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.