Saturday, December 31, 2011

A New Year...a New Focus?

In the fledgling days of the New Year, 1973, Sister Therese went up and down the rows of students in her fifth-grade religion class, asking each of us to name our favorite Christmas present. I remember telling her, “walkie-talkies,” only because she repeated what I had said, slowly and syllabically, as if walkie-talkies were, maybe, instruments of the devil or, more likely, something completely unfamiliar to her.

At the top of my Christmas list, 1972, were walkie-talkies, and when old St. Nick didn’t deliver the goods, I looked to a New Year’s Eve miracle as my last best hope. The ten-year-old me prayed that the walkie-talkies gift idea had been passed on to my godmother, who turned up on New Year’s Eve every year—an annual tradition—and actually bought me real presents. She was both a generous and kindly woman, and her husband was an incredibly nice man, too—born in Germany with a thick German accent. He couldn’t be my godfather because he wasn’t Catholic, which I thought was silly then as a little boy and even sillier now. He should have been my godfather. Two years later, though, he was gone. A freak accident, and an even more freakish blood clot, took his life at the age of forty-two. Both a good man and a New Year’s Eve tradition ended without fair warning.

Since that time—almost four decades ago—I’ve found New Year’s Eve more depressing than not. As a kid, it underscored that Christmas was over and, worse than that, Christmas vacation was nearing an end, too. There was nothing more disheartening than returning to school after a Christmas vacation. What was there to look forward to anyway? I know what—a long stretch of school days in the bitterly cold depths of wintertime.

So, another year is gone and I am a year closer to the end than the beginning. This is, in fact, the essence of the New Year. But then again, it is also—as this far-sighted manager I once knew at a place I once worked said—“a New Year, a New Focus.” Perhaps he was on to something there! Happy New Year!

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Christmas Eve in My Home Town

Only seconds ago, I heard "the first lady of song" Kate Smith belting out Christmas Eve in My Home Town on one of my cable's Music Choice stations. While my personal "Christmas Eve in My Home Town" of the Bronx memories weren't nearly as bucolic or as syrupy special, they faithfully adhered to a venerable tradition—one that merits a mention and maybe even a song of its own someday.

For me, Christmas Eve has forever been rooted in the Italian’s “Feast of the Seven Fishes” dinner—assorted fish dishes served alongside spaghetti with garlic and olive oil (aglio e olio)—although I don’t think we've ever quite made it to the seven-fish mark. When my paternal grandmother was the culinary impresario of this evening, the fish were, without exception, baccalà (salted cod fish), calamari (squid), eels, and shrimp. She came from a mountain town called Castelmezzano in Southern Italy, where fish of any kind were rare birds indeed. Because it was salted to death, baccalà was the only fish product this impoverished sliver of geography—sans electricity and refrigeration—knew, with the one exception being fresh-water minnows of some kind that ran in the mountain streams after heavy rains and melting winter snows.

Ironically, my grandmother didn’t much like fish. Outside of Christmas Eve dinner, the only fish I ever remember her cooking were fried scallops, and not very often at that. Because they maintained somewhat more appeal to me than did eels and squid, I had long wished these rarely prepared scallops of hers would be added to the holiday menu. But, in the big picture, the specific fishes really didn’t matter. The one-night-a-year tradition trumped all else—even taste. My grandmother's spaghetti alone was always ace and enough for me. So what if the eels and squid were a far cry from roast beef at the Ritz.

I suppose what has long been unique about these Christmas Eve feeds of ours is that they consisted of fishy things few among us would—or even could for that matter—order in a restaurant. My fishmonger friend, and a longtime neighbor of mine, stocks and sells eels only at this time of year. Why is that? Foodies, I guess, just aren’t clamoring for eel appetizers, but then that’s okay. I have sampled eels through the years and they've typically been quasi-edible, creamy, and surprisingly bland. However, they've always been extremely fishy to touch. Still, I’ve watched relations of mine attack the scant meat on these slithering and bony creatures of the sea like they would spareribs.

Flash forward to the new millennium and fish cakes, fillet of sole, and—at long last—scallops, too, have been added to our Christmas Eve tradition. Without question, these are more palatable and benign fish dishes with appeal to a wider audience. Somehow, though, the Christmas Eves of yesteryear—with my grandmother doing the cooking—tasted a whole lot better to me.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

A Christmas in New York Story

As I exited the subway at 66th Street and Lincoln Center on this very cold morning, classy Christmas decor surrounded me. Strolling south and then east to Columbus Circle and the southern entrance to Central Park, I laid eyes on more than a few humongous Christmas trees in corporate giants’ lobbies—holiday eye candy for sure.

When I reached my destination, I noticed the park’s entrance was glutted with peddlers of interesting things. There were shoppers aplenty in this tented holiday village, including many tourists. They seem enamored most of all with snapping pictures across busy and crowded sidewalks, and taking a very long time in getting it right. I was meeting someone at this location and had much too much time to kill. In the meantime, I didn’t browse these temporary, make-shift shops because that would have violated two critical life rules of mine: I don’t browse when I don’t intend to buy anything, and I don’t wade through crowds under any circumstances, and especially when I don’t intend on buying anything.

I couldn’t help but notice, too, that intermingled in all of this urban festiveness was a decidedly less appealing side of Christmas in New York. Perhaps I’m painting with a broad brush here, but tourist-dependent “special rides” of any kind seem to be operated by a smarmy lot. Observing unctuous pitchmen trying to ensnare tourists to ride in their hansom cabs, bicycle carts, and tour buses was painful. Their boorishness stood in sharp contrast with the local wealthy sophisticates just passing through with their Starbucks coffees, or whatever it is that outfit calls its five-dollar cups of headache-inducing sludge.

The piece-de-résistance of this Christmas in New York Story is the strange place I ended up in. When I finally met the individual whom I was patiently waiting for, he informed me that he needed to get something to eat in order to take a high blood pressure medication. The irony was not lost on him that we were headed to McDonald’s to fulfill this task. We patronized a McCafé actually. I hadn’t been to a McDonald’s of any name in quite a while, and for a very good reason. I have long been leery of this international hamburger conglomerate, which seems incapable of serving its staple hamburgers with nothing on them. It always seemed to me that, logically, preparing plain hamburgers would be the quintessential piece of cake in the burger business...but not at McDonald’s.

Anyway, I ordered a six-piece Chicken McNugget, which was the last main course I recall sampling at a McDonald’s, with French fries and a drink—and the bill totaled $8.35! I was remiss, I guess, in not searching hard enough for a special deal. But, for starters, I found reading the menu board difficult because it was both crammed with stuff and required 20/10 vision to decipher. I didn’t have 20/10 vision in my youth, and certainly don’t have it now. In the final analysis, I think my Chicken McNuggets cost me more than .60 a piece. This is my Christmas in New York Story, 2011.

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Christmas, Ronco, and Me

Visualize this: a diverse assortment of Ronco merchandise adorning endcaps at all Woolworth-Woolco stores, Osco drugs, and other fine retailers. Add to this snapshot from the past, Ronco television commercials running 24/7 in the weeks leading up to Christmas, featuring everything from Mr. Microphone to the Egg Scrambler to the Smokeless Ashtray. Actually, I would be hard-pressed to conjure up another company in all of human history that had something for everyone on Christmas lists. Ronco rocked.

Fast forward more than three decades and Ronco, sadly, is in the ash heap of entrepreneurial history, as are many of the exclusive stores that sold its merchandise. And so we are left with only fond Ronco-inspired Christmas memories. I purchased a few Ronco products in my day, but one in particular stands out—the Bottle and Jar Cutter. For some reason, I had become fixated on the idea of getting this thing for my father and introducing him to a brand new and exciting hobby. He had been heavily into decoupage in the early 1970s and a prolific plaque maker. Many of his creations, in fact, endure in people’s homes to this day. But by the late 1970s, this one-time hobby of his had run its course, and I reasoned he needed another creative venue to occupy his free time. I honestly thought he might get into bottle and jar cutting. I imagined him turning all kinds of empty glass bottles and jars into candy dishes, decorative bowls, and terrariums. So many things came in glass bottles and jars back then—everything from sodas to cooking oils to peanut butters—and, too, there was no such thing as recycling. So, I thought turning a lot of empty bottles and jars into something cool and special made perfect sense.

To make a long story short, the Ronco Bottle and Jar Cutter was a monumental bust as a Christmas gift. For some reason, it was met with outright hostility. And there is a lesson here concerning the art of gift giving, wasting money, and all of that. But my biggest regret regarding the Ronco Bottle and Jar Cutter is that I didn’t just take it back and hold on to it in its original box. At least then I could have it on display on my end table now, or possibly even have sold it on eBay ten years ago for a tidy profit. But then again, I was an idealistic youth who merely wanted my father to create a trailblazing line of late-1970s recession glass.

