Thursday, December 30, 2010

The Bloomberg Is Off the Rose

My father had a penchant for mangling people’s surnames. Although some of his mispronunciations were sincerely delivered, I long suspected that many more were intentional—his inimitable way of showing disdain for certain folks, most notably in the political class.

His more memorable mispronunciations were of a recent vintage and targeted New York City mayors Giuliani and Bloomberg. Instead of Giuliani, it was always “Gooliani,” and Bloomberg was “Blumberg.” Now, my dad clearly heard these famous fellows’ names mentioned on the television from time to time, but it didn’t deter him from getting their names wrong always and every day. And although he voted for both men in his lifetime, I imagine he just couldn’t bring himself to fully respect anybody who plied his or her trade in the world’s second oldest profession.

While on the subject of Mayor Bloomberg—for whom I voted for three times, with decreasing enthusiasm I might add—the bloom is definitely off the rose. This week’s blizzard has unquestionably tarnished his veneer as a manager with a golden touch. But I don’t blame him for the snow-cleanup snafus. These things happen. However, I do blame Mayor Mike for his runaway haughtiness—his billionaire’s tin ear that has manifested itself through the years, and for which I largely overlooked because he was much preferred to his hack Democrat opponents in this one-party town.

In the immediate aftermath of the snowstorm, Bloomberg’s initial reaction to legitimate complaints was a testy bristle. Festooned in his green Christmas sweater vest, the mayor said something to the effect that the world’s not coming to an end. In other words: Shut your mouths and shovel your snow. I recall him uttering something similarly callous when a smoking ban was enacted in city bars that were previously exempt from the prohibition. Granted, these business establishments traffic in more than a few unhealthy life choices. But they serve adult beverages to adults with free will in a city that never sleeps in the land of the free. Not surprisingly, some proprietors feared their businesses would suffer, or even go under with an enforced ban on smoking. “If a business can’t make it, another one will take its place,” said the always-empathetic mayor.

The third term has not exactly been a charm for Bloomy, who single-handedly cast asunder term limit laws to get it. I don’t know…but maybe two terms of our billionaire nanny may have been enough. And if salt is banned in city restaurants anytime soon, you'll know who to blame.

Monday, December 27, 2010

City Sidewalks, Snowy Sidewalks

Once upon a time we didn’t get nearly as much snow in the Bronx. And it was a time when I actually pined for the white stuff—the more the merrier. I liked looking at it coming down, frolicking in it, and most of all, when it cancelled school, which I must admit—despite my weakness for nostalgia—I especially loathed from the very first day of kindergarten to very last day of high school. The college years were in a class by themselves.

In fact, I just unearthed some interesting statistics for my hometown of New York City. During the 1970s, we got socked with only three snowstorms that surpassed one foot in total; in the 1980s, just one! During the aughties, we’ve experienced ten—count 'em—with a twenty-inch job this past February. And now another two-footer in the same year. To think, Central Park recorded a mere one-quarter of an inch of snow during the entire winter of 1973-74. I can safely assume my grammar school, St. John's in Kingsbridge, never closed its doors for a snow day that school year.

Sure, I still enjoy the sight of snow coming down. There’s something exhilarating about bad weather events occurring in real time. I appreciate, too, the pristine blanket of white upon a storm’s end, which, by the way, doesn’t remain so for very long in these parts. But right now I'm going about my business in the dreaded post-snowstorm days and nights. I just stepped outside and yesterday's shoveled sidewalks are glazed in an icy patina. The crossing of streets necessitate wading through a couple of feet of snow—or more in places thanks to Mother Nature’s wind-swept drifts and sanitation plows man-made concoctions.

There are an awful lot of dog walkers and dogs around town these days. So, the short-lived unspoiled white snow cover is already a urine-yellow in spots, with darker and sunken splotches to be found elsewhere, the extent of which will reveal themselves in all their splendor when the last vestiges of the snow are history. Upon a snowmelt, a city sidewalk isn’t a sight for sore eyes.

By this coming weekend—the first few days of the New Year—it is expected the temperature will climb into the forties, and perhaps top fifty with some rain. Well, those impassable street corners won’t—by then—have two feet of snow on them, which is all well and good, but a foot or so of filthy, ice-cold slushy water instead. Something to look forward, I suppose. Happy New Year!

Thursday, December 16, 2010

May in December

Once upon a time at the behest of his employer Montgomery Ward, a man named Robert L. May penned a children’s Christmas tale. This department store chain desired some kind of holiday giveaway that would win the hearts and minds of little girls and boys and, more importantly, the pocketbook loyalties of their mommies and daddies. And suffice it to say, advertising copywriter May didn’t disappoint with his story, Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, which chronicled the ups and downs of a somewhat unique member of a very cold society that celebrated sameness above all else.

While Rudolph wasn’t exactly autobiographical—May, after all, wasn’t a four-legged creature with antlers and a nose that, both inexplicably and unpredictably, cast a powerfully bright red luminescence into the ether. Nevertheless, he loosely based the Rudolph character on his own youth as a short and shy boy frequently picked on for being somehow different from the rest. Debuting in 1939, Montgomery Ward dispensed with more than two million Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer booklets at their myriad stores. And even with World War II and a simultaneous paper shortage, six million copies were in print by 1946. This could mean only thing: Rudolph was a bona fide phenomenon. Seeking to take this beloved misfit of a reindeer to new heights, wannabe licensees of all stripes came a-calling.

Unfortunately, from Mr. May's perspective, all rights to Rudolph belonged to the Montgomery Ward Company. And, at the time, his personal life was a sorry mess. His wife, who had long suffered with cancer had passed away, leaving him a widower with a young daughter to raise and a pile of medical bills to pay, which he could not afford. May importuned a man named Sewell Avery, the Montgomery Ward chairman, to hand over the Rudolph copyright to its creator, and Avery complied—a rare act of corporate benevolence that would be inconceivable today. May would no longer have to sweat the bucks and could pay his bills and then some, particularly after two million Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer records were sold with Gene Autry singing the lyrics written by Johnny Marks, who just happened to be Mays’s brother-in-law. Of course, it was the 1964 television special narrated by the avuncular Burl Ives that brought Rudolph and friends to life in perpetuity.

As a footnote here, the original story and the television telling are at odds in a few critical areas. For example, Rudolph had a wholly supportive family in the book. His father wasn’t smudging mud on his nose to conceal his so-called deformity, nor for that matter was he "Donner," a member of Santa's elite team of reindeer. Remember old Donner's embarrassed non-reaction to the oafish and callous reindeer flying coach—a prototype of the typical high school gym teacher—who said, "From now on gang, we won't allow Rudolph to play in any reindeer games." In the book, Rudolph’s family also lived in a working-class community of reindeers, not tony Christmas Town lorded over by the irritable King of Jing-a-ling, who could have, by the way, made Rudolph's young, impressionable life a whole lot less traumatic had he only seen the light a little sooner.

Monday, December 13, 2010

A Christmas Perspective

Long before the term "pet parent" entered the vernacular, I toiled as young man in a place called Pet Nosh. During the mid-1980s, there were no retail superstores exclusively devoted to pets and their care in the environs of New York City. In fact, this little store on Central Avenue in Yonkers was considered both big and utterly unique for its day. And it was. It was also a harbinger of much grander things to come.

Some years ago, while crafting a book proposal for a pet-themed topic, I plucked out a particular anecdote from my life and times in the aforementioned belly of the beast. I recounted the tale of how Pet Nosh was the very first retailer to promote a visitation from ol' St. Nick, who would avail his busy lap top this go-round for God's four-legged and feathered creatures and not run-of-the mill, incredibly ordinary little girls and boys. I cited Pet Nosh as the pioneer of this marketing endeavor, which has since become redundant, playing out everywhere, including in the now countless mega-superstores, which actually have the chutzpah to charge for the privilege.

A quarter of a century ago, Pet Nosh advertised the occasion as a way of saying thank you to its loyal patrons. All one had to do was show up on the scheduled night with a pet or multiple pets—and a picture with Santa was on the house. Granted, the first few years of this “Have Your Pet’s Picture Taken with Santa Claus” promo were quite raw by today's standards. For starters, there were no such things as digital cameras back then. An amateur photographer and a Polaroid instant camera provided the service, with unadorned snapshots handed over on the spot to mostly satisfied customers who gushed with gratitude. The experience was considered so unusual and even cool that a not-especially-sharp instant photograph—and nothing else—was something akin to gold, frankincense, and myrrh. And as a holiday conversation piece, it was priceless!

When I put this claim down on paper—that Pet Nosh was the very first retailer to host such an event—my literary agent at the time asked: "Is this true? You know, you shouldn't say so if it's not." I replied: "The Pet Nosh brass conceived the idea. To their knowledge, they weren't plagiarizing anybody else—near or far." Of course, there was no Internet thirty years ago, so we couldn't be absolutely certain that a pet store in Boise, Idaho; Alhambra, California; or Bangor, Maine did not do something similar before Pet Nosh hosted the picture show.

