Tuesday, September 19, 2017

An Inconvenient Truth: We Are Living in a Bizarro World

This past weekend, I inadvertently stumbled upon two street trashcans with different tales to tell. One was a hipster receptacle in Battery Park City, home to hipsters and little hipsters on scooters who don’t watch where they are going. The other overflowing can underscored both New York’s incredible diversity and insatiable consumption and waste. It contained everything from a pair of sneakers to an empty wine bottle; decorative flowers to tiny plastic bags containing canine waste. The sight of this garbage reaffirmed to me that we are living in a Bizarro World.

Further reaffirmation occurred yesterday when I found myself in some serious traffic and staring out a car window. I spied numerous street vendors peddling a potpourri that included hot dogs, smoothies, and lamb and rice dishes, too. Fortunately, I was a passenger and not behind the wheel of the vehicle. The logjam was on Manhattan’s tony Upper West Side and the byproduct of our American president being across town at the United Nations. As if entertaining that thought wasn’t horrifying enough, crawling along streets and avenues at the antithesis of warp speed got me thinking. Yes, about the Bizarro World again. For only in this world would the President of the United States be best known for nastily insulting people whenever he feels inclined, which is often.

When I first attended grammar school in the late-1960s, the Cold War was still pretty frigid but there was ample evidence of a thaw. For instance, my classmates and I weren’t performing civil defense duck-and-cover drills—hiding under our desks—in anticipation of a nuclear exchange. I recently finished One Man Against the World: The Tragedy of Richard Nixon by Tim Weiner—a compelling read from beginning to end. In 1972, Nixon traveled to China in what was largely a symbolic visit. But it was so well choreographed. Despite the gangster-like goings-on behind closed doors and hidden microphones in our nation's capital, Nixon understood what the public expected of a president in public and, most especially, on the international stage. His successor—45—is completely undisciplined and the essence of boorishness. Like a Seinfeld character, there is no learning or growth. It’s not possible with him. On his best day, Trump couldn’t pull off anything close to Nixon-like diplomatic theater. This is, after all, a Bizarro World we are living in. The president threatened today to “totally destroy” a country lead by a bona fide nut job whom he dubbed “Rocket Man.” Perhaps, duck-and-cover drills are poised to make a comeback.

There’s so much more to this peculiar contemporary existence of ours than an insecure, narcissist in the White House: a man who would have been—by any measure in the pre-Bizarro World—deemed intellectually, psychologically, ethically, and aesthetically unsuited for the job. In yesterday’s slow-moving travels, I found myself passing through Columbus Circle and then on Columbus Avenue proper. It got me thinking about the New York City statue police considering removing “offensive” statues like the one of Columbus at Columbus Circle. I’m sorry but a statue of Christopher Columbus at Columbus Circle—with Columbus Avenue in the vicinity—seems quite logical. Columbia University is just a few miles north as well. Ah, yes, one thought led to another in this Bizarro World, which includes a key component to all the bizarreness: social media.

In the previous world I knew, Columbus Day was merely a Monday holiday and three-day weekend during the school years. Despite parades in parts of New York City and elsewhere that are essentially Italian-American pride parades, I never equated Christopher Columbus with my paternal Italian heritage. He was a fifteenth-century explorer, discoverer, and conqueror who, no doubt, committed a fair share of atrocities. But those were cruel times—a Bizarro World very different from ours—and it’s been quite a multi-layered evolution from that point to this point. Well, actually, we’ve been devolving quite a bit of late.

Nevertheless, like so many relationships on Facebook, Columbus Day and the reason for it is complicated. However, if it makes you feel better: Put up your anti-Columbus memes in the coming weeks. Preach to the choir or get into unpleasant, pointless arguments with people who hold different opinions. I will survive this annual silliness and—just to be on the safe side—be under my desk.

(Photos from the personal collection of Nicholas Nigro)

Monday, September 11, 2017

Turn and Face the Strange

I was in Battery Park yesterday morning. It was a comfortably crisp, bright sunny day. While Hurricane Irma was ravaging the state of Florida, New York Harbor was the picture of serenity. People have a knack of compartmentalizing. If it’s not happening to us in real time, it’s a CNN image, Facebook post, or Yahoo news story. Anyway, as is always the case in the environs of Wall Street, tourists were omnipresent with their smartphones working overtime. With imposing backdrops such as the Statue of Liberty, the Charging Bull, and, of course, the “Freedom Tower,” lower Manhattan is a photographic haven—a selfie paradise.

In my wanderings, I was thinking about today, the sixteenth anniversary of 9/11, a dreadful snapshot in time that seems—four Spellman cycles later—almost inconceivable. How could something like that have happened where it did and with such unimaginable consequences? Sitting on a tree-shaded bench on the grounds of Battery Park City, just due west of where the Twin Towers stood and fell, it was hard to envision what that peaceful setting was like on 9/11/2001. I remember that it was a September day not unlike yesterday—a winning weather hybrid of identical amounts of summer and fall.

Battery Park City was covered in toxic debris—a couple of buildings even damaged by airplane parts—after the two towers went down. All of the structures therein were evacuated and many residents couldn’t return for lengthy periods of time. A considerable portion of the area was deemed a crime scene. Approximately fifty percent of the city in a city’s residents permanently moved from Battery Park City because—for months—the air quality in the vicinity of Ground Zero was suspect. Ponder this: It was everybody out at a moment’s notice and no returning home until God knows when. No relocation help was afforded residents by the powers-that-were, either, and hotel rooms in New York City were near impossible to come by. And to add insult to injury, some of those who returned after their extended absences found their apartments ransacked. It took lower rents and some government subsidies, too, to convince people that Battery Park City was a nice place to call home. But that was then and this is now.

Ch…ch…ch…ch…changes: Battery Park City is presently where the elite meet to eat and then some. Built on landfill from the original World Trade Center’s construction, this development on what were then obsolete, decaying piers on the Hudson River took a while. For a spell there was what looked like a big sandy beach in the shadows of the Twin Towers. Just do a Google search on “Battery Park City landfill” or some such thing and see some amazing pictures of what that part of lower Manhattan looked like not too long ago in the scheme of things. I wish I had navigated that scene in the dirty-old-New York 1970s, which most definitely had a perverse charm—one that gets more charming with each passing day in this increasingly gentrified, Starbucks universe—but I was too young to explore that far a field. While New York City was a much more interesting place back then, it also was more dangerous.

