Thursday, September 30, 2010

Special Memories

Since thirty full years have passed since my graduation from high school, I thought I'd elaborate on some of those very special memories, which I touched on in the previous essay. That is, memories of the not especially special special buses that I road on for four seemingly interminable years.

The special bus experience was unpleasant all around—an illuminating microcosm of the larger high school experience. As a bus pulled in close to the curbside, a select group of students—mostly brutes but some non-brutes, too—would literally attach themselves to its front and side doors. These brazen young fools sought to be the first ones in the bus when it came to a full stop and the doors opened. And right behind these fearless leaders of the wolf pack, a second tier of equally aggressive teens would jostle their way onto the bus, hurling articles—book bags, books, newspapers, hats, gloves, and pens—on top of as many seats as humanly possible. This daily onslaught was all about acquiring seats—not only for themselves but for their friends and acquaintances as well.

It was the accepted law of the special bus jungle that if somebody had an item of any kind on a seat, it was ipso facto saved. These bus rides were survival of the fittest tests—galootism run amok—where the weak among us more often than not stood for the duration of the trip from Broadway in Kingsbridge to Cardinal Spellman High School on the other side of the Bronx.

The buses, too, were packed like the proverbial sardines in a can; so a seat was a cherished prize. It eased somewhat—for the twenty-minute or so ride—the all-encompassing misery of the school day ahead, particularly when the vastly overcrowded bus bended sideways and then back again as it careened around a dead man’s curve leading to the intersection of East Gunhill Road and Jerome Avenue, and then repeated this extreme feat at another sharp turn onto Boston Road.

I am prone to wax nostalgic about many things from the good old days. But when I find myself fondly recalling the high school years, I resurrect these most special of memories and am promptly disabused of any and all warm and fuzzy feelings.

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Up in Smoke

For all his good works in our company from September’s opening school bell to the Christmas recess, Sister Lyse took up a collection to purchase Father B a well-earned holiday present. Each one of us in her fifth-grade class was asked to pony up a quarter, or a little more if possible. I remember Sister Lyse announcing to the class what she had finally settled upon as the gift: Father's B preferred smokes. That's right: Sister Lyse's fifth graders bought the man sporting a Roman collar a carton of Marlboro's for Christmas, which I’m sure he appreciated on his fixed income. It was certainly more practical than a tie.

Fast-forward several years and it’s America’s bicentennial year, and I’m now a freshman in high school. The seniors in the school have a dedicated room of their own christened the “smoking lounge." It is a place for the school's fledgling adults to convene, should they wish to puff away on poisonous pleasures during their free periods. I distinctly recall passing by it on my way to a class. The room teemed with seventeen- and eighteen-year-old boys and girls; shadowy silhouettes of high school students who were difficult to distinguish through thick curtains of stagnant second-hand smoke.

The smoking lounge went up in smoke, if you will, a year later. It was no longer kosher in Catholic schools—or any other schools for that matter—to encourage, or even give the slightest imprimatur, to this dirty habit so blatantly bad for one’s health. But smoking on the "special buses," which ferried us to school and back, remained acceptable throughout my high school years. And although they would probably deny it, the powers-that-be turned a blind eye.

Interestingly, the special buses were actually New York City buses that were leased by the school. In other words, they weren't very special at all. And it was against the law to smoke on all New York City transit, even during the more libertine 1970s. Yet, we teens rode to school and back in a miasma of nicotine on overly crammed buses every single day. We reeked of the stuff at the start of each school day and end of each school day. Now that couldn't have been very healthy. 

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

The Kid Behind the Counter

In the summer of 1980, which bridged high school and college for me, I worked my first real job in a place called Pet Nosh, a mom-and-pop pet food and supply shop located in the Little Neck section of Queens. It was owned and operated by my older brother and a neighbor named Rich. As part of Pet Nosh’s business plan, the first few years encouraged home deliveries from Queens to Manhattan to the Bronx. One boss man ran the retail store while the other was out and about on the highways and byways generating additional cash flow.

