Monday, April 16, 2018

When No Place Is the Better Place

The news of baseball icon, restaurateur, and philanthropist Rusty Staub’s passing a couple of weeks ago landed another piercing blow and supplied a further nail in the coffin of my youth. Almost forty-six years ago to the date, I heard a very different kind of news. My favorite team, the New York Mets, had acquired Rusty from the Montreal Expos. I was nine years old at the time. To say that I was ecstatic at the prospect of Le Grande Orange, as he was affectionately known in Montreal, donning a Met uniform would be an understatement. For my youthful exuberance knew no bounds in what were—for me at least—vastly simpler times.

The announcement of the blockbuster trade was especially uplifting in the wake of revered manager Gil Hodges’ untimely passing. Hodges had long wanted Rusty on his team and had, just before his unexpected death, given the trade his blessing. Some years later, I learned that the Met organization was widely criticized for announcing the Rusty Staub acquisition on the morning of Hodges’ funeral. But I was a wide-eyed kid then interested in baseball, not adult inside-baseball.

In retrospect, death was much less pressing and a whole lot more fleeting to me as a fourth grader. I do, however, remember the news crawl, which reported the passing of Gil Hodges, appearing on the TV screen. It was Easter Sunday, April 2, 1972, and I was staggered. Just as a pizza place on nearby Riverdale Avenue called the New Concept served up a mean Sicilian slice, death was a pretty new concept to me at the time.

Rusty Staub had been a much-loved member of the expansion team Montreal Expos during their first three seasons in existence. The adoration wasn’t only for his hitting prowess, which was considerable, but for Rusty's community-oriented commingling with fans as well. The man learned to speak French and was a indefatigable, redheaded, roving ambassador for the new team on the block. When he came to New York, he fast became a fan favorite, too, and played four seasons with the Mets before he was unceremoniously traded off to the Detroit Tigers for a rotund, past-his-prime pitcher named Mickey Lolich and a prospect who turned out not to be one. It was widely believed that the deal was consummated because of Rusty’s vocal participation in the Major League Baseball labor movement and—yes—potential free agency, which was the new reality. His eventual market worth was more than supreme skinflint M. Donald Grant—who controlled the team’s purse strings—was willing to shell out. Happily, Rusty returned to finish out his career with the Mets. By then the odious Grant—who had single-handedly destroyed a thriving, proud franchise—was living out the remainder of his years in the patrician lifestyle for which he was accustomed.

At a brief and emotional press conference, former teammate and close friend, Keith Hernandez, said that Rusty was now “in a better place.” Having been in intensive care for the last two months of his life—and in a lot of pain—no place was the better place. I was—once more—in a hospital emergency room this past weekend. As a visitor and observer—not a patient—I saw more than a few people in a very bad way. One was a psychotic woman who, apparently, was homeless and not unknown to the staff. Asleep one moment and wide awake the next, she had a major meltdown when she couldn’t find her cigarette lighter. Passersby were cursed out as she fumbled for a cigarette. Security guards warily stood by. The woman sobbed, raved, and wandered away from her stretcher bed on multiple occasions. A nurse came looking for her at one point to take an X-ray, but she was nowhere to be found. The peripatetic patient eventually returned and performed an Act II and an Act III of all of the above. All the while, I heard a perpetual wail from somewhere across the ER that sounded an awful lot like a cat. The repeated “meow” sounds turned out to be a cry of “help” over and over and over. As the days wear on and events play out, I think more often of the day when a better place will be no place. Queue up the news crawl!

(Photos from the personal collection of Nicholas Nigro)

Tuesday, April 10, 2018

Freddie McFlicker

(A reprise from last spring. And during this revolution around the Sun, Freddie went missing for a spell. I eventually spied him looking quite thin and jelly-legged—almost unrecognizable. A major medical moment, I surmised. Now Freddie's disappeared once more and I wonder if I'll ever see him again. I miss him. Life in a breadcrumb.)

There’s this little patch of land that’s considered part of Van Cortlandt Park. In fact, it’s called “Van Cortlandt’s Tail” because it’s at the park’s far end—or beginning from where I sit. And speaking of sitting, this tail section of the park is a circle—or a horseshoe might be more apt—of benches. That’s pretty much it. Sure, it’s got a live Christmas tree in its center, which is decorated every year. And right now it’s festooned with tulips and past-their-prime daffodils.

It’s a piece of earth—well, asphalt mostly—that I passed by regularly for decades. Since I was a boy as a matter of fact. It was a place that I couldn’t conceive of ever hanging out in—for any reason. There was no conceivable need. Why would I want to sit on a bench that overlooks the El and the noisy Number 1 trains constantly coming home to port and heading out on their Manhattan-bound returns.

