Saturday, May 21, 2016

Goodbye, Mr. Chips

I recently purchased a few Banquet brand frozen turkey dinners at a local supermarket. “TV dinners” are not typically on my shopping list nowadays—for a whole host of reasons, the foremost being that they aren’t very good. Once upon a time my youthful palate appreciated their ultra-sodium contents—but no more. Still, they were on sale, and the packaging underscored the fact that there was now “fifty percent more” turkey in them.

If nothing else, consuming these frozen dinners amounted to a stroll down Memory Lane. And I will concede they were curiously edible. However, if there was indeed double the turkey in the dinners, their predecessors must have been sorely lacking—unsatisfying for sparrows let alone the human masses. Fifty percent more turkey notwithstanding, I could have effortlessly eaten the three I bought in one sitting. If there was a downside to TV dinners during my wide-eyed and insatiably hungry boyhood, it was without question the portions. Even Swanson’s “Hungry Man” versions were somehow never enough.

This frozen dinner experience nevertheless got me thinking about other grocery store products from my youth, some that still exist and others that are in the compost heap of history. I ate a lot of pizza in my younger days—and in a variety of forms, too, including an instant toaster version manufactured by Buitoni. Regrettably, they are no more, but I fondly recall their gooey, reddish-orange puree of cheese and tomato sauce interiors, which were invariably blistering hot and prone to burn the mouth. My “Whatever Became Of” Internet search on these peculiar pizzas from yesteryear led me far a field to past comfort foods like Borden’s “Ready to Drink” Frosted Shakes in their heavy aluminum cans. We added milk to them at our house. They were that thick. Sadly, the Frosted Shake has gone the way of the Buitoni toaster pizza.

And the death knell didn’t end there. Sometime around 1970, Kellogg’s introduced toaster pastries called Danish Go-Rounds. I distinctly remember the TV commercials for them. They featured a catchy jingle that went something like this: “A new kind of pastry, frosty, and tasty. New Kellogg’s…Danish Go-Rounds.” They were tasty all right, but disappeared while I was still eating them. I had no choice. It was back to Pop-Tarts.

This former fare retrospective of mine found me in the end in Fudgetown. These were my all-time favorite cookies from a company called Burry, which also made Girl Scout cookies back then, when they were actually good. I hadn’t thought of Fudgetown in a long time, but I see that they, too, are only a memory now, along with Burry’s other boxed cookies: Gaucho and Mr. Chips, with the mysterious silhouette of Mr. Chips on the box. They were quality cookies. And since I never got the chance when Burry discontinued the products, I’d like to finally say it—better late than never—“Goodbye, Mr. Chips.” 

Wednesday, May 18, 2016

Sticker Price

Last month I cast a ballot in the New York State presidential primary. Actually, I filled in a solitary oval on the thing and fed it into a machine, which promptly alerted me my vote had been counted. Except to say my candidate didn’t emerge victorious, I won’t tell you for whom I voted. Despite the thrill of voting being a relic of the past, I performed my civic duty. I remember casting my very first vote at the age of eighteen and how excited I was just to have the opportunity. It didn’t matter to me that the election outcome was a foregone conclusion. It was the 1981 New York City mayoral race. Ed Koch was running for reelection on both the Democratic and Republican lines. He received nearly 75% of the vote. I selected a third party candidate that year. Coronations were never my cup of tea. I have voted for a surfeit of sure losers—in a lot of different parties—because of this aversion. Unfortunately, coronations are the rule around here.

An oddball from my neighborhood—a misshapen, fifty-something fellow whom I’ve known by sight and reputation since our mutual youths—served as the polling place’s big cheese this go-round. His ample derrière comfortably rested on a chair by the entrance. When I arrived to vote he was too preoccupied with his iPhone to even glance my way. But that was okay by me. I didn’t need his assistance. Upon putting my John Hancock in the voting register, I was handed a small round sticker that I was—ideally—supposed to affix to my person. The thinking being it would encourage others to vote. It would serve, too, as a reminder that I had in fact voted, which would stop me dead in my tracks from repeating the process later in the day.

There was some controversy in New York City on primary day—of voters going to their respective polling places and not finding their names on the voting rolls. Some years ago I recall hearing that if we didn’t vote in two consecutive elections, our names would be purged and we would have to re-register. Draconian—yes. However, I have spotted the names of individuals who have long since moved away and even some who are long dead still on the books. And—given time—the former will eventually become the latter.

I just fear that it’s going to be a long slog between now and when I next call upon my polling place in November. A Facebook friend of mine recently shared a meme underscoring the more genteel time in which both she and I grew up. When—generally speaking—kids respected their parents and their elders, too; when common courtesies were commonplace; and when people agreed to disagree civilly. Her candidate in 2016: Donald Trump.

Tuesday, May 17, 2016

Bein' Light Green

While walking past my old alma mater, Manhattan College, today, I couldn’t help but notice the school was festooned in springtime. The campus always looked nice, especially at this time of year, with many of its trees sporting healthy-looking, light green small leaves. Hope springs eternal. I spied some students, who were no doubt taking their final exams, walking to and fro. I noticed, too, a “Cash for Textbooks” tent set up across the street from the school’s main entrance.

I graduated from this esteemed institution of higher learning in 1984. It’s now 2016. If my arithmetic is correct—I wasn't a math major—that’s thirty-two years ago. I vividly recall the waning days of my college experience—early May in my final semester—and gazing out the window of Manhattan Hall onto the Quadrangle, which was alive in that aforementioned light green. I was attending a “Great Issues in European History” class taught by a very interesting and extremely affable man—"any questions, comments, observations"—who has since departed this earth. Thirty-two years will do that sometimes. But on this particular day, I well remember the combination of the seasonable air, spring sounds, and pleasing odors and colors. They reminded me that my days were numbered as a college student, and that there would be no more encores. I felt profoundly melancholy as a stared out that window and realized the adult world—ready or not—beckoned.

A few weeks later, I attended my graduation ceremony. New York City Mayor Ed Koch delivered a totally unmemorable commencement address. In fact, I don’t remember a word he said. It's fair to say he didn't quite inspire me to boldly go. Extemporaneously, the man was often entertaining, but delivering a prepared speech invariably negated his New York guy charm. After the proceedings, we graduates had to navigate our way down to the cafeteria in Thomas Hall to secure our diplomas, which were alphabetically aligned in our particular school of studies—mine was the School of Business. It was a somewhat nerve-wracking interim as I recall, because we didn’t know for certain if we had made the grade and passed everything we needed to pass. Happily, I did, but nevertheless didn’t have a clue what I wanted to do with my diploma or what was next on my agenda as now a certifiable adult. Considering all the money that parents spend—and the debt that contemporary college-aged kids amass—it seems quite a high price to pay for a mother lode of uncertainty four years later. When I began my collegiate journey in 1980, tuition was $1,750 a semester—$3,500 a year. In my final year, it was $5,000. As I recollect, we all thought that was a lot of money—and it was. A student loan of $2,500—the maximum available back then—helped. I had a coupon book to show for my higher education and a $77/month loan repayment for about ten years.

So, that’s what I saw today and that’s what I thought about as I passed by my old school, for which I have mostly fond memories. And that is significant, because I wasn’t sitting around in my last days of high school with anything bordering on melancholy. Being green—light green—has a knack for reminding us of what once was, what could have been, what is, and what may be.

(Photo from the personal collection of Nicholas Nigro)

Saturday, April 30, 2016

Why Nothing Matters…It Really Does

What follows is an essay written for some online concern. As the author of Seinfeld FAQ, I was asked to delve into the subject of nothing...and I did.

It’s been eighteen years since the last episode of Seinfeld—“The Finale”—aired in prime-time. Since then, the iconic sitcom has proven beyond a shadow of a doubt that nothing matters and, too, that nothing lasts forever.