When one-half of the aforementioned pair vacationed during their first summer in business, the as-yet-eighteen-year-old me was left in charge of the store. I'll admit the pay wasn’t especially good, because the Pet Nosh boys weren’t quite awash in capital back then. And, besides, the whole thing was pretty exciting. It was a real adventure being part of a family-oriented business attempting to beat the odds and make a go of it. This was the American dream personified.

I'll not soon forget Rich's encouraging words to an anxious and pretty shy kid that summer a long time ago. “You should be paying me for the experience you will be getting,” he said. At the time, I considered his remark a self-serving volley from a notorious miser. But lo and behold, Rich was right after all, although I do believe that even a teenager—and, in this instance, a relative—ought to be paid a fair wage for his respective toils. The man’s larger point was nonetheless on the mark.

Getting thrown into the shark-infested retail-help swimming hole without a life raft, as I was at the time, was an education for sure. I was compelled to do many things I had never done before, and had no place to hide, either. Servicing the sometimes impatient, frequently demanding, and occasionally very weird and even creepy public at large imparts one life lesson after another. It's a dynamic and unpredictable laboratory. For starters, it requires ample doses of patience and understanding.

Life on the retail frontlines can be simultaneously exciting and harrowing. It should be said that most shoppers just show up to satisfy their needs, pay their tabs, and are on their merry way. They seek no attention and desire, above all else, a certain anonymity. However, a distinct minority could best be described as consumer terrorists, the men and women who make retailers' lives a holy hell. Countless times I arrived home from a day at Pet Nosh physically exhausted—we carted around lots of cases of cat food and bags of dog food—and emotionally drained, too. Encounters with certain customers of ours—the bad apples in the barrel—could be at once mind-altering and downright depressing. It seems there are more than a handful of folks walking the streets with troubled lives and tortured psyches who aren’t content to check their psychological baggage at the retailer’s doorstep.

I was merely a kid behind a counter. But I got a crash course in what could best be described as the multi-hued nature of humanity—the good, the bad, and the ugly. While I wouldn’t advocate paying your employer for the privilege, it is an experience money cannot buy.

(Photo from the personal collection of Nicholas Nigro)

Friday, September 24, 2010

No Dogma in this Fight

On more than one occasion, my elderly aunt has told me that my grandfather—from the mountain town of Castelmezzano, Italy—held the church in utter contempt. So as to maintain its absolute hegemony in village affairs big and small, he felt church leaders intentionally and aggressively kept the populace blissfully ignorant of so many things. His posture was at odds with my very pious grandmother, who recited the rosary every single day of her life.

I always found it interesting that my aunt—a God-fearing, faithful church-goer—recounted this tale of her father’s independence, and penchant to tell it like it is, with genuine pride. I suspect that my grandfather was really on to something. Okay, times have changed. I don't call home an impoverished enclave in the rocky Dolomiti Lucane during World War I and the depths of the Spanish flu. In the present-day Information Age, it’s rather more difficult to choreograph and enforce such blanket ignorance, but, in the big picture, the church would obviously prefer you didn’t think for yourself in matters of faith. It's the nature of the beast.

Recently, I encountered still another story of the Catholic Church’s hemorrhaging flock, and its miserable track record of connecting with younger people. This is a familiar tune that I’ve been hearing since boyhoood. And, for the record, I attended Catholic institutions from grammar school through college, and have no qualms about the quality of the education I received, nor did I ever feel a heavy hand of religious indoctrination. But church doctrine, standing all by its lonesome, doesn’t exactly pass the smell test.

Cardinal Spellman High School in the Bronx, which I attended thirty years ago, annually held what were called "Parish Days." On these set-aside afternoons, priests from the various parishes throughout the borough would meet with their teenage parishioners at the school. They were always advertised as freewheeling give-and-takes—a chance for us to pose questions to our parish priests and, hopefully, develop a rapport with them. Let's just say they never lived up to their billings. My Kingsbridge parish's monsignor assumed the job as ringleader one year. And a student posed this question to the young priest who had tagged along with him: “How come you always stop kids from leaving Mass right after Holy Communion, but not the adults?” Visibly rattled, he replied, “I can’t answer that.” The monsignor quickly stepped in to rescue his hapless underling. “I can,” the always-stern and generally unpleasant church elder said. He explained that it was a matter of maturity. We weren’t yet old enough to make such an important decision.

