Tuesday, May 31, 2011

What the Cat Saw

In November 1979, my brother and a neighbor purchased a small pet food and supply store in the Little Neck section of Queens. Sometime within the first few months of business, a very young stray cat wandered in the backdoor. Fortunately, we didn’t have to forage far afield for a square meal for this hungry feline. A new cat food was just on the market, too, with its then revolutionary pop-top cans. Not even a can opener was required to open up a can of Fancy Feast. This was big stuff back then.

The little shop—called Pet Nosh by the way—had a gravelly backyard parking lot that bordered on a leafy residential neighborhood. Initially, this rather cunning cat was a transient character—scurrying into and out of the place as customers came and went. We always fed her outside. But eventually, she managed to spend a full night in the store without our knowledge, and then another, and another one after that. It was soon official. Pet Nosh had a resident cat—a mascot. Co-owner Rich, a longtime cat person, affectionately named her “Creepy.” Renowned for carefully watching his pennies, he nonetheless afforded Creepy an awful lot of leeway.

Rich didn’t seem to mind that Creepy napped on merchandise for sale, including dog beds and cat furniture that fast became smothered in cat hairs. And Creepy naturally helped herself to cat scratching posts on display. It was Creepy’s home from that first winter of 1980 to, coincidentally, the store’s closing curtain. Creepy peacefully passed away just before the place was sold.

Creepy lived the good life in the store milieu. Even though she didn’t want for anything, the clientele regularly made purchases for her. Granted, not all of our patrons appreciated having Creepy omnipresent and with the total run of the place. She would regularly plop down on the countertop and, when cranky, lash out at little boys and old ladies alike. More than a few customers left the shop with visible scratches, and even one, as I recall, with some serious bleeding wending its way down her arm and onto our carpet.

As a sleepy commercial trade became a mega-billion dollar colossus, Creepy was witness to history. She did as she pleased and observed all sorts of comings and goings from managers to employees to customers to, yes, products. But at closing time during this fifteen-year odyssey, whoever was in charge and on the scene knew the routine: Before locking up for the night, check the store high and low for Creepy. If Creepy was unaccounted for and adjudged still in the great outdoors, cracking open a Fancy Feast can at the backdoor was in order. Never fail, its distinctive clicking sound was Creepy’s dinner bell. If she wasn’t already nestled in the store, she came running home for supper and lights out. Always in earshot, Creepy was a cat to remember.

(Photo from the personal collection of Nicholas Nigro)

Monday, May 30, 2011

Service and Sacrifice

I received a phone call from my sister this morning. She lives in the town of Huntington on Long Island. This familial contact didn’t involve an invitation to a Memorial Day barbecue, a discussion of the humid weather, or anything so trivial. Foremost, my sister wanted to update me on twenty-five-year-old James Byler, a Huntington resident and a Marine 1st Lieutenant, who was seriously wounded in Afghanistan last year when he tripped a landmine.

To spare his life, doctors amputated both of his legs above the knees, as well the pinky fingers on his two hands. I first learned of Lt. Byler’s story—and the bond that we shared as fellow amputees—this past Thanksgiving. My youngest nephews knew James Byler as an Eagle Scout and as a leader in their local Boy Scout troop. And on Thanksgiving morning, they ran in the area’s annual four-mile Turkey Trot, which raises money for worthy causes. This go-around, the worthy cause was for one of their own, with the proceeds going to the eventual building of a specially equipped home for this double amputee and heroic member of the Armed Forces.

It sometimes takes a James Byler story to remind us that Memorial Day is more than just hot dogs and hamburgers on the grill, the beach, and Hangover Part II. It’s a stark reminder, too, that World War I was not “the war to end all wars.”

Saturday, May 28, 2011

The Barbecue

With the unofficial beginning of summer at hand, permit me to turn the clock back several notches to another Memorial Day weekend in a far, far different time. The year: 1973. Yogi Berra was managing the Mets, Sister Camillus was walking me through the finer points of Language Arts, and my all-time favorite small screen police detective would very soon be sucking on lollipops every Sunday night.