Ironically, Seinfeld’s creators, Larry David and Jerry Seinfeld, never, ever promoted the notion that their trailblazing sitcom was about nothing—on the contrary as a matter of fact. David and Seinfeld admit to having been absolutely flabbergasted that a joke—a line from the mouth of George Costanza—became a mega-hit with the fan base. The “show about nothing” aside in “The Pitch” assumed a life of its own and became ingrained in the popular culture. It also established a remarkable staying power as the simplest way to describe what Seinfeld and the off-the-wall antics of Jerry, George, Elaine, and Kramer were all about.

While the show was very obviously about something—a whole lot of somethingSeinfeld’s distinctive nothing aura is precisely why it has legs. Sure, in the eyes of some, it is hopelessly dated—a ‘90s thing they just can’t get past. After all, Seinfeld was largely of a time before the Internet, smart phones, and GPS technology. It was a pre-Netflix age when individuals actually patronized—in the flesh—brick-and-mortar video stores to rent movies on clumsy VHS tapes. And God help the poor sap who forgot to rewind one before returning it—like the hapless George, who had rented Rochelle, Rochelle in “The Smelly Car.” For the younger generations, videotapes, phone booths, and Rolodexes are the sole province of museums and, of course, nostalgic baby boomers’ Facebook memes.

Time marches on with the inevitable technological advances and changes in everything from sartorial tastes to hairstyles to societal mores. The only constant with the passage of time is nothing. And better than any sitcom before or after it, Seinfeld’s savvy writers understood this. In wading through the daily grind—in engaging in the mundane minutia that is part and parcel of everyday living—human behavior invariably runs true to form and hasn’t really changed all that much over the centuries. Shakespeare is timeless because The Bard of Avon was keenly cognizant of the potent and enduring force of nothingness. He knew that nothing mattered. It really did. Some four centuries later—as a committed observer of the human condition—Jerry Seinfeld followed in the man’s not inconsiderable footsteps.

There were low-talkers and close-talkers in Shakespeare’s day. Neurotic, nihilistic men and women have long been part and parcel of “man’s inhumanity to man.” George once so eloquently described what is undeniably an unenviable task—for anyone, anywhere, and at any point in history. “I hate asking for change,” he said. “They always make a face. It’s like asking them to donate a kidney.” The man who ran the mercantile store in Dodge City, circa 1870, no doubt had a similar reaction when asked to make change. A nothing snapshot in the humdrum moment—perhaps—but something much larger in the grand scheme of things.

Once upon a time in the sixth grade at St. John’s parochial grammar school in the Bronx’s Kingsbridge, classmates and I discoursed on—of all things—the subject of nothing. We were twelve years old and this is what passed for philosophical discussion. We had long been inculcated in our school—and in church—that we came from nothing and would one day return to nothing. So, naturally, some of us couldn’t help but wonder: “What would nothing look like?” Fast forward four decades and I think I know the answer. It would look a lot like Seinfeld because I, for one, think of the show very often as I make my appointed rounds. I experience Seinfeld moments—nothing moments—time and again, so they really must mean something. Nothing matters, I’m certain of that much.

Saturday, April 23, 2016

The Mount Airy Lodge Life Lesson

As a boy growing up in the 1970s Bronx, there were more than a few television commercials that played repeatedly on local New York City stations—businesses chumming for customers in the sprawling demographic. Mount Airy Lodge in the Pocono Mountains—the “premier honeymoon hideaway” with its floor-to-ceiling mirrors, heart-shaped bathtubs, and every conceivable amenity—was one of them. “All you have to bring is your love of everything,” the resort’s commercial jingle intoned. No mention was made to bring a credit card, which I suspect would have come in handy as well. Their ads always ended with the melodiously uplifting lyrics: “Beautiful Mount Airy Lodge.” Why would anyone want to honeymoon anyplace else? After seeing its various commercials—probably hundreds of times over the years—one couldn't help but feel that Mount Airy Lodge was somehow immortal, and would be there for generations to come.

So, imagine my shock when I discovered the place had fallen into utter disrepair in the 1990s—a dilapidated eyesore that had little choice but to face the wrecking ball lock, stock, and barrel. Even beautiful Mount Airy Lodge had a finite lifespan. Nothing lasts forever, it seemed. (Having been completely demolished, the Mount Airy Casino Resort now sits on the same terra firma.)

My earliest recollections of ubiquitous television commercials involved the Palisades Amusement Park in Palisades, New Jersey, just across the Hudson River. Its jingle became embedded in my brain at a very young age: “Palisades from coat to coast, where a dime buys the most. Ride the coaster, get cool in the waves in the pool. You’ll have fun, so come on over. Palisades Amusement Park swings all day and after dark.” I did get to go there at least one time, but remember only that it was a rather bleak, rainy day. Naturally, I anticipated enjoying the park on a sunny summer’s day in the future, when I was a little older and could ride their famous roller coaster and swim in the park’s saltwater pool. But despite what the eight-year-old me surmised after watching its commercial invitations on the television over and over and over, Palisades Amusement Park, too, was not immortal. It shut down its rides and attractions for the all time in September 1971. A developer made the park’s owner an offer he couldn’t refuse, and the old park space is now a series of luxury apartment buildings with stellar views of the Manhattan skyline.

And worth mentioning is the Haunted Mansion in Long Branch, New Jersey. Its commercials ran continuously during the warmer climes around here, and they always ended with the bloodcurdling invitation: “The Haunted Mansion in Long Branch…it’s waiting for you.” I, though, never did get to “wander through its myriad of secret passageways and winding labyrinths” because it burned to the ground in 1987. Again, further proof that nothing lasts forever. Fortunately, I visited its ethereal neighbor to the south, The Brigantine Castle, in Brigantine, New Jersey. It, too, ran oodles of commercials on New York City airwaves—and it, too, is no longer with us. So, gather ye rosebuds while ye may.

Finally, and perhaps the bitterest pill to swallow, was the closure of the Albert Merrill School in Manhattan. One commercial with spokesperson Jimmy Randolph ran for years on local TV. It featured a young woman, by happenstance, bumping into Jimmy Randolph, who was standing pensively on the busy streets of New York and staring off into space. She recognizes him immediately as the man who does the commercials for the Albert Merrill School. Coincidentally, she’s looking for the place, which gives Jimmy the perfect excuse to walk her over there while simultaneously extolling this grand vocational school's countless virtues. It’s funny, but this was the only commercial I remember ever airing, yet the actress recognizes Jimmy Randolph from the commercials. A Seinfeld episode? Post-modern television for sure. But even the Albert Merrill School is a mere memory now, which I never would have thought possible when I was a teen. It, too, didn’t endure as a permanent fixture on the landscape to aid and abet students of all ages in this increasingly dog-eat-dog world of ours. Rest assured, everything here today will be gone tomorrow—one of these days.

Human to Human

I had a curious close encounter this morning. For one brief shining moment, I thought I was running errands in Dickensian London and not tony Riverdale in the Bronx. My peripheral vision observed an individual approach a Hispanic man, who was sitting alone on a park bench with only his iPhone as company. I heard him say, “Excuse me, Señor, can I have a word with you?” The man told him in imperfect English, but in no uncertain terms, to make like a tree and leave. “I’m not trying to sell you something,” he said to no avail.

Waiting nearby for a light to turn green—and fast—I realized that one man’s courage to kiss off an unwanted intruder was another man’s potential albatross. Mine, I feared, in this instance. Purposely, I hadn’t even glanced over at this person, who was looking for a word. Keeping eye contact to a minimum in the hopes of keeping any contact to a minimum—or better yet, none at all—was what I had in mind.

The best laid plans of mice and men. After getting the brush-off, said individual looked around and saw only one person in taking distance—me. “Mind if I talk to you—human to human?” he asked as he came up alongside me. I didn’t say yes and I didn’t say no, which to him meant yes. When I got a fair glimpse at my fellow human, I was surprised to see how young he was. He appeared to be teenager, or maybe a little older than that—but I doubt it. As a formerly young person, I find divining people’s ages increasingly problematic with the passage of time. Some forty year olds look like they’re collecting Social Security; and some seventy year olds could pass for fifty-somethings. But this was a kid...or so it seemed to me.

