Monday, August 29, 2011

A Parable: the Minister, Tree Branch, and Me

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, August 21, 2011

Just Say No...to Poop River

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, August 19, 2011

Signs of the Times

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

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

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

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Cream Sam Summers


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

The Same Non-Excuse


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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, August 13, 2011

Exercising with Jehovah's Witnesses...Not a Quinn Martin Production


Residing in the Bronx has its benefits. Jehovah’s Witnesses periodically ringing my doorbell and trying to recruit me into their cult are not among them. Foremost, let me state at the outset that their encounters with me have always been unfailingly polite, which is why I can’t bring myself to slam my door in their earnest faces.

Nearing the end of an extended walk and a bit of grocery shopping this morning—part of my use it or lose it very soon exercise regimen—I was sweat-laden and plum tuckered out when I spied Jehovah’s Witnesses making the rounds in the vicinity of home. I made a mental note not to answer my bell after I was safely ensconced indoors, because I’d absolutely know who was calling. But lo and behold, as I turned the corner—seconds away from mission accomplished and a day’s exercise in the books—Jehovah’s Witnesses were hovering all too near my front door. I couldn’t enter my apartment without them noticing me and, worst of all, catching my ear. I opted instead to both keep walking and keep sweating, returning several minutes later to find them stationary and patiently waiting for someone or something. If nothing else, they are a persistent religious sect. I then walked completely around the block—and we’ve got pretty long blocks around here—and they had finally soldiered on.

The last time that I had conversed with Jehovah’s Witnesses at my front door, a question was posed to me: “We are asking people to name the person they most admire?” I kind of knew what the “right” answer was, as far as they were concerned, despite having a question of my own to ask them. I nonetheless said, “Quinn Martin.” Jehovah’s Witnesses aren’t a very curious bunch, so not a one of them asked me who, pray tell, was Quinn Martin? Naturally, most people had told them the person they most admired in this world was—drum roll, please—Jesus Christ. “Oh, sorry, I didn’t know He qualified as a person,” I said. Blank looks all around....

Both a close relation and devout Catholic once told me her foolproof method of getting rid of Jehovah’s Witnesses, as it were. She tells them she’s a pious disciple of her faith, which she is. I should say the same thing, she said, even though she knew I wasn’t. So, I tried it and it actually worked. But I felt kind of weird in employing the fib, and not because I was morally troubled by lying to Jehovah’s Witnesses to get them on their merry way. There was just something unclean about claiming to be a committed religious anything in order to squirm out of the grips of an even more zealous and delusional dogma.

Anyway, after I worked the ruse, one of the Jehovah’s Witnesses said, “Oh, okay—yes—Catholics believe in Jesus Christ, too.” Raised a Catholic and schooled in Catholic education—lower to higher—I still recall a few theological and historical matters. Too? I think Catholics were first in line on the Jesus thing, no? Well, I suppose if I believed Armageddon was imminent, I’d likely alter my modus operandi somewhat, although I doubt very much I’d go around ringing doorbells in the Bronx and Brooklyn. But then, Jehovah’s Witnesses don’t observe such pagan traditions as Christmas and even birthdays. Nevertheless, sincere thanks are in order to them for making me push the envelope a bit on my daily exercise routine.

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

It's Lights Out in the Political Theater


Thirty-seven years ago today, I know exactly where I was—in Bangor, Pennsylvania. My mother was looking after my grandfather while my grandmother was away. It was also the day in American history when Richard Nixon’s presidency officially ended at high noon. I recall my mother telling my grandfather he resembled our new president, Gerald Ford, “a Ford not a Lincoln.” I also remember he tasted lentil soup for the first time in his life. When asked for his appraisal, he replied, “I’ve tasted worser [sic] soups.”

I was not yet twelve then but nonetheless fascinated with political theater, although not political issues. Nowadays, I’d say, I’m decidedly less interested in the theater but very much interested in the issues. And it’s not solely the ravages of mind, body, and psyche that are behind this metamorphosis. No, something else is afoot. Contemporary political theater reflects the times and is more shallow, partisan, and wholly less interesting on numerous fronts. In fact, it’s downright nauseating on many, if not most, occasions, which is why I choose not to watch scripted pols and their flacks recite vacuous talking points on the boob tube. Once upon a time I faithfully tuned in to everything from CNN’s Crossfire—night after night after night—to Sunday morning network fare like This Week with David Brinkley. But no more.

At the tender age of six in 1968—that seminal year—I sported a Nixon campaign button on my little person as Election Day drew near. Very young kids roamed the nearby streets unchaperoned in the old Bronx neighborhood back then. I remember being all by myself—around the corner from home—when a couple of girls festooned in Humphrey-Muskie regalia approached me. They queried mini-me as to why I was wearing a Nixon pin, and then made me an offer I couldn’t refuse. If I turned over my pinback to them, they in turn would give me a bunch of Humphrey-Muskie tabs and some campaign literature. I accepted their offer straightaway, including their two provisos. I would disseminate the materials to adult family and friends and, too, urge them to vote for the Humphrey-Muskie ticket.

