Tuesday, August 4, 2020

Reflections on Stinky Times

Recently, I spotted a car with a Kennedy-Johnson bumper sticker. It wasn’t affixed—sixty years ago—on a pre-1960s vehicle bumper. Rather, it was a subtle but powerful contemporary statement, lost, no doubt, on the Millennials in their myriad hashtag worlds. Yes, it's easy to poke fun at Millennials—they are not all created equal—but so many of the guys sound the same. From my ear: Just like the Amazon code phone call voice. 

Anyway, what the bumper sticker hammered home to me was this: We are living in stinky times on a whole host of fronts. There was a time when politicians earned their initials. JFK-LBJ was quite a ticket, following in the ample footsteps of FDR. From the New Deal to the New Frontier. Now we have AOC, a media-made grandstander. Can you appreciate the decline? The pandemic and all that it has wrought has merely enhanced the stink, literally and figuratively. Nevertheless, I continue to wonder as I wander. I wonder what tomorrow will bring. 
For starters this: For the first time in eighty-seven years, the Rockettes have been grounded. No Christmas Spectacular in 2020.
Once upon a time when the lights were lit, I saw Engelbert Humperdinck there. It's a complicated back story that involved Regis Philbin, may he rest in peace.
Hey, Mike Bloomberg, do you want to contribute to a worthwhile charity? Double what you spent running for president will suffice.
How about a billion plus for the city you love, which will hardly make a dent in your net worth. For the city, by the way, that you left in not very capable hands. If you want to get a fix on the caliber of Bloomberg's successor, I refer you to his presidential campaign.
Hey, if Prometheus can wear a mask, so can you!
Back to Mayor Mike, the philanthropist. The police budget has been cut by one billion dollars. Watching the local news nowadays is akin to having a ringside seat at the O.K. Corral. Looking on the bright side, it's not the Windy City, although it was pretty windy today.
So, how about one billion for the police...
And another one hundred million for the sanitation department, whose budget has been cut by that figure. It hasn't gone unnoticed, by the way. 
One final aside on the local news: The amount of commercials run during them is too much to bear. Infomercials even air during the news broadcasts. But, I get it: These are stinky times. Remembering fondly Jim Jensen, Rolland Smith, and Carol Martin.
Saturday was a beautiful day for baseball Let's play two. On second thought, one is too much. For a long time now, Major League Baseball has not been the game that I once knew and loved. But in these stinky times the sport—among others—has gone political. Buy me some peanuts and Cracker Jacks...
Thank you! But wish there were some garment workers left in the Garment District.
This is an all too common sight around New York City. The aforementioned service cuts leave these street litter baskets overflowing for days at a time. It just adds to the abiding misery. And it stinks!
Remember me to Herald Square.
In these stinky times, it's easy to get steamed. Back to the FDR-JFK-LBJ-AOC monikers for a moment. Referring to the statue of Father Damien of Molokai, a canonized saint, in the U.S. Capitol, AOC remarked, “This is what patriarchy and white supremacist culture looks like!” Really? The man ministered to an isolated leper colony in a remote part of Hawaii. He died of the disease and is considered a hero by many.  
A new term used by the news media to describe people who can't afford sufficient groceries: food insecurity. There's a lot of that in these parts and virtually everywhere else.
It's getting near that time. What will the college experience look like this year?
In my alma mater, woke-inspired protests will begin, I fear. An English professor was quoted in the local paper, The Riverdale Press, that Manhattan College, which is in the Bronx, by the way, is being "exclusionary" by listing its address as Riverdale, New York. Riverdale is a neighborhood in the Bronx. Got that. I feel fortunate that I attended college in the 1980s and not now...no straight jacket required.
The train's leaving the station. Don't let it leave without you.