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

A Christmas Rowe-Manse

Twenty years ago on the afternoon of December 24th, I plunked a blank tape into my radio-cassette-turntable combo player, which, by the way, I still have and occasionally use. Employing the finest technology of the time, I arbitrarily taped a radio program on WPAT “Easy 93,” and repeated this act several more times during the ensuing thirty-six hours. Beginning on Christmas Eve at noontime and lasting throughout the entire Christmas day, this AM and FM easy-listening radio station in the New York City metropolitan area furnished listeners with—yes—thirty-six of hours of commercial-free Christmas music every year. My intentions were to record this music for posterity. I reasoned that it would be nice to have tapes of this diverse Christmas music selection to play during times other than Christmas Eve and Christmas Day. I sensed, too, that WPAT, its easy-listening format, and annual Christmas presentation just might not be around forever. And, as it turned out, I was right.

The station dubbed this longtime holiday tradition of theirs “The Spirit of Christmas,” and featured mostly instrumental versions of familiar seasonal favorites, and some completely unfamiliar. During these yearly music marathons, a deejay’s voice would periodically intone between tracks, “Our gift to you…thirty-six hours of your favorite holiday sounds on WPAT…Easy 93.” And mere words cannot do justice to the bona fide easiness of Easy 93. The only other occasional, and very brief, interruptions to this Christmas music extravaganza involved the station thanking its very generous sponsors—those who made “The Spirit of Christmas” possible.

Well, with the holiday season officially underway, I thought it high time for me to dust off these twenty-year-old cassette tapes of mine and start listening to them. Yes, I still play tapes but, sadly, a couple of my WPAT “Spirit of Christmas” recordings have self-destructed with the passage of time. Still, when I heard the dulcet tones of a WPAT announcer thanking, among others, Mr. Carmen Maggio of the “Romance Emporium” in Clifton, New Jersey for making the 1991 edition of “The Spirit of Christmas” possible—something I had heard hundreds of times while listening to these tapes—I paused and typed in the man's name in a Google search whim. Foremost, I wondered if the “Romance Emporium” was still in business. I had for a very long time assumed it was an independent  Victoria's Secret kind of place, and was sort of surprised it took me so many years to wonder enough about this business to check it out.

Sadly, the “Romance Emporium” is no more. Foremost, my search unearthed Mr. Maggio’s 2010 obituary and, it seems, I had gotten it wrong. It wasn’t the “Romance Emporium” after all, but the “Rowe-Manse Emporium,” a neat play on words. It also wasn't a Victoria's Secret-like outfit, but a specialty department store. The place fell by the wayside in the early aughts, a casualty of both big-box discount retailers, the Internet, and ever-changing tastes, I suppose. Rowe-Manse Emporium-type stores are pretty hard to come by nowadays, and Christmas shopping is indisputably less interesting and less exciting without them around. Once upon a time these little big retailers exhibited both heart and incredible uniqueness, something that's in short supply in the aisles of Wal-Mart and Target.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

The Very Powerful Tool Meets the Squat Thrust

Some guy I know pretty well recently remarked how the “mind is a very powerful tool.” Now, call me cynical if you must, but I didn’t consider this particular proclamation anything close to profound. It was not one of those moments when I took a step back and exclaimed, “Yeah…yeah…man, that’s powerful.” Nevertheless, as I was talking the streets of the Bronx today, this very powerful tool of mine saw something that reminded him of something else…and the floodgates opened.

It all happened so innocently. After purchasing powdered iced-tea mix and Drain-o at a Rite Aid drug store—and receiving a three-foot cashier's receipt along the way—I stepped out into the mean streets and immediately spotted a man working on his car. Something was clearly amiss, so he decided to have a look-see underneath the vehicle. It was what he did next, in bringing his entire body down to the asphalt grounds, that greased the skids of that very powerful tool of a mine. Somehow his movements resurrected the squat thrust in my brain—a high school gym exercise I performed faithfully from 1976 through 1980. One, by the way, I have never executed since. In fact, I have never even heard the phrase "squat thrust" mentioned. Funny, but in the high school years, I always thought the exercise’s moniker a bit odd, and maybe even slightly suggestive of things beyond physical fitness, but then that was then and this is now.

Anyway, as I continued on my journey away from Rite Aid and their mostly high prices and uber-long receipts, the squat-thrust exercise, courtesy of that very powerful tool, was indelibly stamped on my brain. I heard now a certain gym teacher’s voice in my head counting out that infernal exercise: one, two, three,, two, three,, two, three, four. Everything it seemed in high school physical education was four-count. But it was that final four-count of what were usually ten repetitions of an exercise, including the squat thrust, which was particularly special and memorable to me. It went something like this: one, two, three,, two, three,, two, three, four...until the culmination—that number ten—one, two, three, FOOUUURRR! Galootish and ear piercing, the mettle of a gym teacher. That mind…that very powerful tool…can it ever take us places.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

The Very Strange Family and Joe Mullins, Too

While still in the throes of mourning a shuttered diner and the only bona fide sacred place I’ve ever known, I find it therapeutic to unearth memories from this former consecrated ground. Today, permit me to resurrect the "Very Strange Family" and a classic nine-to-five drunkard nicknamed "Joe Mullins," who were regular patrons of the diner. I’d venture to say the cross-section of human beings who ate here were a microcosm of the wider world, or—at the very least—the wider Bronx.

It’s hard to do justice with mere words to the Very Strange Family, who enjoyed repasts alongside me in the diner for several years. You really had to see them live and in color to appreciate their unique brand of weirdness. The Very Strange Family consisted of a husband and wife with a son, Peter, who could have been an older teenager, or maybe a young man in his twenties. His greasy demeanor and darting eyes, however, made establishing an approximate age problematic.

At some point in time, the Very Strange Family entered the diner with a bundle of joy—an infant and fledgling member of the brood. Perhaps the toddler’s mother was not Peter's. But, really, none of this minutia really mattered, because what bound the family together was their strangeness. Ma, Pa, and Peter seemed perpetually on edge. Their eyes were always flitting—up and down, back and forth—and they immediately sensed when foreign eyes were looking their way. The Very Strange Family jumped the shark for me when the woman of the house decided to change her newborn’s dirty diaper on a table a couple of booths away. Eventually, the amateur detective in me came to the conclusion they were either members of organized crime—low-level weaselly types operating on the fringes—or in a witness protection program and fearing members of the mob. It had to be one or the other.

Conversely, Joe Mullins was easy enough to figure out. He worked in some nine-to-five bureaucratic job. His credentials—the identification pass hanging around his neck—told us as much. And, each night, when he stepped off the Number 7 bus on his way home, he’d patronize the liquor store that was conveniently a stone’s throw away from the bus stop. Carrying that familiar black liquor store plastic bag, with the latticework insignia on it, Mullins would then cross the street and enter the diner.

A friend of mine is responsible for christening him “Joe Mullins”—that wasn’t his real name—because he just seemed like a “Joe Mullins” to him. From our vantage point, Mullins seemed like a harmless sort. But as a rule, he was ill at ease as he laid down his bag full of spirits and ordered his supper, which always consisted of the most boring and basic kind of sandwiches. His whiskey bottles invariably made audible clanking sounds, prompting meaningful glances all around from staff to customers and from customers to staff. The hapless Mullins once ordered “a ham and white on a Swiss.” For some reason, the diner brass just didn’t warm to the man, even though he was a repeat customer—you could see it in their faces and sense it in their body language. In the best diner milieus—like in life itself—everything is visceral. While Joe Mullins was always unfailingly polite, even meek, instinctively he just never was accepted into the diner fraternity.

Sunday, November 6, 2011

The Number 1 Looks Just Like You

When I checked the MTA website first thing yesterday morning, I was positively ecstatic. The Number 1 train was running through my neck of the woods without interruption. For the last year or so, it seems weekend service of this venerable subway line has been screwed over big time due to seemingly endless track work and station repairs. And so, Saturday began on a high note.

But when I requested a six-dollar addition to my MetroCard, the clerk at my local subway station couldn’t read it. He scanned it, scanned it again, and nothing. He even tried to bring it back to life with a spritz of some fluid and a Handi Wipe, but nothing. No problem, I’ll take a new card, I said. This very agreeable and helpful transit employee then informed me of the available options vis-à-vis my unreadable MetroCard. I told him I didn’t think there was much monetary value left on it anyway, so it didn’t really matter to me. In other words, I had no intention of taking the card to the transit authority’s version of a higher authority—wherever and whatever that was. I briefly considered trashing this old and unreadable card on the spot, but for some reason decided against it and put it back in my pocket.

After paying my fare with a new and workable six-dollar card, I walked to the far end of this Northwest Bronx subway station. A southbound train heading into Manhattan pulled in a few minutes later. I entered the first car that, when push comes to shove, is frequently the least crowded one for a trip's duration. This very special car is often spared the urban onslaught, even when trains are packed like the proverbial sardines in a can.