So, Santa Claus coming to Pet Nosh Town for the exclusive benefit of cats, dogs, birds, snakes, lizards, and turtles was either the trailblazer, or certainly among the trailblazing class, ushering in the Pet Parenting Age. It was at once exciting and strange. The very first time Pet Nosh advertised this holiday promotion, we hadn’t a clue what to expect vis-à-vis the turnout. We hadn't a clue how everything would unfold with two-legged and four-legged animals in every nook and cranny of the store. It's no stretch to say that we were more than a bit taken aback when a couple of hundred people with their pets in tow showed up and waited on very, very long lines that actually twisted around a corner into a residential neighborhood—and, on top everything else, in a freezing rain storm just days before Christmas.

(Photo from the personal collection of Nicholas Nigro)

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Christmas in New York

As kids at Christmastime, one of the Nigro boys’ favorite holiday traditions was a shopping jaunt into the big city with our Aunt Rose. She labored in midtown Manhattan’s storied Garment District for her entire working life, and knew the stitches of the area, if you will, inside and out. It was the 1970s—a colorful, if a bit dirty and coarse, snapshot in time—that found us year after year, on the first or second Saturday in December, riding the then graffiti-laden, and not especially efficient, Number 1 subway train from our Bronx neighborhood into the core of the Big Apple. We exited at 34th Street, Penn Station, directly across the street from the main entrance to Macy’s—the “World’s Largest Department Store.”

We would spend hours in this sprawling, multi-floored retail edifice, particularly fascinated by the store’s famous “Cellar,” which was, and still is, renowned for its alluring aromas of countless succulent edibles, as well as wall-to-wall people and, I should add, predatory prices (some things never change). I don’t recall purchasing all that much at Macy’s. Our aunt choreographed it as a critical stopover, enabling us to soak up, first and foremost, the uniquely festive and incredibly alive Christmas in New York ambiance.

For gift buying on our wee-people budgets, more affordable locales were also on these annual itineraries, including nearby Gimbel’s (a touch cheaper than Macy’s) and, the piece-de-resistance as far as we were concerned, a mega-Woolworth’s store with an extraordinarily diverse wonderland of bargains. Hoping he would take up the hobby of converting his empty beer bottles and pickle jars into flowerpots, fish bowls, and candy dishes, I bought my father a Ronco Bottle and Jar Cutter there. He never warmed to the hobby. And to quote a familiar refrain of his: “Waste! Waste! Waste!” We sometimes did lunch at this, sadly, defunct five-and-dime chain and former retail icon.

Also on Fifth Avenue in the vicinity of Woolworth’s was a not quite as impressive epigone called Kress’s. It was Kress’s food counter that served me a hamburger and French fries platter with a sliced tomato on one of the bun’s halves. The hideously gelatinous appearance of said tomato compelled me to consume my burger with only half a bun. I just couldn’t bring myself to bite down on a tomato-contaminated piece of bread. Half a bun notwithstanding, it was—as I recall—quite delicious. And, yes, I would very likely do the same thing today (some things never change).

The back-end of our Christmas shopping trips called on Korvette’s—yet another department store chain in the ash heap of history—and Brentano’s, an independent bookstore near Rockefeller Center with a winding staircase and wooden banisters. What a unique place that was back then, before the advent of book superstores, which subsequently ran this impressive indie out of business. Seinfeld's George Costanza brought a Brentano's book with him into the bathroom.

Our shopping sprees consummated in the oncoming darkness at the foot of the Rockefeller Center Christmas tree. And, finally, after passing by Radio City Music Hall, we’d get on the train for home at 50th Street—tired but satisfied. I haven’t been to Macy’s in many, many years. Gimbel’s, Woolworth’s, Kress’s, Korvette’s, and Brentano’s are all gone with the winds of time. I don’t even make it a point to see the tree at Rockefeller Center anymore. I have no desire in being the bologna in the sandwich bread of thousands of tourists. Still, what I wouldn’t give to experience Christmas in New York again. 

Monday, December 6, 2010

Life: Indifferent and Arbitrary

To follow-up on a previous posting concerning life during, and after, an unplanned and unwanted spell in Hospital Land, I suppose what’s particularly ugly about the overall experience—aside from the incredibly obvious—is the palpable indifference that wends its way through the sterile ether. Now, according to all that I’ve read, I was a patient in one of the best hospitals in New York State. And the doctors were top notch (they saved my life), and the nurses even better than that. Nevertheless, there were many instances when the quality of care was seemingly put on hold, suspended indefinitely.

For example, at some point in my stay I was scheduled for an MRI procedure, which necessitated a three mile or so journey from one hospital hotspot to another. If memory serves, the exam was scheduled for 9:45 in the morning and, of course, I was in transit long before that. When all of this transpired, my pre-amputated right knee was a grisly mess—an open wound that reeked to high heaven. I was also in perpetual pain and on countless meds to help alleviate the worst of it.

Well, to make a very long story short, I didn’t undergo said MRI until mid-afternoon sometime, and didn’t get back into my hospital bed until 7:30 at night, where I had a debriding surgery on the docket for later in the evening. Now, I won’t bore you as to the why it took so long for the MRI, which, by the way, is very unpleasant—a claustrophobic’s worst nightmare. I think one of the operating machines may have been out of order or some such thing. And then I had to wait hours for my ride back from whence I came. But what interested me most of all this day was how I had become a non-entity—somebody else’s problem. There was absolutely no concern that yours truly was in a tremendous amount of pain, and on medications, which didn’t get shipped along with my still breathing body. And so I received no pain relief all day long. And, too, there was no concern that I get a bite to eat, either. While I’m not a medical person, I suspect that when you’re really, really sick and very, very weak, a little nourishment might just do you a bit of good. If it weren’t for a sympathetic receptionist on duty supplying me with Jell-O, a few of packs of saltines, and apple juice from the waiting-room refrigerator, absolutely nothing would have passed between my lips from nine in the morning to about eight at night. Her superior even chided her for such generosity. I recall him saying, “That stuff’s for us.”

So, I spent hours upon hours in a waiting room, with countless people coming and going as if those of us patiently waiting on stretchers for our MRIs were invisible. The office conducted its mundane business as usual. Inconsequential personal conversations also occurred while the sick on stretchers listened in—if we were fortunate enough to be that aware, and some of us weren’t. And, if the majority were anything like me, they took special note of the cold chill in the air—life reduced to total indifference and completely arbitrary in meting out its punishments. Kind of scary, and not something one soon or so easily forgets.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Shea Hey

Over the Thanksgiving weekend, a local cable channel, SNY, supplied me with a mini-marathon of New York Mets’ highlight films from the late 1960s through the mid-1970s. I initially recall seeing these—by today’s standards—rather amateurish productions on WOR-TV, Channel 9, during rain delays in the 1970s. They were puff pieces, for sure, narrated by venerable announcers Lindsey Nelson, Bob Murphy, and Ralph Kiner, and written by local sportswriters like Dick Young. They accentuated the positive when, quite often, it was a stretch, and they envisioned light at the end of countless dark tunnels that turned out to be, to put it mildly, mirages. But they were nonetheless highly entertaining, ever-optimistic, and a microcosm of what were, dare I say it, simpler times.

Yes, simpler times when fans came out to the ballpark to see baseball games—period and end of story—that were at once affordable and not part of some interactive and costly theme park experience with perpetual, ear-shattering racket and the wafting aromas of exotic fare far removed from the pedestrian frankfurter. You know: the hot dogs at the ballpark that Humphrey Bogart deemed more scrumptious than “roast beef at the Ritz.” As I sat through these flicks from yesteryear—one after another showcasing teams and players that I fondly remembered from my boyhood—I felt a palpable loss. I really and truly wished that I could switch on a game in the here and now and feel the way I did once upon a time. But I can’t. God knows, I’ve tried.

I didn’t plot in advance to turn in my fan card at some such time and never return to the game that I loved so much. It just happened—inexorably—as the contemporary times intruded on, and ultimately imploded, the American pastime with its generally serene ambiance and quietly unfolding strategy, sprinkled, of course, with unpredictable bursts of high drama.

Recently, I spied a headline in a local daily that read: “Jeter, Yankees $50 Million Apart.” Now, the emphasis here should be on the word apart. The humble St. Derek evidently wants to be recompensed on par with some egomaniacal, smarmy teammate of his who shall remain nameless. Ah...but I’d rather hark back to the radio my godmother bought for me—as a First Holy Communion gift—with a super-cool dial on it. I listened to many, many Mets’ games on that radio—WHN carried the games in the mid-1970s—including during the “Ya Gotta Believe” 1973 comeback season. With the Mets in last place on the last day in August, manager Yogi Berra opined, “It ain’t over ‘til it’s over,” and he was right. That man was a philosopher! When all was said and done the Mets won the eastern division with only 82 wins (against 79 losses). On the final weekend of the season, five teams out of the divisional six had a mathematical chance of coming out on top.

