Sunday, February 22, 2015

Mr. Marshmallow Head and the Catnapping of the Century

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, February 12, 2015

The Life of Brian

Like so many people in the here and now, I no longer watch a network newscast. I grew up with the likes of Walter Cronkite, John Chancellor, and Harry Reasoner as news anchors. It seemed for a long spell in the 1980s, 1990s, and into the new millennium that network news meant Dan Rather, Tom Brokaw, Peter Jennings, and nobody else. Whether it was real or imaginary, these network news anchors of the past had a certain gravitas that is sorely lacking now.

My oldest memory vis-à-vis the network news is watching the Huntley-Brinkley Report in my grandmother’s living room. She lived only a flight of stairs away, directly below me as a matter of fact, and had a color television set when most people still had black-and-white TVs. It used to take a while to warm up, and you actually had to get up from the chair or sofa to change channels, which then amounted to about a dozen in total.


My brothers and I would “go downstairs” every night to watch television and especially enjoy whatever was presented in “living color” in living color. It was a familiar and comforting ritual and I recall on occasion gearing up for an evening of prime time TV watching while NBC’s Huntley-Brinkley Report neared its denouement. Of course, the Chet Huntley-David Brinkley sign off had not only taken on a life of its own but become the stuff of legend: “Good night, Chet…Good night, David…and Goodnight from NBC News.” Huntley was stationed in New York and Brinkley, in Washington, D.C., and rarely saw one another in the flesh. They weren’t best buddies, either.


As a little boy, Huntley, Brinkley, et al—and the news they reported—seemed so much larger and so far, far removed from me. Of course, when I was six years old, the summer of 1968 meant playing with a spaldeen by day and catching lightning bugs by night. Can’t say that I gave much thought to the Vietnam War, political assassinations, and rioting in streets, even when reported by Cronkite, Huntley, and Brinkley.

Times have certainly changed. For starters, I’m not six years old anymore. The network news and its anchors no longer mesmerize me. In fact, I rarely watched Brian Williams on his show. I probably saw more of him giving interviews to others. It boggles my mind that I guy in his position could tell such an overt lie to bolster his image as an intrepid reporter who is ever willing to put himself in harm’s way and, of course, to inflate the ratings of NBC Nightly News in what is now a dog-eat-dog business.

To disseminate such a tall tale—when so many people who were there knew it wasn’t true—doesn’t seem like such a smart move either. Sooner or later you are going to be ratted out. And I’m not one who enjoys seeing people’s careers go down the tube for a verbal faux pas or one mistake in judgment. I believe we should all be judged by the totality of what we’ve been and what we’ve done. Political correctness is running amok and more insidious than ever. However, considering Brian Williams’ anchor position, I don’t see how he could ever get past this big fib—and it might even be a pattern—to be trusted and believed again. I’m sure Brian will land some other position in the news business where he won’t have to worry about coming down with dysentery. He’s at the very least earned that small comfort. Granted, he might have to take a cut in pay. 

Thursday, January 29, 2015

Boom...There Goes the Dynamints

For many years, family excursions from the Bronx to Bangor, Pennsylvania—to visit my maternal grandparents—found all concerned on the wending Richmond Road, which zigzagged through sleepy, picturesque farmland with barns, silos full of corn, and—a personal favorite of mine—algae-strewn ponds. This enticing visual was the last leg of our journey from urban to rural, and I remember being especially captivated by one pond in particular. Sure, I liked the one with the white ducks in it and the abandoned yellow school bus filling in the backdrop. But the pond with the diving board alongside it had a special allure. I often wondered what it would be like to dive into that muddy-looking drink with those ubiquitous dragonflies and mosquitoes hovering all around it. I wondered, too, how deep the thing was and how a person might extricate himself from its mysterious muck. My youthful flights of fancy imagined the pond’s floor was possibly quicksand.

On this very same pastoral thoroughfare, at the intersection of the intriguingly named Ott’s Corner, was also a bona fide “general store”—the Richmond General Store to be exact—replete with a couple of gas pumps out front, a pay telephone, and a Coca-Cola soda cooler. It was a residence that doubled as retail space. From our city perspective, this was Ike Godsey’s place in the bright light of day. My brothers and I perpetually pined to stop there, but my father—ever suffering from driver’s fatigue and an unquenchable desire to get to his destination toot sweet—regularly ignored our entreaties. Then one day on a return trip to the Bronx, he—for some inexplicable reason—relented. We finally stopped at the general store and purchased—of all things—a couple of packs of Dynamints. They were Tic Tac candy rip-offs that were stocked at the time by the Richmond General Store. In the big picture, though, we got a whole lot more than Dynamints, as we entered the general store to the jingling bells, which alerted the proprietor that customers were on the premises. From a back room, a very sweet, elderly woman in her nightgown emerged to transact with us and make change for our hefty purchase. Having at last patronized a real country general store—one that we had had our eyes on for a long time—it was a morning to remember.

Alas, this general store is no more. The last time we passed by it was a house—and just a house—again. The gas pumps, pay telephone, and soda machine were a memory as well. Locals, I suspect, no longer need a general store anymore. Dynamints, too, haven’t stood the test of time, but I’m certainly glad that we interrupted a kindly businesswoman’s morning "cup a Joe" to buy a couple of packs of them all those years ago.

Saturday, January 24, 2015

What's Fare Is Fare...

So, the fare for a New York City bus or subway ride is going up to $2.75 this March. And it appears, too, that the going rate for another popular fare in these parts—a slice of pizza—is that very sum or close to it. For some inexplicable reason these two decidedly unrelated things—one a service and the other a favorite fast-food staple—have been inextricably linked for quite a long time.

