Thursday, June 23, 2011

Of Late I Think of the Spaldeen

During a recent stroll down memory lane, I unearthed an interesting tidbit of information. I knew that the Spalding Company, sometime in 1999, had reintroduced to the marketplace what we once upon a time called a “spaldeen.” This formerly ubiquitous, and amazingly versatile, high-bouncing rubber ball was, due to ever-waning consumer interest, discontinued in 1979. However, I was unaware until now that the manufacturer had subsequently trademarked the ball’s illustrious nickname. So, technically, I should at the very least be capitalizing the word (as I don’t have a TM symbol at my disposal).

But since this blog permits me to work from my own stylebook—unlike my corporate masters—“spaldeen” will remain lowercase in perpetuity as a well-earned tribute to the urban youth of yesteryear who played with the ball. To the generations of young people, who not only coined the term more than a half century ago, but also followed this bouncing ball to so, so many intriguing places, the spaldeen belongs to them. But let’s give credit where credit is due. Upon the ball’s reintroduction after a two-decade hiatus, the Spalding Company valiantly endeavored to teach a new generation a few old tricks, as it were, by familiarizing them with the myriad games played in the past with their very resourceful rubber ball. (It is held, by the way, that one particular New York City outer-borough accent perpetually pronounced “Spalding”—the company named stamped on the pink and pleasantly rubber-scented ball—as “spaldeen,” and, as they say, the rest is history.)

Plucking out a fresh spaldeen from a plastic container on the counter of Bill’s Friendly Spot—famous for both its delicious egg creams and not especially congenial atmosphere—was a familiar ritual for many in the old neighborhood. Aside from the legendary game of stickball, I could rattle off several others that I played with a spaldeen like box ball, box baseball, curb ball, stoop ball, Ace-King-Queen, SPUD, and Hit the Stick.

A couple of the games on a YouTube loop in my brain are, I believe, true originals, unique to the backyard lay of the land where I grew up. One we called “Single, Double, Triple,” which involved tossing a spaldeen against the back wall of a three-family brick house on Tibbett Avenue, with an opponent stationed in the backyard of a three-family brick house on Corlear Avenue. A spaldeen that wasn’t caught in the air could either be a single (one bounce), double (two bounce), triple (three bounce), etc. Another game unique to our topography was simply called “Throw It Against the Wall.” It necessitated throwing—yes—a spaldeen against a patchwork cemented wall, with an opponent fielding everything that came off of it from pop flies to line drives to ground balls. It’s actually a little too byzantine to explain here without visuals, but suffice it to say, it was the game neighbors and I played both the most and the longest—into the early 1980s, in fact, even after the spaldeen was temporarily consigned to the ash heap of history and many of us were, chronologically at least, adults. We used tennis balls. Spaldeens, after all, were originally reject tennis balls that were sold, dirt-cheap, to wholesalers.

I really hate to end on a sour note here, but the Spalding Company's best laid plans of bringing back the spaldeen, and returning it to its former glory, have been largely unsuccessful. Most of the ball’s current sales end up on nostalgic baby boomers’ curio shelves, and not in the hands of boys and girls out and about on concrete or asphalt enjoying all that they can do. No, I’m not likely to see any local boys playing box ball anytime soon, or girls playing Composition. “Composition letter S, may I repeat the letter S, because I like the letter S, spaldeen begins with the letter S.”

Saturday, June 18, 2011

Further Misadventures in the "World's Greatest Healthcare System"

Submitted for your approval: Yet another excellent misadventure amidst the World’s Greatest Healthcare System. A friend of mine, who owns and operates a small business with several retail stores and dozens of employees, recently informed me that offering comprehensive health insurance to his staff has become cost prohibitive. He said the price tag has climbed to more than $900 per month—over $11,000 annually—per person. This scenario from a pool plan offering considerable discounts to participating businesses. If an employee of his desires health insurance through the business, he or she will now have to pony up fifty percent of the tab.

That’s the long and short of it: Employees earning as little as $8, $9, and $10 per hour in many instances—$400 a week, let’s say, before taxes—will have to dole out $5,500 for their health insurance. In other words, it would take more than a week’s salary, every month, to pay for coverage. And as for anything resembling a family plan…well…fuggedaboutit.