No such luck yesterday morning. The lead car, too, filled up rather quickly, and so there were a lot of my fellow New Yorkers and tourists, too, hovering over and sitting very close to me for much of the ride. A man with not the best hygiene in the world sat right beside me. He exuded not quite the forlorn homeless man smell, which subway riders are accustomed to, but a level or two below that on the odor-ometer. In other words, I wasn’t literally gagging, and his ill aroma didn’t make me nauseous. But I’d say it was one of those fine-line moments. That is, I didn't dare dwell too much on the olfactory nerves and what they were absorbing, because nauseousness wasn't out of the question.

Sitting directly across from me from the start of my journey was a businesswoman. She initially plopped down and placed her laptop bag on the seat beside her. This was okay at the get-go, when the subway car was mostly empty, but when it filled up to standing room only, she made no effort to place her laptop bag under the seat and let somebody sit down next to her. She actually pulled out a book during the subway ride and started reading. The title had something to do with making a small fortune—and rather effortlessly at that. No doubt, I surmised, at the expense of those standing above and around her who had been denied a seat. Oh, yeah, and then there was this father and young son tag-team combo. The subway milieu as a classroom setting for parent teaching child about the wonders of urban life in is pretty commonplace. Occasionally, they are precious moments; often they are embarrassing and intrusive. If we were living in the 1970s, I would describe this particular father and son's interplay as “Annoying City!” If the Herman Cain lookalike's facial expressions were any indicator, he seemed to be on my wavelength. But then he might have been more annoyed by the dead ringer for Madonna, who was constantly blowing her runny nose from 168th Street to Times Square—six miles or so—and was sitting nearer to him than me.

To end on an upbeat note: the MetroCard I very nearly tossed away…well, I tried it one more time on my trip home…and it not only scanned, but had a fare left on it and then some. There must be some New Age meaning to all of this…but what pray tell?

Friday, November 4, 2011

Operation Pig's Foot

When I learned the news this week concerning the consumption of black licorice and a certain drug therein called glycyrrhizin—which the FDA says lowers potassium levels that in turn can cause abnormal heart rhythms, high blood pressure, edema, and congestive heart failure—I heaved a huge sigh of relief. I don’t like black licorice. But interestingly enough, when I have consumed black licorice in the past, it always gave me a headache. I didn’t, though, realize I was a couple of pieces away from a coronary thrombosis.

Happily, from where I sit, red licorice was not included in this indictment. For it was red licorice that I used to buy as a penny candy in Pat Mitchell’s Irish Food Center in the old neighborhood during that simpler snapshot in time known as the 1970s. I recall Pat’s brother Mike thumbing through and pulling apart individual pieces from a super-sized pack of Twizzler’s red licorice. Ten red licorice strips cost a dime—a bargain if ever there was one. And it didn’t matter to we wide-eyed youths that Mike had been both making sandwiches and change all day long without washing his hands. I can’t ever recall getting sick from a piece of Pat Mitchell’s red licorice.

Funny, though, how this contemporary black licorice story resurrected memories of a little man named Mike from Pat Mitchell’s. He was a pleasant enough leprechaun. My friends and I had nicknamed him “Eh,” because, you see, he calculated customer tabs in his head with lots of expressed “ums” and “ehs” before arriving at a sum total. When the math became a little too involved, Mike—and all the Pat Mitchell employees for that matter—added up figures on paper bags. Plastic grocery bags didn’t yet exist.

In fact, my brother and I used to imitate Mike in his thick but agreeable Irish brogue saying this line: “Three papers…um…eh…dollar-five.” Ah...those were the days...when the Sunday New York Daily News cost thirty-five cents. Store clerk “Eh” even became part of a comic strip I created as a teen. I dubbed him “Eugene Herbert Mitchell,” turning his ubiquitous “eh” mutterings into initials. And, finally, while remembering “Eh,” I would be remiss if I didn’t recount “Operation Pig’s Foot.”

On the countertop at Pat Mitchell’s were jars containing pigs’ feet, which I always found supremely revolting for a variety of reasons. My father used to eat them—or whatever it is one did with them. Perhaps "gnaw on them" is a more apt description. Anyway, I had never witnessed a single person through the years purchase a single pig’s foot…and wondered what a transaction would look like. And so “Operation Pig’s Foot” was hatched. I went into Pat Mitchell’s with a tape recorder concealed in a paper bag and ordered a pig’s foot. This was the technology of the time—no Flip cams or iPhones. Mike, aka “Eh,” placed a piece of wax paper down on the counter, opened the jar, and reached into the cloudy brine with his bare hand. He plucked a healthy sized pig’s foot out and, dripping brine all over the place, laid it on the wax paper and wrapped it up tight. The recording for posterity of “Operation Pigs Foot” sounded mostly like a crinkling bag. But I had at long last witnessed the incredible: a pig’s foot purchase. And pity the poor boy or girl who came in after me to buy red licorice strips.

Sunday, October 30, 2011

First Prize Relinquished

On the eve of Halloween, I can’t help but hark back to a special memory of the day. You see, I won first prize for the best costume in my fourth grade class. I wore a clown mask, a red wool hat, and the heavy blue corduroy shirt my father always wore when he painted the rooms of our apartment and other things. It was a colorful outfit for sure, but these were colorful times—the 1970s. I can’t see anyone wearing that heavy corduroy shirt today, but then I can’t see why anyone would have worn it back then, except as a painting shirt to absorb all that splatter, or as part of a Halloween costume.

But here’s the interesting note about this Halloween costume contest in St. John’s grammar school in Kingsbridge. The boy who came in second place to me dressed up as a woman. He went the whole nine yards, too, with a fashionable dress and high heels—not some Woolworth-Woolco $2.47 mature woman costume. I’ll call him the K-man and concede that he really and truly merited first prize. But then, it was a democratic vote—at least that’s what we were all led to believe. In retrospect, considering the time and the school, perhaps there was some chicanery behind the scenes and the ballot box was tampered with in some way. However, I don't think so.

Whatever the real truth is, I would like on this Halloween—some three decades later—to at last award the K-man first prize, because—really—he so richly deserved it, not only for the costume itself, but for his audacity to wear it in front of his peers. After all, how old were we then? Ten? My only other personal memory of the K-man involves a certain request of his. He asked me if I would be his straight man in an effort to cheer up a classmate of ours named Karen who, for some reason I don't recall, was bereft and weeping uncontrollably.

Anyway, the K-man, with me at his side—two fourth graders—said to Karen, “Nicholas is ridiculous,” emphasizing the syllabic rhyme. I remember, too, he employed various other rhymes and plays on words to cheer her up, which is laudatory in and of itself, but particularly so considering his young age. While I wouldn't call it a rousing success, I think the K-man’s ten-year-old therapy actually worked. But, if nothing else, it’s testament to his heart and soul, and I am proud to have been his Charlie McCarthy dummy for one brief shining moment a long time ago. I sincerely hope the fifty-something K-man has put this incredible empathy of his to good use on a much grander scale. And, as for Karen, I hope the “Nicholas is ridiculous” moment made a difference—even if only a tiny one. Whatever…this Halloween first prize…transferred finally to the K-man…is, I know, justice delayed but at long last served.

Friday, October 28, 2011

Mourning and Memories

While still mourning the loss of the only true holy ground I’ve known in this life—a very special local diner—I couldn’t help but hark back to days past…and to diner clientele who have left the neighborhood and, in some cases, this mortal coil as well.

In this culinary cathedral, my regular dinner companions and I had nicknames for certain regulars—men and women whom we didn’t know by name but nonetheless needed to identify on occasion—and I suppose some of them had nicknames for us. And, if they did, more power to them! There was, for instance, the “Mean Old Man,” whom I saw collapse on a sidewalk not too far from the diner during a winter snowstorm. I don’t know what happened to him after that night, but I never saw him again in the diner, or walking the streets of the neighborhood. And whatever happened to those two old sisters who always dined together? At least I think they were sisters. A funny thing about them…they never seemed to appreciate that fellow Homo sapiens existed on the same terra firma as they did. Thus, their richly earned “Glower Champions” moniker. So, when they suddenly fell off the face of the earth, I surmised they had moved to Florida and warmer climes to live out their remaining years. Are they in heaven now? Actuarial tables would suggest the answer is very likely yes.

And then there was this fellow named Lenny. Here was an example of actually knowing the man’s real first name, but running with a nickname instead. What always struck us about Lenny was that he never—ever—paid for his lunch or his dinner. A little diner detective work on our parts concluded he had, perhaps, won a bet of some sort from the owner, who was not averse to gambling. This could at least explain the free meals. But, apparently, there was nothing in the terms of this bet that compelled the diner owner to treat him civilly while he was collecting his winnings. And so, this middle-aged, hangdog bachelor named Lenny had to endure more than a little teasing from time to time. Asked about his love life at one point, Lenny pathetically said something to the effect that he was dating “several people,” which set himself up for a major slap down from the individual indebted to him, who roared, “You jerk-off!” And from that moment forward, Lenny was no longer Lenny to us, but “Jerk-off” forevermore. Eventually, Jerk-off, too, disappeared from the diner scene—perhaps when the terms of the bet were fulfilled—and was last seen on the neighborhood streets looking pretty bad. Jerk-off was obviously very ill and, it seemed, not long for this earth.