What happened next is sadly buried deep in my memory bank. Perhaps hypnosis could unearth what really went down. I can, however, say with absolute confidence that I didn’t move any minds or make any Democratic converts within the family. Still, that little boy sensed the palpable political drama in the ether around—in what were definitely volatile times—and he loved it.

On this day, thirty-seven years ago, Nixon not only got out of Washington town, but also delivered a largely extemporaneous farewell address to his cabinet and the White House staff. It was a captivatingly rambling speech chock full of psychological good stuff, insight, and strangeness from the lips of a disgraced politician in the throes of an emotional breakdown—the ultimate Greek tragedy playing itself out on an American stage. While interminable drama on the current political landscape exists, it’s largely of the lame variety. Regrettably, it's lights out for genuine and compelling political theater.

Sunday, August 7, 2011

Mystical Manhattan Moment


Yesterday, on a mostly overcast and very humid summer afternoon, something downright mystical occurred on the island of Manhattan. I met a friend and, before we parted, patronized an eatery. One, in fact, that we hadn’t frequented in more than a decade. Time surely does fly. And not because we disapproved of its cuisine or its cleanliness. We just got into an unholy habit of pinching our pennies when we met, and typically called upon pizza places, where we ate a slice or two and saved a few bucks.

Anyway, the establishment was a diner called Joe Junior’s on Third Avenue and 16th Street. In fact, there used to be another place by the same name not too far away. But it recently lost its lease in yet another rapacious landlord situation, which is, sadly, the norm nowadays in New York City. This remaining location was nonetheless just fine. When we ate there in the simpler times of the 1990s, I dubbed the spot the “Jesse Orosco Joe Junior’s,” so as to differentiate it from its namesake to the south, where my friend and I had also enjoyed a few repasts.

Why, you ask, Jesse Orosco? Well, it seems a certain waiter-owner resembled New York Mets, Class of 1986, star reliever Jesse Orosco. And I never in my wildest dreams could have conceived that said person would still be on the premises—and doing what he did more than ten years ago—because there have been oh so many changes in that neck of the woods. Landlords have been running the truly genuine diners out of town, which just cannot afford the astronomical rents. Yuppie foodies, too, who prefer both artifice and paying top dollar for trendy mutations of perfectly fine fare, reign supreme in countless New York neighborhoods.

Sure, Jesse O was a little older—like us all—but as efficient and courteous as I remember him way back when, which seems like only yesterday. Bearing witness to this welcome continuity in a city that’s changed so much was an extraordinary moment for sure. Encountering Jesse O on the scene in a throwback greasy spoon with bona fide diner prices in the Gramercy Park section of Manhattan—well, there really are no words. Joe Junior’s burger cost four dollars and change and was the genuine article. My friend and I couldn’t resist the temptation, and we ordered ours medium rare—risky as that sometimes is. They were deliciously raw in spots but no E. coli poisoning—I’m happy to report—more than twenty-four hours later.

Jesse O still laboring at Joe Junior's. Scrumptious hamburgers plucked from an authentic diner menu and, despite its very expensive address, priced accordingly. Now, come on, if yesterday’s culinary experience doesn’t qualify as a mystical one—or, at the very least, near mystical—then I really don’t know what possibly could. I can only say: Long live Joe Junior’s—with its steaks, chops, and seafood—and their ever-dwindling brethren.

Thursday, August 4, 2011

What the Dead Fish Taught Me...


Approximately forty years ago, three young boys found a dead fish on the shores of the Manasquan Inlet. Actually, it was on an obscure, non-swimming sandy beach in what I’ve since learned is part of the fifty-five acre Fisherman’s Cove Conservation Area. But four decades ago this slice of geography was considered both off-the-beaten trail and sort of on the seedy side. Few people navigated it with its myriad byways through tall and thick sea grass—Tick Country. This sprawling space is a popular “dog beach” now and has been considerably upgraded and manicured.

It was early springtime when my two brothers and I—visiting family friends who owned a home in Manasquan—made a beeline to this stark stretch of beach whose shoreline looked out into a busy seafaring thoroughfare of chartered fishing boats, pleasure crafts, and Coast Guard vessels heading to, and coming back from, the Atlantic Ocean, a maritime stone’s throw away at the mouth of the inlet.

The close proximity to the ocean and incessant boat traffic ensured that small waves perpetually crashed along the shore there. The beach was kind of difficult to access from our entry point—we had to climb down a haphazard pile of rocks—and a little bit malodorous, too, but in the most evocatively natural sense. Sea remains washed ashore there all the time, including every imaginable strain of seaweed, the ubiquitous horseshoe crab, and other creatures of the deep.