Life, though, is full of surprises. Nowadays, I find myself in Van Cortlandt’s Tail quite frequently to rest my weary bones. I find the coming-and-going deafening trains almost soothing. It’s the urban equivalent, I guess, of going down to the harbor and watching the boats come in and out. 

Several blocks south of the tail is another small snippet of land with New York City park designation. When all of us were growing up—in the non-politically correct, freer 1970s—it was known as the “Bum Park.” Not nice—yes—but suffice it to say the place attracted some unsavory characters, many of whom were down on their luck.

Van Cortandt’s Tail is not quite the Bum Park North, but it hosts its fair share of characters, including a man I have not-so-affectionately dubbed Freddie McFlicker. I see him regularly roaming the area, sometimes eating a sandwich and other times with a small bag of bread scraps to feed the birds. But there is something very dark about old Freddie. He flicks one crumb at a time and watches—with sadistic delight no doubt—the birds battle over it. He lives in a nearby building, I think, and my detective work surmises that he is unmarried and has abused alcohol at one time or another. He’s wears an angry face and doesn’t fraternize with anyone but the birds.

Strangely, I’ve come to despise the mere sight of him. All of us, I suspect, have a Freddie McFlicker or two or three in our lives. The bird feeding bit speaks volumes to me. I’ve also noticed that he has a preferred bench. It’s where, coincidentally, I like sitting. The bench is at the beginning of the tail, so you’re never surrounded by people and a quick, unobtrusive exit is always possible.

Well, today, I was sitting on Freddie’s bench—the only one in the whole tail until Freddie in the flesh appeared. There were dozens of empty benches to choose from. But what does Freddie do? He sits on the one right beside me and commences eating his lunch. I could feel hostility in the air. I wanted to get up right away in protest—in disgust—but decided I couldn’t let Freddie McFlicker win this round. So, I stayed for a bit and finally exited the tail, leaving sneering old Freddie alone with his half-eaten sandwich and maybe a few crumbs to be flicked to the birds. He muttered something as I left, but I don’t know if it was meant for me or his feathered friends.

(Photos from the personal collection of Nicholas Nigro)

Monday, April 9, 2018

That's the Signpost Up Ahead...

The next stop...
Bizarro World...
Last Wednesday's photo of the imposing George Washington Bridge.
Don't be afraid of The Fog...
The George Washington Bridge connecting Northern Manhattan with New Jersey, which never looked better.
Follow that garbage truck. It's astounding how much trash is picked up daily in New York City. How long will it be before the planet is buried in it?
Ode to men in fluorescent vests who are upgrading our infrastructure.
Have the Sannyasins spiked New York City's water supply?
Nursing home fare: as good as it gets!
First night of spring in the Bronx.
Garbage in...garbage out.
I remember bully boys mockingly calling certain contemporaries of theirs "pansies." Well, the above pansies are as tough as nails. 
My favorite diner's bathroom escape hatch.
Sound advice...
A clean toilet in a greasy spoon is like the cinnamon on the rice pudding...
Pretentious Manhattan...
Sign at the Stew Leonard's buffet ($7.99/lb.) goes a long way in explaining New York's obesity problem.
At Stew Leonard's and wondering whatever became of Tobey Maguire.
While ravenously attacking his non-organic BLT sandwich with sides of coleslaw and a pickle in a neighborhood greasy spoon, a friend of mine complained that Stew Leonard's doesn't carry enough organic products for his taste.

(Photos from the personal collection of Nicholas Nigro)

Sunday, April 8, 2018

The Schoolbag Three

Yesterday, I took the subway into Manhattan. An affable Charles Manson-looking guy and woman who was HIV positive were panhandling at different times. Both played the grateful part with the latter exiting the train with a loud “Thank you, New York!” With the Statue of Liberty looming large in the damp and blustery distance, I met a friend in Battery Park—our old stomping grounds. Along with yours truly, he was one of the “Schoolbag Three,” a trio from the old neighborhood who attended the same Catholic grammar school and high school. And when we began our secondary education in 1976 on the other side of the Bronx, schoolbags were still the in-thing. I got mine—a black one—in an area luggage store. In the 1970s, Kingsbridge was replete with mom-and-pop stores that specialized in just about everything anyone needed. From luggage to hosiery to deli sandwiches—pets to art supplies to pork—a shop existed within walking distance on the main thoroughfares of W231st Street and Broadway under the El. Nowadays it’s an unsightly mishmash and unpleasant reminder of what once was.

