Monday, February 12, 2018

Sights and Sounds Are All Around

Approximately forty years ago, Seaside Heights, New Jersey had a boardwalk attraction called Cinema 180. Inside a movie theater-circus tent hybrid, paying customers stood and watched films of speeding cars, airborne planes zigzagging over the Grand Canyon, soaring hot air balloons, and other breathtaking adventures. The barker outside the place piqued people's interests with a lively come-on script that concluded with the punch line: "Sights and sounds are all around." And indeed they were...
I'm afraid it is...
I have always felt that seagulls have a good thing going for them.
More evidence of that...
It's called "thinking outside of the box." Take a cruise up Broadway on the HRYSLER.
See such sights as Broadway Joe's Pizza, established 1969; the former locations of legendary Manhattan College watering holes, the Pinewood and Terminal; Burger King, which originally was a White Tower; and the Marie Antoinette, a walk-up apartment building that was once home to bartender and neighborhood icon Timmy O'Connor.
"Now the children try to find it...and they can't believe their eyes...Yes, there used to be a nuclear reactor right here." 
Christmas 2017 seems like a long time ago. Yet, when Christmas 2018 arrives, it'll be like Christmas 2017 just happened...
Just a short year ago this age-old midget entrance to a Van Cortlandt Park baseball field endured. The portal was there forty years ago when my crouching friends and I regularly passed through it to "hit some out." 
But this portal proved to be mortal after all. And a venerable rite of passage is no more. 
If vans could talk...
I don't know what it is but there's something about subway track sparks...
Mike Quill was one of the founders of the Transport Workers Union of America (TWU). He was deemed a "Red" by some back in the day. Now he's got a corner all his own.
Whenever I see graffiti in places like this I think of Robert Shaw frying himself in The Taking of Pelham 123...a movie classic from the 1970s that holds up quite well in my opinion.
I went to high school in the East Bronx and remember some classmates arriving via the "Dyre Avenue" line, which always sounded dire to me.
Walking in a winter wonderland...
McMann and Tate ain't what they used to be...but then what is?

(Photos from the personal collection of Nicholas Nigro)

Friday, February 9, 2018

Irish Curses, Blessings, and Toasts

When Piels came to the legendary Jimmy Breslin to do a commercial for its beer, he said, “I’m not Bert or Harry…I’m Jimmy Breslin, a writer.” Actually, that was part of the advertisement script, which Breslin delivered with urban aplomb. In the 1950s, Bert and Harry Piel were animated television pitchmen for what was then a very popular beer. Jimmy Breslin spieled for Piels more than two decades later. The ad aired repeatedly on local New York City stations in the late 1970s and it remains a classic all these years later. The gifted wordsmith initially described Piels as “a good beer” then "better than good" and finally as "a good drinking beer!" In other words: a bargain for those who valued quantity above quality.

This intro is my roundabout way of pitching a most recent publishing credit: Irish Curses, Blessings, and Toasts. The subtitle says it all: A Little Book of Wit, Wisdom, and Whimsy. What, you ask, does a comprehensive compilation of Celtic sayings and such have to do with a Jimmy Breslin beer commercial from 1978? Except for the fact that it danced like visions of sugarplums in my head, not much at all. You see, when I was initially offered the opportunity to amass and edit this wide-ranging pithy volume, I said to myself: I’m not Colm or Eamon…I’m Nicholas Nigro with a vowel at the end of my name. Ah, but in the writing biz: “Ours not to reason why, ours but to do and die.” Later, I amended the vowel thing. After all, Chief O’Hara, Jim O’Gara, Eric O’Mara, and Joe Donahue, too—all have surnames ending in a vowel.

Here’s the story: I grew up in Kingsbridge, an Irish enclave in the Bronx at the time. My paternal grandparents from Italy had originally settled in Manhattan’s Morningside Heights. When my grandfather had saved up enough money to buy a house—he had been an iceman and subsequently worked for Sheffield Farms, a milk company—he set his sights on the less populated Outer Boroughs of New York City. In 1946, he moved his family—including my father who was seventeen at the time—five miles north to Kingsbridge. My grandfather not only wanted a home of his own, he wished to settle, too, in an area that was not predominantly Italian. He reasoned that by doing so his wife—my grandmother—would master the English language more quickly and more adeptly. And so it came to pass: the Italian Nigros of Kingsbridge commingled with the Irish majority on the neighborhood’s business hub, W231st Street, at nearby St. John’s Roman Catholic Church run by the likes of Scanlan, Doherty, and Foley, and under the deafening El on Broadway.

