Thursday, December 27, 2012

Elegy for Alouishes...

English poet John Donne once wrote, “Any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind.” I have no doubt that his words—these many centuries later—have been enshrined in a well-circulated Facebook meme. Still, I would have to disagree with the erudite Donne. Yes, a handful of men and women’s deaths diminish me. But honestly, most don’t—in any way, shape, or form—because I didn’t know them in any way, shape, or form. However, a case could be made that some people’s deaths actually enhance me…and the wider world, too. But that’s for another blog topic.

I can think of one man, though, whom I didn’t know very well, whose untimely passing has diminished me in some nebulous but nonetheless profound way. I learned of his demise just a few days ago. He was a ubiquitous and reassuring presence in my favorite diner for more than a decade. Initially, I thought diner personnel were calling him “Al,” and then it sounded to me like “Louie.” So I compromised and dubbed the man “Alouishes"—not to be confused with "Aloysius." Alouishes worked his way up from busboy to counterman to waiter. His former boss lavished the ultimate praise on him when he said, “He was one of us,” meaning Alouishes ultimately did it all in the bustling diner milieu—a considerable accomplishment—and was as loyal and dependable as they come.

I was told that Alouishes never missed a scheduled workday in his fourteen years on the job, which didn’t surprise me. He was a comforting constant when I patronized this very special diner—almost always there. While the man was not especially proficient in the English language, he rarely erred and effortlessly communicated in the fast and furious diner universe. He had a certain knack—a sixth sense—for zeroing in on his customers from great distances. Alouishes would often times have coffee on the table before my diner companions and I even entered the place. That’s the kind of guy he was. He kept a vigilant eyes on our those cups, too, making sure they were never empty.

Alouishes became a welcome part of my life for a spell, and when my diner—the last of its kind— shut its doors a year ago, it was an end of an era for sure. However, I never imagined it would be end of a very good man. I learned this past week that Alousishes was approximately my age—too young to die just like that of a heart attack and stroke. Perhaps there’s a cautionary tale in all of this. Working seven days a week, long hours, and not attending to one’s health—and all those warning signs—is, maybe, not the best life course. Why not find that happy medium instead? R.I.P. Alouishes. Your death diminishes me…and so many others.

Saturday, December 22, 2012

Christmas Eve Traditions and Memories

For a lot of people, Christmas comes attached to a healthy dose of melancholy intermingled with all the colorful lights, festive music, and hustle and bustle. As a boy I could never conceive of why one single person wouldn’t welcome Christmas with open arms and a happy heart. For me, its one-two punch of anticipation and excitement truly made Christmas “the most wonderful time of the year.” But now with my youthful exuberance pretty much spent, and so many key Christmas players no longer on the scene, the season just isn’t what it once was—and I understand completely.

Once upon a time Christmas Eve meant gathering with the cousins, exchanging gifts, and enjoying a traditional Italian dinner featuring Spaghetti Aglio e Olio—garlic and oil—and multiple fish dishes. I believe the official tradition calls for seven, but we never quite reached that number with fried eels, baccalà (salted cod) salad, boiled shrimp, and calamari (squid) in tomato sauce rounding out the menu. Honestly, I can’t say I ever relished this particular fishy melange, but my grandmother had a knack for making just about everything as good as it could possibly be—really. Fish, in fact, were very hard to come by in my grandmother’s hometown of Castlemezzano in the rocky mountains of Southern Italy. Her village was pretty poor and accustomed to the most humble of fish fare, and the tradition crossed the ocean. There were no swordfish steaks, lobster tails, or sushi on our Christmas Eve tables. Actually, her spaghetti was more than enough for me on this one night a year. I would sample an eel or two, which were peculiarly edible, and a few benign shrimp as well—but that was the long and short of my seafood intake.

The image of my grandmother preparing Christmas Eve dinners, with a mother lode of cooking oil at her disposal, is seared in my memory. Interestingly, though, it isn't olive oil I recall but peanut oil—in big gallon tins. It seems that during World War II, olive oil was pretty hard to come by and—when available—too expensive, so my grandmother substituted with Planter’s peanut oil. It was comparatively cheap and, as it turned out, tasty enough to pass muster. She purchased it at the Arthur Avenue retail market in the Bronx’s "Little Italy." Times have changed. Peanut oil is now hard to come by and pretty expensive when you do find it.

The Christmas Eve tradition endures—I think we’ve even reached the magic number of seven fish—but the memories do too of genuinely exciting times from the past and the people who made them so. There is a definitely a downside in having exceptionally fond memories of what once was and is no more.

(Photo from the personal collection of Nicholas Nigro)

Thursday, December 20, 2012

My Person of the Year

Time magazine has at long last made its “Person of the Year” selection. I was on tenterhooks with anticipation and can now rest easy. Anyway, befitting my blog’s general theme, I thought it appropriate to personally select a local “Person of the Year,” and I have. I won’t even mention his name. In fact, I don’t even know the man’s name. What I do know is that he works very hard—six- and seven-day weeks—and supplies the area with a great product. He sells pizza and assorted specialty dishes, gives you a real bang for your buck, and he’s an all-around nice guy, too.

Yesterday, while patronizing his establishment, which I frequently do, a fellow customer stood by awaiting a slice of pizza that was heating in the oven. He had parked his car in front of the shop, but opted not to purchase a meter parking ticket. I think it’s twenty-five cents for ten minutes now, which not too long ago was twenty-five cents for fifteen minutes. He figured he’d be in and out in a flash—no biggie. But this is New York City in the twenty-first century and, sure enough, a meter maid materialized in a flash with her computer ticket writer in hand. Lurking in the shadows and ready to pounce, meter personnel are ubiquitous in the City That Never Sleeps, and the little guy hasn’t got a chance.

When the pizza parlor patron ran outside to plead his case, my favorite Pizza Man wistfully peered out his front window and shook his head. I said something like: “The city needs money. I guess this is how they get it today.” He replied with something like, “You said a mouthful.” He then proceeded to tell me of the perpetual health inspections he and countless fellow New York City eateries are subject to nowadays: “This morning this inspector comes in while I am preparing a big order for a Christmas party. ‘I’m sorry,’ I said, ‘Do what you have to do, but I’ve got to work.’ I told him that somebody was in here last week. He says to me, ‘Really. I didn’t know that.’ You wouldn’t believe how much money they’ve taken from me.”

Sadly, my Pizza Man’s tale of woe is not unusual. This is the reality of today's New York City. And when combined with the exorbitant rents charged by conglomerate—and mostly faceless landlords—it's often a lethal one-two punch. “It’s not like it was," my Pizza Man said. Indeed, this small business guy—working his butt off—summed it up succinctly: “They won’t let you rise!” This line struck me as both eloquent and apropos—particularly for a pizza maker—in this once special town. I'd like to believe there are better days ahead for the Average Joe and Jane in old New York? But the reality snapshot keeps whispering in my ear: Fuggedaboutit!

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

The Con Man Cometh...Again

Today, unhappily, I discovered that an indefatigable local con man is still plying his trade in the neighborhood. A few Thanksgiving mornings ago, he tried to put the bite on me, and apparently his shtick hasn’t changed all that much. When he initially approached my brother and me, he posed the seemingly innocuous question, “You don’t remember me?” In an attempt to convince me that we had indeed crossed paths on life’s long and winding road a while back—and on multiple occasions, too—the con man followed this query of his with an amiable back and forth guessing game.

Kibitzing for far too long with this guy, whom I didn’t in fact recognize, I was in hindsight a wee bit too dense for engaging this phony baloney for even a moment. As it turned out, the con man game that I got swept up him, found him, at long last, admitting to being the brother of a fellow whom I once worked alongside. Yes, I had finally guessed right with “John Smith”—really, that was his name. Funny, though, but I never knew he had a brother. In fact, I didn’t recall ever meeting a single Smith relation at the workplace.

So, to me, my con man was thus Billy, Eddie, or Adam Smith for a brief spell—very brief. The guessing game had gone on almost a full block before we had settled on the Smith Brothers’ connection. But by then, the cloud of dimness that had enveloped me had completely dissipated and I was more than suspicious. I wished with all my heart that Billy, Eddie, or Adam Smith would vanish into thin air, never to be heard from again. I knew, though, having given him entirely too much airtime made it inevitable that I was going to have to play along to the inevitable conclusion. He was, of course, going to ask me for money at the climax of some cock and bull story. Yada…yada…yada...he locked his keys in his car and had to pay the locksmith to get them out. Poor guy—he couldn’t get home without his car. And that, of course, is where his checkbook was.

Anyway, I finally had to decline his plaintive request for $42. I felt a hint of guilt for having strung the con man along for more than a block, when I knew full well he was not John Smith’s brother. Still, when I said, “Sorry…no…I can’t,” the agile con man didn’t miss a beat and went on his merry way to pull the scam on another unsuspecting patsy. And, it should be noted, I wouldn’t have given John Smith’s blood brother $42, either.