Recently, I unearthed a newspaper article in my overflowing archives—dated 1992—from The Riverdale Press, a local Bronx newspaper. I had saved this piece of ephemera—a review of the area’s pizzerias—for a reason, probably because I was a renowned pizza-holic who had sampled most of the neighborhood shops, but had a special attachment to one in particular. Naturally, I was surprised at my preferred pizzeria’s somewhat poor rating of just two slices (out of five maximum), although by the 1990s its quality was—I will concede—a bit inconsistent. I was curious, nonetheless, to ascertain whether or not the price of transit ride corresponded with the going rate of slice of pizza that year. I wanted to know if this pizza connection of mine had historical legs. Not too long ago, an individual on Facebook remembered when the price of a New York City slice of pizza was just .15, which, coincidentally, was the cost of a bus or subway ride at the time. Now, I can recall pizza as low as .35 a slice—in the early to mid-1970s—that, interestingly enough, corresponded to the day’s bus and subway fare.

Anyway, this neighborhood newspaper pizza review noted the cost of a slice in the various places surveyed as anywhere between $1.30 and $1.40. The 1992 bus and subway fare was $1.25—close enough to establish the fare and fare conjoining through time.

It should be noted that while New York City bus and subway service has gotten measurably better through the years—particularly the latter—the pizza slice has gotten considerably slighter. That is, courtesy of the costs of cheese and tomato sauce—and every other foodstuff for that matter coupled with criminally high cost of doing business—the ubiquitous slice of pizza’s mass has suffered. If not in taste then definitely in size, the slice of pizza isn’t what it used to be around here. And size matters.

When Luigi—who bore a striking resemblance to Lurch—of Luigi’s Pizzeria tossed his dough into the heavens, one definitely got more for his or her money. And, at the end of the day, Luigi no doubt made more dough, too. It was the end of an era for sure—the 1990s—when Italian immigrants from Italy still owned a New York City pizzeria or two. But then, a Greek man, who made a full-bodied and tasty pizza slice whose likes will never be sampled again—certainly not at a price that shadows the transit fare—owned and operated my pizza place of record. The slice of the past: Rest in Pizza.

Saturday, January 17, 2015

Nothing and Something

As a gift for her seventy-fifth birthday, I presented my maternal grandmother with “The Nothing Book.” In 1980, this hardcover tome, with its dust jacket and multi-colored interior pages, was a real novelty. Actually, it was little more than a blank journal. What would ultimately make it a “gift to remember” were the words eventually written in it.

I came across that very “Nothing Book” recently—it’s in my possession again—and perused my grandmother’s scribbling therein. She was a positive person—thoughtful and empathetic always—and her writings reflect that. My grandmother wasn’t about to use a diary, as it were, to trash anybody, even if some were deserving of trashing. Rather, she chronicled events, reflected an awful lot on the passage of time, and expressed gratitude for her family and friends in what were the last years of her life.

There was one notable exception to her mostly upbeat and often philosophical musings on her life and times. It involved a certain landlord. When this individual appeared in my grandmother's life, she had been living in the same house in Bangor, Pennsylvania for thirty-six years. She first moved into the place when there wasn’t a functioning indoor toilet, but just an outhouse in the backyard, which my mother remembers not especially fondly. 

It was, in fact, the only residence of hers that I ever knew, although it had a workable bathroom by then (but only a tub and no shower). This cozy abode on Miller Street with its grassy backyard, and dirty black walnut tree hovering above it, had a slate tiles pathway leading to its back porch. I must concede that her Bronx-born grandsons periodically tore up the yard in the summertime with our wiffle ball games. I recall slicing off one of my grandmother’s potted geranium flowers with a searing line drive and hoping that she wouldn’t notice. We even pitched a pup tent in the backyard and killed off some of her grass in the process. Actually, without exception, my grandmother tolerated our passion of youth when visiting—from our uber-urban perspective—the country. Notwithstanding the Bangor summers’ ubiquitous and infuriating gnats, it was a Shangri-La. For a spell as a boy, I even envisioned living there in my adulthood. The Bronx versus Bangor....

Anyway, something that both the urban and rural had in common—much to my grandmother’s surprise and despair—were awful landlords. She notes in the aforementioned “Nothing Book,” a particular “unsavory character”—one that she subsequently dubbed a “horrible character.” Said character bought the house she lived in—and leased—for thirty-six years, most of the time with my grandfather, who had died a couple of years earlier, at her side. 

The house was owned by a kindly gentleman—whose mother, in fact, lived just across the street—and he kept the rent stable and affordable for decades. In other words, he wasn’t in it for the money, although he no doubt made a small profit. But then along came this particular fellow—this character—who purchased the place upon the previous owner’s passing. He—who shall remain nameless—viewed real estate as a moneymaker and moneymaker only. Real life people be damned. Yes, even in bucolic Bangor in the state’s leafy Slate Belt, where the folks always seemed a bit kinder and gentler to me—generally speaking—than their counterparts in the Bronx, there were bad apples. And some three decades later, I see that my late-grandmother’s former landlord is still making waves—and lots of enemies—in the town he still calls home.

Friday, January 2, 2015

When the Cuo-mobile Came to Kingsbridge Town...

It was the summer of 1977. I was fourteen years old at the time and keenly interested in politics. Not issues per se—what does a kid know about such things anyway—but the political theater. I’d been collecting political buttons, too, since the acquisition of my very first—a small blue and red “Nixon for President” pin-back—when I was just six.

There was a hotly contested New York City mayoral race raging back then, and I was enthusiastically tuned into the spectacle. As Mayor Abe Beame endeavored to win a second term after a rather unimpressive first, including coming perilously close to the city under his charge declaring bankruptcy, political keepsakes were ubiquitous as well. (I came away from that campaign with political ephemera galore. The posters alone that I plucked from telephone polls included Mario Cuomo, Ed Koch, Bella Abzug, Herman Badillo, Percy Sutton, and, too, Republican candidates Roy Goodman and Barry Farber.)