Anyway, this young fellow, whatever his age, began our human-to-human talk by decrying the state of the economy and how tough it was to find work. I couldn’t argue with him on that score. He then proceeded to tell the tale of his having to buy a new jacket to go on job interviews—the one, in fact, that he was wearing, which cost $65. He told me, too, that he had gotten a haircut, so as to look his best while job hunting. The problem was that he was now broke, and he wondered whether he should return the $65 jacket and go on interviews with his old, ratty coat and, of course, school transcripts showing that he was qualified for a job, despite looking like Oliver Twist.

At one point he said, “Sixty-five dollars may sound like a lot of money to you,” which momentarily confused me. A more effective argument might have been: “Sixty-five dollars may not sound like a lot of money to you…but to me…it is.” Our little chat largely occurred as we crossed a very busy street. My fellow human being never delivered the punch line I thought was coming. Brother can you spare an inflation-adjusted dime. I’ll sell you my $65 jacket for $30—a bargain if ever there was one. He seemed, though, to sincerely want an answer as to whether or not he should return his $65 jacket. I believe that I was spared further discussion with this young man when he found another ear—at a bus stop—in our path. My parting words to him were: “Good luck.” And he replied, “You see: Even you don’t know what to do.”

This parting salvo, in particular, disturbed me on multiple levels. After all, this kid was in a bad way no matter how you slice it. Drugs…possibly. Out of work…definitely. Family…where were they? Of course, I could have been on Candid Camera or Punk’d. Har har hardy har har. That’s really funny: Should I return my $65 jacket—or keep it even though I’m broke—and take my chances with my rags and fair to middling school grades. Sometimes the truth is stranger than fiction. However, I don't know the truth in this case, which is probably for the best.

(Photo from the personal collection of Nicholas Nigro)

Friday, April 22, 2016

Good and Evel

Recently, I encountered a ghost from my past festooned in a garish leather jumpsuit. Actually, it was by pure chance that I unearthed the memory of this individual—someone whom I hadn’t thought about in a very long time. And when I was a callow youth back in the colorful 1970s, he was big—really big.

The man’s occupation was daredevil. He liked jumping over things—usually while riding his motorcycle but, occasionally, utilizing other forms of transportation, like a steam-powered rocket. Dean Martin roasted the guy—the ultimate evidence back then that he was a somebody. Robert Knievel, aka Evel Knievel, was his name and he’s in the Guinness Book of World Records for having cumulatively broken more bones than anybody else…and lived to tell. Evel Knievel is no longer among the living, but his iconic status is eternal.

Evel Knievel impacted our lives. I remember this affable kid named Eddie from the old neighborhood, who wasn’t, in retrospect, the brightest bulb in the chandelier. Eddie was coaxed by his  friends, who regularly made sport of him, into performing an Evel Knievel stunt on his old Sting-Ray bicycle—with the banana seat. The agreeable, always-game, and stupidly fearless Eddie rode his bicycle up a wooden plank into the air, which enabled him to hop a short wall. What goes up six feet, though, must come down six feet—it's the law of physics—and down Eddie came. He lost control of his bicycle on the concrete grounds and crashed into a garage.

I witnessed this local Evel Knievel moment, which had been advertised—date and time—by word of mouth. And like Arthur Fonzarelli, aka the “Fonz,” who jumped the shark on Happy Days, it didn’t quite end on a high note. At least the Fonz made it over the man-eating white shark, which was his goal. Eddie’s goal amounted to  just doing it—come what may. Mission accomplished, He hurt himself—just like Evel and the Fonz—but lived to tell and ride another day.

Wednesday, April 20, 2016

Big Ben: the Bell Tolls for Thee

While growing up in Kingsbridge in the 1970s, independent pharmacies and pharmacists ruled the roost—the Bronx Prescription Center, Stuart’s, and this hole in the wall storefront run by a man named Benjamin Something or the Other. Actually, we called him Benjamin "Decker," which may or may not have been his real name. Probably not but pretty close. I wish I could remember the actual name of the pharmacy, but I don’t.

I do remember Benjamin, however. He was a cadaverous figure—picture William Hickey in Prizzi’s Honor. Old Ben was a bona fide eccentric and more than a bit strange. For some reason, my younger brother and I bought candy from him for a period of time. With so many more traditional alternatives in the area, I think I know why. We were somehow drawn to oddball characters and off-Broadway theater. We were fascinated with this unconventional, peculiar-looking neighborhood pharmacist—the master of his little shop that not only filled prescriptions but sold everything from toiletries to shampoos to hair brushes. I only wish I had snapped a picture of this charismatic geezer—this independent medicine man—from an era when the little guy still counted.

I distinctly remember tins of the sore throat lozenges, Sucrets, on a rack in front of Benjamin’s unusual glass mirror-prism countertop. How long would that last today? But it was the larger than life man himself, festooned in his sky blue pharmacist smock, that made the drug store worth visiting. When the jingling bells attached to his front door sounded, alerting the proprietor he had a potentially paying customer on the premises, Big Ben would emerge from the recesses of his apothecary. He was a certified Notary Public, too. He notarized my $1,500 student loan for Manhattan College—from the Washington Heights Federal Bank just next door to him—which covered about half of my year’s tuition. Notarizing the document with an expired ink stamp, and altering the expiration date with the stroke of a pen, the wizened pharmacist said to me, as I signed the document in his presence, “Singing your life away, eh?”

I truly miss Benjamin Decker—or whatever his real name was—in this age of ever-encroaching big chain pharmacies (and big everything else). Little guy pharmacy businesses, like Big Ben’s on W231st Street in the Bronx, are dinosaurs. I suppose the bitter pill would be easier to swallow if the big pharmacies were actually bigger and better—bargains—but they’re not. Sure, they carry everything—but not really everything—and can pay the exorbitant rents around town, but it's the Decker personal touch that is sorely missed.

Tuesday, April 19, 2016

Morning Calls Remembered

A loud shout on the streets of the Bronx in the early morning hours is the wind beneath the wings of this blog. Awoken from a sound sleep, my brain—sans any couching on my part—retrieved two words lodged in its vast memory bank: morning call. I don't exactly know why, but in my groggy state, I recalled my maternal grandmother’s daily newspaper, The Morning Call—the one she found on her front porch every morning on Miller Street and then on South Second Street in Bangor, Pennsylvania. As a youth, I always thought that was such a great name for a newspaper, and I’m happy to report this Allentown-based daily is still in business. But my brain wasn’t done yet. It returned to the Bronx and dredged up one more morning call—my own.

Some forty years ago, it was not unusual to find me in a neighboring alleyway at around seven o’clock in the morning and calling on my best friend “Johnny Boy.” Considering all the advances in technology and the colossal cultural shift, it seems kind of strange to envision a youngster arising so bright and early, before anybody else in the household, and venturing out onto the mean streets of the Bronx without first alerting Ma and Pa. After all, local crime statistics were even more cause for concern back then, and the nine- and ten-year-old me didn’t even have a cell phone to communicate with the home office.

But it’s just the way it was. Roaring at the top of my lungs, “Johnny Boy!” when most everybody in earshot was asleep on a weekend, or on an early summer’s morning, was commonplace. My friend would often respond to my bellow with the logical rejoinder, “What?” I would then say, “You coming out?” Occasionally, one of his sisters would answer for him and shout, “He’s sleeping!” Looking back these many years later, I can understand why some others might not have appreciated this morning call—not too long after the sunrise—of “Johnny Boy!” It was, however, a different and, I daresay, simpler time—completely uninhibited and not remotely technologically driven. It was also more annoying to those who didn’t get up with the roosters.