Strange, though, but according to a New York Daily News story last week—headlined “Health Care Nightmare”—that $5,500 price is something of a bargain, albeit a Faustian one. The paper reported on the exorbitant costs to individuals purchasing health insurance in the free market servicing New York City and its surrounding topography. It seems the cheapest HMO plan in town is the Health Insurance Plan of Greater New York with a monthly premium of $1,486 per individual/$4,284 per family. The remaining options are more expensive—and some dramatically so. At best, a man or woman living in New York City could buy a health insurance policy for $18,000 per year. The newspaper story also noted that ten years ago approximately 100,000 city residents purchased their own insurance. Today, that number stands at 13,335, which is not exactly surprising and not especially encouraging. In fact, a case could be made that something’s rotten in the City of New York, and in a whole lot of other places, too, under the stranglehold of the World’s Greatest Healthcare System.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

The Case of the Missing Motivation

Once upon a time for a college composition course, I was asked to write about my most embarrassing moment. Ironically, I recounted the story of failing first-quarter sophomore English several years earlier in high school. I received a sixty-nine when my school’s passing grade was seventy. I chronicled how we were summoned, in alphabetical order, to the teacher’s desk for a pre-report card look-see at our grades.

If memory serves, I referred to the high school teacher’s “fat finger” pointing at a “fat and ugly sixty-nine,” which was underlined in red in his ledger book. I wrote something to the effect that I experienced the “fires of humiliation” right then and there, which, I suppose in hindsight, passed for college-clever writing. I opted not to recount the background story of this “most embarrassing moment” of mine. That is, how forty percent of the grade was based on books from our summer reading list that I—at least partially—did not read. Explaining in this brief writing assignment that I read lots of books, just not the ones required for school, was way too involved. That summer, I finished everything from Peter Benchley’s The Deep to John Dean’s Blind Ambition, a memoir about his life and crimes in the Nixon White House. In fact, the fifteen- and sixteen-year-old me read a spate of Watergate protagonists’ books in the late 1970s, but often neglected to read the likes of Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms and Stephen Crane’s Red Badge of Courage during summer vacations. Strange, I know.

Back to the college years and my freshman-year English professor, who elected to read selected essays aloud and offer commentary along the way. Courtesy of the potentially awkward subject matter, he protected each student author's anonymity. Still, I internally groaned when he chose my “Tale of the Shamed Sophomore," squirming to and fro as he read what I had written to the class. Outwardly, though, I remained poker-faced and maintained my secret. “I don’t know how you failed English writing sentences like this,” the professor intoned at one point, which was a welcome pat on my head that briefly assuaged my anxiety. But then suddenly, and without fair warning, he stumbled upon a grammatical faux pas of some sort—an egregious comma splice, I think. “Never…never…Nicholas!” he said. Caught up in what was a textbook teaching moment—and a rather sinuous alliteration—the essayist’s identity was revealed. I was the only “Nicholas” around. There was even a classmate of mine from the old high school on the scene. “Who’d you have?” he asked, underscoring yet another embarrassing moment for me to someday write about.

Subsequently, each one of us in this English class met privately with our professor, a truly esteemed educator and the school’s poet laureate. He talked about our individual essays and offered us helpful hints on how to refine our written communication skills. He told me that I had some real talent in this craft, but that there was a missing link. "It's the motivation,” he said. Proving how on target he was, I actually didn’t give his words all that much thought at the time. This, after all, would explain a whole lot of things in my misspent youth, including not reading required schoolbooks in high school and making countless careless errors in college essays. Nowadays, when I recall this private meeting with such a learned professor, I cannot help but rue the many mentoring moments I chose not to take advantage of, or missed entirely because I couldn't see the forest for the trees. Today, more than a quarter of a century later, and of a vastly different mindset, I would not only listen intently to what this former professor of mine had to say, but hunger for more and more.

Saturday, June 11, 2011

Jumping the Shark...Again

Evidently, the New York City bureaucracy and its supreme leader are really and truly concerned about our health and wellness. The city fathers and mothers are currently on an anti-sugar binge, compelling vendors in municipal courthouses—most of whom are legally blind by the way—to promote healthier bottles of water over high-calorie beverages like soda pop and energy drinks. Small business owners are crying foul, claiming that this new edict will completely ruin them, or, at the very least, cause them to layoff employees because of lost revenues. Not surprisingly, their cries have fallen on deaf ears.

The city’s health department is now mandating that “soda machines,” as they were once affectionately known, maintain a maximum of just two options containing twenty-five calories or more. The remaining offerings in the machine—the vast majority—must consist of beverages with less than twenty-five calories. In addition, no drink can surpass twelve ounces, thus putting the kibosh on the sale of popular twenty-ounce sodas and their ample-sized brethren.

