Friday, April 29, 2011

Life Imitating Bad Art

Sadly, I suspect we’ve reached the point where life no longer imitates art, but what passes for art nowadays. Exhibit A: Donald Trump. Described in a news piece as the “billionaire turned reality star,” he is now taken seriously by some as genuine presidential timber, and covered by an increasingly facile media that just can’t get enough of celebrity and colorful sound bites. By first throwing in with the so-called “Birthers” in clamoring for the official release of President Obama’s birth certificate, and then taking credit for it when it was, the billionaire turned reality star’s been ubiquitous on both the boob tube and YouTube. In the billionaire turned reality star’s brain, this series of events is further evidence of how he—and he alone—gets things done.

But obviously the billionaire turned reality star has more than the president’s birth certificate up his sleeve, and the media that hangs on his every word is there to report his every utterance. Yesterday, he called our leaders “stupid people,” and I will concede that he might be on to something here. A case could be made that some of them in fact are stupid, and some are stupider than others. But he also branded the Chinese “motherfuckers,” and said he’d straightaway slap a two percent tax on their imports. And, no doubt, the Saudi royal family is shivering in their sandals at the thought of the billionaire turned reality star becoming the 45th president of the United States and lecturing them: “You’re not going to raise that fucking [oil] price. You understand me!” Personally, I think the billionaire turned reality star should have his mouth washed out with one of those ever-shrinking bars of Irish Spring.

And, not surprisingly, there’s even more news on the billionaire turned reality star coming down the pike. It seems that he once proposed a 14.25 percent net worth tax on very wealthy Americans like himself. His 1999 plan, he estimated, would raise more than $5.7 trillion and entirely erase the National Debt, which he further reasoned would spur an unprecedented economic expansion. Fast forward twelve years and the National Debt is $14 trillion and growing. How now does the billionaire turned reality star expect to turn things around? No new taxes. It appears his solutions for economic growth and long-term prosperity involve telling a long list of foreign countries and their leadership they are a bunch of losers.

With Buckingham Palace as their backdrops, American news anchors reported on the hundreds of people who died in tornadoes down South. It’s been a strange week. So, just what will the billionaire turned reality star say and do next? Rest assured: It won’t be buried in the backs of newspapers.

Monday, April 25, 2011

Revisiting Dark Alleys

There were bowling alleys in my old neighborhood when I was growing up. Kingsbridge locals could walk to one nearby, and for a period of time actually had a choice between two. While there are still some bowling alleys in the Bronx and the surrounding areas, their numbers have appreciably declined in these parts over the past few decades.

When St. John’s grammar school offered its students an extracurricular sidebar known as the mini-course, bowling was among the options. I signed on to this particular mini-course and Friday afternoon out—out of the classroom’s stuffy confines and into the neighborhood at large. Lorded over by teachers and parental chaperones, we walked a few blocks over to a place called the Bowling Bar. Located in a subterranean niche on a side street, I was immediately intrigued by its off-the-beaten trail address and drab coziness. In fact, an in-home sized bar stood in the myriad lanes’ rear and was sans a bartender. Actually, the owner of the place wore multiple hats. He took our money, sprayed disinfectant into our rented bowling shoes, and served drinks to the adult clientele when called upon. I cannot say with certainty, but I suspect the night crowds were a bit livelier than fourth, fifth, and six graders bowling alongside nuns and mothers.

Despite bowling a twenty-three and my high score, forty-seven, I nevertheless fondly recall my Bowling Bar afternoons sometime in the mid-1970s. I only wish I had thought to snap pictures of the place before it vanished into the ether of extinct businesses. So what if the lightest balls on hand were way too heavy for my fourth-grade muscle. I bowled backhanded in those days because I couldn’t keep my bowling arm straight when ball met floor. This explains the twenty-three.

A year or so later, the school’s bowling mini-course took its business to a bigger and better known establishment, Fieldston Bowl, somewhat farther away. I believe the Bowling Bar had burned down—or up in its case. And while it long outlasted its local competitor, Fieldston Bowl subsequently became Fieldston Billiards. Bowling in the big city was not only declining in popularity, but alleys assumed an awful lot of valuable space—space that has cost increasingly more to lease in New York City, and a lot of other places, too, with the passage of time.

A couple of other alleys in nearby Westchester County—one in Yonkers and the other in Eastchester—that I bowled in a time or two in the distant past are gone as well, victims of changing tastes and voracious landlords altering the landscape. If there’s a bowling alley near you, cherish it while you still can. For the Bowling Bar and its deceased brethren are legion.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Scraping By...