A lot of people wanted Beame’s job that summer. Congresswoman Bella Abzug was christened the early front-runner. She was nationally known and as vociferous as they come. Viscerally, the youthful me couldn’t stand her. In mayoral debates, which included eventual winner Ed Koch and runner-up Mario Cuomo, Bella lived up to her bellicose reputation. She badgered Mario Cuomo in one encounter for having already accepted the Liberal party nomination for the general election, while still contesting the Democratic party nomination. Bella wanted an answer as to how Cuomo—who had never been a member of the Liberal party—could accept such a deal. (He was considered Governor Carey’s handpicked candidate to replace the diminutive and ineffectual Beame.) “I’d like to have an answer,” she said over and over and over, cutting off Cuomo time and again as he attempted to do what she asked. “Well, when you close your mouth, I’ll answer!” he finally—and very loudly—exclaimed in exasperation. The debate’s live audience, in chorus, emitted an appropriately shocked but nevertheless highly entertained gasp.

Politics was a whole lot more honest back then. And nobody was more genuine to me than Mario Cuomo that summer. When he visited my neighborhood—Kingsbridge in the Bronx—on his Cuo-mobile, the fourteen-year-old me was in attendance, hoping to both see the candidate in person and pick up some campaign spoils, which I did. And there he was in the flesh, looking an awful lot like relations on my father’s side of the family. With his shirtsleeves rolled up, Cuomo spoke of his plans for the city, which was in pretty bad shape all around, although I didn’t seem to notice. I loved the 1970s—high crime, graffiti, and dirty streets notwithstanding.

When a local took exception to the candidate’s stance on capital punishment and attempted to heckle Cuomo into submission, he got more than he bargained for. Mario Cuomo climbed down from his Cuo-mobile and spoke face-to-face with the heckler in question. The cowed fellow was suddenly, and without warning, in a civilized conversation—candidate and constituent now reasoning with one another. Why was the death penalty even an issue in a mayoral race? Because one of Cuomo’s opponent, Ed Koch, had made it so to win over as many crime-weary voters as he could.

Unfortunately, from my youthful perspective, the good guys lost in 1977. A couple of years later, Mario Cuomo—having been elected lieutenant governor of New York State—visited my high school in the East Bronx. Thoughtful and poetic in his remarks, he was nonetheless confronted with a tough question from a classmate of mine, an unkempt genius of a kid who sketched Rubik-type cubes to pass the time. Boy Einstein wondered how a practicing Catholic politician could publicly support abortion on demand. He essentially accused this pubic servant of engaging in a form of sophistry—i.e., saying that he accepts the church’s teaching that abortion is murder but doing nothing about in practical reality because, he says, he has no business doing so. Cuomo, as I recall, gave his usual eloquent retort, a tribute to his intellect and, too, to the Catholic high school that I attended, which—at least back then—celebrated differences of opinion and welcomed free-flowing give-and-takes.

Mario Cuomo may have, in the end, been a better philosopher than politician, but he was a man of principle. Unlike the petty man who defeated him in the Democratic party primary for mayor in 1977—the same man whom Cuomo defeated in the Democratic party primary for governor of New York State in 1982—he exhibited both sophistication and heart, which are in short supply nowadays among the political ruling class. Mario Cuomo will definitely be missed.

Sunday, December 21, 2014

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 the 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 as 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 that our class was preparing to venture down to Radio City Music Hall in Manhattan via the subway, the Number One train, 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.


Sunday, December 7, 2014

RIP Sleepy Eyes' Sister

I just learned that an old woman from the old neighborhood passed away. I was told that she had lived with her family in the Bronx’s Kingsbridge for almost three-quarters of a century. At one time both a mother and father lorded over a brood of five children. Seeing as the decedent was just shy of ninety years of age—and the youngest among her siblings—you can imagine that there aren’t too many of them left. Only one sister, in fact, remains on this earthly plane, and she is in a nursing home.

Such is the march of time—out with the old and in with the new. However, this large family of three boys and two girls avoided tying the knot altogether. Not a single one of them married and had children of their own. I’m certain there were layered reasons for this life course, particularly in a time when dysfunctional families—what family isn’t?—were more prone to live under the same roof come hell or high water; when men went off to war, too, returned home, and sometimes had to permanently anesthetize themselves to forget all that they experienced.

I really don’t recall anything about this particular family, who lived only a couple of blocks away from me while I was growing up, so I don’t have a clue what their unique life circumstances were, and why they chose to live the lives that they did. I didn’t even know their last name until a couple of days ago. Turns out that it was—from my perspective at least—an unusual one and synonymous with the words “acne” and “pimple.” I actually feel a certain loss that I wasn’t aware of their surname in my spry and enthusiastic youth, because I’m certain that it would have entertained me on some higher level. It would have been a perfect last name to affix to a character in a work of fiction.

In light of this woman’s passing, I was asked if I remembered one of her brothers, who was known in some neighborhood circles by the moniker “Sleepy Eyes.” There was a surfeit of oddball characters in the old neighborhood, many of who were branded with clandestine nicknames—for identification purposes only. Still, I didn’t recollect the man as so branded, so I’m left to conclude that said branding occurred before my time. I heard, too, that old “Sleepy Eyes” liked his drink, and was often seen venturing to, or coming from, one of the neighborhood’s many watering holes.

Light bulb above the head moment: I recalled a fellow who frequently walked by my house when I was a boy—a man who I also remember lived in the vicinity of where this family called home for the better part of a century. While little me didn’t know him as “Sleepy Eyes,” his unique visage gave him nonetheless a certain star appeal in the pantheon of intriguing neighborhood characters. He had a rather large head, distinctive bulbous nose and assorted zits of the permanent variety. And—if this man was indeed “Sleepy Eyes”—this latter affliction was most apropos considering his curious last name.

