Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Dog Days and Scaredy Cats

We are on the cusp of entering the so-called “dog days” of summer, which commence in early July and last through much of the month of August. This annual time frame embodies what is, typically, the hottest and most uncomfortable stretch of summertime. But “dog days?” Where pray tell did this expression come from? Actually, we can thank a civilization of scaredy-cats for the dog days. The ancient Greeks coined the term.

Really, there’s no point in pussyfooting around here: The ancient civilizations were populated by a litter of scaredy-cats, most of whom looked up into the skies—both day and night—and shuddered in their sandals. They were always seeing omens and harbingers of bad tidings in celestial goings-on that we now take for granted as the benignant norm.

When the ancient Greeks observed Sirius, the “Dog Star,” during the summer months, they hyperventilated en masse. Sirius, which received its moniker courtesy of its residence in the constellation Canis Major, the Big Dog, is—from our earthly catbird's seat—the brightest star in the night sky. But when the trembling folks from yesteryear saw the star effectively rise with the hot sun during early July through mid-August, they jumped to a few unfortunate conclusions and flipped their raspberries in the process. The Dog Star’s behavior had to portend wicked times to come during the blistering hot days and nights of summer. There could be no other explanation.

If there is a lesson here it is this: When you’re sweltering and sweating in the coming weeks—and moaning and groaning about the horrific heat and humidity—think of how better off you are than the perpetually petrified ancients who regularly cowered in fear of the unknown, and, yes, lived without a thing called air conditioning.

Monday, June 28, 2010

The Doctor in My House

Courtesy of my favorite Christmas gift—a Netflix subscription renewal—I’ve been enjoying a steady stream of Doc Martin episodes of late. This British-made comedy-drama series absolutely distinguishes itself in its genre. In fact, on the nights that I pop in a DVD to watch an episode, I cannot help but marvel at the show’s remarkable quality and qualities. I don’t want any of the forty-five-minute episodes to end. Now, I wish I could say that for any of what passes as American television nowadays. Doc Martin is not only superbly written and acted, but also filmed on location in a stark, picturesque English fishing village.

If there is one downside for me in watching Doc Martin—as well as other first-rate British shows—it's that the mere act underscores how truly fatuous Hollywood has become. There is just no way—no way—Tinseltown could produce a program like Doc Martin. It’s beyond the place’s ken. It tries an awful lot, and way too hard sometimes, to construct shows that effectively blend light comedy with poignant drama, but rarely, if ever, pulls it off. And, really, it’s sad that here in the world’s creative epicenter, creating first-class programming that marries such key ingredients as subtle writing, good acting, and riveting atmosphere is well nigh impossible.

A reviewer on the IMDb site hit the nail on the head when he summed things up this way:

Someone should teach the Americans how to make this sort of show: funny, whimsical and without a glimmer of preaching, with weird and damaged characters that hug you from the screen, and pathos aplenty. It requires a light hand unfortunately, something that neither Hollywood nor primetime TV in the US is renowned for.

Indeed, it’s the light touch at play that works. Hollywood’s heavy hand is so transparent nowadays. Calling all Hollywood big shots: Why not give Doc Martin creator Dominic Minghella a call for a light helping hand? Naturally, I’m not holding my breath in anticipation of better things to come. I suppose that's why we have Netflix and PBS—to spare us from a never-ending story of way, way too much Made-in-America small screen rubbish.

Saturday, June 26, 2010

The Monster Mash

Some two decades ago, a writer friend of mine lit a literary firecracker under a frequently pretentious and usually drowsy open microphone gathering of poets. He simultaneously created a monster. It wasn’t his intention to unleash a fifty-something troll upon society, but these kinds of things happen on occasion.

It started out very innocently: an acquaintance of his wrote a poem and asked my friend to read it for him. This fledgling poet was a blue-collar guy through and through—the shy and retiring kind—and couldn’t envision himself pouring out his soul and spleen before his peers. My friend told him “No” in no uncertain terms. “You’ve got to read it yourself. It’s your work,” he said. The local yokel reluctantly agreed and recited his poem in a public forum.