In the middle of May that epochal year, something occurred within my family that would transform all of our lives. My father made a considerable purchase. It was a state of the art piece of equipment, actually, and serious eye candy to boot. It was to be officially unveiled at our Memorial Day cookout—this charcoal barbecue grill unlike anything any of us had ever seen. This cooking apparatus could be wheeled right out of the garage to our concrete backyard, and then wheeled right back from whence it came. Wow! Astonishingly, it had a small countertop, too, right alongside the charcoal pit. We actually could leave plates there, along with various utensils, while our foods were cooking! What would they think of next?

It was all heady stuff. Friends and neighbors gathered around our ultra-cool orange-colored barbecue to celebrate both the special holiday and the new grill on the block. We posed for pictures. For posterity, we just had to commemorate this key moment in history.

However, despite this technological marvel in our midst, Dad tenaciously clung to the past and started his charcoal fires as he always had. He soaked pages and pages of wet newspaper with lighter fluid, covered them with coals, and tossed a lit match into the muddle. For the next five minutes or so, he made very liberal use of the lighter fluid on hand, which inspired flames and flying pieces of newspaper ash aplenty—never-fail entertainment for us kids. In retrospect, I at long last understand why our barbecued foods frequently tasted like they’d been marinated overnight in lighter fluid.

(Photo from the personal collection of Nicholas Nigro)

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Monsignor on High

In 2002, Monsignor Anthony Rubsys passed away. I knew him as plain old Father Rubsys, Manhattan College professor. In what were, in retrospect, less complicated times for the both the wider world and for me, I had this genuinely pious Catholic priest for a course called “Islam.” While I knew Rubsys was of Lithuanian descent, I didn’t know much more about the man. Until I read his obituary, I was unaware that he had escaped from a German prison camp during the Second World War and was on the run, and in hiding, for years.

Father Rubsys was a humble and gentle soul. This man of the cloth was godly—the real deal and, from what I’ve observed through the years, an exception to the general rule. He had something of an ethereal glow about him—literally. Rubsys would have his students write “reflection papers” on various subject matter and return them with such comments as “What a delight it is to follow your mind in action.” He was always in the classroom before any of us, too, feverishly writing on the blackboard with the skimpiest pieces of chalk. By the end of the day, his priestly threads were invariably rumpled and chalk stained.

In fact, we students arrived at each and every one of Rubsys' lectures to find a blackboard festooned with “Coming Attractions,” as our professor humorously dubbed what was in the offing. A paper was due one day, an exam held on the next, followed by a slide presentation after that. The classes immediately succeeding exam dates were always slide shows, which were usually of the good father's personal vacations in the Middle East, replete with snapshots of famous landmarks and sacred holy places. I recall him riding a camel in one shot, to which he intoned, “Lost in the desert.” After all our paper writing and exam taking, he considered these fifty-minute or so visual productions well-earned moments of “rest” for his at once hard-working and over-worked students....

When I read in his obit that he had achieved the title of “Monsignor”—sometime between when I sat in his classroom in 1983 and his death in 2002—I looked up the word. One would think I’d have known what made a “monsignor” before then, but I didn’t. The monsignors I had known in my youth, and subsequently in and around the local parishes as an adult, were typically “good businessmen” and—more times than not—men prone to chiding their ever-hemorrhaging flocks. They were far cries from godly, let’s put it that way. The haughty, hotheaded principal of my high school for the four years that I was there—a monsignor—subsequently got ensnared in the church's widespread and unseemly abuse scandal. The New York Archdiocese surreptitiously paid off his accuser the not inconsiderable sum of $100,000.

According to Merriam-Webster, “monsignor” is “a Roman Catholic prelate having a dignity or titular distinction usually conferred by the pope.” Dignity—well, that was Anthony Rubsys in spades. It was not, however, applicable to the other monsignors I've known.

(Photo from the personal collection of Nicholas Nigro)

Saturday, May 14, 2011

My Two Cents...

Some time ago the Authors Guild recommended that writers en masse boycott Amazon.com. The organization took this very principled stance based on the mega-online retailer’s policy of selling used books of titles still in print. Ironically, second-hand booksellers on Amazon literally compete with the company for the final sale. But while Amazon receives its cut in either instance, authors only benefit from the sale of a new book. In other words, we earn no royalties when individuals or business entities sell our books as used. In fact, used booksellers frequently harbor titles in their inventories that have never, ever been purchased. For example, books sent to potential reviewers and employed in various promotions often end up in their hands.

