Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Why Hot Dog Johnny Matters

My maternal grandparents lived in the town of Bangor, Pennsylvania—approximately seventy-five miles due west of New York City. Prior to the mid-1970s, there were no I-80 roads extending this far east. Without the Interstate at our disposal, these treks over the river and through the woods to grandmother’s house therefore took us into many small towns and down intriguing main streets, which were ascetically at odds with Kingsbridge and the big city way of life that I was foremost accustomed. There were so many fascinating sights along the way, and more than a few establishments from the Bronx to Bangor that the Nigro brood so desperately wanted to patronize.

Really, it’s hard to believe that it’s been forty years since my siblings and I pined to stop at a joint called Hot Dog Johnny on Route 46 in Warren County, New Jersey. For starters, I am happy to report that Hot Dog Johnny is alive and well these many years later. In fact, it’s thriving in the new millennium as a popular landmark. But four decades ago, my father wasn’t one to call on roadside eateries, or other attractions like the Cherokee Trading Post in nearby Budd Lake. Only peeing pit stops were kosher with him, which—in these pre-Interstate little adventures of ours—typically amounted to pulling alongside the road somewhere and heading off into tree cover. My dad sprained his ankle on one such jaunt, tripping over a rusty old lawn mower that some irresponsible sort had discarded in the brush. There were no public bathrooms, or even a McDonald’s around, on this route in that bygone time.

Eventually, we did sample frankfurters from  Hot Dog Johnny. We consumed our tasty wieners on picnic tables with views of the Pequest River, which I had long assumed was nothing but a babbling brook—not a Delaware River tributary teeming with trout. The Internet is such a great source of information. I remember, too, that the place had tinted green coverings of some kind—maybe plexiglass—serving as both sun and rain blockers above the outdoor tables. Upon initially unwrapping my frank, I thought it a rather curious and unappetizing shade of green. Hot Dog Johnny served birch beer in frosted mugs, and, if memory serves, buttermilk as an alternative—something that always rang more melodious to my ears than it tasted on my palate.

By the way, Hot Dog Johnny is in the town of Buttzville. It is indeed. I always appreciated that in this neck of the woods there are so many -ville and –town suffixes. Hackettstown, for instance, not very far away, hosted another place the Nigro kids so very much desired visiting: Leo’s Lunch Stand, specializing in hamburgers and hot dogs. And just like Hot Dog Johnny, we paid Leo's a call at some point. And I am pleased to report that Leo;s, too, endures—although modernized somewhat—in the twenty-first century.

While Dr. Floyd Hess, my grandparents’ GP has long since retired and shuffled off this mortal coil, his shingle—the last time I visited Bangor—still hung outside his old office. And while I miss regularly visiting the town with local surnames like Buzzard, Kneebone, and Stucker, and senior citizens called Myrtle, Margery, and Florence, I can at least take heart that Hot Dog Johnny is timeless.

(Photo from the personal collection of Nicholas Nigro)

Saturday, July 23, 2011

Twenty Questions, One Hundred Degrees, Two Dollars

It wasn’t really necessary for me to venture out today. Nevertheless, I did and called on my bank’s ATM, which is situated in a sliver of geography that has long been a magnet—the stomping grounds, if you will—for a cross-section of poor souls. A certain old-timer I know refers to these folks as being “not quite right in the head.” While this isn’t quite a medical diagnosis, I suppose it’s apt in the cold, cruel world we call home.

Speaking of this cold, cruel world, it was 104°F in New York City yesterday and forecast to be not much better today. As I walked the several blocks to my destination, a Rorschach test of sweat blobs appeared on my T-shirt. The continent of Australia materialized about mid-chest and a distinctive ampersand around my left nipple. Very, very interesting…but, sorry, no Jesus silhouette to report.

Passing Popeye’s chicken as I made my way out of the ATM alcove, a middle-aged man—pointing at my cane—said to me, “What happened to your leg?” Sensing oddness afoot in the wretched air, I mumbled a nothing response. But he wasn’t satisfied with that. He then asked if I was Jewish. I said no. “Irish-German?” I said no again. Why was I answering this stranger’s barrage of questions? And just who asks if anybody is ‘Irish-German’?