While I rue all that has been lost to the youth of today transfixed with their latest electronic gadgets and, above all else, impatience with everything and anything that doesn’t move at the speed of light, I take great solace in the contemporary quietude. There are no little people anymore waking up at daybreak, going out to play, and disturbing formerly young persons like myself. Nowadays, when the legions of youth arise from their slumbers, they reach, foremost, for their iPads and iPhones. Venturing out into the great outdoors—the urban jungle—and calling on their best buds is unheard of. When a text message or tweet will suffice, why wake up the wider world anyway? And now, too, I can read the The Morning Call online.

Monday, April 18, 2016

All Hail, Cesar!

Once upon a time I was a collector of many things, including autographs. As a teenr, I wrote letters to individual baseball players care of their teams and requested their signatures. I even bought mailing lists with players’ home addresses and sent them baseball cards to sign, which most of them eventually did. Asking for autographed pictures, I sent fan letters, too, to politicians in Congress and in state houses, and almost always got them. Granted, some of the signatures were the work of autopens and, the worst of them all, rubber stamps. And there were even some very high-quality secretary forgeries in the mix.

However, most of the political autographs were real and many of them personalized to me. As both a young man and a collector, I was completely non-partisan in this endeavor. I received autographs from everyone from Ted Kennedy to Jack Kemp; Henry “Scoop” Jackson to Tom Bradley. New York Governor Mario Cuomo personally inscribed a photo to yours truly, and so did Vice President George Herbert Walker Bush, although he misspelled my name as “Nick Negro.” The Bush autograph was authenticated and—courtesy of financially hard times sometime later in the adult world—I sold it at auction for $175.

In the early 1980s, Louie, our cigar-chomping neighborhood mailman, used to open our unlocked front door in the Bronx, walk into the hall, and place the mail on the bottom step of the staircase leading to our upper-floor apartment. Aside from leaving his cigar bouquet calling card, he would sometimes cry out: “You got another letter from the government!” My autographed pictures typically arrived in 9”x 12” official manila envelopes with a piece of cardboard in them, so that Louie and his p.o. brethren would avoid their natural inclinations to bend  and batter mail. I think Louie came to believe we were a family of spies or secretive government agents. My father, a veteran post office man himself, eventually assuaged Louie's worst fears.

Beyond baseball players and pols, I also purchased a mailing list of celebrity home addresses one time and was excited to send a couple of “Joker cards" from the “Bat Laffs” series to none other than Cesar Romero on San Vincente Boulevard in Los Angeles. I was quite surprised to receive a postcard a week or so later from Maria Romero, Cesar’s older sister. She informed me that her brother was doing dinner theater in Texas, but would be more than happy to sign my "Joker cards" when he returned. Now this was going beyond the call of duty, I thought. And a couple of months later, I not only found the signed Joker cards in my mail, but two more autographs of Cesar as well—one a photograph of him as the Joker inscribed “To Nick Nigro, A big hello from The Joker” and another of Cesar as Cesar. And it was all in an envelope the man personally addressed himself. He paid the postage and affixed, too, a “Cesar Romero” return address label on the envelope—one he probably got as a "thank you" for contributing to a favorite charity. He also alerted the post office minions they would be handling a photo, which was to be treated accordingly. Of course, Cesar being Cesar said, "Please." I had always heard Cesar was a class act and liked by just about everyone—and the proof was in the Joker cards signing. All hail, Cesar!

(Photos from the personal collection of Nicholas Nigro)

Friday, April 15, 2016

The Very Good Whisperer: Part II

Working in a busy retail setting is a roller coaster ride—a never-ending series of ups and downs courtesy of the diverse personalities and mercurial temperaments of the clientele. Forgive the mixed metaphor, but to put the cherry atop this particular stroll down memory lane—begun in yesterday’s essay—I give you the “Hummingbird,” a Pet Nosh patron who, without fail, entered the store harmoniously humming an easy-listening melody, gathered what he came for while not missing a beat, and paid his tab still in tune. He resembled James Earl Jones.

But not all of our clientele were of Hummingbird class and caliber. Take the “Seamstress,” a woman who earned her well-deserved moniker because she surreptitiously tore open bags of her preferred dog food—a trailblazing line of natural diets known as Cornucopia—at the seams, then left them pour out onto the shelves. She claimed her canine companions could only stomach pellets of a certain hue, and that even the slightest color difference made all the difference in the world. The Seamstress said they got physically sick from the food if it wasn’t a very precise shade of gray, which only she could decipher. Under such exacting conditions, I might have just shopped around for another brand of dog food.

Initially, we accommodated the Seamstress’s idiosyncrasies and permitted her to open the bags. But one, then two, and then three inspired a retailer’s worst nightmare—no purchase and no more products to sell (to other Cornucopia consumers not as fastidious regarding pellet color variations). This rather over-generous policy of ours quickly became intolerable. And, too, the folks at Cornucopia informed us they would not accept any more returns of perfectly good bags of their foods. For they, too, were acquainted with the Seamstress, who regularly harassed them on the telephone concerning matters gray. Still, our new hard-line policy couldn't keep her at bay. The Seamstress merely went underground, determined that it was best for her to enter our shop when it was very busy—preferably on a weekend—and where she could get lost in the crowd. She even took to wearing sunglasses and a kerchief—a disguise to enable her to reach unseen her targets. Her deception worked for a while, but when we found two and sometimes three opened bags of Cornucopia—at the seams of course—we knew in no uncertain terms who the culprit was.

From vandalism to out-and-out thievery, I submit for your approval an elderly man christened “Can’t See It.” He was a facial cross between Groucho Marx in his You Bet Your Life days and weather-beaten actor Glenn Strange, Sam the bartender on Gunsmoke. Upon being told how much he owed us, which was typically no more than two or three dollars, he repeated the phrase “Can’t see it…Can’t see it…Can’t see it,” and occasionally threw in a “Can’t be” or two to break up the monotony. It was truly bizarre. Subsequently, we discovered that Can’t See It visited the checkout to both pay his nominal tab and to perform his madcap “Can’t See It” routine, while Mrs. Can’t See It over-stuffed a shopping bag of her own with cans of dog food—out of eyeshot and bypassing the cashier altogether. We finally caught this senior citizen equivalent of Bonnie and Clyde with the goods one day, and they never again returned to the scene of the crime. This very old and very odd couple was last seen visiting a nearby psychic business. I can only surmise what vibes the psychic might have felt in their presence, but I can take an educated guess what Can’t See It told her when asked to pay for her services.

Finally, I close with memories of a personal favorite—a somewhat inscrutable fellow assigned the nickname “Choo Choo Trousers.” Choo Choo Trousers always materialized minutes before closing time, which was then seven o’clock, festooned in pinstriped overalls, the kind a train engineer might wear. He spoke with a southern accent of some strain—wholly unique in our urban Yonkers, New York setting—and wore a stud earring that was, believe it or not, extremely rare in a man’s ear in the early 1980s. He’d always ask, “How ya all doing?” and wink at the younger adult staff on duty, which occasionally was just me. I often wondered whether or not this middle-aged man from somewhere in Dixie worked for the railroad, or whether the overalls represented some kind of fashion statement. I can, however, say that Choo Choo Trousers never asked me to ride on his train. After closing the store, we would sometimes spot Choo Choo Trousers awaiting his bus ride home with a big bag of dog food at his side—an unforgettable visual. So, I am left to wonder now where Choo Choo Trousers’ train took him in life…and where the Hummingbird’s flown off to in these past three decades. As for the Seamstress and Mr. and Mrs. Can’t See It…well, they’ve more than likely shuffled off this mortal coil…such are the sands of time.

Thursday, April 14, 2016

The Very Good Whisperer

I spotted this man on the street recently who reminded me of someone—someone from the distant past. The words “very good” immediately formed on the tip of my tongue, and I whispered it twice under my breath. “Very Good,” you see, was a nickname that we—some three decades ago at a place called Pet Nosh—had affixed to a certain customer of ours. Behind the scenes of this very busy retail milieu, we did an awful lot of this sort of thing. It kept has sane.