There are 14,000 McDonald's restaurants in the United States today. The conglomerate controls 49.5% of the country's considerable fast-food hamburger market. In fact, yesterday was officially National Hiring Day at the burger giant, when the company planned on taking aboard 50,000 new employees all across the fruited plain. To some seers, this event indicated an economy on the upswing, but to others it imparted a rather sad story, particularly when factoring in the vast numbers of people applying for these mostly minimum-wage jobs.

For what it's worth, I offer up this parable, or perhaps just some scattershot memories of a McDonald's experience from yesteryear. Once upon time I worked in a mom-and-pop shop called Pet Nosh, which sold a variety of pet foods and supplies, including premium brands long before it was fashionable. Located on Northern Boulevard in the Little Neck section of Queens some three decades ago, the staff totaled no more than a handful of people on any given day. Come lunchtime, though, the two, three, or four of us would confer and chew over the various meal options at our disposal. There were multiple alternatives on that busy thoroughfare, even back then, but not nearly as many as there are now, including pizza from nearby Sal’s and sandwiches from a deli on the next block that we very cleverly nicknamed “Siphon’s” because its owner very cleverly called straws “siphon hoses” when we purchased sodas, lemonades, and iced teas from him. Occasionally, too, we considered patronizing the area’s McDonald’s.

Looking back, I’d have to say that McDonald's was sort of our nuclear option. If memory serves, not one of us could stomach the toppings en masse on McDonald’s hamburgers, which included pickles, lettuce, and way, way, way too many micro-chopped onions that had an uncanny and disgusting knack of burrowing into their ketchupy soggy buns. We merely wanted plain burgers, with maybe a little ketchup on the side, but encountered oodles and oodles of problems when ordering them in their virgin states.

It seemed this multinational operation never had an uncontaminated hamburger patty on the premises—quite unlike competitor Burger King, which was running commercials on how special orders didn’t upset their apple carts in the least. Pet Nosh boss man Rich C. would nonetheless pose this question every once in a while: “Are you up for a scraping?” In other words, we’d order lunch from McDonald’s and not bother requesting plain hamburgers that typically threw a wrench into the franchise’s well-oiled machine. Special orders not only took forever, if you will, but, in the final analysis, were rarely if ever special.

So, we’d just bring their regular burgers back to the shop and painstakingly scrape away the pickles, lettuce, and onions ourselves. Actually, in supplying us with plain burgers a time or two, the McDonald’s staff had done both an amateurish and unappetizing version of scrapings, so we were better off decontaminating our own burgers. Of course, all of this was before Chicken McNuggets came along, which would have at least solved my McDonald’s scraping dilemma. In retrospect, I’m surprised I signed on to to this peculiar lunch ritual at all. Removing literal pickles from the scene of the crime does not, ever, remove their calling cards—a loathsome taste. The moral of this parable as I see it: If a hamburger joint can't prepare a hamburger with nothing on it—there's nothing more to say.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Finding a Silver Lining

I’m pleased to report that the United States Post Office is still getting a sliver of the venerable spam-scam business. In today’s mail I received a rather benign-looking yellow postcard. It was headlined “Parcel Notification” and informed me that what I had in my possession was not a “postal card,” and that I should not, therefore, call the post office. Further reading explained that some unknown package awaited me in some undisclosed location somewhere. But if the phone number I’ve been asked to call—if, of course, I want my package delivered to me—is indicative of its present coordinates, it’s not very far away.

But I only have five days in which to place this call and set my mystery parcel in motion. If I don’t do exactly as instructed in this allotted time, it will no longer be held for me. Now that hardly sounds fair.

The most unsettling aspect of this preposterous solicitation, with both its mailing label and stamp askew (always a bad sign), is that a small percentage of its recipients will, very likely, call that number. And, I fear, a certain percentage of that number will supply the purported package holders with personal financial information or some such thing they have no business having. After all, that mystery package may contain an expensive mink stole, the keys to a pricey condo in tony Riverdale, or maybe two passes to an all expenses paid day of fun and frolic at Six Flags Great Adventure.

Every cloud has a silver lining. So, once again, let me reiterate that it’s truly heartening to see that the post office’s fraudulent mail biz has not been completely cast asunder by the World Wide Web and e-mail. It’s important in life to look on the bright side of things whenever and wherever possible. Why not look at it this way: Some enterprising sorts are actually using physical postcards and either paying somebody to print them, or printing them on their home computers and buying the necessary card stock from another business enterprise. They are, too, purchasing potential sucker mailing lists, which for some reason unbeknownst to me included my name and address, from still another entrepreneur. Then there's that mess of twenty-eight cents stamps from that aforementioned institution that desperately needs the business. Economic stimulation and good old-fashioned American capitalism at work.

