Saturday, August 8, 2015

The Chef Boyardee Experiment

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, July 16, 2015

A Fruitless Journey’s Fishy Fruit

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

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

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

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

Friday, June 19, 2015

Seinfeld FAQ



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

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

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

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

Thursday, June 18, 2015

The Wanderer

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

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

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

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

Sunday, May 17, 2015

Living in the Present...

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

Facebook and Punks

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

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

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

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

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


Saturday, April 4, 2015

Lessons from the Underground...

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, April 2, 2015

A Facebook Fool and His Money...

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

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

Dear Beneficiary:

NOTICE OF YOUR PAYMENT

I write to notify you of the payment of your compensation fund to this office as one of those that has been scammed through African countries, mainly from Nigeria. You only have to re-verify your data such as your full name, your address, your phone number, and your occupation so it can be used to authenticate you as the legal owner of this fund. Immediately, when this is done successfully, you will be given every detail of your compensation fund and the amount accrued to you. However, you are to contact the Supervising Agent in charge of this payment; his name is Mr. Smith Brad. He has been given the full mandate to get your fund paid to you, so kindly send the required information through his email address at smith_brad2@aol.com for immediate processing of your compensation sum.

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

Yours Faithfully,
For: UNITED NATIONS
Mrs. Joyce Savage

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

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

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

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

Sunday, March 22, 2015

Onion Snow and Spring

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, March 1, 2015

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


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

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

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

Sunday, February 22, 2015

Mr. Marshmallow Head and the Catnapping of the Century

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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 Met 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.