Thursday, March 15, 2018

The Eyes of March

As I write these words, a plainclothes policeman is staking out some local undesirables. He’s parked in the driveway just outside my door, peering down an alleyway into a backyard on an adjoining street. The detective clued me in as to what he was up to and flashed his credentials for good measure. He wanted me to know that he was the good guy looking to ensnare some bad guys. After all, seeing a fellow sitting in a car for hours—and occasionally pacing back and forth on foot—engenders suspicion in a suspicious part of the world (the Bronx).

As to what the bad guys are involved in, the detective left that to my imagination. He did, however, whet my appetite with the foreboding words: “You would be surprised to know what kind of lowlifes are living beside you.” Considering that a year-and-a-half ago, a house exploded on my block—the tragic result of a marijuana farm illegally taping into a gas line—I don’t think I would be. A firefighter on the street was killed by falling debris that day.

I would hazard a guess that the stakeout has something to do with illicit drugs. The odds favor that over a prostitution ring or counterfeiting operation. A certain landlord—a lowlife in his own right—owns the property under surveillance. His sole life purpose is—apparently—the accumulation of money. He actually brands himself a financial “whiz kid.” Trust me: The man’s no kid and carries around an unsightly spare tire to boot. The only exercise he gets is during his monthly rounds in collecting rent checks. Every square inch of his multiple properties is a cash cow. Cars are parked bumper-to-bumper in his backyards. His garages are ever-revolving—but always occupied—doors of mystery. What’s behind door number one? Door number two? I suspect what’s been behind them through the years hasn’t always been on the up-and-up. I remember when a garage was rented to a food street vendor who could be seen slicing and dicing meats in it. Now that wasn’t kosher!

As for the tenants in the man’s various apartments: They come and go and come and go again, leaving in their wake an unsightly mess of cigarette butts on front stoops and in patches of gardens. As a side note, it’s now against the law in New York City to smoke inside three-family homes and up. “No smoking” signs are required therein. Thirty and forty years ago—when people freely smoked in three-family abodes—neighbors knew who lived in the buildings. Sure, there were a fair share of lowlifes in the old neighborhood, but we knew who they were and called them by name. Now, a Walter White-type just might be plying his trade clandestinely in one of those garages.

Fifty years ago, an old woman named Lizzy, who waddled like a penguin, owned the three-family home under surveillance today. Lizzy and geriatric contemporaries from the block would meet and kibitz in that very backyard, which is now a parking lot and the sight of mystifying but nefarious goings-on.

(Photos from the personal collection of Nicholas Nigro)

Friday, March 2, 2018

O Come, O Come Emmanuel

There’s nothing like a visit to a hospital’s emergency room to put life in perspective. I’ve been there and done that as both a patient and visitor. This past week I was the latter on more than one occasion. And working with the assumption that everything has a beginning, middle, and end, I did a little math while vegetating there. I concluded that based on my chronological age—fifty-something—I’m at the beginning of the end. And even that might be wishful thinking.

One stopover found me in the ER waiting room with a never-ending parade of walk-in business. Some of the people turning up looked quite ill and fatigued; others left me wondering what they were there for. A teenager was there with his mother. The entire time—hours—he was playing with his smartphone and jabbering like a car service dispatcher to God only knows.

Sitting in a curtained space in the thick of things a few days later, I momentarily thought actor Jonathan Banks was on the scene and pacing to and fro. As things turned out it was not him, but a dead-ringer for Mike Ehrmantraut. He was a visitor who, apparently, couldn’t stand still. It’s what I get for binge watching Breaking Bad and now Better Call Saul. In my drowsy state of mind in that chaotic environment—with all the bells and whistles—life imitated art or some such thing.

On the ER drama front, a woman in an adjoining space was backed up big-time. Laxatives were the first order of business. When doctors asked her if she drank, she replied, “Moderately.” I took that answer to mean she was a lush. She was also repeatedly calling out for Grace, her sister, and some fellow named Emmanuel. “O Come, O Come Emmanuel,” I sang to myself. “And ransom captive Israel.” As a kid that last line always struck me as odd. I can’t say that it is any less so as an adult.

Suffice it to say, the hits just kept on coming in the emergency room. A man a couple of curtains down, I overheard, had a huge blood clot in one leg and considerable ones in each of his two lungs. The doctors attending to him seemed very concerned that time was of the essence. He didn’t speak a word of English and family members were on hand to translate. At one point the medical team was endeavoring to convince him that his lunch demands were out of order. An imminent procedure necessitated an empty stomach. 

Finally, there was this eccentric old gal walking around the ER, but unlike Mike Ehrmantraut, she wasn’t the strong and silent type. She was an impatient patient and demanding answers to this, that, and the other thing. At one point she was told to get back to her bed or security would be called. Her persistence paid off when she found a passing nurse to show her how to put on a neck brace. When it was time to take her the blood pressure, the wacky wanderer initially refused to take off her respectable Republican cloth coat. After some coaxing, she consented but then shrieked that the blood pressure sleeve was hurting her. And so it went in the emergency room. I am left only to wonder what became of all of the above.