To tie a not so neat bow around this unexpected stroll down memory lane, I remember for some reason the recurring radio spots on old Mets’ broadcasts from a company called Household Finance (HFC). Its jingle will be forever lodged on a YouTube loop in my brain: “Never borrow money needlessly, but when you need to borrow, you get more than money from HFC. More than just money…Household Finance.” Someday when I'm suffering from dementia, I won't remember my name, but I'm certain I'll be able to sing that commercial jingle word for word. Also, I seem to recall the same ad effortlessly segueing back into the broadcast booth where, for several seconds, all one could hear was the din of the crowd and—when home at Shea Stadium—a passing jet plane taking off or landing at nearby LaGuardia Airport. The back to Nelson, Murphy, or Kiner for more play-by-play. Those were the days all right.

Monday, November 29, 2010

Of Mice and Water Bugs

In the weeks preceding Thanksgiving, I was visited by a couple of God’s creatures: a mouse and a water bug. Now, the latter is a periodic caller to my ground floor lair here in the Bronx, most especially in the heat and humidity of summertime, which can be pretty bad in these parts. But the former is rare, which is good because I’m not as nimble as I once was.

As there are infrequent sightings of water bugs at this time of year, this particular visitation was an anomaly of sorts. The bug's stomping grounds, too, were unusual—not along my kitchen or bathroom floors but in my bed and on my head. I awoke feeling something in my hair—the little that remains of it—and brushed my hands through it. Must have been nothing, I initially reasoned, in my nighttime torpor. However, seconds later, feeling something once more, I ran my hands over my head and hair again. This go-around propelled this uninvited intruder to the far end of my bed, which was illuminated by a night-light. I could now distinguish the silhouette of some small creature slowly but surely meandering away from me. And I wasn’t dreaming or hallucinating, either.

Having been visited by a mouse only a couple of days earlier—coming out of the early season cold and pitter-pattering through the enclosed heating pipes along my ceiling—I initially feared the worse—that I had had a mouse on my head only moments before, which was now somewhere in my bed. But as I grew more alert and my senses sharpened with each waking second, I knew the zigzag gait of the creature on the unsteady terrain of my bed's blanket bespoke water bug, and not a more fleet-footed mouse.

Water bugs are pretty harmless. I suspect Andrew Zimmern has very likely even sampled a few in some outdoor marketplace or barbecue. As far as I know, they don’t bite or any such thing. But they are still creepy-looking. Sure, this misunderstood insect is judged largely by its grisly appearance, which as bugs go is downright sinister. They have quite a disagreeable crunch when you squash them, too.

It was about three o’clock when this incident played out. I subsequently got out of bed and switched on my bedroom light. The bug was gone. I searched high and low for this meddling insect, but it had evidently made its escape into some unseen nook and cranny. Still, I thoroughly examined all of my bed’s trappings from sheets to pillows to blanket. I just don't trust water bugs. They have this knack of quietly looming and returning for encores. But there was no sign of it—anywhere. I don't know why, but I opted not to return to my bed, and slept the rest of the night on an uncomfortable easy chair in another room. I let the water bug win. There must be a life lesson here.

Monday, November 22, 2010

Mr. Magoo's Heresy

Recently, I stumbled upon a vintage television commercial on YouTube. It was for a beer called Stag, which I never had the pleasure of sampling. From the early 1960s or thereabouts, its pitchman was none other than Mr. Magoo, a legally blind, beloved cartoon character. The ad’s a bona fide classic featuring the always-frenetic Magoo bumbling about in search of his preferred brew and singing its praises the entire time.

The individual who placed this fifty-year-old commercial on YouTube obviously didn't approve of its underlying message. In fact, he dubbed it “sleazy," and at once indicted and convicted the animated Magoo for “cracking open a few frosties in front of impressionable young minds.” Now, considering that a half-century has passed since the advertisement first aired, pardon me for finding it a bit strange that so many contemporary men and women (see the YouTube comments) get exorcised over TV programming from long before they were born. Come on, when Mr. Magoo salivated over a cold glass of Stag, John F. Kennedy was the president.

And no, I wouldn't condone old Magoo hawking a brand of beer today or, for that matter, Fred Flintstone and Barney Rubble puffing away on Winston cigarettes and promoting this lethal and filthy habit. But really, while they weren’t exactly on par with Family Guy or South Park, both cartoons from yesteryear were sold to predominantly adult audiences, and, I suspect, the aforementioned ads weren’t aired during Saturday morning cartoon times, either.

Not too long ago, somebody uploaded a video on YouTube who disabled the comment option with these words: “I don’t care in the least what the idiotocracy has to say about my video. If you want to watch it—watch it. If you don’t—don’t.” Indeed, it seems that the virtual woods are chock full of folks with agendas these days, not to mention a never-ending parade of crass imbeciles champing at the bit to have their vulgar say on matters great and small.

Again, while I wouldn’t sanction a cartoon colossus like Mr. Magoo promoting a beer in the here and now, pardon me for being skeptical of the notion that we’ve come such a long way vis-à-vis uplifting impressionable minds. I wonder how many innocent youths reached for a Stag brew because the hyper-Magoo liked his few? My friends and I played with toy guns and plastic soldiers as boys, but it never occurred us to bring the genuine articles into school and mow down our classmates. That said, I’m truly glad today's youngsters aren’t exposed to anything like Mr. Magoo on a beer-fueled high. It's at least something to be grateful for.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Remembering a Pit Bull with Panache

With the omnipresent Sarah Palin weighing in on matters far afield in her latest tome, America By Heart: Reflections of Family, Faith, and Flag, including on the historic, reasoned, and rather eloquent JFK "separation of church and state" speech (which she’s now found fault with), I was reminded of a political personage from the past. His name: Spiro Agnew, at once revered and reviled by competing segments of the population.

I was an eleven-year-old boy when Agnew pleaded “no contest” to criminal charges of tax evasion and resigned as Vice President of the United States. Embroiled in a separate but more epic scandal known as Watergate, his boss, Richard Nixon, followed suit ten months later. Agnew was the proverbial heartbeat away from the presidency for almost five years, and that possibility positively exhilarated a portion of the populace, while simultaneously sending frightful shivers up and down the spines of others. Not unlike Sarah, Spiro was the antithesis of a neutral personality in the antithesis of neutral times.

When Nixon selected Agnew as his running mate in 1968, it stunned most political observers and regular folks as well, who had never heard of the guy. His credentials on the eve of being tapped for bigger and better things: not quite half of a four-year term served as Maryland's governor. Does the man's résumé—or lack thereof—ring a little familiar? Still, it didn’t take Spiro very long to become nationally known on the campaign hustings, and an even more recognized personality as the Pit Bull vice president with the big vocabulary.

Nowadays, we would probably say that Agnew very shrewdly branded himself. And I believe credit should be given where credit is due. Amidst the ongoing and increasingly contentious debacle known as the Vietnam War, Spiro’s speechifying in the early 1970s assumed a life of its own. Regardless of whether one believed he was fanning the flames of division, or a welcome breath of fresh air—my father loved the guy—some of his speeches were bona fide classics. In the gutter world of politics, even calling them literary masterpieces wouldn’t be too far off the mark. Agnew had an uncanny way with words and a forensic aptitude that very few pols before, or since, have exhibited—sorry Sarah.

Political reporter Jules Witcover dubbed Agnew’s delivery “a deceptive calm” in which the vice president unleashed a fusillade of blistering attacks on those whom he perceived as the enemies, which invariably included members of the fourth estate. In the book Very Strange Bedfellows by the aforementioned Witcover, a compelling read that chronicles the improbable pairing and rocky five-year political marriage of Nixon and Agnew, the author reveals that while Spiro employed speechwriters, he also wrote some of his best and most effective lines, including an attack on the “effete corps of impudent snobs who characterize themselves as intellectuals.” His frequent use of alliteration became known as “Agnewisms,” with such memorable hits as “pusillanimous pussyfooters,” “nattering nabobs of negativism,” and “hopeless, hysterical hypochondriacs of history.” Really, if we are going to be subject to divisive, bloviating politicians anyway, I’d just assume be entertained along the way. And I’d like to, perhaps, learn a few new words in the process. 

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Drunks and Lampposts

Legendary baseball broadcaster Vin Scully once said, “Statistics are used much like a drunk uses a lamppost—for support, not illumination.” I’ve since seen this same sentiment applied to people and their preferred sources of news and information.

In other words, most of us want our worldviews bolstered by the news programs we watch, as well as the books, newspapers, and magazines that we read (assuming we do). We are not on eternal quests for understanding and enlightenment. After all, such unquenchable pursuits necessitate, at the very least, some measure of reflection on the front end and a whole lot of digestion on the back end. And with our ever-waning attention spans in full throttle, locating support for what we absolutely believe is true—the way things are—invariably circumvents Illumination Road, where alternative views and gray areas on matters great and small, significant and trivial, reside.