Monday, April 18, 2011

The Bill Company

As is the case with virtually everybody under seventy nowadays, I check my e-mail first thing in the morning. Typically, I count more missives in my spam folder than in my mailbox proper. And while my AOL spam filter does a yeoman’s job at separating the wheat from the chaff, occasionally bona fide correspondence finds itself sleeping with the spam. So, before deleting the whole sorry lot, I scrupulously peruse the sender addresses and subject fields. And admittedly, I cannot help but find some of the headings quite entertaining!

Once upon a time this sort of thing was not only more unfiltered and commonplace, but overwhelmingly sex-themed and no-holds-barred coarse. Slowly but surely, though, solicitations inviting me to watch people do it with a pig, goat, or horse fell by the wayside. They were, of course, replaced by Viagra and penis enlargement pitches that I’d hazard a guess were—if not outright shams—exaggerating their successes. Eventually, this sexually charged importuning diminished to a trickle—in my mailbox at least—only to be replaced by extended car-warranty and boring-as-all-Hell vitamin supplements for sale entreaties. 

I am happy to report that my spam du jour is now Nigerian money scams and their many epigones. And since I don’t dare open any of these e-mails, I content myself with the subject matter. This particular spam genre is my all-time favorite, I must say, and certainly goes better with the morning cup of coffee than bestiality porn and male enhancements. Courtesy of the inevitable malaproping, inadvertent puns, and general incoherence that go with the territory of not being proficient in the mother tongue of prospective suckers, foreign scams targeting the English-speaking peoples are precious indeed.

This very morning, I received a couple of e-mails offering me an incredible opportunity. One announced: “Sir, Waiting Money.” Another read: “Inheritance Estate Devoted to You.” The last one plucked from the virtual rubble could either have been an opportunity or something intended to frighten me into paying off a bogus debt. I guess I'll never know. It was headlined “The Bill Company.”

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Why Dykstra Matters

Were she following the Lenny Dykstra saga, a certain aunt of mine would say of the man: “He’s not right in the head.” And she’d be right on the mark. The fate that has befallen this onetime baseball star, and more recent Wall Street whiz kid, is at once tragic and darkly comedic. Personally, I’d prefer remembering Dykstra as the scrappy spitfire nicknamed “Nails,” who furnished Met fans with one of their greatest baseball thrills in 1986. We will not soon forget his dramatic walk-off home run in the National League playoffs against the Astros.

Fast forward a quarter of century and Dykstra’s athletic sheen has altogether evaporated. The gritty baseball player giving his all, and clearly maximizing his talent, is yesterday's news. In its stead is a freakish caricature wholly divorced from reality. Bankrupt and arrested for selling off things under a trustee’s guardianship, Nails sees things a bit differently. He doesn’t for a nano-second feel he bilked individuals and lenders with what could best be described as No There There investments. In fact, he considers those seeking redress from him “derelict losers” and “whores.” Dykstra even compares himself to "that Indian dude” named Gandhi. After all, just like Mahatma Gandhi, he too has lived on the streets and, of course, been persecuted. Indeed, ol' Lenny believes the big banks might assassinate him.

Nails has apparently had a sea change of heart as well. His new mission in life, he says, is aiding and abetting folks facing home foreclosures. You see: He knows what it’s like to experience a foreclosure. He actually knows what it’s like to face multiple ones simultaneously. Funny, though, but it’s kind of difficult sympathizing with the guy here. He’s hardly a poster child for the genuine victims of foreclosures in what are ugly economic times.

So, you ask, why does ultra-wacky Lenny Dykstra matter—a man who bounced a check made payable to a working girl, which is about as low as one can get? Well, for starters, he typifies so much of what’s gone awry with society of late. The ballplayer who began his career as a skinny kid exits the game a power-hitting RBI man with a Frankenstein monster-sized head and a prematurely wrecked body. Soon after baseball, he amasses some serious dollars in the guise of investment genius. But among the financial rubble of recent times, individual tales of deceit and greed like Bernie Madoff's and Lenny Dykstra's are repeatedly plucked from the cinders. It seems that greed and excess always attract greed and excess.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Pain and Gain

In August, it will be five years since I became—officially and forevermore—an amputee. My, my, my, how time flies. The sorry saga seems like only yesterday in one respect, but also an awfully long time ago.