The rest, I guess, is history. My grandfather would one day plant and harvest a post-war “victory garden” across the street from his Kingsbridge home alongside men named McGuire, Brady, and Reilly. My father would play stickball on the streets with guys named O’Neal, Gern, and Joyce. And one and all would congregate in front of Pat Mitchell’s Irish Food Center, a neighborhood institution for more than three decades. In fact, I dedicate Irish Curses, Blessings, and Toasts to “Pat Mitchell’s Kingsbridge.” For when I was a youth, a stopover at Pat Mitchell’s after Sunday Mass for fresh rolls and jelly donuts was a revered ritual. It was also the place to purchase brain-freezing Fla-Vor-Ice pops for a nickel, glass bottles of RC Cola for twenty cents, and—the pièce de résistance—penny candies for—imagine that—a penny.

Pat Mitchell’s Kingsbridge was a great neighborhood in which to grow up. It was an era before the Internet, cell phones, and even plastic shopping bags. In my father’s eclectic vinyl LP collection were Clancy Brothers albums. He once told me that his rallying mantra—with his many Irish drinking buddies—was “The Moonshiner” lyrics: “I’ll eat when I’m hungry, I’ll drink when I’m dry. And the moonshine don’t kill me, I’ll live till I die.”

I close now with the vivid memory of a man named Gene Daugherty, a New York City bus driver. He was a fixture at the holiday cookouts thrown in the victory garden’s cozy confines. On more than one warm summer’s night, Gene belted out “When Irish Eyes Are Smiling.” From across the street where I lived, I could hear the Irishman’s dulcet tones cutting through the velvet darkness. The only lights visible were the tips of lit cigarettes, cigars, and pipes.

You can purchase Irish Curses, Blessings, and Toasts online from the likes of Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and IndieBound. Paraphrasing Jimmy Breslin, permit me this parting salvo: "It's a good little book. Yeah, that's how I would describe it. It's a good little book!"

(Photos from the personal collection of Nicholas Nigro)

Wednesday, February 7, 2018

“Eee…Snow?”

I know this fellow who is into “good stuff”—really into it. He once said to me, “Thoughts give rise to other thoughts—gotta be helpful!” Well, yeah, the first part’s a no-brainer. For example: I woke up this morning and wondered if it would be snowing outside my window. It wasn't but soon after was. The previous evening’s forecast had called for the white stuff to begin falling just after sunrise. It was expected and did transition to sleet, freezing rain, and then plain old rain in a matter of hours.

Well, the first thing that popped into my head as I rolled out of bed was this—and I said it aloud, too—“Eee…snow?” Why, you ask, did I say that? It’s actually a query lodged in my brain from—oh, say—thirty-five years ago. I was patronizing my preferred pizza parlor, Sam’s, on a winter’s day sometime when Ronald Reagan was president. And it began to snow outside. The counterman at that moment was a young chap that my brother and I had christened “Unis”— not Eunice, but Unis. He was an employee who materialized out of the blue and became a pizza-making fixture there for several years in the 1980s. But upon his arrival we were accustomed to seeing the same familiar faces: George, Andrew, and even "Eeeno." Eeeno, by the way, received his moniker for shouting to a neighborhood friend of mine, “Eee not for you!” My pal had committed the grievous mistake of assuming the greasy pizza bag placed in front of him by Eeeno was his takeout order. We never did learn Eeeno’s real name.

Anyway, back to Unis. He turned up as a completely unknown quantity in a business of very well-known quantities. And since the place was owned and staffed exclusively by Greeks back then, he was the Unknown Greek to us—or Unis for short—even after he became quite known. You see how thoughts lead to other thoughts. As for the process always being helpful—well, that remains to be seen.

While on this fascinating subject, I stumbled upon a sign this past weekend in the vicinity of Wall Street that read, “Danger…Open Pit.” What came to mind were two competing and somewhat diverse thoughts. One was of the barbecue sauce brand, Open Pit, and the second was of the Joker as played by Cesar Romero. It would have been just like him to invent a dastardly contraption to do away with his nemeses Batman and Robin. I can see the Dynamic Duo now dangling over a percolating pit of steamy barbecue sauce. 