From that moment on, this formerly inconspicuous neighbor of ours was hooked—line and sinker. He just couldn’t get enough of standing before audiences and reading his latest scribbling. Yes, a man who boasted how he never read anything—other than technical manuals for his line of work—considered himself a poet extraordinaire and literary heavyweight overnight. He churned out the verse faster than fast, and even developed a gaggle of devotees. He wasn't half bad, I thought. But his acolytes were in for the shocks of their lives when they asked their master to have a gander at what they’d written. His common rejoinder: “This is complete and utter garbage." He could also be heard to cry, "Stop wasting my time,” crushing countless young grasshoppers along the way. People, by the way, who merely desired a whiff of encouragement from their revered mentor. The man’s runaway ego ran away all right as he trashed one and all who dared follow his lead in the poetical arts. Twenty years later and he’s still at it. But I can assure you: He’s no Robert Frost.

Thursday, June 24, 2010

A Question of Character

Some years ago, I serviced my car at a local mechanic run by two men. The partnership consisted of a younger, soft-spoken, agreeable fellow and an older, coarse, irascible sort. A friend of mine who also patronized these very different—but very competent—grease monkeys got along swimmingly with the youngest member of the team, but loathed with a passion the more wizened and strident half.

When I informed my friend that I got along swimmingly with, and actually liked, Bill (that was the blowhard’s name), he was flabbergasted. What can I say: I found the man’s antics entertaining. While paying my bill one day in the garage’s modest office to the man himself, the phone rang. The call was for his partner, Marty. But rather than get up, walk a few steps to the doorway, and open the door, Bill remained seated and bellowed at the top of his lungs: “MARTY!!! TELEPHONE!!! MARTY!!!”

If my mechanic and I were cartoon characters, I would have somersaulted down wind of his super-high volume. It’s as if the garage became a sitcom stage at that moment. While many of the business's patrons found Bill boorish and unnecessarily antagonistic, I saw him as a true original. My aforementioned friend—a vocal anti-Bill critic—once told me, “You turn everyone into characters.” Perhaps I do. But if, as Shakespeare wrote, “All the world’s a stage,” then we are all characters, most especially Bill the Mechanic and the countless others who might otherwise be very annoying indeed.

Monday, June 21, 2010

Speak Softee and Carry a Chocolate Milk Shake

Today being the summer solstice and official start of summertime, I thought I’d put in a few good words for the venerable Mister Softee. One of the Mister Softee franchisees traverses my block on a daily basis these days. In fact, he’s merely yards away from my front door virtually every evening between 7:30 and 8:30. And while the Mister Softee jingle can be extraordinarily grating to one’s ears—it travels very, very long distances, too, without losing its annoying quality—the ice cream has held up rather well in this less for more society that we live in.

As a boy growing up in the Bronx’s Kingsbridge neighborhood, the ice cream man was the man—notably the Good Humor guy, who would materialize like clockwork every summer night, manually ring his bells, and chum for business. No musical theme from this more budget-friendly brand. In fact, there were multiple ice cream peddlers roaming the Bronx back in the day, including Mister Softee, Bungalow Bar, Colonial Maid, and Uncle John’s. I distinctly remember the Uncle John’s driver: an old geezer and dead ringer for a classic New York character actor named Herbie Faye.

The beauty surrounding Mister Softee is that the company's fleet of trucks are the same style vehicles from thirty and forty years ago. However, when the Good Humor man showed up in those days of yore, you could purchase a whammy stick for a nickel, a rocket pop for a dime, or an Italian ice for twenty cents. These days, I plunk down $4.00 for a chocolate milk shake with a calorie count of 450 (or so Mister Softee's chart tells me).

Saturday, June 19, 2010

Remembering Dr. Z...By the Way

The efficacy of Keynesian economics is being debated once again in both polite and impolite society. But rather than stake out a position on the demand side versus the supply side in this dismal science argument, I’d rather just wax nostalgic and recall a college professor of mine whom I'll call Dr. Z.