I cannot help but believe the city bureaucracy has jumped the shark on this one—yet again, which, I realize, nullifies this particular analogy—by championing plastic bottles of water above all else. Yes, I know, it’s all about making us svelter in the here and now and healthier over the long haul. But yet these excessively meddling civil servants don’t seem at all exorcised at the environmental waste involved in the mounds of plastic manufactured for a product that, typically, is no better than what comes out of our faucets.

For a government entity to involve itself in the minutia of what perfectly legal products—for people of all ages—can be sold in vending machines is surreal. If, for whatever reason, somebody in a city courthouse or city hospital is feeling a bit unglued, it seems to me that a mayor and bureaucracy should not have it within their powers to deny this thirsty individual and citizen a twenty-ounce Dr. Pepper, if that is what he or she desires in this free country of ours.

Friday, June 10, 2011

Speak Softly and Carry a Big Stickball Bat

Stickball has been called the “poor man’s baseball.” An urban game largely associated with the streets of New York and some of its gritty metropolitan neighbors, like Jersey City, it’s the stuff of legend. Believed to have initially taken flight in the early 1920s, stickball was played on the streets with a broom handle and a rubber ball colloquially known as a “spaldeen.” Manhole covers served as bases and key game markers.

But like virtually every city street game from the past, stickball sightings are pretty rare these days. I can honestly say that my generation was the last to play it faithfully and informally in neighborhood after neighborhood—and in various incarnations, too—throughout the spring and summer months. My father and his friends played countless stickball games in the 1940s and 1950s on the local streets of Kingsbridge in the Bronx. In sharp contrast with today's mega-congestion, the streets were then lightly trafficked with very few parked cars to get in the way. From the photographic evidence in my possession, guys sometimes sported dress clothes and dress shoes while taking their cuts and sprinting around from sewer to sewer. Apparently, there was no such thing as going home and changing into more appropriate attire after work. It was play ball. And, too, people dressed up and stayed dressed up on Sundays back them, stickball game or not.

By the time I came of stickball age, games were still played on the streets. But slowly but surely, a newer stickball incarnation was taking hold: fast-pitching against a wall—some kind of backdrop—with a spray painted or, as we more law-abiding youth employed, a chalk-outlined and even masking-taped strike-zone box.

The combined one-two punch of youthful love of the game and corresponding lack of disposable income inspired us, on occasion, to fish the neighborhood sewers for spaldeens—the ones that got away. Spaldeens on the streets were ubiquitous during my boyhood in the 1960s and 1970s, and used for a variety of purposes. Naturally, a fair share of them inevitably found their ways into the four corner sewers at intersecting streets. Were it not for a long-handled fish net, these landings might have been the spaldeens' final-resting places. Admittedly, the balls were foul-smelling and quite grimy to touch after we plucked them out of the sewers' putrid muck, and only marginally improved after we thoroughly hosed them down. Hand sanitizers would have come in handy.

We eventually switched to tennis balls as our preferred stickball orbs, but Bill Jr. of Bill’s Friendly Spot, a local candy store, chastised us when we returned broken bats bought from him. “How many times do I have to tell you guys!" he said. "You can’t use tennis balls with them!” The price we paid for purchasing stickball bats solely for their coolly painted yellows, reds, and blues were lectures from a cantankerous shopkeeper and no refunds.

We once thought we had solved our stickball bat dilemma for all time with an aluminum broom handle taken from my mother’s mop. However, that thing was dinged, dented, and irreparably distorted in very short order. We likewise surmised that a super-thick wooden flagpole was a stickball bat godsend, but it, too, just wasn't up to the task. Shattering after only a couple of innings of play, the pole’s visible thickness evidently didn’t equate with its denseness. And one neighbor family was without a flagpole.

Eventually, a friend and stickball devotee discovered a very strong broom handle—as lean and mean as they came—at his family’s fish store. Our bat problems were forevermore solved—through, in fact, the very last game we played at nearby John F. Kennedy High School, the ideal locale for a stickball game. As is so often the case with so many things in life, we didn't realize at the time that our very last stickball game would be our very last—and the end of an era, too.

(Photos from the personal collection of Nicholas Nigro)

Monday, June 6, 2011

Old and New

I vaguely remember as a boy seeing a movie in the New Marble Hill theater in the old neighborhood. I’d hazard a guess it was sometime in the late 1960s, not too long before this historic movie house closed for good. My father, on the other hand, recalled numerous visits to the RKO Marble Hill—the old Marble Hill theater, as it were—in his new neighborhood during the late 1940s and 1950s. The place first opened its doors on the Bronx’s Broadway in 1917, when the area was positively pastoral, albeit with an elevated subway line running through it.