As it turned out, it wasn’t Very Good after all—in fact, based on his chronological age back in the 1980s, he might very well be on a very good cloud in heaven right now—but the guy I spied nonetheless sported the same ill-fitting toupee and hangdog look. Very Good, you see, would repeat the phrase “very good” over and over and over as you packed his cat food cans, took his money, and returned his change with a “thank you.” The response to each one of these acts was the same: “very good,” “very good,” and “very good.”

The sighting of this Very Good mirror image inevitably commenced a stroll down memory lane to further former customers who were branded with comparable monikers. Most of the nicknames doled out by us were benign, like “Very Good,” but some were justifiably toxic. Privately always, we christened two siblings who regularly shopped together the “Grotesque Sisters” because—as you may have guessed— they were grotesque. They were involved, if memory serves, in raising Australian Cattle Dogs. They attended all kinds of dog shows and were, without fail, self-absorbed and insufferable. So, no, their nickname had absolutely nothing to do with the fact that they also had mustaches.

Long before it was fashionable, I branded a patron “The Fifties Guy.” He was an affable bloke who wore his hair and dressed like he was auditioning for a part in Grease. Perhaps he’s "The Seventies Guy" now, I don’t know. Then there was this fellow whom we called “Beautiful, Wonderful Man,” and not because he was a "Beautiful, Wonderful Man." He was pleasant enough, I guess, but received his unusual sobriquet because—week after week after week—he would tell us what a “beautiful, wonderful man,” platonically speaking, our sexagenarian sidekick was.

Then there was this college-aged customer of ours—who ended up working for the business at some later date—known as “Mr. Mellow.” It seemed that Mr. Mellow was in a cannabis-induced state of perpetual bliss. From the mellow-minded to the frenetic “Zorro,” a woman unceasingly masked and shrouded from head to toe courtesy of an allergic condition to—if I remember correctly—just about everything. Certain odors, including fresh air, could take her down in a heartbeat. As we kindly catered to her every whim, she was always demanding, distracted, and disagreeable. But in retrospect: Who could blame her?

In stark contrast to Zorro, “John Gotti” was a widely liked patron of ours affectionately known by his handle. Sure, he resembled you know whom. I once asked him if he knew how to crack open a safe. Our antiquated store safe just wouldn’t open, and I desperately needed change on a busy Saturday. He feigned total ignorance. Subsequently, he landed in prison—with no bail—awaiting trial on a series of racketeering charges. I can’t say if safe cracking was among them. Sadly, he dropped dead of a heart attack before ever getting his day in court. All who knew him at Pet Nosh felt bad when we heard the news, because he was a one of the good ones...I think.

(Next: Part II, including memories of “Choo Choo Trousers,” the “Seamstress,” and the “Hummingbird.”)

Monday, April 4, 2016

In the Windy Old Weather

It was cold and windy in these parts yesterday. And I can honestly say that excessive wind speeds make walking with a prosthetic knee a little dicey. Nevertheless, I needed the exercise and concluded by early afternoon the worst of the winds had come and gone. The furious rainstorm of the night before—featuring thunderclaps and a symphony of overturned garbage cans—was replaced by incredibly bright blue skies and that ultra-sharp sunlight unique to springtime.

So, I hit the road with every intention of turning back if the wind beneath my wings proved more than I could handle. There were occasional gusts of import along the way, but I opted to soldier on and venture to Van Cortlandt Park about a half-mile away. While in the park, I rested for a spell on a bench—one that furnished me with a bird’s eye view of the elevated W242nd Street subway station. This is the first or last stop—depending on which direction you are headed—of the Number 1 “Broadway Local” line. Day and night, the trains come and go—and come and go again—patiently waiting their turns to dock. There’s lots of loud horn blowing and nails-on-a-chalkboard screeching, too, as the trains slow up and switch tracks. What goes around comes around, I guess, because I enjoyed viewing this same spectacle as a boy. But that was then, this is now, and the verb “enjoy” is relative.

Sitting on a park bench with a trusty cane at my side—and concerned that I might get blown down on my return trip—was not, it's fair to say, on my youthful radar. In fact, the exact spot where I sat at the southern tail of the sprawling park was—in my younger days—an asphalt softball field. Like so much of the park and indeed the city at large in the 1970s, it was not properly maintained. The asphalt was a sorry mess with weeds sprouting up from home plate to centerfield; first base to third base. It was not a wise idea to attempt a Ron Swoboda-in-the-1969-World Series diving catch there—let’s put it that way. The combination of cracked asphalt and broken glass beer and soda bottles were a certain ticket to the emergency room.

The Internet is rife with images of New York City in the dirty and dangerous 1970s. The stainless steel subway cars that I cast my eyes upon yesterday were sans graffiti and underground tunnel grime. Emblematic of the city’s precipitous decline, they were covered in the stuff forty years ago, not to mention inefficient and crime laden. I witnessed an armed robbery on the Number 1 train in 1978. And in the old neighborhood, home burglaries and street muggings were more commonplace than today.

It would seem then the logical conclusion to draw is that things are a whole lot better today when compared with the awful 1970s. Yes, I’m happy to ride clean, generally safer, and definitely more efficient subway trains. The park I visited yesterday is without question a visually more appealing place in 2016 than it was in, say, 1976. But what individuals who didn’t grow up in New York in the 1970s can’t possibly understand is that—for all its well-documented problems and assorted blight—it was for the most part a great place to be a teenager. Some neighborhoods were bona fide war zones, but most were alive—believe it or not—with neighbors whom you actually knew. That sense of community is largely lost in this sterile age of gentrification—everything is so damn expensive—and obeisance to devices. I was among the last generation to play the old city street games like box ball and stoop ball. People bought homes in the old neighborhood as foremost places to live—often for their extended families—and only secondly as investments. There are countless absentee owners now who look upon their properties as ATM machines in perpetuity. They rent out apartments to a revolving door of tenants who pay top dollar for the honor and don’t care a whit where they call home. And it shows! The 1970s in New York had character and characters—lots of them—and is sorely missed. Cleaning the city up was a necessity, but apparently we threw out the baby with the bath water.

(Photos 2 and 3 from the personal collection of Nicholas Nigro)

Tuesday, March 29, 2016

Death Never Takes a Holiday Anymore

Actress Patty Duke died today; actor James Noble, yesterday, at ninety-four. Courtesy of trending Facebook obits only hours ago, I learned of their respective passings—such is life in 2016. It was indisputably a simpler time when must-see TV for me was Benson (1979-1986), a network sitcom that starred the melodiously named Robert Guillaume as the equally melodiously named Benson DuBois and the aforementioned Noble, who played the dimwitted but unfailingly affable Governor Eugene Xavier Gatling in the series. Happily still among the living, Guillaume is eighty-eight.

What I would really like to know is how so many of the men and women who graced the small screen of my youth grew so old—so really, really old? Joe Garagiola, who died at ninety this past week, was ubiquitous during my younger days—an always-agreeable presence teamed with the likes of the late Curt Gowdy and now eighty-year-old, long-retired Tony Kubek—on NBC’s weekly and postseason Major League Baseball games. But that was hardly the Garagiola be-all and end-all. I recall tuning into an eclectic smorgasbord hosted by the man—everything from a game show called Sale of the Century to the Today show to the annual Macy’s Thanksgiving Parade.  

Earl Hamner, Jr. also passed away this week. He was ninety-two. Apparently, you’re nobody if you don’t live to ninety nowadays. I religiously watched his baby, The Waltons, downstairs with my grandmother and aunt in what was, seemingly, the last chapter in the extended family era. For some reason, Hamner’s voice-over narrations at the beginning and ending of each episode never failed to amuse my younger brother and me. In fact, more than forty years later, I can still recall some of the lines that we would parrot in an embellished Hamner-tone, such as: “Those were not the last mistakes Jim-Bob and I were to make, but we were truly ahead of the game. Our parents gave us decent rules to live by…yada...yada...yada.” Our teenage whimsy would sometimes have us refer to Jim-Bob as “Jim Boob.” Being from the Bronx, Hamner’s Virginia accent and singular intonations sounded very, very foreign to us.

