Friday, September 30, 2011

Memories of Class Warfare

While toiling in a retail pet food and supplies business approximately two decades ago, I found myself the acting cashier—and just everything else—one afternoon, which was par for the course. Since the business in question was a friend and family member partnership, the daily operations were typically informal. Often, whoever was on duty wore many hats, played many roles, and nothing was beneath him or her, including the scrubbing of anxious canines’ diarrhea off the floor, which occurred from time to time in our pet-friendly store.

On this lazy summer afternoon, a woman came to counter with a basketful of cat food cans. She told me how many she had in there, and then went off to gather a few more things. I began bagging her cans and—as was my routine—counted them. I always placed a certain number in each bag—and no more—that was my bag, if you will. She evidently told me she had three cases worth, or some such thing. I counted a couple of cans fewer than her tally. I didn’t tell her and, admittedly, I was remiss in not informing her that her count was off. Still, when all was said and done, I charged her the correct amount, which would have been more had I accepted her erroneous calculation as the gospel truth.

Anyway, several days later, the store received a letter from this woman. She was peeved. Her home address was somewhere on Manhattan’s Central Park West. Apparently, this lady had means. In her missive, she bitterly complained about the cashier who charged her the correct amount, and not more based on her faulty arithmetic. She wrote, “He certainly would have told me if I had more cans in my basket, instead of fewer cans.”

Rich, the headcheese, posted the letter on his back office bulletin board. It was his policy to answer every missive he received from aggrieved clientele (generally speaking a good policy). Even though he had gotten all the pertinent details from me, he was nonetheless going to respond to this lady’s letter.

What particularly irked me about this whole affair was that this evidently well-off woman with a premium view of Central Park was, in essence, attempting to get a cashier—whom she presumed was making minimum wage or close to it—chastised or, better yet, terminated. She was making trouble for the little guy. For what reason:r charging her the right amount, and not more money based on her addition gaffe.

As the days turned into a week and then a couple, I noticed the letter still pinned to Rich’s bulletin board. I had had enough and yanked it off. It is in my archives somewhere now, and that Upper West Side denizen never did get a response, nor did she get that cashier fired. Now that was class warfare.

(Photo from the personal collection of Nicholas Nigro)

Thursday, September 29, 2011

Memories...and Unsolved Mysteries

When I was young boy of about six or seven years of age, I accompanied my parents to a party thrown in my father’s honor in the Marble Hill section of Manhattan, just a few blocks away from our home: Kingsbridge in the Bronx. I thought at some point in time the neighborhood had been ceded to the Bronx. While the street signs in Marble Hill in the late 1960s were Manhattan yellow and not Bronx blue, they eventually adopted the Bronx hue. Anyway, that discussion is another kettle of fish entirely.

As I recall, Mr. and Mrs. L—the hosts of this get-together—were genial enough. The man of the house once ran a successful bar business in the big city, and his Misses—I subsequently learned as an adult—was both his second wife and his niece. That, too, is another kettle of fish entirely. Anyway, reminiscences from such a tender age are typically confined to disjointed snippets from a wide-eyed kid’s unique perspective—of moments good and bad; important and unimportant.

As I saw it from my six- or seven-year-old eyes, the L’s house was located in an incredibly atmospheric slice of geography. It lorded over a piece of real estate everybody back then knew as "Shanty Town," a neighborhood with rows of old houses and some shacks, too—relics from a hardscrabble past. Some of Shanty Town’s residents raised chickens in coops, and even farm animals, in their front and backyards. But I was also a guest in a home not too far from a busy railroad, the Harlem River Ship Canal, and the elevated subway tracks of the Number 1 train. There was an intoxicating ambiance surrounding the L’s humble abode, with sounds emanating from nearby trains and boats. But beyond these rather general memories of welcome sensory sensations, I can recall only one concrete detail surrounding this Marble Hill experience of mine.

Mrs. L, the lady of the house, spoke in a throaty voice from—I’ve since concluded—one too many Marlboro's and an unquenchable thirst for the grape. She was pleasant enough on the surface, but—from my little boy’s view of the world—there was something of the night about her. She was quite petite, always wore bright red lipstick, and looked by day a little too much like the Joker from Batman—as played by Cesar Romero—for me to fully warm to her. By night, it got somewhat worse, and she resembled a vampire, which I know is rather hip now, but it wasn’t back then.