Some more of the same: A fellow passenger on the subway this weekend resembled—as far as I was concerned—the actor Denver Pyle in his later years. He was wearing a Gray Line sightseeing tour-guide red satin jacket and nervously fiddling with his meds. I couldn’t help but wonder what his story was. I sat across from still another oddball, whom I’ve spied before on the train. He’s a dead ringer for the Monty Python guy—the hermit who appears in the opening credits and cries, “It’s!” When Eeeno the pizza man said, “Eee not for you!” he was really saying, “It’s not for you!” The Monty Python Guy, as I dub him forevermore, exited at Times Square. Perusing a local tabloid, he typically sits quietly for the ride. So, imagine my surprise when he got up to exit this past Sunday and bellowed, “Open the [expletive deleted] doors!” Apparently, they didn’t open up fast enough for the uber-impatient Monty Python Guy, who then headed off to somewhere unknown looking—for all the world—like the Monty Python guy…

(Photos from the personal collection of Nicholas Nigro)

Tuesday, January 30, 2018

January: Final Thoughts

Jerry Springer is still a television fixture. Once upon a time I got a kick out of the closing moments of his extraordinarily tasteless talk show. For it was then that the unctuous host delivered what were dubbed his “final thoughts.” Springer would oh-so-seriously opine about the lessons learned from the day’s show, as if he had delivered a public service by having guests brawling with one another, cursing each other out, and tossing chairs around the set. Lost on Springer and his “final thoughts” was any sense of irony. But then this was the same guy who got caught in a sting after paying a prostitute with a personal check.

I’d rather talk about the weather than Jerry Springer. Mercifully, January is near an end. Overall, it was very cold month with just a handful of temperate bones thrown our way. This past weekend was on the mild side with a pleasing Sunday morning fog. The homeless were omnipresent on the streets of Manhattan. It seems there are more of them than ever living in the great outdoors. One aggressive fellow stood on a corner asking for bucks. I handed him a dollar, which displeased him. “Aren’t you going to help me get ten dollars?” he asked. I replied, “I just did!” His retort came with a menacing stare: “That’s all you can spare?” Actually, his questions weren’t really questions. They were angry statements. There are many poor souls on the street who are mentally ill with addiction problems. Some of them, like this guy, are on the scary side of the street. I don't suspect it took him too long to amass his goal of ten dollars. Menace has its benefits.

With the first month of the year practically in the history books, the 2018 Lenten season looms on the horizon. I don’t know if there’s any significance to this, but Ash Wednesday falls on Valentine’s Day. For those unfamiliar with the former, it’s the day when Catholics and assorted Christians are reminded that they were dust and dust they will soon be again. It’s a dusty road we trod. And I suppose it’s never too early to teach kids this important fact of life. With that knowledge and, of course, an ashy cross on their foreheads, they can rest easy.

And now for something completely different: What’s with the excessive use of countdown clocks on cable news channels? Is it necessary to have a twenty-seven hour, thirty-six minute, and forty-five second—and ticking down, down, down—advance notice of the State of the Union speech? It’s pointless glitz, a distraction, but somehow befitting of the times in which we live.

Speaking of these times: There are an awful lot of thoughtless, inflammatory, offensive oafs in the wider world. And social media is their playground. While perusing a nostalgic picture site on Facebook recently, I came upon a comment to an innocuous photo that was aggressive, vulgar, and totally uncalled for. What else is new? My modus operandi in such situations is to check out the offending party. In this instance the oaf was a sixty-something man and great patriot, of course, with grandchildren—a bona fide power-of-example. This sort of behavior—adults who should know better—used to leave me dumbfounded. But I am no longer surprised that countless men and women now sit behind their Wizard of Oz curtains and fulminate on forums that in simpler times didn’t exist.

(Photos from the personal collection of Nicholas Nigro)

Monday, January 22, 2018

Tale of Two Weekends

Temperatures topped fifty degrees on both Saturday and Sunday. It’s the January thaw, I guess. Daytime highs barely reached twenty a week earlier. In both the cold times and not-so-cold times, I visited Battery Park. And what a difference a week made.

One week ago, tourists in the vicinity of the World Trade Center were hard to come by. I didn’t see any tour boats in the harbor either. Roaming around that blustery part of town with wind chills near zero is not for the faint of heart—take my word for it. I didn’t linger very long at water’s edge. Instead, I found myself a pizza shop to simultaneously satisfy my craving and rest my cold and weary bones. The place had a large sign in its interior: “The Best Pizza in New York.” Suffice it to say, it wasn’t the best pizza in town, but I’ve tasted worse—a whole lot worse. (See my previous blog for the photographic evidence.) My biggest problem with this pizza parlor was its two doors, which were left ajar. Seeing one’s breath at the lunch table doesn’t exactly enhance dining ambiance. Interestingly, a couple of Yelp reviewers of the place complained about its lack of air-conditioning and stifling dining room in the summertime.