Herein lies the enlightening case in point. If a priest can't handle a softball question, I doubt very much he could tackle a tough one. Some years later in a different setting, another priest from the parish was asked, “Why does God permit so much suffering?” His response was not far removed from this: “He allows other people to suffer so you can appreciate how good you have it.” Come on, fellas, if you want more business, you’ve got to do better than this.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Garden of Paradise

From the late 1950s through October of 1971, a rather expansive and diverse garden bloomed on the northwest corner of West 231st Street and Tibbett Avenue in the Kingsbridge section of the Bronx. My grandfather—and eventually my father—planted it in concert with a few locals. There were fruit trees (fig, peach, and apple), vegetables (tomatoes, peppers, and eggplants), and plenty of herbs (parsley, basil, and oregano). Marigolds, begonias, and sunflowers, to name just a few, added complementary colors to this vast field of green in a borough of mostly brick and asphalt. And courtesy of a makeshift well that tapped into Tibbetts Brook, which flowed undaunted beneath several feet of city landfill, the place never went dry. Employing a fifty-gallon drum with its bottom cut out, my grandfather knew exactly how to dig such a thing and make it work. These old timers from the old country knew how to do all sorts of things.

This sprawling "victory garden" actually sprang to life on somebody else’s property—land that was up for sale. A local realtor gave my grandfather and company the green light to plant on it with one proviso: keep the place neat and clean. This sort of informal handshake wouldn't and couldn’t possibly cut it today. In essence, the garden’s days were numbered from the outset. Its demise could have come at any moment, without warning, and it subsequently did. Still, we somehow assumed it would endure forever. It was so much a part our lives—a neighborhood fixture. Big parties were regularly thrown in the garden during summertime holidays and on weekends, while games of horseshoes were regularly played on a makeshift horseshoe pit. The conscientious caretakers of this piece of earth not only converted a vacant parcel of urban terra firma into an oasis of green for more than a decade, but they also drank a brewery’s worth of beer within its confines.

When, in the name of progress, the garden was plowed under in 1971, it was a body blow to an awful lot of people, including the nine-year-old me. Written by neighbors, a short obituary even appeared in the local paper, the Riverdale Press. It was headlined: “Bulldozers Plow Under Garden of Paradise…Last Kingsbridge Farm.”

As I’ve grown older, I’ve come to appreciate the abiding garden ambiance even more. The mere fact that it survived for as long as it did, relatively undisturbed during the tumultuous 1960s, is remarkable in and of itself. Only a patchwork fence surrounded the place. And, too, empty lot after empty lot in the area were being developed.

I have mostly piecemeal memories of the garden and some pictures. But the photographers back then weren’t especially interested in posterity. They weren’t, for example, zeroing in on the well, the garden’s underground water source, nor were they snapping shots of the various shacks that were haphazardly constructed to accommodate tools, seeds, and such. In retrospect, these were all rather incredible things in a Bronx neighborhood.

On occasion, certain odors resurrect memories of the old garden. Smell memory. A combination of high summertime humidity, tomato plants, and the scent of marigolds do the trick every time. Talk about atmosphere! What I wouldn’t give to chow down on a couple of hot dogs and sample a few cold ones at a weekend barbecue amidst this leafy, aromatic sea of Bronx green, an oasis that is no more and will never be seen again. The bulldozers did indeed plow under a garden of paradise.

(Photo from the personal collection of Nicholas Nigro)

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

I Love the 1980s...or Do I?

There’s something very special  to me about the 1980s. I was a spry, callow fellow back then—an innocent college grad with, as they say, my whole life ahead of me. Surely, this was the time to boldly go somewhere…anywhere.