(Photos from the personal collection of Nicholas Nigro)

Tuesday, July 28, 2020

Still Up, Still Down, and Still a Hole in the Ground

This most bizarre year grinds on and on and on. The most bizarre presidential election in memory is now only three months away. A sitting president is boasting about acing a dementia test and daring his opponent to do the same. His rival, by the way, is running a masterful campaign, appreciating that—now more than ever—less is definitely better. A footnote on the aforementioned test: I read somewhere that one question asks the patient to count back by seven from one hundred. Honestly, I don’t think too many young people could do that now. The dementia tests of the future will have to take this into account.

Speaking of bizarre, but sadly the norm in these Orwellian times, I came upon this recent ABC News tweet: “Protesters in California set fire to a courthouse, damaged a police station and assaulted officers after a peaceful demonstration intensified.” Once upon a time, President Bill Clinton answered a question with this: “It depends on what the meaning of ‘is’ is? I say: It depends on what the meaning of “peaceful” is. Personally, I know a peaceful demonstration when I see one. And when it intensifies as noted above—by a mainstream media Goliath—it becomes something else entirely. Just sayin’. I suppose it’s in the company style manual: Any mention of violence in said demonstrations must include the word “peaceful” in it.

Anyway, I ventured down to lower Manhattan this past weekend—into the belly of the beast in this Bizarro World in which we all reside. Curious to see what the peaceful demonstrators had wrought in the vicinity of City Hall, I planned a walk-around of the wounded landscape. The area, though, was barricaded and tightly guarded by police, who had at long last evicted—upon orders of the man-impersonating-a-mayor—Chaz East. Thwarted, I ventured into the canyons of Wall Street and down to Battery Park. Sometimes, you just have to look on the bright side of things—in this case of a pandemic. From a purely selfish perspective—I know—there are benefits to having fewer people around a piece of real estate typically overflowing with folks from all over the world. That said: I look forward to the business of New York’s return, which includes tourists en masse. But until that unknown date, I will wonder as I wander in the relative tranquility—in peacefulness, if you will.
The people still ride in a hole in the ground, but on the Number 1 line—heading into lower Manhattannot until after Dyckman Street.
I wish I could say that New York City has gone to the dogs. But, unfortunately, it's gone to the politicians.

While it's a squeaky clean environment nowadays for many riders, it doesn't always last. Please, don't let this feeling end...
In the environs of City Hall, the big cleanup was ongoing. 
NYC Chaz ended with a whimper and not a bang, which was good for all concerned.
If you are a misanthrope and an outdoorsman, it's actually an ideal time to visit Manhattan.
Beware, though, of COVID-19 and stray gunfire.
This guard must be off-duty on weekends. He's never inside to disturb.
Sit here, not there, not there, not there, okay here.

Is all of this a bit of overkill? From my observation, individuals who practice social distancing will practice social distancing without untold prompts. And those who don't won't be inspired to do so by countless directives.
The bronze "Charging Bull," which I'm happy to report was left unscathed by peaceful demonstrators, is located in the historic Bowling Green area in the Financial District. By the way, there are a lot of statues down there.
What, pray tell, isn't nowadays?
Rest easy, lawn!
The place is here. The time is now, and the journey into the shadows that we are about to watch, could be our journey. This is Rod Serling's opening narration from "Where Is Everybody?" the first ever episode of The Twilight Zone, starring Earl Holliman. The above image is of the Castle Clinton National Monument, which in ordinary times would be teeming with visitors.
Including this big guy, who is one among countless little guys out of work in these bizarre times.
Here's that bright side that I was talking about.
Only a handful of people were on Miss New York, which was headed to the recently reopened Liberty Island. In normal times, this boat is packed to capacity with long, winding lines awaiting the next trip and the one after that and the one after that.
Alas, no climbing the Lady's innards at this time. But this too shall pass, he said.

(Photos from the personal collection of Nicholas Nigro)

Friday, July 24, 2020

You Know You Are Getting Old...