There’s nothing quite like an election to bring out the worst in people—in all niches of the political spectrum. In today’s Information Age—with more interaction between and among individuals from both our pasts and the present—a regular dose of unsolicited ravings is wont to come our way whether we like it or not. Food for thought: Talk of politics and religion in drinking milieus is considered a no-no—not good form. And perhaps this same dictum should be applied to the social-networking bailiwick and the e-mailing habits of certain over-zealous friends, relations, and acquaintances. But, honestly, this noble prohibition is often ignored on the barroom scene. Drunks under lampposts—enjoying support and not appreciating the illumination in the least—are, I suppose, as American as apple pie.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Another Deficit Worth Fretting Over...

A recent news story reported how television commercials have gotten shorter and shorter to complement our waning attention spans. Whereas once upon a time many ads ran for a complete minute, fifteen-second spots are preferred nowadays because we the people cannot remain wholly engaged for a full sixty seconds.

The obvious downside of instantaneous communications and a mother lode of information at our fingertips is this corresponding, and apparently ever-widening, attention-deficit chasm. Harking back to my youth, I often wonder how we all survived without computers, the Internet, and only a dozen or so TV channels from which to choose. But we somehow managed and, I daresay, were hardly a less informed and less curious bunch. Running around all day long text messaging, Tweeting, and playing iPhone games hasn’t exactly made us a more literate and interesting lot—quite the contrary. Engaging in personal phone conversations everywhere from the supermarket checkout line to a crowded subway car to a claustrophobic ATM alcove have not ushered in a more cultured, conscientious, and sociable society, either.

Theoretically, with this surfeit of knowledge in the virtual ether, we should—by osmosis—be a more informed and inquisitive brood all across the spectrum. But it appears that not exactly everybody is sampling from the cornucopia of riches at their disposal. The bottom line is that if we cannot remain alive, alert, awake, and aware for a clock minute, or even half of one for that matter, sheer logic dictates that we’ll also read fewer books and newspapers (including online)—the very things that necessitate greater than one-minute attention spans, and that cannot be encapsulated in fewer than 144 characters. The insatiable thirst for less in-depth and multi-layered information is evidently where it's at. Granted, sometimes in life, less in better. However, all too often less comes up short because— as the old saying goes—“A little knowledge is a dangerous thing.” It's even worse, I fear, than none at all.

Saturday, November 13, 2010

In Search Of...

In 1976, a pioneering television program for its day debuted. It was called in Search of, a half-hour documentary of sorts that investigated everything from “lost civilizations” to “extraterrestrials”; “myths and monsters” to “missing persons”; “magic and witchcraft” to “strange phenomena.” Hosted by none other than Mr. Spock, Leonard Nimoy, who did a splendid job at conveying a sense of the mysterious, sometimes even unsettling so, the show boldly went where no TV show had gone before.

After watching in Search of Bigfoot, there was no chance in hell I was ever going hiking or camping in the mountains of the Pacific Northwest. And upon seeing in Search of the Bermuda Triangle, forget about me ever flying over, or sailing through, this voracious and unforgiving expanse of ocean brine. Happily, the Bermuda Triangle, aka the Devil’s Triangle, appears to have been consigned to the Much Ado About Nothing file, and is no longer considered an unsolved mystery. And Sasquatch and the Loch Ness Monster, too, may not exist at all, the latter perhaps being nothing more than an over-sized eel, a big fish, which stuck its over-sized cranium above the lake's surface every now and then, created a few big waves, and frightened a lot of people in the process. With snowballing technology and countless in-depth tools of study at our disposal, so many of these esteemed monsters of the past, as well as purported extraterrestrial visitations, have been put to bed for good. It's actually kind of sad.

Despite the in Search of team of “scientists, researchers, and a group of highly trained technicians” warning us of a possible Ice Age in the offing—this on the heels of the brutal Buffalo, New York winter of 1976-77 and some 200 inches of snow—it was well-done television and indisputably a TV trailblazer, supplying us with ample food for thought on a broad range of diverse topics from Jimmy Hoffa’s disappearance to the legend of Dracula; from poltergeists to the efficacy of ESP. This show was in fact in the vanguard of the New Age.

I think the in Search of opening theme’s disclaimer—and what a resonant and memorable one it is—nicely summed things up with: “This series presents information based in part on theory and conjecture. The producer’s purpose is to suggest some possible explanations, but not necessarily the only ones, to the mysteries we will examine.” Theory and conjecture are always welcome and should be encouraged, but in the end we must defer to hard facts, hard as that sometimes is.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

The Incredible Shrinking Toilet Paper

I recently read an article headlined: "Why Your Toilet Paper Is Shrinking." I thought it oddly coincidental, only because just this past week I detected a very strange phenomenon within arm's reach of my toilet bowl. Whereas my roll of toilet paper used to barely make it into the compartment carved in the wall—the very snuggest of fits—now ½” or so of breathing space exists. I could only draw one conclusion: The manufacturer, Scott, had altered its toilet paper formula without informing the consumer. Perhaps they didn't think we would notice.

I’ve long been aware of this sort of thing—from the can of coffee, which once upon a time was a pound, then thirteen ounces, and now is eleven ounces, to half-gallons of ice cream and cartons of orange juice, which are yesterday's news. Have you noticed your bars of soap lately? Before even the first bath or shower blast, they have considerably shrunk in size. And I don’t know if it’s just me, but these new and smaller soap bars seem to implode more rapidly, too, breaking into pieces, falling into the tub, and clogging the shower drain after only a handful of uses.

I'll plead guilty to having sheepishly accepted all of this less-for-more corporate slight of hand for many, many years now, where companies roundabout raise their prices by making things smaller. But I think they’ve finally gone too far. There’s something downright nefarious with this toilet-paper legerdemain. I’d rather pay twenty cents more for a roll of the original size than suffer the indignity and daily reminder every morning—after a few cups of coffee—of the incredible shrinking roll of toilet paper. Just what can we the people do? Boycott toilet paper? The next time you're sitting on the bowl and reach for a sheet, which is a shadow of its former self, take a moment and reflect. After all, if they are willing to tamper with our toilet paper, then nothing, I fear, is sacred.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

This Is Your Life...

It was a night unlike no other and, very fortunately, largely forgotten by me. Well, not quite. I recall all too many details from that evening—of both things that were and things that weren’t. But happily, the sheer terror of that night in question has been wholly transformed into a comical, albeit dramatic, reminiscence of a certain life adventure of mine.

As far as putting things in my mouth and swallowing, or inhaling things through my nose with the objective of flying to the Moon, Mars, and Jupiter, I’ve pretty much been a good boy all these many years. I can honestly say that I never desired to trip on a hallucinogen to conjure up Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, or even Yogi Berra for that matter. Popping a pill in the hopes of being embraced by light has never been on my agenda, either. After all, encouraging one’s brain to boldly go where no neurotransmitter has gone before is just as likely to erect a prophet fellow whose name begins with “M,” and a corresponding hallucinatory fatwa, which would be awfully scary.

This is a roundabout segue way into my hallucinatory story. It occurred in a hospital milieu a little over four years ago. Apparently, some thing or things within the medley of meds I was prescribed while vegetating in intensive care caused me to both see and hear things that didn’t actually exist—not a good thing—and, worse still, believe the doctors and nurses on duty wanted to cast me asunder in my hospital bed. My drug-challenged brain was further convinced that an all-encompassing conspiracy was afoot to drive me completely mad. You're nobody until you believe somebody's out to get you.

When my sorry excuse for a leg—thanks to a gnarled mass of tissue and massive blood loss—was undressed and then redressed on this fateful night, I watched a doctor employing a couple of slices of pizza in lieu of bandages to cover the gruesome thing. Pizza had recently been delivered to somebody on the premises. I saw that as well. And the vitals monitor—or whatever it was called— hovering above me no longer recorded blood pressure and heart rate, but instead a This Is Your Life…Nick Nigro facts and information crawl. Boy, were these hospital folks going through a lot of trouble to punish me for my earthly sins. Oh, yes, and they had definitely turned the heat up in my little corner of the world—it had to be at least 120 degrees. Also, I absolutely knew that if I pushed a button to give me pain medicine, which I desperately needed and was told to use, the medications would kill my pain all right.and me right along with it.

Could my eyes have been deceiving me all along, and my brain taken a bizarre and Byzantine detour into the shadowy Land of Paranoia? Well, to make a very long story short, the next morning when I received family visitations, I informed my father that they had to get me out of the hospital and toot sweet, because my life was in imminent danger courtesy of a malevolent staff out to do me bodily harm. Now, this little exchange really shook the old man up, and not because he sensed murder in the sterile ether. He was in pretty bad health at the time, and hardly needed to see his son so physically wracked, but this out-of-the-head addendum was more than he could bear.

It was my mother who eventually clued me in that I was, in fact, hallucinating, and that not a single one of these ghastly things happened, or were happening, to me. I was literally seeing ominous handwriting on the wall and on the ceiling, too. However, once I received this most welcome reality check, the extreme fear and runaway paranoia, which totally gripped me, evaporated.