I remember, too, very old and very loud Mark, who had a most interesting indentation on his skull, which I christened a “skin-dentation." He very abruptly vanished from sight and sound. Heaven? Probably. And then, of course, there was the ubiquitous Seymour, a taxi service guy. He was diagnosed with lung cancer while at the top of his game on the diner stage. Trooper that he was, he continued to appear during his chemo treatments, looking—sadly—increasingly worse for wear with each passing day.

Call it seen through the lens of a favorite diner.

Saturday, October 22, 2011

Diner Elegy

It’s been three weeks now since the sun, which held sway over my neighborhood solar system for a very long time, quietly passed from the scene. As I walked the surrounding streets this morning, where a small diner—the most special of greasy spoons—endured for some thirty-five years, I conceived this analogy. You see, every time I was in the area—alone or with family members or friends—the diner, even when not eating there, was the epicenter. It was a comforting constant in a sea of change.

For twenty years, I patronized this place. In fact, it had a different name for part of the time, and a very brief span when somebody else took over—the man responsible for the name change. But imagine, if you will, a diner in New York City run—more or less—by the same handful of people for decades. The owner of the place, who shouted a greeting when you entered, cooked your food, and then said good-bye was there for almost every single minute the place was open, which was seven days a week. The diner closed only on Christmas Day and New Year’s Day.

Others who worked there were equally familiar and longstanding employees, including a waiter who would see you coming from across the street and have a piping hot cup of coffee on the table before you even walked in the door. And the bottomless cup of coffee was truly bottomless here from beginning to end, even when business was down. And when business was especially brisk, you never felt rushed. You could sit there all day, if that is what you desired, because that’s how regular customers were treated.

The reasons my all-time favorite diner, which will never again be replicated, shut down are multifold. It’s the kind of place that existed in New York City in the past, but cannot anymore. So much of what made New York great—what made it a wholly unique metropolis—just can’t happen in this day and age. The city now is both insanely expensive and intensely bureaucratic. It caters—above all else— to wealthy landlords and to wealth itself.

But, still, it’s the memories that endure of this extraordinary diner milieu, which are over-powering in so many ways I cannot chronicle here. Good food, good times, and all of those characters on both sides of the counter, including me. Along the way, a healthy share of bad things happened to one and all. But at least we had the diner—and the good people who ran it—as a life comfort station of sorts, which is irreplaceable.

(Photo from the personal collection of Nicholas Nigro)

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

King for a Day

The richest 1% of Americans own 40% of the nation’s wealth; the least well-off 80%, a mere 7%. This disparity in income is the widest since the eve of the Great Depression. So, what exactly is wrong with this picture? Well, a local gourmet market, which practically everybody raves about in the neighborhood—mostly folks among the unwashed 80%, by the way—was charging $7 for a basket of strawberries today. And I could cite a few more examples…but I won’t.

I’d rather bask in the glow—of my one brief shining moment—when I was among that illustrious 1%. A couple of weeks ago, I deposited a $150 check in a local branch of a really, really big bank. To make a long story short, I needed to check my bank balance. I had to see if that aforementioned $150 check had cleared, and whether some checks I had written had been cashed. I feared there might very well be a close call or two between deposits made and checks paid out, and very possibly a humiliating $32 overdraft charge—which I believe is the current fee—for me coming up an inch short and not beating the clearance clock.

Anyway, when the statement of my last five transactions appeared on the ATM machine screen before me, my $150 deposit was listed as $15,000,000—that’s, if you're keeping score, five more zeroes. My available balance also had five more zeroes attached to it. I became jelly-legged while poring over this astonishing visual. And, no, I didn’t go into the bank proper and withdraw a couple of million dollars—and not because it was closed for the day. In retrospect, I should have at least printed out a copy of my statement.

I felt, for some strange reason, guilty—like I had done something wrong—as I scurried out of the bank’s ATM alcove a very rich man. I returned the next morning to see if I had been relegated to pauper. I had indeed. Okay, so I didn’t have to go into the bank and inform them the $15,000,0000 was all a mistake…but not my mistake. I always wondered whether the bank would have given me a reward for my honesty. You know…like no overdraft fees for a year.

Saturday, October 15, 2011

Food for Thought...Thought for Food

When folks from the old neighborhood gather together—in the cozy confines of virtual reality—to share their memories of all that transpired once upon a time, a heaping helping of food for thought is quite often the by-product. In fact, I’ve learned that more than a few former neighbors of mine, who worked in local eateries a long time ago, did some rather unsanitary, and occasionally downright disgusting things. For starters, they dropped food on floors, put it back on plates, and served it to customers.

That teenagers working in not especially well paying and largely unpleasant work environments will do such things is hardly surprising. My family rarely dined out while I was a boy. Foremost, there wasn’t sufficient surplus disposable income to make a habit of it—with five mouths to feed—and, too, it was considered positively sacrilege to waste money by paying through the nose for meals, when there were competent cooks at-the-ready on the home front. With respect to restaurants and take-out joints, from Chinese to fast-food burgers to pizza places, it was drummed into us all: “You don’t know what goes on behind the scenes and in their kitchens!” I must admit this homespun wisdom had a certain bite to it—food for thought then as well as now.

My one beef with this self-evident truism was that home kitchens, and the cooks therein, sometimes were as a bad, or even worse, in the Sanitary Department than even the nastiest restaurant transgressions reported on by this cross-section of primary sources—on the memory boards—and, too, from my first-hand experiences.

Okay, so my favorite pizza guy for so many years cleaned out his oven with the very same mop he used on the floors of his shop. In his defense, he claimed the extreme heat of the oven destroyed any and all germs and bacteria. I had heard about this mopping thing while I was a regular patron of the place. I just chose to accept my pizza guy's science. We had roaches in our Bronx apartment kitchen back in the 1960s and 1970s—a lot of them as a matter of fact. They were ubiquitous in the old neighborhood. Mice even found their way through a gas pipe into our kitchen stove—where my mother stored cereals and snacks—on one occasion. We never went hungry, though, and the kitchen stayed open. No city bureaucrat showed up to close it down.

It’s really all relative, I suppose. Fifteen or so years ago, my brother and I were in our all-time favorite diner for breakfast. And when he poured his maple syrup, from the small pitcher brought to him, onto three slices of French toast, several dead roaches peacefully floated atop them. They had evidently gone for an evening swim in the sugary Shangri-La, we surmised, and, alas, drowned in the process. It was a shocker for sure—we were briefly stunned and in a state of suspended animation—but since the place meant so much to us, it didn’t much matter in the bigger picture. We returned for another day—for a second act—and the syrupy-special roaches became part and parcel of a richer lore.

The moral of this story—if there is one—is that we make all kinds of allowances in this thing called life. I’ve always found it interesting that so many people in the kitchens of home sweet home pass judgment on eateries for both their real and, sometimes imagined, lack of cleanliness, but choose never to look in their own mirrors and their own pantries. All I can say is that with the NYC Health Department unleashed as it is today—inspecting with abandon and dispensing A, B, and C grades to food businesses one and all—I can’t help but wonder how many of my favorite cooks’ kitchens in homes and apartments, and countless others throughout the five boroughs of New York, would pass muster. I suspect many of them would be shut down for being downright unsanitary and outright health hazards.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Finding Ecstasy in the Strangest Places

Almost thirty years ago, which is somewhat alarming to entertain, I experienced one brief shining moment of pure, unadulterated bliss. You see, my team, the New York Mets, had been down and out for several years, a laughingstock in Major League Baseball, and, worst of all, playing second banana to George Steinbrenner’s Yankees—the quintessential Wall Street sports organization then as well as now. The parsimonious and increasingly incompetent Mets’ upper-management of the mid- and late-1970s had, in essence, killed the goose that laid the golden egg. So, when the old ownership at long last unloaded the team to individuals who intended on restoring the Mets to their former pluck, we fans heaved a sigh of relief and dreamed of better days ahead.

Show us, don’t tell us, was all that we asked of the new ownership. And in the winter of 1982, they did just that by trading for, and then signing to an incredibly lucrative long-term contract for its day, a slugger named George Foster—the last man in to have hit fifty or more home runs in either the American or National League.

When Foster accomplished this feat in 1977, it was a bona fide achievement. All one had to do was look at the guy. He was razor-thin but incredibly muscular with Popeye forearms. Foster’s Herculean deed was realized without performance-enhancing drugs and that ubiquitous, modern-day fat head so familiar on the mega-millionaire celebrities who play today’s game. It was a time when such grand successes weren’t even remotely suspect and records actually meant something.

