Tuesday, November 21, 2017

Random Thoughts at Thanksgiving Time

It’s that time of year again when so many of us say: I can’t believe it’s Thanksgiving already! Honestly, it did come quickly this go-round—incredibly so. The mystery of time accelerating deepens with each passing year. It also calls to my mind at least this Adam West Batman recitation to his trusty butler: “How little do we know of time, Alfred—a one-syllable word…a noun…yesterday’s laughter…tomorrow’s tears.” And, sadly, Adam West recently departed this earthly plain at the age of eighty-eight. How little do we know of time—indeed. For Adam West seemed eternally middle-aged—ever the man with the spot-on campy timing. Nobody could have delivered the How little do we know of time sermon like Adam West—nobody.

Speaking of time, I visited a local hospital’s emergency room this past week—not as a patient in this instance, but as someone offering moral support. Eleven years ago, I was in that same space as a patient. I can candidly say that being on the outside looking in is worlds apart from being on the inside looking out. Without my life on the line, I got to be more of an observer of the frenetic atmosphere that goes with the territory. Foremost, most of the people I encountered appeared to be there for non-life threatening matters. The worst cases were being tended to behind closed doors and curtains. An intern doctor did approach a woman within earshot of me to pose a couple of questions about her pressing medical concern. He asked, “Are you having trouble peeing?” and “Do you have a burning sensation when you pee?” I thought about a thing called medical privacy as I overheard the details—too much information—of this woman’s health problem.

With the pee queries on my brain, one thought led to another. First of all, I would have guessed a doctor would use the word “urinate” in lieu of “pee,” but then he could have substituted with “Number One.” And while on the subject of pee, urine, Number One—whatever floats your boat—I can’t get it out of mind when I watch old television westerns nowadays. Not a solitary soul ever has to take a pee or—heaven forbid—do a “Number Two.” I’ve been into the early seasons of Wagon Train starring Ward Bond and Robert Horton. Unlike Bonanza, this show was never in reruns during my youth. And while there are some good episodes therein, the uber-cleanliness strikes an off-putting chord with me. After binge-watching the likes of Deadwood and Hell on Wheels—with their foulness on full display—it’s hard not to notice when filth is in short supply where it most assuredly would be. It’s hard not to notice, too, when people are shot—and teetering on the brink between life and death in bed on a wagon train for a week or more—without needing a change in pants.

If it’s an otherwise quality script, I can suspend my disbelief for fifty minutes or so. Still, when I recently viewed an episode of Wagon Train where Major Adams, Flint McCullough, and others were seated on the ground and chained to a wall for a week in sub-freezing, snowy Sierra high country—and fed only one measly square a day—I couldn’t help but notice that not one of them looked worse for the wear. Their clothes were pressed and clean and—remarkably—no one needed a shave.

Well, it’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas. My local Rite Aid drug store annually plays host to a Christmas tree seller. The gang has set up shop and today had trees for sale for the first time. I think it’s the same bunch from a year ago—shifty characters who wouldn’t quote a price until the tree was fully opened. The bushier trees cost more. Yet the various tree stumps were height-colored.  Upright sellers price their trees according to height—period and end of story.

(Photos from the personal collection of Nicholas Nigro)

Monday, November 20, 2017

A Thanksgiving Story

While duly employed in another line of work more than two decades ago, my boss, Richie, 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, Richie nonetheless found something poignant at the spectacle of this married couple eating at Nathan's on Thanksgiving. After all, George and Sally were pleasant enough people 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, Richie 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 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 Richie’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 Richie, who hadn’t seen George in years, didn’t have the heart to say no. It was actually 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 Richie 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.