(Photos one, three, four, and five from the personal collection of Nicholas Nigro)

Tuesday, February 27, 2018

Chocolate Chip Mint, Wet Paint, and Pepperoni Pizza

Approximately a half century ago, a Baskin-Robbins ice cream shop opened up in my old neighborhood of Kingsbridge. Affectionately known to many of us as “31 Flavors,” it featured such classics as French Vanilla, Rocky Road, and Orange Sherbet. As a youth more inclined to stick with the basics—chocolate or vanilla—I remember liking their Chocolate Chip Mint, now called Mint Chocolate Chip. Baskin-Robbins, I see, is a global concern in the new century, an ice cream giant that lays claim to merchandising the first ever ice cream cake. I liked Baskin-Robbins ice cream all right, but then I liked the now defunct Sealtest brand as well. As a kid my ice cream bar was quite low.
As a sentimental softie, Carvel ice cream—also with a shop in the neighborhood—was my preferred parlor. Through changing times and faces, the neighborhood Baskin-Robbins somehow survived for four decades before closing its doors. Its packaged product can now be purchased in an area Dunkin’ Donuts. Surprisingly, the Carvel location is still operating, but it’s a shadow of its former quality—in my humble opinion—with smaller portions at not-so-small prices.

If the last two years are indicators: February in my neck of the woods is “A Train by Any Other Name Is a Bus” month. Or is it “A Bus by Any Other Name Is a Train” month.
The stores that best manage to adapt and survive changing times and changing neighborhoods are—without question—liquor stores.
"Where do you come from. Where do you go?"
I played many variations of tag as a youth, including my personal favorite: freeze tag. But I am happy to report, I never "tagged" another's property.
In portions of the Bronx—8.7 miles worth—Interstate 87 is the Major Deegan Expressway, an unpleasant thoroughfare and frequently a traffic nightmare. Looking on the bright side, however, it's not the Cross-Bronx Expressway.
If this is what my discarded coffee grinds, orange peels, and soiled paper towels are becoming, organic recycling is well worth the effort. And a sure sign of spring, too.
But I almost forgot: It's still February...
The first order of business is naming the business...
I'm more at ease in close proximity of a train that is a bus than a training bus...
When I'm feeling thirsty, a quencher "created by volcanoes" doesn't typically come to mind...
Through the years, I've encountered many "Wet Paint" signs in subway stations and at subway entrances. Rarely have I resisted the temptation to see for myself if indeed the paint was wet. So far I've come up dry every time.
This "Wet Paint" sign has been up over a month. I guess erring on the safe side is always prudent.
Many of New York City subway signals are seventy and eighty years old.
Which is why the fluorescent vest trade needn't worry...
Pepperoni doesn't agree with me nowadays. It gives me indigestion and causes my heart to race. Why then do I still order pizza with pepperoni?
"Hello, Buunni, this is Ole Buttercup!"

(Photos from the personal collection of Nicholas Nigro)

Friday, February 23, 2018

The Midwinter Recess Lives

While wandering around the neighborhood and snapping pictures this past week, I acknowledged the time of year. This inspired me to, later, check out the website of my high school alma mater. I wanted to see if the “midwinter recess” of my bygone youth still existed. For those of us who loathed the high school experience with a passion, this week off—even if it was technically past midwinter—was very welcome indeed. If this revered holiday did in fact endure, I suspected it would be the week—as always—of George Washington’s Birthday.

I am happy to report that the midwinter recess has stood the test of time. This is more than can be said for the Father of Our Country’s special day, which is now widely known as Presidents’ Day on calendars, in department store promotions, and—sadly—in the public consciousness. It’s the third Monday in February, a federal holiday, which theoretically celebrates Washington and his forty-plus predecessors, most of whom deserve no such fête.

Anyway, for those of us lucky enough to participate in this year’s midwinter recess in New York City, a couple of days therein felt more like late spring weather. The thermometer reached 78 degrees on February 21, a record breaker not only for the day but for the entire month as well. It was no-jacket-required time, for sure, with many locals donning their summer shorts and footwear. Being overdressed while wearing a light windbreaker in February is downright unnatural. Sweating in lieu of shivering at this time of year is a strange feeling. I don’t like the cold of winter anymore. April in February I can appreciate, but June in February just strikes an ill-sounding chord.

Plucked now from the recesses of my mind are recollections of past midwinter recesses, which were invariably cold and stark—but reassuringly so. It was a bona fide pleasure not to have to arise early on five consecutive frigid and still pretty dark winter morns. These were Mondays through Fridays where I didn't have to trudge the several blocks from my house to busy Broadway to await my school’s “special” bus, which shuttled students to the other side of the Bronx. Trust me, there was nothing special about those buses, which were leased from the city—driver and all—and invariably packed like the proverbial sardines in a can. While smoking was prohibited on New York City transit even in the colorful, more libertine 1970s, the ban was rarely enforced on our twenty-minute voyages to and from high school. So what if a fair share of teens puffed away in the sardine cans, leaving those of us who didn’t partake in poisonous pleasures with a serious second-hand smoke problem to contend with, not to mention beginning our school days short of breath and smelling like dirty chimneys—clothes, skin, and hair.

While I certainly wouldn’t want to relive those infamous bus rides, I wouldn’t mind replaying those midwinter recesses of yesterday. They were cold when it was supposed to be cold. And as long as school wasn’t in session, I kind of liked cold in those days.

(Photos from the personal collection of Nicholas Nigro)

Monday, February 12, 2018

Sights and Sounds Are All Around

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

(Photos from the personal collection of Nicholas Nigro)

Friday, February 9, 2018

Irish Curses, Blessings, and Toasts

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(Photos from the personal collection of Nicholas Nigro)