Fast forward three years and I hear a familiar voice from behind me this morning: “You don’t recognize me?” When I pivoted, it was, lo and behold, John Smith's brother. Ironically, I did indeed recognize him, but he didn't recognize me. “No,” I said without missing a stride. “You still don’t recognize me,” he said as he trailed me for several steps. “No!” I repeated more emphatically. While this neighborhood con man quickly gave up on yours truly this go-around, he nonetheless supplied a final verbal volley. “I’m your Saturday mailman,” he said. Oh, no you’re not. I know my Saturday mailman and he’s definitely not you. You’re John Smith’s brother, no? That was then and this is now.

Sunday, December 9, 2012

The Power of Negative Thinking and Sunday Karma

In the world of prostheses and health insurance approval, patience is without question a virtue. I’ve been getting around on a malfunctioning C-Leg in its safety mode—a stiff leg as it were—for four months now. I delicately navigated from point A to point B by adopting a paralyzed right side kind of gait and dragging the right leg along. I got more than a few “poor fellow” looks from locals, who, most probably, assumed I had suffered a stroke or some such setback.

So, this past Friday when I dragged myself to a scheduled appointment at the prosthetic clinic, I knew at least the pendulum was shifting in the direction of progress—of brighter tomorrows. I nonetheless employed the power of negative thinking—never for a moment believing I’d walk out of there with a bend in my knee and a spring in my step, which is what happened. It was both unexpected and exciting—an early Christmas present if ever there was one—even if my new knee was only a “loaner.” I anticipate becoming a full-fledged owner in the near future.

With my new lease on life today, I ventured into lower Manhattan for the first time in a long time—since late July as a matter of fact. While the day was chilly, damp, and gloomy all around, being back in the saddle was all that mattered to me. But good things come with a hefty price attached, I suppose. When a mother, father, and their two little girls took over the subway car I was in for five long miles of my journey, I should have just internally rejoiced as the kids twirled around subway poles and generally ran rampant in the aisles. I didn’t, however, and neither did countless exasperated straphangers, who were compelled to continually dodge the girls’ awkward ballerina moves and incessant jabbering. Ma and Pa nevertheless gushed the entire time. Predictably, too, the subway car morphed into a classroom—a common occurrence—as the smugly doting parents taught their youngsters all kinds of life lessons, except the one that I believe is most important in a New York City subway car: Take a seat, shut your mouth, and mind your own business.

The rancid icing on the cake here was when I heard Dad tell one of his children that we have “twelve more stops to go,” then “eleven,” “ten,” “nine,” etc. Hoping against hope this bunch would exit after several stops just wasn’t in the Tarot cards. When their stop count got down to eight, I took it upon myself to do a little arithmetic of my own. Egad, they were getting off at 18th Street, the tranquil station I sometimes exit when tranquil is what I desire above all else.  Now just where did all this bad karma come from?

Happily, the Brady Bunch wasn't in my subway car as on my return trip home to the Bronx, but a well-educated and highly informed lunatic was. Among many things, he put in a good word for Jesus, noted the passing of Larry Hagman, and informed one and all that he couldn’t rightly defend Kobe Bryant for his actions, nor the woman, who he felt was equally culpable. Fortunately, this man of many opinions and insights exited after only a couple of miles and several stops. I must admit to being impressed with his parting salvo—something akin to Val Bisoglio’s words and jaunty manner after robbing the patrons of Kelsey’s Bar in an All in the Family episode. “Bye, bye, everybody,” he said as he headed off to Lincoln Center. He knew who he was and endeavored to be the very best lunatic that he could, which I find very admirable.





Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Our Woo Woo Song

When Kingsbridge’s “Stickball Boys of Summer” gathered together this past week for a long overdue reunion, I unearthed a treasure trove of the mostly crude scorecards that chronicled of our exploits. One that I came upon was dated June 18, 1978. What was most intriguing to me about this day and game was not the seventy degrees temperature or the final score, but rather Commissioner Meatball’s admonition to us to “WATCH THE OLD LADIES.” Our game’s imaginary mascot commissioner was referring—as I recall—to an incident that had occurred a short time prior to this date.

Occasionally when we arrived at John F. Kennedy High School all gung-ho for a stickball game, we would be unpleasantly surprised that our field was occupied by someone else, or that the school was hosting an after-hours or weekend event of some kind. The latter entailed cars pulling into a parking area—a key part of our playing arena—and people getting out of them and walking through tennis ball fallout territory. Playing under these conditions was pretty uncomfortable, I remember, but—come hell or high water—we almost always did. The game meant that much to us. Very little could deter us.

Anyway, a few days prior to the June 18th stickball game, the high school was host to a pre-graduation gathering. Automobiles en masse were pulling in at an unrelenting clip. We kept playing, though, as folks of all ages paraded in between pitcher and fielder. Chasing after fly balls in our designated double and triple zones became hazardous undertakings. So, when the senior member of our stickball contingent ripped a hard line drive, which had double written all over it, into a senior citizen’s mid-section, our game was at last put on ice. The old lady cried out “Woo…woo!” when the airborne tennis ball struck her. We uttered a “so sorry” or two to the woman and her companion, as I recall, while the pair stood by contemplating their next move. The consensus was that the woman didn’t appear any worse for wear— a bit startled, perhaps—as she started walking in the direction of the school’s entrance. However, she kept stopping, pivoting, and casting us dirty looks.

Observing this stop-and-go, our fearless leader, nicknamed “Cheese,” said without missing a beat, “Follow me,” as he made a beeline to the back of the school and away from his nearby parked car. “Where are we going?” I asked. You see, Cheese was the far-thinking Head Cheese. He was making absolutely certain the old lady and her cohort didn’t see us getting into his car—with his license plate.

This is precisely why Commissioner Meatball advised us on that mid-June day to keep our eyes peeled for old ladies when playing our favorite summer game on Bronx asphalt. The scorecard from this day in 1978 identifies our foursome by our nicknames: Cheese, Met, Geek, and Fish. Fast forward a year to 1979 when I, evidently, determined that our scoring ways and statistic-keeping merited a little more professionalism and class. We were thereafter referred to by first name initials and surnames. Commissioner Meatball, nonetheless, was brought back and continued to offer us sage and practical advice on playing the game like fine gentlemen and good neighbors.

(Photo from the personal collection of Nicholas Nigro)

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

The Stickball Boys of Summer...in Autumn

Last night the Kingsbridge Stickball Boys of Summer gathered together for the first time as a unit in quite a while—a decade or so, I’d say. Ostensibly, it was to commemorate a milestone birthday of mine from several weeks back. Strange, but it doesn’t seem like it was thirty-plus years ago when we were playing stickball games with abandon on the asphalt grounds of John F. Kennedy High School, just a few blocks from where we all called home. We kept copious records of all our exploits—the highlights and lowlights, too. As both the pioneering teenage statistician and contemporary middle-aged man archivist of all our stickball endeavors, I brushed off the cobwebs of the old scorecards that we faithfully kept for several years from the late 1970s through the early 1980s.

In this decidedly different age—simpler times, for sure—I included a “Saying of the Day” option on some of our  primitively photocopied scorecards. "Sayings" ranged far and wide from a local pizza man named "George" to controversial and colorful Alabama Governor George Wallace. It seems that one member of our stickball entourage relished mimicking the latter’s distinctive southern drawl. A “Making of the President 1968” documentary, or some such program, aired on PBS at the time, because every single one of us knew where he was coming from when he impersonated Wallace shouting down an unkempt hippie heckler and telling him to “Geeeeet a heeeeercut.” We were a unique and interesting brood of Bronx stickball players.

Courtesy of a pronounced rooftop clock and digital thermometer on the Exxon gas station just to the north of our playing field, both game-time temperatures—in Fahrenheit—and game durations were recorded for posterity as well. Let the record show that we played in temperatures ranging from forty-five to ninety-nine degrees. On one set of scorecards, I, for some reason, included “Hero” and “Goat” of the game blank spaces. Most of them were, in fact, left blank. Despite occasional unsolicited commentaries on the scorecards that were sometimes caustic and mocking, we generally opted not to underscore and offend individual games’ goats. While were a competitive lot, we had caring hearts, I suppose. And besides, we exchanged teammates from one game to the next. Sure, I scribbled at one point on a scorecard that “RC is a jerk,” and he responded in kind that I was meekly “sweating” under the pressure, but that was all in good fun.

Final season tallies found each and every one of us coming to the plate over one thousand times and pitching more than two hundred innings. Looking back, this heavy workload explains why I was often sore on Cardinal Spellman High School Monday mornings in springtime. There were no stickball spring training sessions for us. When winters turned into springs, we commenced to playing—up to the hilt and end of story.