Sunday, November 12, 2017

A Thousand Words

The night before last broke the all-time low temperature record for November 11 in New York City. The hard freeze cast asunder the annualsbegonias, impatiens, et al.—and there were no survivors. Last year, the same plants survived into December. The year before that, they lived to celebrate Christmas. While this past month has seen dramatic temperature fluctuationsI even had my air conditioner running a couple of weeks agothere's been a whole lot more going on than weather. And one picture is worth a thousand words:
In the 1970s, a friend and neighbor of mine conceived the trailblazing idea of opening up a restaurant that sold salads and only salads. He encouraged one and all in his circle to brainstorm possible names for his business. The chosen one: Salad King. Runner-up: Land of a Thousand Salads. He never did open up that eatery, but made his fortune anyway—peddling pet food instead of salad.
This is a pricey infant and children's boutique in Manhattan's Chelsea neighborhood. If only I could have been a fly on the wall during their name brainstorming sessions.
Hopefully, the third time's the charm.
Manhattan hipsters be like: It's Saturday, let's go to the Bliss Bowl for brunch.
Manhattan hipsters be like: It's Sunday, let's go to the Motel Morris for brunch, even if it's not a motel.
From my "Never heard of it" file:  Kombucha.
New stand on the block.
Something for everyone: one-stop shopping.
See Jane do laundry.
"Night of the Stars" subway advertisement. One busted mylar balloon and counting.
Men from outer space or skywriting above my alma mater's deactivated nuclear power facility.
MTA cost-saving measure: Homework assignments for employees.
Subway terminal sign for MTA employees in desperate need of emergency eye wash.
View from the Henry Hudson Parkway this week of the Sun, which is expected to one day expand into a red giant star and swallow Earth. The scientific time table is billions of years, but perhaps now is as good a time as any.
"Somebody done lost somethin'."
I believe that a hot dog vendor is only as clean as his umbrella.
Now the children try to find it and they can't believe their eyes. Yes, there used to be a hospital right here.
If one is going to be a seagull in New York City, the harbor sure beats a Stop & Shop parking lot in the Bronx.
Now these brainstormers got it right.
There is nothing so beautiful as a sexy pizza.
I sat on a rare blue seat today—akin to finding a four-leaf clover on the Number 1 train—traveling downtown into Manhattan. I sit in the first car going down and last car on the return trip to the Bronx. The blue seat was there for me both times. Same train. So, the last will be first. But on a New York City subway: the first will be last, too.

(Photos from the personal collection of Nicholas Nigro)

Monday, November 6, 2017

Russian Interference

Fear not: This essay hasn’t anything to do with the Robert Mueller investigation. It’s about an encounter I had last week in Van Cortlandt Park. Minding my own business, I was sitting on a bench that overlooks the El on nearby Broadway. The morning in question was on the breezy side but pleasant—ideal fall weather to be left alone with my thoughts and the super-loud subway horns repeatedly blowing in the distance. This is the norm when track workers are in the vicinity of Number 1 trains preparing to exit and enter the terminal at W242nd.

It being a weekday with schools in session, the park was rather empty. In other words, there were plenty of unoccupied benches from which to choose. So, when I spotted a tall, elderly man—not ancient by any means and walking with a spring in his step—heading my way, I prepared for the worst. He had a look on his face that told me he was preparing to sit for a spell—and right beside me. I understand the mind-set: A senior citizen feels compelled to sound off and needs an audience of at least one. And like it or not, I was that one—the chosen one—in this instance.

Now, here’s who gave me an earful: a Russian refugee suffering from diabetes who came to America fifteen years ago and settled in the neighborhood. Right off the bat, he wanted to know if I was a native born American and wondered if I had ever heard of the Soviet Union. The old fellow must have mistaken me for a Millennial or some such thing. I remember the USSR, all right, and the Cold War, too. I came of age with both prominent on the radar. My newfound friend waxed nostalgic about the nation of his birth and what he deemed its “moral code.” Gorbachev and Yeltsin, he said, were responsible for chaos—mostly—which is what made him a man without a country. As a footnote to his naming names, he conceded that Josef Stalin was something of a monster, but, come on, the guy also “built Russia.”

The rambling Russian was far from finished. He informed me that he was now an American patriot, despite finding great fault with our penchant for military adventures and haughty boasts of “exceptionalism.” On the other hand, the man thinks very highly of American domestic policies, although he wasn’t the least bit specific on this count. In the midst of his extended sermon—I didn’t get a chance to say much—he inquired if anything he had thus far said offended me. “No,” I answered, which was the truth. With respect to benign, affable ramblers, I don’t offend easily.

