special feeling—one that, in simpler times, I believed was inviolable. Really, I couldn’t conceive back in the 1970s not being excited at the prospect of an impending Christmas. The first signs of the season—store decorations, typically—were enough to light that spark. Christmas-themed television commercials were next. Raised a Catholic, there was the first Sunday of Advent, the second, the third, and then the fourth—crunch time. Three purple candles and a pink one defined the Advent wreath, which we—and many others—had in our homes. It wasn’t a hanging kind of wreath, by the way, but one that rested on a table, television set, or countertop. The solitary pink candle was lit on the third Sunday for a reason that now escapes me.

I don’t exactly know why. but I vividly recall an Advent wreath in the classroom of my fifth grade teacher, Sister Lyse—a very nice woman and personal favorite of mine—having its four candles melt into an orb-like mélange of purple and pink. This candle carnage occurred because they were too close for comfort with one of St. John’s grammar school’s uber-hot radiators. The meltdown was discovered on the morning our class was preparing to venture down to Radio City Music Hall in Manhattan via the subway— the Number One train to be precise, which was only a block away, and whose elevated tracks we could see from our school’s east-facing windows. Watching both a movie and a Christmas show there—Rockettes and all—was a heady experience and more of what made Christmas such an amazingly layered experience. I was of a tender age in a more tender time, and it didn’t bother me in the least that the New York City subways back then were crime-ridden and smothered in graffiti.

When my father purchased a new record player and stereo from Macy’s at Herald Square, my brothers and sisters gleefully awaited its delivery. Naturally, upon its arrival, we posed for pictures around it. Through the years we piled LPs on the thing, which automatically dropped upon a record’s end. We had a few “Christmas in New York” albums in the family collection, and there really wasn’t anything like—once upon a time—Christmas in New York. I’d like to think that there are still kids feeling the way I felt about Christmas in an age before computers, iPhones, and cable television. But getting past all of that, I know, isn't easy.

Thursday, November 26, 2015

A Thanksgiving Story

While duly employed in another line of work more than two decades ago, my boss, Tony, spied a couple of our customers, George and Sally, dining in a Nathan’s fast-food restaurant. At the time, he was cruising down the well-traveled Central Avenue in Yonkers and noticed them—courtesy of the place’s paneled glass windows adjoining the busy thoroughfare—seated at a table. Were it not for the fact that it was Thanksgiving night, this sighting wouldn’t have been worth mentioning.

Often a cynic, Tony nonetheless found something poignant about the spectacle of this married couple eating at Nathan's on Thanksgiving. After all, George and Sally were extremely pleasant sorts who spent a fair amount of change shopping in our store week after week. George was retired and a lot older than his wife. They had no children. That is, if you didn’t count their menagerie of pets, which included through the years everything from minks to ferrets to monkeys. And, yes, they had multiple cats and dogs as well. Anyway, Tony thought it would be a nice gesture to invite George and Sally to the business’s forthcoming Christmas party, which he did. They happily accepted and a grand time was had by all.

Fast forward twenty-five years and George and Sally are still among the living. They are, however, experiencing some financial woes. Money troubles that George never envisioned possible when he called it quits after a rather successful working career. Considering George and Sally’s sizable brood of animal friends through the years—and the amount of money they spent on them for food, supplies, and medical care—we were all convinced that old George had quite a tidy nest egg and would never, ever be sweating the bucks.

Last winter, however, George turned up at Tony’s new place of business. He requested a helping hand—i.e., a cash allowance to pay off a large and long overdue fuel bill. It was a brutal winter and Tony, who hadn’t seen George in years, didn’t have the heart to say no. Actually, it was a rather distressing tale of woe that a former professional and proud man—who was now closing in on ninety years of age—would not have enough money all these years later to pay basic household bills. George told Tony that the economic meltdown of several years ago did a real number on his retirement portfolio. It’s a cautionary tale, I fear, that all too many of us may be facing in retirement someday—if we make it that far and almost definitely when we are pushing ninety.

Looking back on it now, I suppose that George and Sally’s past Nathan’s Thanksgiving repast was a happier, less stressful dining moment than the one they’ll be having this year. As a postscript to this story: That sprawling, iconic Nathan’s restaurant was bulldozed a few years ago to make room for yet another strip mall. There is a much smaller, decidedly pedestrian Nathan’s in the mix of stores on the old spot, so George and Sally can dine there this Thanksgiving if they so desire and if, of course, they can afford it.