I was my old rational self again, yet nonetheless still seeing things that weren’t there, and occasionally hearing them as well. Despite the nasty medications playing dirty tricks on my brain, I could at least now separate the real from the unreal. And, trust me, the real was bad enough at the time and the worst was yet to come. Finally, as a footnote here, I apologized to an always patient and compassionate male nurse for accusing him of plotting my demise. He said, “No problem…it happens all the time in this place.” 

Monday, November 1, 2010

Old Meets New...

Tomorrow is Election Day. It’s an especially significant one here in New York City. Oh, not because of any particular person on the ballot, or some earth-shattering proposition that will radically alter our lives. No, tomorrow is the day New Yorkers vote with paper ballots for the first time in a general election, joining the vast majority of Americans in voting that way. All my adult life I have cast my ballots, as it were, in an antiquated machine with a big red lever that closed a shower-like curtain. In the privacy of the voting booth now, there were little black levers next to the names of candidates, which I pulled to cast my votes. Xs would appear upon my making these selections. The final voting act—pulling that large red lever again—both officially recorded my votes and, equally important, opened the curtain to let me out.

I must confess to being fond of the old machines, but can certainly see why their time has come and gone. New York City—the most renowned metropolis in the world—has got to get with the program and vote in step with the twenty-first century. Still, I have this lingering fear about what tomorrow will bring, and it doesn’t revolve around any worries of possibly soiling my ballot and disenfranchising myself. I will figure out the thing. After all, I have rather competently filled in ovals before, starting in the third grade or thereabouts. But it’s the mayhem that I presume will besiege the polling place that fills me with some dread.

From what I've experienced through the years, things are more often than not discombobulated in the vicinity of voters and voting, particularly when there’s reasonably high turnout. The paid volunteers who oversee this annual extravaganza are a diverse hodgepodge of locals with a median age of eighty-seven, I’d guess. I might also add that general crankiness and conspicuous hearing loss appear to be prerequisites for many of the positions. And then, of course, there are the voters from all walks of life and of all ages. When the aforementioned poll workers and the voting populace butt heads, it’s rarely pretty, and even less likely to be so this year with the new voting apparatus in place.

For a whole host of reasons, I have never been especially confident in the integrity of NYC elections. And it’s only partially because of the dedicated, but frequently hapless folks in charge of everything on the ground. It's the city’s Board of Elections, which turns over the whole shebang to this cross-section of regular Joes and Janes, that isn’t exactly on top of the really important things and the nitty-gritty. For starters: Who’s eligible and who’s not eligible to vote? For many, many years now, I’ve spotted dead people on the eligibility rolls—and some rather long gone at that—as well as folks who have vacated the hustle and bustle and crime and grime of Gotham for greener pastures, and who are now registered to vote elsewhere.

If a dead man walking, or current resident of Paducha, Kentucky, showed up to vote in my Bronx precinct tomorrow, the odds are that a ubiquitous table manned by three volunteers would not suspect foul play. But, fortunately, nothing like this ever happens in real life.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Old Psychos Never Die...They Just End Up on Facebook

It's hard to forget the certifiable screwballs who have come in and out of our lives. That is, the men and women we would have nominated as the most likely to appear on a 48 Hours segment, or be oft-mentioned by the dulcet-toned Bill Kurtis on American Justice.

Recently, a personal favorite of mine emerged from the memory graveyard and showed his mug on Facebook. This is the definitely the darkest side of social networking. I’ll call him "Wayne," after John Wayne Gacy, because it wouldn’t really surprise me if he’s got a few bodies buried in his suburban Tarrytown, New York backyard. Wayne’s wall is open to the public, and I live in perpetual fear that this crackpot might one day friend me. You see, I got to know this Wayne character for a brief spell in my college years, but I never considered him a friend and, I know, he didn’t consider me one. But none of this matters in the Facebook universe.

It’s kind of hard to explain Wayne to those who have never met the guy. However, for those who have had the distinct pleasure, they will appreciate what I am about to say. Born and raised in the Bronx, Wayne gushed and gushed some more, which was unusual in and of itself. He also uttered a mother lode of “golly gees” and “oh geezes,” which were regionally way out in left field. In fact, it was this faux folksiness that initially clued me in that something was rotten in the State of New York. That is, when starkly contrasted with Wayne's periodic eruptions of rage and foaming-at-the-mouth tirades against virtually everyone who didn't look or think like him.

“There’s nothing like a cold one!” I heard Wayne say on more than one occasion. He could be the king of clichés and unctuous corn in one breath, and a blithering loon in another, particularly after having had one cold one too many, which was often. Merely seeing this man’s visage a quarter of a century later, courtesy of his profile photo and picture album, is unsettling. Foremost, let me pay old Wayne a compliment: He’s aged remarkably well over the years. He looks not far removed from the madman I remember so well with his red drinking face and 1970s mustache. Go figure: This very strange man has a wife and three kids now, and is holding down a bureaucratic accountant's job.

Wayne’s derangement once found him threatening me with bodily harm because his kid sister was dating an Italian guy, and I was therefore responsible for making off with, and making out with, all of his kind's young women. Apparently, he also didn’t approve of the size and shape of my nose (way, way too big and pointed), believing that I must therefore be a secret member of the local temple and, of course, have a controlling hand in both the media and, yes, total world domination.

Wayne's bizarre antics are actually quite legendary. He’s perversely touched countless lives in the old neighborhood. Virtually everybody who knew the guy back when has a Wayne story or two (or three or four) to recount. Reminded of that Wayne character from the old neighborhood and its bar scene, one woman summed him up rather succinctly. “He was scary!” she said. Indeed he was. And now the man’s back in a twenty-first century guise, and untold people are cowering in fear of his possible friend requests and, worse still, ending up in his Tarrytown backyard commingling with the earthworms should they refuse.

Monday, October 25, 2010

Love Versus Hate: Mets Versus Yankees

While I’ve long ceased following professional baseball, I nonetheless concede to deriving a fair measure of pleasure when the Mighty Yankees go down, as they did this past week. Is there some sort of abiding life lesson here? Perhaps hate is a far more powerful and enduring emotion than love—at least in the arena of irrational sports fanaticism.

Raised in a Bronx household with a rabid Yankee fan as its patriarch, I declared my independence from all that as a mere seven-year-old. I don’t quite know why I broke ranks at such a tender age, and why I started rooting for the Mets, but I did with a vengeance. And I quickly realized that it was one or the other—no namby-pamby straddling and allegiance to both New York teams was allowed. The very first games I attended were actually in the original House that Ruth Built—the one with the uncomfortable wooden seats painted blue and the view-obstructing, concrete poles holding the old stadium together. I recall being at a Bat Day giveaway against the expansion Seattle Pilots during their first and only season as a franchise. (The team moved to Milwaukee in 1970, but, very historically, supplied the colorful and immensely entertaining backdrop for pitcher Jim Bouton’s Ball Four, which is a great book by the way. Believe it or not, this tome of his was considered sacrilege for its time, steeped in controversy for violating the locker room’s longstanding omerta.)

I suspect it was my wide-eyed innocence that coaxed the very impressionable me to the Mets, a team in the midst of an ethereal glow. You know, the Miracle of 1969, which had nothing to do with the Blessed Mother appearing on a slice of burnt toast or any such thing. It was all about perennial losers winning the whole enchilada in crazy, unsettled times against the heavily favored Baltimore Orioles—amazing, amazing, amazing! David slays Goliath! And the fact that the Mets were televised a great deal more than the Yankees in those days of yore—on free TV, too, which was the only game in town—no doubt played a contributing and solidifying role in my declared allegiance. The battle lines were promptly drawn in the family, and with countless friends and neighbors as well—all fans of the corporate, highfalutin Yankees, despite the fact that they sucked lemons big time when I began my quarter of a century romance with their cross-town rivals.

But to get back to the love-versus-hate matter, and which of the two emotions emerge victorious in the end. I more or less lost interest in the game, and the team I loved with a passion since a boy, in the mid-1990s after a strike cancelled a World Series for the first time ever, and was still ongoing at the start of the next season. Along the way, ticket prices skyrocketed, and the players overtly, and rather dramatically and unapologetically, made greed and sheer disloyalty the hottest tickets in town. Then, of course, there were steroids, seventy-five home run seasons, and Barry Bonds breaking the great Hank Aaron’s record with both a literal head and ego the size of planet Jupiter.

I never consciously made the decision to turn in my fan card for all time. It occurred very gradually, with my fierce fan devotion waning with the passing years as the American pastime slowly but surely imploded. From my perspective, baseball once upon a time showcased a wholly unique ambiance with its slow and unfolding pace, strategy, and unpredictability. It was a game not held hostage by ticking clocks, flags, and annoying whistles—not to mention that there were many, many games on the schedule (162), with most of them played during the dog days of summertime, the best season of all for a kid.

