Sunday, October 30, 2011

First Prize Relinquished

On the eve of Halloween, I can’t help but hark back to a special memory of the day. You see, I won first prize for the best costume in my fourth grade class. I wore a clown mask, a red wool hat, and the heavy blue corduroy shirt my father always wore when he painted the rooms of our apartment and other things. It was a colorful outfit for sure, but these were colorful times—the 1970s. I can’t see anyone wearing that heavy corduroy shirt today, but then I can’t see why anyone would have worn it back then, except as a painting shirt to absorb all that splatter, or as part of a Halloween costume.

But here’s the interesting note about this Halloween costume contest in St. John’s grammar school in Kingsbridge. The boy who came in second place to me dressed up as a woman. He went the whole nine yards, too, with a fashionable dress and high heels—not some Woolworth-Woolco $2.47 mature woman costume. I’ll call him the K-man and concede that he really and truly merited first prize. But then, it was a democratic vote—at least that’s what we were all led to believe. In retrospect, considering the time and the school, perhaps there was some chicanery behind the scenes and the ballot box was tampered with in some way. However, I don't think so.

Whatever the real truth is, I would like on this Halloween—some three decades later—to at last award the K-man first prize, because—really—he so richly deserved it, not only for the costume itself, but for his audacity to wear it in front of his peers. After all, how old were we then? Ten? My only other personal memory of the K-man involves a certain request of his. He asked me if I would be his straight man in an effort to cheer up a classmate of ours named Karen who, for some reason I don't recall, was bereft and weeping uncontrollably.

Anyway, the K-man, with me at his side—two fourth graders—said to Karen, “Nicholas is ridiculous,” emphasizing the syllabic rhyme. I remember, too, he employed various other rhymes and plays on words to cheer her up, which is laudatory in and of itself, but particularly so considering his young age. While I wouldn't call it a rousing success, I think the K-man’s ten-year-old therapy actually worked. But, if nothing else, it’s testament to his heart and soul, and I am proud to have been his Charlie McCarthy dummy for one brief shining moment a long time ago. I sincerely hope the fifty-something K-man has put this incredible empathy of his to good use on a much grander scale. And, as for Karen, I hope the “Nicholas is ridiculous” moment made a difference—even if only a tiny one. Whatever…this Halloween first prize…transferred finally to the K-man…is, I know, justice delayed but at long last served.

Friday, October 28, 2011

Mourning and Memories

While still mourning the loss of the only true holy ground I’ve known in this life—a very special local diner—I couldn’t help but hark back to days past…and to diner clientele who have left the neighborhood and, in some cases, this mortal coil as well.

In this culinary cathedral, my regular dinner companions and I had nicknames for certain regulars—men and women whom we didn’t know by name but nonetheless needed to identify on occasion—and I suppose some of them had nicknames for us. And, if they did, more power to them! There was, for instance, the “Mean Old Man,” whom I saw collapse on a sidewalk not too far from the diner during a winter snowstorm. I don’t know what happened to him after that night, but I never saw him again in the diner, or walking the streets of the neighborhood. And whatever happened to those two old sisters who always dined together? At least I think they were sisters. A funny thing about them…they never seemed to appreciate that fellow Homo sapiens existed on the same terra firma as they did. Thus, their richly earned “Glower Champions” moniker. So, when they suddenly fell off the face of the earth, I surmised they had moved to Florida and warmer climes to live out their remaining years. Are they in heaven now? Actuarial tables would suggest the answer is very likely yes.

And then there was this fellow named Lenny. Here was an example of actually knowing the man’s real first name, but running with a nickname instead. What always struck us about Lenny was that he never—ever—paid for his lunch or his dinner. A little diner detective work on our parts concluded he had, perhaps, won a bet of some sort from the owner, who was not averse to gambling. This could at least explain the free meals. But, apparently, there was nothing in the terms of this bet that compelled the diner owner to treat him civilly while he was collecting his winnings. And so, this middle-aged, hangdog bachelor named Lenny had to endure more than a little teasing from time to time. Asked about his love life at one point, Lenny pathetically said something to the effect that he was dating “several people,” which set himself up for a major slap down from the individual indebted to him, who roared, “You jerk-off!” And from that moment forward, Lenny was no longer Lenny to us, but “Jerk-off” forevermore. Eventually, Jerk-off, too, disappeared from the diner scene—perhaps when the terms of the bet were fulfilled—and was last seen on the neighborhood streets looking pretty bad. Jerk-off was obviously very ill and, it seemed, not long for this earth.