Tuesday, November 10, 2015

Swinging the Bat

I swung a baseball bat an awfully lot as a boy. I didn’t even have to be involved in an organized game of any kind to do it. In fact, for a few years running—I’d say from the ages of eight to ten or eleven—most of this swinging of mine was done all by my lonesome. For the record, I never swung the Louisville Slugger that I received at a New York Yankees’ “Bat Day” promotion—with its Jake Gibbs facsimile signature on it—at anyone’s head or any such thing. Rather, I played a singular version of fantasy baseball—it would seem—in the alleyway that separated my house from a next-door neighbor’s. And I wasn’t pretending to be Cleon Jones, Tommie Agee, or Ed Kranepool. No, what I did in that alleyway all those years ago was completely original and a figment of my imagination—imagine that.

I would just go out and “swing the bat”—period and end of story—for anywhere from several minutes to a couple of hours. I remember alerting my mother as to where I could be found. “I’m going out to swing the bat,” I’d say. And that’s not only what I said but also what I did. The time of day didn’t matter a whit, either, but it was a seasonal thing. I’d swing that piece of lumber morning, noon, and night, too, in the summertime by and large. An older neighbor of mine—an affable dullard of a teen as I recall—was positively bewildered when he witnessed me one summer’s eve exiting the house with my bat in hand. “He’s going to play baseball in the dark!” he exclaimed. And the doofus was right. I didn’t need the light of day to play whatever it was I was playing.

Recently, I thought about “going out to swing the bat” as a kid, and wondered how that sort of thing might be received today. First of all, a kid in a Bronx alleyway with a bat in his hand—most especially at night—would be frowned upon. After all—just like they shouldn’t play with fire—kids shouldn’t play with baseball bats. That is, unless they are being swung under the supervision of an adult in good standing. 

I also don’t know how the act of swinging a baseball bat for hours upon hours—all alone—would be perceived on the contemporary psychiatric front. My behavior might very well be judged as aberrant, and my parents alerted to this noxious bat-swinging compulsion of mine. I’d quite possibly be prescribed some drug du jour to calm me down. You know: to take that unhealthy desire to swing the bat away from me. No more fantasy baseball. Just be a lump, stay indoors as much as possible, stare into a smart phone…and everything will be hunky-dory.

Wednesday, October 28, 2015

The “Clem Nouri Rule of Polite Society”

Some three decades ago I had a professor in college named Clement Nouri. I remember thinking what a great name that was. It was kind of like the Old West meets the Old World or some such thing. Anyway, the course he taught was rather excitingly called “Business Policy,” and a considerable portion of our grade was based on class participation. Still, the very same people—class after class after class—did the lion’s share of the participating. Really, this was the case, I found, in primary, secondary, and higher education alike. Many of the eager participators in these class discussions did so because they were intellectually curious and desired learning from their more scholarly teachers and professors. But there was also a fair share of said participators who, I fear, liked the sound of their voices above all else, especially in college.

Anyway, in this “Business Policy” course, Dr. Nouri insisted that one and all participate in the class discussions. An oft-repeated catch phrase of his, which has stuck in my brain all these years later, was: “How ‘bout others?” In other words, Dr. Nouri was importuning the “Silent Majority” in the classroom to be heard—come on: anybody other than the usual suspects. I didn’t know it then, but I know it now: My old professor’s three-word question has real legs and can be applied in all kinds of venues and situations outside of the classroom. In fact, I silently ask, “How ‘bout others?” time and again as I go about my daily business. Just yesterday, what I have dubbed the “Clem Nouri Rule of Polite Society” danced like sugarplums in my head.

It came to the fore while I was in a neighborhood drug store—Rite Aid, formerly Genovese, and I hear soon-to-be Walgreen’s—and waiting on a long line, made that way by an oblivious woman with out-of-date coupons for starters, questions about the current chain’s flier, and—in general—treating the cashier like she was in a private audience with the Pope. “How ‘bout others?” I internally intoned as the line grew longer and longer and longer. And, at long last, when she actually purchased something and received her change, it took another seeming eternity for her to gather herself together, which, of course, she did at the checkout.

Later in the day, I was in a Chinese take-out establishment with a very small counter to put it mildly in which to place an order. When I entered the eatery, a woman was in the process of placing her order. Straightaway, I could tell she was a pain in the butt but nonetheless patiently waited my turn as I always do. But, alas, after placing her official order—with every “I” dotted and “T” crossed—she didn’t budge. Apparently, she was intent on watching her food being prepared—and asking further questions and making assorted demands—throughout the process. How ‘bout others? I had to at long last shout out my order over this inconsiderate boob, whose elbows were resting on the countertop and spread out a la Charlie Brown ruing his lot in life on the backyard brick wall.