But, ah, the question before us now is this: Why did my bowing out as an uber-fan not purge my simultaneous and heartfelt loathing for the Yankees? Granted, the wars were pretty bitter and intense back in the day between my beloved Mets and my father’s equally beloved Yankees. But that was ancient history. Or was it? I must confess that there’s still something about the Yankees, their fans, and that exasperating sense of entitlement that taps into that old hate. I may be a lapsed Met and former professional baseball fan—who’s gotten over the great love for his team and the sport—but hatred for the grisly opposition somehow endures. 

Friday, October 22, 2010

The Straw Man Cometh...Goeth...and Cometh Again...

I finally got around to reading Straw: Finding My Way, Darryl Strawberry’s memoir of a very, very interesting life lived so far. As a devout Met fan from the Strawberry era, as it were, I will admit to, a quarter of a century ago, being held spellbound by the man’s enormous talent and seemingly unlimited potential—he was "the black Ted Williams," after all. But courtesy of a precipitous descent into drug and alcohol abuse, and, while we are on the subject, spousal abuse, too, the Straw Man rather dramatically short-circuited his highly touted career prospects. He once put a gun to his wife’s head.

I think it’s fair to conclude that Strawberry hit rock bottom not too long ago, or at least something resembling the bottom. For a guy who apparently had it all as a hot young professional athlete with a sky's the limit future, an awful lot of bad turns have occurred in this man's life. In addition to his well-known and oft-reported addictions, Darryl was diagnosed with colon cancer and prescribed intensive chemotherapy. The cancer then recurred and required another go-around of treatments. A kidney of his was removed along the way. Whereas once upon a time he was tossing one hundred dollar bills out of his limousine window—so he says—Strawberry subsequently found himself broke and paying alimony and child support to two understandably unsympathetic ex-wives. He also spent eight months in jail for violating his repeat-offender parole as a serial drug user. And the gifted athlete, who we were certain would break Hank Aaron’s all-time home run record, ended up living in his then-girlfriend’s, and current wife’s, parents’ basement somewhere in the Show Me State of Missouri—a markedly steep plunge, I'd say, for a nine-time Major League Baseball All-Star and renowned celebrity.

Even though I recollect reading about the particulars of Strawberry’s fast and furious retreat from glory, the recurring relapses and general mess of his life eventually blended all the sorry minutia together. What was a real shock at first, and major disillusionment surrounding all that could have been, just ceased to be after a while. Still, I rooted for the Straw Man. From my perspective—and many others outside of the callous sports-writing fraternity, which clearly loathed the guy—there was always something likeable and outwardly sincere about Darryl. I had long hoped the better Straw would win out in the end, and perhaps it has—well, at least he thinks so. Hence, this book.

However, as I read this memoir of his, the surprises just kept on coming. You know, Darryl’s next relapse and the next one after that. As the timeline inched closer and closer to the present, I got a bit worried. After all, his straight and narrow pathway is a relatively new one. I would very much like to believe that his last setback was just that—his last. The deeply religious Straw sees the Lord as the wind beneath the wings of his myriad trials and tribulations, including his jail sentence. He believes the dreadful series of events in his life were all part of the curriculum—an absolutely necessity to get him where he is today.

But really, Darryl Strawberry’s had a heaping helping of not especially good stuff happen to him in this life, and he’s come out of the meat grinder standing pretty tall (he’s 6’6” by the way). He’s now a commentator on ESPN, has founded an organization devoted to children with autism, and just recently opened up a restaurant and sports bar in his old Queens stomping grounds. No doubt, the Straw Man’s been humbled with all that’s happened to him along life’s long and winding road, but his hubris and penchant for braggadocio have not been wholly tamed.

I know a few recovering alcoholics who cannot help but boast about their former capacities to drink all comers under the table, and who don’t seem particularly ashamed of their past antics as they recount their war stories. And Darryl displayed more than a bit of this showboat air while chronicling the purported horrific episodes in his life and times. As a parting salvo, may I just offer this one simple piece of advice: For openers, don’t point any more guns at women’s heads…and the rest should come pretty easy.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

The Last Honest Man

Many moons ago, I worked alongside a man named Garrett. He was a soft-spoken, even-tempered, affable fellow, who did his job sans any fanfare, griping, or pointless workplace histrionics. Garrett was also a dead ringer for the bearded G.I. Joe I recall playing with as a boy.

In the rough and tumble retail business environs, employees come and employees go with the reliability of the ocean tides. And often in this ebb and flow, human flotsam washes ashore.

The Garrett era, if you will, coincided with—from our very non-technological perspective—the primitive use of video camera surveillance in a mom-and-pop business setting. Our shop had a claustrophobic backroom that performed double duty as a cafeteria and office. And a safe, which more times than not had ample cash in it during the daylight hours, was nestled at its very far end but nonetheless visible, and well-known, to one and all. Safes out in the open, with money in them, are just asking to be robbed.

As per the script, money did in fact go missing one day. But what the hapless perpetrators were blissfully unaware of was that they were captured in the act. Caught on film. The camera never blinks. It was an inside job, too. And, please, say it wasn't so! Serving as the lookout for the brains behind the theft—an arrogant malcontent and recent hirer named Tony—was Garrett, caught red-handed on the surveillance videotape. Tony had assumed the role of Jimmy Valentine, safe-cracker extraordinaire, but was hopelessly inept in his reconnoitering. Both Garrett and Tony were summarily dismissed from their jobs, and no criminal charges were filed against them after they fessed up to the crime and, of course, returned the dough.

Fast forward a few weeks and we receive a phone call. Garrett, it seemed, had applied for a new job and cited us as a reference—his only one, by the way. The fellow on the other end of the phone seemed a bit befuddled. He said, "Garrett answered the question, 'What was the reason for leaving your last job?' as 'Fired for stealing.' This can't be true? Why would he tell us the truth! And he wouldn't list you as a reference then, would he?" The last honest man would.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

The Index Card Kid Grows Up

I knew this kid in high school. He was, to put it mildly, goal-oriented. Now, I believe a little of that sort of thing goes a long way. And one didn't have to be Columbo to surmise that he came from a family with extraordinarily high expectations for him, and that his goal preoccupation was inbred. This classmate of mine always carried around an index card that listed his current school schedule, along with the grades he was shooting for in each one of the courses. His goals were extremely precise, too. He didn’t work with wide parameters like 90-95 or 92-97. No, he simultaneously established the bar exceptionally high and was highly specific. He anticipated grades like 98.2 in AP English and 97.5 in AP History, and nothing less would do. Grades that fell short of his stated goals were deemed failure.

I had long wondered what became of this kid. Like me, he’s an adult man now closer to fifty than forty. I came from a family that didn’t require index cards, or even a less formal brand of goal setting. While I grew up in a mostly benign atmosphere, there was nonetheless this underlying feeling that if any one of us achieved something, it wasn't much of an achievement. After all, it was us that we were talking about. Permit me to paraphrase comedian Jackie Mason here: “I make this observation with all due respect.” Really, though, there should be a happy medium of some kind between the index card and indifference, which is, I suppose, the quintessential parental tightrope.

Anyway, I long suspected one of two things happened to the Index Card Kid in his adult incarnation. He either imploded altogether from the intense pressure, and ended up on skid row as a pathetic alcoholic or cokehead—working at the Olive Garden between rehab stints—or he became an ultra-successful lawyer or doctor.

Courtesy of the world getting smaller and smaller, I’ve uncovered the answer to that intriguing mystery. Happily, it is the latter life course. Evidently, this formerly young person has hit the jackpot with the goals on his adult index cards apparently reached and even surpassed. From all that I’ve gleaned, this man certainly knows what he’s doing in his field. And I’d feel comfortable accepting his opinions and relying on his judgments in his profession. Still, I get this uneasy feeling that the Index Card Kid, now the Index Card Man, would not be much fun to talk with, or socialize with, unless, of course, you too are an Index Card Man or Index Card Woman.

Friday, October 15, 2010

Often What They Know...Just Ain't So...

A quarter of a century or so ago, the first nail salon opened its doors in my old neighborhood. Believe it or not, the concept seemed very, very strange back then. Locals were perplexed with the notion that a business entity could survive, let alone thrive, cutting, painting, and scraping dirt out of people’s fingernails. A manicure biz standing on its own two hands seemed at once foreign and far-fetched. Who pray tell would pay real money for simple services they could do for themselves with a ninety-nine cent nail clipper and two-dollar bottle of nail polish?

Flash forward to the present and these very same salons are ubiquitous, and nobody questions anymore their business potential or legitimacy. Gone are the days when a relative of mine speculated on what was really going on in these places—these fronts for all things nefarious. “They must be selling drugs,” she said with absolute certainty. Why...there could be no other explanation. Indeed, all those smiling and unfailingly polite Korean women, patiently sitting at their stations with scissors and nail files at the ready, were obviously up to no good. This very same member of my family has since christened other businesses, which she cannot quite comprehend, as drug dens, prostitution rings, or yet to be determined portals of mischief and debauchery.