Dr. Z was an adjunct professor substituting for an ailing instructor in a course called Intermediate Macroeconomics. The place: my alma mater, Manhattan College. The year: 1984. Dr. Z was a very tall, dome-headed Egyptian fellow, who not only wore thrift shop threads that didn’t quite fit his gawky frame—high waters and hobo shoes—every single day, but a sartorial selection at least thirty years past its prime.

Despite my Dr. Z experience being brief, it was nonetheless quite memorable. This man rates as one of those classic college characters I will not soon forget—a professor remembered for his idiosyncrasies above all else, including teaching acumen. From the get-go, Dr. Z warned us that because “there was no ‘P’ as in Peter and ‘B’ as in ball” in his native tongue of Arabic, he was apt to “make a mish, mosh, moosh of the two…by the way” all along the way. And he didn’t disappoint on that score.

In addition, the good doctor frequently finished his sentences with the throwaway “by the way” phrase. He couldn’t stop saying it during his lectures, which he took very, very seriously, by the way, often working himself into a frenzied, sweaty trance to explain that Keynes’s General Theory “contended that consumption was a stable function of disposable income.”

Dr. Z also subscribed to the educative power of repetition. He peppered his lectures with “I repeat again” pronouncements and recapped word-for-word what had just been said. Dr. Z took attendance every class because, he revealed, he desperately needed the work and didn’t want to be fired. The man informed us that times were tough for him as a part-time professor, and that he called home somewhere in lower Manhattan “between the muggers and the hippies.” This former neighborhood of his has since been gentrified, by the way. And when the buzzer sounded each class’s death knell, the Z-man stopped in mid-sentence and profusely thanked the whole lot of us. “Thank you very, very much,” he would bellow at the top of his lungs and really mean it. No, Dr. Z: thank you…for the memories and teaching me about John Maynard Keynes, too. 

Friday, June 18, 2010

Ida's Lesson

Many years ago, I became acquainted with an elderly couple who owned and operated a local business called Rapid Printing on West 242nd Street near the starting point—or finishing point, take your pick—of the Number 1 subway line. By the time I got to know them, Mike and Ida were dinosaurs in an industry that was rapidly changing, if you will, with technological innovations and computerization replacing clumsy, hand-operated machinery and drudge work.

The kindly and very bighearted entrepreneurs nonetheless managed to hang on to the eve of the new millennium, even though their latter business years were anything but profitable. But Mike and Ida had been plying in the trade for more than fifty years, and they desired remaining active and occupied for as long as they physically could.

Prominent in Rapid Printing's store front window was the number 48, which underscored the total hours it took for wedding invitations to be both printed and available for pickup. That’s just two days—a delightfully favorable time frame for harried brides-to-be. But hold your horses.

Ida informed me one day that the 48-hour service referred to business hours—eight-hour days. In other words, it was a six-day service, not two as many folks surmised. “That’s the gimmick,” she said sans any irony. It was, however, a printing industry thing, and not a Bronx mom-and-pop shop’s calculated ruse to lure in unwitting couples soon to be living happily ever after.

In any event, Ida’s larger and longstanding lesson is the “gimmick,” as she coined it. We all need one or two to call our own—and not the duplicitous kind, but something palpable that sets us apart from the pack in visibly apparent and lasting ways. Take it from Ida.

(Photo from the personal collection of Nicholas Nigro)

Thursday, June 17, 2010

The Summers of Love

Gaelic Park in the Bronx's Kingsbridge is a neighborhood institution. Bordering West 240th Street on its south side, it is now owned and operated by my alma mater, Manhattan College. The grassy expanse hosts college-related as well as outside sporting events. It is an atmospheric piece of green, too, with a busy Number 1 subway train yard for a backdrop.

During my boyhood in the early 1970s, this parcel of land occasionally hosted summertime rock concerts that attracted people from near and far. There were more than a few famous names who performed in Gaelic Park, but I was too young to know or to care. On those past summer nights, the back streets, including my very own, became clogged with too many cars in search of too few parking spaces. While neighbors sniffed at their audacity and trashiness, the Esposito family leased the available space in their concrete backyard for a welcome sum of money in what were hyper-inflationary times.

