Monday, August 30, 2010

A God Awful Question

The precise causes of the dinosaur population’s extinction have long been a subject of scientific conjecture. A consensus opinion has held that a humongous asteroid crashed into Earth’s terra firma multiple millions of years ago and did quite a number on these gruesome creatures and their sources of sustenance. However, a recent study intimates that it may very well have been more than one big bang that cast asunder these celebrated masters of the prehistoric planet.

I will admit to never having been a fan of dinosaurs. Maybe that’s because I knew they weren’t warm and fuzzy like Dino, Fred and Wilma Flintstone’s faithful household pet. Even as a boy attending Catholic grammar school and weekly Sunday Mass, the dinosaur years didn’t quite jibe with my religious tutelage. I recall wanting to ask God, or at least a church elder, a very pertinent and, yes, perplexing question: Why dinosaurs? It seemed to me a rather circuitous and convoluted creation route. In fact, with the exception of some flighty sorts, apparently we have absolutely nothing in common with Stegosaurus and Tyrannosaurus.

Dinosaurs literally roamed the earth for millions upon millions of years, evolving along the way. Did God Almighty conclude: "These creations of mine really suck. It's time for me to go back to the drawing board and get it right. So, I'll riddle Earth with meteorites and start anew." I don't know. Maybe Frank Sheed was on to something in explaining dinosaur's protracted existence. He wrote, “God knew that the discovery of such fantastical creatures would fascinate and delight us, and perhaps this was reason for their creation.” True, without dinosaurs, there would be no Barney. It's all one big mystery.

Saturday, August 28, 2010

Close Encounters of the Fourth Kind

According to a recent e-mail I received, the planet Mars—the fourth rock from the sun—was supposed to be so close to Earth yesterday evening that it would appear as big as the moon in the night sky. This would have been quite something to behold, a fellow planet as colossal to our naked eyes as Earth's faithful hanger-on, the moon. The missive further elaborated that Mars's orbit would not bring it this close to our prying eyes—here on the third rock from the sun—until 2287. In other words: We could ill afford to miss this dramatic and uber-rare celestial moment.

While getting such an intimate peep at a fellow terrestrial planet would be a stargazer's orgasm unlike any other, a moon-sized Mars in the night sky would really portend only one thing: We are doomed! And don't bother heading for the wine cellar or bomb shelter. The sun must be in the process of imploding billions of years earlier than scientists had anticipated, and our solar system no longer so systematic. Forget about hiding under the bed, completing that bucket list, and employing the seven steps of forgiveness for those who trespassed against you. In fact: If the red planet, as Mars is known because of its distinguishing iron-rich hue, is this close to planet Earth—cast your fate to the solar wind and be done with it.

Happily, this Mars does the moon scenario was just another compelling Internet hoax that wormed its way through the virtual ether. And, as with all good hoaxes, many gullible sorts bought hook, line, and sinker this celestial fib of epic proportions. Of course, it would be nice to see the Man in the Moon share center stage with Mars among the cosmic players of the night, but not if it means our species is toast.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Grade A Pizza

For the first time in my life, I sampled a slice of pizza from a Grade A pizza parlor. Oh, I’ve had thousands of slices through the decades from this very shop, but today’s takeout came with the big city’s imprimatur. I had been reading of late that New York City’s Department of Health would be adding letter grades—A, B, or C—to their restaurant inspections. And by law, proprietors would have to prominently post their ratings. I can attest that restaurant report cards are now a reality in these parts.

But there’s something about this bureaucratic codicil that doesn’t quite pass the smell test. Essentially, it’s handing an additional cudgel to restaurant inspectors—men and women who make the rounds and assign points for health infractions that run the gamut from the trivial to the serious. However, the difference between an A grade and a B grade could be inconsequential where food safety and cleanliness are concerned, but very consequential in business gained or business lost. Ditto the difference between a B grade and a C grade. Restaurant inspectors have tremendous leeway and make some rather arbitrary decisions along the way. In other words: the city that never sleeps, led by its billionaire au pair, has just made the life of small businesspersons in the culinary trade more problematic.