Fast-forward a quarter of a century. Once upon a time, I was listening to 1980s pop music on New York City's local radio stations and then, presto, it’s now. How on earth did that happen? The 1980s were a time when the Twin Towers tranquilly loomed in lower Manhattan; a time before snowballing technology and job outsourcing; a time before laptops, cell phones, and iPods wholly occupied the masses. Culturally speaking at least, there is no denying the 1980s were a less complicated time. Personally, this decade found me on life’s launching pad—ten, nine, eight, seven—but I didn't quite blast off.

I suspect feelings of missed opportunities, of entirely too many wasted days and nights, is why I often hark back to this decade, the one where The Equalizer strutted his stuff every week. It is why certain 1980s pop songs strike such resounding, on-key chords with me. I am taken to, in one real sense, vastly simpler times. You know, when so, so, so many things seemed possible—I wouldn’t dare say all things. When, at least, there was no sense of urgency and those awful sensations of time imminently running out. Ah…to be young again…in the 1980s.

But now, courtesy of YouTube, and the ever-advancing technologies that weren't around in those bygone days, I return to the 1980s when I am so inclined. I regularly resurrect the sights and sounds of that optimistic decade. It was a great time to be alive. But I suppose a fair case could be made that it wasn’t especially great for me. I really love the 1980s…or do I?

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Are You Smarter Than a Fifth Grader?

Not very long ago I attended the funeral service of a man who surpassed the century mark—quite an achievement. He was an extraordinarily talented and accomplished man in life—an artist, musician, and engineer. At his Mass of Christian burial, the local priest made passing mention of his impressive life resume, but it was pretty much a rerun of past services I have attended for decidedly different people.

Because he rarely attended church during the living years, the officiating priest didn’t personally know the guest of honor. He therefore received talking points from the decedent’s family, plugged them into a one-size-fits-all eulogy, and presto! Being in my late forties now, I don’t appreciate being treated like a fifth grader. From my adult perspective, these bon voyages are often inanely unsophisticated, with priests envisioning such silly scenarios as the deceased meeting his dead wife in heaven. In the case of this 100-year-old man, she naturally greeted him with the burning question, “What took you so long?” 

I think we merit better send-offs than this. Religious dogma, with its simplistic certainty, withers in the head winds of an unfathomable universe. Ironically, this unfathomable quality alone is enough to make a case for intelligent design of some sort. It's at least a spiritual foundation to build upon. So why not expound on this enduring mystery, which is really and truly beyond human comprehension? You know: why we live, why we die, and the reason for it all? Being told that when I shuffle off this mortal coil I’ll be hooking up with my dead relations doesn’t exactly make me feel warm and fuzzy all over. Imagine renting a banquet hall for a family tree that could wend its way back to the Cro-Magnons.

Men and women of the cloth, come clean: There’s a whole lot you don’t know. And I think you know that, because I believe that you are smarter than fifth graders (most of you anyway). Furnish the former living with farewells they deserve—with words befitting their unique, mystifying, and incredibly brief journeys here on the third rock from the sun.

Friday, September 17, 2010

Walking Papers

A friend of mine recently lent me a book. It was authored by his doctor’s son, Francesco Clark, and called Walking Papers—a memoir of a young man paralyzed from the neck down in a freak swimming pool accident seven years ago. He was only twenty-four-years-old when it happened. Flash forward to the present and Clark's defied the odds. Although, admittedly, he’s got a long, long way to go, he's made monumental progress far beyond the original doomsayer medical prognosis that he would never breathe without a respirator or ever move from his bed.

To make a very long story short, Clark’s dogged determination to skirt the health bureaucracy’s rock-bottom expectations and money-matters-most-of-all approach to medicine made all the difference in the world. With the help of his amazingly supportive family, he is in a far different place than his initial life sentence decreed. Clark had what would be considered real “good insurance,” too. Yet, there were various points in his convalescence when his physical therapy was no longer covered. And, as you can imagine, his grave circumstances necessitated intensive therapy for as far as the eye can see. Clark was told point-blank that he was deluding himself with any wild dreams of progress beyond wiggling the tips of his fingers. In other words, it was time for him to “get on with his life” and accept his sorry fate as final and irreversible.