Locals of all ages sat transfixed on their front stoops, watching the recurring spectacles of not how many clowns could fit into the automobiles parking all around them, but how many hippies would pile out of them. A parade of peculiar looking sorts marched past us on their way to Gaelic Park. Neighbors debated the gender of the passersby. Other than the scraggly bearded, who were presumed to be the male species, the clean-shaven hippies with the long, scraggly hairdos often appeared as gender neutral as they were generally unwashed.

It’s a safe bet that these "flower children," who are now Medicare recipients, were looking with similar wary eyes at the urban ethnics passing judgment on them from the steps of their stoops, and on beach chairs on the sidewalks. They didn’t trust anyone over thirty—and the Bronx stoop sitters were as untrustworthy as they come.

Despite the peculiar smell that wafted up the stoop steps and into the season’s open windows, and which seemed to linger especially long in the city’s muggy ozone, the species of hippie on parade were more Jim Henson than Weathermen. Except for a couple of guys relieving themselves against Mrs. Covello’s maple tree, the attendees came and went peacefully. The country at large may have been in turmoil, but these were the summers of love and tie-dye shirts, not iPods and iPhones.

Meet the Pet Parents

I have disks chock full of book notions that either died in the idea stage or met their makers on the chutes and ladders of Publishing Land. You know: Thanks but no thanks. One such project was entitled Meet the Pet Parents, which hoped to someday be a compilation of essays on the cross-section of interesting pet people whom I met along the way in my seventeen years in the business. What follows is a snippet of sample material from an old book proposal gathering virtual dust:

Tuesday’s Child is Dixie Dinner

Bill and Winnie lorded over a veritable menagerie of companion animals. At one point in time, the couple cohabited with forty-eight felines, which proved a very propitious number for them. You’ll soon appreciate why. But first, contemplate the problems that could have ensued had this considerable brood been a persnickety bunch.

Most fortunately for Bill and Winnie, their four-dozen resident felines gave their collective paws up to an extensive list of acceptable cat food brands and flavors. This roster of dinner possibilities proved far-reaching enough to weather any and all out-of-stocks at our store, because there were always second, third, and even fourth and fifth alternatives on the list.

Now, here’s why that cat census figure made Bill and Winnie’s life a smidgen less complicated. There were twenty-four cans in the cases of food they favored. So, feeding forty-eight cats amounted to expending exactly two cases a day—one can for each feline border—and fourteen cases a week. Bill and Winnie had only one proviso attached to their weekly cat food order. They insisted the house meal be uniform for the whole kit and caboodle—everybody eats the same thing on any given day. This way there would be no hard feelings, jealousies, or—perish the thought—cat fights. And so, Monday was Liver and Bacon day; Tuesday, Dixie Dinner day; Wednesday, Scrambled Eggs and Beef day, and so on and so forth.

Bill and Winnie were truly egalitarian in the management of their sprawling household. When one and all dined on the identical supper, no cat in their home and hearth could ever cite instances of favoritism. Bill, who always did the family shopping, would call on us each week with his list of fourteen cases in hand: two of this, two of that, etc. If we only had one case of a selection in stock, it just wouldn’t do. Bill would then advance to his second tier for a satisfactory substitute. But always, there had to be two cases available for sale—or there would be no sale.

Bill clued us in on the not inconsiderable task of opening forty-eight cans of cat food and feeding forty-eight cats each day. Suffice it to say, it gobbled up some time and necessitated ample doses of organization and patience. To assist with the daily drudge work, he told us that he utilized a high-quality electric can opener manufactured by Black and Decker. The company, Bill said, offered a lifetime guarantee on his preferred utensil. He confessed that the sheer volume of his can-opening requirements eventually cast it asunder. A single can opener would last him approximately six months. Bill would then exchange it for a new one and repeat the process all over again.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Events Leading Up to My Death...