Here now is my only definitive memory of being in that house more than forty years ago. Mrs. L very graciously gave the youngsters on the scene free run of the place. She asked only one thing of us—that we keep our distance from an automobile tire flatly resting atop the stairs in her two-story home. I admit to being fascinated by this car tire in a spot where car tires weren’t usually found.

Flash forward three decades and I recounted this peculiar memory, so etched in mind, to a friend of mine. He said, “That’s probably where she kept her stash.” While it does make some sense that a person might hide his or her bottles of whiskey in a car tire—if secrecy is the name of the game—it seems rather illogical to do so in a tire sitting at the top of a staircase, where the logical question passersby would pose is: “What’s that car tire doing there?” But that's as good an explanation as any that I've heard before or since. Memories…and unsolved mysteries.

(Photo from the personal collection of Nicholas Nigro)

Sunday, September 25, 2011

"You Folks Farmers?"

A quarter of a century or so ago, I attended a breakfast buffet. It was in a farm building of some kind somewhere on the outskirts of Bangor, Pennsylvania. Accompanying me on this culinary adventure were my maternal grandmother, her long-time neighbor, and my two brothers. While the Bangor denizens were accustomed to these local get-togethers on farms and in churches and volunteer firehouses, the Bronx boys were not.

Such neighborly events in our neck of the woods were very rare. When they did occur, they bore little resemblance to the breakfasts and potluck suppers in the countryside. In fact, the one and only all-you-can-eat breakfast that I attended in my lifetime living in the big city served powdered eggs, which would be absolutely sacrilege in pastoral venues.

If memory serves, one also got a whole lot more bang for the buck out in the country, which is not really surprising. So what if I was repulsed by scrapple—a regional favorite and Spam-like product that consists of a mushy concoction of pork scraps—there was so much more to choose from, everything from pancakes to cornbread to home fries. We not only enjoyed the food but the hospitality, too, which was considerably more unfettered and more abundant in supply than what we were accustomed to on the mean streets of the Bronx.

As I sat down at a long lunch table with my breakfast plate brimming with bacon, eggs, sausage, and toast, a wizened old gentleman nearby turned to me and asked in his distinctive twang, “You folks farmers?” I informed him we weren’t and he smiled, returning to the business at hand—chomping down his hearty breakfast. This was the first and last time in my life that I was mistaken for a farmer. Just last week, though, somebody in a local diner thought I was a grease monkey from the nearby garage. I told him he must have me confused with someone else. He didn’t seem to believe me.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

An "Out of Sight" Blog

A current writing project of mine finds me revisiting my personal favorite decade: the 1970s. While researching my subject matter, I decided to reacquaint myself with the lingo of the time, considering that more than three decades have passed, and I am no longer a teenager uttering, “Be there or be square” and “Take a chill pill.” Well, actually, I don’t think I ever spoke either of those two phrases. I was way too square for that. However, I know for a fact that I branded some people “chumps,” who were definitely worthy of the label, and I may possibly have even said “later,” as I parted with friends a time or two, which is embarrassing to admit.

I found a 1970s lingo listing—you can unearth virtually everything on the Internet—and noticed that “Who cut the cheese?” made the cut, if you will. This intriguing query resurrected a memory of a grammar school religion class taught by a hipster priest—and a very likeable fellow from my parish, I should add. He interrupted a lecture of his with that very question: “Who cut the cheese?” He just knew how to endear himself to seventh graders living amidst the grooviest snapshot in time ever recorded in the annals of history. However, I didn’t appreciate his follow-up query: “Nick, are you gagging?” As I recall, I wasn’t the guilty party. And as we know: Whoever smelt it dealt it.