When I described this craggy sort—and equally craggy memory—to someone in the know, it was confirmed that he was one and the same: “Sleepy Eyes.” With a little Internet detective work on my part, I discovered that his name was George and that he passed away in 1980, which would have been just about right. While he was a guy that roamed the neighborhood for many years before my time, getting noticed as a bona fide character by the star struck me was definitely in the colorful 1970s. I never knew that he died because I didn’t know who he was. Just like that, “Sleepy Eyes” never walked by my house again, which is life in a nutshell. In trying to paint a mental picture of him in my mind all these years later, I’d say that he looked a lot like character actor Kenneth Tobey, minus, of course, the orange Irishness. The end of an era for sure. RIP "Sleepy Eyes'" sister and "Sleepy Eyes" thirty-four years later.

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

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.

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

If Tom Seaver Is Seventy...

A couple of days ago, Tom Seaver celebrated his seventieth birthday. And, really, if he’s turned the big 7-0—and become a septuagenarian—I, too, must be getting a little long in the tooth. As a wide-eyed Mets fan in the colorful 1970s, “Tom Terrific,” as he was affectionately known, was my favorite player bar none. Games where he took the mound assumed a little extra meaning to me, because I constantly fretted over his won and loss record and earned run average. I remember a boyhood friend—and fellow Seaver aficionado—and I commiserating over a tough loss in which our idol gave up four whole runs. “Do you know what that’s going to do to his E.R.A.?” he asked with genuine concern in his voice. Yes, back in those days, four runs scored against our ace pitcher—and future Hall of Famer—was a very bad outing indeed.

As a boy, I didn’t give much thought to how much Tom Seaver meant to me. Although he was larger than life from my youthful perspective, I didn’t christen him my “hero” or any such “official” thing. I didn’t conclude that I wanted to grow up and be a Major League pitcher like him. And although I would have loved to have been his next-door neighbor, I didn’t dream of living in Greenwich, Connecticut—the tony town he called home—either.

Nevertheless, I proudly wore his number “41” on the back of my “Property of the New York Mets” gray T-shirt, and I felt genuine disgust when a pal of mine—who didn’t even follow baseball, let alone revere Tom Seaver—donned a similar shirt. As the neighborhood’s most dedicated Tom Seaver disciple—it was by and large a Bronx neighborhood full of Yankee fans—I didn’t appreciate my uniqueness being challenged. And challenged by a non-believer making a fashion statement no less! (Major League Baseball merchandising was pretty primitive back then. “Property of” tees were the rage and, as I recall, that was the long and short of it.)

Anyway, Tom Seaver is seventy and there is no turning back the clock. Three thousand miles away from where he once so magnificently plied his trade, Shea Stadium—which is, alas, no more—the baseball great grows grapes for his own wine label. No too long ago, Tom Seaver was pretty sick and diagnosed with Lyme disease. Its symptoms led some to suspect that the man they called “The Franchise” might be in the early throes of dementia. Now that was a scary thought! Happily, he’s of sound mind. When all is said and done, though, I suspect that he really was my hero—and the only one I ever had.

I realize that Tom Seaver has something of a reputation for being haughty and a bit full of himself. He doesn’t always appreciate his loyal fans, which isn’t an admirable quality. But then again, he’s got ample reasons to be impressed with his accomplishments in baseball. The man was the consummate professional in an era when one could respect, above all else, on-the-field performances and not be hopelessly distracted by the endless sideshows that accompany contemporary sports and sports figures. Today, athletes are very often multi-millionaire celebrities—spoiled and overexposed. When Tom Seaver and I were younger, the world we simultaneously cohabited was a whole lot different place than the current one. Great pitching mechanics and a fastball with movement and snap, crackle, pop were the stuff of heroes.


Friday, October 31, 2014

Halloween and the Day After...

Growing up in the late 1960s and early 1970s in the Bronx, I appreciated a particular benefit of being educated in a Catholic grammar school. We always had the day off after Halloween. Knowing that we didn’t have to rise and shine the next morning and venture to a neighborhood institution of fine learning made poring over our trick-or-treating spoils all the more enjoyable. When November 1 came on a weekday, it was simultaneously a school holiday and “Holy Day of Obligation.” Alas, we were expected to attend mass or suffer the consequences: a sinful demerit that could only be expunged by admitting the transgression to a priest in the shadowy confines of the confessional booth. Still, I concluded, it was a small price to pay for a day off from school.

I remember November 1 as All Saints’ Day followed by All Souls’ Day on the 2nd . I see that November 1 has received a “Holy Day of Obligation” downgrade of sorts, which would have made me very happy as a boy. That is, if All Saints’ Day comes on a Saturday or a Monday, church attendance is not required. Worse case scenario was, in fact, the day falling on a Saturday or a Monday, with the former being worst of all. November 1 on a Saturday amounted to the calendar both gypping us of a school holiday and requiring us to attend mass two days in a row—Saturday and Sunday. 

We used to come home from school on Halloween day, quickly change into our costumes, and hit the streets. Time was of the essence. In the late 1960s and early 1970s, two hours or so worth of trick-or-treating was enough to generate an ample-sized confectionery booty. It was a different time when most people actually answered their doors with candy at their disposal. Nowadays, in the same geographical locale, the majority of homeowners aren’t in a giving mood, and more of them than ever are not even home. They’re still on the job. Nevertheless, Halloween has become something of a hip holiday it seems, with decorative trappings associated with it that were unheard of back in the day. There was no such thing as Halloween lights when I was a kid. Lights were red and green and for Christmas—never a pumpkin-orange. Halloween decorations were carved out pumpkins—Jack O’ Lanterns with lighted candles in them--and faux witches on brooms.

There’s still plenty of street trick-or-treating going on these days, I see, but it’s largely under the supervision of parents, which is understandable considering the times. Forty years ago, though, we just went door-to-door—mostly unsupervised by adults—and returned shortly after dark with our spoils. And there was mischief aplenty in the air. I came perilously close to getting struck in the head with a wayward light bulb thrown from on high during my trick-or-treating rounds. The streets were always paved with eggs on All Saints' Day. Also, Day Light Savings Time was a month earlier then, so our trick-or-treating window was narrower. Still, the abiding experience seemed more organic and more exciting than what I see today, where everything is highly choreographed—entirely too scripted to know what it was like to go trick-or-treating when it was trick-or-treating.

