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.