For Met fans, the Foster trade and his subsequent signing to a long-term deal were big—really big. It was a moment of true ecstasy for me. But, alas, as is the case with moments of ecstasy in general, they are always just that—moments. In other words, they don’t last forever. Some, in fact, last for at least a measurable span of time, but most go up in smoke before you ever know what hit you—no pun intended. In the case of George Foster, the ecstasy moment was short-lived to say the least. It lasted until he took the field in a Mets’ uniform—or, to be fair, not very long after that. After a wretched 1982 season, and the sense that this fellow had not only seen better days as an athlete, but didn’t much care, the ecstasy moment seemed like a bad dream.

But what I wouldn’t give to feel the way I felt on that day some three decades ago—at the precise moment when I learned my beloved Mets had signed an All-Star slugger for a whopping sum of money. Sure, he would fast disappoint us all. Ecstasy, nevertheless, can be found in the strangest places. So, enjoy it wherever you find it...and while you can...because nothing lasts forever…nothing.

(Photo from the personal collection of Nicholas Nigro)

Sunday, October 9, 2011

A Very First Time

Although I don’t have a “bucket list” per se, I accomplished one item that—had I decided to make one—would very definitely have be on it. Courtesy of an annoying twist of circumstances, I found myself yesterday morning in the long mezzanine area of the Manhattan A train’s 14th Street subway station. Were it not for the Number 1 train’s seemingly infinite weekend track work—or, in this case, station makeovers, which compelled me to walk more than a mile to get the subway, instead of the usual few blocks—I wouldn’t have been there. Yes, I could have taken a free shuttle bus, or even a local bus, but since it was such a fine October morning, I opted for the leisurely stroll and the exercise.

It was about 10:30 when I found myself in this sprawling “mezzanine,” a word I typically associate with sports stadiums. While I’ve walked these subterranean thoroughfares before and spied various closed doors along the way, they invariably seem marked as “employee only” entrances for transit workers. But, lo and behold, this time I detected an apparent civilian exiting one of those doors, which prompted me to more closely examine the placard attached to it. The sign indicated he had emerged from a public bathroom—one that would, of course, be locked tight during the late-night hours.

While I had to go from my morning coffee, I really could have held it in for the immediate future. But then, I thought, where would I go when my time had come—the Barnes & Noble at Union Square? No, certainly not yesterday—a Saturday on a Columbus Day weekend with Wall Street protesters in the area undoubtedly heeding nature’s call there. So, I decided to take my chances with this subway bathroom. While I don’t recall ever frequenting one—since most of them were padlocked shut, with reputations that, even when open for business, suggested looking elsewhere—I nonetheless took the plunge.

Happily, I was all by my lonesome when I entered this realm of the unknown and accomplished what I set out to do. Still, I must admit, the subway bathroom milieu didn’t disappoint. It reeked pretty badly and looked appropriately grungy—but it wasn’t completely hellish. And while the urinal flushed readily, it didn’t flush away any of the urine stench wafting in the rarefied air, which evidently was ingrained in the floor and wall tiles. But at least now I can say: Been there and done that…another New York experience for this New Yorker in the books.

Thursday, October 6, 2011

Hairy Junk Mail

An increasingly rare piece of junk mail arrived in my mailbox today—the old-fashioned kind delivered by a flesh and blood human being that can be handled, and eventually recycled and picked up by another flesh and blood human being on recycling day. It was a mass mailing from a hair replacement center—one that I’m familiar with, by the way, only because I’ve passed by it many times in my travels. I also knew a client of the place.

While I concede to qualifying as bald bait—their target audience—I did not request information on this business’s services. So, whether I landed on the mailing list as somebody’s not particularly funny joke, or some strange commercial coincidence, I couldn’t help but hark back to that acquaintance of mine who patronized this very hairpiece establishment. It seems that—when he put his John Hancock on the dotted line—he essentially took out a long-term mortgage on his scalp.

Fast balding on top at a relatively young age, this fellow looked perfectly fine when he went he went for broke on that fateful day. I recall the moment that, in a matter of a few hours, he went from being predominantly bald to having a luxurious head of hair. It was a peculiar metamorphosis to say the least. He promptly informed all who would listen of the satin pillows he now had to rest his weary head on—something about the unwanted effects of static—and the special shampoo lotions he had to use, which not surprisingly cost a pretty penny. This was all adding up to real money and real fast, I thought. Then, of course, there were the recurring readjustments—the $100 plus haircuts he had to endure every month. And, on top of all that, what remained of his real hair was still falling out. So, more and more of the horsehair—or whatever the hair replacement center employed—had to be added to the new weave.

Maybe it’s just me, but it all seemed like an awful lot to go through—even beyond the expense—to, at the end of the day, look like a guy wearing a hairpiece. This particular Manhattan outfit churns out a certain kind of rug, which I’ve seen on many others. Once upon a time a pizza place owner not too far away had a balding top, and he made a similar pact with the hair devil. The first thing a friend of mine, who hadn’t seen him in a while, said was: “When did the pizza guy get the rug?”

A favorite teacher of mine in high school—who simultaneously taught a senior year religion course and was dramatically thinning on top—once said of his hair: “I can’t cling to it.” I know there was some broader and connecting life point vis-à-vis the course’s subject matter, which I’ve long since forgotten after thirty years, but I’ve never lost sight of the big picture. No satin pillows, strange elixirs for the head, and regular haircuts that cost more than the gas and electric bill combined—and in perpetuity to boot—for me. I’d just assume not go broke in an effort to look like a pizza guy with bad hair. And, while I'm rooting for the post office to survive: Please, Mr. Hair Man, remove me from your mailing list.

Friday, September 30, 2011

Memories of Class Warfare

While toiling in a retail pet food and supplies business approximately two decades ago, I found myself the acting cashier—and just everything else—one afternoon, which was par for the course. Since the business in question was a friend and family member partnership, the daily operations were typically informal. Often, whoever was on duty wore many hats, played many roles, and nothing was beneath him or her, including the scrubbing of anxious canines’ diarrhea off the floor, which occurred from time to time in our pet-friendly store.

On this lazy summer afternoon, a woman came to counter with a basketful of cat food cans. She told me how many she had in there, and then went off to gather a few more things. I began bagging her cans and—as was my routine—counted them. I always placed a certain number in each bag—and no more—that was my bag, if you will. She evidently told me she had three cases worth, or some such thing. I counted a couple of cans fewer than her tally. I didn’t tell her and, admittedly, I was remiss in not informing her that her count was off. Still, when all was said and done, I charged her the correct amount, which would have been more had I accepted her erroneous calculation as the gospel truth.

Anyway, several days later, the store received a letter from this woman. She was peeved. Her home address was somewhere on Manhattan’s Central Park West. Apparently, this lady had means. In her missive, she bitterly complained about the cashier who charged her the correct amount, and not more based on her faulty arithmetic. She wrote, “He certainly would have told me if I had more cans in my basket, instead of fewer cans.”

Rich, the headcheese, posted the letter on his back office bulletin board. It was his policy to answer every missive he received from aggrieved clientele (generally speaking a good policy). Even though he had gotten all the pertinent details from me, he was nonetheless going to respond to this lady’s letter.

What particularly irked me about this whole affair was that this evidently well-off woman with a premium view of Central Park was, in essence, attempting to get a cashier—whom she presumed was making minimum wage or close to it—chastised or, better yet, terminated. She was making trouble for the little guy. For what reason:r charging her the right amount, and not more money based on her addition gaffe.

As the days turned into a week and then a couple, I noticed the letter still pinned to Rich’s bulletin board. I had had enough and yanked it off. It is in my archives somewhere now, and that Upper West Side denizen never did get a response, nor did she get that cashier fired. Now that was class warfare.

(Photo from the personal collection of Nicholas Nigro)

Thursday, September 29, 2011

Memories...and Unsolved Mysteries

When I was young boy of about six or seven years of age, I accompanied my parents to a party thrown in my father’s honor in the Marble Hill section of Manhattan, just a few blocks away from our home: Kingsbridge in the Bronx. I thought at some point in time the neighborhood had been ceded to the Bronx. While the street signs in Marble Hill in the late 1960s were Manhattan yellow and not Bronx blue, they eventually adopted the Bronx hue. Anyway, that discussion is another kettle of fish entirely.

As I recall, Mr. and Mrs. L—the hosts of this get-together—were genial enough. The man of the house once ran a successful bar business in the big city, and his Misses—I subsequently learned as an adult—was both his second wife and his niece. That, too, is another kettle of fish entirely. Anyway, reminiscences from such a tender age are typically confined to disjointed snippets from a wide-eyed kid’s unique perspective—of moments good and bad; important and unimportant.

As I saw it from my six- or seven-year-old eyes, the L’s house was located in an incredibly atmospheric slice of geography. It lorded over a piece of real estate everybody back then knew as "Shanty Town," a neighborhood with rows of old houses and some shacks, too—relics from a hardscrabble past. Some of Shanty Town’s residents raised chickens in coops, and even farm animals, in their front and backyards. But I was also a guest in a home not too far from a busy railroad, the Harlem River Ship Canal, and the elevated subway tracks of the Number 1 train. There was an intoxicating ambiance surrounding the L’s humble abode, with sounds emanating from nearby trains and boats. But beyond these rather general memories of welcome sensory sensations, I can recall only one concrete detail surrounding this Marble Hill experience of mine.