I remember, too, very old and very loud Mark, who had a most interesting indentation on his skull, which I christened a “skin-dentation." He very abruptly vanished from sight and sound. Heaven? Probably. And then, of course, there was the ubiquitous Seymour, a taxi service guy. He was diagnosed with lung cancer while at the top of his game on the diner stage. Trooper that he was, he continued to appear during his chemo treatments, looking—sadly—increasingly worse for wear with each passing day.

Call it life...as seen through the lens of a favorite diner.

Saturday, October 22, 2011

Diner Elegy

It’s been three weeks now since the sun, which held sway over my neighborhood solar system for a very long time, quietly passed from the scene. As I walked the surrounding streets this morning, where a small diner—the most special of greasy spoons—endured for some thirty-five years, I conceived this analogy. You see, every time I was in the area—alone or with family members or friends—the diner, even when not eating there, was the epicenter. It was a comforting constant in a sea of change.

For twenty years, I patronized this place. In fact, it had a different name for part of the time, and a very brief span when somebody else took over—the man responsible for the name change. But imagine, if you will, a diner in New York City run—more or less—by the same handful of people for decades. The owner of the place, who shouted a greeting when you entered, cooked your food, and then said good-bye was there for almost every single minute the place was open, which was seven days a week. The diner closed only on Christmas Day and New Year’s Day.

Others who worked there were equally familiar and longstanding employees, including a waiter who would see you coming from across the street and have a piping hot cup of coffee on the table before you even walked in the door. And the bottomless cup of coffee was truly bottomless here from beginning to end, even when business was down. And when business was especially brisk, you never felt rushed. You could sit there all day, if that is what you desired, because that’s how regular customers were treated.

The reasons my all-time favorite diner, which will never again be replicated, shut down are multifold. It’s the kind of place that existed in New York City in the past, but cannot anymore. So much of what made New York great—what made it a wholly unique metropolis—just can’t happen in this day and age. The city now is both insanely expensive and intensely bureaucratic. It caters—above all else— to wealthy landlords and to wealth itself.

But, still, it’s the memories that endure of this extraordinary diner milieu, which are over-powering in so many ways I cannot chronicle here. Good food, good times, and all of those characters on both sides of the counter, including me. Along the way, a healthy share of bad things happened to one and all. But at least we had the diner—and the good people who ran it—as a life comfort station of sorts, which is irreplaceable.

(Photo from the personal collection of Nicholas Nigro)

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

King for a Day

The richest 1% of Americans own 40% of the nation’s wealth; the least well-off 80%, a mere 7%. This disparity in income is the widest since the eve of the Great Depression. So, what exactly is wrong with this picture? Well, a local gourmet market, which practically everybody raves about in the neighborhood—mostly folks among the unwashed 80%, by the way—was charging $7 for a basket of strawberries today. And I could cite a few more examples…but I won’t.

I’d rather bask in the glow—of my one brief shining moment—when I was among that illustrious 1%. A couple of weeks ago, I deposited a $150 check in a local branch of a really, really big bank. To make a long story short, I needed to check my bank balance. I had to see if that aforementioned $150 check had cleared, and whether some checks I had written had been cashed. I feared there might very well be a close call or two between deposits made and checks paid out, and very possibly a humiliating $32 overdraft charge—which I believe is the current fee—for me coming up an inch short and not beating the clearance clock.

Anyway, when the statement of my last five transactions appeared on the ATM machine screen before me, my $150 deposit was listed as $15,000,000—that’s, if you're keeping score, five more zeroes. My available balance also had five more zeroes attached to it. I became jelly-legged while poring over this astonishing visual. And, no, I didn’t go into the bank proper and withdraw a couple of million dollars—and not because it was closed for the day. In retrospect, I should have at least printed out a copy of my statement.

I felt, for some strange reason, guilty—like I had done something wrong—as I scurried out of the bank’s ATM alcove a very rich man. I returned the next morning to see if I had been relegated to pauper. I had indeed. Okay, so I didn’t have to go into the bank and inform them the $15,000,0000 was all a mistake…but not my mistake. I always wondered whether the bank would have given me a reward for my honesty. You know…like no overdraft fees for a year.

Saturday, October 15, 2011

Food for Thought...Thought for Food

When folks from the old neighborhood gather together—in the cozy confines of virtual reality—to share their memories of all that transpired once upon a time, a heaping helping of food for thought is quite often the by-product. In fact, I’ve learned that more than a few former neighbors of mine, who worked in local eateries a long time ago, did some rather unsanitary, and occasionally downright disgusting things. For starters, they dropped food on floors, put it back on plates, and served it to customers.