He then said, “But your leg’s going to get better?” In the negative swing of things, I guess, and with ever-unusual sweat shapes materializing on my clothing with each passing second, I said no once more. He was beginning to annoy me. However, this last no reply made him recoil and almost cry. “I hate hearing such things,” he said. I felt bad now and tried to reassure him I was as fit as a fiddle—just fine—but he was having none of it.

He actually looked presentable enough—not down and out—with a mild drinker’s face. Still, I knew where all of this was headed, even though he prefaced what he was about to say next with: “I’m not going to ask you for any money.” He informed me that times were tough and that he had recently lost his job. He proceeded to point into Popeye’s, telling me his wife was in there, and that the pair hadn’t eaten for a couple of days. It costs “four dollars for a piece of chicken!” he said, and let out a plaintive wail for good measure. Finally, he cut to the chase and asked, “If you can help in any way in getting us some food…and you don’t have to say yes.”

Despite not really believing his wife was in Popeye’s, and that the particulars of his tale were more than likely fabricated, there was little doubt in my mind that he was on hard times—genuine hard times. It was time for a yes. I had only a $20 bill—from the ATM—and two singles on my person. I gave him the two singles, which initiated a John Boehner-esque moment. He broke down crying and said, “Thank you...thank you...and God bless.” If I had a five dollar bill on me, which is my official maximum in such chance encounters—for these are hard times for me, too—I'd have given him that. And while I don’t ordinarily give much thought to where these little money exchanges lead to, I’d rather like to think he spent it somewhere other than in Popeye’s. In fact, I’d wager two more dollars that he did.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

A Life Detour

I am still haunted by the memory of a life detour taken. It was a very literal detour—on I-95 in Providence, Rhode Island. To return to the Interstate past some roadwork, or whatever it was that necessitated the detour, I missed a critical turn. Instead of being where I wanted to be—heading south to New York on the highway—I found myself in what resembled the backdrop of a particularly seedy film noir: a labyrinthine wasteland of streets leading to nowhere.

If my car quit on me, I was certain I would never be heard from again, breathing my last as a piƱata for some indigenous motorcycle gang. Oddly, there was this classic chrome diner smack dab in the middle of this urban back country. It had an “Irradiated Burgers” neon sign in its window. I’d never heard of any such a thing. And although the word rang unpleasant and even dangerous to my ears, I had to assume “irradiating” a burger was somehow a positive. Otherwise, why have a neon sign broadcasting it? But then again, I was lost in the Providence equivalent of Yucca Flat. Perhaps the apocalypse had occurred, or maybe I crossed over into a parallel universe when I missed that key turn.

After fifteen minutes or so of vainly driving through industrial badlands brimming with unsavory characters throwing me unsavory glances, I simultaneously spied a giant termite and heaved a huge sigh of relief. While this may sound like a scene from a bad science fiction movie, this big bug, a motorist landmark, sits atop an exterminator business that has long caressed this stretch of highway. I knew then I was close to where I wanted to be—out of harm's way, on the road leading to home, sweet home, and, happily, in a familiar dimension.

Irradiating hamburgers, by the way, kills the two most common foodborne bacteria: E. coli and Salmonella. But for some strange reason this process hasn't taken the country by storm beyond one health-conscious little diner both somewhere and nowhere in Rhode Island.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

The Ongoing Borders Wars

As a youth, it was always a neat treat to call on Brentano’s on Fifth Avenue near Rockefeller Center. In the 1970s, it was the biggest bookstore in town with 31,000 square feet of space and more than 250,000 titles in stock. Founded in New York City, circa 1853, it had by then become part of the Borders Group, which operated various bookstores across the country under various names but none, as of yet, known as “Borders.”

When a larger Barnes & Noble store, with even more books to peddle, opened nearby in the 1980s—and in a lot of other places, too—Brentano’s fell by wayside. Such is the nature of dog-eat-dog business. Excuse the mixed metaphor here, but the bigger fish came to town and gobbled up the smaller fish, including a pretty big little fish like Brentano’s with its twisting wooden staircase—where patrons would sometimes plop down and peruse the merchandise—knowledgeable, customer-oriented staff, and pleasing ambiance. No, there weren't any La-Z-Boys on the premises.