Mrs. L, the lady of the house, spoke in a throaty voice from—I’ve since concluded—one too many Marlboro's and an unquenchable thirst for the grape. She was pleasant enough on the surface, but—from my little boy’s view of the world—there was something of the night about her. She was quite petite, always wore bright red lipstick, and looked by day a little too much like the Joker from Batman—as played by Cesar Romero—for me to fully warm to her. By night, it got somewhat worse, and she resembled a vampire, which I know is rather hip now, but it wasn’t back then.

Here now is my only definitive memory of being in that house more than forty years ago. Mrs. L very graciously gave the youngsters on the scene free run of the place. She asked only one thing of us—that we keep our distance from an automobile tire flatly resting atop the stairs in her two-story home. I admit to being fascinated by this car tire in a spot where car tires weren’t usually found.

Flash forward three decades and I recounted this peculiar memory, so etched in mind, to a friend of mine. He said, “That’s probably where she kept her stash.” While it does make some sense that a person might hide his or her bottles of whiskey in a car tire—if secrecy is the name of the game—it seems rather illogical to do so in a tire sitting at the top of a staircase, where the logical question passersby would pose is: “What’s that car tire doing there?” But that's as good an explanation as any that I've heard before or since. Memories…and unsolved mysteries.

(Photo from the personal collection of Nicholas Nigro)

Sunday, September 25, 2011

"You Folks Farmers?"

A quarter of a century or so ago, I attended a breakfast buffet. It was in a farm building of some kind somewhere on the outskirts of Bangor, Pennsylvania. Accompanying me on this culinary adventure were my maternal grandmother, her long-time neighbor, and my two brothers. While the Bangor denizens were accustomed to these local get-togethers on farms and in churches and volunteer firehouses, the Bronx boys were not.

Such neighborly events in our neck of the woods were very rare. When they did occur, they bore little resemblance to the breakfasts and potluck suppers in the countryside. In fact, the one and only all-you-can-eat breakfast that I attended in my lifetime living in the big city served powdered eggs, which would be absolutely sacrilege in pastoral venues.

If memory serves, one also got a whole lot more bang for the buck out in the country, which is not really surprising. So what if I was repulsed by scrapple—a regional favorite and Spam-like product that consists of a mushy concoction of pork scraps—there was so much more to choose from, everything from pancakes to cornbread to home fries. We not only enjoyed the food but the hospitality, too, which was considerably more unfettered and more abundant in supply than what we were accustomed to on the mean streets of the Bronx.

As I sat down at a long lunch table with my breakfast plate brimming with bacon, eggs, sausage, and toast, a wizened old gentleman nearby turned to me and asked in his distinctive twang, “You folks farmers?” I informed him we weren’t and he smiled, returning to the business at hand—chomping down his hearty breakfast. This was the first and last time in my life that I was mistaken for a farmer. Just last week, though, somebody in a local diner thought I was a grease monkey from the nearby garage. I told him he must have me confused with someone else. He didn’t seem to believe me.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

An "Out of Sight" Blog

A current writing project of mine finds me revisiting my personal favorite decade: the 1970s. While researching my subject matter, I decided to reacquaint myself with the lingo of the time, considering that more than three decades have passed, and I am no longer a teenager uttering, “Be there or be square” and “Take a chill pill.” Well, actually, I don’t think I ever spoke either of those two phrases. I was way too square for that. However, I know for a fact that I branded some people “chumps,” who were definitely worthy of the label, and I may possibly have even said “later,” as I parted with friends a time or two, which is embarrassing to admit.

I found a 1970s lingo listing—you can unearth virtually everything on the Internet—and noticed that “Who cut the cheese?” made the cut, if you will. This intriguing query resurrected a memory of a grammar school religion class taught by a hipster priest—and a very likeable fellow from my parish, I should add. He interrupted a lecture of his with that very question: “Who cut the cheese?” He just knew how to endear himself to seventh graders living amidst the grooviest snapshot in time ever recorded in the annals of history. However, I didn’t appreciate his follow-up query: “Nick, are you gagging?” As I recall, I wasn’t the guilty party. And as we know: Whoever smelt it dealt it.

Most of the 1970s slang on the list I remembered, even if I didn’t employ the majority of the cool jargon. “Far out” was John Denver’s thing. And I didn’t call cops “pigs” because I didn’t have a bone to pick with them and, too, Kojak was my favorite TV show. Even the “fuzz” was too pejorative for me. I may have said “fooey,” instead of “nonsense” at some point, and I’m certain I used the word “grody” to describe a variety of “disgusting” things in those days of yore. “Doofus,” well, I still like that word, and it is equally apropos in the twenty-first century, and I don’t plan on retiring it.

Yes, I recollect peers of mine being called “spaz” when they lacked athletic grace. And that’s really urban slang at its best, sounding like what it’s describing. I know some people said “you know” after many sentences in the 1970s when it was the hip thing to do. Now, some people say “you know” after many sentences when it’s not the hip thing to do. Many of the phrases that became the “rad” in the 1970s are hippie-inspired, and the hippies deserve their due for adding immeasurably to the English language. Wearing cool “threads” with no “bread” in their pockets had to be a real “bummer.” Do you catch my drift?

Saturday, September 17, 2011

Charting Cars in the Bronx

Once upon a time I charted cars on pieces of construction paper. It was in the mid-1970s that the teenage me plopped down on my front stoop, and sometimes at a front window, and recorded the manufacturers of the automobiles that passed by me. What an interesting boy I was. We knew car makes back then—be they Dodge Darts, Chevy Impalas, Buick Centuries, and most everything in between—because they were totally unique in appearance.

In the old neighborhood, we not only knew a whole lot more people than city folk know today, but we knew the specific kinds of cars they drove, too. Neighbors distinguished themselves with their choice of vehicles and couldn’t, therefore, come and go unnoticed. Now—with some notable exceptions, of course—what is parked along the streets, and in the area garages, look more or less the same, despite all of the amazing technological advances therein.

The colors of cars in the 1970s were also in sync with the fashions of the day in that groovy snapshot in time. Danny C drove a dark brown Ford LTD, and Cathy R, a pale yellow Volkswagen; Jack H had a sky-blue Plymouth Duster, and Jimmy S, a bright red AMC Rebel. There were people who drove gas-guzzling “boats,” as we called them back then. Arthur M Sr. parked a metallic gold-colored Olds Ninety Eight on the street that was the size of a stretch limousine. Others sought out economy cars that were at once cheap in price and fuel efficient in an age of increasingly high gas prices, and occasionally outright shortages, courtesy of an awful cartel that is equally awful today, although happily somewhat more impotent.

My father owned a 1959 Chevrolet Biscayne for fourteen years. It had an interior smell—a car-seat vinyl meets gassy residue kind of thing—that inspired carsickness, particularly without something called air conditioning. One member of the family, in fact, would puke his guts out at the mere thought of getting into the car—yards away from it—before any outing. In 1973, the Biscayne was at last retired, and the family rode in style in a second-hand Buick Skylark, purchased from a guy on the next block. We were agog riding in a vehicle with the creature comforts of this modern invention called air-conditioning. In 1983, somebody convinced my father to get with the program and purchase a Chevy Chevette, a car that drove so many “people happy” with its super-duper gas mileage. It had a stick shift, the back windows could only go down half way, and no air conditioning. Yes, it got great gas mileage, but we were a spoiled clan by then.

Oh, by the way, Chevrolet won the day in my car charting. There were some foreign cars around then, but they were foreign to most people. And I can’t help but think that most of us would be better off driving whatever the Chevy Chevette of today is—but with air conditioning—than the ubiquitous gas-guzzling behemoths that take up a lot of space on the street, pollute the air, and make us dependent on countries we’d rather not be dependent on and, too, who don’t like us very much.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

New York Really Is the City That Never Sleeps

This past Labor Day weekend—on an early Sunday morning—I noticed a meter maid walking around the neighborhood. Considering it was the day of the week that many New Yorkers call on their preferred houses of worship—and, too, that it was the "official end of summer" holiday—I thought it a very unusual time for a city employee to be roaming streets, checking up on parked cars’ registrations, and, of course, writing tickets. Perhaps the city fathers and mothers have the little guy and gal’s best interests at heart with this sort of thorough patrolling—after all, drivers should keep their automobiles’ registrations and car inspections up to date.

Forgive me, though, for being slightly cynical here. As part of my morning Internet ritual, I visit the website "EveryBlock" and search my zip code for local news items, which include the latest restaurant inspections in the area. It’s clear the city has both hired many more health inspectors and is making many more inspections of eateries, which is understandable considering rats and water bugs run amok on some of the richest real estate on the planet. However, some restaurants are being inspected every two to three months and racking up violation points that I presume are attached to considerable fines. While it’s a good thing that restaurants are being held to higher standards, forgive me—again—for being slightly cynical here.