Interestingly, the schoolbag—which was quite utilitarian in transporting books, notepads, and pens from Point A to Point B—became increasingly passé in the waning years of the 1970s. One member of our threesome nevertheless soldiered on with his red-and-white CSHS-insignia schoolbag for all four years. By senior year, its handle had fallen off and he dutifully carried it under his arm. The three of us were something of a spectacle, I guess, as we returned home festooned in our polyester sports jackets, gaudy ties, and schoolbags at our sides. Suddenly, old-fashioned schoolbags were the accoutrements of nerds. My older brother was embarrassed that I clung to mine until my last year at CSHS, when I at long last retired it due to intense wear. Ginger, our new pup and addition to the family, ultimately teethed on the legendary schoolbag. It went out with a fitting bang.

By the way, the moniker “The Schoolbag Three” came to pass when I christened a JPEG shot of the three of us at Christmastime 1978 as such. Unfortunately, we aren’t carrying our schoolbags in the picture. One of my regrets is not having any photos in my high school uniform, which for the boys back then was a jacket, tie, and dressy pants of their choice. The colorful mix and matches were a special snapshot in time.

Anyway, that was then and this is now. Suffice it to say, the Schoolbag Three of 2018 aren’t near as spry as they were when they stopped in Bill’s Friendly Spot after an unpleasant school day for a “delicious egg cream.” At least that’s what the sign outside read along with an image of the famous frothy fountain pick-me-up. In fact, I—who sport a prosthetic knee—am the most ambulatory these days, with my mates saddled with assorted maladies that impede their walking akin to the schoolbag days and nights.

I was reminded, too, yesterday of a peculiar teenage prediction of mine regarding one of us. As fifteen year olds are wont to do, we were cavorting in my concrete backyard some four decades ago. For some strange reason, I proclaimed then that so-and-so would live to be fifty-seven. He will turn fifty-six this month and he is not doing very well. Of course, we were just having a grand old time and mouthing oddball and unpredictable stuff in an age before smartphones. At least my prophecy wasn't recorded! Of course, it's all gallows humor and I know full well that any one of us could drop between now and then. And, really, fifty-seven sounded pretty old once upon a time. As a teen, I couldn’t conceive of being that age. My father was in his forties when I was in high school. Nevertheless, I’m closing in on that unholy number and don’t relish being a Teenage Nostradamus or, for that matter, dead as a doornail.

(Photos from the personal collection of Nicholas Nigro) 

Sunday, March 25, 2018

What's Fare Isn't Always Fair and Random Observations

Once upon a time Easter meant a vacation for me. It commenced on Holy Thursday and included Good Friday and the entire week after Easter Sundayseven whole schooldays in the springtime no less. Trust me when I say this was a gift of providential proportions.

Nowadays, the Easter vacation and, too, the largess of the Easter Bunny are distant memories. There are no more popcorn bunnies, chocolate crosses, and triple-packs of baseball cards in my Easter baskets. There are no more Easter baskets. There are no more Easter visits, too, to the maternal grandparents in Bangor, Pennsylvania and hams from Speer's Meat Market. Nothing in life lasts forever, including meat markets. An Easter footnote here: Approximately a half-century ago, I actually spotted the Easter Bunny in my grandparents' Miller Street backyard. As soon as I laid eyes on the creature, he, she, or it hopped away with resolute alacrity. The official location of the sighting: under the newly-budding black walnut tree. Of course, it could have been an alley cat.

Well, that was then and this is now as Holy Week and Passover approach. It was a pretty chilly day yesterdaystill colder than normalbut tolerable at least. The sun shone brightly on the "March for Our Lives" demonstration in Manhattan. In fact, the subway was overflowing with attendees and their placards. My favorite read: "Thoughts & prayers won't protect me from bullets." True dat.

My subway adventure began at the Van Cortlandt Park terminal, where I made my way to the first car, which is typically the least crowded on the southbound journey—Bronx to Manhattan. The first car being the last car on the northbound trip is also more apt to have homeless folks vegetating therein, and often in the Land of Nod. This was indeed the case yesterday, but the train operator would have none of it. He informed a prostrate man that sitting erect was required if he wanted to ride the train. This was too much to ask and the man exited the car to find another one where he wouldn't be bothered and could rest in peace. Before pulling out, the train operator exited his cab and sprayed the area previously occupied by the homeless man with an air freshener. It was the train operator's domain and he wasn't about to let any lingering body odor waft his way. Truthfully, I didn't smell the homeless man, but I did smell the air freshener, which didn't smell so fresh in an enclosed subway car destined for the land down under.