That teenagers working in not especially well paying and largely unpleasant work environments will do such things is hardly surprising. My family rarely dined out while I was a boy. Foremost, there wasn’t sufficient surplus disposable income to make a habit of it—with five mouths to feed—and, too, it was considered positively sacrilege to waste money by paying through the nose for meals, when there were competent cooks at-the-ready on the home front. With respect to restaurants and take-out joints, from Chinese to fast-food burgers to pizza places, it was drummed into us all: “You don’t know what goes on behind the scenes and in their kitchens!” I must admit this homespun wisdom had a certain bite to it—food for thought then as well as now.

My one beef with this self-evident truism was that home kitchens, and the cooks therein, sometimes were as a bad, or even worse, in the Sanitary Department than even the nastiest restaurant transgressions reported on by this cross-section of primary sources—on the memory boards—and, too, from my first-hand experiences.

Okay, so my favorite pizza guy for so many years cleaned out his oven with the very same mop he used on the floors of his shop. In his defense, he claimed the extreme heat of the oven destroyed any and all germs and bacteria. I had heard about this mopping thing while I was a regular patron of the place. I just chose to accept my pizza guy's science. We had roaches in our Bronx apartment kitchen back in the 1960s and 1970s—a lot of them as a matter of fact. They were ubiquitous in the old neighborhood. Mice even found their way through a gas pipe into our kitchen stove—where my mother stored cereals and snacks—on one occasion. We never went hungry, though, and the kitchen stayed open. No city bureaucrat showed up to close it down.

It’s really all relative, I suppose. Fifteen or so years ago, my brother and I were in our all-time favorite diner for breakfast. And when he poured his maple syrup, from the small pitcher brought to him, onto three slices of French toast, several dead roaches peacefully floated atop them. They had evidently gone for an evening swim in the sugary Shangri-La, we surmised, and, alas, drowned in the process. It was a shocker for sure—we were briefly stunned and in a state of suspended animation—but since the place meant so much to us, it didn’t much matter in the bigger picture. We returned for another day—for a second act—and the syrupy-special roaches became part and parcel of a richer lore.

The moral of this story—if there is one—is that we make all kinds of allowances in this thing called life. I’ve always found it interesting that so many people in the kitchens of home sweet home pass judgment on eateries for both their real and, sometimes imagined, lack of cleanliness, but choose never to look in their own mirrors and their own pantries. All I can say is that with the NYC Health Department unleashed as it is today—inspecting with abandon and dispensing A, B, and C grades to food businesses one and all—I can’t help but wonder how many of my favorite cooks’ kitchens in homes and apartments, and countless others throughout the five boroughs of New York, would pass muster. I suspect many of them would be shut down for being downright unsanitary and outright health hazards.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Finding Ecstasy in the Strangest Places

Almost thirty years ago, which is somewhat alarming to entertain, I experienced one brief shining moment of pure, unadulterated bliss. You see, my team, the New York Mets, had been down and out for several years, a laughingstock in Major League Baseball, and, worst of all, playing second banana to George Steinbrenner’s Yankees—the quintessential Wall Street sports organization then as well as now. The parsimonious and increasingly incompetent Mets’ upper-management of the mid- and late-1970s had, in essence, killed the goose that laid the golden egg. So, when the old ownership at long last unloaded the team to individuals who intended on restoring the Mets to their former pluck, we fans heaved a sigh of relief and dreamed of better days ahead.

Show us, don’t tell us, was all that we asked of the new ownership. And in the winter of 1982, they did just that by trading for, and then signing to an incredibly lucrative long-term contract for its day, a slugger named George Foster—the last man in to have hit fifty or more home runs in either the American or National League.

When Foster accomplished this feat in 1977, it was a bona fide achievement. All one had to do was look at the guy. He was razor-thin but incredibly muscular with Popeye forearms. Foster’s Herculean deed was realized without performance-enhancing drugs and that ubiquitous, modern-day fat head so familiar on the mega-millionaire celebrities who play today’s game. It was a time when such grand successes weren’t even remotely suspect and records actually meant something.

For Met fans, the Foster trade and his subsequent signing to a long-term deal were big—really big. It was a moment of true ecstasy for me. But, alas, as is the case with moments of ecstasy in general, they are always just that—moments. In other words, they don’t last forever. Some, in fact, last for at least a measurable span of time, but most go up in smoke before you ever know what hit you—no pun intended. In the case of George Foster, the ecstasy moment was short-lived to say the least. It lasted until he took the field in a Mets’ uniform—or, to be fair, not very long after that. After a wretched 1982 season, and the sense that this fellow had not only seen better days as an athlete, but didn’t much care, the ecstasy moment seemed like a bad dream.

But what I wouldn’t give to feel the way I felt on that day some three decades ago—at the precise moment when I learned my beloved Mets had signed an All-Star slugger for a whopping sum of money. Sure, he would fast disappoint us all. Ecstasy, nevertheless, can be found in the strangest places. So, enjoy it wherever you find it...and while you can...because nothing lasts forever…nothing.