In the original planning of Battery Park City, some low-income housing was included, but fierce opposition squashed that idea. And I don’t anticipate the soon-to-be reelected Mayor DeBlasio will be locating homeless families in transitional housing in that prized locale, which is not having any problem with vacancies nowadays. The bottomless bottom lines are there to stay and need no further enticements.

(Photographs from the personal collection of Nicholas Nigro)

Sunday, September 3, 2017

Never Again…Again

It’s the unofficial end to another summer. And despite my passionate distaste for the season’s heat and humidity, there’s always something melancholy about its swan song. Like no other, summer's end underscores the passage of time and, yes, death itself. The fledgling days of fall have the uncanny knack of commingling sticky summer-like days with crisp autumn ones. Memories of returning to school during that annual weather tug-of-war remain intense and unpleasant. Despite not experiencing a new school year since 1984, that glum, nervous-stomach state of mind isn’t easily forgotten.

The beginning of Labor Day weekend 2017 found me in Battery Park along with thousands of tourists from all over the world. Willing to brave the long lines to board boats, which take them to Liberty Island, Ellis Island, and on tours of New York Harbor, they are a hearty bunch indeed. When I visited Lady Liberty some forty-five years ago, it was a simpler time for sure. There was no navigating through “airport-style security” before boarding the boat.

I also encountered tourists snapping pictures alongside a very big man on stilts or two dressed as the Statue of Liberty. The next best thing to the real thing, I guess. Was he or they licensed to do that? Doubtful. Whatever the case may have been, this Herman Munster-sized fellow received gratuities from the posing minions that, I’d calculate, tallied up to a nice piece of change. There was no shortage of customers. Actually, I thought the Statue of Liberty guy looked sort of scary and more like the Winter Warlock—but then the Statue of Liberty up-close is kind of frightening, too.

Aside from the hustle and bustle of the madding crowds, that part of Manhattan is overrun with men and women whose job it is to persuade visitors to call on the Statue of Liberty or take some bus or harbor tour. Based on commissions, the competition is at once cutthroat and intrusive. Two pitchmen almost came to blows over some territorial issue. This aggressive scenario is likewise on display in the environs of Times Square.

The Statue of Liberty isn’t the only statue in that area of the city. There are a lot of them around. I can’t help but look at these various monuments differently now. The New York Daily News recently featured a front-page headline: “Statues of Irritation.” An article therein chronicled the names of individuals whose statues are controversial, including the usual suspect, Christopher Columbus, but also some surprising figures. Progressive New York City Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia (1934-45) was on the list—and he has a high school and airport named after him—as was Ulysses S. Grant. “He’s got two statues in Brooklyn,” the piece noted, “and his tomb in Manhattan.” Who’s buried in Grant’s tomb? He who must not be named. Joseph Pulitzer also made the list. He’s not only got a statue in the city, but a prize named after him. In my travels, I passed by the Ape & Cat (At the Dance) statue in Battery Park. If the statue committee digs deeper, they’ll unearth some dirt on it.

The icing on the cake of yesterday’s escapade in these crazy times was my breaking a “never again” vow, one that I made several years ago. Vis-à-vis hot dog purchases from street vendors, the law of diminishing returns had been at play for years. The youthful me loved them; the adult me, not so much. In fact, they were becoming borderline inedible. I finally said: No mas. I would not purchase a hot dog or, worse still, a hot hot dog, christened a hot sausage, on the street. Yet, I ordered two hot sausages and a twenty-four-ounce bottle of lukewarm water to wash them down. I sat in earshot of the Staten Island Ferry entrance and consumed this curious repast. One thing cannot be denied: They were spicy hot all right. But never again…again.

(Photos from the personal collection of Nicholas Nigro)

Monday, August 28, 2017

It’s Not Michael V. Gazzo’s Parking Lot Anymore

I was on a mission this past Saturday, endeavoring to pinpoint the precise location of a parking lot—a very special one that existed, once upon a time, in lower Manhattan. The parking lot is no more, but has been forever immortalized—from my perspective at least—in a 1975 episode of Kojak called “A Question of Answers.”

In this season-three opener, the incomparable Michael V. Gazzo played Kojak’s chief antagonist, a super-bad seed named Joel Adrian, who owned and operated the parking lot in question. Actually, it was the ideal front business for a cutthroat loan shark. After The Godfather made such a splash, television mobsters—for some early politically correct reason—were often given generic-sounding, non-Italian surnames. But we the viewers knew better. For the year before his guest appearance on Kojak, Gazzo played Frankie Pantangeli in The Godfather: Part II and won a Best Supporting Actor Oscar.

It’s strange how things sometimes play out in life. Apparently, “Leave the gun; take the cannoli” Richard Castellano got too big for his already big britches and wanted complete control over his dialogue in the sequel movie. For the record: Castellano’s widow disputed this account, claiming that her husband didn’t feel his character would betray the Corleone family. Whatever was stuck in Castellano’s craw, the powers-that-be didn’t think Peter “Fat” Clemenza was worth it, so they killed him off and brought in Gazzo as Pantangeli. Castellano got to star in a 1975 sitcom, Joe and Sons, which I remember watching. The series lasted fourteen episodes. Had Castellano played “Fat” Clemenza in The Godfather: Part II, it’s unlikely Gazzo would have appeared in the Kojak episode. And it remains to be seen if I would have gone in search of an old parking lot, which wouldn't have been Michael V. Gazzo’s parking lot.

With that backstory properly digested, Kojak’s “A Question of Answers” was filmed entirely on location in New York City, when the metropolis was at its gritty and grimy best—picture perfect. The fiscal crisis was in full bloom then, impacting everything from the subways, which were graffiti laden and prone to breakdowns, and the various parks, which were barely maintained. Emblematic of the times, Michael V. Gazzo’s parking lot was the genuine article. It stood due north of the Twin Towers, which had opened only two years earlier, and the thirty-two story New York Telephone Company building, also known as the Barclay-Vesey building. Built in 1927, this latter edifice was badly damaged on 9/11, but soldiers on today as the Verizon headquarters on West Street. It served, too, as my mission’s vital landmark.