The little guys are the ones who suffer most from the increasingly hefty fines levied with ever greater regularity against them. And the little guys will be the ones who suffer most from B and C grades. Even if we the hungry consumer are blissfully unaware how the Bs and Cs came to be, the psychological effect alone will drive business away, especially when there are A competitors nearby.

In theory, the letter grading is not such a bad idea. It places legitimate pressure on lax restaurateurs to remain lean, mean, and clean. But where pencil-pushing bureaucrats are concerned—whose mission is not only the health and wellness of the citizenry, but to collect fines to fill the city’s insatiable coffers—I remain justifiably skeptical. And I'd eat at my favorite pizza place regardless of its report card.

Sunday, August 22, 2010

A New York Minute

Yesterday afternoon by chance, I found myself in a small piece of real estate that the city mothers and fathers have graciously designated a peaceful stopover for the public at large. Located on the corner of East 46th Street and Dag Hammarskjold Plaza near the United Nations, the place featured a little water fountain at its center, lots of colorful impatiens, healthy green shrubbery all around, as well as scattered benches for passersby to rest their weary bones and, in my case, and increasingly weighty prosthetic, which after several miles of walking felt like a ball and chain.

Earlier in the day, I had met an old friend and we had zigzagged around for a few hours, beginning our odyssey in lower Manhattan and ending up contentedly exhausted in this benign urban setting. There were no sorry souls sleeping it off here, a rare and welcome bonus in big city parkland. And soon after plopping ourselves down at the water fountain’s edge, we observed a very well-dressed elderly man shuffling his way into this sleepy alcove. As soon as he sat down, my friend said: “That guy looks familiar. He’s an old character actor. I’m sure of it.”

“He looks a little bit like William Windom,” I replied, but knew he wasn’t our man. We inconspicuously attempted to get a better gander at the gussied up geezer, but he nonetheless sensed our four eyes checking him out. Visibly showing his disapproval, he glared our way.

At that exact moment, a much younger fellow entered the stage. He was there expressly to meet and greet this possible old character actor—it was no chance meeting. But when he bowed down and kissed the man’s hand, the old character actor theory went up in a puff of smoke, unless, of course, this former thespian found another and decidedly different line of work. The attentive toady gently grabbed hold of the mystery man's arm and out the pair went, but not before one final and very piercing glower came our way.

I want those two taught a lesson. Is this what this aged Mafia don was whispering to his underling as he gingerly shuffled away across Second Avenue to God knows where? Or maybe it’s just that my friend and I have watched too much television and movies through the years. From Bill Windom to Don Corleone in a New York minute.

Friday, August 20, 2010

Down These Mean Streets

Stepping out into the mean streets of New York can be dangerous business. And I’m not speaking of getting mugged or becoming another crime statistic, which, while possible, is a long shot in a pretty safe town lorded over by the admirable men and women in blue. No, the danger I speak of lurks in the seemingly benign shadows, where unpleasant and unpredictable urban scenes await unsuspecting eyes.

Today, it was my unsuspecting eyes. While simultaneously running a few errands and accumulating invaluable walking time, I set my sights on Ewen Park, a rather steep grassy knoll that separates tony Riverdale from Kingsbridge, its less pedigreed neighbor. Approaching the traffic light directly across from the park, I came upon an elderly woman loudly berating a younger woman on a bicycle, who was planning to cross the same thoroughfare as me. “You don’t belong here!” she screamed, meaning on the sidewalk, I gathered, because the bicyclist responded, “I’m very careful.”

But this oldster was far from done in speaking her piece. Getting increasingly more apoplectic as the seconds passed, she eventually screeched, “I hope you get hit by a bus!” This rather vicious sentiment prompted the bicyclist to remove the baseball cap she was wearing, revealing a bald head and the telltale signs of cancer treatments. “I have cancer,” she offered, essentially imploring this ranting and raving old woman to put a lid on it and be on her unmerry way. But this plea for sympathy and a little understanding fell on deaf ears—both literally and figuratively, I think.