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

A Day in the Life...

I called on the New York State Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) today to renew a driver’s license. Based on both past experiences and the bureaucracy’s somewhat notorious reputation, I understandably was not looking forward to the adventure. Where I call home afforded me a variety of choices as to where to fulfill this life necessity. I could have ventured up to the DMV in Yonkers, just past the New York City line, and closer to my hometown Bronx’s alternative on Fordham Road, which I could have also accessed via a twenty-minute bus ride—give or take a few minutes.

I journeyed instead into Manhattan, calling upon the License Express on 30th Street near Fifth Avenue. So, even if it took me a little more time—via a subway ride and a several block walk—it was a wise move on my part. Who ever heard of getting one’s business sorted out in a DMV office in under a half hour? The times are a-changin’ and this is an instance of changin’ for the better.

In my travels this morning en route to the DMV, I encountered an elderly man—a face, really, that somehow got into mine for one brief shining moment. Our eyes met. “I know that guy,” I said to myself. “Yes, that’s Joe Franklin…I think…a New York City radio institution.” To verify my sighting, I Googled him as soon as I got home and, happily, learned that he’s still among the living at the ripe old age of eighty-eight years.

On my subway ride home—with just about everyone in the car preoccupied with his or her iPhone—a religious zealot touted the importance of reading the Bible and preparing for eternal life in either Heaven or Hell. He phonetically spelled out the word Bible, too—B-I-B-L-E—so that there would be no misunderstanding. He, though, wasn’t asking for any money and just wanted to save subway straphangers’ souls. A little while later, somebody who was asking for spare change materialized. And he said that he’d just gotten out of Riker’s Island, a well-known jail complex in these parts, and was valiantly trying to get his new life in order, starting with getting his clothes cleaned. I would have given him something, but it was too difficult for me to access the change in my pocket while seated uncomfortably and scrunched beside a heavyset man with an umbrella and halitosis. Alas, this troubled young man came up empty, which made me feel kind of bad because maybe he was telling the truth. My unsolicited advice to him in future subway appearances is to work with some sort of money receptacle, because handing over cash and coins to the actual hands of those with a hand out, as it were, is an extra and unnecessary hurdle to maximizing the bottom line.

Friday, October 10, 2014

Forty-One Years Ago...

Forty-one years ago today, October 10, 1973, the New York Mets defeated Cincinnati's Big Red Machine in the National League playoffs at Shea Stadium. My beloved Mets were the underdogs to put it mildly—the team that sent Pete Rose and company home for the winter. What I wouldn’t give to relive that day in, of course, my eleven-year-old body taking directives from my eleven-year-old psyche. The passion of youth made that day oh-so-special with my boyhood idol, Tom Seaver, on the mound and getting the win, and “Ya Gotta Believe” Tug McGraw coming in the ninth inning to douse the fire and record the save.

Sitting in the living room and watching the game on my family’s sole black-and-white TV, I won’t soon forget legendary Mets’ announcer Lindsey Nelson’s call of the game’s final out, and how he animatedly repeated three times: “The New York Mets have won the pennant…The New York Mets have won the pennant…The New York Mets have won the pennant.” He then described the “wild scene at Shea Stadium” as fans stormed onto the field in what was an era—to say the least—of lax crowd control. The wild bunch ripped the field to shreds and frightened Mets’ and Reds’ players alike, who hurried as fast as they could off the field. Fortunately, stadium groundskeepers had a full week to get it back in shape for the World Series.

With the convoluted and uber-expensive television rights that define today’s professional sports, it’s worth noting that the playoff games were carried in New York by the Mets’ local station, WOR-TV, Channel 9, as well as the network, NBC. Such a generous arrangement would be unthinkable in this day and age. I was thus able to listen to Lindsey Nelson, Bob Murphy, and Ralph Kiner do the play-by-play for the entire series. The Mets televised a lot of games on free TV back then. Lindsey, Bob, and Ralph became family. It was right and proper then that I got to hear Lindsey Nelson--family--put the icing on the cake of an improbable pennant in an October to remember. Baseball like it was once upon a time...and life like it really ought to be.


Thursday, October 9, 2014

When Life Gives You Lemons...Watch Hogan's Heroes

Through the years when feeling blue, I’ve been wont to hark back to—yes, drum roll, please—simpler times. From my perspective at least, many of the television programs I enjoyed as a youth serve as a very welcome pick-me-up all these years later. Recently, in need of a lift, I opted to put Hogan’s Heroes in my Netflix queue. I soon after discovered that every episode—seasons one through six—was on YouTube.

Over the past few weeks, I’ve been plowing through the series with glee. While Hogan’s Heroes is steeped in some controversy, it nonetheless holds up extremely well in my opinion. Werner Klemperer as the ineffectual, vainglorious Colonel Wilhelm Klink and John Banner as the endearing but bumbling Sergeant Schultz never grow old from where I sit.

For the most part, I watched the show after it exited the primetime stage in 1971. It went into syndication right away and played on, as I recall, local station Channel 5 every night at 7:30. In the colder climes when we were under house arrest, watching these shows over and over—be it The Munsters, The Andy Griffith Show, I Love Lucy, Gilligan’s Island, or Batman—was therapeutic They were comforting back then when the stresses of growing up reared their ugly heads. There was just nothing quite like sitting in front of television set and watching the familiar antics of Herman, Barney, Lucy, Gilligan, and Chief O’Hara.

TV Guide included Hogan’s Heroes on its list of the worst television shows of all-time. This selection was contemporary PC at play, with the show taking a hit forty years after it went off the air for making light of a time and a place that wasn’t very funny—World War II and a German POW camp. Nazi characters appeared regularly, too, on the sitcom, and constant references to their beloved leader were made. However, Colonel Robert Hogan and his trusted subordinates always thwarted them.