Fast forward a quarter of a century and many more book superstores have opened up in the interim—in Manhattan and elsewhere—including numerous Borders stores, which I always liked courtesy of their low ceilings, library-like shelving, and—it seemed to me—greater likelihood of having oddball and otherwise hard-to-find titles for sale. But during that very same time frame, superstores have also been closing, particularly of late. And with the recent announcement that all Borders stores will shut down, the bookstore graveyard grows considerably larger.

Ironically, these bookstore giants that drove countless independents out of business have already seen their best days. A personal favorite of mine, the multi-storied, 60,000 square foot Barnes & Noble at Lincoln Center on Broadway, closed its door for good in January. There are just not big enough profit margins to be realized in book selling anymore in sprawling spaces commanding humongous rents. The stiff competition from online retailers and increasing popularity of e-books compounds this bleak picture.

And just when I was getting accustomed to having all these stores around—great places for both consumers to forage far afield and for working writers to reach an audience. Poof. I shake, shiver, and shudder at what the next twenty-five years will do to books, brick-and-mortar bookstores, and writing opportunities. But then again…when one door closes....

Sunday, July 17, 2011

No Specific Location

Parish day was an annual event at our high school. On this one afternoon set aside each year, the various Catholic parishes throughout the Bronx dispatched priests to speak with their teenage congregants who also attended Cardinal Spellman. As a graduate of St. John’s grammar school, and a parishioner of St. John’s Church (more or less), I assembled with my Kingsbridge peers.

In what was always advertised as an informal give-and-take with one of our very own men of the cloth, Father B assumed the honors during sophomore year. He was a hip clergyman who nobly endeavored to connect with skeptical youth like us—a good idea and certainly better than the condescending, scolding approach employed by his boss, Monsignor D.

When Father B first arrived at St. John’s in the early 1970s, it's fair to say that he got off on the wrong foot. At a faculty versus students’ basketball game, the new priest on the block removed his warm-up jacket and revealed a T-shirt that read, “Bitch…bitch…bitch.” Needless to say, this bit of public theater generated quite a fuss in the community. But it was such a groovy snapshot in time that Father B's colorful antics were tolerated. In fact, the old stodgy clergy of the past just didn’t jibe as well with the folk masses, female altar boys, and the "sign of peace" hand shaking that were becoming the rage. When my fifth-grade homeroom teacher, the benevolent Sister L, took up a collection to buy Father B a well-earned Christmas gift, she bought him a carton of his favorite smokes—from all of us.

At his Cardinal Spellman appearance—for reasons that now escape me—Father B, the Marlboro Man, wanted to know where each one of us hung. No, not how it hung, but where we hung out in the neighborhood.

“Where do you hang?” he asked, going up and down the rows of students.

I recall being the first one questioned—or very close to it—and felt the weight of the world thrust upon me.

“I don’t really hang out anywhere,” I said, embarrassed that I hadn’t come up with anything more profound.

“So, when you’re home…you’re pretty much home?” Father B countered.


It fast became apparent that my St. John’s alumni were similarly perplexed by this hanging interrogation. Soon after my response—honest, if nothing else—some kid named the street where he lived, Corlear, as his preferred hanging spot. Hey, why didn’t I think of that one! And once the remaining lemmings in the room realized this response was copacetic with Father B, out came all the street names on the neighborhood map: "Irwin,” “Naples Terrace,” “West 230th Street”….

Finally, Father B posed the same question, which he had asked at least a couple of dozen times, to a friend of mine.

"Where do you hang, Jim?” he queried.

“No specific location,” Jim replied to laughter and a few snickers from his schoolmates.