This ugly encounter turned downright surreal with the next toxic volley: "You can go to hell with your stupid bald head." As the bicyclist began crossing the street when the light turned green, the fusillade of vitriol continued, even as growing distance separated the two. “I hope you get raped in the park,” the old coot bellowed in her last shout, prompting the bicyclist to give her a flailing smorgasbord of well-earned one-finger salutes.

Having bore witness to this sideshow, the air was completely sucked out of my morning constitutional. I tried to imagine how this woman afflicted with cancer must have felt like in the wake of this bizarre encounter with a senior citizen, with a woman who wished her brutalized, and even dead, for the egregious transgression of riding her bicycle on the sidewalk.

I think the most unpleasant component of this city street snapshot was the individual’s state of mind. She just didn’t quite appear to be mentally unhinged, which could have at least explained her rabid performance. She seemed to be, first and foremost, a very mean person turned several notches meaner by the sands of time. But I don't really know. As for who really should get hit by a bus…well, nobody, of course.

Friday, August 13, 2010

Doorway Manner

During the second week of August in 2006, a doctor gave me some pretty bad news. In fact, a case could rather easily be made that it was the worse news I'd ever received before or since. It was at this critical moment in my life that I experienced one doctor's unique brand of bedside manner.

Actually, I think doorway manner would be a more apt description. This particular sawbones informed me that the gutted and gored portion of my right leg would have to go. It was not healing and could not be saved as the medical consensus had initially hoped. Standing at the doorway to my room and surrounded by his team of medical interns, he rather nonchalantly told me that I was slated to go under the knife the following morning. “Okay,” I recall saying, neither shocked at what I had just learned nor frightened at what tomorrow would bring. And it wasn't because I was particularly courageous or anything like that. It had just been such an incredibly grueling and painful week filled with probing, poking, and getting shuffled around that I suspect I needed some kind of closure—a next leg on a journey, as it were.

This week in hell included a close call with the Grim Reaper due to massive blood loss, followed by two debriding operations to try to salvage the gruesome carcass that was now the lower part of my right leg. And, too, the pain was both unrelenting and intense, and intenser still every time the leg's dressing was changed, which it was several times a day. From where I sat propped up in my hospital bed, it was inevitable that a fourth time under the knife would occur, even though I was told similar wreckages had been salvaged and lived to walk again.

So, I received the news of act four from a distance with no one-on-one commiseration with a medical mind. There were also a couple of visitors in my room at the time, too—my sister and brother-in-law. It could have been the milkman and his wife who just popped in for a visit. Old Doc was completely oblivious to whose ears would simultaneously hear, along with yours truly, the news of my imminent amputation. Strange behavior exhibited in both the doorway and hospital bed several yards away, I'd say. But then I can attest from experience that hospitals are strange places to call home. A lot of strange goings-on come to pass there—things you couldn't possibly imagine during healthy times.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Where Is Everybody?

The pilot episode of Rod Serling's classic Twilight Zone series is titled “Where Is Everybody?” It stars actor Earl Holliman as an astronaut who, unbeknownst to him, is undergoing a mind game—a stress test of sorts to measure a human being's psychological tipping point. In his induced hallucination, Holliman emerges in what appears to be a quaint small town—a busy little hamlet going about its business. The only thing missing are its inhabitants. He walks into a diner and spies a percolating coffee pot and sizzling bacon on the grill; a church bell is ringing in the distance. He calls out “hello...hello...hello,” but nobody answers him—nobody's around. After an extended and futile search for a living soul or two, he finally flips his raspberry and cries out in a state of panic, "Where is everybody?"

It's kind of the way I feel on hot summer days and nights. "Where is everybody?” I ask myself time and again. For in my Bronx youth, summertime equaled activity and lots of it. The dog days meant stoop sitting, game playing, and constant commingling with friends and neighbors.