Most of the 1970s slang on the list I remembered, even if I didn’t employ the majority of the cool jargon. “Far out” was John Denver’s thing. And I didn’t call cops “pigs” because I didn’t have a bone to pick with them and, too, Kojak was my favorite TV show. Even the “fuzz” was too pejorative for me. I may have said “fooey,” instead of “nonsense” at some point, and I’m certain I used the word “grody” to describe a variety of “disgusting” things in those days of yore. “Doofus,” well, I still like that word, and it is equally apropos in the twenty-first century, and I don’t plan on retiring it.

Yes, I recollect peers of mine being called “spaz” when they lacked athletic grace. And that’s really urban slang at its best, sounding like what it’s describing. I know some people said “you know” after many sentences in the 1970s when it was the hip thing to do. Now, some people say “you know” after many sentences when it’s not the hip thing to do. Many of the phrases that became the “rad” in the 1970s are hippie-inspired, and the hippies deserve their due for adding immeasurably to the English language. Wearing cool “threads” with no “bread” in their pockets had to be a real “bummer.” Do you catch my drift?

Saturday, September 17, 2011

Charting Cars in the Bronx

Once upon a time I charted cars on pieces of construction paper. It was in the mid-1970s that the teenage me plopped down on my front stoop, and sometimes at a front window, and recorded the manufacturers of the automobiles that passed by me. What an interesting boy I was. We knew car makes back then—be they Dodge Darts, Chevy Impalas, Buick Centuries, and most everything in between—because they were totally unique in appearance.

In the old neighborhood, we not only knew a whole lot more people than city folk know today, but we knew the specific kinds of cars they drove, too. Neighbors distinguished themselves with their choice of vehicles and couldn’t, therefore, come and go unnoticed. Now—with some notable exceptions, of course—what is parked along the streets, and in the area garages, look more or less the same, despite all of the amazing technological advances therein.

The colors of cars in the 1970s were also in sync with the fashions of the day in that groovy snapshot in time. Danny C drove a dark brown Ford LTD, and Cathy R, a pale yellow Volkswagen; Jack H had a sky-blue Plymouth Duster, and Jimmy S, a bright red AMC Rebel. There were people who drove gas-guzzling “boats,” as we called them back then. Arthur M Sr. parked a metallic gold-colored Olds Ninety Eight on the street that was the size of a stretch limousine. Others sought out economy cars that were at once cheap in price and fuel efficient in an age of increasingly high gas prices, and occasionally outright shortages, courtesy of an awful cartel that is equally awful today, although happily somewhat more impotent.

My father owned a 1959 Chevrolet Biscayne for fourteen years. It had an interior smell—a car-seat vinyl meets gassy residue kind of thing—that inspired carsickness, particularly without something called air conditioning. One member of the family, in fact, would puke his guts out at the mere thought of getting into the car—yards away from it—before any outing. In 1973, the Biscayne was at last retired, and the family rode in style in a second-hand Buick Skylark, purchased from a guy on the next block. We were agog riding in a vehicle with the creature comforts of this modern invention called air-conditioning. In 1983, somebody convinced my father to get with the program and purchase a Chevy Chevette, a car that drove so many “people happy” with its super-duper gas mileage. It had a stick shift, the back windows could only go down half way, and no air conditioning. Yes, it got great gas mileage, but we were a spoiled clan by then.

Oh, by the way, Chevrolet won the day in my car charting. There were some foreign cars around then, but they were foreign to most people. And I can’t help but think that most of us would be better off driving whatever the Chevy Chevette of today is—but with air conditioning—than the ubiquitous gas-guzzling behemoths that take up a lot of space on the street, pollute the air, and make us dependent on countries we’d rather not be dependent on and, too, who don’t like us very much.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

New York Really Is the City That Never Sleeps

This past Labor Day weekend—on an early Sunday morning—I noticed a meter maid walking around the neighborhood. Considering it was the day of the week that many New Yorkers call on their preferred houses of worship—and, too, that it was the "official end of summer" holiday—I thought it a very unusual time for a city employee to be roaming streets, checking up on parked cars’ registrations, and, of course, writing tickets. Perhaps the city fathers and mothers have the little guy and gal’s best interests at heart with this sort of thorough patrolling—after all, drivers should keep their automobiles’ registrations and car inspections up to date.