The alarming component here is that there are so, so, so many people, akin to my blood relation, who absolutely know so, so, so many things—countless things, as a matter of fact, which just aren't so. And these all-knowing folks are not content to limit their wanton speculation to local businesses. No, many of our neighbors, in the very places where we live, assume the roles of judges, juries, and executioners with the flimsiest of evidence at their disposable.They know who among us is naughty, and who among us is nice, just like Santa Claus, and often based on idle gossip and hearsay.

That aforementioned kin of mine has more than once decreed what neighbors she feels lead the right kind of lives, and noted with utter disdain whom she deems the bums and ne'er-do-wells. Journalist Edgar Watson Howe once said, “What people say behind your back is your standing in the community.” I fear he was right.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Yes, Virginia, There Is Life After High School...

It being the thirty-year anniversary of my high school graduation, I am sadly reminded of a reality program on TV Land called High School Reunion. The show brings together a smorgasbord of classic archetypes from prior high school graduating classes. Only now these former teens are pushing forty. And trigonometry is a distant memory. In fact, the High School Reunion stars have lived for two decades in various adult incarnations and, naturally, acquired ample psychological and other baggage along the way.

Granted, it’s part and parcel of human nature: We desire recognition in some demonstrable ways for being wholly unique individuals who possess special qualities and talents. But I cannot for the life of me understand why anyone of sound mind would willingly embrace unflattering attention, perverse publicity, and the opportunity to appear like utter nincompoops for fifteen minutes of fame? But, apparently, it happens all the time.

High School Reunion features casts of characters who once upon a time stood apart in their educational milieus. You know: the school jock, the haughty gal who thought she was better than everyone else, and the bully; the class clown, the nerd, and the teen Lothario. What’s particularly disconcerting about this show—and indeed so many others with similar reality premises—is that these real people are perfectly willing to ride emotional roller coasters and endure periodic meltdowns with the cameras rolling. And all of this melodrama is supposed to be swallowed hook, line, and sinker as real? Surreal, perhaps.

What’s equally unpleasant concerning this entire production is that the aforementioned classic archetypes appear to be stuck in time warps. The doofuses, bullies, and bitches, if you will, from high school have by all accounts not grown up, and are essentially still doofuses, bullies, and bitches intent on settling past scores and wallowing in very old and mostly petty grievances. And worth noting, too, is that these various ensembles consist of men and women whose life high points seemingly occurred when they were sixteen and seventeen in high school. The scary part is what is real.

Why not? Let’s all go on television and act out, swapping genuine emotions, human interactions, and relationships for flickers of fame and all-expenses paid trips to Hawaii or some such idyllic locale. Ah, yes, the class of 1988 does the Bahamas, and the teenage girl magnet, now a man of forty, practically bald, and with a noticeable paunch from one too many Budweisers and Dunkin’ Donuts is still getting the girls. Go figure. And that dreadfully toffee-nosed member of the school’s in-crowd, also forty, still loathes the wannabe popular girl, the loner, and just about everybody else for that matter. Beyond reality TV, there is very fortunately life after high school.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

A Killer in the Family

Sorry to disappoint, but this essay isn't about my family. It's about a movie. Ah...the things one can unearth on YouTube. Once upon a time there was this television flick, which starred Robert Mitchum and a twenty-something James Spader playing a teenager. Called A Killer in the Family, it premiered in 1983. I remember watching it by pure chance and had no idea it was based on a true story.

The movie recounted the dramatic tale of convicted murderers Gary Tison and Randy Greenawalt, their escape from prison, and subsequent vicious and violent crime spree. To say that this small-screen production was simultaneously creepy and compelling wouldn't do it justice. I distinctly remember the station announcer chillingly intoning after each commercial break, "We now return to A Killer in the Family!" Shivers! This made-for-TV motion picture was quite intense and shockingly brutal—it really was. And I admit to being somewhat unnerved after watching it, and feared that Robert Mitchum and his weaselly accomplice, played by Stuart Margolin, Jim Rockford's "Angel," would invade my dreams.

I've long since forgotten what it was, but something—many, many years later—resurrected the memory of A Killer in the Family. I desperately wanted to see this movie again. I wondered if it was available on videotape, and whether or not it was ever shown in reruns. But no luck. Since I'd long since steeled myself to its gruesome unpredictability and horrific denouement—no happy ending here— I had to see it, at the very least, one more time. I had to know if it was as I remembered.

Decades passed...nothing...and then one pleasant autumn October day in 2010, I searched YouTube for A Killer in the Family, or as that announcer dramatically bellowed twenty-seven-years-earlier: A KILLER IN THE FAMILY! And eureka! Some generous soul had put the entire movie up, in parts, on the site!

For those of us getting a little long in the tooth, this cyber portal is a real godsend, resurrecting countless media moments from days gone by, which otherwise would have been lost to us forever. And so, I can now watch A Killer in the Family in its entirety, which I haven't seen in almost three decades. Will I be thoroughly discombobulated after seeing it, as I was a long time ago, or bored silly and unimpressed? After all, I'm an almost fifty-something, jaded man now. 1983 was then and this is now. It's time to find out.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Prescription Drug Free Zone

A recent study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported that close to fifty percent of us take one prescription drug or more per month. That’s a heaping helping of perfectly legal drug use. Of course, many of these drugs are necessary and, in some instances, lifesavers. But exactly what percentage of the prescription drug-user population would be better off not taking them? I don’t really know, but would hazard a guess that it’s a not inconsiderable number.

During an unexpected and unwanted month-long hospital stay some four years ago, I was infused with all sorts of drugs, gradually getting weaned off of them as I recovered from a blood clot gone seriously awry. I left this Shangri-La with only one prescription on my person: for Percocet, an opiate painkiller. In the hospital, these benign-looking white tablets furnished me with my only warm and fuzzy interludes, short-lived as they were. The very same meds worked their magic the first couple of weeks after I returned home, too. The percs were my good buddies during very painful times. However, by the end of my first month in hearth and home—while still in pretty bad pain—the aforementioned warm and fuzzy interludes had gotten noticeably less warm and less fuzzy, and were accompanied by a nasty constipation on top of that. Shortly thereafter, even minimal relief from the pain disappeared altogether, but not that darn constipation, which tightened its grip on me.

There was little point in my continuing with this narcotic painkiller, which was no longer working for me. I didn’t cry out to my doctor for an alternative, either, and thus one was never offered. The epic constipation had, if nothing else, at least taken my mind off the phantom pains shooting through my missing body part with varying degrees of intensity. With the assistance of a cocoa-tasting, rabbit-food resembling product called Senekot, the brave soldier that I am grinned and bared the pain. Fortunately for me, I healed extraordinarily well with no cancer, diabetes, or any such thing to hinder my recovery. The phantoms of the night eventually left me alone, although they do reappear every now and again just to remind me of what was and can be again.

When I hear about people being addicted to the likes of Percocet and OxyContin—and the amounts that they consume, and must increasingly consume, to achieve their desired highs—it boggles my mind. Percocets may have been my foul-weather friends during life's lowest ebb, but they turned on me real fast, and I hope never to meet their acquaintance again. 

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Checkout Time

“When it’s your time…it’s your time.” This profound sentiment recently tumbled out of a man of the cloth’s mouth. He was consoling the grieving daughter of an individual who died rather unexpectedly last week. Uncharacteristically, the deceased had called on his GP several times in the weeks preceding his passing. The family was bewildered and angry at what they perceived as this doctor’s laissez-faire attitude and non-diagnosis of something very, very serious.

As this poor fellow’s vital organs slowly but surely ceased functioning, there was perhaps little that could have been done to save his life. Who really knows? Still, should we blithely accept the tired bromide: “When your time is up, it’s up?” If this is indeed the way things work, then everything from medical malpractice to drunk drivers causing the deaths of others is part of some larger ethereal plan. Why blame any of these folks for their actions? If they are lethally incompetent and irresponsible, expressly to make certain others check out on time, and not a moment sooner or later, they certainly shouldn't be punished or reviled.

Having come pretty close to being dead as a door-nail several years ago—fortunately, it wasn’t my time—I don't really fear this final act anymore. What I do fear is being in the shadows of my fellow world travelers shuffling off this mortal coil before me, and having to listen to more and more of the same illogical, simplistic, contradictory, and non-reassuring reasons for life and death. It's enough to put a man in an early grave.

Friday, October 8, 2010

Life's Wacky Packages

I had a boyhood chum once upon a time. And from my ten-year-old perspective at least, his parents were different. No, there wasn't a Heather Has Two Mommies issue there, or any such thing, which would have certainly raised a big stink in the old neighborhood. They were, however, among a distinct minority. That is, their worldviews—what they expected of their children, and what they wanted them to be when they grew up—were well outside the mainstream.