Now, I rather like used bookstores in virtual reality and the bright light of day as well. I also patronize Amazon because, foremost, its prices typically can’t be beat, and I am not J.K. Rowling or James Patterson. It’s a poverty-versus-principle thing, and in this book-buying game poverty concerns trump all else. And I might add that Amazon’s seemingly infinite roster of booksellers selling a seemingly infinite roster of out-of-print books—almost any title from the past can be had for a song—is a wonderful thing.

For sure, it’s a brave new world that we live in. Just about every new title from a mainstream publisher is available now as an e-book from the get-go, or very soon after publication. My initial reaction to digital books, and e-readers like Kindle and Nook, was wholly negative. I viewed them as frontal assaults on physical books and brick-and-mortar bookstores, which they are to a great extent. But I’ve come to appreciate that there’s little point in attempting to stem this technological steamroller. And building a bridge to the past won’t work, either.

Author Peter Rubie, the CEO of the literary agency for which I am somewhat familiar, addressed this very matter on the company’s blog. He wondered why so many writers whine—particularly older ones like me—about e-books and such. He pointed out that this brand of book cannot be shared with family and friends; it cannot be passed on indefinitely like the genuine article can. And, yes, this venerable practice among book aficionados—of sharing—amounts to no new sales and no additional royalties to hard-working, struggling writers. I suppose the moral of this little story is to read on in whatever way suits your fancy and fits your budget. And while I’d much prefer that you support an author with the purchase of his or her new book, I’ll certainly understand if you take it out of the library or buy it on Amazon for two cents.

Friday, May 13, 2011

Thinking Inside the Litter Box

As something of a follow-up to my previous essay regarding unsold book concepts, I've unearthed another snippet from yet another project that never saw the light of day. The material is originally from an unpublished work entitled REIGNING CAT$ AND DOG$. However, there is some good news to report here. You see, I’ve long been a recycler of my ideas—at least the ones I consider durable—until an interested suitor comes along. So, while the aforementioned title will remain largely unread by the masses, this little cat litter vignette below can also be found in 101 Best Businesses for Pet Lovers, which I humbly commend to those of you contemplating an entrepreneurial spin within this dynamic commercial trade. I call it "Thinking Inside the Litter Box" and make reference to my many years working for a retailer called Pet Nosh:

Cat litters and cat litter boxes have carved out a sizable niche in the pet care industry at large. As the cat litter spectrum widened beyond recognition through the years, I witnessed consumers grappling time and again with the copious changes and additional options at their disposal.

During my fledgling years as a Pet Nosh employee, I lugged—in aggregate—multiple tons of cat litter to customers’ cars and delivered comparable hefty sums to their humble abodes. In the early 1980s, Pet Nosh’s biggest cat litter seller—by far—was the Hartz Mountain brand packaged in orange and yellow paper bags. Although this litter was a bargain, it could better be described as dust incarnate. It stuck to you like flies stick to you know what. Its insidious dust particles consumed every pore of your body. Your nostrils couldn’t help but suck it all in. Very literally, the stuff grossly contaminated your clothes all the way down to your underwear—it was that potent. Hartz Mountain brand was a basic clay cat litter, which was, with few exceptions, what was on the market back then.

The very first commercial kitty litter has a remarkable and downright inspiring story behind it—particularly if you are an inventor, entrepreneurial sort, or combination of the two. Permit me now to give you the low down—or, more aptly, the Lowe down—on where it all began. Cat litter’s modest origins can be traced back to the small town of Cassopolis, Michigan, circa 1948. Then and there—so the story goes—a woman named Kay Draper paid a call on her neighbors, the Lowes, who operated an industrial absorbent company in town. She had what could best be described as a funky problem—a genuine dilemma—on her hands. Ms. Draper, you see, like many people from that simpler, less complicated epoch, employed garden-variety sand in her cat’s privy. I can't refer to it as a litter box, because cat litter didn’t yet exist.