I had, in fact, passed by the Verizon building on West Street many times, but didn’t connect the dots vis-à-vis Michael V. Gazzo’s parking lot until recently. For that area of Manhattan, Tribeca, bares little resemblance to its former self. When Kojak filmed there, the old elevated West Side Highway was visible to the west, although it had been previously closed to traffic after an eighty-foot section collapsed and sent an asphalt truck—repairing the deteriorating highway—and automobile to the street below.

The dilapidated and increasingly obsolete elevated highway in lower Manhattan was not rebuilt and was gradually torn down. The West Side Highway is now on the street level—West Street—and zigzags through a rather hip, expensive part of town. When Michael V. Gazzo’s parking lot existed, virtually everything to its west was rundown and destined for the ash heap of history. There’s a new Department of Sanitation building in the vicinity now and still some factory remnants of what was. But the exact locale of the parking lot and the surrounding area is currently home to expensive high-rise buildings, residential and commercial, and a school.

Here’s what New York magazine had to say about the neighborhood that Michael V. Gazzo’s parking lot once called home: “By many criteria, Tribeca could be considered the best place to live in the city. It enjoys minuscule crime levels, great schools, tons of transit, well-planned waterfront access, and light-filled loft-type apartments in painstakingly rehabbed industrial buildings. But having already overtaken the Upper East Side as the city’s richest precinct, it is prohibitively expensive, and any traces of racial and income diversity are long gone.”

It’s not Michael V. Gazzo’s parking lot anymore—not by a long shot. Mission accomplished.

(Photos from the personal collection of Nicholas Nigro)

Thursday, August 24, 2017

New Bin on the Block

Big brown recycling bins were delivered to every single address in my part of the Bronx today. Beginning next month, New York City residents will be expected—or at least encouraged—to recycle food scraps, food-soiled paper, and yard waste. That is, unless we are guinea pigs in an experiment, which is possible. These organic materials will be picked up on our regular recycling day, a weekly occurrence. Recycling of any kind is a plus for the environment and worth giving the old college try. However, considering the number of self-absorbed, materialistic slobs that populate the five boroughs, I suspect this noble endeavor will be—at best—only mildly successful. One small step for man, though, and I will do my part.

If nothing else, the sight of Ryder delivery trucks in the neighborhood crammed with hundreds of New York City Department of Sanitation issue bins will at least give us residents something novel to talk about. When it comes to chance encounters with familiar faces—where a little small talk is in order—I like to keep things light and lean. That means: no politics. Let’s just say I find it difficult to listen to people defend the indefensible. So, we chat about the guy with the six-foot tomato plants. Some local yokels actually gripe that he has them in the front of his house and not out back. The fact that his backyard consists of concrete and a garage is not factored into the equation. And while I don’t consume any of them in their original incarnations, I happen to think tall tomato, pepper, and eggplant plants are a sight for sore eyes. Other timely topics of discussion include the awning that a neighbor recently erected over his front stoop: a Plexiglas monstrosity befitting the entrance of a hotel. It’s the sort of thing that might have worked at the Milford Plaza—“the lullaby of old Broadway”—but not in a row of attached houses on a tree-lined street.

But now we can discourse about the spectacle of every hearth and home receiving a fair-sized plastic bin with little plastic tubs inside of them for the interior gathering of organic wastes. I can’t help but wonder how much this thing will cost the city. After all, there are a lot of people in New York. This sort of government largesse—door-to-door freebies—is unprecedented and has to be an expensive undertaking. But why look a gift horse in the mouth?

Meanwhile, the city mothers and fathers are reviewing statues for potential removal. The statue of Christopher Columbus at Columbus Circle is foremost on the hit list. Leave it to pandering politicians to jump on the bandwagon and shoot themselves in the foot. Mixed metaphors, perhaps, but fighting this inane “culture war” is counterproductive. I fear that the Ralph Kramden statue at the Port of Authority bus terminal is on the list. Let’s face it: Ralph intimated violence against his wife on a regular basis, physically and verbally abused his best friend, and cruelly bullied a pipsqueak named George. What kind of message is that sending to weary travelers coming and going to the Big Apple?

(Photos from the personal collection of Nicholas Nigro)

Tuesday, August 15, 2017

August Thoughts

I will begin with some mundane but nevertheless august thoughts. I was on the shores of New York Harbor this past Saturday. Never forget that the Bronx is up but the Battery’s down. It was the ideal August day to be there: overcast, breezy, and no-jacket-required cool. There were tourists aplenty in the vicinity. Spanning the entire age spectrum, many of them appeared fixated on capturing every single moment of their New York experience on their smartphones. They weren’t quite living in the moment, I thought, but were instead captive to these ubiquitous hand-held devices. But what’s the point of pointing that out? Yada…yada…yada.

Once upon a time, I enjoyed riding the Staten Island Ferry, which departs from the Battery, the lower tip of Manhattan. The ferry has always been a bargain—it’s free to ride now. But for me it was never about traveling to Staten Island, which is one of the city’s five boroughs. I took the ferry for the ride—period and end of story. With the exception of the ferry terminal on Staten Island, I’ve never actually set foot in the borough. It’s hard to get around the place without a car and hard to get there—and expensive—with one. The short ferry trips supplied vivid panoramas, especially the return trips to Manhattan. The last time I was on the ferry, the Twin Towers were what loomed like colossi on the approach.

In the environs of Battery Park City, I saw people boarding boats to the Statue of Liberty. I was on Liberty Island once, but that was a long time ago—when Richard Nixon was the president. I watched the passengers getting on and disembarking the boats—navigating the unsteady gangplank, or whatever it’s called—and concluded my seafaring days are over.