Hogan’s Heroes was good satire. During the war itself the Nazis were regularly mocked in comedy fare, including in Three Stooges’ shorts. Make the most heinous folks on the world stage appear foolish and asinine—why not? It’s a healing route that says we are somehow all in this together. We’re going to laugh at the insanity. Robert Clary, who played diminutive Corporal Louie LeBeau, survived a concentration camp and has a tattoo on his arm as a lifelong reminder of the experience. John Banner escaped from his native Austria but lost many family members in the Holocaust. Werner Klemperer and Leon Askin, who played General Burkhalter, likewise fled persecution. If these men were willing to assume prominent roles on Hogan’s Heroes, surely the judge and jury of TV Guide could find it in their hearts to cut the show some slack and give it its due as a timeless classic.

Saturday, September 20, 2014

Don't Smoke on Me...

While watching reruns of the television classic Perry Mason, starring Raymond Burr, it never ceases to amaze me where the show’s myriad characters "light up." From today’s perspective at least, they smoked cigarettes in the strangest of places. Apparently in the serene 1950s, it was perfectly acceptable to puff away during an elevator ride, in a taxicab, and—believe it or not—in a hospital room as well. Just this past week I accompanied a patient to New York City’s leading cancer hospital and was pleased to see signs posted outside the building prohibiting smoking. Until very recently, the sight of hospital staff, including doctors and nurses, smoking by its entrances seemed downright surreal. It was, after all, a cancer hospital.

I’m not a proponent of the Nanny State. I fully support smokers’ rights to engage in their poisonous pleasures until death do them part. However, I realize now more than ever that their right to smoke does not include transmitting their second-hand smoke to innocent bystanders. That is, impinging on others’ rights to breathe clean—or relatively clean—air. So, if you smoke and can contain the habit to your little sliver of the world, more power to you. If you cannot, then you’re blowing smoke—really—when it comes to talking about your “rights.”

When I was a high school student in the late 1970s, my peers and I rode in what were called “special buses.” They were leased city buses and it was—even back then—against the law to smoke on them. Nevertheless, the bus drivers didn’t enforce the law, and it didn’t matter that our buses to and from school were more often than not packed like the proverbial sardine can. We’d invariably arrive at school in the early morning, and back home in the middle of afternoon, reeking of second-hand smoke. Our clothes, fingers, and hair stunk to high heaven. The smoking class regularly assaulted the non-smoking class on these always-disagreeable bus rides. Breathing in all that second-hand smoke, and stinking of it, to begin and end each school day couldn’t have been very healthy.

What’s with smokers, too, who think nothing of throwing their butts on the ground. Does that not constitute littering? The telltale evidence of smokers—who are by and large are compelled nowadays to take their habits to the great outdoors—is a surfeit of discarded cigarette butts in front of places of business and office buildings. It’s a new wrinkle in a new age, but it sure beats riding those special buses that weren’t really special at all, and having untold minutes subtracted from our lives for doing something we just couldn't avoid—something scientifically known as "breathing."

Thursday, September 18, 2014

Say Hey, Derek Jeter...

I read in yesterday’s Daily News that soon to be ex-ballplayer—and future Hall of Famer—Derek Jeter has gotten his very own publishing imprint with Simon & Schuster. Very cleverly, it’s called “Jeter Publishing” and the first book wearing said brand is a children’s novel, “The Contract,” by none other than Derek Jeter and, of course, his ghostwriter, Paul Mantell. The novel’s chief protagonist is a boy named Derek Jeter, who gives it his all on the baseball field, always plays fair, and respects his family, friends, and teammates. The book will no doubt further cement the angelic image of Derek Jeter. After all, he’s an athlete who played his entire baseball career with the same team—the New York Yankees—and has never been embroiled in any scandal or suspected of cheating like so many of his peers.

Full disclosure: I grew up a rabid Mets fan in a Bronx neighborhood of mostly Yankees fans, including my father, who lived and died with his team. Through his power of example, he taught me from an early age that being a New York City baseball fan absolutely precluded double dipping. That is, a bona fide fan could not possibly root for both the Mets and the Yankees. It was inorganic. In fact, diehard fans—as both he and I were—loathed with heartfelt passion our cross-town rivals. And so, even all these years later—with my father no longer among the living and my baseball ardor gone with the winds of time—I haven’t fully divested myself of that strong distaste for the Yankees. I never, therefore, partook in Derek Jeter worship.

Nevertheless, I was curious to see what he would say on Derek Jeter Day at Yankee Stadium. With his retirement at the end of this season, I imagined that it would be an emotional farewell—saying goodbye to the fans after twenty years in the same uniform and in the same town. I vividly recalled Willie Mays Night at Shea Stadium on September 25, 1973. After floundering for much of the year, the Mets were in an improbable and excitingly competitive pennant chase, and Willie had announced his retirement at the end of the season. Willie Mays—who had been brought back to New York to finish his career where it all began—spoke from the heart that night with tears stacked in his eyes. The poignancy of the moment was overwhelming for young and old alike. I wasn’t yet eleven and had tears in my eyes, too. Willie—the “Say Hey, Kid”—was an icon. And while it was sad to see him go, it was all too evident that age had caught up to him and eroded his formerly incredible skills beyond repair. He was forty-two but fittingly exiting the baseball scene on a team that would make it all the way to the seventh game of the World Series.
 
