Monday, December 23, 2013

Room for Both in This Polarized Age

It’s Christmas: classic holiday movie and television show time. If the sheer number of times that I’ve watched it is the barometer, then my personal favorite is The Homecoming by Earl Hamner, Jr., a TV movie that inspired The Waltons, which debuted as a weekly series a year later. 

I remember watching The Homecoming when it first aired in 1971, just days before Christmas. I was more apt to be mesmerized back then and this movie did it for me. I appreciated its starkness. It looked especially good. One could believe this was a family living in the Blue Ridge Mountains in 1933, when times were pretty tough. When I first watched the movie in December 1971, I recall thinking how 1933 was such a long, long time ago—another world altogether from the perspective of a nine year old living in the Bronx. Thirty-eight years had, in fact, passed from when The Homecoming story occurred to when it was made into a television movie. Since it debuted, forty-two years have passed. Forty-two plus thirty-eight equals eighty.

The Walton family of The Homecoming lived in simpler times for sure—genuinely hardscrabble but simpler on a whole host of fronts. And 1971, from where I sat at least, was a lot simpler than today. All these years later, it’s interesting to witness how a fair number of folks, who just loved The Waltons as a weekly TV drama—but who had until recently never before seen The Homecoming—found the ipso facto pilot movie off-putting. A small percentage even became hostile on the message boards, as if The Homecoming was somehow sacrilege with its tough-as-nails mother played by Patricia Neal and decidedly less saccharine friends and neighbors on Walton's Mountain than seen on the subsequent television show. While lovably eccentric in the TV series, the bootlegging Baldwin sisters, for one, are certifiably crazy in The Homecoming.

We live in such a polarized age now. But you know: There really is room for The Homecoming and The Waltons—for diversity. I like them both, but I especially get into the former because, I suspect, it is closer to the way things really were. Had the TV show starred Patricia Neal instead of Miss Michael Learned as Olivia Walton, it might not have fared too well. After all, there are movies and there are TV shows. Coming into our living rooms week after week, she might not have played on the small screen. It’s hard, though, not to love The Homecoming once a year with its memorable cast of characters and unforgettable dialogue. Forget It’s a Wonderful Life, which I watched one time and one time only—way too intense for holiday fare as far as I’m concerned. No, it’s Scrooge, the musical starring Albert Finney, and The Homecoming that have stood the test of time for me. Very literally, I could perform a one-man Homecoming show. “What are you doing up there behind locked doors?” The answer we discover is writing in a tablet. Anything else, John-Boy? Simpler times and television for sure.

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

The Man-Lady in the "Cream Sam Summer" of '78

Here is an excerpt from my recently published YA novel Cream Sam Summer. It's Kingsbridge in the Bronx, 1978, when neighborhood characters definitely had more character:
The Wheel is situated directly opposite the McDonald’s parking lot with a bird’s-eye view of the elevated subway tracks on Broadway, where the Number 1 train—the Seventh Avenue local—barrels back and forth day and night from here in the Northwest Bronx to lower Manhattan. We’ve christened the individual who owns the place the “Man-Lady,” because distinguishing the proprietor’s gender is not a slam-dunk. When all is said and done, though, the Man-Lady is the latter.
She wears what I call “maintenance man pants,” stylish “Vince Lombardi glasses,” and has a considerable rear end that accentuates her sartorial tastes. The Man-Lady walks with a pronounced limp, too, which adds further color to her incomparable persona.
When I was a mere lad, my palms would literally sweat and my heartbeat race whenever I walked into the Wheel’s poorly lit interior. One too many burned out and never replaced fluorescent light bulbs supply the place with a shadowy, dungeon-like ambiance. Really, it’s an apropos setting for the Man-Lady to ply her trade. While she’s an intimidating presence for sure, she definitely knows her stuff. When it comes to tightening bicycle brakes, I don’t know of anyone who can hold a candle to her.
I followed closely behind Richie as the two of us gingerly entered the Wheel’s gloomy showroom. Bells attached to the inside of the door alerted the owner, who was repairing a bicycle in a backroom, that she had a customer. The Man-Lady poked her head out to see who was there. I detected her beady eyes—behind the Vince Lombardi glasses—glowering in our general direction. In no particular hurry, she eventually waded through a labyrinth of bicycles—both for sale and for rent—to the front of the shop.
“What can I do for you?” she asked in the snippy tone of someone who clearly preferred fixing bikes, without interruption, to making nickel and dime sales with teenagers.
(Photo from the personal collection of Nicholas Nigro)

Friday, November 22, 2013

Where I Was Fifty Years Ago Today

I was among the living but not glued to the television set like the adult world around me was on this day fifty years ago. I was just a year old, so I can’t claim that I remember the assassination of President John F. Kennedy and its immediate aftermath. I know that’s not possible. Still, I feel like I was not only there in my Bronx home, but aware as well, because I heard so much through the years, particularly as an impressionable youth, about those dark days in November 1963. 