Such are the sands of time. It will be hot as hell soon enough. I noticed last week a missing Nathan’s hot dog cart, which was not in its familiar spot on Vesey Street. I assumed it wouldn’t return until spring. But lo and behold, it was back in business this weekend. Yesterday, I couldn’t resist a couple of their “famous” frankfurters: crunchy, salty, and perversely tasty. However, I passed on their equally “famous” greasy crinkle French fries. That gastro ship has definitely sailed.

The New York City homeless population is also less visible on the streets on the bitterest of cold days. They are forced into shelters, I presume, because there is real estate that belongs to homeless men and women—specific spots where the same folks can almost always be found. The balmier weather brought everybody back. It’s a sad situation for sure.

In the arctic weather, subway cars and underground stations house more homeless than usual. Last week, I entered the last car of a Bronx-bound Number 1 train on my return trip home and found three passengers in it—all homeless. Two of the three appeared to be a couple and were animatedly raving to one another. I sensed a degree of menace in the land down under and, as I was in no particular rush to get home, I exited the train at the next stop. What do I find but a homeless man encamped right outside the door. I couldn’t therefore wait for the next train and its last car at that end of the station. So, I walked to other end. It was there that I discovered a shuttered women’s bathroom—a relic of a kinder and gentler past in the big city.

Speaking of the homeless, a man entered the subway yesterday looking, smelling, and behaving like he was on the destitute side of the ledger. But he didn’t ask for any money and was carrying a working smartphone. He strolled through the car and got off at the next stop. Shortly thereafter, another fellow got on, took a seat, and was alternatively laughing and ranting for several stops—the kind of guy that, were I alone, would force me to employ the Charles Manson Rule and make like a tree and leave. But I wasn’t alone. After a while the chap got up and sinisterly repeated over and over: “I don’t have a job. Can anybody give me some money?” He appeared angry and unfocused as he raced through the car and into the next one. Clearly, panhandling wasn’t his thing.

It’s a strange age we live in. I saw a homeless guy on the street with all his accoutrements, including a sign elaborating on his sorry state. He was talking on a cell phone when I passed by. And in the aforementioned frosty pizza shop, a teenager ate his pizza alongside of me. He was engrossed with his device the whole time. Likewise captivated by a device, a friend met him there. The pair somehow managed to eat, converse, and make plans for the day without ever looking up. I was impressed. One final note: The tour boats were back in the harbor this weekend. It's too bad Lady Liberty was off-limits.

(Photos from the personal collection of Nicholas Nigro)

Monday, January 15, 2018

Tis Bitter Cold and I Am Sick of January

January has long been my least favorite month. It's thirty-one days, on the cold side, and sometimes snowy. It's also the month when the Christmas decorations come down and countless sorry-looking trees end up at the curbside. Returning to school after the New Year and Christmas vacation was, as I recall, psychologically grueling. It was a powerful one-two punch: the party's over locking arms with an extended stretch of nothingness. The school year's "mid-winter recess" or "winter vacation" wasn't until mid-February, and that always seemed like a long way away in early January. As a youth, the snow possibility was about the only thing that recommended this time of year. But now an adult long removed from even a second childhood, snowfall is the stake through the heart of January. 
Blizzard-like conditions still supply a great visual. But I make that statement on a conditional basis.
After their time has come and gone, Christmas decorations are sad sights indeed.
Neither snow nor rain nor gloom of night stays these couriers from the swift completion of  delivering Amazon Prime packages.
For more than a quarter of a century, my father worked at the mega-post office with the unofficial postal motto emblazoned on its facade. He, in fact, worked the four-to-midnight shift, coming home on the subway in the "gloom of night."
I can't think of anyone more deserving of being a canine chew toy.
If you don't demand the best and will settle for okay, this is the place for you...
On Manhattan's other Restaurant Row...
In the vicinity of Times Square on New Year's Day, the garbage cans were closed but the barbershops were open.
If you can't throw your trash in a can, a telephone booth is the next best thing.
If you've ever wanted to visit a DVD, take down that address.
Price Harry's favorite place for a sandwich and a smoothie when he's in town.
Donald Trump has been wont to refer to 9-11 in speeches as "7-Eleven." This is perhaps why.
Yesterday I ate lunch at a place with this sign on the wall.
And here it is...
The January saga...a picture is worth a thousand words.
I wonder what the "souvenir" is?
An abandoned women's prison? No, a permanently locked subway bathroom.
As a kid I always associated New York City steam pipes with Christmastime and a good kind of cold. Times change.

(Photos from the personal collection of Nicholas Nigro)