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.