I’m happy to report that the excruciating physical pain I knew for a spell is a distant memory. Fortunately, we have to be in the clutches of physical pain to appreciate its unyielding sway over our every move and every thought. When it’s gone, it’s gone. Mere recollections of what once was will not and cannot resurrect the genuine article. Our incredible recuperative powers won’t allow it. Occasionally, though, phantom pains in the night starkly remind me of what once was. These intermittent jolts stab hard into the ether—at a foot that’s no longer there. A relation once said to me, “That must make you feel good.” She honestly believed this unusual strain of pain in my missing body part would somehow make me feel whole again. She was wrong.

Adjusting to my new life and new perspective in these ensuing five years, I’ve learned quite a few things about myself and others, too. Some of what I’ve uncovered is significant, I suppose, but most of my discoveries have been rather trivial. That's life. When I was released from the hospital sans a portion of my right leg—and awaiting a prosthetic—I was inundated with reading materials concerning my new limb-challenged existence. Initially, I reasoned that losing an arm was obviously preferable to losing a leg. I thought then that being able to get up and go—when I wanted to and where I wanted to—trumped all else. At that time, there was little debate in my mind what amputation—if given this Hobson’s choice—I would select.

Flash forward five years and I’m of a completely different mindset. Once I received my new knee and acclimated to the hustle and bustle of everyday living, I saw that I was able to do just about everything I did before, albeit a lot slower and more awkwardly in most instances. And as a writer who uses his hands in his daily grind, what the heck was I thinking anyway? I also read many stories of upper-limb amputees and their travails. On a regular basis, they are confronted with many more trials than I am. The mere act of getting dressed with one arm is a layered affair, if you will. Eating. Shopping. Hammering a nail. The good news for all of us is that prosthetic technology is getting better and better. And I surmise that most of those who have lost part of an upper limb wouldn’t swap their disability for mine.

Friday, April 8, 2011

Gold Coins and the Corrector Class

Many years ago—and I’ve long since forgotten the context—radio broadcaster Barry Farber informed a caller in his distinctive tone of voice, “He that correcteth me handeth me a gold coin.” Being the recipient of a correction, I know, is often unwelcome and a difficult pill to swallow, but it’s sometimes an invaluable learning moment. When mean old Sister Camillus humiliated me in front of my elementary school peers by nastily proclaiming, “Imagine a fifth grader who doesn’t know how to spell 'paid,'” I was indeed handed a gold coin. Granted, I didn't appreciate it at the time, but I never misspelled “paid” as “payed” again.

The Corrector Class has mushroomed in size in the new millennium. The Internet and social networking sites have in fact empowered the formerly powerless, who can now prove how smart they are by correcting their fellow men and women in all kinds of venues. People of all ages, and in all walks of life, are literally lying in wait to catch our mistakes and point out our blunders and missteps to the wider world.

A recent discussion board comment from a fellow writer struck me as at once timely and right on the mark. Responding to a question concerning the pluses versus minuses of plying in this trade of ours, he noted how he receives precious little positive feedback when he gets things right, which is the norm. And when he does get a modicum of credit for a job well done, it’s typically a long time in coming and breathlessly short in its approbation. However, when he errs in the slightest, heaven forbid, the Corrector Class pounces in a nanosecond to broadcast the errors of his ways.

Happily, even amidst the sprawling virtual rubble, there are still countless gold coins to be harvested. But there are also more counterfeits than ever before in the brush. All too many members of today’s considerable Corrector Class appear more interested in inflating their rather poor self-esteems than offering genuine gold coins to their fellow world travelers. This is both a little sad and very annoying. Sister Camillus, where are you when we need you?

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

The "Usually" Suspects

Sometime in the early 1970s, the progressive educator arrived in St. John’s grammar school. Gone were the venerable old report cards with the familiar grades of A, B, C, D, and the big fat F, too. In their stead were pabulum progress reports with non-grades, if you will, ranging from the best, “Progressing very well” to the middling, “Is progressing” to the worst, “Needs to put more effort.” Of course, I’ve assigned value judgments to these three classifications, which were not intended by their creators.

These new progress reports of ours also included a mother lode of categories within such traditional courses as English (called Language Arts) and History (known as Social Studies). To this day, I am at a loss for words as to what this one Language Arts category embodied: “Uses word attack skills.” I don’t ever recall the term being explained to us, but then I suspect that my teacher, salty old Sister Camillus, hadn't a clue, either.