Ah, but here we were all these years later, in the flesh, and having experienced lives after stickball—physical and emotional odysseys that have taken us a long, long way from the reassuring terra firma of a neighborhood high school with those crude home plate boxes on a graffiti-laden brick wall . Funny, but to a man, we recalled what was—very clearly as a matter a fact—but not so much the intricate details of the three decades that followed and that led us far afield of stickball in the Bronx. Why, exactly, I wanted to "assassinate" my longtime friend RC on a pleasant summer morning when Jimmy Carter was president, I've long since forgotten. I'd hazard a guess I really didn’t want to do that. And although stickball is now a relic of all our pasts—warm and fuzzy memories—we nonetheless continue to play ball with what we've got left in the autumn years.

(Photo from the personal collection of Nicholas Nigro)

Saturday, December 1, 2012

Revisiting Nostalgic Bullies of Yesteryear

Not too long ago in the scheme of things, people from the old neighborhood and classmates had, by and large, dropped off the radar. Then along came the Internet and a thing called social networking to upend so many of the “Whatever became of?” mysteries. Folks whom we had largely forgotten—or only thought about when we perused a school yearbook or came upon an old photo—materialized in the virtual ether.

Always a curious sort, I was especially interested in what the bullies from the past were up to in the twenty-first century. Outside of the occasional incident, I wasn’t, thankfully, bullied in any kind of systematic way. But there were a lot of bullies, and bully cliques—they don't merit being called gangs—in the neighborhood while I was growing up. One particular motley crew from a couple of blocks to the east of where I called home were—what I would deem—textbook bullies.

Like me, they’ve grown up now and are leading adult lives—chronologically at least. Courtesy of Facebook, I’ve discovered the whereabouts of a few of these former Bronx bully boys. They are rather respectable citizens—pillars of the community—in nearby suburban communities like Hastings-on-Hudson, Pearl River, and Woodbridge, New Jersey. Funny, though, while they are not gut punching kids in the stomach anymore and stealing their basketballs and spare change, they are nonetheless nostalgic about all those good times they had. Evidently, breaking into area mom-and-pop businesses in the wee hours of the morning, and robbing them blind, was a real hoot in Kingsbridge, and remembered with great fondness by these law-abiding adults. I get the impression they would like to do that in Hastings-on-Hudson, Pearl River, and Woodbridge, too, but just don’t have the nerve anymore.

I have come up short on a couple of my favorite local bullies from the past. Apparently, they aren’t computer literate and into social networking—or maybe they’re no longer of this world, who knows? And perhaps this is for the best. One missing-in-action bully was the quintessential sadist. Forgive me for wondering what became of a kid who derived pleasure in blowing up pigeons with firecrackers. The other fellow who piques my curiosity was the Incredible Hulk’s evil doppelganger—a truly scary, callous leviathan. As I recall, though, he had a soft spot for cats, so I guess there's a little bit of good in everyone.

In my innocent youth in the simper times of the 1970s, I could never fully comprehend what made these bullies the awful oafs they were. And while I welcome them into adulthood and can forgive their youthful cruelties and boorish behaviors, I just wish they weren’t so nostalgic for all those fun times from their pasts. I'd hate to think their bullying days were their heydays.

(Photo from the personal collection of Nicholas Nigro)

Saturday, November 24, 2012

Thinking Outside of the Box


It’s the little contributions to one’s own neighborhood that really matter. If everybody tended to his or her little piece of earth, the uplifting multiplier effect of this would redound to a happier and healthier planet and existence.

This is wishful thinking on my part, I know, as all too many folks do a rather poor job at tending to what is theirs and give very little thought, or no thought at all, to their neighbors and the community at large. In my neck of woods, it never ceases to amaze me how some people plunk down a half-million dollars and more for homes, do a couple of hundred thousand dollars worth of interior improvements, but allow their exterior properties to become woeful eyesores. Imagine 1313 Mockingbird Lane here, but with inhabitants decidedly less warm and fuzzy.

Playing stickball at John F. Kennedy High School a few blocks from home—in the simpler times of my youth—our athletic ensemble sometimes drew home plate “H” boxes with chalk. Other practitioners of the stickball art spray-painted the very same boxes, which were transient and perpetually painted over by the city fathers. A little ingenuity—and compromise—was in order. Stickball in the Bronx was, after all, a storied tradition. However, we didn’t have to perform a cheesy act of vandalism to keep the game alive. Our chalk boxes could be scrubbed away rather effortlessly. A couple of heavy rains would also do the trick. But why not a removable masking-taped home plate box? Ultimate ingenuity and one small step for humankind—a tiny one but with a broader message: a neighborhood without needless graffiti and fewer slob homeowners and selfish landlords is always a better place to live in. Before it was fashionable, we were literally thinking outside of the box.

(Photo from the personal collection of Nicholas Nigro)

Monday, November 19, 2012

Twinkie, Twinkie, Little Cake...

In the simpler times of the 1970s, I have little doubt a pithy rhyme of some kind would be floating around the old neighborhood regarding the Hostess Twinkie on life support. It would have gone something like this: “Twinkie, Twinkie, little cake. How I thought you tasted fake. On that grocery store shelf so high. I think I’ll reach for a sugary fruit pie.” Happily, though, I see there’s more than a glimmer of hope for the Hostess brand’s survival, which, of course, includes Archie Bunker’s favorite dessert—the Twinkie.

I liked Twinkies once upon a time, but Drake’s line of products—Devil Dogs, for instance—were vastly superior in my opinion. Hostess’s airy, ultra-sugary Twinkie tended to melt in your mouth, but not always in a pleasant way. As a boy in Cardinal Spellman High School—when Jimmy Carter was the president—I consumed more than a few Hostess Suzy Q's, with a half-pint of milk chaser, in the esteemed institution of learning’s cafeteria. Thirty years later, I sampled a Suzy Q and wasn’t nearly impressed with what I once deemed a confectionery masterpiece. So, either Hostess altered its recipe, or I just could no longer stomach the Suzy Q’s super-sweet and rather extensive mélange of ingredients. Think about it: No at-home baker could produce a Twinkie or Suzy Q, no matter how hard he or she tried. There’s obviously a perverse magic in the baking process of these store brands, which, I suppose, we are better off knowing as little as possible about.

While I won’t fork over a $100 for a box of Twinkies on eBay today, I do look forward to sampling this distinctive cream-filled cake sometime in the future, preferably in a two-pack. I always found these comfort foods tasted better when they were conjoined rather than individually wrapped. I pine for the days when a local mom-and-pop grocery store—like Pat Mitchell’s Irish Food Center on W231st Street in the Bronx's Kingsbridge—had a full rack of Hostess and Drake cakes for sale and not a single gourmet pound cake on the premises. Simpler times indeed.



Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Election 2012: Goodbye, Farewell, and Amen...


Once upon a time old Saint Nick brought me a Parker Brothers board game called “Landslide.” It was Christmas Eve 1973, I believe. And, as I recall, Landslide was a truly exhilarating game—second only to Monopoly in strategy, suspense, and the sheer joy of victory. The game’s goal was to amass 270 electoral votes and win the presidency—the whole enchilada. It was a board game with civic lessons intertwined with the rolling of the dice and myriad rules in amassing votes and winning states.

In the early 1970s, California was the premier booty with forty-five electoral votes followed by my home state of New York, coming in a close second at forty-one. Pennsylvania’s twenty-seven was number three, while—interestingly enough—Florida’s electoral heft stood at a mere seventeen. Yes, the times have certainly changed. While California is still the top prize—by an even larger margin with fifty-five electoral votes—New York, alas, has fallen behind Texas, which controls thirty-eight, and Florida is now tied with the Empire State at twenty-nine. I don't know, but New York no better than the Sunshine State just doesn’t seem right. When I was playing Landslide, Florida was nothing more than Flipper to me.

I still have the Landslide playing board in my possession, but not the complete game. Since I don’t have anyone to play with anymore, it’s not a big deal. Recently, I checked out eBay and noticed that a winning bid on the board game—heavily used—came in at $22. It’s worth a whole lot more than that, I thought. For Landslide was a genuinely smart game—American to its core—from a more intelligent, thoughtful, and genteel time, before blowhards (of all political bents) ruled the roost on 24/7 cable, social media, and the Internet. Really, before I was eligible to vote, the Electoral College and electoral process seemed almost cool and even classy. Now, all these years later, voting here in old New York is more often than not akin to casting a ballot in the old Soviet Union—there's rarely any competitive races. The idealist in me nonetheless continues to exercise my civic duty as if I resided in Florida, where so many New Yorkers have ended up. Thank God it’s over...but then it never really is anymore.

Thursday, October 25, 2012

Remembering My COOP

For some reason unbeknownst to me, I remember this particular date in history. Thirty-seven years ago on October 25, 1975—a Saturday (so easily verified in this Information Age of ours)—I took the COOP exam. A familiar ritual for boys and girls in their final year of Catholic grammar school, the acronym is short for "Cooperative Admissions Examination Program." Actually, it should have been called the CAEP exam. For me, it all went down at St. Nicholas of Tolentine High School in the Fordham area of the Bronx, a few miles to the south of where I called home and attended school.