To make a long story short, an extended period of harsh winter weather had left Kay Draper’s outdoor sand pile as rock-solid as a pre-global warming glacier in the Arctic Circle. Sans ready access to her sand source, she improvised with ashes from her fireplace, which, by the way, was working overtime in the ultra-frigid weather. When, alas, Kay’s feline friend left a widespread and very conspicuous series of untidy paw prints throughout the entire house, her substitution went up in smoke, as it were. And to add insult to injury, the fireplace ashes did nothing to temper the ghastly malodor that so often accompanies kitty wastes. At wit’s end, Kay asked her entrepreneurial neighbors if they knew of something—anything—she could put in her cat’s biffy while her sand was literally on ice.

Enter twenty-seven-year-old Ed Lowe to the rescue. Just back home from World War II and a stint in the navy, he attacked this stinking matter with all guns a blazing. Ed saw no reason why the family business’s kiln-dried clay—called Fuller’s Earth—could not suffice as cat urine absorbent. After all, it was immensely popular with automobile garages and other businesses at the mercy of chemical spills. So, he gave Kay Draper a bag full to try. And, lo and behold—or Lowe and behold—she loved it and began recommending it to her friends with house cats.

Fast-forwarding a bit, Lowe hit the road and visited hundreds of pet shops and cat shows, enthusiastically promoting his pioneering pet product. When he reached retirement age in 1990, Lowe’s net worth surpassed $200 million. Cats and cat litter had made the man a multi-millionaire. Ed Lowe’s trailblazing efforts on behalf of cat litter—he even coined the term “kitty litter”—inspired more and more people to welcome their felines into the great indoors. So many, in fact, that cats now reign supreme as the number one pet in American households.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Backdoor Guide

Several years ago, I pitched to publishers a book idea called The Backdoor Guide to New York City. Subtitled "Offbeat, Overlooked, Historical, and Just Plain Interesting Places to Visit and Things to Do While in the Big Apple," the concept, alas, didn't find a taker. In my humble opinion, the sample material included in the book proposal was nonetheless quite interesting, including a chapter called "Raising the Bar." Some of the contact information and current references are already dated, but the history and lore surrounding these establishments remains as timeless as ever. (In fact, since Chumley's dining room chimney collapsed in 2007, the place has been closed and undergoing renovations.)

Raising the Bar
New York City has been appropriately dubbed the City That Never Sleeps. In the Big Apple, there are things to do and places to go from dawn to dusk and from dusk to dawn, too. There are more taverns, saloons, watering holes, clubs, and lounges—call them what you wish—than census takers can ever tally up. Some of these bar businesses are historic; a handful are truly legendary; and many are just plain unique, even a bit bizarre by the rest of the world’s standards.

White Horse Tavern
567 Hudson Street
(between West 11th Street and Perry Street)
West Village
Subway: 1 to Christopher Street; A, C, E, L to 14th Street/Eighth Avenue

The White Horse Tavern in the West Village counts itself among the most longstanding saloons in the borough of Manhattan. Established in 1880, this venerable bar is chock full of both brain-tingling spirits and intriguing history. It is, perhaps, best known as the place where poet Dylan Thomas purportedly drank himself to death in 1953. Legend has it that Thomas’s last words were: “I’ve had eighteen straight shots of whiskey. I think that’s the record.” In the esteemed bard’s memory, an entire dining room is named for him.

For more than half a century, the White Horse Tavern has been a favorite stopover for a diverse band of celebrities from Jack Kerouac to Andy Warhol; Bob Dylan to John Belushi; Norman Mailer to Peter, Paul, and Mary; the Clancy Brothers to James Baldwin. More recently, best-selling author of Angela’s Ashes, Frank McCourt, has been spotted enjoying the White Horse Tavern’s unpretentious and relaxed bar scene—by New York City standards, anyway.

While consuming the pub’s famous bloody bar burgers and sitting at its original bar carved out of a single piece of seamless mahogany, clientele at the White Horse Tavern are in a veritable time warp. Patrons who look to the heavens chance upon a meticulously hand-engraved ceiling and the painted over blemishes of long removed and replaced gas lighting. There are also a stable of white horses staring back at one and all from a variety of locations and in a variety of forms. Originally, these legions of white horses functioned as advertisements for the house whiskey: White Horse, which, by the way, the pub still serves. The tavern building is also one of just a handful of wood-framed structures still standing in Manhattan.