My day ended on a sour not with a visit to a nursing home at dinnertime. Considering what these institutions charge per day, one would think the fare would be at least fair, which most of the time it isn't. I won't say that what was served last night looked like dog food, because canine eats have taken a considerable turn for the better in recent years. Seriously, I don't think too many pet parents would feed the nursing home's Philly cheese steak and soggy French fries to their beloved canine companions. A nursing home is just not where you want to end your days, or even rehabilitate in for days or weeks. How about mandatory private rooms? Put up half walls where the curtains separating patients are. It's nice that every patient has a television set, but with two sets on in the same room—in hard-of-hearing central—it's enough to drive one to madness and a nursing home.

(Photos from the personal collection of Nicholas Nigro)

Sunday, March 18, 2018

The March Through Madness

It's been a wild-and-woolly month. With "the wearin' o' the green" now in the history books, it's time to think of things spring. Turning the clock back four decades, the fledgling weeks of this season were quite exciting. They saw the start of the baseball season, when hope always sprung eternal, even when your team sorely lacked pennant-winning timber. That would apply to my team—the New York Mets—in 1978, managed then by future Hall of Fame manager Joe Torre. The Mets' job was his first. And although it didn't show in the final standings, he did a pretty good job in my opinion with some pretty awful teams. 

Forty years ago, spring also signified the beginning of stickball season. I kept copious records at that time of our stickball endeavors, including the recording of temperature readings taken at game time from the big clock/thermometer on top of the Exxon station on W230th Street. Like so many things, both the Exxon station and its iconic clock/thermometer are mere memories now. And the John F. Kennedy High School—where we long ago played our crazy game—has morphed into a labyrinthine complex of learning institutions that would prohibit playing stickball on the grounds—that is, if anyone wanted to play the game anymore. 

A footnote here: I only recently learned that our stickball playing grounds at John F. Kennedy High School—several blocks from where I lived—were actually in Manhattan and not in the Bronx. Once separated from the Bronx by the wending Spuyten Duyvil Creek, the area in question is considered Manhattan terra firma. The creek was filled in during the early years of the twentieth century. The Marble Hill neighborhood is now attached to the Bronx and separated from the remainder of Manhattan by the Harlem River Ship Canal. So, to make a long story short, our hallowed stickball grounds were once upon a time covered by the waters of the Spuyten Duyvil Creek, which flowed into the nearby Hudson River. Manhattan land remains Manhattan land.

Well, that was then and this is now...

Just my opinion, but Mine Spa is better than Yours.
You know you're in a bad place when there's a ubiquitous pink water pitcher on the scene.
While the Exxon station and its giant clock/thermometer are long gone, the Chinese take-out joint in the old neighborhood endures. It's changed owners and names a few times, but it remains an institution of fine dining and MSG overload.
And it's received an "A" grade from the New York City Department of Health. After getting some flack from harassed and overly-fined businesses, the bureaucracy seems to have backed off a bit.
It seems that Chinese take-out establishments have a thing for both MSG and truth mirrors, which one cannot help but stare into and ponder one's fate while waiting for the shrimp and broccoli and vegetable egg foo young.
Wow, free WiFi and an elevator to boot...
New York City straphangers are slobs. Subway station nooks and crannies tell me as much.
Apparently, there's a magic marker graffiti vandal on the loose at 18th Street.
As soon as his stuff gets wiped clean, he's back and reminding us of Agent Orange and our march through madness.
At the same subway station is the mysterious MR321 room, or is it Mr. 321's private entrance to somewhere unknown?
A surprise for some lucky girl...
It depends upon what your definition of "Is" is...
For some reason, this reminded me of a Monty Python's Flying Circus skit. I'm riding the train with an empty bottle of fruit drink, a ham sandwich, and a James Patterson novel.
Alone in a crowd...
Visiting a nursing home yesterday, I got to see the Super Soup live and up-close. It's what the institution calls its soups. Since they invariably all look like dishwater, I was left to guess what the St. Patrick's Day soup of the day was. I spied a hint of green and concluded it was pea, but definitely not the thick as fog kind.
The Harlem River Ship Canal as seen from the Broadway Bridge. Our stickball playing grounds were somewhere between the two buildings and at the tail of the Metro-North train pulling into the Spuyten Duyvil station.
A malformed delight...
April showers bring May flowers...

(Photos from the personal collection of Nicholas Nigro)