Actor Joe Santos died this month, too. He was only eighty-four. The man played Dennis Becker on The Rockford Files, one of my all-time favorite TV shows. Who’s left from the cast? The seventy-six-year-old Stuart Margolin, Angel, that’s who. It’s been a rough month indeed—Frank Sinatra, Jr., Gary Shandling, and Mother Angelica have all breathed their last. Mother Angelica, founder of the EWTN cable channel, falls into the category of: “I thought she already met her maker.” As I encounter a never-ending story of death notices, this phenomenon is happening more and more to me. I guess when I read about some serious illness or major health setback, like a stroke, my brain reasons the afflicted individual is for all intents and purposes dead.

All I can say is that when I was watching Joe Garagiola in his camel trench coat in front of Macy’s more than forty years ago—his breath visible in the Thanksgiving morning chill—I was not remotely into what was trending vis-à-vis folks going on their vacations with God. (An elderly neighbor of mine coined that catchy phrase. She said at the time she was "not yet ready to go on her“vacation with God.” She has since has gone on that permanent  vacation.) I kind of prefer the days when death took a holiday—from my perspective at least. 

Monday, March 14, 2016

Life and the Jar of Peanut Butter

This year marks the thirty-sixth anniversary of my graduation from high school. Putting this number in some larger perspective is kind of weird—even a little bit disturbing—because I turned eighteen the year I graduated. And, lo and behold, I have subsequently lived eighteen more years and then another eighteen years after that. The sum total of my entire existence in 1980, which seemed to have covered a lot of ground at the time, was a mere drop in the bucket.

With the obvious accelerating passage of time, I can’t help but reflect on all that was and how I arrived at the present. I will say that a handful of things in my life have remained pretty constant through the years, like my preferred breakfast: peanut butter on toast with coffee. Growing up in the Bronx with an extended family—three generations under one roof—brought peanut butter and coffee, too, into my life at an early age. If we so desired, coffee was served to us at seven- and eight years old. Maybe it was an Italian thing or just the simpler times—I don’t know. What I do know is that my grandmother—a culinary wizard whose likes I will never see again—always kept a big glass jar of Skippy peanut butter on the premises for her grandsons. She, though, never once sampled the stuff. There was something about “peanuts bud,” as she pronounced it in her thick Italian accent, which absolutely repulsed her.

I remember finding a mini-jar of Skippy peanut butter in my Christmas stocking one year—glass again with an aluminum top. And not one of those jars ever ended up in the trash. They were repurposed time and again in an age before recycling; in an age of peanut butter. My family used to get a circular loaf of Italian bread delivered daily—in the 1960s and 1970s—from a nearby wholesale bakery called Willow Sunny. Imagine having a fresh slice of bakery bread slathered with peanut butter every morning for breakfast. My grandmother cut the bread like she was playing a violin—a true maestro—knife slicing across toward her body.

Fast forward a few years to an earth-shattering discovery of mine. I learned there was more to peanut butter than Skippy. There was Peter Pan, Superman, Smuckers, and the best of them all, I concluded—Jif.  Naturally, I expressed my newfound opinion to all who would listen that Jif tasted a whole lot better than Skippy. A certain family elder—undeviating in her worldview then as well as now—sniffed, “You just want to be different.” Granted, kids want to be recognized as unique individuals and I was no different. There’s that word again. But the fact remains that I did—believe it or not—prefer Jif to Skippy. I still do as a matter of fact. The proof is in the plastic jar of Jif that I pluck out of the cupboard at breakfast time all these years later. I guess I was really different after all.

Monday, March 7, 2016

The Misadventures of Pizza Man

He was oozing optimism when he first opened his pizza place’s doors. His little restaurant was poised and ready for what was certain to be a mad dash of salivating clientele. The shop was staffed like a bustling Midtown Manhattan pizzeria—its multiple employees festooned in matching red, logo-emblazoned baseball caps and staff shirts. The adrenalized new owner, who had succeeded an unsuccessful pizza peddler, who in turn had assumed the reins from still another failed pizza guy, had—it seemed—all his bases covered. This latest entrepreneurial endeavor was sure to prove—despite its cursed locale—that a third time's a charm.

Long a pizza devotee and forever a Bronx denizen, the shortest distance from point A (home) to point B (a quality New York slice of pizza) mattered to me. Therefore, I would throw myself at the mercy of the new kid on the block and hope for the best. I was perfectly willing to tolerate any and all growing pains, including extraordinarily green employees, who didn’t in the slightest strive to be otherwise. So, I wasn’t bothered when the two slices, plus a small fountain drink—the $5.00 lunch special—wasn’t afforded me because I declined the free drink. (I didn’t want to carry it home.) The clueless staff actually charged me $5.50, the cost of two slices when not on special, because I didn’t accept the drink! And then there was the improperly wrapped pizza conundrum, where exceptionally oily slices saturated takeout bags beyond their capacity to do the job. On more than one occasion during this establishment’s fledgling days, my bag split open before I arrived home, splattering my clothes with mozzarella, tomato sauce, and scorching hot, orangey grease. I was nonetheless hopeful things would improve once the gang that couldn’t shoot straight got the hang of it. I would thus ignore that countless pizza slices lost their tips when being plucked out of the oven and when being yanked out of the takeout bag. Call me naïve, but I was convinced the pizza man would soon appreciate that his pizza pies were usually too thin, often too crisp, and sometimes a deadly combination of both. I had been served pizza slices with burnt bottoms before in my fast-food culinary travels, but never this degree of burnt offerings.

This pizza shop in the Northwest Bronx began with both high hopes and a full showcase of every conceivable specialty pizza. Quickly, though, a conspicuous dearth of sales cut the pizza selections on display to a haphazard, forlorn-looking medley of slices. A portent of things to come occurred when the restaurant’s top pizza oven went on the fritz and was not repaired for months. Truth be told, it was painful to behold the well-intentioned, formerly optimistic owner preparing his pizza pies in an oven that was practically on the floor. God knows the man tried. He inundated the surrounding neighborhood with fliers on several occasions. In fact, one of them heralded that the place would be open for breakfast. But—go figure—he never opened for breakfast. It would have been the opportunity of a lifetime—and a first—to sample “Mash Potato” on a roll to start my day.

When all was said and done, the pizza served was pretty good—above average, I'd say—even if the slice size and its mass fluctuated from one day to the next. My last takeout purchase of a couple of slices—with pepperoni on them—was practically weightless. It was as if I had bought them on the moon. Unquestionably, there was a consistency issue. You could get the freshest, tastiest slice one day and a soggy muddle the next. Refrigerated pizza from the prior day is a definite no-no in this business. And pizza visuals matter! The place’s showcase was too often unsightly—practically empty with just a few petrified-looking options. Nevertheless, I genuinely liked the proprietor and hoped and prayed he would eventually get his act together. He never did. His almost two years of misadventures seemed like an eternity to me, a loyal customer. I can only imagine what it seemed like to him. And if this pizza man tries his luck someplace else—which I believe is very possible—I sincerely hope his pizza slice tips stay put. I also hope in the next go-round that if he advertises “open for breakfast” he does, in fact, open for breakfast.

(Photos 1 and 2 from the personal collection of Nicholas Nigro)

Tuesday, February 23, 2016

Bye Bye Bakery

This past Sunday marked the final day of operation for a bakery that had been in business for sixty-one years. It was located in the Bronx neighborhood Riverdale, which is not too far from where I call home. The bakery was something of an institution—a mom-and-pop business that seemed like it would always be there. The reason for the shuttering of its doors: exorbitant rent that was too high for a bakery—even a popular one—to pay and realize a profit. A longstanding area fish store right next-door to the bakery closed earlier this year for the very same reason. Both businesses were dealing with a “fairer,” less greedy landlord—it has been reported—than the notorious conglomerate that owns a wealth of commercial property in this rather upscale neighborhood in New York City.