Recently, I saw a man double park his car and get out to help a very elderly woman with her groceries as she exited a supermarket. He left his motor running and was only several yards away from his vehicle when a meter maid pounced and ticketed him. I believe this infraction comes attached to a $115 penalty nowadays. I know double-parking in overly congested metropolitan areas is a no-no, but once more: Forgive me for being slightly cynical here.

Is it possible the mayor and his dedicated bureaucratic army are foremost interested in adding money to the city’s coffers, even if it means fleecing the little people for more and more and more when they can least afford it? Perish the thought. What was I thinking? I know, of course, that he and his are looking out for me in the City That Doesn’t Sleep—just ask the meter maids and health inspectors.

Friday, September 2, 2011

Rocky's Road

I had a teacher in the sixth grade affectionately known as— courtesy of his surname—“Rocky.” The school year was 1973-74, and Rocky stood out from the pack in this parochial grammar school of mine for a host of reasons. For starters, there were very few men teaching in grades one through six back then. This, too, must have been his first teaching job. He was quite young and occasionally showed up for work on the disheveled and scruffy side, like he’d been out late the night before doing what some people do in the wee hours. And no, I don’t think he was moonlighting as a cab driver or a night watchman.

But there was something really right about Rocky, even if he didn’t always make time for the morning shave. Clear-eyed or bleary-eyed, it didn’t matter; he was the genuine article—a dedicated teacher. The school had its fair share of dedicated old school teachers, including Sister Camillus, who only a year before publicly humiliated me when I misspelled the word “paid” as “payed.” “Imagine a fifth grader who doesn’t know how to spell the word ‘paid’!” she bellowed in her less than dulcet tones. Rocky didn’t embarrass students in front of his or her peers over a spelling error. Private consultations were more his style. So, no, there was never an “Imagine a sixth grader who doesn’t know how to spell the word ‘paid’!” moment in Rocky’s classroom.

And Sister Camillus was also not the sort of educator to accompany her class to the park down the street after a late winter snowstorm. Rocky not only did, but commanded our attention at the park’s entrance. “Since this is probably going to be the last snowstorm of the season,” I recall him saying rather earnestly, “I thought we should assemble here to have our last…SNOWBALL FIGHT!” With these fighting words, Rocky proceeded to swipe snow off of a parked car’s front hood onto his momentarily startled students. Really, I just couldn’t see old Sister C initiating a snowball fight. Innocent as it all was, Rocky just couldn’t get away with throwing snow in the faces of eleven- and twelve-year-old boys and girls in the twenty-first century.

Rocky’s last hurrah involved a class trip to Bear Mountain State Park on the Hudson River Day Line, which back in the 1970s sailed north from Manhattan’s West Side. I remember only a few snippets from this trip. Foremost, I almost fell to my death—or so it seemed at the time—while mountain climbing, or whatever the peewee-equivalent of that is called. If my memory is correct, we went off with our friends—rather loosely supervised—to wherever we wanted to go, and were instructed only to return to the dock area at a prescribed time. Imagine a school trip like that today. I remember, too, a couple of kids passing around a lit pipe on the boat, which wasn’t burning tobacco. They were also brandishing assorted pills, which weren't Tylenols. Simpler times in the sixth grade of a Catholic grammar school when Richard Nixon was the president. I may have been rather innocent at the time, but it appeared some others were a lot less so.

Thanks to the sprawling Internet, and Rocky’s atypical last name, I tracked the man down in the virtual ether. He’s still a teacher. It’s been his life’s work. And, wow, he must be sixty by now. While there are likely no more snowball fights, or minimally supervised field trips, in Rocky’s profession today, it appears he’s adapted nicely to both teaching’s new world order and the world we live in.

Monday, August 29, 2011

A Parable: the Minister, Tree Branch, and Me

I share something in common with a certain man of the cloth. It seems we both reside in street-level bachelor pads in private homes on the same block. And that is the long and short of our common ground, I suspect. Everything else I know about this man is limited to our encounters—for lack of a better description—which have been numerous the past couple of years. When I see him in the early morning hours—presumably before he goes to work, if that is the right word—he’s always walking a very small dog, puffing on a cigarette, and sporting a Roman collar.

I have always assumed he is an Episcopal minister. Having experienced a Catholic upbringing and education, I just never knew a priest who lived in a basement apartment, which doesn’t mean such living arrangements are unprecedented. The priests in my past always called hearth and home a parish, or resided somewhere on the school grounds where they taught. But then again, a friend of mine worked with a Catholic priest in a Barnes & Noble store. The guy needed the money and had to both locate, and pay for out of his own pocket, his accommodations. These are hard times for all.

Anyway, today—post-Hurricane Irene day one—I was outside and picking up scattered debris, including a large tree branch that I dragged to the curbside. With my back unintentionally turned away from this approaching holy man, I heard him—quite uncharacteristically—say something. I swiveled around and momentarily considered asking, “You talkin’ to me?” As per the norm, however, he was staring straight ahead, cigarette in one hand, and dog leash in the other, fulfilling his morning ritual. I surmised he was speaking to his little canine friend, because I never saw a Bluetooth, or any comparable technological device, in his ear. This man is old school and, for that matter, pretty old.

But then I spied that the tree branch I had moved was jutting out a foot or so onto the sidewalk proper. Had I noticed this before, I would never have placed it in such a precarious position, and I immediately moved it out of harm’s way. I proceeded to do something of a double take at that point, realizing that this neighbor of mine, who always does his best not to make eye contact with anyone—and, by osmosis, speak to anybody—had indeed addressed me. In fact, as soon as I laid eyes on the branch partially on the sidewalk, my brain—without any prompting on my part—replayed the previous moment. Yes, this mystery servant of the Lord, whose holy threads no doubt reek of nicotine, had chided me. Considering that I was cleaning up a big mess, the scolding was both unnecessary and unappreciated.

Harking back to my boyhood, I was always turned off by the unpleasantness and sometimes-outright nastiness of a fair share of religious sorts. The more innocent and less cynical child quite often cuts to the chase. How could some of these men and women who purport to do God’s bidding and adhere to the teachings of Jesus of Nazareth be so disagreeable? I was never impressed with autocratic “good businessmen” known for running parishes with an iron fist and Wal-Mart bottom line efficiency. It seemed so incongruous to me then, just as it does to me now. I was literally both frightened and horrified by the fact that a Sister Lorraine character actually passed nun muster and was permitted to teach children. She sported both a habit and a burgeoning mustache some four decades ago when she threw my friend Johnny down to the rock-hard pavement at the altar’s edge in church. It was during First Holy Communion practice, and he received this body slam courtesy of a chewed up hot lunch straw in his shirt pocket. There’s something wrong with this picture.

Happily, Sister Lorraine was gone the following year—from my school at least. Where she ended up after that, I don’t know. Hopefully, she joined the Teamsters, or maybe was discovered by a talent scout for the WWF. While I am the antithesis of a cheerleader on the God Squad, if you will, I still prefer religious folk to be godly—hopeless romantic that I remain—even in adulthood.

Sunday, August 21, 2011

Just Say Poop River

According to a newspaper story I just read, several candidates aspiring for the highest office in the land want to gut—if not entirely disembowel—the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). They claim the agency’s myriad strictures are—in the big picture—job killers. One would-be president more or less believes businesses can regulate themselves vis-à-vis pollutants—just as big banks and investment houses, I suppose, are looking out for, first and foremost, you and me.

When my father was a boy in the Morningside Heights section of Manhattan, the family and some friends would regularly hop on the Number 1 train during summertime for a short ride up to Inwood Hill Park. Upon their arrival, they would hike through the area’s primordial woodlands—on Manhattan Island still—to an off-the-beaten trail leading to a tiny snatch of sandy beach at the scenic confluence of the Harlem River Ship Canal and the Hudson River. The older generation of Italian men always brought their homemade wines along with them and placed the bottles in an icy cold freshwater spring, which trickled down through the hills. The Henry Hudson Bridge, opened in 1936, loomed like a colossus directly above this Shangri-La.

Provided one didn’t venture out too far, the waters off this obscure snippet of shoreline were shallow enough. My father vividly remembered these beach visits and—most of all—wading through waters awash in, among other things, human excrement, which frequently had to be pushed aside while frolicking in the drink. Granted, this couldn’t have been the healthiest of recreational activities, but it was the late 1930s and early 1940s, when raw sewerage was poured into the local waters.

Flash forward thirty years and I recall being at water’s edge in New York Harbor. The wafting breeze was a curious mix of sea salt and sewer, and flotsam in the Hudson was the rule. The cleanliness of the river in those days—in these parts—was a standard joke punch line. But a funny thing happened over the last three decades. The river’s gotten cleaner—dramatically so. There’s even talk of a public beach on Manhattan’s West Side. And not very far to the north of the city, Hudson River beaches are open for business.