I began this journey into Manhattan at the Van Cortlandt Park station—the first and last stop of the Number 1 train. I am always assured a seat and opt to sit in the lead car going downtown, which is typically the least crowded on southbound trains. Moments before take-off, I was alone in the car. But just before the buzzer sounded—and one actually does before the doors close—a fellow passenger materialized and chose a seat not too far from me. He had his breakfast with him—a sandwich—and proceeded to consume his morning repast. Its aroma wafted my way. I’ve smelled worse in the subway—a lot worse. Recently, I read where the Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) was considering banning eating on the trains. I don’t see how that edict could be enforced, but—it cannot be denied—malodorous fare in cramped and closed quarters can be awfully nauseating. I won’t hold my breath on that one.

Permit me to switch gears now and offer one last august thought. Nowadays, there are all-too-many ridiculous memes floating around Facebook and elsewhere in the virtual ether. This week’s winner, in my opinion, declares: “President Trump says he’ll be encouraging stores to say ‘Merry Christmas’ instead of ‘Happy Holiday’ this Christmas. Do you support that?” The ridiculousness of this…well…let me count the ways. For starters, it’s the middle of August. And, too, there are certainly more pressing concerns on the president’s plate at the moment. Finally, my mother had a “Happy Holiday” banner on our front door in the early 1960s.

Composer Irving Berlin was the wind beneath the wings of “Happy Holiday,” which was first sung by crooner Bing Crosby in the 1942 film Holiday Inn. Since Christmas music is now played on the radio the day after Halloween, I would wager that an awful lot of men, women, and children have heard Perry Como’s version of the song. Don’t get me wrong: I’m all for saying, “Merry Christmas” when you feel like saying, “Merry Christmas.” However, I’m more concerned in the dog days of summer of a possible nuclear winter.

(Photos from the personal collection of Nicholas Nigro)

Monday, August 14, 2017

What $1.30 Used to Buy

(Originally published on August 14, 2013)

Exactly thirty-nine years have passed since my father took my two brothers, a friend, and me to Shea Stadium. It was the afternoon of August 14, 1974, five days after Richard Nixon resigned the presidency. But I’d hazard a guess the Watergate scandal and the historic changing of the guard in Washington were not on my radar. Baseball—and only baseball—was.

The Mets were saddled with all kinds of injuries in 1974, including star pitcher Tom Seaver’s ongoing battle with nagging sciatica in his left hip. He was uncharacteristically struggling and, when all was said and done, my revered idol went 11-11 on the year and my favorite team, an unimpressive 71-91. (The Mets had won the National League Pennant the year before.) Still, it was an exciting afternoon as we plopped ourselves down wherever we darn pleased in the far reaches of the upper deck—grandstand seats for $1.30 a pop and closer than anyone else in the ballpark to the airborne planes taking off and landing at nearby LaGuardia Airport. As a boy, I always loved those loud, periodic interruptions, particularly the spitting sounds of the planes’ engines that drowned out the stadium din for a fleeting moment. It was part of the unique and unrivaled ambiance of attending a game at the “Big Shea”—and even added spice to listening to home games on the radio and watching them on TV.

Courtesy of today’s ready access to information, I discovered that the Mets beat the Los Angeles Dodgers three to two on that day, scoring two runs in the bottom of the ninth inning to pull it out. Normally, I remember details like this, but I have no recollection of the game itself or that Tom Seaver was the starting pitcher. Tug McGraw got the win in relief. I have this faint memory, though, of my father insisting we leave an inning early to avoid the post-game parking lot’s traffic snarl. Attendance was 33,125. It was one of his hang-ups, which I can appreciate now having inherited his “I really and truly don’t like driving and excessively fret about things like traffic” gene. Nevertheless, this early departure meant that we missed a thrilling, come-from-behind, bottom of the ninth inning victory. (Thrilling for me, I should add, and not my die-hard Yankee fan and Met hating father.) I imagine we were listening to the game on the car radio as we headed back home. I’d wager, too, that I was simultaneously ecstatic at the win and disgusted at having missed it live and in person.

Suffice it to say that 1974 was a vastly different time for the world in general and baseball in particular. We traveled from the Bronx to Shea Stadium in Queens on the game day—a twenty-five or so minute ride—and purchased tickets at a ticket booth for $1.30 each. An in-law of mine recently ventured to the new Yankee Stadium—the House that Ruth Didn’t Build. He spent $75 for tickets that were far from the best seats in the house and spoke of the stadium runways being more like shopping malls than the hot dog and beer-smelling passageways—with the sticky concrete floors from copious concession spillages—that we both recalled so fondly. (I’d add to these evocative olfactory memories the urine and urine-masking deodorants from the stadium’s bathrooms.) A trip to the ballpark used to be foremost about the game of baseball and rooting for the home team, not going on an expensive shopping spree and dining on Penne a la Vodka and exotic-flavored rice pilaf during the game in an upscale eatery.

The game has been remade by an uber-corporate mentality that has completely refashioned the baseball brand to suit the times and the ever-waning attention spans of its customer base. It’s hardly the affordable family game that it once was, and it’s not the American pastime anymore. What is? Major League Baseball is marketed as an event—a happening. The game on the field is secondary to all the glitzy, technological distractions and the unrelenting clamor. And, to add insult to injury, there are the A-Rods who make mega-millions of dollars and cheat on top of that, rendering records suspect at best and often meaningless.

The simple pleasure of attending a baseball game at Shea Stadium and sitting in the upper deck in the summer of 1974—even if my impatient father ruined the denouement for me—is gone with the winds of time. There will never be another outfield featuring the likes of Cleon Jones, Don Hahn, and Rusty Staub. I’m happy, though, to have been a youthful fan in an era when the bottoms of my PRO-Keds sneakers got all sticky as I exited the ballpark, and I when didn’t have to pass by the Hard Rock Café and Wholly Guacomole on the way out.

(Photo from the personal collection of Nicholas Nigro)

Thursday, August 10, 2017

The Waning Agog Factor

(Originally published on August 10, 2014)

Thirty-seven years ago on this day (now forty), I was at once in Boston and agog. The adult impresario of this Bronx to Beantown adventure was a neighbor and friend named Rich. My brother Joe and I—two teenagers absent as-yet-invented iPads or flip video cameras—accompanied him to what then seemed like a very faraway and even exotic destination.