Andrew Yamato in a New York magazine online review humorously wrote of the White Horse Tavern, “Whether or not you have the Great American Novel in your head, you can still get blasted at the nostalgic high temple of the Alcoholic Artist.”

McSorley’s Old Ale House
15 East 7th Street
(between Second and Third Avenues)
East Village
Subway: 6 to Astor Place; R, W to 8th Street
In the early twentieth century, business at McSorley’s Old Ale House boomed when artist John Sloan, of the so-called “Ashcan School,” exhibited a series of paintings depicting the working tavern in gritty detail. In the midst of World War II, Life magazine ran a feature story with the heading: A Day in the Life of an Alehouse. The alehouse was none other than McSorley’s in Manhattan’s East Village. From that moment forward, this old-fashioned drinking hole was renowned well beyond the borders of its urban address. And, further adding to the pub’s reputation, writer Joseph Mitchell published a compilation of his New Yorker magazine essays in a book entitled McSorley’s Wonderful Saloon.

According to its founder, John McSorley, McSorley’s Old Ale House opened for business in 1854. Citing documentary evidence, New York City historian Richard McDermott says the year 1862 is more likely. But whether or not McSorley’s sold its original mug of ale before, or after, the first shots were fired at Fort Sumter, it is still one of the oldest bar businesses in town. Even National Prohibition couldn’t derail the pub’s growing popularity.

McSorley’s Old Ale House also has the distinction of barring women from its premises into the 1970s, when that kind of thing was no longer kosher. Feminist attorney Faith Seidenberg successfully filed a lawsuit to end the bar’s longstanding refusal to serve the fairer sex. Today, all who come to McSorley’s door are welcome to sample the house brew—light and dark ale served simultaneously in two small mugs. Never order a Bud—or any other beer for that matter—because you won’t get one at this august tavern. It’s McSorley’s own ale or sayonara. The interior of McSorley’s Old Ale House is awash in all kinds of fascinating memorabilia from days gone by. The place has sawdust on its floors, a functioning coal-burning stove, and swing-doors—just like in the Old West and in Old New York, too.

Pete’s Tavern
129 E. 18th Street
(at Irving Plaza)
Flatiron/Gramercy/Union Square
Subway: 6 to 23rd Street; 4,5,6, L, N, R, Q, W to 14th Street-Union Square
Established in 1864, Pete’s Tavern claims to be the oldest continuously operating bar business in Manhattan. McSorley’s Old Ale House disagrees. What is not debatable is that Pete’s Tavern is among the pantheon of venerable gin mills in Fun City.

With its dark wood booths and lamppost-like lighting fixtures, Pete’s Tavern harks back to a simpler time. O. Henry penned The Gift of the Magi within its cozy confines. This fact alone makes Pete’s Tavern a place with as much history as beer behind its bar.

86 Bedford Street
(between Grove and Barrow Streets)
West Village
Subway: 1 to Christopher Street; A, B, C, D, E, F, V to West 4th Street
Nestled amidst residential apartments, Chumley’s is located in the West Village, but not so easy to find. That’s because this former speakeasy still appears as it did when it first opened for business in 1922. It has no sign—other than a brass “86” attached to a nondescript, solid wooden door—and no neon beer bottles beckoning thirsty passersby. Inside its labyrinthine interior is a maze of secret passageways. The pub’s entrance is actually on Barrow Street and not Bedford Street.

Chumley’s is the last New York City speakeasy that remains intact, sham entrance and all. It is a bona fide throwback to the most historical moment in the annals of American boozing—when, courtesy of the Eighteenth Amendment to the Constitution, drinking of any kind of spirits was expressly forbidden. After its much-ballyhooed passage, consumption of alcohol didn’t exactly cease and desist; it merely went underground, so to speak—so to speakeasy.