It’s become customary at wakes nowadays for families to display photo montages of the dearly departed. Before writing the manuscript for a book called Night Sky, it was my job to craft what is known as a "storyboard." I was only vaguely familiar with the concept and had never done anything like that before. To create this storyboard, I was asked to logically envision a pictorial unfurling of the subject matter, which in this instance was the solar system and universe at large. And since “one picture is worth a thousand words,” suffice it to say the storyboard trumped the text in importance.

The photos featured in wake settings are in essence life storyboards—visual aids propped up on easels throughout a room in a funeral parlor, which celebrate unique individuals' lives. So, have you given any thought to what you would want included on your storyboard? Why not prepare one for when your time comes? Look at it as akin to writing your own obituary. You can add to your storyboard, subtract from it, as the years pass by and your view of what is and was really important changes. Why, when you can do it yourself, let another being or beings reduce your life and times to a haphazardly edited pictorial journey? And one that often has to be thrown together on the fly.

Veteran newsman and anchor Howard K. Smith, one of Edward R. Murrow’s “boys,” published his memoirs in 1997. It was subtitled: “The Life of a Twentieth Century Reporter.” But it was the book's title—one of the best book titles ever in my opinion—that grabbed me: Events Leading Up to My Death. Whether you are eighteen, eighty, or somewhere in between, start piecing together your storyboard now. That is, images and keepsakes of events leading up to your death. Oh, by the way, as of this writing, Smith’s book is out of print and the author has shuffled off this mortal coil. Events Leading Up to My Death is, however, available from alternative sellers on Amazon: a used hardcover can be had for a penny, but a new paperback could cost you $65.24. Life in a nutshell….

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

The Business We've Chosen...

While toiling in the retail pet care trade as a young man, it sometimes seemed that the industry at large reeked of cat urine enmeshed in the living room rug. My initial take was that there were many players within this curious and emergent business sphere who were not especially high on the ethical totem pole. But gradually, I discovered that the pet biz was no better or worse than countless other commercial sectors. Most of the entrepreneurs, salespeople, et al, whom I met in my extended travels therein, were hunky dory in my book—so much so that I co-wrote a book encouraging others to join the fun. It’s just that when we are in the trenches—in whatever line of work—the worms in the inevitable bad apples appear especially slimy. To paraphrase from a highly regarded twelve-step recovery program: “The worst problem in the room is yours, because it’s happening to you.”

The good, the bad, and the ugly of humanity are lurking in all the career and occupational bushes. When I chance upon the writing and publishing discussion boards every now and then, I cannot help but notice the multi-layers of discontent among the scribbling class. Surprise, surprise, surprise…railing against the publishing realm is rather routine. Complaints about acts of treachery, unfairness, and hard-hearted bottom-line mentalities abound. Where have I heard this before? Individuals regularly regale readers with their personal horror stories in the trade in which they ply, and extrapolate that rampant unprofessionalism and exploitation are the rules rather than the exceptions.

Wherever one forages for dollars and/or a lick of recognition, ups and downs are par for the course. Granted, some of us experience more downs than ups. Still, the folks whom I’ve worked with in recent years have been completely professional and totally upfront with me. And, besides, no one held a gun to my head and made me sign on any dotted line. Speaking of holding a guns to one's head: In The Godfather II, aging and ailing gangster Hyman Roth reflects on his career path to Michael Corleone. “And I said to myself...this is the business we’ve chosen,” Roth exclaims with weary conviction. And, really, this celluloid hooligan’s epiphany can be applied to our own lives. That is, when we choose to play on a certain field, it’s best to both understand and make peace with the game’s rules beforehand.

Saturday, June 12, 2010

A Night to Remember

One of the perks of authoring a book of interest to people beyond your family and friends is that you just might find yourself in a green room alongside a favorite celebrity, and get that chance of a lifetime to say hello, and maybe a little more than that. This didn’t happen to me.

However, I did enjoy one brief shining moment with a former child star. And let me say for the record that it would not have been my choice of close encounters, but it was nevertheless a night to remember.