While we were out of town the “Son of Sam” was captured. A Boston Globe headline in a sidewalk newspaper machine alerted us that the fiend was in police custody. We were pleasantly surprised when we dropped a dime in the slot and the machine’s front door pulled open, permitting each of us to grab a paper. Evidently, man and boys alike had never purchased one from an inanimate object. I guess we thought it would be dispensed like a bottle of soda or a candy bar. Still, we felt like we were a long way from home when we read the details about this serial killer, a man who had been in our midst during that especially hot summer and the summer before.

We had seen the Red Sox at Fenway Park the night before and also peed in a communal urinal there, which was yet another first for us. I sat beside a gangly grandfather and his grandson, I surmised, because the latter called the former “Pops.” Pops was pretty old and, when nature called, had more than a little difficulty navigating the ballpark’s steep steps and cramped aisles. He was a dead ringer for Our Gang's Old Cap. The Red Sox beat the Angels 11-10 that night in a back and forth slugfest. The Globe deemed it one of the most exciting games ever played. Rich, however, noted how “dilapidated” the environs were, and obviously liked the sound of the word, branding countless Boston edifices and nearby locales with the same unflattering moniker.

Dilapidated or not, the three of us were generally agog throughout the trip, blissfully going about the business of exploring foreign terrain before anything called e-mail or Twitter existed. Joe had a hand-me-down, fold-up camera with him that took blurry pictures. Rich wore a strap around his neck attached to an over-sized instant camera during our sightseeing. His photos developed a bit on the green side, including shots at Harvard University and of the Charles River. No flash meant no pictures could be taken of the Green Monster by night. On our way home, we naturally couldn’t pass up America’s most historical rock in Plymouth. This rather pedestrian boulder had at some point cracked in two and been cemented together—not a particularly compelling visual and even less so in shades of instant-picture green.

There were no digital cameras or iPhones in existence, so thus no capacity to post our pictures on Facebook, which wasn’t around either. We were merely content with being agog as we climbed the Bunker Hill Monument and toured Old Ironsides. The dilapidated surroundings all around us actually astounded us. We called home from pay phones. In the present age of instant gratification, with all too many people engrossed in their Blackberries or some such technological device—and walking the streets like oblivious automatons—I fear that the Agog Factor just ain't what it used to be…can’t be what it used to be…and that’s really kind of sad.

(Photos from the personal collection of Nicholas Nigro)

The Code of Broccoli Rabe

When I was a boy, my paternal grandmother made broccoli and spaghetti that was otherworldly. When it was in season, she substituted with broccoli rabe, which was equally delightful. Often utilizing the most basic ingredients, my grandmother had a knack for turning out taste sensations. And her dishes always turned out as expected. She was nothing if not consistent. When broccoli rabe and spaghetti was served, I knew what it was going to taste like. For some inexplicable reason, spaghetti was only used with the garlic and oil fare: broccoli, broccoli rabe, and Christmas Eve’s Aglio E Olio. Her pasta dinners—likewise singular and unmatched—were typically of the homemade variety, but never what you would classify as spaghetti.

As with so many things in life, broccoli and broccoli rabe don’t seem to be packed with the same flavor punch as I recall from my youth. I prepare the aforementioned spaghetti dishes from time to time, but the end-results vary greatly. Sometimes the broccoli and broccoli rabe are practically flavorless, even when utilizing half a bulb of garlic. I remember when broccoli rabe was a seasonal vegetable, available during certain times of the year only. Now, just like countless other fruits and vegetables, it’s a year-round food. Does this contemporary growing fact have anything to do with the flavor drain? Only Andy Boy knows for sure. Of course, my grandmother isn’t around anymore. She would have managed, I’m certain, to extract the maximum flavors out of today’s unpredictable broccoli and broccoli rabe.

Shifting gears somewhat, but in keeping with this essay’s title, I was riding the subway recently when I had the misfortune to be in the same car with three generations of boors: grandmother, mother, and daughter, I surmised. Of course, the family elder in this instance was probably in her late thirties or early forties at the oldest. Anyway, they were misbehaving on public transit, which is very annoying indeed. Outrageously loud and vulgar, the threesome was getting on everyone’s nerves. One man sitting very near them—too close for comfort, as it were—got up from his seat and went into an adjoining car. This move angered the family. I mean—really angered them. Why? Because they lived by a code, you see, and felt dissed by this fellow passenger. The trio could actually see the man sitting in the next car. While contemplating whether or not they should confront him, the three generations made threatening faces. There are codes and there are codes. My grandmother, who grew up in genuine poverty in a rocky mountain town in Southern Italy called Castelmezzano, lived by a strong code of right and wrong. She literally counted her blessings, too.

I would be remiss if I didn’t recount a warped code story that is a personal favorite of mine. After a shopping spree at the Cross County Mall in Yonkers, New York, my elderly neighbor—pushing eighty at the time—returned to her car for the drive home. As she opened the driver’s side door, a complete stranger sidled up on the passenger side and demanded to be driven several miles to an address in the city of Mount Vernon. Justifiably fearing for her well-being, my neighbor reached for her pocketbook, which was on the front seat. The woman hijacker was indignant. She no doubt felt she was being profiled and said: “What are you reaching for that for? I ain’t gonna steal your bag!” And let me just say for the politically correct record: Warped codes recognize no race, creed, or ethnicity. They are at once bizarre and infuriating to behold.

(Photos from the personal collection of Nicholas Nigro)

Saturday, August 5, 2017

The Almighty Doesn’t Live Here Anymore

While in Manhattan yesterday, I spied something unusual sticking out of a sidewalk garbage can. It was a pair of crutches. The receptacle was located on the southeast corner of Seventh Avenue and 14th Street, a mile or so from 34th Street. The close proximity to where a celebrated miracle once occurred—with the real Santa Claus coming through as he did—made me wonder if another one had come to pass. Perhaps I just missed the miracle of somebody lame being made to walk. Timing, after all, is everything in life. I would have been more than happy to place my foldable cane in that container and hop on the subway sans an assistive device. Better luck next time.