Forgive me, though, for being slightly cynical here. As part of my morning Internet ritual, I visit the website "EveryBlock" and search my zip code for local news items, which include the latest restaurant inspections in the area. It’s clear the city has both hired many more health inspectors and is making many more inspections of eateries, which is understandable considering rats and water bugs run amok on some of the richest real estate on the planet. However, some restaurants are being inspected every two to three months and racking up violation points that I presume are attached to considerable fines. While it’s a good thing that restaurants are being held to higher standards, forgive me—again—for being slightly cynical here.

Recently, I saw a man double park his car and get out to help a very elderly woman with her groceries as she exited a supermarket. He left his motor running and was only several yards away from his vehicle when a meter maid pounced and ticketed him. I believe this infraction comes attached to a $115 penalty nowadays. I know double-parking in overly congested metropolitan areas is a no-no, but once more: Forgive me for being slightly cynical here.

Is it possible the mayor and his dedicated bureaucratic army are foremost interested in adding money to the city’s coffers, even if it means fleecing the little people for more and more and more when they can least afford it? Perish the thought. What was I thinking? I know, of course, that he and his are looking out for me in the City That Doesn’t Sleep—just ask the meter maids and health inspectors.

Friday, September 2, 2011

Rocky's Road

I had a teacher in the sixth grade affectionately known as— courtesy of his surname—“Rocky.” The school year was 1973-74, and Rocky stood out from the pack in this parochial grammar school of mine for a host of reasons. For starters, there were very few men teaching in grades one through six back then. This, too, must have been his first teaching job. He was quite young and occasionally showed up for work on the disheveled and scruffy side, like he’d been out late the night before doing what some people do in the wee hours. And no, I don’t think he was moonlighting as a cab driver or a night watchman.

But there was something really right about Rocky, even if he didn’t always make time for the morning shave. Clear-eyed or bleary-eyed, it didn’t matter; he was the genuine article—a dedicated teacher. The school had its fair share of dedicated old school teachers, including Sister Camillus, who only a year before publicly humiliated me when I misspelled the word “paid” as “payed.” “Imagine a fifth grader who doesn’t know how to spell the word ‘paid’!” she bellowed in her less than dulcet tones. Rocky didn’t embarrass students in front of his or her peers over a spelling error. Private consultations were more his style. So, no, there was never an “Imagine a sixth grader who doesn’t know how to spell the word ‘paid’!” moment in Rocky’s classroom.

And Sister Camillus was also not the sort of educator to accompany her class to the park down the street after a late winter snowstorm. Rocky not only did, but commanded our attention at the park’s entrance. “Since this is probably going to be the last snowstorm of the season,” I recall him saying rather earnestly, “I thought we should assemble here to have our last…SNOWBALL FIGHT!” With these fighting words, Rocky proceeded to swipe snow off of a parked car’s front hood onto his momentarily startled students. Really, I just couldn’t see old Sister C initiating a snowball fight. Innocent as it all was, Rocky just couldn’t get away with throwing snow in the faces of eleven- and twelve-year-old boys and girls in the twenty-first century.

Rocky’s last hurrah involved a class trip to Bear Mountain State Park on the Hudson River Day Line, which back in the 1970s sailed north from Manhattan’s West Side. I remember only a few snippets from this trip. Foremost, I almost fell to my death—or so it seemed at the time—while mountain climbing, or whatever the peewee-equivalent of that is called. If my memory is correct, we went off with our friends—rather loosely supervised—to wherever we wanted to go, and were instructed only to return to the dock area at a prescribed time. Imagine a school trip like that today. I remember, too, a couple of kids passing around a lit pipe on the boat, which wasn’t burning tobacco. They were also brandishing assorted pills, which weren't Tylenols. Simpler times in the sixth grade of a Catholic grammar school when Richard Nixon was the president. I may have been rather innocent at the time, but it appeared some others were a lot less so.

Thanks to the sprawling Internet, and Rocky’s atypical last name, I tracked the man down in the virtual ether. He’s still a teacher. It’s been his life’s work. And, wow, he must be sixty by now. While there are likely no more snowball fights, or minimally supervised field trips, in Rocky’s profession today, it appears he’s adapted nicely to both teaching’s new world order and the world we live in.