“Tolentine,” as it was popularly known, was one of the four high schools I requested the COOP results be forwarded to for either "admission" or "rejection"—a requirement, I think. There was, too, an “on waiting list” potential third response from the selected schools. Happily, I was offered admission to all four of my high school choices, although I had no intention of ever attending Tolentine or "the Mount," Mt. St. Michael. The reasons why we chose the high schools we did back then were typically multi-layered and ran the gamut from affordability to location; family tradition to gender exclusivity; "I wanna go where my friends are going" to "I have no choice because it's the only school I made." And, once upon a time, kids were actually rejected and placed on schools’ waiting lists. You know, when these institutions of fine learning were not hard up for business like so many of them are today. Baby boomers outnumbered the available desks in the 1960s and 1970s.

In fact, St. Nicholas of Tolentine High School closed its doors for good in 1991, the victim of declining enrollment in a demographically changing neighborhood that couldn’t afford the ever-rising tuition costs. It should be noted that after completing the arduous COOP exam, a handful of my grammar school buddies and I set out for home, but not before patronizing a local Kentucky Fried Chicken joint on Fordham Road. Last time I checked the place was still in business, although it called itself KFC now and its simple 1975 menu—regular or extra crispy—was a relic of the past. As I recall, one of my meatier mates from St. John’s grammar school in the Bronx's Kingsbridge neighborhood, ordered a three-piece dinner that day and somebody—not me—made the obligatory fat joke. Kids. By today’s yardstick, I suspect this thirteen-year-old would be considered svelte, and three pieces of chicken, a tiny cup of phony-tasting, dehydrated, instant mashed potatoes (which I always liked), and a small lukewarm piece of frozen corn on the cob would hardly qualify as a pig-out. After lunch—with our educational mission accomplished and appetites satisfied—we walked the few miles home without incident. We could have hopped on the Number 20 bus, but we were an adventuresome and energetic lot in those days.

Saturday, October 20, 2012

How I Became a Made Man in the Bronx

The most corporate franchise in sports history isn’t going to the World Series this year. Hooray! Yes, I’m happy about that. Not quite ecstatic, like I would have been a quarter of a century ago, but more than mildly pleased. Why? To borrow a phrase from Facebook, “It’s complicated.” After all, Major League Baseball has become downright sacrilege to me, and I make every effort not to follow, or lose any sleep over, the antics of multi-millionaire muscle heads and crybabies (see my previous blog and others for more on that). But perhaps Charles Bukowski (Henry Chinaski as played by Mickey Rourke in Barfly) was on to something when he said, “Hatred, it’s the only thing that lasts.” Because, I still hate the Yankees. I don’t follow the game anymore, or have any vested interest in the cross-town rivalry like I did once upon a time. Still, I root against the whole pinstriped lot of them by osmosis. And I don’t burn sassafras root at Derek Jeter’s altar, either.

My father was the quintessential Yankee fan from way back until, almost literally, the day he died. The very first baseball games I attended were in the late-1960s alongside him—in the actual “House that Ruth Built” with the wooden seats and concrete poles that made unobstructed views of the game well nigh impossible. I seem to recall going to a “bat day” promotion against the Seattle Pilots. That had to be 1969 then—the expansion team’s only year in existence and chronicled in Jim Bouton’s then-controversial tell-all memoir Ball Four, one of my all-time favorite sports books. So, I was a not-as-yet seven-year-old boy when I received my “Jake Gibbs” inscribed bat on the way into the stadium—a quality piece of lumber. We used "bat day" bats with bona fide “hardballs”in the old neighborhood and they were up to the task.

Something, though, tells me that particular game against the Pilots got rained out, but we at least got to keep the bat. I believe, too, there was some bat mischief that "bat day" as well. Handing out thousands of rock-solid wooden bats to folks in the Bronx entering a crowded stadium was asking for trouble, I suppose, particularly when one added an extended rain delay and free-flowing beer to the soupy mix. I was on hand for yet another “bat day” a year or two later, when I took home a “Gene Michael” Louisville Slugger. This was the game that a serious mustard-packet splatter on the back of the seat in front of me held me spellbound for nine innings. Anyway, I was groomed to be a Yankee fan—why would I be anything else?

So, I can't really explain what happened. The 1969 “Miracle Mets,” maybe? Rebelling against an authority figure in the family and daring to be different? Tough to say. If I was rebelling, I was quasi-unaware I was doing it. Sure, I wholeheartedly embraced the Mets in 1970. My father even brought me a home the 1970 Mets’ yearbook—from Yankee Stadium no less. I’d like to think I was merely a wide-eyed seven-year-old boy switching on the black-and-white television at home and watching my favorite team—the Mets televised three-quarters of their games; the Yankees only a quarter back then. Still, I didn’t feel I had to root against the Yankees after declaring myself a Met fan—not in the least.

Very quickly, though, it became evident to little me that I couldn’t like the Mets—love them in fact—and still wish that other New York team well. I thus became a made man at the age of nine or ten. My chop-busting father and the majority of my peers in the old Bronx neighborhood I called home, who rooted for those damn Yankees, considered Met fans—and particularly “Mr. Met”—persona non grata. There was no two-timing permitted on this playing field—no mealy-mouthed bipartisan stuff. It was one or the other. You're either with us or against us. Against then. At the tender age of nine or ten, I became a full-fledged Yankee hater. I had no choice. Perhaps there’s a lesson here, I don’t know. I’ll leave that sort of thing to the New Age folks. But I can honestly say that for me: Hatred, it's is the only thing that lasts—at least so far as the Yankees are concerned. Ah, yes, made to hate on the streets of the Bronx a long time ago.

Monday, October 8, 2012

Look Who's Number One

I know where I was and what I was doing on this day thirty-nine years ago. It, too, was a Monday and a holiday. As per family tradition, my mother hosted a birthday party for my younger brother on that crisp autumn Columbus Day. Various friends from the neighborhood were invited over to our house to sing “Happy Birthday” and eat Duncan Hines chocolate box cake, ice cream, and assorted munchies. And, last but not least, no kid party of ours was complete without fun games like “Pin the Tail on the Donkey” and “Dunking for Apples”—McIntosh Red from Sloan’s supermarket down the street.

But it also was a very special day for New York Met fans of all ages. Back in October 1973—a month shy of my eleventh birthday—I proudly wore the nickname of “Mr. Met.” On my block, I was a rare fan of the team from Queens. After all, I called home the Bronx, where that American League franchise played in a big stadium several miles to the south. My unbending fealty to their cross-town rivals set me apart.

Shortened to just “Met” in most instances, my nickname has endured. Over the last four decades, a handful of folks—who misheard “Met” in the ether—have called me “Matt.” But, sadly, my allegiance to the team has not endured. Once upon a time my Met fanaticism was whole and pure—loyal through good times and bad for a quarter of a century. Society, the world, and Major League Baseball, though, gradually changed—for the worst in many instances—as did my interest in what once was a wonderful game. Big money, multi-media hot air, and snowballing technologies have dramatically altered the playing field. The game’s unique and special ambiance has taken a colossal hit—fatal from my perspective. An average game takes close to three hours now, and a half hour longer than that during the post season. Between excessive commercials and on-the-field dilly-dallying, the games just never end. I won’t bother mentioning the pampered millionaires who play the game today, steroids, over-expansion, interleague play, uneven and unfair scheduling, and ticket prices beyond the pale of decency. Player loyalty? Fuggedaboutit. This used to be the little guy’s game.

And so I return to that Columbus Day birthday party from yesteryear, which found my New York Mets playing Cincinnati’s heavily favored "Big Red Machine" that same afternoon in a play-off game. Yes, we called them the “play-offs” then—not the “LCS.” It was televised on both WOR, Channel Nine—the Mets’ local station—and nationally on NBC. Imagine that. Naturally, I remained loyal to the play-by-play of the home team’s dulcet announcers: Lindsey Nelson, Ralph Kiner, and Bob Murphy. And on this festive fall day, Jerry Koosman pitched a complete game and Rusty Staub hit two home runs in a 9-2 rout. The Mets went on to beat the Reds in a best of five series with a team ERA of 1.33. The staff also completed three of the five games played. Imagine that.

Only a week earlier, the Mets clinched the Eastern Division title with a win against the Chicago Cubs at Wrigley Field. Realizing that many of her students were more interested in watching the game than having her read aloud from The Big Wave, sixth-grade Language Arts teacher Sister Joanne wheeled in a big black-and-white television set, resting atop a tall stand, and plugged it into the non-educational, commercial TV slot on the wall. Fortunately, it wasn’t a year earlier when I had old and crabby Sister Camillus for the same subject. She wouldn’t have been so obliging, I suspect.