While Francesco Clark is still paralyzed these many years later, he nonetheless is markedly less so than seven years ago. He has every intention, too, of walking again, and is living proof that the spinal chord can regenerate. With the help of his family’s wherewithal—which sadly is not available to majority of the population—he’s undergone an experimental stem cell operation. His unfailing efforts and utter unwillingness to accept the prevailing doom and gloom scenario of the medical consensus now finds him working a computer on his own. He's also started a skin-care business called Clark’s Botanicals. Not inconsiderable achievements!

My friend actually lent me Walking Papers because he thought I could identify with the book’s author. Sure, I had my medical moment, lost a part of my leg, but I’m hardly paralyzed. I have, by and large, fully returned to doing what I was doing before, albeit with the help of my trusty friend, the C-Leg. And, yes, I’ll concede that my life is a wee bit different from what it was. But, really, it’s not all that bad. And, I know, some people find that hard to believe. I’m not complaining and seek no sympathy. I certainly can identify with Clark in one respect—the very low expectations of the medical establishment. Upon my discharge from the hospital four years ago, the occupational therapist who visited my apartment was fixated on the fact that I had to climb a couple of stairs to get into it. I needed to move to a place with ramps accessible for a wheelchair—and fast!

Well, I am happy to report that a few months after this professional's grim harping about my future, I bid adieu to my wheelchair, which I hardly used anyway. In fact, when I first received my prosthetic (not the computerized C-Leg, by the way), I was informed that I would very soon be fitted with a pair of wrist canes. That is, after I felt comfortable enough to dispense with my training wheels—my walker.

No way was I going to be seen in public with those hideous devices. Heaven forbid! Almost immediately, I walked with my prosthetic and a simple cane. And I lived happily ever after. My prosthetist told me that walking on one is “all about confidence.” Permitting even a whiff of fear to wend its way into my subconscious could send me to the ground in a heartbeat. And so it is with life in general, I suspect.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Finger-licking Good Times

With its rigorous restaurant and food-related inspections—and now letter grading campaign—I cannot help but feel the New York City Department of Health goes too far sometimes. Its rules and regulations are, without question, excessive and punitive, particularly to struggling small businesses, I remember decidedly less regulated times.

Let me turn back the clock to 1976 and visit the old neighborhood: Kingsbridge in the Bronx.  Every Sunday morning after Mass at St. John’s Church, it was the tradition of an awful lot of us in the area to call on Pat Mitchell’s Irish Food Center near the northwest corner of Kingsbridge Avenue and West 231st Street. Above all else, Sunday mornings meant fresh donuts delivered from the Willow Sunny Bakery in various trays, including makeshift beer box trays, and, if memory serves, one especially large one nearer the floor than the counter top. The latter accommodated the heavily powdered sugar mini-jelly donuts, crullers, and crumb buns, while the former contained young fan favorites: frosted chocolate and vanilla donuts.

I suspect the contemporary health department bureaucracy would be less than keen on this retail arrangement. For starters, the donuts were completely exposed to the store's hustle and bustle and, I will concede, the place wasn’t noted for its cleanliness. With open mouths and assorted body odors, men, women, and children alike crammed into tiny Pat Mitchell's after Mass and jostled one another in their pursuit of donuts and fresh rolls—a recipe for contamination.

One Sunday, I recall handing several frosted chocolate donuts from an aforementioned beer box tray to a neighborhood kid working behind the counter. He grabbed hold of the donuts with his two bare hands. Just like that—from my bare hands, which weren’t likely the cleanest, to his. Yes, the same hands that had been conducting numerous transactions that morning, including taking customers' money and making change for them. Evidently, there were no disposable plastic gloves around back then. In fact, this teenage employee of Pat Mitchell's even left his fingerprints in the frosting upon dropping them into a paper bag—no wax paper for me. He then did something that some people might consider beyond the pale. Even from my youthful perspective of very high tolerance for inappropriate behaviors, this closing act at Pat Mitchell's took a healthy bite out of my Sunday morning breakfast. Just before he took my money, he licked the chocolate frosting off his fingers. Next! While the times were slightly less sanitary than today, they were nonetheless finger-licking good.