Sometime in the mid-1970s, I remember being on my front stoop with Billy O’Hare and showing him my neat collection of Wacky Packages. Now, I thought those stickers were quite cool and clever, and still think so all these years later. But little Billy sniffed at the waste of time and money in acquiring such childish ephemera. He mentioned, too, that his parents didn’t approve of Wacky Packages and what they represented. What was that? Humor? Fun? Billy’s folks also didn’t sanction his watching The Three Stooges—too violent—despite Officer Joe Bolton gently reminding us each and every day that Moe, Larry, and Curly were merely acting, not really poking one another in the eyes, and that we should therefore never try any such thing at home.

I suspect that Billy was the only kid in the Bronx's Kingsbridge instructed to answer his home telephone: “O’Hare residence. William speaking. May I ask who’s calling?” You would think Ma and Pa O'Hare were grooming their boy to be a valet or butler. But no, they weren't. No Wacky Packages, no Three Stooges, and the right and proper manners were floorboards in Billy's foundation. And while I'm generally a fan of atypical parents looking out for their boys and girls, taking great interest in them, and maintaining the highest hopes for their futures, there was something wacky, if you will, about the O'Hare's no Wacky Packages edict.

Today, I sincerely hope Billy understands that the more run-of-the-mill parents in the old neighborhood were completely innocent in permitting their youngsters to buy and trade Wacky Packages. Granted, there were many indictable parental actions from those bygone years. But possession of Wacky Packages was not among them. And don't you think answering the phone like Mr. French,when you were just ten-years-old, was kind of silly and even a bit bizarre? "Hello" would have sufficed. Ah...but then you would have been just like the rest of us.

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

The Road to Validation

A question posed on a LinkedIn writers group thread asked: “Did you feel validated when published by a royalty-paying publisher?” It was a thought-provoking query for sure that unleashed a flurry of responses. Not surprisingly, the consensus answer was “yes.” However, the word “validation," to express the feeling of leaping over an important and very high hurdle in a mercurial business, seemed an interesting choice.

Nearly ten years ago, a business entity was willing to pay me real money to write a book. I didn’t have a say in the title, nor a say in the book's layout or design. It was all about writing—and that was fine and dandy. Once upon a time, this sort of thing meant a whole lot to me. For one brief shining moment after I got the job, I was on cloud nine. I was soaring like a Canada goose when my author copies arrived in the mail several months later. I believe I checked out every Manhattan Barnes & Noble store on foot to first see if The Everything Collectibles Book was available and then counted how many copies were on display. The Union Square location had six—and face out to boot. When the same publisher asked me back for another go-around and a new title, I felt uber-validated. For this meant the powers-that-be not only approved of what I had done, but that I wasn’t destined to be a one-hit wonder, either.

But such pure and innocent feelings of validation—that wondrous first time—faded with the passage of time. In fact, very, very quickly. I know now that validation must be frequently renewed and, also, that the validation bar keeps getting higher and higher.

Courtesy of today’s technology, increasing numbers of people are bypassing traditional publishers, along with the so-called validation that comes with it, and self-publishing their works instead. The self-published book versus the real book debate gets a bit contentious at times. Many published writers—validated, as it were—resent the tsunami-like inundation of materials that flood the marketplace and often blur the distinction between the legitimate and illegitimate. It seems that every time I visit my sister out on suburban Long Island, she shows me a novel penned by one of her professional friends or friends’ husbands—self-published, of course—with this distinction unmentioned.

But that aside, there are plenty of excellent self-published books in print and in the offing. And if a self-published author sells a couple of thousand or more books, a royalty-paying publisher is going to take note—you can go to the bank on that. Selling books via any avenue, traditional or nontraditional, is validation. I’d gladly swap my validation résumé for a self-published book selling hundreds of thousands of copies.

There's an unquenchable thirst for this elusive validation. From most writers’ perspectives, passing through a gauntlet of men and women much more inclined to say no than yes, and making it to the other side, is a crowning achievement. But once you’ve been there and done that, it feels more like a pat on the head than a blessing from on high. And so I continue searching for the next chapter and verse in my validation story.

Monday, October 4, 2010

Let's Go to the Videotape

Nearly two decades ago, while toiling in the vineyards of a place called Pet Nosh, an independent chain of pet food and supply stores in the Greater New York City area, a funny thing happened. A 101 Dalmatians VHS tape set in motion a series of unfortunate events that threatened to sully a reputation.

In the business world, it often takes years to nurture a reputation, and only seconds to cast away some of that hard-earned luster. For sure, this video episode put a small dent in Pet Nosh's reputational armor—and it didn't have to be. It was here where “the best laid plans of mice and men” intersected “the road to hell,” which, of course, was “paved with good intentions.”

It was a huge Pet Nosh promo for its time: a multi-page, full-color supplement included in numerous Sunday newspapers around town. The flier teemed with great buys on a cross-section of goods—something for everyone. And as the icing on the cake—while supplies lasted—a free 101 Dalmatians videotape would be awarded customers who spent over $25, or some such figure that I've since forgotten.

The horsefly in the ointment was that only a finite number of tapes were on hand. And happily, most customers didn’t ask for one, even when they exceeded the not especially high threshold to qualify for a tape. Still, these freebies didn't last very long at all. In fact, within only a few days of what was a two-week sale, the Pet Nosh stores had run completely dry of the giveaways. And even though the advertisement plainly stated, “While supplies last,” it didn’t look good. It was bad P.R.

I regret to say that more than a few of our patrons foamed at the mouth and went off the deep end because of this. This free videotape obviously meant the world to them, and they would risk heart attacks and strokes to get their hands on a copy. I was privy to one rather dramatic meltdown replete with a fusillade of F-bombs and not-so-veiled threats of violence—this R-rated theater courtesy of a customer whom I remembered as a quiet, unassuming sort. That is, a man who stood silently by, and said hardly a thing, while his wife did all of the shopping and transacting week after week after week.

This hot head ultimately took his case to a higher authority: the Better Business Bureau. The bureau forwarded us his missive, which nastily accused Pet Nosh of all kinds of chicanery and gross unprofessionalism. With the bossman’s consent, I drafted our reasoned response to this bully boy, whose mouth really needed to be washed out with Irish Spring. The Better Business Bureau promptly sent us his response to our response as this pointless back and forth continued. A reasoned argument made before a hyperventilating oaf is an exercise in futility—and very bad business policy. It was a big mistake venturing down this road.

And, too, the Better Business Bureau is not interested in adjudicating cases. This outfit’s mission asks of its member businesses complete capitulation to complaining customers, even if they feel they are in the right. Such gracious acts remove grievances from the public record. Despite this accuser of ours being a foul-mouthed little turd, if you will, it was foolish to get into a pissing match with the guy, even if we felt innocent of the charges.

Granted, it was naïve on our parts to expect “While supplies last” to be a potent enough disclaimer to ward off the wrath of the sometimes unforgiving, often suspicious public at large. In the final analysis, the aforementioned militant, and several of his equally aggrieved comrades, received their free copies of 101 Dalmatians. Multiple business and life lessons were, however, learned in the wake of this unseemly debacle. I've often wondered what the brute felt when he slipped his VHS tape into the VCR, and then hit the play button for the benefit of his children.

Sunday, October 3, 2010

Happiness...Whatever You Want It to Be...

I find myself in wholehearted accord with Ebenezer Scrooge’s ex-fiancé, Isabel, who sang, “Happiness is whatever you want it to be.” You blew it, really blew it. In fact, I thought I might just have achieved a moment of supreme bliss this very day—true happiness from my unique and arguably perverse perspective—when I stumbled upon a compilation of commercials from the late 1970s that aired on New York City local station WCBS-TV. The description of this video included an advertisement from a furniture chain called Frankart Furniture, which was scattered about the area in the 1970s. And I have been searching—wishing and hoping, and hoping and wishing—that the YouTube genie would one day grant me this rare find.

Alas, it was not to be. The commercial from yesteryear that would have supplied me with true ecstasy—where the head cheese Frankie Frankel goes toe-to-toe with salesmen who are “not up to Frankart standards”—was not in the mix. Life is fraught with such ups and down, I’ve discovered, but hope springs eternal. Tomorrow is another day

But it really is so: Happiness is whatever you want it to be. While this commercial mélange from the 1970s wasn’t exactly what I hoped for, it nonetheless titillated this nostalgia hound. A promo for crime reporter Chris Borgen! Wow! This spot alone brought me back to the grittier, crime-riddled days of my teens.

Ah, yes, riding the Number 1 train with my sister to see a movie in Manhattan called Heaven Can Wait, starring Warren Beatty, and a woman is robbed at gunpoint along the way. She freaks out and runs off into a station wailing for help. I hope she got it. Everybody else in the subway car just sits there with poker faces, not one expression of shock or concern. But please, cut me a little slack here. I wasn't yet sixteen, and wasn't about to chase after a man brandishing a handgun. We all just wanted to get moving again, I suppose, and we did in due time. I don't remember any police officer questioning people on the train about witnessing the robbery, or asking us for a description of the perpetrator. By the way, I saw Heaven Can Wait as planned and thought it wasn't half-bad.