On August, 31, 1973, the Mets sported a 62-71 record. Manager and guru Yogi Berra told skeptical reporters around that time, “It ain’t over till it’s over.” After a year of debilitating injuries to so many team regulars, good health had returned for the month of September. Admittedly, it helped that the Eastern Division of the National League was pretty lame that year, but Yogi was nonetheless prescient. On the last weekend of the season, five of the six teams had a mathematical chance of winning the division. The Mets actually assumed first place with a 76-76 record on September 21st. After they beat the Pirates 10-2 that night, I'll never forget a WOR-TV post-game camera shot of Shea Stadium’s "state-of-the-art" electronic scoreboard. It read “Look Who’s Number One,” with the division’s standings listed below it. That old scoreboard often looked like contemporary Facebook posts from iPhones—error laden, incoherent, and unintentionally hilarious—but this particular message was absolutely correct in letter and number.

When one combines my almost-eleven-year-old enthusiasm and wide-eyed innocence with my favorite team going from last place to first place during the first few weeks of September, it’s little wonder that one of the most exciting sentences I’ve ever laid eyes on was: “Look Who’s Number One.” Perhaps I’ll encounter another such sentence in the future—with such heft—but that’s highly unlikely.

(Photo from the personal collection of Nicholas Nigro)

Saturday, September 15, 2012

A Friend Indeed...

My Facebook homepage recently alerted me of people that I “may know” out in the virtual ether. Despite the word “people” being plural (meaning two or more persons), I received the name of only one soul who might or might not be familiar to me. And a day or so later this very same person was suggested to me as a potential Facebook friend.

Admittedly, I was intrigued with this person’s peculiar name: “Mosholu Parkway.” The surname was certainly unfamiliar to me. I don’t remember any Parkway family living in the old neighborhood, or a kid by that name in my high school class. I, too, just cannot recall anybody named Parkway that I worked alongside. No, I never had an editor named Parkway parsing my words, either.

Hey, wait just a minute here. Mosholu Parkway isn’t a person after all. It’s a leafy Bronx thoroughfare that I’ve driven on countless times. In fact, it’s where a flesh-and-blood person drove up an entrance incline to the parkway (near the New York Botanical Garden in the Bronx) in the wrong lane. Having just purchased a spiffy new set of wheels, he wanted to avoid at all costs a small pothole—“the bump” as it was dubbed—in the wrong but all too literal right lane.

As we inched up the hill on our way home from a Mets' game at Shea Stadium, the car’s two passengers were for—one brief shining moment at least—terrified. Good fortune, though—fate’s huge and generous hand—intervened. We weren’t met at the hilltop by a fellow driver in the left—when we really should have been in the right—lane. Courtesy of a long night game and the lateness of the hour, we were spared a head-on collision on the typically busy Mosholu Parkway—not an actual person, I know, but a friend indeed.

Monday, September 3, 2012

The Catch of the Day on Life Support

With the 2012 summer season effectively in the dustbin of history, I can add a further nail into the “having a catch in the backyard” coffin. Once upon a time in this neck of the woods—the Northwest Bronx—baseball mitts rested in countless front hallways and were called into action regularly during the spring, summer, and autumnal months. Playing largely on concrete, though, our gloves’ neat leatherwork and lacing took a beating, eventually beyond repair.

When we utilized bona fide baseballs on fields that weren’t green, their stitches and coverings took a licking. It wasn’t uncommon to see us playing with hardballs wrapped in black electrical tape to extend their lives. Eventually, the rubber hardball came along, which supplied us with the ideal orb to have a catch and play games of “errors” and “pitcher and catcher” in our concrete backyards. Sure, the concrete is still there today—albeit a cheesier, monochrome variety—but very few kids are having catches atop it.

Actually, outside of seeing today’s youth staring into iPhones on the mean streets, I didn’t notice much else going on throughout this urban summer. Walking about while simultaneously staring into these technological gizmos paints a rather depressing picture to me. It conjures up images of tacky horror films from yesteryear with human automatons bloodlessly roaming the highways and byways. If we were becoming a smarter and more interesting people, perhaps a winning case could made for walking around while texting, tweeting, and talking on the cell—and not looking where one is going—but that ain't exactly happening.

So, the backyard catch is no longer the catch of the day. And on life support, too, in the big city—it should be noted—are clothes hanging out on clotheslines. Well…longstanding as this old tradition may be, its demise just might not be a bad thing. Progress…yes...let's embrace it.

(Photo from the personal collection of Nicholas Nigro)

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

All Those Years Ago



On August 29, 1977, exactly thirty-five years ago, the world was a decidedly different place from my youthful perspective and, too, in practical reality. Simpler pleasures ruled the roost. This day in history saw three Bronx boys—Kingsbridge denizens aged twenty-six, seventeen, and fourteen (me)—embark on an adventuresome itinerary that kicked off just after sunrise.

Our first stopover was the Brigantine Castle in the shore town of Brigantine, New Jersey. In the mid-1970s, the commercials for this haunted house attraction on the Atlantic’s edge inundated local New York City television station airwaves. It was something we just had to check out and we did. But the overall experience didn’t quite live up to the grand hype. It seems the castle's employee-performers were phoning it in that morning while springing out of shadowy niches, stabbing us with rubber knives, and flinging phony rats into our paths. The Brigantine Castle was out of business several years later. It burned to the ground before a developer could demolish it. Perhaps it really was haunted.

Our journey found us next in pre-casino Atlantic City, where we strolled the historic boardwalk. I don’t remember why, but the three of us expected Atlantic City to be a sparkling jewel on the ocean and not a dilapidated and seedy eyesore. Seaside Heights was eye candy by comparison. Nonetheless, it was nice to see that a Philadelphia Phillies' player named Greg "the Bull" Luzinski and a former one named Richie Ashburn were scheduled to appear at the legendary Steel Pier. We didn’t stick around long enough to uncover what they were going to do when they got there.

Onward to Philadelphia and Independence Hall, where I finally laid eyes on that crack in the Liberty Bell—up close and personal. Finally, with evening fast approaching, the icing on the day’s layer cake: a visit to Veterans Stadium and a Phillies versus Atlanta Braves baseball game. And yet another first for us—witnessing live a game played on artificial turf. Veterans Stadium was among the multi-sport, cookie-cutter, synthetic grass stadiums that were the rage in the 1970s. They’ve since become passé and most of them have been demolished, including Veterans Stadium. Fortunately, Greg Luzinski made it back in time from the Steel Pier and and was in the starting lineup.

After a fourteen-inning game that took a little over four hours to complete, it was back to the Bronx in the wee hours on a sleepy high—a thrill-packed, 1970s-style adventure and one that cannot be replicated in the new millennium. Whereas both the Brigantine Castle and Veterans Stadium are gone with the sands of time, Independence Hall and the Liberty Bell endure. And the Bronx boys—now sixty-one, fifty-two, and forty-nine—humbly accept there will not likely be another thirty-five-year anniversary to commemorate.

(Photos from the personal collection of Nicholas Nigro)

Sunday, August 26, 2012

"Uplifting Platitude Central" Meet Gilligan...

Perhaps it was the tufted titmouse I spotted in a local sycamore tree that reminded me of something incredibly uplifting. No, wait just a moment here. I didn’t see a tufted titmouse today, or yesterday for that matter. I don’t even know if the species inhabit this slice of geography. And even had I spotted one, this little bird is too small to resurrect the image that bedazzled my mind and body alike. I could understand had I laid eyes on an eagle, hawk, or even a vulture, but I didn’t see any of them, either. So, it was something else entirely that resurrected the scene of an angelic and well-meaning Gilligan attempting to fly in an episode of Gilligan’s Island entitled, “Will the Real Mr. Howell Please Stand Up?”

Via a radio broadcast, Mr. Howell had discovered that an impostor was back in civilization and spending his money like there was no tomorrow. He thus offered a not inconsiderable sum to the one castaway who could get him off the island and safely back to the mainland. This monetary incentive inspired many clever inventions, including a pontoon boat built by the professor, which is what Howell ultimately settled upon as his last best hope.

Gilligan, on the other hand, had crafted a pair of super-sized bird wings in anticipation of taking flight. For a test run he scaled a very tall tree. But when the Skipper spotted him up above, he told a flapping Gilligan, who was indeed suspended in air and ipso facto flying, “Gilligan, you can’t fly!” “I can’t?” Gilligan asked. “No!” And down Gilligan went—fast and hard to the ground. The laugh track howled heartily at his misfortune.

Since Facebook, aka "Uplifting Platitude Central," is awash in both New Age and Old Religion bromides, I thought I would contribute to the surfeit my very own from Gilligan’s Island, and one with a compelling moral message. That is: “If you believe you can fly, you can. And don’t let anyone tell you otherwise!” On the other hand, perhaps the Skipper was on to something and we really can’t fly—with feathers anyway. Food for thought.

A footnote: The professor’s guaranteed seaworthy pontoon boat sunk immediately upon launch into the murky waters of the lagoon. One more: the Howell imposter, inebriated from an excess of expensive champagne, fell off a Howell-owned yacht into the ocean waters somewhere and washed up—alive and well—on the island. Coincidence, you say? There are no coincidences in life. At least that’s what I have gleaned in Uplifting Platitude Central.

