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, baccalĂ  (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 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)