Most of his peers enjoyed this clever rejoinder to a question that had long since become a colossal bore and less than edifying. But there were a few detractors in the room, who didn’t appreciate what they considered a haughty answer to an inoffensive query from a well-intentioned priest. Oh, I don't know, but perhaps authority figures merit a wee bit of disrespect every now and again. Thank you, Jim.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Greg Quigley's Cautionary Tale

I worked alongside a man named Greg Quigley for several years in the 1990s. We became friends. He was in his early forties when we first met. I was ten years younger. Greg was attempting to right his life ship, which had been blown off course by a series of unfortunate events.

The man made decent money, dated his fair share of women, and appeared to have a bright future in the immediate years after graduating from college. He even asked the love of his life to marry him. She didn’t think he was ready for such a commitment and said no. She probably was right.

As his mother lay dying in a hospital, Greg wouldn’t leave her bedside and faithfully kept all-night vigils for days that turned into weeks. He told me that he didn’t want her to wake up in the middle of the night with no one around to comfort her. His married older brother, Michael, and married younger sister, Meg, were too busy with their own families for such dedication. When Mrs. Quigley passed away, Greg moved back into his boyhood home in the Little Neck neighborhood in Queens to care for his widowed father, who had a bad heart condition. It was the beginning of his descent.

The move was expected to be a temporary thing, but his ailing father clung to life for more than ten years, even after suffering a crippling stroke. Greg was regularly spotted in the area pushing his dad around in a wheelchair—a man with whom he had never gotten along. His brother, who lived nearby, rarely pitched in. His siblings viewed Greg as a nonentity; a middle-aged bachelor who didn’t have a life worth fretting over.

Greg was deeply depressed by the time his father passed away. The family home had been willed to him, so at least he would have some money coming to him when it was sold, and a roof over his head in the interim. However, his brother asked that Greg sign the property over to him. His family could move right into the old Quigley family house. What would a single guy do with such a big house anyway? And why sell it to a stranger when it could be kept in the family? Compliant, Greg gave the house to his sibling and got nothing in return. Despite being downcast and downtrodden, he rented an apartment and attempted to move on with his life.

When I got to know him, Greg was of much sounder mind. He had emerged from the doldrums and fully realized that his big brother had taken advantage of him at a very vulnerable point in his life. But that was ancient history, he said. He had made peace with that life episode. Greg worked by day and attended law school by night. On the surface, he was a living and breathing example of the possibilities of redemption. Seemingly, he was picking up the pieces and beginning again.

Greg once said to me: “I know that I have to get past all of that stuff. I’m forty years old now. I’m responsible for my actions. But just realizing it and saying it doesn’t make me a different person. I am who I am because of my parents and how I was raised.”

Greg passed the New York State bar exam on his second try. His future looked far more promising than his recent past. But, paradoxically, he made almost no effort to find a job in the law profession. A former professor of his—and regular customer at the retail shop where Greg labored to pay his bills—offered to help him get a foot in the door. Fast forward a couple of years and Greg was working a new job all right, but not with a law firm or even in the field. He was driving a cab for Ollie’s car service in Queens.

The very last time I spoke with him—which I didn’t know would be the last time—we talked about living alone and the prospect of dropping dead in our respective apartments. This was par for our conversation course. We laughed at the thought of our decomposing bodies reeking to high heaven and alerting the neighbors that something was rotten in the State of New York. It was mostly tongue-in-cheek banter, but Greg was absolutely serious when he painted a picture of—what was for him—his worst nightmare. He didn’t want to be found dead stark naked. When his time came, he hoped to be suitably attired and peacefully reclining in his bed or easy chair. He had this thing about dying with dignity. Even the notion of being found in his underwear disturbed him.

I can only surmise that Greg wanted a dignity in death that he didn’t have in life. He also worried that his vast collection of pornography would be discovered upon his death. He loathed the thought of his little sister, pushing forty and with kids of her own, cleaning out his apartment and unearthing the less than wholesome side of her big brother’s inner life. He wanted his niece and nephew to fondly remember their Uncle Greg as the man who took them to Mets’ games at Shea Stadium and to movies in Manhattan.