As was the norm, my father headed off to work that Friday afternoon for his four-to-midnight shift at the General Post Office on Eighth Avenue near Penn Station. He typically left the house between 2:15 and 2:30 and hopped on the Number 1 train to mid-town Manhattan; it’s something he did for twenty-five years. Mrs. Harvey, a neighbor from up the street, alerted him on his way out that the president had been shot. He continued, though, on his way to the job. Upon his arrival, the word was out that the shooting had been fatal. My father remembered with disgust—and he was a staunch Republican all his life—more than a few of his co-workers concerned, foremost, about the possibility of getting Monday off for the president’s state funeral.
For many years my father accumulated a box load of newspapers—ones that he had put aside because of their historical significance, including the New York Daily News edition with a front-page headline that read: “Kennedy Assassinated.” The picture that accompanied it was of Lyndon Johnson standing alongside a dazed Jackie Kennedy. I recall thumbing through that paper years later and being both intrigued and a little unnerved by it. As a boy, what I most found fascinating when poring over this old paper was how this earth-shattering and tragic news story commingled with mundane articles and advertisements, which were obviously slated to run in the paper prior to the assassination. This notable dichotomy somehow spoke volumes to me—how life goes on no matter what happens. Despite contemplating a cancellation, Macy’s soldiered on with their annual Thanksgiving Day Parade the following Thursday, but the talk on that day of thanks and turkey was mostly of the week that everyone had just lived through and hoped they would never, ever again have to relive.

I’ve been watching some of the retrospective news coverage concerning the assassination anniversary. Again, I’ve been at once intrigued and a little bit unnerved. The contrast of the Abraham Zapruder 8mm silent color footage and the black-and-white videotaped news coverage is compelling and eerie at the same time—from a simpler technological age. Jack Ruby leaping out of the crowd to shoot Lee Harvey Oswald in the stomach is surreal.

Times have certainly changed. America has changed and so has the world we live in—and not for the better on many fronts. People on the streets in November 1963 just couldn’t believe what had happened; they couldn’t conceive of a reason why somebody—anybody—would commit such a heinous act. Now, fifty years later, we know better. We’re all too aware there are countless fanatics and nut jobs just waiting for an opportunity to do harm—and the more destruction the better. So, while we’re still shocked when these horrible acts occur these five decades later, we’re not surprised anymore. And that’s the sad reality of life a half-century after the JFK assassination—shocked but not surprised has been ingrained in us.

Sunday, November 17, 2013

Old High School ID Cards and This Thing We Call Life

As a nostalgia buff who has saved countless bits and pieces from my youth, I still have my two high school ID cards. And just like The Twilight Zone's Talking Tina, they speak to me—not only about the past, but the present, and life in general for that matter.

My first high school ID card picture was taken in September 1976, when, sartorially speaking, we were still in the colorful, frequently garish 1970s. This goes a long way in explaining why I’m wearing a pinkish shirt in the photo. For the first several weeks of school in my alma mater, the boys were excused from wearing the required jacket and a tie. After all, it was still officially summertime for two-thirds of the month of September. In the colder climes thereafter, I wore a blue polyester sports jacket with that same shirt, a multi-hued tie from my father’s extensive 1960s and 1970s collection, and gray plaid pants. In a year or so, though, that kaleidoscope of colors completely vanished as the late-1970s became, in essence, the 1980s.

We had our original high school ID for two years. At some point during that time, my card cracked in half and I taped it together. Another serious crack is visible, too. When I first examined it after many years in storage, I wondered how it had cracked in the first place. It was made of heavy plastic, like a credit card, and I don’t recall having much need for it.