Yes, I expected at least a little poignancy in Derek Jeter’s parting salvo, but found his speech to the fans cliché-laden and devoid of any deep emotion. It got me wondering if it was just Derek Jeter’s way, or maybe that the absence of any Mays-like poignancy transcended him and was a reflection of the times. Mays played in his first major league baseball game in 1951, just four years after Jackie Robinson had broken the color barrier. It wasn’t a cakewalk for him in those early days, nor was Willie raking in millions of dollars. Willie Mays played stickball on the streets of New York with neighborhood kids. And when the Mets honored him that September night, a pedestrian banquet table was set up on the field with gifts aplenty on top of it for the retiring legend. Today’s game is so awash in money and glitz that it cannot help but negatively impact even the retirement of a baseball great like Derek Jeter, whose last contract was for $60 million over four years (a pay cut, too). Willie Mays' journey through baseball was a storied one, and when he remarked on Willie Mays Night, “There always comes a time for somebody to get out,” it was not only true but also palpably sad. So sad because somehow we knew that we would never see the likes of him again—and we haven’t. The times just won’t allow it.

Thursday, September 11, 2014

Thirteen Years Later...

It’s kind of hard to believe that it’s been thirteen years since 9/11. I was sitting in front of my computer that morning, responding to a couple of e-mail queries from a copy editor who was working on the manuscript of The Everything Collectibles Book, which I had submitted several months earlier. Simultaneous with me doing this, I spied a headline AOL news story with an image that showed white smoke billowing out of one of the Twin Towers in lower Manhattan. The initial scuttlebutt was that a small plane had crashed into it. Like just about everybody at first, I assumed that the craft had accidentally rammed into the building.

I promptly clicked on my television set for further details. And what transpired before my eyes over the next few hours was surreal—an unfolding nightmare. There was talk at one point of there being 30,000 potential victims at the "Ground Zero" site. What all of us were witnessing in real time was the stuff of an apocalyptic disaster movie; inconceivable only a day earlier. It was not something that we ever imagined could happen on American soil in the world’s most renowned city.

At around lunchtime that Tuesday morning, my brother and I walked to our neighborhood’s main thoroughfare a few blocks away. It appeared that life itself was in suspended animation. Everything had gone quiet. The usual impatient hustle and bustle, and the excessive honking of horns on what typically was a busy street at that hour, was missing. There was a kind of hush enveloping our sliver of the Bronx and—we knew—every section of the city as well. I distinctly recall the local convenience store run by Arabs had placed a big American flag by their front door. The owners no doubt feared being associated with the perpetrators. Later, a very loud jet fighter flew over and unsettled what could be described as a pervasive stunned calm. All of us wondered and worried, too, whether further attacks were in the offing. Suddenly and without fair warning, living in the big City of New York didn’t seem so big anymore. A feeling of vulnerability, which we had never before experienced, was palpable. Neighbors emerged in the late afternoon with candles and silently walked up and down the streets. Flags emerged in places I had never before seen them flown. Ironically, it was a picture perfect September day with blue skies, comfortable temperatures, and low humidity, which apparently aided and abetted the monsters, who had hijacked the jet planes, in locating their targets.

The talk in the terrible days and weeks after the attack was how we would never be the same. After all, how could we be after witnessing this horror in a locale that always seemed so grand and impervious to any harm? Thirteen years have passed and we—very definitely—are not the same. The world is an extraordinarily dangerous place and the threats of terrorist violence are omnipresent. Traveling on airplanes, for one, has become a time-consuming, chaotic ordeal. The thought of having to pass through metal detectors to attend a baseball game is yet another glaring example of how—even in our leisure pursuits—our freedom of movements have been compromised beyond repair. So many of the things that we do from now on are going to be attached to some measure of hassle because of a possible terrorist threat, even when the possibilities of one coming to pass are slim. It’s an unhappy state of affairs we find ourselves in, and the passage of time is not going to return us to what was—in retrospect—the less complicated world we called home on September 10, 2001.

.

Saturday, August 30, 2014

Labor Day Blues

On paper, it’s a holiday that pays homage to the American labor movement. Nevertheless, I’d venture to say that most of us aren’t giving “labor” all that much thought on what is the unofficial ending of Summertime 2014. Summer’s “last gasp,” as it were, has mostly been about barbecues, beaches, and beer.

I’ve attended a fair share of Labor Day events through the years, and the differences between them and the month of May’s Memorial Day festivities was always stark. After all, one national holiday signaled a beginning and the other an ending—and an abrupt one at that. As a rule, beginnings are more celebratory than endings. Life is about both, I know, but Labor Day has the unenviable task of marking the end of a lot of good times for a lot of people; the gradual diminishing of daylight, too; and, from a school kid’s perspective, the start of yet another protracted educational slog.

Although I’m long removed from my formal educational odyssey, Labor Day—replete with the sun casting its signature autumnal shadows—always brings me back to my youth. There was no more melancholic time than this particular end. Well, to be technical, this rare, unwelcome, non-celebratory beginning. Yes, the school year commencing with carefree summer memories still seared on the brain—and vestiges, too, of the waning season’s hot weather—was difficult to stomach. From my perspective, there was no worse feeling than attending school in oppressive heat, which happened quite frequently in the month of September. Sans any air conditioning, school and high temperatures were about as depressing a one-two punch as one could imagine.

Despite preferring the cooler climes of fall in my advancing years, I still feel blue at this latest ending—one more summer in the books. It’s a reminder of time’s passage, I guess, and that—if you’re not there yet—you might have experienced more summers than you’ve got in the offing. In my Bronx high school, all boys were required to wear jackets and ties. We got to forgo both sartorial expressions, though, in the month of September. This was a “freakin’ bone” tossed our way in those days of yore. It was intended, perhaps, to slightly lessen the pain in what was post-Labor Day culture shock. Some things never change, but at least I don't have to attend high school orientation this coming week.

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

August Body

One of my favorite scenes in the musical 1776 is when the Second Continental Congress debates the verbiage of Thomas Jefferson’s just completed “Declaration of Independence.” Suggestions for changes and deletions are bandied about in rapid fire. One member suggests eliminating a line that he feels unnecessarily takes to task the esteemed British Parliament. “Do you think it wise to alienate such an august body?” he asks. To which John Adams replies: “This is a revolution, dammit! We’re going to have to offend somebody!”