When our eyes met, I admit to not recognizing this star from yesteryear. But I was fortunately privy to a conversation she had with a fellow green room guest. And when she mentioned that she was an actress, I very discreetly went in for a closer look…but nothing…absolutely nothing. Then things turned a bit ugly as she veered into the subject of politics, uttering a series of vacuous talk-radio platitudes in the most haughty of tones. Mercifully, she ended her political rant and revealed the show in which she starred in over forty years ago. I knew her all right….

A little exposition is in order here: It was past midnight and several night owls, including me, were slated to appear on a radio show in the wee small hours of the morning. To appear on a program that wasn't likely to sell any books for me, I had to take the Number 1 subway train down to Chambers Street and walk several blocks to the ghostly vicinity of Ground Zero. And I would have to return from whence I came in the middle of night, a rare chance to see the city that never sleeps sound asleep.

As things turned out—bad karma in the late-night ether—this former child star was at the radio station on the wrong night. It was her mistake, but she made a big stink anyway, browbeating the show’s affable young producer. It was an embarrassing spectacle for the rest of us to behold.

Nevertheless, after this diva-without-portfolio performance, I decided—for my own amusement—to chat with her. How often does one get to kibitz with a former child star? I told her that I was familiar with the show she starred in once upon a time as a teenage girl. (She’s in her sixties now and was promoting the DVD release of the series.) After my short tête-à-tête with her, there was little doubt remaining that this woman was a real piece of work—ridiculously full of herself.

When, at last, the diva in our midst exited the green room for good—her complaining actually got her a spot, which bumped the rest of us back—the unlucky lady with whom she politically harangued, turned to me and asked with genuine astonishment in her voice, “She is someone famous?” This woman hailed from England and was not altogether familiar with American celebrity culture. I explained to her that she wasn’t famous in the least. More difficult was explaining how I knew who she was. For some reason, the British gal seemed greatly relieved that she hadn’t been talking with a bona fide American star, but a Hollywood nebula instead.

It was right then and there that I thought: What if I had run into somebody in the green room whom I actually admired, and that somebody turned out to be a real jackass? Happens all the time. Say, for instance, I was a big fan of William Shatner. I wouldn't want to end up in a green room with the man. And so I am grateful that no illusions were shattered in this chance meeting with a former child star. 

Friday, June 11, 2010

Rex Reed Nation

At some point in time—where snowballing technological advances met the new kid on the block—America morphed into a Rex Reed Nation. As a mere lad in the mid-1970s, I was a faithful viewer of The Gong Show hosted by the eccentrically droll Chuck Barris. For lack of a more apt description, this daily fare was a slimmer budgeted, vastly less talented, considerably more ridiculous and insane version of America’s Got Talent and American Idol.

The show consisted of its quirky host and the three panelist judges who were empowered to cut short an act by hitting a very large gong with a gong banger—or whatever it is that one whacks a gong with? One of the three panelists was often the entertainingly snarky movie critic Rex Reed, renowned for his witty put-downs and irascible idiosyncrasies.

Flash forward three decades plus and we’ve become a nation of Rex Reeds—critics to the core and from a very young age, too. Cloaked in anonymity, sixth and seventh graders rate their teachers on a public forum, revealing their immaturity and, worse than that, boorishness and stupidity. Older kids and their adult enablers proudly run with the critic baton and take their reviews and commentaries to new heights—or, more aptly, new depths. No distinctions are made between reviews of products and flesh-and-blood human beings, and rarely do the critical masses consider the consequences of their words. It’s easy to bloviate with a user-name handle, the virtual equivalent of a bag over one's head.

Irresponsibility, uncouthness, and out-and-out dumbness were omnipresent back in the day, only the populace at large was constrained by technology. We kept our foolishness, incivility, and insensitivity withing our little life circles. Today, speaking when one has nothing to say is not only encouraged but celebrated as well. And shame on the so-called adults who have not only laid the foundation of this Rex Reed Nation of ours, but perpetuate it every single day with their actions and inaction.

Saturday, June 5, 2010

When Life Seems Ridiculous...Why Pretend Otherwise?