Finally, have you ever been at a party or social event where some blowhard holds court the whole time? Of course you have. And no matter what the topic of conversation, he or she invariably hijacks it. On these occasions, it is high time that all of us vocally and unapologetically enunciate the simple but oh-so-just “Clem Nouri Rule of Polite Society”: “How ‘bout others?” No more suffering in silence….

Saturday, October 24, 2015

Even a Clock Dies...

R.I.P. my copper-colored kitchen clock shaped like a tea kettle. I’m sad to report that it shuffled off this mortal coil several days ago. Well, the truth be told, it was still keeping the proper time when I pulled the plug on it—quite literally—for the last time. I hated to do it. I didn’t like the idea of so unceremoniously consigning it to my recycling bag—with its plastic milk containers, tin tomato sauce cans, and pieces of aluminum foil with so much less history—but felt it best to do the deed as quickly and as painlessly as possible. It was Tuesday when this happened and Wednesday, you know, was recycle pick-up day.

Here’s how it all went down: Very early Tuesday morning, I was awoken by an extremely loud and grinding sound. I didn’t have a clue what it was but—suffice it to say—such noises in dawn’s early light are never appreciated. I feared that something untoward was going on in the water pipes. After all, a running toilet a couple of flights above me had been for months running. I wondered, perhaps, if it had it taken a turn for the worse and would soon be pouring down on me. Typically, while in my bathroom, I would hear this never-ending water-on, water-off whoosh. So, as a test, I shut my bathroom door, but—alas—that persistent grinding sound was louder than ever.

I followed my ear GPS this time into the kitchen and came upon the clock—yes, the copper-colored GE one shaped like a tea kettle. Born in the 1960s sometime, this plug-in clock—those were the only kinds back then—was a family clock for almost three decades. It wasn’t my family’s kitchen clock but a friend’s. But since time waits for no man and no woman, the clock ended up in my friend’s brother’s kitchen until the latter passed away. The family matriarch by that time—an older sister—was poised to give the clock—with its storied life—the old heave-ho. Fortunately, my friend intervened on my behalf. “Nicholas” was, after all, a collector of too many things to count and a nostalgia buff to boot. So, I inherited a spanking new vintage kitchen clock, which was approximately forty years old when it became mine, and it rather inconspicuously ran for another fifteen years, reliably and silently telling me the time of the day when called upon with no fanfare at all,

Honestly, I thought my kitchen clock would outlive me, just as it had so many others. Come on, it was a GE with an electrical plug no less, and every battery-operated clock that I’ve ever owned has ceased keeping the right time in a lot less time than sixty-five years. Sure, a Mr. Fix-It Guy probably could have repaired the thing and calmed it down for a spell, but I believe that it merited going gently into the night and not having its long life prolonged. I made the right decision and recycled it. When the time comes when I’m making such awful grinding sounds, I would want the plug pulled on me just like I did with my copper-colored tea kettle kitchen clock….

Sunday, October 18, 2015

The Inexcusables

While in the midst of a lengthy walk on a beautiful autumn morning yesterday, I spied an individual just ahead of me with two dogs. The canines were on separate leashes. Not the ubiquitous flexi-leads that so many people employ nowadays, but the old-fashioned nylon kind—both six feet in length. On each side of the concrete walkway that all of us traversed were crab grass and dusty dirt patches—doggie heavens for sure—and I immediately sensed a potential problem.

In the hilly terrain of the Bronx’s Riverdale neighborhood, leashed dogs ambling to and fro at will on a public sidewalk give me pause. You see, the pet parent of the two very contented pooches was lost in conversation on his cell phone, completely oblivious as to what his four-legged friends were up to. As I neared the threesome, the two canines were sniffing away with unrestrained abandon. They were, however, on one side of the walkway, giving me at least some room—albeit with no margin of error—to get by.

Bad karma, I believe, just wouldn’t permit me a smooth passage to other side. One of the great conversationalist’s dogs opted to bolt to the opposite side when I was a mere couple of steps away from them all, leaving—in effect—a public sidewalk cordoned off. Yellow crime scene tape blocking my way would have been a better alternative. At least it wouldn't have moved on a whim. Happily, I didn't trip and fall on my face. I tend to be on high alert for these situations. I have to be because they happen all the time in contemporary society, particularly in a big city like New York. Walking on the sidewalk can be hazardous to your health around here, just as crossing at the green can be.

An important footnote to this tale of one city is that the Man of the Hour—with the two dogs—profusely apologized, telling me in fact that his behavior was “inexcusable.” I didn’t ask for an apology or even lodge a complaint. Now that kind of absolute ownership of one’s inappropriate actions is quite rare in this me-me society of ours. I guess there really are happy endings on occasion.

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.