The beach was quite desolate when we touched the sand, which was the norm, but even more so because it was springtime and pretty cold outside. The Pea Coats we wore underscored both the temperature outside and the snapshot in time: the early 1970s. We also called our in-style sartorial winter wear “navy jackets.” Boys from the Bronx wearing navy jackets by the Manasquan Inlet in springtime—it didn't get much better than that! So, encountering an as-yet-decaying and as-yet-reeking dead fish was a real find for us—both exciting and cool in a seashore setting with fishermen everywhere and nearby streets named Whiting, Perch, and Pike. And just as a cat might bring home a dead mouse or cicada bug, we brought our dead fish—our catch—back to the house. We wanted this Kodak moment to be captured for posterity, I suppose.

Encountering a dead fish on a lonely stretch of beach wouldn’t really do much for me anymore. And as I don’t carry around a pair of rubber gloves and hand sanitizer, I very likely wouldn’t even touch one. Perhaps, though, we all need to awaken that inner-child in us again. You know, the one who would enthusiastically transport a dead fish—that, of course, had died of natural causes as part of the cycle of life—home. I suspect the world would be a better place if we did.

(Photo from the personal collection of Nicholas Nigro)

Monday, August 1, 2011

Indisputably Simpler Times


Often with my tongue firmly planted in cheek, but not always, I am wont to make reference to “simpler times.” However, in this particular recollection of what was, the jury is unanimous: Simpler times indeed.

Kingsbridge in the Bronx’s last remaining victory garden on the northwest corner of W232nd Street and Tibbett Avenue survived the tumultuous 1960s. Simpler times—in the antithesis of simpler times for the country at large—were still possible back then. It’s just the way things were, beginning with the real estate agent who gave my grandfather and a few locals permission to grow a garden on multiple empty lots up for sale and owned by two different people. "Keep the place clean" was all he asked of them.

So, yes, these men with the green thumbs had carte blanche. They could erect a fence around their desired garden space. It could be made of bits and pieces of everything and anything imaginable—and it eventually was. They could even dig a well that tapped into the waters of Tibbetts Brook flowing several feet beneath the surface. Utilizing a fifty-gallon barrel with its bottom cut out, my grandfather knew just how to bring the water to ground level without it ever spilling over. They could build tool shacks, a horseshoe pit, and a bocce court, too. They could bring in myriad metals and woods to construct benches, tomato-plant cages, and other structures like bleachers for horseshoe-game spectators. They could relocate old furniture and a non-working refrigerator freezer to accommodate liquid refreshments and big blocks of ice. And, yes, they could throw festive parties there during holidays and on summer weekends with free-flowing alcohol on the premises. Without question these were simpler times, when no city bureaucracies interfered with any of this, and no slip-and-fall lawyers advertised on television. Today, the mere whiff of lawsuits would not permit all of the above on one’s own property—let alone on somebody else’s in a densely populated urban milieu.

I recall one of the garden men, the genial Mr. Brady, maintained his own personal shack, which was painted green. It was practically a little cottage with an old leather easy chair and couch inside, and a glass picture window of some kind. Attached to the Brady shack in back was the garden’s “bathroom,” a makeshift Portosan that consisted of a toilet seat atop a wooden stand with the proper sized hole and a bucket down under to capture liquids and solids alike. With ample beer, wine, and spirits available during summertime parties, the bathroom was a busy place, and not for the faint of heart. And, yes, the bucket had to be emptied out on street level and into the city’s sewer system every now and then. A local who lived down wind of the garden often complained that she smelled more than marigolds and tomato plants wafting in the humid summer air. As a young boy, the less than savory aspects of the garden didn’t bother me in the least. Everything was an adventure. In fact, my friend Johnny and I made a concoction on the garden grounds, if memory serves, consisting of our urines, rotten tomatoes, and other truly disgusting stuff found in the garden—and the more awful the better.

It was simpler times at this Bronx locale when, during the daylight hours, I often heard horseshoes clanking against their stakes, and occasional cheers rising for the ringers. And after sunset, with a party still going strong on garden terra firma, I would gaze from my vantage point directly across the street into a pitch-black canvass punctuated by only a few flickers of candle light and lit cigarettes. And, every now and then, I’d hear a local bus driver named Jean singing to the night: “When Irish Eyes Are Smiling.” Jean was renowned for crooning the songs of Ireland, and also for the time he picked up my father in a snowstorm while navigating his Broadway to Riverdale bus route, and dropped him off at our front door—on a Kingsbridge back street a couple of blocks off his prescribed course. Yet another action, I daresay, lost to simpler times.

(Photo from the personal collection of Nicholas Nigro)