We played games morning, noon, and night. We always managed to find something to do as kids, and it was often based on who was out and about at any given moment. Greater numbers of us inspired more epic games like Round-up, Ringolevio, and Johnny Ride-a-Pony. The incredible, multipurpose spaldeen, as it was affectionately known, busily bounced in the heat of summer and supplied us endless hours of entertainment with games like Punchball, Boxball, Ace-King-Queen, and Spud. Without a ball, or any prop at all, we played Mother, May I?, Red Light-Green Light and In-the-Refrigerator. Even after dark, the game playing continued with what we, very cleverly, dubbed Flashlight—an offshoot of tag based on a beam of light, not touch of the hand. Flashlight commenced a little after sunset with the ritual "the odd number is It." The unlucky "It" was handed the flashlight, while the rest of us dispersed, plotted our strategies, and found hiding spots in the neighborhood's backyards, alleyways, and alcoves.

The summer scene was alive and well thirty and forty years ago, with both young and old sitting out on their front stoops. Neighbors kibitzed and gossiped every single evening. Even in the awful nighttime humidity teeming with lightning bugs, the locals were undeterred. They were a tougher breed indeed, preferring the great outdoors to basking in the cool of air-conditioning.

There are plenty of adults and kids in the old neighborhood now. There aren't very many vacant apartments around. So, where is everybody? Apparently, social networking instead of socializing is today's rule—in all seasons. Neighborliness has by and large vanished along with the iconic spaldeen, although Spalding, I see, is still manufacturing them. Today's spaldeen is the iPhone, I suppose, and stoops just aren't meant for sitting on anymore.

(Photo from the personal collection of Nicholas Nigro)

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Collectibles Must Pay Their Dues

Resurrecting the happy childhood memories of owning and playing with a set of Klackers called to mind a more recent but decidedly different sort of fad: Beanie Babies. While researching and writing the Everything Collectibles Book in early 2001, Beanie Babies were a well-known and frequently discussed contemporary collectible. By that time, however, the fevered pitch of the Beanie Babies' phenomenon had noticeably waned, but I nonetheless thought it prudent to at least mention Beanie Babies in the book. They just couldn't be ignored in the pantheon of collectibles because they were just so popular—for one brief shining moment at least. What the heck happened?

Here were these cuddly cute, pellet-filled, petite stuffed animals that were must-haves for thousands upon thousands of Americans, and not just little girls and boys. In fact, Beanie Babies were foremost marketed as collectibles. They weren't pitched as children's playthings like the pair of acrylic balls on a string known as Klackers (and so many other things). No, Beanie Babies were a well-orchestrated fad for a while with an investment endgame. They were a sign of the times, just like Pokemon and limited edition baseball cards. I constantly see gold investment commercials today claiming how gold is a precious asset that only appreciates and never depreciates in value. This apparent appreciation-lock is what purchasers of collectibles born and sold as collectibles, including Beanie Babies, expected from their investments. (One footnote for gold investors here: Pray that the Twilight Zone's "Rip Van Winkle Caper" denouement never comes to pass.)

In most instances the capitalists who tried to circumvent the immutable laws of the collectibles market lived to see their grand schemes go up in smoke. Of course, many of these entrepreneurs made their killings on short-lived but nonetheless fertile fields of green. The creator of the Cabbage Patch doll, for instance, made multiple millions in one maniacal year (1984).

Beanie Babies and countless other items christened collectibles upon their birth—and given birthdays, retirement dates, and the like—rarely live up to their billing. Collectibles need to pay their dues and age like fine bottles of wine, or something like that. I'd rather see kids clacking away with their Klackers than adults hijacking UPS trucks to secure the latest limited edition Beanie Baby—a stuffed kid's toy that they had no intention of ever giving to their kid. Not all fads are created equal. Some are remembered fondly, albeit a bit painfully (Klackers), while others we'd just assume forget. But then we already have.