When the law showed up at Chumley’s ostensible front door—at 86 Bedford Street—during the era of Prohibition in the 1920s, a barroom sentry would cry out, “86!” This would clue imbibing patrons to make a hasty retreat to a back exit. The wood floors at Chumley’s still have the trapdoors cut into them, which were also used by the aforementioned lawbreakers to vanish into the ether.

With its original booths and a toasty fireplace crackling during cold climes, Chumley’s is, at present, totally above ground—i.e., you don’t have to worry about New York’s Finest busting into the joint and hauling you off to the poke. It is, nonetheless, exactly as it was in the Roaring ‘20s, when Chumley’s was violating the law along with an estimated 100,000 competitor speakeasies scattered all across New York City.

Since it first opened its doors—mock and genuine—Chumley’s has served spirits to an array of famous literati, including F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, Eugene O’Neill, Dorothy Parker, J.D. Salinger, Arthur Miller, and William Burroughs. Today, canine companions are welcome in Chumley’s. How many contemporary bars do you know that have Welcome Mats out for both the two and the four-legged?

***“ No person shall on or after the date when the Eighteenth Amendment to the Constitution of the United States goes into effect, manufacture, sell, barter, transport, import, export, deliver, furnish, or possess any intoxicating liquor except as authorized in this act.” Prohibition became federal law on January 16, 1920. It took thirteen years for drinking to see the light of day again, when the Twenty-first Amendment consigned national Prohibition to the ash heap of history in December 1933, returning the powers to regulate liquid spirits to the individual states.

Bridge Café
279 Water Street
(at Dover Street)
Subway: 2, 3, 4, 5, A, C, J, M, Z to Fulton Street/Broadway-Nassau Street
In the shadow of the Brooklyn Bridge, the aptly named Bridge Café operates in a structure erected in 1794. The site first hosted a tavern in 1847, and it has remained one ever since, although under assorted names and proprietors. Thus, the Bridge Café can legitimately say it is kith and kin to a bar business that dates back to before the Civil War and, of course, the subsequent building of the Brooklyn Bridge.

For sure, the Bridge Café is no McSorley’s Old Ale House or Pete’s Tavern in the city’s vaunted saloon lore. This restaurant and pub, a few blocks away from the South Street Seaport, is far removed from the porterhouse that opened for business more than a century and a half ago. New breeds of tourists and those making money hand over fist in “financial services” have supplanted the grizzled and rowdy bunch of salty seaman and pirates who originally frequented the spot, not to mention the scores of prostitutes who made a pretty piece of change there. Nevertheless, the Bridge Café’s building is more than two centuries old and a hop, skip, and jump away from one of the world’s most renowned bridges—the first, by the way, lit with electricity. These historical and geographical facts ensure that a visit to the Bridge Café is always a one-of-a-kind experience.

Ear Inn
The James Brown House
326 Spring Street
(between Greenwich and Washington Streets)
SoHo, NoHo, Little Italy
Subway: 1 to Canal Street; C, E to Spring Street
When this three-story brick building rose in 1817, it was waterfront property and subject to flooding from the mercurial ebb and flow of the mighty Hudson River. The edifice’s original owner, a man named James Brown, sold tobacco from the premises and may have been a former slave. Some folks claim that he is the black soldier at General George Washington’s knee in the famous 1854 “Washington Crossing the Delaware” painting by Emanuel Leutze. But whatever the truth is behind the life of James Brown, his former property could arguably claim to be the spot that hosts the oldest bar business, although with several interruptions, still serving spirits in twenty-first century Manhattan.

Indeed, records indicate that there was a tavern business in the building as far back as 1835, and probably before that. A pub at the James Brown House serviced thousands of thirsty dockworkers and sailors in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Suffice it to say, both the West Village area and the property itself have witnessed a sea of changes since those days of yore. For one, Twelfth Avenue landfill has seen to it that the James Brown House and the Ear Inn on its ground floor are no longer on the water’s edge, but a block and a half away from the Hudson River.