From the “You Know You Are Getting Old” file: I ran across a news story this morning that warned of a potential future calamity should things remain status quo. A year of reckoning was included in the article: 2040. Without asking why, I calculated my age at that fateful moment in time. And if all goes well, I thought—I might very well be deceased when the chickens come home to roost. After all, I would have arrived then at the average life expectancy for an American male. Of course, I could drop dead tomorrow or live until 2060—neither of which appeal to me.

This particular story concerned plastic and how by 2040 there could be triple the amount of it in our oceans. The piece was accompanied by a rather startling image of a completely plastic-littered shore with a wild boar or some such animal rummaging through the mess. Earlier this year—before the world turned upside down—a single-use plastic ban went into effect in New York State. It’s still on the books, but not enforced as far as I can see, which is understandable considering the more pressing messes.

That said: I cannot help but notice the litter baskets around town, which are overflowing onto the sidewalks. And ditto the litter in the parks and in the streets. Among the teeming refuse is lots and lots of plastic, particularly take-out containers, cups, and utensils. With the COVID-19 city budget clearly scaled back, including sanitation services, the plastic conundrum endures more potent than ever. The restaurants that have opened for outdoor dining are serving everything on disposable plastic plates with disposable plastic forks, spoons, and knives. Considering the seriousness of the moment, I certainly understand why, but it’s not a Marshmallow World that we live in—it’s a plastic one.

Supporting my local eateries and delivery people, I regularly order food via GrubHub. All the plastic used for the simplest of orders never ceases to amaze me. I take some solace in that I can and do recycle the stuff, but the more I learn about what actually gets recycled—when push comes to shove—the more I worry about the 2040 scenario and beyond.

I recall fondly the days of patronizing my favorite local diner for a hamburger, French fries, and cup-of-soup takeout with no plastic used at all. What could be wrapped in paper was wrapped in paper. Liquids were poured into cardboard cups. Everything was then placed in a brown paper bag. I remember, too, purchasing a sixteen-ounce Nedick’s brand orange soda from Pat Mitchell’s little grocery store in Kingsbridge. It was in a glass bottle—not a single item, in fact, in the place’s freezers was in plastic. Yes, I know, there are environmental and manufacturing issues with glass and paper, too.

Looking on the bright side of plastic: Several years ago while riding as a passenger with an all-too aggressive driver-friend of mine, a road rage incident occurred. My chauffeur refused to let a car into a merging entrance lane of the Major Deegan Expressway, I-87. Shortly thereafter on said expressway, a vehicle pulled up alongside us, slowed down, and opened its passenger-side window. Out came a very angry head with an empty plastic soda bottle in hand, and then a second one, which he ferociously tossed onto our windshield. Fortunately, even ferociously tossed empty plastic soda bottles land with a whimper and not a bang, especially on windy highways and byways. And that, apparently, was all the ammo available to them as they sped away. Nevertheless, it caused an uncomfortable swerve and bona fide scare as well. And we were left to wonder and worry if the bottle throwers might be lying-in-wait rearmed up ahead. 

Now, there’s no telling what empty glass bottles in lieu of plastic ones might have initiated in the above retelling. From the looks on the perpetrators’ faces—who were angrily cussing out my friend—they would have tossed, if they had one on hand, a fully loaded safe at us. In any event, I lived to tell the tale of two plastic bottles, but for how much longer no one knows.

(Photos from the personal collection of Nicholas Nigro)

Monday, July 20, 2020

Congratulations to Neil, Buzz, and Mike

(Originally published 7/17/14)

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

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

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

Sunday, July 19, 2020

That '70s Summer

It’s extremely hot today. The temperature is expected to near one hundred degrees Fahrenheit—a New York City scorcher in the midst of a bona fide heat wave. Once upon a time in the Bronx, I was undeterred come hell or high water. What now constitutes a long time ago, neighborhood kids went about the business of summer regardless of what the thermometer read or where the relative humidity stood. We played stickball on steamy asphalt without a cooler of bottled water on hand. In fact, there was no such thing as individual plastic bottles of water back then.