While on the subject of matters ethereal, a local church is in the news. I just read where the Archdiocese of New York officially “deconsecrated” the Church of the Visitation of the Blessed Virgin Mary—Visitation, for short—a neighborhood institution for as long as I’ve been alive and then some. While growing up in Kingsbridge and Riverdale, Catholics one and all belonged to a parish. It was part of our DNAs—American, New Yorker, Bronx resident, and—in my case—member of St. John’s parish.

When I was a boy in the 1960s and 1970s, the Catholic Church was thriving. However, its days of wine and roses were numbered. The priests were still largely respected. St. John’s men of the cloth were on the benign side of the ledger, with one notable exception, the monsignor. While the church elders revered the guy—they loved the unbeatable combination of businessman and disciplinarian—the younger set, including me, saw something else. The monsignor was a self-righteous, petulant scold, certainly not what I perceived as a humble servant of God. But those were the days when priests aplenty received their “calling” from on high. Something happened on the way to the sacristy room. Nowadays, few are called and even less are chosen. Apparently, the Almighty is back at the drawing board with respect to His calling formula. The             red flag: an all-too-high percentage of molesters getting accepted into that special fraternity.

I was educated in Catholic schools from the first grade through college. It was a solid, predominantly secular education in which students were thought to think for themselves and to reason. God as one entity was hard enough to conceptualize. But God in three persons—blessed trinity—was an even tougher pill to swallow. A good education teaches one not to accept things purely on faith and to follow the truth wherever it may lead. That’s the Catholic Church’s present-day dilemma.

The Church of the Visitation of the Blessed Virgin Mary was originally located to the east of its present location. It was compelled to move a short distance to the west during the building of the Major Deegan Expressway, I-87. Visitation’s current property is considerable and worth a whole lot as a piece of real estate. I suppose the Almighty Dollar trumps the Almighty in this instance. But far be it for me to believe the Catholic Church hierarchy would have anything but the best interests of their parishioners at heart. And if you believe that, I have a church to sell you in the Bronx.

(Photos from the personal collection of Nicholas Nigro)

Sunday, July 30, 2017

This Old House

This old house is no more. It stood in the same location in the Bronx for close to a century and, it’s fair to say, witnessed innumerable and seismic changes. If this old house could only have spoken before it was demolished, it would have had a lot to say. The home’s original owner built the structure with his own two hands, which wasn’t unheard of in the Bronx of yesteryear. People who had the privilege of crossing its threshold reported that the rooms were small and the ceilings, low. It was a dwelling for a different time and place. Pat Mitchell, a renowned local grocer, rented a furnished room in the house’s attic after World War II. While an average-sized adult couldn’t stand up straight there, rooms were really hard to come by after the war.

I am old enough to remember the builder’s then-elderly daughter living in the house with her grown son, who was called “Buddy.” Buddy, who bore a striking resemblance to actor Jason Robards, had a faithful German shepherd. Buddy was not what you would call a conversationalist. Outside of walking his dog or silently lounging around in his windowed front porch with a can of beer in his hand, he was rather nondescript. Buddy most likely used his car, which was parked in a driveway next to the house, to do his grocery shopping and keep the refrigerator stocked with his preferred brew. The neighborhood’s nastier wagging tongues considered Buddy something of a slacker. He never appeared to be duly employed and was never without beer money—a deadly one-two punch as far as they were concerned. And, too, the family had a summer place in the Catskills, where Buddy and his mother vacationed and eventually moved to after selling this old house.

What was most fascinating about the house—a true original in every respect—was that its foundation was laid atop the recently covered-over Tibbetts Brook, which meandered through this area of the Bronx until the early part of the twentieth century. When it was first ready for occupancy, there were still vestiges of the stream at the surface. Initially, this old house’s builder had a swimming hole in his backyard—water in which he actually swam, or at least wallowed in. Its basement was quite often flooded.

When my grandparents moved to Kingsbridge in 1946, the old man's wife was still among the living. There were empty lots in neighborhood at that time and people planted what they called “victory gardens” in some of them, even after the war. My grandfather tilled a plot in close proximity of this old house. Approximately ten years later, he and fellow gardeners were asked to vacate the premises in the name of progress. The original developer of the property—directly behind this old house—went bankrupt after running into unforeseen water issues courtesy of the underground, but ever-tenacious Tibbetts Brook. Two tall buildings were subsequently erected, which were dubbed Tibbett Towers. And this old house now had a parking lot alongside it.

Happily, my grandfather and a few friends found a new site in which to indulge their penchant for gardening. It was not too far from their old garden space—walking distance in fact—and just to the north of this old house. A makeshift fence promptly enclosed the new garden and a well was dug that tapped into Tibbetts Brooks, which supplied the place with a regular source of water. It was this garden that I came to know during my youth, before it, too, was plowed under. I recently learned that the old man who built this old house planted a Sycamore tree in his backyard. It’s still there now and probably over eighty years old. No surprise: the developer is going to cut it down—in the name of progress naturally.

(Photos from the personal collection of Nicholas Nigro)

A Garden Grew in the Bronx

(Originally published on June 24, 2013)

With another summer officially underway and everything green and in bloom, I am reminded of “The Garden.” That’s what everybody in the neighborhood called it, and it was a rather remarkable piece of earth. In fact, as time marches on this garden in the Kingsbridge section of the Bronx seems more remarkable than ever to me. Like so many things from the past, we took it for granted. It was there and a part of our summers. I consider myself very fortunate that the place somehow endured from 1958 to 1971. After all, this was a period of time when empty lots were slowly but surely vanishing from the local landscape. I was just nine years old when the garden was plowed under to make way for one more building, but old enough to remember its incredible uniqueness and beauty on an otherwise urban landscape.
The garden flourished on a sprawling empty lot—multiple empty lots as a matter of fact—on the northwest corner of Tibbett Avenue and W232nd Street. My grandfather and three other men enclosed the space with a makeshift fence comprised of assorted woods and metals. The fence was utilitarian—esthetics weren’t factored into the equation. Built into it, too, were both front and back entrances—doors that opened with actual keys that magically slid pieces of wood over to unlock them. Our Gang couldn’t have devised anything better.