Saturday, August 25, 2012

The "Back of the Head" Image Series



Sometime in the late-1970s, my younger brother and I borrowed my father’s cheesy camera with the 110 film and embarked on a monumental photographic undertaking. We endeavored to snap photos of a cross-section of our neighbors—the ones we deemed memorable characters and, too, whom we deduced wouldn’t be around forever. We were remarkably prescient on this last count.

And thus began our not quite award-winning “Back of the Head” image series. We weren't the gutsiest of photographers. Getting caught in the act of taking pictures of individuals we really didn’t know concerned us. After all, our prey might have actually questioned why we were doing what we were doing. Some people are camera shy, too. Almost invariably, a case could have been made that something wasn’t quite kosher with our behavior.

Looking back all these years later, it would have been best to just tell them the unvarnished truth. You know, that we were in the process of compiling a neighborhood yearbook—a picture book to remember one and all by. Who wouldn’t have wanted to be part of that?

But the yearbook per se never materialized, and so I am left with a hodgepodge of back of the head images of an eclectic cast of characters, including Howie G and his mother, who went for a walk each and every evening at the exact same time. Without fail, they ran their daily errands while chewing over the day’s events. Mother and son were always in intimate conversation, which was kind of special. Oh, I did manage to snap an occasional profile picture and even a few aerial shots from a second floor window. These photographs will have to suffice in remembering Howie G and company from that very colorful snapshot in time—when city neighborhoods had both character and characters…lots of them in fact.

(Photos from the personal collection of Nicholas Nigro)

Friday, August 24, 2012

The Noble Experiment

For a couple of years in the early 1980s, the family car was a Champagne-colored Chevy Chevette. It looked more like “Army green” to me. During that snapshot in time, an increasing number of folks in the old neighborhood were giving fuel-efficient cars a fair look for the first time in their lives. On the heels of recent gas shortages and unwelcome price spikes, it made sense to drive vehicles without voracious fuel appetites. And, too, reducing energy consumption is always a good idea—for a whole host of reasons—isn't it?

My father owned a light blue 1959 Chevrolet Biscayne for fourteen years. In 1973, he bought a used 1968 Buick Skylark from a neighbor on the next block. It kind of sat on the road—you could almost walk into it. Eight years later, he was coaxed into purchasing the car that was—evidently—driving people happy. It was a noble experiment indeed to buy one with a manual transmission, no air conditioning, and back windows that would only roll down half way—a good gas mileage trifecta. Trouble was that Dad wasn’t exactly “Mr. Smooth” with the stick shift and the pool of alternative drivers was slim. So, when one added the lack of air conditioning and the back window thing to a never-ending series of shaky starts, summertime rides could get pretty hellish. The Chevy Chevette was retired after only a couple of years.

As I gaze upon the city streets three decades later, I see bigger than ever vehicles spewing more and more carbon dioxide into the air and taking up a whole lot of parking space, too. And all of this in an era of high gas prices and the general cost of living off the charts. Occasionally, though, I am heartened when I see a Smart Car whiz by me, but I worry its driver will one day be cast asunder by a runaway SUV or pickup truck. Perhaps it's noble experiment time again.

(Photo from the personal collection of Nicholas Nigro)

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Anatomy of a Boss

While there are countless negatives attached to the snowballing advances in modern technology, there are more than a few benefits and pleasing offshoots. Take the DVD and all that it has wrought, including a company called Netflix. To cut to the chase, I’ve been watching episodes of Rawhide via my Netflix gift subscription. This classic American western television series—with its unforgettable theme song —starred Eric Fleming as cattle trail boss Gil Favor. Taking his herd along the Sedalia Trail from Texas to Missouri, Favor and his men naturally encountered troubles along the way. Sometimes it was inhospitable weather, bloodthirsty Indians, greedy bandits, sickness, and—alas for the harried trail boss—very poor help. Nevertheless, Favor and his understudy Rowdy Yates, played by a young and little known actor named Clint Eastwood, somehow endured through the rough and tumble of the frequently unforgiving landscape they traversed.

It was, nonetheless, an era when men were evidently men. Recently, I watched an episode where a haplessly green eighteen year old joined Mr. Favor’s outfit. Ordered to rein in some misbehaving cattle, the youngster was no match for the bovine ensemble’s frenzied antics. Rowdy desperately wanted to intervene on the boy’s behalf, but Mr. Favor, who had assigned him another vital task, refused to allow it. When the poor kid was trampled to death, Rowdy was disgusted with his the incredible callousness of his boss, who told him point-blank that “men are replaceable; cattle aren’t.” By the end of the episode, though, Rowdy somehow understood where Mr. Favor was coming from in their cow-eat-cow world.

Favor’s cool hard line, which was probably closer to the reality of the times and job, wouldn’t wash today on the small screen. He was, after all, the show’s leading man, authority figure, and hero. But then when you get right down to it, I suspect there are more than a few boss figures who believe men (and women) are replaceable. Head ‘em up; move ‘em out!

Sunday, August 19, 2012

Mad Max 2

Time flies these days—even, it seems, when one is not having fun. It’s closing in on a year now since a very special diner, and a secular holy place, served up its last grilled hamburger and bacon, eggs, and home fries breakfast platter. And the really sad thing is that we won’t see its likes again around these parts. Changing tastes, astronomical rents, high operating costs, and a business-unfriendly bureaucracy have seen to that. The owner of this gritty eatery was there seven days a week—on the physical premises all the time with the exception of a several hours on Sunday—and did virtually all the cooking himself. While he was plying his culinary trade, it was the norm to both greet and bid farewell to this classic diner impresario. I miss the thunderous “Hi!” greetings and equally booming “Take care!” farewells from grill side.

I was reminded of both this personal and societal loss when I bumped into the diner’s number two man for many years. Fortunately, he has found work in the area. While I chatted with him, an old blowhard got out of a car and yelled over, “Hey, Pete!” I asked, “Wasn’t he a diner customer?” Pete replied, “A long time ago.” I, of course, knew that Max was indeed a patron. He was unforgettable.

Almost invariably, Max would double park his huge boat of a car and have arguments with people on the street before entering the diner. He ordered the same thing all the time—like so many of us did—and executed his usual pre-meal ritual. Before eating his ham and egg sandwich, he swallowed a medley of meds and then swigged from a bottle of Pepto-Bismal, which he pulled out of his jacket pocket. Max was always loud and loutish.

What surprised me about seeing Max in the flesh today was that I presumed he was long dead. The man was old, obese, and red-skinned many, many years ago. He appeared then to be among the living courtesy of those pockets full of pills and bottles of Pepto-Bismal. But there Max was—all these years later and in living color—double parked in a heavily trafficked thoroughfare and heading off to purchase lottery tickets, which was where Pete was going, too. Somehow, though, seeing Mad Max alive and well—albeit still old, obese, and red-skinned—made my day.

Saturday, August 18, 2012

The World We Knew...and Know...

Courtesy of a compelling post and image today in a nostalgic Facebook group, which I am a member, I was reminded of The World Book encyclopedia. My parents purchased a set sometime in the late 1960s from a door-to-door salesman. It seems legitimate door-to-door salespersons really existed once upon a time, and that regular folks occasionally even purchased the things they were peddling. People coming to my door nowadays are, foremost, looked upon with great suspicion and completely ignored if possible.

Anyway, back to more pleasant thoughts and The World Book encyclopedia redux, which resurrected countless memories of school reports researched entirely within these thorough sources of information. Since computers and plagiarism software didn’t yet exist, our teachers had to deduce the Holmesian old-fashioned way whether or not little Jimmy and Mary Pat were turning in someone else’s intellectual property and claiming it as their own.

The World Book didn’t end with its A to Z reservoir of facts on everything from history to science to sports. Annually, the company forwarded its customers a special yearbook, updating the major scientific and technical breakthroughs, watershed cultural shifts, big news stories, and more. I don’t know why, but the things that fascinated me most in those yearbooks were their “Death of Notable Persons” sections. As a youth, I recall combing these lists of recently deceased celebrities, politicians, scientists, businesspersons, et al. There’s no substitute for a dead person to spur interest in all that he or she did to be included in a “Death of Notable Persons” roster in The World Book encyclopedia. I am happy to report that The World Book lives on in the digital age. I fear, though, that kids today don’t give too much thought to dead people of note, because for most of them life began yesterday.

Monday, August 13, 2012

Channeling Uncle Kevin

While I was growing up in the 1960s and 1970s, it was commonplace in the neighborhood for multi-generations to be living under the same roofs. Three family homes in the Bronx's Kingsbridge often housed three tenant families who were blood relations. One such extended family lived on the next block. A bachelor named Kevin resided in the ground floor apartment; his brother and sister-in-law directly above him.; and Kevin’s nephew, wife, and several great nieces and great nephews above them.