(Photo from the personal collection of Nicholas Nigro)

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Why Not In the Living Years?

The human species is a peculiar breed. From all that I have observed in my little corner of the world, and in my own life and times, earthlings typically assign extraordinary value to attending wakes and funerals, but not especially high value in visiting, and spending quality time with the dearly departed during the all-important living years.

So many of us drop what we are doing, and sometimes travel great distances, to pay our respects to the grieving families of old friends and relatives, many of whom we haven’t seen in a dog’s age, or even longer than that. And quite often it’s a real friend from the past reposing in that pine box, or a close relation from days gone by. We can't, therefore, miss these celebrations of lives lived—these fond farewells—for anything in the world.

But, may I humbly pose this question: Where the heck have you been in the last ten, twenty, and thirty years? Come hell or high water, you can make it to a wake or funeral service, but you just couldn't find the time, or generate sufficient desire, to call upon the genuine article over the last quarter of a century.

Okay, by all means, check out those easels scattered about the hallowed rooms of the funeral parlors—complex lifetimes reduced to cheery photo storyboards thrown together in a couple of days at best. Then kneel before the formaldehyde-filled Madame Tussauds wax figures of those you remembered as flesh and blood. That’s all well and good.

Really, though, you could have visited these stiffs a time or two in the not-too-distant past. Yes, I know you must attend these wakes or funeral services, lest you get on somebody’s shit list. We are a wacky bunch with wacky priorities. But if there is a moral to this story, it’s this: If you know someone whom you would absolutely attend his or her funeral, maybe now’s the time to organize a get-together, or at least place a phone call. Stay in touch when it actually counts for something. The Last Picture Show can wait.

Saturday, September 4, 2010

East Side Story

While traversing the lower east side of Manhattan on this sunny but very windy first day of the Labor Day weekend, I was foremost struck by its general seediness—stretches of grunge and malodor commingling in an unsightly mishmash. It’s no doubt a few notches more habitable than it was in its storied past. For this area that I now trod hosted European immigrants en masse in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. Millions of people lived in vastly overcrowded, filthy, and ramshackle tenement houses—hardscrabble first experiences for countless people in the land of opportunity.

Fortunately, I was in New York City, where discoveries and unexpected gems lurk around so many corners in so many neighborhoods. One encounter in particular added a little color to the mostly gray surroundings that I walked—a candy store called Economy Candy on Rivingston Street. While I didn’t purchase anything, I nonetheless traveled through time to the halcyon days of my youth—of bubble gum cigars and Sugar Daddies. In fact, many candy brands were here that I’d long since forgotten about, or thought had been consigned to the dustbin of history, including Bit-O-Honey, Turkish Taffy, C Howard’s Scented Gum, Candy Buttons, Charleston Chews, Charms, Chuckles, Double Bubble Gum, Gold Mine bubble gum sacks, Mallo Cups, Marshmallow Cones, Mary Janes, Milk Duds, Necco wafers, Nik-L-Nips, Pixie Stix, Pop Rocks, and Razzles.

If I were to place any of the aforementioned confectioneries in my mouth today, God knows what would would happen. I suspect these enchanting ghosts from my past would do a real number on me. All the chewing and sucking in my adult mouth would yank the fillings out of my teeth, break a few of them along the way, and give me a major sour stomach, too. I just can't abide heavy concentrations of processed sugar anymore.

One footnote concerning the Economy Candy stroll down memory lane: Bubble gum cigarettes and chocolate cigarettes are available there. Remember them. We put these faux weeds in our innocent mouths, blew, and white puffs of powdered sugar spewed out, simulating the genuine article: cigarette smoke. I thought political correctness had done away with these candies for all time. Hope Mayor Mike Bloomberg doesn't find out about this.