Coincidentally, the garden location was directly across the street from the three-family brick house my grandfather had purchased and, too, the one where I grew up. When he originally moved his family, including my father, into the neighborhood in 1947, he had his heart set on a garden. In stark contrast from where he came from—Manhattan’s Morningside Heights—parts of Kingsbridge were downright bucolic back then. But while my grandfather pined for property with garden space, he needed tenants to help pay the mortgage and settled for a cement backyard and a couple of garages instead.
A friend of my grandfather's—already living in the neighborhood—told him not to worry about a garden. There were ample empty lots in the area, he said, in which he could plant one. “Victory gardens”—holdovers from the war—still existed in the environs of Kingsbridge, and my grandfather found a workable plot just up the block between W232nd Street and W231st Street. His garden was one among many garden plots there. When all were evicted so that ground could be broken for buildings that would subsequently be called "Tibbett Towers," it was time to look for another location, even with the pickings slimmer than ever.
Before the garden that I came to know was planted, the realtor who had the property on the market gave the gardeners his blessing. His one proviso was that they keep the place clean. It was a different world altogether in the late 1950s. The New York City bureaucracy, for one, wasn’t nearly as intrusive as it is today. Imagine a contemporary realtor—even with the consent of a property owner—permitting strangers to build a makeshift fence around the land for sale. And, too, allowing the construction of tool sheds, an outhouse, a bocce court, and a horseshoe pit with bleachers. Utilizing a fifty-gallon drum, my grandfather even dug a well on the property, which tapped into the formerly aboveground Tibbetts Brook just beneath the surface. This supplied the garden with all the water needed. My grandfather knew there was water to be found there, because just to the south in his former garden space the builders of Tibbett Towers were very literally waterlogged. The tenacious Tibbetts Brook was causing unforeseen and overly expensive problems in laying the foundations, which caused the original builder to go bankrupt. This debacle is possibly why the garden across the street from me survived as long as it did. Prospective buyers of the property were perhaps gun shy—and with good reason.  (The owner of the garden space reportedly hoped that the NYPD would build its new 50th Precinct station house there and, of course, pay his not inconsiderable asking price of $1.2 million. It didn’t happen. They found a more reasonable spot a few blocks away.)
The garden nonetheless was amazingly fertile. Tomatoes, eggplants, lettuce, peppers, beans, and onions were grown there. The tomato crop was so bountiful that my grandparents used to make a year’s worth of tomato sauce with garden tomatoes. My grandfather once planted 148 tomato plants, which he grew from seed in a garden hotbox. The Irish contingent of gardeners grew lots of hearty cabbages because they ate lots of cabbage. Potatoes may have been the only vegetable they tried to grow in the place without success. There was something with the soil.
The garden, too, had fig trees, peach trees, and an apple tree on the premises. Flowers were everywhere. Big, bushy marigolds were scattered about because they repelled bugs worth repelling. Tall sunflowers were bee havens. But what I remember most about the garden were the parties thrown during holidays and on summer weekends. Yes, on someone else’s property there were festive barbecues and, as I recall, lots of adult beverages being consumed. Somebody could have gotten hit on the head with a horseshoe, or fallen into the well and drowned. Just looking into the well scared me. But people weren’t conditioned to sue one another back then, so the realtor and the property owner had very little to worry about.

The garden was an oasis in a Bronx neighborhood in a tumultuous time for both New York City and the country at large. When my grandfather passed away in 1965, my father promptly filled his shoes. I always considered it my father’s garden and mine by extension. As a boy, I thought it would always be there, but that was not in the cards. From the perspectives of young and old alike, not only "The Garden" but an entire era was bulldozed on that sad day in October 1971.

(Photos from the personal collection of Nicholas Nigro)

Friday, July 28, 2017

Homeless Is Where the Heart Isn’t

This past week the old neighborhood learned that a recently constructed building on Broadway, whose eventual residents will be able to reach out and touch a passing subway train, is slated to become the residence of eighty-three homeless families. Market-rate apartments is what locals had been told the building would contain. But somewhere in the dark of night, the city fathers and mothers struck a deal with the structure’s developer. They obviously figured it would be best to report the bait-and-switch when it was a fait accompli and nothing could be done to stop it.

Yes, something has to be done about the homeless problem, which is worse than ever. The city mouthpieces proclaim, “Every neighborhood has to share in solving the problem.” Now, that’s fair enough in theory, but—let’s face it—homeless shelters aren’t popping up in every neighborhood in the city. The well-to-do addresses have nothing to fear but, maybe, fear itself.

Naturally, many area residents were up in arms at this sudden turn of events. On Facebook, men and women vented their spleens, including many who haven’t lived in the neighborhood for decades. A few people reported their personal experiences in working with homeless families in what is described as “transitional housing.” Two of them portrayed it as total chaos with a sorry cast of drug-addled adults, deadbeat dads, and neglected children. Another fellow painted a completely different picture. The majority of the homeless families he worked with were more like the Waltons in the throes of a temporary rough patch. While I am more inclined to believe the chaos model, perhaps the truth is somewhere in the middle. For all concerned, we can only hope for the best. Only time will tell, but if the city’s track record in these matters is any indicator, the “best” bar will have to be lowered.

Yesterday morning, I passed by the building and encountered a truck delivering spanking-new stainless steel refrigerators and stoves. They were all over the sidewalk as Exhibit A that this project was a done deal. A community board meeting held last night concerning it would amount to too little, too late. Any resident complaints, no doubt, fell on deaf ears. A day earlier, I found a flier in my door alerting me of the meeting. Unfortunately, it listed the wrong tomorrow. While the date, 27th, and year, 2017, were correct, the month, June, had come and gone, just as any hope at locals having a say had come and gone.

It’s pathetic that politicians and developers are so often in bed together and broker these backroom deals for their mutual benefit. It’s been reported that the landlord is poised to get $1,800 per apartment from the city’s coffers. In the big picture, it doesn’t seem to make a whole lot of sense to place eighty-three homeless families in one building in a densely populated area with over-crowded schools. But then when is sense ever factored into these equations?