In retrospect, the most offensive thing the man probably said to me was that he voted for Donald Trump. His friends, he reported, thought he had taken leave of his senses. But this former denizen of the Soviet Union had attended a university in the old country—when all that good stuff was taken care of by the totalitarian nanny state—and made an intellectual argument for his vote. Since he didn’t have the greatest command of the English language, I can’t really say how he came to his decision to throw in with the Orange Man. The voluble Russian merely wanted to “make America great again” and “drain the swamp.” Don’t we all. One last thing, my park bench companion let a lot of saliva fly as he spoke. Fortunately, I was far enough away from these missiles of October. And just as quickly as he crashed my space, he departed. I was prepared to shake his hand, but I suppose it’s not in the Russian playbook.

(Photos from the personal collection of Nicholas Nigro)  

Monday, October 30, 2017

You Can’t Go Home Again

A week ago Sunday, I stopped at a street food cart in Battery Park City. It is one that I had passed by multiple times and often contemplated patronizing. In the end, though, I always concluded that I didn’t particularly like what was on the menu. Still, there was this curious and powerful pull at work—a byproduct of my boyhood, I think, when those hot dogs and crinkle-cut French fries had unmistakable allure. 

The cart in question serves up Nathan’s famous frankfurters, since 1916, and their very deep fried potatoes. When I was a youth, there was a big Nathan’s restaurant on Central Park Avenue in Yonkers. It was about a fifteen-minute drive from my front door in the Bronx. I fondly remember consuming their dogs and fries on an outside picnic table. My kid-friendly stomach never failed to appreciate franks and fried anything by the side of the road. It is not the case anymore.

Anyway, I threw caution to the wind last week and purchased two hot dogs—plain—and an order of crinkle-cut fries. I don’t use any condiments, except ketchup occasionally on my French fries. That’s something that has remained constant in my life. The picture menu on the outside of the cart included numerous condiment possibilities for the wieners, including sauerkraut, cheese, and chili. The crinkle-cuts, too, could be topped with melted cheese, bacon bits, or chili. Suffice it to say, my contemporary stomach couldn’t stomach any such additions.

Interestingly, I never really liked Nathan’s packaged hot dogs from the supermarket. I found they had a disagreeable crunch and left a strong garlicky aftertaste. But I boiled them at home. That’s not quite the same as putting them on a griddle en masse, where they commingle with one another and tan an appealing black-brown. The frankfurter, for me, was a thing I relished in the fresh air at baseball games, cookouts, and from street wagons. Home cooking of them was—more often than not—a strikeout.

I guess I hoped to reclaim a glimmer of my youthful appreciation of things no longer appreciated. Mission accomplished? Not quite. The franks tasted very, very salty, but the crunch didn’t turn me off as they typically did in the cozy confines of home. It was the crinkle-cut French fries that pushed me over the limit, I believe, reminding me once more that you can’t go home again. The squirrels and sparrows, who got the lion’s share of them, enjoyed the greasy potatoes a lot more than me. The bottle of lukewarm water that I washed them down with proved to be my only salvation.

Next time, I vowed to call on a smoothie seller, which are now competing in earnest with the hot dog and pretzel mob. But less than a week later—on Saturday—when I passed by a fellow selling every imaginable smoothie drink, I didn’t stop. I had skipped breakfast and was too hungry to settle for a mysterious fruit cocktail. For some inexplicable reason, though, I couldn’t get past the previous week’s salty hot dog experience. They were on my mind as I wondered what eating a couple of them would be like sans the unnecessary complication of uber-greasy French fries. And so I got up for Round Two. My conclusion: I’d eat Nathan’s franks in the future. They are certainly a giant step above their main competitor on the street: Sabrett. But I fully accept that Nathan’s famous fare will never taste like it did forty years ago on that picnic table down wind of a heavily trafficked thoroughfare.

(Photographs from the personal collection of Nicholas Nigro)

Sunday, October 29, 2017

Harvey Is a Funny Name

Fifteen years ago this past May, I was in the same room with Harvey Weinstein. Nothing untoward happened—at least not to me. Weinstein was presiding over BookExpo America’s festive opening night at the Jacob K. Javits Center in Manhattan’s Hell’s Kitchen, which—take my word for it—isn’t your grandfather’s Hell’s Kitchen anymore. His Miramax publishing imprint had recently landed a really, really big fish, Rudy Giuliani, who was under contract to write a book called Leadership. Still sporting his well-earned 9/11 halo, Rudy was something of a rock star at the time.