There are a cornucopia of New Age philosophies, insights, and dictums worth their weights in gold; new takes on old religions and mores boldly going where past generations would not dare tread. But, in these enlightened times of ours, there must also be room made for those of us who wish to walk another walk on occasion. That is, for those of us who view life as a positively ridiculous spectacle sometimes, and not an every breathing moment journey of self-discovery.

Life is awfully ridiculous in countless ways—and, yes, often ridiculously cruel, too. It is also teeming with a cross-section of utterly ridiculous fellow world travelers. For me to deny what is transparently self-evident would make me mashugana in a New York Minute.

So, I choose not to pretend that life’s considerable and diverse deck of cards contains no jokers. I have discovered on my life odyssey that a little mockery of all that is—and all that may be—goes a long way in the sanity maintenance department. Its sheer force—the raw, healing power of its honesty—assists me in wading through each ridiculous day. And you know what: I suspect that the entertaining ravings of venerable comedian Don Rickles, "Mr. Warmth," contain just as many life truths as do the earnest pronouncements of best-selling guru Deepak Chopra.

Friday, June 4, 2010

Zigzag Run and the Formerly Young Person

Have you ever encountered a person while out and about who looked very familiar to you—someone you think you remember from your youth and the old neighborhood? An individual whom you haven't seen in a very long time, and who's not so young anymore? What follows is another excerpt from Zigzag Run, a novel that I've been working on between nibbles this past year. From the forty-something narrator's perspective—a man who’s lived in the same neighborhood for all the times of his life—this little snippet runs headfirst into the often unsettling "formerly young person" phenomenon:

Making my way towards Broadway alongside Manhattan College’s field of green, I peered into the bar on the property’s farthest east end. When the saloon was part of the old Gaelic Park, it was christened “the world’s longest bar.” I sincerely doubt that it is "Guinness World Records" material, but it is rather long.

As my mind and body both wandered, a local whom I see from time to time was headed in my direction. I don’t know him personally and don’t say hello to him. I suspect he is several years my junior. I say this because I recognize him as somebody that’s been in the neighborhood for a long time—probably his entire life. He was a kid that I recall seeing around when I was a kid.

If there is one reason why it’s not ordinarily a healthy thing to remain in the same geographic locale for all the years of your life, this is it. Here I was looking at a man close to forty—give or take a couple of years—who is now hideously overweight with a gargantuan stomach that flaps up and down with each loping step. His formerly young face, which is still recognizable, is glossy red and badly dappled. His nose is already layered—bulbous from the ravages of one too many drinks.

As we passed one another, I noticed he was wearing a New Jersey Devils hockey jersey, which he often sports. It had to be XXXXX-L to fit him, I thought. He was intently listening to his iPod, precluding any interaction with anybody, even eye contact. I've been seeing a lot of him lately, walking back and forth, and back and forth again, for hours upon hours. The Columbo in me tells me that he’s likely following doctor’s orders: stop drinking, exercise, and lose a ton of weight—or you’re toast.

These neighborhood ghosts—my contemporaries who still roam the same streets they did when they were kids—are unsettling sightings. There’s just something melancholy about spying these “formerly young persons.” I fear that I too am a formerly young person to other longtime residents of the area, and maybe even to the behemoth who just passed me by.

Thursday, June 3, 2010

Bronx Anglophile

A funny thing happened on the way to the Barnes & Noble bathroom at Union Square. I ended up in Piccadilly Circus. My bookshelves began sagging under the weight of biographies on the likes of Winston Churchill, Margaret Thatcher, and Tony Blair. I’ve even read and thoroughly enjoyed an autobiography penned by the oh-so-gray John Major. And before everyone and his or her mother and father were selling used books on Amazon for a song, I paid top dollar for a then hard-to-come-by title called A Conservative Coup, by Alan Watkins, which chronicled the inter-party revolt that ended for all time the Iron Lady’s lengthy premiership, and cost me a pretty penny in the process. I don’t know exactly what is it about the Brits? But I just cannot get enough of them…one particular oil corporation excepted.