(Photos from the personal collection of Nicholas Nigro)

Tuesday, July 25, 2017

Never Going to Be the Same

I was in the environs of One World Trade Center on Saturday. Several relations of mine wanted to experience the building’s observation deck, which is 1,368 feet in the air. An antennae’s further reach puts the building’s height at the historically significant 1,776 feet. I briefly considered joining them, but a lengthy line of ticket-holding tourists patiently waiting to walk on high made the decision for me.

Instead of the ascent into the heavens, I walked a few blocks west to the harbor. It was a hot, humid, and hazy afternoon, but there was a cool breeze coming off the water—an authentic sea breeze. I’m old enough to remember when the scents wafting in the ether alongside the Hudson River and New York Harbor were less than pleasant. Now, the same waters are considered clean enough to swim in—some of the time, anyway. Lady Liberty has been there in good odors and bad. I visited Liberty Island once—possibly twice—as a youth and climbed the statue to its torch. Did the Empire State Building thing as a boy, too, but recall very little about it. And unless you count shopping in a Borders bookstore on one of the tower’s ground floor, I was never inside either of the Twin Towers.

It’s hard to believe that the sixteenth anniversary of 9/11 is less than two months away. In the immediate aftermath of the attacks, a common refrain was heard: “We will never be the same.” After all, how could we be? For a short period of time that sentiment didn’t seem so far-fetched. We Americans had come together as never before—or so it appeared. Well, that was then and this is now. While it’s true that we aren’t the same as we were on 9/10/2001, I don’t think the nature of our different perspectives is what we had in mind sixteen years ago. We were supposed to be less partisan and more cognizant of life’s fragility. We were supposed to behave as if we were all in this thing together and appreciate what we have in common. We weren’t going to sweat the small things anymore. Needless to say, we haven’t quite evolved that much. But then we were probably foolish to think we could. In fact, we’ve devolved. Exhibit A: Donald Trump’s address to the 2017 National Scout Jamboree. “Who the hell wants to speak about politics when I’m in front of the Boy Scouts?” the man began. And it was downhill after that.

Social media didn’t exist in 2001. Thank god for that! I can’t imagine what the Facebook posts and Twitter tweets would have been like in the days, weeks, and months after 9/11. Actually, I can. It’s no stretch to say that social media forums are contributing mightily to our ongoing decline as an intelligent life form. Exhibit B: a video uploaded to Facebook of teenagers watching a drowning man and laughing at the spectacle. They didn’t report the incident to the local police, who learned of the video's existence days later. The dead man had been reported missing. This sort of thing is an everyday occurrence now. And then there are the ubiquitous trolls. They are omnipresent online, a constant reminder of society’s growing crassness, ignorance, and indifference. I no longer wonder who these people are in the bright light of day. After all, I have an account on Facebook. I know some of the trolls by name and by reputation. Go to the bank on it: We will never be the same.

(Photos from the personal collection of Nicholas Nigro)

Friday, July 21, 2017

Good Humor and Bad Humor in the Summertime

It’s officially a heat wave here in New York City—several days in a row of ninety-plus degree temperatures—and I don’t like it. I realize that I romanticize the summertime of my youth every now and then—outdoors much of the time and playing the games that little people played for generations, which, by the way, they don’t play anymore. But even as a spry and callow boy, the one-two punch of summer’s heat and humidity was never something desired and rarely, if ever, appreciated. My father’s mantra was that it—the discomforting clamminess and unhealthy air quality—was all in our heads. He didn’t realize it then, but he was a Buddhist at heart. Mind over matter.

Growing up in a seven-person household on the top floor of a three-family house with no air conditioning in the summer months was—in retrospect—pretty brutal. In the 1960s and 1970s, we experienced recurring electrical brownouts as well. During the high-consumption months of July and August, utility Con Edison’s answer to avoiding total blackouts was a brownout. The lights would flicker on the warmest nights, which was no big deal. But brownouts were especially unforgiving when it came to ice cubes. Heat, humidity, and half-frozen ice cubes with a foul taste were a familiar summertime threesome. On some of the cruelest of summer eves, an ice-cold drink wasn’t even an option.

Nevertheless, those were the days. Regardless of the temperature or relative humidity of a summer’s day, stoop sitting was a hallowed evening ritual, as well as—for a spell of time—a Good Humor truck passing by. This daily happening provided a brief respite from the heat, particularly if something icy was purchased like a watery, cola-flavored Italian ice, lemon-grape rocket pop, or lemon-grape Bon-Joy swirl. Lemon-grape was a winning combination.

First there was Larry the Good Humor Man, who drove the classic little truck that required him to step outside and pluck the ice cream from its back-of-the-cab freezer. And then there was Rod the Good Humor Man, who conducted business in a stand-inside truck. Apparently, Rod lived in the neighborhood. He would see us playing during the Good Humor off-season—parts of fall, spring, and the entire winter. So he said. Concentrating on grocery sales alone, Good Humor sold off its fleet of trucks in 1976. And that was the end of that! I see the present owners of the brand recently resurrected the ice cream truck and—along with it—the ice cream man and woman. I suspect they are stationed at parks and such, where ice cream vendors are still spotted. But chumming for business on neighborhood side streets? I doubt it. If a Good Humor Man materialized around these parts, he would find few kids playing outside in the hottest of weather. And as for off-duty sightings during the winter months—fuggeaboutit!

Epilogue: Larry the Good Humor Man was last seen driving a New York City yellow cab. Oh, but that was more than forty years ago. And Rod the Good Humor Man suffered a heart attack in the mid-1970s and lived to tell. I don’t know how or why I know that. I guess Rod told us at some point. Oh, but that, too, was more than four decades ago. Larry, as I recall, was on the younger side as a Good Humor Man, so he might still be among the living, but he would be pushing eighty by now. If he’s still extant, I hope he’s in good humor. Rod, I fear, is more likely among the angels. With any luck, he’s ringing the celestial equivalent of his Good Humor truck bells, an inviting sound for countless living and dead souls who bought ice cream on steamy New York City nights a long time ago.

(Photos from the personal collection of Nicholas Nigro)