Evidently, this noble experiment of employing the carrot and stick, and oh-so-gently importuning us to try harder, failed miserably. The As, Bs, Cs, and Ds soon returned, but not before our reports cards—or whatever the heck they became—were full of 1s, 2s, 3s, and 4s. If memory serves, 1 was the optimal grade (or non-grade) and 4 the bottom of the barrel. But once again, I’m employing value-charged adjectives here. I surmise the social experimenters reasoned we wouldn’t be as bowled over by a 4, or as boastful among our less fortunate friends with our straight 1s. We, however, took our “Needs to put more effort” check marks just as hard as Cs and Ds. And although mere children, we weren’t fooled for a second by the sleight-of-hand numbers game. Despite descriptions telling us otherwise, 1 signified an A to us; 2, a B; and so on and so forth.

I believe these social experiments absolutely jumped the shark in an area headlined Personal Development, which included "religion" and "social growth" under its umbrella. Here, even a tepid “Is progressing” was too loaded a term for the education engineers. The top mark one could achieve in this realm was “Usually”—a not only insipid grading word, in my opinion, but just plain wrong and a true injustice for an individual who always cooperated in work and play, accepted responsibility, etc. Among many lessons learned there, St. John's grammar school taught me the road to hell is paved with “Usuallys” and “Needs to put more efforts.”

(Photo from the personal collection of Nicholas Nigro)

Friday, April 1, 2011

Stream of Consciousness

A local newspaper, the Riverdale Press, recently ran a piece about a meandering stream that runs through parts of my neighborhood. Having been covered over by landfill in the fledgling years of the twentieth century, the waterway is now—with the exception of a few visible remnants in nearby Van Cortlandt Park—completely underground and wholly unseen. Most of the area’s current residents, I suspect, are blissfully ignorant of the fact that many private homes and apartment buildings in the area are built atop Tibbetts Brook and its surrounding wetlands.

Several decades ago, a man named William Tieck published a neat history of adjoining Bronx neighborhoods' Kingsbridge and Riverdale. Rare photographs in his book included images of the formerly free-flowing Tibbetts Brook in locations that have long been covered by concrete and asphalt. For those of us who call home this densely populated nook of New York City, it’s hard to imagine a row boat tethered to a small wooden dock on what is now a busy cross-street—but some of the old pictures actually paint a Norman Rockwell postcard past of what is now a teeming urban enclave.

While a return to this Rockwellian vista is not possible (nor desired), the newspaper account nonetheless reported on possible future efforts in “daylighting” the brook—bringing it back to the surface where feasible. Interestingly, and on its own, the indefatigable stream seems to be doing just that in snippets of Van Cortlandt that were not very long ago bone dry but are now swampy marshland. Really, what the city fathers and mothers have in mind at this point in time is merely a theoretical restoration of the brook that runs from the City of Yonkers, just to the north, and empties into the nearby Harlem River Ship Canal, which, by the way, empties into the Hudson River, likewise a stone's throw away.

Growing up on the street that received its name from the stream that runs beneath it, I have something of an intimate acquaintance with its subterranean waters. Along with a few other men, my grandfather planted a sprawling “victory garden” on an empty lot on the very same street in the late 1950s. Naturally, there was no modern water source to attach hoses or sprinklers to, but there was Tibbetts Brook not too far from the surface.

Italians from the old country knew how to do an awful lot of things back, which are downright foreign to most of us in the twenty-first century. My grandfather knew how to dig a well. Utilizing a fifty-gallon barrel with its bottom cut out, he dug down several feet through layers of dirt and landfill (ashes of some sort) and struck water, which quickly wound its way up the barrel’s sides. The well worked like a charm for more than a decade in tapping into what proved an inexhaustible water supply. Year after year, and summer after summer, the gardeners on Tibbett Avenue lowered buckets attached to a rope into the drink, watering dozens of tomato plants, pepper plants, eggplants, string beans, and all kinds of flowers. In springtime, after the winter's snow melt, I recall the water reaching the well’s top but never quite spilling over.

Sadly, the garden was bulldozed in 1971 when I was nine years old. But very fortunately, I had the opportunity to witness the well at work. And if memory serves, the waters of Tibbetts Brook typically appeared crystal clear, almost good enough to drink. However, I'm happy to report that all concerned considered the source and resisted the temptation. When the pilings were being pounded into the very same space for a future six-story building, water pumps labored day and night in spilling out Tibbetts Brook into the street. We knew it was there then, and know it’s still there now, just champing at the bit to reveal itself once again—someday and somewhere.

(Photo from the personal collection of Nicholas Nigro)