As I pore over my increasingly antiquated, peeling, and badly cracked ID card with the tape on it now seriously yellowed, I realize it is actually a metaphor for life. For I, too, am, metaphorically speaking at least, peeled, cracked, and yellowed. And this metamorphosis is not something that was on my mind, or even on my distant radar, when I was fourteen, wearing pink shirts, and awash in youthful exuberance. In a couple of years time, our high school ID cards took a serious hit and became cheesy, laminated photos with no pizzazz at all—a precursor of all too many things to come. The cheap laminate, however, didn't break in half like its predecessor, the ID credit card. It was physically impossible.

Times have really changed—in a big way. I actually opened my first bank account with an expired school ID card. Imagine that! Nowadays—no matter our age—we are presumed to be up to no good and possibly even a terrorist. I remember, too, in grammar school being taught how to distinguish between the words “principle” and “principal.” We were told that a living and breathing “principal” was our “pal,” which I never quite felt to be the case. Still, I absorbed the lesson. The "pal" on my 1976 high school ID card was—decades later—part of a Catholic Church lawsuit settlement for you know what. When he was our principal, I don’t remember him being much of a pal to anyone. He was a hot-tempered and disagreeable. He only received cheers when he declared a rare school holiday not on our original schedule—for stellar fundraising on our parts or some such thing.

It’s kind of hard to believe that it’s been thirty-seven years since that first high school ID picture was taken. It seems like yesterday in one respect, but a long, long time ago in another. It’s a bygone era for sure. And who is that kid in pink? My life then amounted to fourteen years in total. Thirty-seven years have passed since then. I don’t likely have another thirty-seven years coming to me. And I can’t say for certain that I’d want another thirty-seven years. There really is a lot staring back out at me from my two high school ID cards. You have been warned. If you have your old high school ID cards somewhere: Be prepared at what they've got to say.

(Photo from the personal collection of Nicholas Nigro)

Sunday, November 3, 2013

A Novel Idea

It seems sometimes that just about everybody and his or her grandmother is writing, or has written, a novel. It’s apparently both every writer’s dream and every non-writer’s dream, too. And, yes, I have written one, which is actually my second. But I've decided after careful consideration that the latter, entitled Zigzag Run, will not see the light of day—at least in its entirety—and I have my reasons.

Now one would think that a published non-fiction author like me would have a slight leg up in getting a work of fiction considered but, I can tell you in all honesty, that’s not the case. For most publishing professionals, the mere thought of another novelist roaming Planet Earth merits at best a big yawn or, more likely, utter contempt. 

Happily, though, advancing technologies and the brave new world that we live in supply writers of all stripes and talents the opportunity to circumvent the traditional publishing world—an indifferent world most of the time with “no” a more a familiar answer than “yes.” There are venues like that permit authors to publish their works as e-books in multiple e-formats at no charge. The royalty rates offered by Smashwords are considerably better than what mainstream publishers pay. The author actually gets the preponderance of the book's cover price. The catch, of course, is selling the book—and it's a very big catch indeed. But, still, Smashwords is getting noticed by the publishing brass and established authors, too, who like the idea of controlling their own destinies and keeping the lion's share of the profits.

On Smashwords as of October 31, 2013 is my novel, CreamSam Summer, which is based—loosely sometimes and not so loosely at other times—on an amalgam of characters, circumstances, and places from the neighborhood where I grew up. It’s Kingsbridge in the Bronx, 1978, and the narrator is a sixteen-year-old boy, which, coincidentally, was my age that year. Admittedly, I knew a man in my youth whom my friends and I called "Cream Sam" despite him having a more widely known nickname: "Red." You'll have to read the book to discover why, or at least the available free sample. Cream Sam Summer, though, is a work of fiction and not a roman a clef. The book is categorized as a YA (Young Adult), but it's for adults, too, I'd like to think—sort of like Paul Zindel’s The Pigman. The Harry Potter series was, after all, YA.

When one writes a book of any kind—puts oneself on the frontlines as it were—it's up to readers to decide in the end the work's worth or non-worth. That's the long and short of it. Not surprisingly, there's a mother lode of pretty awful stuff published on Smashwords, but that's to be expected. Again, readers can separate the wheat from the chaff—what they like and what they don't they like. So, to paraphrase Rod Serling: "Submitted for your approval: Cream Sam Summer."

For a little more background on the book, visit the Cream Sam Summer blog.