The contemporary Big Apple is being compared unfavorably to its 1970s forebear. In the mid-1970s the city was in the throes of a fiscal crisis—with bankruptcy a very real possibility—and rampant crime on top of that. I was a boy in those days and fondly remember that colorful snapshot in time, even if it was on the dirty and unsafe side. It still resembled old New York—the city my paternal grandparents settled in—with its mom-and-pop shops, Garment District, and the last of the automats.

Summer nights brought out stoop sitters en masse, who shared the increasing darkness with copious lightning bugs. I’ve spotted a smattering of those incandescent insects around this year, but nothing like the numbers in their heyday. Even the fortunate folks with air conditioners emerged on the warmest nights to spit the breeze. We youth played a game called “flashlight,” a.k.a. “flashlight tag,” immediately after sunset. No part of our days were wasted. I grew up in an outdoor world absent any uber-technological devices to endlessly stare into. So much was left to our imaginations.

When the heat was on, our local utility—Con Edison—often scaled back the power during the nighttime hours. Lights would flicker and ice cubes would partially melt and then refreeze. A cold drink was sometimes hard to come by and the poor excuses for ice cubes tasted foul. No air conditioning and sub-par ice cubes, though, were par for the course during the dog days. I called home an upstairs apartment. Seven of us lived in it with a solitary bathroom. I’m not complaining because The Brady Bunch had it even worse with nine people sharing one. They never appeared bothered by the heat, so I assume the Brady clan had some form of air conditioning.

As a kid, the heat of the summer was to be expected, endured, and celebrated as a welcome respite from the interminable school years. There were no air conditioners in my classrooms from kindergarten through college. I recall some days—particularly in the month of September—baking like a couch potato while learning my ABCs. But at least that was taught back in the day. There were few things more horrifying than hazy, hot, and humid weather in the fledgling days of a new school year.

My father always said that feeling the heat was in our heads. He wasn’t bothered by the melted, peculiar-tasting ice cubes, which he found no use for in his preferred brew. The old-school Italians grinned and bore it. Dinnertime in the dead of summer was not all that different than dinnertime in the dead of winter. In the hottest of hot weather, some adjustments were made vis-à-vis turning on the oven, but the frying pan continued to fry with the post office motto the wind beneath its wings.

That was then and this is now. I like having an air conditioner on days like today. And I’d rather not cook baked chicken and French fries this evening. Still, I miss the great outdoors in the heat of the night and heat of the day, too. Forty and fifty years ago, there were no safe spaces for us to hide in during the summer months and the recurring brownouts didn’t trigger any meltdowns either. So, please, let’s not compare the 1970s to 2020.

(Photos from the personal collection of Nicholas Nigro)

Monday, July 13, 2020

This Day in History

(A reprise from seven years ago. It's now forty-three years since the lights went out at the Big Shea and throughout the big city. A footnote: The lights permanently went out at Shea Stadium in 2008.)

Thirty-six years ago tonight the lights went out at Shea Stadium. Give or take a couple of minutes, the time was 9:34 p.m. Save a handful of Rockaway, Queens neighborhoods not served by local utility Con Edison, the rest of New York City also went dark. I was not in attendance of this historic Mets’ game versus the Chicago Cubs, but I always wished I had been on what turned out to be a night to remember. I happened to be a long away from home—on a family vacation in a place called Chadwick Beach along the New Jersey Shore—and listening to the game on my favorite radio of all-time. It was a durable Christmas gift that also picked up the audio of local television stations.

I vividly remember Mets’ announcer Ralph Kiner saying that he could see cars going over the darkened Whitestone Bridge in the distance. Ralph had mistakenly called it the Throgs Neck Bridge in the past, which is not visible from the radio booth. The man, a great storyteller who is sorely missed, had a charming knack for sometimes getting things wrong.