Having run out many mom-and-pops, that aforementioned notorious landlord’s “Store for Rent” signs are ubiquitous in windows, with many of the storefront’s remaining empty for years. I guess it pays—in some instances—to raise rents beyond what individuals can afford. I guess it pays—in some instances—to keep the spaces unoccupied, too. Now that doesn’t sound like very good public policy to me. And it is certainly a recipe for destroying the heart and soul—the uniqueness and diversity—of neighborhoods. But then that’s why landlords are so civic-minded and contribute in a big way to the politicians who make our laws.

The times are very definitely changing. And it’s not only the ridiculous rents. In the case of a neighborhood bakery, it’s harder to compete now for a whole host of reasons. When I was a kid, supermarkets didn’t have bakeries on the premises. We weren’t traveling to Trader Joe’s and Whole Foods. Other small businesses are competing with the Internet and the likes of Wal-Mart and Target. Ten and twenty years ago, it would have been inconceivable that tony Riverdale would have a Subway, Starbucks, and Dunkin’ Donuts a hop, skip, and a jump from one another. But such is life, I guess—ever evolving and ever devolving.

Tuesday, February 16, 2016

Facebook Folks Say the Darndest Things

On a pleasant April afternoon almost three decades ago, I sat in front of my bedroom television set watching my beloved New York Mets on WOR-TV, Channel 9. The Mets were playing their chief rival at the time, the Cardinals, at Busch Stadium in St. Louis. And at some point during that spirited game of baseball, Mets’ catcher Barry Lyons found himself chasing a foul ball into the opposing team’s dugout. While in pursuit, the burly Lyons crashed like a ton of bricks into John Tudor, the ace of the Card’s staff, who was not—interestingly enough—pitching that day. When the Met’s second-string catcher unexpectedly slammed into him, Tudor was merely chilling out—resting between starts. He suffered a pretty serious injury that day—a broken leg, if memory serves. In the heat of the moment, my immediate reaction to this turn of events was less than sportsmanlike. I viewed the injury as a boon for my team—period and end of story. You know: All’s fair in love, war, and baseball.

However, after giving the matter some thought, I felt somewhat chagrined. I concluded then and there that deriving pleasure from another human being’s misfortune—generally speaking—fosters bad karma. Fast forward to the present and this thing called Facebook—Bad Karma City. 

Seriously, what is life coming to? When I got wind of the death of Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia this past week, the first thing that popped into my head was the vitriol  I would most assuredly encounter when I next logged on to Facebook—friends of friends of friends caught up in celebrating a man’s death and saying all kinds of nasty things. I don’t wish death upon men and women with whom I disagree politically. That’s a recipe for some serious bad karma in my book. Let the dead rest in peace—for at least a few days. But now there’s a never-ending story—every day and always—of unadulterated insanity that knows no boundaries. And the entire political spectrum of peeps is equally culpable. The rage against the machine, as well as the rage against those raging against the machine, is a 24/7/365 thing and, if you ask me, rather unbecoming—it’s even scary on occasion.
It’s quite a spectacle watching Facebook friends—who are sometimes actually friends in real life—brutally attacking one another over political personages and the issues of the day. Is it worth torpedoing friendships over such things?  Real friends: definitely not; Facebook friends: perhaps. I fear it’s going to be a very, very long year; a very, very long year after that; and very, very long one after that one, too. And politicians will come and go—Supreme Court justices as well. But the fury, foolish memes, and recurring hysteria—it would appear—are eternal now, just like death and taxes.

Saturday, January 30, 2016

Red Light...Green Light

As kids growing up in the Kingsbridge section of the Bronx, we used to play a game—among so many others—called “Red Light…Green Light.” In this youthful diversion of ours, somebody was It. More times than not, being It in an urban street game was the booby prize. But not in “Red Light…Green Light.” It is what the game’s myriad players aspired to be, because the Anointed One got to cry out, “Red Light…Green Light…1, 2, 3...1, 2, 3” with It's eyes covered and back turned to all others. And right after this rapid-fire recitation, It promptly pirouetted in an attempt to catch advancing players in the act. That is, the game's players endeavoring to reach the coveted finish line. Players who could not—under any circumstances according to the rules—be caught in motion. We were permitted to advance only during the “Red Light…Green Light…1, 2, 3...1, 2, 3” clarion call. If caught moving forward by the All Mighty It, we would be sent back from whence we came—the starting line, actually, and a long, long way from being the game’s impresario. That’s the way “Red Light…Green Light” was played—if that makes any sense. And, believe me, it was a lot of fun being It and not It, too.

But this blog is not about the game just described, which I played forty-five years or so ago—and one, by the way, that withered on the vine with just about every other street game after my generation, the baby boomers, retired our spaldeens. No, this “Red Light…Green Light” game that I played some forty-five years ago was a One Night Only affair, an on-the-spot creation of yours truly as darkness set in one chilly, pre-Christmas December evening just before suppertime. I was nine years old and playing outside with my six-year-old brother. We did that sort of thing in the 1970s. We were outdoors as much as physically possible, even in cold weather and without the light of day.

True, the 1970s were a high crime time here in the Bronx and just about everywhere else in New York City. There were plenty  of muggings, break-ins, and the like. Still, I don’t think my folks were even remotely guilty of parental negligence. Anyway, this “Red Light…Green Light” derivative involved a literal, working traffic light on Kingsbridge Avenue, a street a couple a blocks away from where I called home. My younger brother and I participated in a frenetic running game that took us down alleyways, over a short backyard wall, and through a curious nook and cranny—a small space to slither through that bordered a low wrought iron fence with spikes atop it. It was there—X marks the spot—where one could catch a glimpse of that traffic light. Red meant stop and green meant go—simple enough. But for an energized nine year old, stopping on a dime—for a red light in this instance—could augur trouble, especially with a spiked fence in the vicinity.

So, yes, I got a spiked that night—beneath my chin—and the blood flowed. Without delay, Mom brought me to our family doctor up the hill on Kingsbridge Avenue, a mere block away from the notorious red light. The old sawbones stitched me up—I have the scar to prove it—and informed my mother and me that a half-inch or so to the left and I might have been impaled. The following day, my best friend in grammar school at the time—a kid named Mark D—mockingly pointed out to my peers that I was wearing “one bandage over another” on my chin. What are friends for? This, in fact, is how I can remember how I old I was when the near-impaling incident occurred. I’ve got a signed report card envelope to prove it. 

Postscript: I've noticed that modern-day fences of the kind that nearly impaled me are sans spiked tops. They're flat.  And this flatness is a good thing. I’m glad, though, that I was permitted to go outside and play a game—for lack of a better word—that I conceived in the moment. I’m happy, too, that there was a family doctor still in his office to patch me up—one bandage over another—without any fanfare. Kids with their smartphones just don’t know what they’re missing.

(Photos from the personal collection of Nicholas Nigro)

Wednesday, January 20, 2016

It’s Not Your Grandfather’s School Cafeteria Anymore

I have few fond memories of high school. One, however, is the institution of fine learning’s cafeteria. Of course, I was a teenager back then—in the scintillating 1970s—with teenager culinary tastes and peculiar gastronomic desires. I salivated over certain foods then that might very well leave me dry today. I don’t know if I’d appreciate the school’s exceptionally gooey Friday “grandma slices” of pizza or cardboard-textured Wednesday roast beef wedges (with optional Au jus)—personal favorites—as much now as I did when Jimmy Carter was president. I wonder, too, how my adult palate would take to the “Mashed Pot” served with the aforementioned roast beef wedge. Yes, that’s what the a-little-too-small cafeteria special board read every Wednesday. Were he still among the living, Cardinal Spellman would certainly have cried foul.