Anyway, this is my August body in blog form—reflections on happenings this month and in past Augusts. Looking on the bright side of things, the summertime weather for both July and August has been as tolerable as I’ve ever experienced. Not a heat wave all summer with mostly bearable temperatures and reasonable levels of humidity. New York City summers can be brutal with their typically disagreeable combination of heat and humidity.

An August anniversary was duly noted this year. Forty years ago, Richard Nixon resigned the presidency in the wake of the Watergate scandal. I was a mere lad when he departed the Washington scene—eleven years old—but I remember where I was on the night of his resignation speech. I was in Bangor, Pennsylvania. While my grandmother was away visiting relatives, my mother looked after my grandfather. After our new president, Gerald Ford, was sworn in, my mom informed her dad that the pair resembled one another. There was a bit of resemblance, I suppose. In August 1974, my grandfather also tasted lentil soup for the first time—my mother’s homemade version—and offered his opinion on the fare. “I’ve tasted worser soups,” he said.

Suffice it to say, August 1974 was a little bit different than its progeny: August 2014. I don’t mean to beat a dead horse, but kids don’t seem to play much anymore. Our every youthful waking hour was spent in the great outdoors in those bygone summers. Now, nobody’s playing wiffle ball, which I loved doing more than anything else as a boy. Even though there was no such thing, I dreamed of being a professional wiffle ball player some day. Then stickball came along. In fact, we played every conceivable version of baseball from box baseball to punch ball to curb ball to kick ball. The boxes on the concrete sidewalks and curbsides are still around, but one would be hard-pressed to find a soul utilizing them for sport anymore.

Alas, we have become a zombie-like society. Every day, I see mothers pushing their children in strollers who are completely preoccupied with their iPhones, even when crossing heavily trafficked streets. Fathers are equally oblivious. What, pray tell, are these folks checking out every single moment in time? That’s what I’d like to know. It’s both creepy and dispiriting. Exactly how is this sort of behavior going to impact future generations? Nevertheless, I had a lot of fun in August 1974, even if we were in the midst of a “national nightmare,” as newly sworn in President Ford termed it in his first speech to the nation. He said, “Our long national nightmare is over.” Happily, I wasn’t of an age that I participated—even for a second—in that protracted nightmare, so it didn't matter to me if it was over or not.


Thursday, July 31, 2014

The Zen of Mr. D

In my freshman year in high school, I had this history teacher who, in retrospect, is among my all-time favorite educators. He was the anti-pedagogue incarnate. The reasons for me remembering Mr. D so fondly is not that he instilled in me a lifelong passionate interest in the subject matter. (The course he taught was called Asian and African Cultural Studies, and the year was 1976.) Rather, it was the man’s delightful sense of humor and affable playfulness, which made his classes both unpredictable and a lot of fun. More than likely, Mr. D’s methods wouldn’t fly today in the one-size-fits-all, hypersensitive, politically correct educational system.

I penned a couple of past blogs about the man’s engaging classroom demeanor, chronicling some of his “greatest hits” along the way. Recently, though, I thought of one of his more prominent tag lines that I had somehow overlooked in the previous essays. They involved time. 

My high school’s myriad clocks were sans second hands. Instead of quietly and imperceptibly advancing through the torturous school day, they visibly clicked from one minute to the next. One was therefore aware—if practicing the timeworn tradition of clockwatching—when there was precisely one minute left in a class. Mr. D was particularly keyed in on that final minute of each of his classes. He often concluded his lectures with the phrase, “Take a minute for yourselves!” or a shortened version, “Take a minute!” In the pressure cooker otherwise known as high school, it was at once a welcome minute break and something more substantial. Despite it seeming inconsequential in the big picture, it was consequential indeed. Mr. D supplying his students with a minute all their own each day tallied up to a few hours over the course of the school year. This benevolence on his part looms larger and larger over time because it really is important for us to take a minute for ourselves—slow down and reflect as often as we can in the daily grind called life. So, take a minute!

Thursday, July 17, 2014

Congratulations to Neil, Buzz, and Mike


It was forty-five years ago this week that Apollo 11 astronauts Neil Armstrong, Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin, Jr., and Michael Collins touched down and then cavorted on our planet’s sole satellite, the Moon. “That’s one small step for a man; one giant step for mankind,” Neil Armstrong intoned upon first touching the Moon’s surface. I don’t remember all that much about this obviously newsworthy goings-on—I was only six years old at the time—except that my mother composed a makeshift banner from a rather large scroll of yellow paper that my uncle had purloined from his place of employment, the “phone company.” Yes, people back then worked for the “phone company” because there was only one of them. The paper banner proudly flew above our front door—thankfully, it didn’t rain—and read, “Congratulations to Neil, Buzz, and Mike.”  

I recall, too, a neighbor—the local rabbi’s wife—querying a group of us playing on my front stoop as to whether we were related to the “Banner Woman.” I proudly said that I was. She appreciated the fact that my mom, without fail, recognized both holidays and national events with decorations and, in this instance, a somewhat crude banner celebrating the achievement of three valiant astronauts. After Neil, Buzz, and Mike's was mission accomplished, then President Nixon said, “As a result of what you’ve done, the world has never been closer before.” That may, in fact, have been true—for one brief shining moment at least.

 
In retrospect, though, what I find most fascinating about July 1969—and growing up in the Bronx’s Kingsbridge—is the evident duality. My youthful memories are of a gritty urban lifestyle organically commingling with a palpable small town charm. The late-1960s and early-1970s were tumultuous times in the country at large and, to a great extent, in Kingsbridge as well: the Vietnam War, social unrest, drugs—the whole kit and caboodle. I, though, was spared all of the above. Three men actually walking on the surface of the Moon—and my mom commemorating it—is just one of many fond recollections from my boyhood. I don’t think that there is anything that could occur today that would generate a banner of congratulations in the old neighborhood, and just about everyplace else for that matter. A leisurely walk on Mars wouldn’t come near capturing that singular Apollo 11 snapshot in time.