My Netflix queue runneth over with all things British at the moment: A Touch of Frost, Doc Martin, and even Hetty Wainthropp Investigates. I’ve got all of the Inspector Morse episodes on VHS tapes, all of the available Foyle’s War on DVD, and I’ve watched them over and over and over. With baited breath, I wait patiently for PBS’s Mystery Theater's showing of the third season of Lewis. Yes, I know Law and Order has been an American staple for a very long time, a series that has spawned multiple progeny, but I always found the show pretentious and unrealistic—a little too hip for its own good. And while I’m a big fan of New York’s Finest, their detectives just don’t communicate with one another like the Law and Order crowd—at least none that I’ve encountered. And who wants to take motion sickness pills before watching a TV show? How about holding the camera steady during filming? Oh, pardon me—that’s really cool, and I’m just a square peg in a round hole pining for classic American detective fodder like The Rockford Files and Kojak.

And there’s a wee bit more Anglo worship here. One of the few television programs that I’ve been faithful to over the past decade is C-SPAN’s Prime Minister’s Questions, a weekly, half-hour session live and direct from the House of Commons, when the United Kingdom’s head of government entertains questions from those ostensibly representing the average blokes. There are no teleprompters during this brisk give-and-take, which would likely discombobulate the leader of the free world. It’s ordinarily quite raucous and an almost always entertaining spectacle. I’ve tried many times watching our home-grown elected officials during live congressional debates and typically come away either bored silly or quasi-nauseous. It’s a matter of being too close to home, I guess. It's easier to watch politicians and their self-serving antics when separated by an ocean, particularly when one has no vested interest in what's pouring out of their mouths. No real difference exists in the moral fiber of the two countries' pols, but the Brits certainly do theater better.

And may I say for the record that I’m certainly no fan of royalty, the royal family, and ostentatious pomp. I’m glad we whupped their butts at Yorktown. Still, I’m grateful for the special relationship we have with the culture most responsible for a little thing called individual liberties, not to mention a pretty popular language. True, the English could be pretty beastly when the sun never set on them. But we’re in the new millennium now, so why not let bygones be bygones?

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Ode to the Neighborhood Diner

At the risk of sounding like a defective CD—harping on casualties of the new millennium and the modern age—I nonetheless feel compelled to put in a good word for my favorite diner and others like it. The cozy neighborhood Greek diners of New York City, including my very own special haunt—once upon a time ubiquitous and thriving institutions in all five boroughs—are on life support.

I am fortunate to still have a snug and welcoming nook to go to when I feel a hankering for bacon, eggs over easy, and home fries for breakfast, or burgers and French fries for lunch. I rarely deviate from my usual when I get there because the usual is a big deal in the diner milieu. It's a comforting constant in a sea-changing world. But here's the real rub: It’s not really about the food, although I must admit that the truly bottomless cup of coffee—and a flavorful and aromatic one at that—is other-worldly.

This holy place that I speak of has been around for decades. The original two Greek giants still loom like Colossus over the dining space. And, yes, like a microcosm of life itself, the diner has had its ups and downs through the years. Its owners, too, have bore witness to a mother lode of changes in the neighborhood and, naturally, their clientele as well. The men at grill's edge have watched countless customers grow old and battle all kinds of infirmities. They’ve seen tragedy befall a cross-section of their bread and butter without so much as fair warning. Not too long ago, the diner's alpha male said to me: “When I don’t see people for a while…I worry.” He didn’t see me for a while...and he worried. I fortuitously returned for another act. Others have not been so lucky. Indeed, a fair share of the restaurant’s regulars have quietly slipped away with the passage of time and gone to that Great Greasy Spoon in the Sky. You know: with lemon meringue clouds and celestial rivers of rice pudding and Jell-O....

But it's not only the diner’s never-ending story of ravenous patrons—looking for both food and ears to chew on—who are growing old. I had a full head of hair when I ordered my first hamburger there. Its proprietors, too, are not immune to the inexorable and remorseless sands of time. And when they exit center stage for good, this little diner in my hometown, with its old-style hospitality and unique urban ambiance, will sadly go with them. And we will never see their likes again....