The EPA was the brainchild of the Nixon Administration, circa 1970. And as for swimming in poop in the future, I think would be wise to Just Say No. We’ve been there and done that—and we’re not going back.

Friday, August 19, 2011

Signs of the Times

If I had to select one street barometer that reveals how tough times have become, I’d note the conspicuous increase in the numbers of men and women foraging through garbage cans and bags in search of discarded cans and bottles. Not too long ago in the scheme of things, there was a more predictable order to this pursuit of nickel deposits, with particular areas of the neighborhood considered conquered territory. That is, can and bottle hunters respected others’ turfs. But both this overall tranquility and general courtesy have fallen by the wayside.
A petite, antiquated Chinese woman used to have first dibs on the refuse tossed out by the building across the street from me. Once upon a time this venerable old lady patiently waited for the building's super to cart out the recyclable trash each week. For years, I handed over my deposit-worthy cans and bottles to her. The super christened her “my lady,” and asked only that she neatly close the bags she rummaged through, which she always did. On multiple occasions, this tiny spitfire exhibited real chutzpah, literally hissing at interlopers who dared trod her hard-won territory. She chided me in a sign language of sorts one time—I don’t think she spoke a word of English—for using brands that were being tossed back to her in the local Stop & Shop supermarket’s redeem machine. But this wretched economy—coupled with her super friend losing his position—conspired against her. She was driven away by a dog-eat-dog competition that is no longer willing to play by the former gentlemen’s and gentlewomen’s rules of street. Under the new world order, no turf is ceded to anyone or anybody.

Really, it seems that nothing is sacrosanct anymore. A ragtag army has replaced the little old lady who most certainly could. And they are unwilling to accept that curbside garbage belongs by right to one individual and only one individual. It’s every man and every woman for himself or herself. My can and bottle gal thus disappeared from sight and sound. For a brief spell, I turned over my loot to a pleasant elderly woman from the area who, very tragically, got killed by a drunken driver while on her rounds.

I am nonetheless happy to report that the little Chinese lady has resurfaced, older but apparently undaunted, even in these less forgiving times. I’ve spotted her on several occasions recently. It appears she has found other very fruitful locales to scavenge. Her shopping carts are always chock full of gargantuan black garbage bags brimming with cans and bottles. Somehow these sightings always remind me of the Grinch’s sleigh after he pillaged Whoville. This lady, who probably weighs no more than eighty pounds, and is well into her eighties, pushing an overflowing shopping cart up the steepest hill around in a place called Ewen Park, is downright surreal. But then again, we live in downright surreal times.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Cream Sam Summers

As a Bronx kid growing up in the 1960s and 1970s, I’d say that, generally speaking, parents were less concerned about their kids talking with strangers—and strange people as well—than are contemporary moms and dads. They didn’t automatically presume that every local oddball was a potential predator or axe murderer. So, we youngsters sometimes kibitzed with a few folks that—in retrospect—we might have been better off keeping our distance.

A family lived up the street from me that had been there for decades. Their home had considerably deteriorated with the passage of time. In fact, its ramshackle state was the nearest thing we had to a haunted house in the neighborhood. And the residents’ backstory was a horrific one to say the least, beginning with an alcoholic mother and father who physically and psychologically abused their two sons. While in a stupor, the father got run over by a train, and the mother thereafter became a recluse.

It was the youngest son whom the local kids got to know when he was a man in his early to mid-thirties, I’d guess. His given name was Mike, but known mostly as “Red,” because of his hair color no doubt. He also had a peculiar sub-nickname that endured for a spell, particularly among the younger set: “Cream Sam.” It seems that Red himself had coined the term, along with another, “Furter Sam,” which he claimed were real things. For all I know, he could have been talking about ice cream sandwiches and frankfurters.

Red, aka Cream Sam, was regarded as “simple,” but largely harmless by older neighbors familiar with his family history. During the Cream Sam Summers, we would sometimes ride our bicycles past his place, and if he was outside, stop by for a chat, knowing all the while that this mysterious mother figure lurked somewhere in the backdrop. I spotted her once out on the front porch. She was dressed in all black and ghostly pale, with a long shock of white hair styled like Grandmama Addams. I couldn’t have been more than ten years old at the time and, I will admit, the visual unnerved me.

One summer night, Red invited a bunch of us into his garage, which he had fixed up as a personal bedroom of sorts, while the living quarters above it fell into further disrepair along with his mother, who was still on the premises. Red said he had something really big to show us. It turned out to be a one hundred dollar bill, which was worth something back then, and not a piece of currency we laid eyes on very often. How he came to have this bill in his possession is in the unsolved mystery file alongside the true meaning of "Cream Sam."

Sitting on his stingray bicycle, my friend Frank snatched the bill from Red’s hand—an uncharacteristic act for him—and rode off into the night. With the bill raised high in the air, Frank pedaled furiously down the block and let out a few whoops and hollers for good measure. He returned it to Red after this brief exhibition. But the ordinarily genial Red was not amused and let us all know in no uncertain terms. Perhaps entering Cream Sam’s garage under the cover of night was unwise after all. Today’s more discerning parents might really be on to something.

After Red’s mother passed away several years later, the house was sold and he got an apartment not too far away. Huge pieces of the roof were missing, and the place had evidently no working plumbing for a very long time. For sure, it was a hardscrabble life for Red. His next-door neighbor on the block once suggested that we never again refer to Red as Red, but other colors like blue, yellow, and green when we encountered him on the street. I believe I said, “Hi, Purple” to him on one occasion. Still, Red will always be Cream Sam to me.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

The Same Non-Excuse

In my recent college alumni newspaper, I sadly learned that a professor of mine had passed away at the ripe old age of eighty-five. He taught philosophy. And while I wouldn’t rank him as a personal favorite of mine, or an inspirational figure in my young life, he deserves his due as a memorable character in my book.

I had originally taken a course called “Logic” with Professor O, which for some inexplicable reason was mandatory for business students back then. Really, it was the most illogical course I had ever sat through and was happy with my “C” grade. Always dressed in flannel shirts and high-water polyester slacks, I considered my instructor a classic higher-education eccentric. True, he was also somewhat haughty, as he mostly lectured to the ceiling tiles, but nonetheless had remarkable peripheral vision and somehow always noticed raised hands, even with his eyes glued to the heavens. But considering the heavy workload in other courses, his rambling approach, no reliance on a textbook (although we purchased one), and no homework assignments, were something of a welcome palliative. And so I took my chances with him again in an elective course called “Introduction to Philosophy.”

The icing on the cake for me was that it was offered in a twice-a-week package, rather than the general three days of fifty-five minute classes. Granted, they were at 2:30 in the afternoon and wouldn’t end until 4:15, but the two-day thing, and potential light workload, was worth the risk. It paid off in spades, and we weren’t even required to purchase a textbook this time. But herein lies the unforgettable qualities of Professor O. At that time of the school day, a one hour and forty-five minute lecture from a monotonous fellow on the tedious subject of philosophy was a Sominex recipe. Classroom sleepers were omnipresent. I remember looking around at my classmates and spotting countless glazed-over eyes, with some of my peers in the soundest of sleeps. I regularly fought off the urge, but there was one time where I could not account for twenty-five minutes of the day. Frightening. It was a Professor O blackout.

Then one day our professor was late for class. I doubt very much it was official school policy, but we students worked with a ten-minute rule. If one of our profs didn’t show up within that allotted time, we were free to go—and we did. Something or another brought me back to the scene of the crime, and I encountered Professor O coming down the hall. Thinking quickly on my feet for a college student, I played dumb and posed this question to him: “No class today?” He answered me with a long-winded account about how he was engaged in some uber-philosophical discussion with someone and how—before he knew it—he had completely lost track of the time.

“Why are you late?” he then asked, catching me off guard. There was no more quick thinking on my part as I stammered a reply of how I was, ipso facto, just late. Professor O then uttered the unforgettable line for which he has forever a warm place in my heart. “I guess we both have the same non-excuse,” he said. He also seemed genuinely peeved we had all run out on him like we did, and that now his carefully honed lesson plan was all screwed up. “You tell them…” he said—as if I would see “them” en masse—that he would have to accelerate and consolidate his remaining lectures to cover the requisite materials before the final exam. Most of his students would have been surprised to learn, I think, that he actually had a semester’s lesson plan, but, evidently, from where he sat staring at the ceiling, he did.

Finally, I am left with the image of Professor O entering the classroom in his patented rapid and detached sort of way, only to encounter a large coffee urn and several trays of donuts alongside his desk, left over from a previous something or another. Some college kid from across the hall looked in and, pointing to the donuts, asked, “Can I take one of them?” In his inimitable and erudite manner, Professor O replied, “They’re not mine to give.” The kid took that as a yes and grabbed one, stuffed it in his mouth, then a couple of more, and went on his merry way.