The Ear Inn received its current moniker from Rip Hyman and friends, who purchased the property in the 1970s. At the time, the new owners published a music journal called The Ear and decided to name the pub after it. Since the building had already been classified a National Register City Landmark, they were prohibited from erecting any new business signs. Fortunately for them, a classic neon “BAR” sign hung outside of the place. Employing a bit of ingenuity and a lot black paint, the new owners covered the tubes in the neon sign’s “B,” creating a thoroughly convincing “E.” Instead of a “BAR” sign, there now hangs a spiffy looking “EAR” sign. And, to avoid any confusion, the sign also notes the year of the building’s birth as not merely 1817, but 1817 A.D. Poetry readings are regularly held at today’s Ear Inn.

***There are many reports of haunted New York City locations, including the structure that houses the Bridge Café. Some folks claim that ghosts of long dead pirates, who patronized the tavern when gentlemen with names like Andrew H. Mickle and William V. Brady were the city’s mayors, and the country’s president was James K. Polk, haunt the same grounds these many years later. Phantoms have also been sighted in the rafters of the White Horse Tavern, with one of the apparitions the spirit of Romantic poet Dylan Thomas, perhaps regretting that over indulgence in whiskey on that fateful night in 1953. And, not surprisingly, the ghost of James Brown purportedly hangs around his former property and the Ear Inn on its ground floor. It should also be noted that more than a few pink elephants have been seen at these locations, too.

Smith’s Bar & Restaurant
701 Eighth Avenue
(corner of 44th Street)
SmithsBar.comSubway: 1, 2, 3, 7, A, C, E, N, R, Q, W, S to 42nd Street/Times SquareIts weathered neon sign harks back to the halcyon glory days of New York City. The pub’s website proclaims, “WE LOOK BETTER AFTER A FEW BEERS.” Indeed, Smith’s Bar & Restaurant remains, almost defiantly, in the heart of the fabled Theater District, as a still operational relic of a more colorful period in the city’s long history.

Once the hangout of Jason Robards and other hard-drinking Broadway actors of yesteryear, it is an alternative to the decidedly more upscale and legendary Sardi’s right down the block. Smith’s is the quintessential New York corner bar that serves the “coldest beer in the neighborhood” and sandwiches and burgers at sandwich and burger prices. Smith’s hasn’t changed an iota since 1954, when it first opened for business in an area known as “Hell’s Kitchen.”

Once recognized for its seedy charm and alluring menace, the neighborhood is today a wee bit different, but not Smith’s. Those looking for a snack before curtain time, or a quick one during intermission, can expect nothing fancy, but they can enjoy a glimpse backward into the Golden Age of Broadway, when Disney did not have a prepackaged extravaganza in every other theater and tickets did not cost $100 apiece. Those in the vicinity looking for a sudsy brew, or two, or three—morning, noon, or night—will find that Smith’s Welcome Mat is always out. And while you are there, you can rub elbows with a dying breed: real New Yorkers, born and bred in Hell’s Kitchen, for whom Smith’s is just a neighborhood bar. Catch them while you can, for we shall not see their likes again.

Saturday, May 7, 2011

The Hard Cell

While watching a rerun of the 1970s television hit The Rockford Files recently, I noted my all-time favorite PI pulling his Pontiac Firebird over to place a call at a street corner pay phone. He didn't reach his intended party, completing a then commonplace fruitless endeavor. It was ring, ring, ring, and no answering machine. I thought: How annoying this scenario must have been to folks on the run back then—having first to locate a telephone, and then assuming the risk that the callee might be unavailable or, worse still, getting a busy signal.

But that’s just the way it was—and not very long ago in the scheme of things. Before the cell phone, we weren’t always a phone call away. We couldn’t be reached every single moment of every single day in virtually any location. Actually, this separation had its benefits and was more in tune with the nature of the beast.

Notably in emergency situations, and when timely communications are in order, the accessibility of cell phones have their place. But they are also dangerous devices, and I’m not speaking of future brain cancer possibilities or any such thing. It’s that they have this uncanny knack of reducing the whole sorry lot of us to narcissistic, oblivious fools, communicating with one another when silence would very definitely be golden.