In late May 2002, Giuliani had been out of office for nearly five months. He was, though, still looked upon as “America’s Mayor,” an elected official who somehow transcended petty partisan politics. It was a distinctive but very fleeting snapshot in time that sadly didn’t have legs. That night at the Javits Center, incredible good will reigned supreme along with the heavy security presence of the post-9/11 world we now lived in. Weinstein heaped praise on Rudy for bringing people together in the most horrific of circumstances. The rotund Hollywood mogul also made clear that he was a liberal Democrat in good standing—but one who nonetheless revered Rudy Giuliani for his leadership in the wake of the 9/11 attacks.

Ah, but that was then and this is now. What I remember most about then was how exciting the BookExpo was. I had received a complimentary “Exhibitor Author” pass from my very first publisher—Adam’s Media—to attend the extravaganza, which included the aforementioned opening night followed by four full days of fun, frolic, and freebies. My friend—a fellow Adams Media author—and I attended all four days of the affair, including commingling with the big shots at Weinstein’s shindig. After Rudy Giuliani’s inspirational address to the assembled that evening, free-flowing wine, beer, and hors d’oeuvres was ours for the taking. Long lines quickly materialized around the fare, however, and I wasn’t one to fight tooth and nail to get at it, even if it was on the house.

In those days of yore, publishers were a whole lot more generous than they are today. My free pass—as the author of The Everything Collectibles Book—meant I could attend the publisher’s booth party on day three of the BookExpo. Free wine, beer, and munchies—again—but this time I didn’t have to cross swords for a swallow. But all good things come with a price attached to them. In the party’s aftermath—on my subway trip back home—I found myself contemplating things I’d never contemplated before, like relieving myself between cars or actually getting off and using a station’s facilities. Most New York City subway stations, by the way, have no public restrooms, or they are locked up for good reason. So, the facilities I had in mind meant taking a page out of—as the British might say—the “rough sleepers” handbook.

The happy ending is that I made it home without resorting to a nuclear option. No such happy endings for the other protagonists in this tale of mine: Harvey and Rudy. In fact, the latter did everything he could do to destroy his non-partisan sheen during a subsequent run for the Republican presidential nomination and—more recently—in his bug-eyed, foaming-at-the-mouth shilling for Donald Trump, the Ernest T. Bass man-child elected president. I sincerely wish Rudy would have gone out on a 9/11 high note, but super-ambitious politicians like him never can rest on their laurels.

As for Harvey Weinstein, it’s impossible for me to understand his kind of mindset. How could he act like he did for so long and get away with it? Enablers! It would appear they come in all stripes and all political ideologies. Weinstein had his sanctimonious left-wing Hollywood elite overlooking his beastly behaviors, just as conservative Bill O’Reilly, who was always looking out “for the folks,” had his right-wing family values crowd giving him a pass. It is said that character is destiny. Hopefully, these pathetic excuses for men—and their ilk—have not lived in vain and there will be fewer of them to contend with in the future.

(Photos from the personal collection of Nicholas Nigro)

Tuesday, October 17, 2017

A Picture Book to Remember Her By, Second Edition

An eclectic hodgepodge of October to October snapshots, Part II:
Ordering home fries is akin to ordering minestrone soup. You just never know what's coming.

Old meets new on the New York City subway.
There are Sicilians like Don Corleone and Sicilians like Broadway Joe's.
One of the better behaved passengers that I have encountered in my underground travels.
I've dined with a man who actually puts salt on his corned beef hash.
Hope typically springs eternal, but didn't this year.
Skimping on the sausage...
No review forthcoming: pizza from a street vendor.
A two-seater...
Forty years ago, "Vanny" was the place to "hit some out."
I see these "Foodliner" trucks all the time and wonder what they're carrying and where they're headed.
Life metaphor: It's one way to the end of the line.
This station was completely under water in the aftermath of Superstorm Sandy.
"Diffrent" strokes for the "Any Time is The Food time" crowd.
The breakfast of high blood pressure champions.
Give me Liberty Halal Food or give me death...not.
Police story...
Go South, young flagman...
My eyes first thought they saw a car leaking gas and not a fire hydrant spewing water.

(Photos from the personal collection of Nicholas Nigro)