Wednesday, November 30, 2011

A Christmas Rowe-Manse

Twenty years ago on the afternoon of December 24th, I plunked a blank tape into my radio-cassette-turntable combo player, which, by the way, I still have and occasionally use. Employing the finest technology of the time, I arbitrarily taped a radio program on WPAT “Easy 93,” and repeated this act several more times during the ensuing thirty-six hours. Beginning on Christmas Eve at noontime and lasting throughout the entire Christmas day, this AM and FM easy-listening radio station in the New York City metropolitan area furnished listeners with—yes—thirty-six of hours of commercial-free Christmas music every year. My intentions were to record this music for posterity. I reasoned that it would be nice to have tapes of this diverse Christmas music selection to play during times other than Christmas Eve and Christmas Day. I sensed, too, that WPAT, its easy-listening format, and annual Christmas presentation just might not be around forever. And, as it turned out, I was right.

The station dubbed this longtime holiday tradition of theirs “The Spirit of Christmas,” and featured mostly instrumental versions of familiar seasonal favorites, and some completely unfamiliar. During these yearly music marathons, a deejay’s voice would periodically intone between tracks, “Our gift to you…thirty-six hours of your favorite holiday sounds on WPAT…Easy 93.” And mere words cannot do justice to the bona fide easiness of Easy 93. The only other occasional, and very brief, interruptions to this Christmas music extravaganza involved the station thanking its very generous sponsors—those who made “The Spirit of Christmas” possible.

Well, with the holiday season officially underway, I thought it high time for me to dust off these twenty-year-old cassette tapes of mine and start listening to them. Yes, I still play tapes but, sadly, a couple of my WPAT “Spirit of Christmas” recordings have self-destructed with the passage of time. Still, when I heard the dulcet tones of a WPAT announcer thanking, among others, Mr. Carmen Maggio of the “Romance Emporium” in Clifton, New Jersey for making the 1991 edition of “The Spirit of Christmas” possible—something I had heard hundreds of times while listening to these tapes—I paused and typed in the man's name in a Google search whim. Foremost, I wondered if the “Romance Emporium” was still in business. I had for a very long time assumed it was an independent  Victoria's Secret kind of place, and was sort of surprised it took me so many years to wonder enough about this business to check it out.

Sadly, the “Romance Emporium” is no more. Foremost, my search unearthed Mr. Maggio’s 2010 obituary and, it seems, I had gotten it wrong. It wasn’t the “Romance Emporium” after all, but the “Rowe-Manse Emporium,” a neat play on words. It also wasn't a Victoria's Secret-like outfit, but a specialty department store. The place fell by the wayside in the early aughts, a casualty of both big-box discount retailers, the Internet, and ever-changing tastes, I suppose. Rowe-Manse Emporium-type stores are pretty hard to come by nowadays, and Christmas shopping is indisputably less interesting and less exciting without them around. Once upon a time these little big retailers exhibited both heart and incredible uniqueness, something that's in short supply in the aisles of Wal-Mart and Target.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

The Very Powerful Tool Meets the Squat Thrust

Some guy I know pretty well recently remarked how the “mind is a very powerful tool.” Now, call me cynical if you must, but I didn’t consider this particular proclamation anything close to profound. It was not one of those moments when I took a step back and exclaimed, “Yeah…yeah…man, that’s powerful.” Nevertheless, as I was talking the streets of the Bronx today, this very powerful tool of mine saw something that reminded him of something else…and the floodgates opened.

It all happened so innocently. After purchasing powdered iced-tea mix and Drain-o at a Rite Aid drug store—and receiving a three-foot cashier's receipt along the way—I stepped out into the mean streets and immediately spotted a man working on his car. Something was clearly amiss, so he decided to have a look-see underneath the vehicle. It was what he did next, in bringing his entire body down to the asphalt grounds, that greased the skids of that very powerful tool of a mine. Somehow his movements resurrected the squat thrust in my brain—a high school gym exercise I performed faithfully from 1976 through 1980. One, by the way, I have never executed since. In fact, I have never even heard the phrase "squat thrust" mentioned. Funny, but in the high school years, I always thought the exercise’s moniker a bit odd, and maybe even slightly suggestive of things beyond physical fitness, but then that was then and this is now.