My final conversation with Greg occurred in June of 1998. He left me a “just called to say hello” message while I was away in early September. I didn’t return the call. I learned in late November that he had died. He had, in fact, been found dead in his apartment, and probably had been dead for a while before his body was discovered. By the time anybody outside of his immediate family got word of his passing, Greg was already in the ground. The full story of how he died, or what exactly was the cause of death, remains unknown.

Greg’s untimely end was a bona fide tragedy because he had exhibited undaunted courage and admirable determination in accomplishing what he did at his age and in his straits. He approached the finish line. But for reasons known only to him, he didn’t cross it. And now he’s dead, and I don’t how it happened or why it happened. I hope for his sake that he was appropriately dressed and composed when his body was found. At the very least, Greg deserved that.

(Photo from the personal collection of Nicholas Nigro)

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Dangerous Pastime

Last week, a fan reached over a railing and tragically fell to his death in an attempt to catch a baseball thrown into the stands at Rangers Ballpark in Arlington, Texas. He hoped to catch it for his young son, who was sitting beside him. Yesterday, it seems yet another fan came very near tumbling over a railing to catch a baseball at the All-Star game’s Home Run Derby in Phoenix.

As a younger man, I occasionally attended Mets’ games at the dearly departed Shea Stadium. And, admittedly, I would have loved to return home with a game baseball as a souvenir. Never did though. In fact, I enjoyed nothing more than going to the games early for batting practice, when recurring cracks of the bat sent baseballs whizzing to and fro, some of which landed in unpopulated areas of seating. These baseballs coming to rest in Nowhere Land always initiated mad dashes, with fans sprinting from every direction to reach them.

I could never bring myself to compete in these frenzied ball chases. In its many incarnations, stadium baseball chasing has always had an Old West feel to it. During one memorable batting practice, a ball landed just a few feet to my younger brother’s right and settled under an unoccupied seat. There was nobody else nearby. But as he shimmied over and bent down to pick up the baseball, and assume lawful possession of it, a mob materialized seemingly out of nowhere. A cluster of fans after the same thing—and, believe me, it was every man for himself—quite literally jumped on top of him as he was grabbing hold of the baseball.

When the dust settled in this cartoonish scenario—of a pile of human bodies in pursuit of a couple of dollars worth of tightly wound leather, wool, and rubber—a bruiser-type had somehow managed to snatch the ball away in the melee. Oblivious to his crime—we were, after all, in the stadium jungle where the laws of civil society are suspended—he returned to his friends in a state of galootish ecstasy and received high-fives and boorish howls of commendation for a job well done.

There is something about catching a baseball—or even picking one off the ground—at the ballpark. But, really, I don’t think it was worth risking life and limb in pursuit of a batting-practice ball off the bat of Kelvin Chapman or Junior Ortiz in the mid-1980s. Nor, I daresay, is it worth risking life and limb for a Derek Jeter fair or foul ball a quarter of a century later.

Monday, July 11, 2011

Beware of the Sponge

One of my fondest high school memories—or, very possibly, my one and only fond memory—is the cafeteria. Cardinal Spellman in the Bronx served up some rather fine fare back in the day, including daily specials alongside a tasty and economical hot dog as an every day alternative. The school’s roast beef wedges, with their special cafeteria au jus, were otherworldly—better than anything Subway presently serves. On Wednesdays, the light-up menu board always read: “Roast Beef Wedge and Mashed Pot.” Potato was just too long a word to fit.

I absolutely loved Friday’s special, which featured square slices of pizza with a very unique consistency. It’s kind of hard to describe all these years later, but I think a "soggy kind of savory" would do this pizza justice. Granted, I  was a teenager with teenager taste buds. And no, I’m not quite certain my adult palate would so warmly embrace this pizza’s curious gooeyness, but memories of simpler times, I've found, are rarely simple.

Ah, but leave it to a fine Catholic institution of learning to cast a smothering pall over its five-star culinary hub, which is what the powers-that-were did—and with a pedestrian sponge no less. Yes, a sponge—a sopping, soiled, and bacteria-laden one. In the waning moments of the school’s three lunch periods, a sorry lot of students were assigned either sponge duty, or the picking up of garbage from the cafeteria tables and off the cafeteria floor. Student councilors—seniors—would randomly select who would have to perform these messy tasks. On occasion, a general announcement might be made that any boys with red on their ties or girls with blond hair—or some such things—would have to clean up the spilled milk and splattered mustard with the dirty sponges supplied them after everybody else was sent on his or her merry way.