Anyway, while perusing my alma mater’s website recently, I came upon a link to its “cafeteria menu,” which I thought strange. When I clicked it, a PDF file opened up with this week’s—Monday through Friday—menu. And it was a tad different from what I recall with such fondness. I remember one unique “hot” special every day of the week—like the pizza and roast beef wedge—plus the ubiquitous daily alternative: hot dogs. The hot dogs were thirty-five cents when I was a freshman, fifty cents when I was a senior, and worth every penny.

There are no hot dogs on today’s cafeteria menu. In fact, the place has been dubbed a “café” now and is run by a culinary outfit. (I won't hazard a guess as to what happened to all the cafeteria ladies.) This contemporary bill of fare features categories like “Chef’s Table,” “Jump Asian,” and “Tuscan Bistro.” Icons identify which foods are gluten free, vegetarian, and vegan. The vegetarian side dish for January 20, 2016 was “Risi e Bisi Rice, Roasted Zucchini, and Tomatoes.” The only thing resembling a vegetable—outside of potatoes—that I remember eating in the school cafeteria was sauerkraut on my hot dog. It was the first and last time I sampled that. But sauerkraut taught me a valuable lesson: Appealing aromas don’t necessarily translate into taste sensations, particularly when they turn a perfectly edible hot dog roll into a soggy mess. (The cafeteria ladies had to keep the lunch lines moving. Draining the sauerkraut before putting it atop the frankfurter just didn’t happen.)

So, a long time ago on a Wednesday afternoon in wintertime, I enjoyed a roast beef wedge—with Au jus—and a mashed pot side in my school cafeteria. Today, I could have ordered “Chicken Scallopini Scampi,” “Hunan Chicken and Hong Sue Pork,” and “Fruited Barley Lentil Soup.” I could also have a refillable debit card to pay for it—a lunchtime E-Zpass. For sure: It’s not your grandfather’s school cafeteria anymore. Trouble is: I’m the grandfather. How did that happen?

Tuesday, January 5, 2016

January Blues

In the fledgling days of January 1994, a wannabe “motivational shaper” of young men and women—a slick, narcissistic retail store manager, actually—crudely produced an employee “handbook,” which he dubbed: “1994: A New Year, A New Focus,” It was passed out to his less than enthusiastic underlings. The thing amounted to yet another New Year’s series of resolutions to do better and be better on a whole host of fronts—yada...yada...yada. But these resolutions were for a workforce, chronicling what exactly was expected of them along, of course, with explanations why doing more for less would simultaneously build character and make the overall job experience more rewarding. While early January 1994 was, indisputably, a new year, the desired new focus, I can assure you, didn’t come to pass. In fact, whatever new there was about the 1994 focus was a whole lot worse than anything that preceded it!

From my perspective at least, the first couple of weeks in January have invariably been unpleasant—starkly so. As a boy, this stretch of time sealed Christmas’s coffin tight. All the preparation and anticipation for the holiday vanquished in one fell swoop! And the sour icing on the cake was that it was back to the always-dreaded school after a typically event- and fun-filled Christmas vacation—in the dead of winter no less—with very little to look forward to on the upcoming calendar. Trudging off to school in the New Year’s morning cold was nightmarish and a compelling reminder that all good things come with a price—and, too, come to an end. All that was left in early January was to pray for snow.

While Christmastime to me is now a mere shadow of its former self—my youthful exuberance irretrievably lost in the past—I still experience the January blues. On Christmas Eve 2015, the temperature here in New York City set a record: seventy-three. I ran an errand at four o’clock that afternoon without wearing a jacket. My trusty mailman, Yu, delivered the Christmas Eve mail in shorts and a short-sleeved shirt. He also donned his plastic postal safari hat—summer wear and a sign of the climes. This morning—less than two weeks later—the temperature was in the teens, and Yu’s safari hat rested in his locker. Today’s bitter cold, too, at long last cast asunder 2015’s geraniums, begonias, and flowering roses. No frost in these parts until early January was unprecedented in my lifetime!

By chance on the second day of this month, I found myself in the vicinity of Rockefeller Center and the Christmas tree. Once upon a time, Christmas was incomplete without seeing that tree. But I hadn’t been down there at Christmastime—on purpose—in a very long time. I decided, however, to venture past it—for old times sake and, perhaps, for the last time. Because one never knows—I’m not getting any younger. Truth be told, I wasn’t very impressed. The tree seemed smaller and scragglier than I remembered it. I doubt that it was. But seeing it in the bright light of day and, yes, in January, was a deadly one-two punch.

On the heels of my tree trip to bountiful, I walked past Radio City Music Hall. And I didn’t experience the same feelings—not by a long shot—that I had when I saw A Boy Named Charlie Brown, Scrooge, Bedknobs and Broomsticks, and 1776 at Christmastime (1969-1972.) Upon exiting a subway car at Grand Central Station at the age of just seven, I got wedged between closing doors. I was on my way to see the aforementioned A Boy Named Charlie Brown. Such is life! It’s 2016 now, a presidential election year, and there’s a thing called Facebook. When it’s too hot, people deliver sermons and when it’s too cold, they do as well. 2016: A New Year, A New Focus. Maybe this is the year I get stuck in a subway door once more and all will be well again.

Tuesday, December 22, 2015

Uncle Mickey and the House Without a Christmas Tree

In my pre-Christmas wanderings today, I came upon something unusual. It was lying out with a building’s trash. This peculiar sighting would have commonplace in the first couple of weeks of 2016, but not on December 22nd. I beheld a fair-sized, reasonably fresh-looking Christmas tree that appeared—prior to getting the heave-ho—to have been in a stand of some kind. I was left to wonder about that house without a Christmas tree and its backstory. I remember a TV movie from the early 1970s called The House Without a Christmas Tree. It starred Jason Robards and was rerun at Christmastime for years on CBS. But that tale ended on a happy note—the house without a Christmas tree at long last had one.

From houses with and without Christmas trees to “Uncle Mickey.” Well, actually, he’s not my uncle, which isn’t a bad thing. In fact, Uncle Mickey is anything but avuncular. A friend of mine and I cryptically refer to the man as such—and not to his face by the way—because of something that once hung on the wall of his place of business. Strangely enough, Uncle Mickey is better known around town as “Crazy Mickey,” a well-earned moniker based on years of bizarre and sometimes scary behavior. For convenience purposes, I have long patronized Mickey’s shop. Let’s just say the guy has a few anger management issues. On more than one occasion, I’ve seen him hurl his telephone against a wall. Mickey’s unpredictable, borderline violent brand of customer service regularly shocks and awes unsuspecting patrons. A nearby entrepreneur, who offers some of the same services as Mickey, told me that he frequently hears war stories from the frontlines. War stories, that is, from shell-shocked former Crazy Mickey customers. He posed the most obvious of questions that day—and still an unsolved mystery—“But how does he stay in business?”

Uncle Mickey may have finally “Jumped the Shark” vis-à-vis me. In my presence this past week, he punched in anger—the genuine article—an inanimate object that he shouldn’t have punched, and then treated it pretty roughly after that. By the end of our transaction, Uncle Mickey had calmed down sufficiently to mutter, “Happy Holiday!” This is modus operandi. Suffice it to say, I didn’t feel his season’s greeting was all that heartfelt. “But how does he stay in business?” Yes…good question…because he is an equal opportunity Raging Bull, who rages again everybody and anybody for no apparent reason.

Why pray tell have I returned to the belly of the beast as often as I have? That’s another good question. Somebody once told me that I turn everybody into characters. Perhaps there’s some truth to that. Uncle Mickey, after all, is a character extraordinaire—and I, evidently, have a high tolerance for inappropriate behavior. Nevertheless, it’s one of my New Year’s Resolutions to bid a not-so-fond farewell to Uncle Mickey. I understand that I might be missing out on something big on the life stage—bigger than the trashing of the telephones—but I just don't want to chance it any longer. Being Uncle Mickey’s piñata—when he totally goes postal—is something to be avoided by all who know him.