Anyway, as I continued on my journey away from Rite Aid and their mostly high prices and uber-long receipts, the squat-thrust exercise, courtesy of that very powerful tool, was indelibly stamped on my brain. I heard now a certain gym teacher’s voice in my head counting out that infernal exercise: one, two, three, four...one, two, three, four...one, two, three, four. Everything it seemed in high school physical education was four-count. But it was that final four-count of what were usually ten repetitions of an exercise, including the squat thrust, which was particularly special and memorable to me. It went something like this: one, two, three, four...one, two, three, four...one, two, three, four...until the culmination—that number ten—one, two, three, FOOUUURRR! Galootish and ear piercing, the mettle of a gym teacher. That mind…that very powerful tool…can it ever take us places.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

The Very Strange Family and Joe Mullins, Too

While still in the throes of mourning a shuttered diner and the only bona fide sacred place I’ve ever known, I find it therapeutic to unearth memories from this former consecrated ground. Today, permit me to resurrect the "Very Strange Family" and a classic nine-to-five drunkard nicknamed "Joe Mullins," who were regular patrons of the diner. I’d venture to say the cross-section of human beings who ate here were a microcosm of the wider world, or—at the very least—the wider Bronx.

It’s hard to do justice with mere words to the Very Strange Family, who enjoyed repasts alongside me in the diner for several years. You really had to see them live and in color to appreciate their unique brand of weirdness. The Very Strange Family consisted of a husband and wife with a son, Peter, who could have been an older teenager, or maybe a young man in his twenties. His greasy demeanor and darting eyes, however, made establishing an approximate age problematic.

At some point in time, the Very Strange Family entered the diner with a bundle of joy—an infant and fledgling member of the brood. Perhaps the toddler’s mother was not Peter's. But, really, none of this minutia really mattered, because what bound the family together was their strangeness. Ma, Pa, and Peter seemed perpetually on edge. Their eyes were always flitting—up and down, back and forth—and they immediately sensed when foreign eyes were looking their way. The Very Strange Family jumped the shark for me when the woman of the house decided to change her newborn’s dirty diaper on a table a couple of booths away. Eventually, the amateur detective in me came to the conclusion they were either members of organized crime—low-level weaselly types operating on the fringes—or in a witness protection program and fearing members of the mob. It had to be one or the other.

Conversely, Joe Mullins was easy enough to figure out. He worked in some nine-to-five bureaucratic job. His credentials—the identification pass hanging around his neck—told us as much. And, each night, when he stepped off the Number 7 bus on his way home, he’d patronize the liquor store that was conveniently a stone’s throw away from the bus stop. Carrying that familiar black liquor store plastic bag, with the latticework insignia on it, Mullins would then cross the street and enter the diner.

A friend of mine is responsible for christening him “Joe Mullins”—that wasn’t his real name—because he just seemed like a “Joe Mullins” to him. From our vantage point, Mullins seemed like a harmless sort. But as a rule, he was ill at ease as he laid down his bag full of spirits and ordered his supper, which always consisted of the most boring and basic kind of sandwiches. His whiskey bottles invariably made audible clanking sounds, prompting meaningful glances all around from staff to customers and from customers to staff. The hapless Mullins once ordered “a ham and white on a Swiss.” For some reason, the diner brass just didn’t warm to the man, even though he was a repeat customer—you could see it in their faces and sense it in their body language. In the best diner milieus—like in life itself—everything is visceral. While Joe Mullins was always unfailingly polite, even meek, instinctively he just never was accepted into the diner fraternity.

Sunday, November 6, 2011

The Number 1 Looks Just Like You

When I checked the MTA website first thing yesterday morning, I was positively ecstatic. The Number 1 train was running through my neck of the woods without interruption. For the last year or so, it seems weekend service of this venerable subway line has been screwed over big time due to seemingly endless track work and station repairs. And so, Saturday began on a high note.

But when I requested a six-dollar addition to my MetroCard, the clerk at my local subway station couldn’t read it. He scanned it, scanned it again, and nothing. He even tried to bring it back to life with a spritz of some fluid and a Handi Wipe, but nothing. No problem, I’ll take a new card, I said. This very agreeable and helpful transit employee then informed me of the available options vis-à-vis my unreadable MetroCard. I told him I didn’t think there was much monetary value left on it anyway, so it didn’t really matter to me. In other words, I had no intention of taking the card to the transit authority’s version of a higher authority—wherever and whatever that was. I briefly considered trashing this old and unreadable card on the spot, but for some reason decided against it and put it back in my pocket.

After paying my fare with a new and workable six-dollar card, I walked to the far end of this Northwest Bronx subway station. A southbound train heading into Manhattan pulled in a few minutes later. I entered the first car that, when push comes to shove, is frequently the least crowded one for a trip's duration. This very special car is often spared the urban onslaught, even when trains are packed like the proverbial sardines in a can.