(Photo from the personal collection of Nicholas Nigro)

Sunday, October 9, 2011

A Very First Time

Although I don’t have a “bucket list” per se, I accomplished one item that—had I decided to make one—would very definitely have be on it. Courtesy of an annoying twist of circumstances, I found myself yesterday morning in the long mezzanine area of the Manhattan A train’s 14th Street subway station. Were it not for the Number 1 train’s seemingly infinite weekend track work—or, in this case, station makeovers, which compelled me to walk more than a mile to get the subway, instead of the usual few blocks—I wouldn’t have been there. Yes, I could have taken a free shuttle bus, or even a local bus, but since it was such a fine October morning, I opted for the leisurely stroll and the exercise.

It was about 10:30 when I found myself in this sprawling “mezzanine,” a word I typically associate with sports stadiums. While I’ve walked these subterranean thoroughfares before and spied various closed doors along the way, they invariably seem marked as “employee only” entrances for transit workers. But, lo and behold, this time I detected an apparent civilian exiting one of those doors, which prompted me to more closely examine the placard attached to it. The sign indicated he had emerged from a public bathroom—one that would, of course, be locked tight during the late-night hours.

While I had to go from my morning coffee, I really could have held it in for the immediate future. But then, I thought, where would I go when my time had come—the Barnes & Noble at Union Square? No, certainly not yesterday—a Saturday on a Columbus Day weekend with Wall Street protesters in the area undoubtedly heeding nature’s call there. So, I decided to take my chances with this subway bathroom. While I don’t recall ever frequenting one—since most of them were padlocked shut, with reputations that, even when open for business, suggested looking elsewhere—I nonetheless took the plunge.

Happily, I was all by my lonesome when I entered this realm of the unknown and accomplished what I set out to do. Still, I must admit, the subway bathroom milieu didn’t disappoint. It reeked pretty badly and looked appropriately grungy—but it wasn’t completely hellish. And while the urinal flushed readily, it didn’t flush away any of the urine stench wafting in the rarefied air, which evidently was ingrained in the floor and wall tiles. But at least now I can say: Been there and done that…another New York experience for this New Yorker in the books.

Thursday, October 6, 2011

Hairy Junk Mail

An increasingly rare piece of junk mail arrived in my mailbox today—the old-fashioned kind delivered by a flesh and blood human being that can be handled, and eventually recycled and picked up by another flesh and blood human being on recycling day. It was a mass mailing from a hair replacement center—one that I’m familiar with, by the way, only because I’ve passed by it many times in my travels. I also knew a client of the place.

While I concede to qualifying as bald bait—their target audience—I did not request information on this business’s services. So, whether I landed on the mailing list as somebody’s not particularly funny joke, or some strange commercial coincidence, I couldn’t help but hark back to that acquaintance of mine who patronized this very hairpiece establishment. It seems that—when he put his John Hancock on the dotted line—he essentially took out a long-term mortgage on his scalp.

Fast balding on top at a relatively young age, this fellow looked perfectly fine when he went he went for broke on that fateful day. I recall the moment that, in a matter of a few hours, he went from being predominantly bald to having a luxurious head of hair. It was a peculiar metamorphosis to say the least. He promptly informed all who would listen of the satin pillows he now had to rest his weary head on—something about the unwanted effects of static—and the special shampoo lotions he had to use, which not surprisingly cost a pretty penny. This was all adding up to real money and real fast, I thought. Then, of course, there were the recurring readjustments—the $100 plus haircuts he had to endure every month. And, on top of all that, what remained of his real hair was still falling out. So, more and more of the horsehair—or whatever the hair replacement center employed—had to be added to the new weave.

Maybe it’s just me, but it all seemed like an awful lot to go through—even beyond the expense—to, at the end of the day, look like a guy wearing a hairpiece. This particular Manhattan outfit churns out a certain kind of rug, which I’ve seen on many others. Once upon a time a pizza place owner not too far away had a balding top, and he made a similar pact with the hair devil. The first thing a friend of mine, who hadn’t seen him in a while, said was: “When did the pizza guy get the rug?”

A favorite teacher of mine in high school—who simultaneously taught a senior year religion course and was dramatically thinning on top—once said of his hair: “I can’t cling to it.” I know there was some broader and connecting life point vis-à-vis the course’s subject matter, which I’ve long since forgotten after thirty years, but I’ve never lost sight of the big picture. No satin pillows, strange elixirs for the head, and regular haircuts that cost more than the gas and electric bill combined—and in perpetuity to boot—for me. I’d just assume not go broke in an effort to look like a pizza guy with bad hair. And, while I'm rooting for the post office to survive: Please, Mr. Hair Man, remove me from your mailing list.