It seems just about everybody in the old neighborhood had a moniker of some kind. While Kevin wasn't related to me in any way, he was known to a lot of people, including me, as “Uncle Kevin.” What distinguished the man in that colorful snapshot in time was his wooden leg and stilted gait. If memory serves, he had lost a good portion of his right leg in World War I. Naturally, Uncle Kevin’s story fascinated us local kids. He was, however, a taciturn gentleman with an emotional force field around him, which we respected. In other words, we didn’t feel we should badger him with questions about how he lost his leg, what it’s like to strap on a wooden leg every morning, and can we—just maybe—have a look-see.

Fast forward forty years and Uncle Kevin came back into my life. No, not physically or via a medium’s séance. Rather, I thought about him when suddenly, and without fair warning, when I found myself wearing a peg leg. Not the wooden kind like Uncle Kevin wore, but one that functioned similarly. My high-tech, computerized prosthetic knee—the vaunted C-Leg—at long last malfunctioned after four and one-half years of noble service. And when it did, the knee stiffened up and assumed its safety mode. Wearers can awkwardly—and very gingerly—maneuver around in the safety mode. But until they are serviced, the C-Legs are little more than pricey peg legs.

When I first got my C-Leg, I asked my prosthetist about the ramifications of a dead battery or a computer malfunction. Putting my capacity to walk in a computer’s hands didn’t come naturally to me. “What would happen if I were out and about and something went awry?” I asked. “You’ll be able to get home,” he replied. And he was right about that. As a ten-year-old boy, I pined to see what Uncle Kevin’s leg looked like and kind of wished he was my real uncle. Now, pushing fifty—and courtesy of life’s unpredictable and sometimes Byzantine twists and turns—I’d appreciate a gander even more. I will, though, have to content myself by walking in Uncle Kevin’s shoes today, tomorrow, and for the immediate future—and hope I don't fall on my face along the way. Uncle Kevin—veteran and amputee—didn’t have it easy but, in retrospect, he made it look so.

Monday, June 25, 2012

A Night to Remember

Thirty-nine years ago on this very night—June 25, 1973—I attended my first Mets' game at “beautiful Shea Stadium.” That’s how announcer Curt Gowdy described the place a mere four years earlier in a World Series highlight film. Anyway, it was more than beautiful to me as a ten-year-old boy. From the vantage point of my wide-eyes, it was awe-inspiring—Shea Stadium was the quintessential Wonder of the World. While I had been to Yankee Stadium on multiple occasions, I had only seen the "Big Shea" through the screen of my family’s black-and-white television set. So, to experience Shea Stadium live and in living color with its totally unique ballpark din—in close proximity to LaGuardia Airport runways—made it a night to remember.

An older neighbor of mine chauffeured a bunch of us to the game in a fire truck red Rebel, a classic AMC car from early 1970s. We had acquired the tickets by cutting coupons from the backs of Dairylea brand milk cartons, which wasn’t as easy as it sounds. Looking back, the actual ticket values were $1.30 a pop—grandstand seating in the stadium’s uber-high altitude upper deck. (They cost a $1.50 a couple of years later.) The Mets just weren’t doling out box seats to the area’s milk carton cutters. But it was a simpler time when free tickets of any kind mattered.

While I remembered this very special day in history—hence this blog—I didn’t recall the starting pitcher or the lineup. I knew for certain my boyhood idol, Tom Seaver, wasn’t on the mound, and I pretty sure the legendary Willie Mays didn't get into the game, either. Yogi Berra was the team’s manager—I knew that—and a not especially memorable Met named Jim Gosger was one of the outfielders that night. I don’t know why I remembered Gosger being in the game, but I did. I recalled, too, the tragic outcome. Entering the ninth inning, my team led two to nothing. The opposition Chicago Cubs, however, scored three runs and won the game. I was cruelly razzed by a couple of older males who accompanied me to the ballpark—fans, of course, of my home borough's team in that other league and the Mets' cross-town rivals. Crestfallen, my older sister, who also was along for the ride, bought me a Mets' helmet as we exited paradise—so all was not lost. And life went on—almost four decades and counting as a matter of fact.

Postscript: Due to the magic of the Internet and the unfathomable depths of the information superhighway, I resurrected that evening’s box score. I was right about Jim Gosger. Tug McGraw blew a save opportunity and Jon Matlack took the loss that night. The attendance was 31,984 and the game time temperature was seventy degrees, close to where it is as I write these words.

Sunday, June 24, 2012

"Cool Friendly" Versus "Fool Friendly": a Public Service Announcement

What I intended to write about last night—before I was touched by a rat in an excessively humid and urine-stinking New York City subway station—dealt with the critical matter of “cool friendly” versus “fool friendly” behaviors. For merely an hour or so before my close encounter with a long-tailed rodent, I witnessed a textbook example of fool-friendly conduct in action. It occurred in a small diner in lower Manhattan, one of the fast disappearing, gritty and greasy eateries with both an old-style menu and reasonable prices. In other words, not a place for the area’s increasingly foodie-minded and superficial set to patronize, and who will—eventually—cast asunder even this culinary throwback to simpler times and pleasures.

This diner, nevertheless, still attracts vestiges of those living in rent-stabilized apartments and owned by landlords who pine for the day when their tenants meet their makers. This is the cold hard reality of life in today's Manhattan, and why, I fear, New York City is fast losing its charm and uniqueness.

I nonetheless witnessed a couple of diner regulars stop by for take-out orders—men who behaved in what they quite honestly believed was cool friendly, but, alas, came across as fool friendly to the wider world. This is actually a public service announcement blog. Having worked in retail for many years, fool friendly is not in the least respected. In fact, just as soon as these fellows exited the premises, the diner staff gleefully mocked them—and deservedly so. Yes, I’ve witnessed countless fool-friendly behaviors along the way—in where I worked for many years and where I shopped and dined, too.

Come on, folks, do you really want to be ridiculed in absentia by people whom you don’t really know? The retail experience is by and large a grueling one, and folks on the frontlines desperately need to vent their frustrations. I saw that at the diner yesterday, and I was guilty of engaging in more than a little of that many moons ago while on the job. It’s actually what kept us sane, I suspect, because there’s a considerable share of both incredibly needy and rather pathetic loony tunes out there—and I say that with all due respect. So, if you can, please remember there is a very fine line between being thought of as “cool” versus a “fool.” Generally speaking, less throwaway banter in the public square is better and silence is often golden.

Saturday, June 23, 2012

Touched by a Rat

Angels touch some people, or so I hear. No such luck for me today, who was however touched by a rat at the 14th Street subway station in lower Manhattan. I’ve spotted these creatures there before, running along not only the tracks but the narrow platform as well. Suffice it to say this is not a good place to shriek “eek” and panic.

I suppose it doesn't help that I always seek out the last car of the subway train, which usually gets me a seat for the trip home, but also happens to be near a considerable garbage dumpster of some kind. While resting my weary body against this thing several hours ago, a rodent with a very long tail scurried by me and then returned for an encore over my foot simultaneous with a northbound Number 1 train pulling into the station. I genuinely feared my new friend might join me for the ride. Happily, though, it had other plans. While I’m not a superstitious sort, this kind of close encounter in an excessively humid, urine-smelling underground subway lair did not bode well for the future.

Subway rides can turn on a dime into a ride from hell. All it takes is one passenger or multiple passengers to make this nightmare a reality. Foremost, you don’t want to ride with a deranged soul who could conceivably kill you on the train. That didn’t happen today. You also don’t want a malodorous individual, who hasn’t bathed since the Clinton administration, to sit nearby. That didn’t happen, either. No, this group from hell was a couple of boorish families who never missed a beat in their ill-mannered, shrill, and stupid ways. The subway car was their playground. If I printed out a transcript of what I heard on the train from 96th Street in Manhattan until when I exited in the Bronx several miles later, there would be no periods in it. One woman even painted her nails on the journey while standing only inches away from me. I still have a headache.

I could decipher the disgust on the faces of the rest of the subway car’s passengers—a New York City melting pot if ever there was one—even though most of them were, on the surface, stone faced. Generally speaking,  people, including me, prefer not to confront boors, who live by their perverse boorish codes. In other words, they’ll scratch your eyes out for telling them to tone down their boorishness.

As the train inched closer and closer to where I called home, and this unsavory brood didn’t exit, I grew increasingly anxious. I dreaded the thought they might actually live near me and that I might actually see them again. When I heard one of them inquire as to where they were getting off, the reply sounded a little too much like my station. I was prepared to stay on the train. Turns out, I was mistaken and exited where I intended to exit. Walking ever so gingerly down this elevated subway station’s steps, I was greeted by a woman I know from my neighborhood who regularly asks passersby for quarters, even though she insists on at least a dollar’s worth of them. I said rather testily, “Can you at least wait until I get down?” She said she wanted to get something to eat from a local fast-food joint called Popeye’s. I gave her multiple quarters and she promptly hopped on a bus that pulled alongside her. She didn’t use the change to pay the fare, I detected, and the bus was poised to take her a long way from Popeye’s. Damn that rat. Evidently, angels don’t ride the subways. And I don’t blame them.