We were not furnished rubber gloves for this task. Nor did we did we have time to wash our hands before returning to our next classes. In fact, some of us didn’t even have the time to make it to the next class before the buzzer’s knell. And a few less than sympathetic teachers—the ones who no doubt hated kids and should have been in another profession—would send us to the dean’s office, where we’d be given detention for being thirty seconds, or a minute, late because we were involuntarily cleaning messes off dirty lunch tables with grimy sponges.

I’ve since learned that sponge duty is a relic of the past at my alma mater. Evidently, the more informed age in which we live puts a premium on both clean hands and clean thoughts—and it has cast asunder a vaunted tradition. And while I’m philosophically opposed to the nanny state of affairs, I’m not shedding any tears that the nasty sponge, and all that it wrought, has been retired for all time at my old high school. In fact, I hope one has been bronzed and is on display in the school's Cardinal's Room, which celebrates the life and times of the less than savory man for whom the school is named.

Saturday, July 9, 2011

Success and the Shopkeeper...

Several years ago—in the wrong place at the wrong time—I was in earshot of an elderly woman named Catherine as she ruminated on her life and times. Catherine was knocking on eighty and had raised three children—two sons and a daughter. In Catherine’s humble estimation, her daughter passed muster in the game of life. She married a good provider and supplied her mother with a healthy parcel of grandchildren. Her oldest son did all right, too. Straight out of college, he took a good job with good benefits, married, furnished mom with grandkids, and never looked back.

It was the middle child, Robbie, who didn’t quite live up to his mother’s expectations of the way things ought to be, despite having added to her ample brood of grandchildren. Robbie made more money than his two siblings combined—a lot more—but this didn’t earn him any extra credit as far as old mama was concerned, which was kind of strange. Money equals success from the perspectives of an awful lot of people, and Catherine was fixated on dollars and cents, even though her senior citizen savings were closing in on seven figures. Her husband had been both a good provider and a good investor, yet she still watered down the Hawaiian Punch in grave fear that she might one day end up in the poor house.

Robbie, in fact, made more dough than anybody on the family tree, which could be traced back to hardworking fishermen on the southern coast of Italy. In his mother’s worldview, Robbie’s unpardonable sin was that he made all of his moolah—millions—in a rather grungy retail environment. In other words, he didn’t wear a suit and tie to work every day, and didn’t have a benefits package bestowed on him by some benevolent corporate benefactor like GE, the Bank of America, or Proctor & Gamble. Catherine relished passing on up-to-the-minute employment reports on her relations—once, twice, and thrice removed, it didn’t matter. From where she sat, there was nothing that commanded more awe and respect than working for a “big company,” wearing neatly pressed dress clothes, and, of course, putting in very long hours for a familiar corporate master.

That her son founded a business on his own that eventually employed hundreds of people didn’t impress her in the least. Looking back on all that was, she wistfully remarked, “Robbie is content to be a shopkeeper.” And then added as a parenthetical aside: “He had a really good job, too, at Gimbel's when he got out of college. He could have gone places there had he stayed with them.” Upon graduation, Robbie had managed this Manhattan department store’s kitchen appliance section. He wore a suit and tie to work and—the icing on the cake from mama’s catbird seat—schlepped on the subway to the job day after day after day. It doesn’t get any better than that. “He could have gotten three weeks vacation had he stayed there for five years,” Catherine recalled almost four decades later. True, multi-millionaire Robbie could have one day become the CEO of Gimbel's—all things are possible, I suppose—just in time for the department store chain to declare bankruptcy and take all their generous employee benefit packages with them.

So, you must be wondering by now: What exactly is the meaning of this life parable? What exactly is the meaning of success? Well, I just don’t know. But Catherine apparently knew and, for starters—just starters—shopkeepers all were a bunch of losers.