No such luck yesterday morning. The lead car, too, filled up rather quickly, and so there were a lot of my fellow New Yorkers and tourists, too, hovering over and sitting very close to me for much of the ride. A man with not the best hygiene in the world sat right beside me. He exuded not quite the forlorn homeless man smell, which subway riders are accustomed to, but a level or two below that on the odor-ometer. In other words, I wasn’t literally gagging, and his ill aroma didn’t make me nauseous. But I’d say it was one of those fine-line moments. That is, I didn't dare dwell too much on the olfactory nerves and what they were absorbing, because nauseousness wasn't out of the question.

Sitting directly across from me from the start of my journey was a businesswoman. She initially plopped down and placed her laptop bag on the seat beside her. This was okay at the get-go, when the subway car was mostly empty, but when it filled up to standing room only, she made no effort to place her laptop bag under the seat and let somebody sit down next to her. She actually pulled out a book during the subway ride and started reading. The title had something to do with making a small fortune—and rather effortlessly at that. No doubt, I surmised, at the expense of those standing above and around her who had been denied a seat. Oh, yeah, and then there was this father and young son tag-team combo. The subway milieu as a classroom setting for parent teaching child about the wonders of urban life in is pretty commonplace. Occasionally, they are precious moments; often they are embarrassing and intrusive. If we were living in the 1970s, I would describe this particular father and son's interplay as “Annoying City!” If the Herman Cain lookalike's facial expressions were any indicator, he seemed to be on my wavelength. But then he might have been more annoyed by the dead ringer for Madonna, who was constantly blowing her runny nose from 168th Street to Times Square—six miles or so—and was sitting nearer to him than me.

To end on an upbeat note: the MetroCard I very nearly tossed away…well, I tried it one more time on my trip home…and it not only scanned, but had a fare left on it and then some. There must be some New Age meaning to all of this…but what pray tell?

Friday, November 4, 2011

Operation Pig's Foot

When I learned the news this week concerning the consumption of black licorice and a certain drug therein called glycyrrhizin—which the FDA says lowers potassium levels that in turn can cause abnormal heart rhythms, high blood pressure, edema, and congestive heart failure—I heaved a huge sigh of relief. I don’t like black licorice. But interestingly enough, when I have consumed black licorice in the past, it always gave me a headache. I didn’t, though, realize I was a couple of pieces away from a coronary thrombosis.

Happily, from where I sit, red licorice was not included in this indictment. For it was red licorice that I used to buy as a penny candy in Pat Mitchell’s Irish Food Center in the old neighborhood during that simpler snapshot in time known as the 1970s. I recall Pat’s brother Mike thumbing through and pulling apart individual pieces from a super-sized pack of Twizzler’s red licorice. Ten red licorice strips cost a dime—a bargain if ever there was one. And it didn’t matter to we wide-eyed youths that Mike had been both making sandwiches and change all day long without washing his hands. I can’t ever recall getting sick from a piece of Pat Mitchell’s red licorice.

Funny, though, how this contemporary black licorice story resurrected memories of a little man named Mike from Pat Mitchell’s. He was a pleasant enough leprechaun. My friends and I had nicknamed him “Eh,” because, you see, he calculated customer tabs in his head with lots of expressed “ums” and “ehs” before arriving at a sum total. When the math became a little too involved, Mike—and all the Pat Mitchell employees for that matter—added up figures on paper bags. Plastic grocery bags didn’t yet exist.

In fact, my brother and I used to imitate Mike in his thick but agreeable Irish brogue saying this line: “Three papers…um…eh…dollar-five.” Ah...those were the days...when the Sunday New York Daily News cost thirty-five cents. Store clerk “Eh” even became part of a comic strip I created as a teen. I dubbed him “Eugene Herbert Mitchell,” turning his ubiquitous “eh” mutterings into initials. And, finally, while remembering “Eh,” I would be remiss if I didn’t recount “Operation Pig’s Foot.”

On the countertop at Pat Mitchell’s were jars containing pigs’ feet, which I always found supremely revolting for a variety of reasons. My father used to eat them—or whatever it is one did with them. Perhaps "gnaw on them" is a more apt description. Anyway, I had never witnessed a single person through the years purchase a single pig’s foot…and wondered what a transaction would look like. And so “Operation Pig’s Foot” was hatched. I went into Pat Mitchell’s with a tape recorder concealed in a paper bag and ordered a pig’s foot. This was the technology of the time—no Flip cams or iPhones. Mike, aka “Eh,” placed a piece of wax paper down on the counter, opened the jar, and reached into the cloudy brine with his bare hand. He plucked a healthy sized pig’s foot out and, dripping brine all over the place, laid it on the wax paper and wrapped it up tight. The recording for posterity of “Operation Pigs Foot” sounded mostly like a crinkling bag. But I had at long last witnessed the incredible: a pig’s foot purchase. And pity the poor boy or girl who came in after me to buy red licorice strips.