Riveted at this blackout that I wasn’t home to enjoy—history in the making—I continued listening to the suspended game. I figured it was a temporary glitch that would soon be remedied—but it wasn’t for twenty-four hours. It didn’t take very long for the Mets’ radio station to lose its signal—several minutes—leaving me in the dark concerning the goings-on back in my hometown. Awaiting the power’s return, I subsequently learned that New York Mets’ organist Jane Jarvis plowed through her entire repertoire, and even started playing holiday carols like “Jingle Bells” and “White Christmas” to keep the fans entertained until the lights came back on, which they didn't that night.

Although not nearly as brutal as New York City’s infamous three "H" weather—hazy, hot, and humid—it was a rather steamy evening in Chadwick Beach, too. While the thermometer hovered close to one hundred degrees that day in the Big Apple, it was in the nineties in our vacation hamlet. That summer, our Bronx neighbors from just up the street shared the same shore house with us. They resided in the upper floor while we set up vacation shop in the lower half. Without air conditioning in this two-family rental, which they were accustomed to in the Bronx, it got a wee bit too hot for them a day or so prior to the blackout, and they returned home to bask in refrigerated indoor air until the heat wave broke. From their prospective, it was preferable to sweating putty balls on the New Jersey Shore. The fact that both Barnegat Bay and the Atlantic Ocean were a stone's throw away mattered little.

Ironically, as things turned out, our neighbors were back in the Bronx, instead of on vacation, when the city went dark and put their air conditioning on ice. I know they didn't see it that way, but I recall thinking how lucky they were to be back home, sweating and suffering, watching and waiting, for the lights and the air conditioners to come back on. Such was the passion of youth.

Thursday, July 9, 2020

Sardines, Peaches, and Onions

Yesterday, an elderly woman approached me and asked: “Would you like some cans of sardines and peaches? I have extras.” I politely replied, “No, thank you” and went on my merry way. These are strange times indeed, I thought. But it subsequently occurred to me that she probably received the goods from a food bank for senior citizens. My next-door neighbor was the recipient of some such thing not too long ago and it included cans of no-frills sardines, boxes of no-frills crackers, and the like. You might think it impossible to produce a bad can of peas, but the no-frills gang have found a way.

And now for something completely different: I just learned some sad news and it’s not about statue toppling and the trampling on fundamental free speech. My old grammar school, St. John’s in the Bronx’s Kingsbridge, is apparently shutting its doors for good. Seems that COVID-19 has done a number on the finances of the families who made the sacrifice to send their kids there. And, too, the virus has hit the purse of the Church hierarchy hard as well. The entire school—all eight grades—was in what I knew as St. John’s Middle School, which once upon a time housed only the seventh and eighth grades. That tells you how much the school’s enrollment had shrunk through the years. In my day we had several classes in each grade with forty or more students. The baby boom was the wind beneath its wings and the tuition was pretty reasonable when the Archdiocese of New York was awash in green. But that was then and this is now.

The school and church have been around for more than a century. When I was growing up, we were associated with our parish. “Oh, you’re from St. John’s”—that sort of thing. Everybody, it seemed, knew everybody else. The priests knew us. The nuns knew us. I was fortunate to have gone through grades one through eight in more civilized times, when corporal punishment was frowned upon and the nuns very literally kicked their habits. We received a pretty good education there. The depressing reality is that it’s no longer an option for the mostly minority families who were willing to pay the not inconsiderable tuition of today. By and large, the public school alternatives in New York City don't exactly cut the mustard. And if I may borrow from Lily Tomlin: “And that’s the truth!”

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One last thing: I recently came upon an article about—yes—words with supposedly racist connotations like “master.” The real estate world is now looking into the phrase “master bedroom.” In fact, some real estate outfits are now referring to the “primary bedroom” instead. Colonial-style homes are next on the hit list. My biggest fear is that I Dream of Jeannie will fall victim to the cancel culture. Yes, Master. Alas, this is not an Onion story.

(Photos from the personal collection of Nicholas Nigro)