For the most part, my memories of this celebrated theater, with its ornate interior, are from the years after it had shut its doors. You see, its New Marble Hill theater marquee remained, looking increasingly old as the days and months passed. As a matter of fact, it hung for decades as a decomposing relic and reminder of both the old and new having seen better days and, too, having run out of time.

Actually, a daily Bingo game breathed new life—if you wish to call it that—back into the New Marble Hill theater for a spell. But it was almost sacrilege hearing people screaming “Bingo” in a crowded theater, especially one with such a rich history and magnificent tapestry. But then again, no grand theater—old or new—could make a go of it in that geographic locale anymore. So, I suppose a regular Bingo game was better than nothing at all there, for it at the very least permitted people to behold both the old and new Marble Hill theaters in one fell swoop. For Bingo players, it was also an opportunity to bathe in a bit of history, although I suspect that checking out the lavish ceiling above them took a back seat to listening for the cries of B-3, G-9, and O-17.

Fast forward to the present and the Bingo game is gone as well from this hallowed location. The old Marble Hill theater that became the new Marble Hill theater currently accommodates a series of retail businesses on street level. The marquee, which had become hideously dilapidated after the place’s closure and lengthy passage of time, is also gone with the wind in what is now known, in recognition of all that was, as Marble Hill Plaza. At last report, the interior theater and its distinctive architecture endure—unseen now by the public but survivors of years and years of outright neglect and, too, Bingo.

(Photos from the personal collection of Nicholas Nigro)

Friday, June 3, 2011

Not Going Home Again...This '70s Blog...

As a callow youth in the glorious 1970s, planet Earth was an incredibly warm and reassuring orb—pure as the driven snow—and the old neighborhood I grew up in a veritable Shangri-La. Wasn’t it? Regarding the latter at least, that’s the recurring sentiment I encounter on an Internet site devoted to sharing one’s memories of the good old days in the good old stomping grounds. In fact, one former resident of this paradise lost posts what he considers “Exhibit A” photos of this formerly pristine neighborhood of ours turned completely rotten and downright scary in its maturer incarnation. A snapshot features a familiar homeless man hanging around a familiar bank. There were never, ever any unfortunate—and in some cases very unsavory—souls on the streets back in the day. Hey, wait just a second here—I believe there were. I could even identify a few by their neighborhood handles, but I won't just now. Further accounts from the 2011 dark side—of visible drug-use and its associated crime—abound in these virtual tête-à-têtes that often paint a portrait of growing up thirty and forty years ago in the Bronx equivalent of Walnut Grove.

I’ll happily concede to fondly remembering the old place in the old days—it was a simpler time, lost forever, on numerous fronts—but both the 1970s neighborhood milieu and life in the big city were anything but clean, safe, and orderly. For starters, the subways were none of the above. They were covered in an unsightly fusion of grime and graffiti back then, much more dangerous, and considerably more unreliable than they are today.

While venturing downtown with an older sister to see the film Heaven Can Wait, starring Warren Beatty, in the summer of 1978, a woman was robbed at gunpoint—on the Number 1 train, in the middle of the afternoon, at the rather busy Lincoln Center station. And there wasn't a police officer in eyeshot or earshot to come to her aid. A fiscal crisis had seen to that. Please forgive my cowardice in this instance, but being at once unarmed and fifteen-years-old, I just couldn’t summon the courage to chase after a guy brandishing both a handgun and a lady’s handbag. That very same summer, a neighbor was shot at through his car windshield in the front of his house in the wee small hours of the morning. He ducked in the nick of time in what was, very fortunately, a failed robbery attempt. A few months later, the family next door was ransacked of all their valuable jewelry. Apartments and garages were regularly robbed, too, of their TVs, toasters, and bicycles. Oh, and the area’s parks were in visible decay and pretty seedy.

While I revere the good old days, frequently traffic in nostalgia, and pine for the simpler days every time I cross paths with some oblivious, rude, and silly fool yakking on a cell phone (which is daily), I fully appreciate that you can’t go home again—even if you still live in the same geographical locale. So why bother trying? As Billy Joel sang so eloquently once upon a time: "The good old day weren't always good, and tomorrow's not as bad as it seems."

(Photo from the personal collection of Nicholas Nigro)