Absurdly loud cell phone jingles and personal cell phone conversations on the street, in bank ATM vestibules, and on supermarket checkout lines is a crime against humanity. The original pay phones were ensconced in soundproof booths for good reason. Once upon a time it was felt that we the people desired privacy when we spoke on the telephone. Our private business and business business, too, were none of other people’s business. The cell phone erects no such barriers and devalues privacy. I fear that a human race of monsters has been spawned who cannot in the least appreciate how nonsensical, rude, and crude the preponderance of their yakking on these devices is. Unlimited minutes—the two most frightening words in the English language today. Over and out.

Thursday, May 5, 2011

The Server Class

When President Richard Nixon addressed the White House staff for the last time on August 9, 1974, he rambled on about many things, including the saintliness of his devoted mother, the industriousness of his hapless father, and the greatness of one of his predecessors, Teddy Roosevelt. Nixon affectionately referred to the latter as “TR.” But what I long ago plucked from the embers of this uncharacteristically emotional and philosophical goodbye was the moving tribute paid to the little people—i.e., those who do so very much and get so very little recognition for doing it. While the former president was hopelessly devious, and his crimes inexcusable, he apparently appreciated men and women in typically thankless, but absolutely essential jobs.

As one who toiled on the retail frontlines for many years, I have always felt that an individual’s core character is largely exposed in how he or she interacts with “those who serve,” as Nixon labeled society’s sprawling server class. When I go out to eat, for instance, I am very conscious of the help and how they are being treated. When in the company of others, I have been embarrassed—even mortified—on occasion by some totally uncalled for and very inappropriate behavior. I know a few high-minded sorts who give perpetual and self-serving lip service to the plight of the server class, if you will, but who, while out and about in the bright light of day, superiorly lord over them. The contempt they exhibit for those who—foremost—don’t know their places, and who do not very precisely serve as they think they should serve, is palpable. And I’m referring here to members of the server class who conscientiously do their jobs, not the jerks and oafs (who I know are legion, too—but that’s another kettle of fish).

Yes, I believe that you can learn an awful lot about your fellow world travelers by observing how they treat “those who serve.” It’s a window into all of our souls. And bear in mind that this band of our brothers and sisters in the server class accommodates more than waiters and waitresses, but painters and plumbers, too, retail store employees all, etc., etc. Both in my capacity as server, and spectator outside of the trenches, I’ve caught glimpses of humankind's many hues.

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

The Bottomless Cup of Coffee on Life Support

On a piece of spiral notebook paper, a makeshift sign was recently posted on a refrigerator at my favorite Bronx diner, a greasy spoon as cozy and as reasonably priced as they come. The notice simply read: “Coffee small, $1.25; large, $1.75”—an increase of a whole quarter in both instances. Now, what these sudden and considerable price rises revealed—from a place ever-slow in raising its prices—is that ordinary people inflation is spiraling out of control. Forget the government’s Consumer Price Index (CPI), which is cup-of-coffee clueless and has been wrongly telling us for years that inflation is under control.

I should first make it clear that my diner’s flavorful and aromatic Cup of Joe is still a bargain at $1.25. I fully understand why the place has to raise its prices on everything from the Burger Deluxe to the BLT. And I suspect the new Starbuck’s, just a few short blocks away, doesn’t have much of anything on its menu for $1.25, and certainly not a cup of coffee.

In a neighborhood with $4.40 per gallon gas prices and commercial landlords regularly running longtime businesses out of business, the $1.25 cup of coffee assumes higher meaning. The same man who sells the $1.25 cup of coffee remembered what it was like when he first assumed ownership of his little diner in the mid-1970s. When all the bills were paid back then, he said, he always had extra money to “play around with." From his perspective once upon a time, it was worth working seven days a week. But nowadays, he barely survives toiling the very same seven-day weeks, which are not surprisingly more physically grueling for a man of sixty than a man of twenty-five. And the only reason he has been able to remain in business, he wistfully added, is because of his fair-minded landlord—a notable exception to the area rule and a man who values loyalty and stability above all else, even maximization of profits.

I am happy to report that the bottomless cup of coffee still lives where I, on occasion, ingest and imbibe, but I gather that it is on life support both there and elsewhere. The bottomless cup of coffee and indeed the American dream have gotten awfully expensive. Somebody's obviously got money to play around with these days, but it's no longer the greasy-spoon owner and the preponderance of his customers.