Sunday, June 17, 2012

Father's Day Words...

My father died just about four years ago. The family delivered Father’s Day cards to his hospital room—he had five kids—but he wasn’t in the least bit interested in Hallmark sentiment. He was too sick and his conscious mind was slowly but surely ebbing away.

A few days ago, I picked up a book I had purchased upon its publication in 1982. It was Norman Mailer by Hilary Mills, a biography of the prolific novelist and mercurial man about town. For reasons unknown, I just never got around to reading it over the past quarter of a century. However, I did lend it to my father—as I did hundreds of my books through the years—and he both read and enjoyed it. In fact, he read it twice because I would occasionally repeat lend some of my books to him. He he often read books faster than I could add new titles to my personal library.

The paradox here is that my father was not remotely known as a lover of books or a reader of anything but the local dailies, which he devoured each day. The man labored for thirty years in the General Post Office located on 34th Street and Eighth Avenue in Manhattan. He took the Number 1 subway line to and from this sprawling edifice every single weekday, working the four to midnight shift—inhospitable times to be a straphanger. (This, by the way, is the post office with these famous words engraved on its facade: "Neither snow, nor rain, nor heat, nor gloom of night stays these couriers from swift completion of their appointed rounds.")

Nevertheless, he read oodles of books, most especially in his retirement years, on a wide range of subject matter (like his namesake son). He rarely talked about what he read, except to me on occasion—and usually only when prodded—and certainly never tried to impress others with any knowledge gained or insight gleaned, which often is a byproduct of reading about others’ lives, different times, or well-crafted works of fiction that strike a chord. I’ll never forget his pithy comment upon reading Descent from Glory: Four Generations of the John Adams Family by Paul C. Nagel, a favorite of both of ours. “That was some family,” he said.


(Picture from the personal collection of Nicholas Nigro)


Saturday, June 16, 2012

Thrice Bitten

Sadly, Pedro Borbon died a couple of weeks ago at the not-so-old age of sixty-five. He was a pretty good relief pitcher for the Cincinnati Reds—the Big Red Machine—during the 1970s. What I remember most about him, though, occurred during the National League playoffs in 1973 against my beloved Mets. That’s when Pedro took a hearty bite or two out of a Mets' baseball cap.

It occurred during a famous bench-clearing brawl initiated by a Bud Harrelson-Pete Rose dust-up at second base. After order was restored, Borbon, who had his own cap knocked off in a brouhaha with Mets' pitcher “Buzz” Capra, reached down to the ground and placed what he thought was his own cap on his head, except that it wasn’t. It belonged to outfielder Cleon Jones of the Mets. When Borbon realized his faux pas, he either bit a fair-sized hole in it or shred it to pieces, depending on which accounts you want to believe, and tossed it to the ground in utter disgust. Capra claims he still has the cap as a memento of that wild and wooly occurrence in an amazing comeback season.

Via a Google search, I couldn’t help but take a stroll down memory lane into the life and times of Pedro Bordon. And, you know what, I never knew he was a serial biter. I thought the Mets' cap was the long and short of his Dracula-esque antics. A year later, it seems, during another bench-clearing brawl, Borbon took a considerable bite out of the side of a Pittsburgh Pirates player named Daryl Patterson, who was actually given a post-game tetanus shot. Fast forward a few years and Borbon, in a Cincinnati disco, took another considerable bite out of someone's hide—well, actually, out of a bouncer's chest. When the exasperated Reds' management traded him away in 1979, urban legend has it that Borbon put a voodoo hex on the organization. He later denied the allegation. Evidently, the big shots either forgave him or believed him, because he was elected to the Cincinnati Reds Hall of Fame in 2010. All’s well that ends well. RIP Pedro Borbon, a true original.

Friday, June 8, 2012

Why Donut Holes Matter

The Hubble Space Telescope did not take the image accompanying this blog. It is not a snapshot from the mystifying ether in some light-years away locale in our unfathomable universe. Rather, it’s an ordinary donut—plain as plain can be—that I placed directly on my scanner glass and one that’ll probably eat for breakfast tomorrow morning.

I purchased a six-pack of these donuts from one of my least favorite retailers and one that I patronize all the time—Rite Aid, a pharmacy chain that theoretically should be providing its customers with economies of scale bargains. They are not. Nonetheless, I was peculiarly struck by this dollar pack of six donuts and couldn’t resist. As far as I was concerned, the holes in each one of them set a new and incredibly low standard. What must today's onion rings look like? The donuts seemed, in fact, to embody the times we live in—a less for more society with little hope for a turnaround anytime soon.

Alas, our toilet papers’ widths have been considerably shaved while the circumferences of their cardboard nuclei have noticeably expanded. The bars of soap in our showers are smaller and less dense than ever before. In other words, they self-destruct in very short order after only a few full-body cleanings. And when half-gallons of our favorite orange juices morph into 59-ounce cartons and cost more, too, one cannot help but envision even bigger and bigger donut holes in the offing.

Monday, May 21, 2012

Powerless

While enduring nine days without electricity recently, the Barkley family rattled around my brain. Via my Netflix gift subscription, I had previously watched six episodes of the Big Valley starring Richard Long, Lee Majors, and the legendary Miss Barbara Stanwyck. It seems this well-to-do brood did quite well sans electric lights, refrigeration, and ready-made hot water. Without the aid of a washing machine, they always appeared effortlessly clean in their pristine and—in my opinion—somewhat ostentatious mansion.

A major electrical problem that would take at least three to four days to remedy took twice as long. Courtesy of a generous neighbor of mine from across the way, who provided me with an extension chord and some power, I was able to hook up my computer and modem and maintain some semblance of a normal life while in the dark. I could at least do some work, post on Facebook, and Google all sorts of unimportant things. After one evening of this borrowed power, though, the electrician’s assistant cut my cable wire by mistake. In fact, he cut three cable wires by mistake. The cable company said it could not be repaired until the electricity was restored.

I know that a whole lot of people have been without power for a whole lot longer than nine days after natural disasters and such. Still, this stubborn fact of life provided me with little solace as things were being ripped off the wall just outside my door and brick residue saturated the air and tenaciously clung to everything in its path. And then came the drilling of holes through the same brick wall—more noise and dust everywhere and anywhere.

I’ve noticed through the years that contractor types presume every adult male has at least a working knowledge of their trade and lingo. Other than it comes on when I plug things in, flick switches, and push certain buttons, I know next to nothing about electricity. Nevertheless, I said I understood things I really didn’t and, when asked, nobly assisted to be an electrician assistant’s apprentice. Trust me: This was the electrician from hell.

Life lessons learned from being powerless? Foremost, I like electricity. Living on the Ponderosa or in Walnut Grove really isn't all that it is cracked up to be. And when push comes to shove, I can take ice cold showers. Granted, had all of this occurred in January, it would have been more of a challenge. Most important of all, don't run with the first name that comes up in a Google search of "electrician," even if it's an emergency and they say they'll be right over.

Sunday, April 29, 2012

Let's Go to the Correction Tape

I’ve seen them hanging on store hooks for many years now. But somehow today, I was taken aback or, more aptly, taken back to simpler times. It’s the little things in life that mean so much. I’m truly heartened that liquid paper—correction fluid—still exists in some form in these fast changing and highly technological times we live in. It’s called “BIC Wite-Out” nowadays and on sale at Staples and your favorite office supplies retailer, too, I suppose.

Contemplating this product’s role in my life and times, I recalled that Michael Nesmith of The Monkees fame had some familial connection with its inventor. So, what is one to do in this modern age, but Google. In this instance: “Michael Nesmith Correction Fluid.” Yes, it was his mother and a lowly secretary, Beth Nesmith Graham, who invented what was originally called “Mistake Out.” Mother and son lived happily ever after—financially at least. And this explains, also, why Mike Nesmith had no interest in Monkees reunions and appearances at autograph signings and nerd-populated conventions.

Anyway, this modern day liquid paper sighting of mine had some serious legs. It returned me to Cardinal Spellman High School, thirty plus years ago, and a senior-year typing class. It’s where I learned to type on a manual typewriter. We physically had to push a handle to advance our papers to the next line. We used a product called "correction tape" then—not the fluid—to mask our many errors, which we thought was simultaneously clean, cool, and a major technological advance. From what I’ve recently gleaned, it was indeed that. It covered over our multiple typing miscues, yes, and it could not be used as an inhalant, which liquid paper—evidently—was by some wayward and experimenting youth in those days of yore.

Courtesy of computers and advanced printing capabilities, we can certainly turn out pristine-looking copy these days. The problem is that dummies and dumbness can look really sharp in the new millennium, without any liquid paper or correction tape, which presents a whole new set of problems for educators and entrepreneurs. You can’t judge a book by its cover…most especially in the here and now.

(Photo from the personal collection of Nicholas Nigro)