Saturday, November 2, 2013

The Salamander Lot

Sometime in the early 1970s, I went salamander hunting. The place: the Bronx. It was not too far from where I lived but, as a boy, it seemed like something of a hike. This geographical reality made it more of an adventure, like we were going someplace faraway and unknown. Interestingly enough the salamanders collected their mail in tony Riverdale, which was the more pedigreed neighbor to the west of Kingsbridge, my hometown.

There were still a few vacant lots around in those days and, I don’t exactly know why, but this particular piece of earth had oodles of pinkish salamanders under its rocks. Those of us on this salamander hunt intended on keeping them as pets—our motives were pure—and we did. I don’t recall what they ate or how long they lived in the fish bowl that became their new home after the Salamander Lot, as we called it, but I don’t think very long.

Just about every piece of available earth has been built on in the old neighborhood, but not the Salamander Lot. It is an odd piece of ground—a steep hill as a matter of fact—perched directly above a parking lot of a tall building in the valley below. The Salamander Lot is not a very big slice of property, so I guess it would be difficult to erect a structure there. However, I’ve seen more unlikely spots developed.

I noticed, though, that there’s now a very tall fence surrounding the Salamander Lot. We wouldn’t have been able to get into it with that thing there—not at our ages as salamander hunters. But then I don’t think there are very many kids in the vicinity of the lot today who would be interested in salamander hunting, unless of course it was a game on their computers.

The question that I have long wondered is this: Do the salamanders still exist in that snippet of earth in Riverdale? Theoretically, there’s no reason why they shouldn’t still be there. I don’t think our hunting them down for pets was sufficient to do them in as a species in this neck of the woods. But why am I confident if I lifted up rocks in that very same piece of property, there would be no salamanders to be found. Like so many things, they existed in simpler times in the Bronx, I suspect, and opted to get out while the going was good.

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

XYZ: Examine Your Zipper

(Photo: Long Island and NYC Places That Are No More)

Watching the New York Mets, on the family's black-and-white television set in the early and mid-1970s was mesmerizing. It was youthful exuberance, I suppose. In fact, I remember being transfixed by the Serval Zippers factory that one could see in the distance beyond Shea Stadium’s left field fence. During televised night games on WOR-TV, Channel 9. the factory’s sign, attached to an impressive-looking clock tower, could be seen blinking on and blinking off—“Serval” on and "Serval" off followed by “Zippers” on and "Zippers" off. This light show added to the already formidable ambiance of my favorite team and their singular ballpark. For a boy from the Bronx, Flushing, Queens, where the Mets plied their trade, seemed very far away. It was like a foreign country—at once mysterious and exciting—even though it was only a twenty-five minute or so car ride away.

Times have certainly changed in Flushing, Queens, home of the Mets—and everywhere else in New York City for that matter. Shea Stadium has been demolished and Serval Zippers is long gone, too. The former zipper factory is now a U-Haul without any flashing sign on the clock tower, which is, at least, still standing. There were once a lot of factories in that part of the city, including a Tastyee Bread plant, which have also gone by the wayside.

The mystery and the excitement have also vanished. And although I attended a fair share of Mets’ games—most of them post-Serval Zippers—I never quite warmed to the borough of Queens. I worked in Little Neck for a spell in the early 1980s—a nice neighborhood at the time—but it was never home. It seemed that Queens’ folks knew and loved Queens and Bronx folks knew and loved the Bronx.

Once upon a time in the early 1990s, I exited a congested Shea Stadium parking lot by turning right instead of the left turn that I knew would lead me to the Grand Central Parkway, then the Major Deegan Expressway, and eventually home, sweet home. This was a very bad move on my part because I ended up, from my perspective at least, in a Nowhere Land with confusing Queens’ street signs and numbers that didn’t make any sense to me at all in this era before GPS. It didn't help matters that it was late at night and, too, that I loathed driving, most especially when I didn’t know where I was. I might as well have been on a dirt road in Bangladesh.

I nonetheless just kept driving and driving—what else could I do—making periodic turns and praying that I’d hit upon a familiar landmark, or some main thoroughfare, which would lead me back to civilization. I felt like I was in the Twilight Zone and worried that some hitchhiker might soon appear in my rear view mirror. But, lo and behold, fate moved its huge hand and I found myself on a service road approaching the Triborough Bridge—now called the RFK Bridge courtesy of politicians with nothing better to do—leading me back to the Bronx on this night to remember. Perhaps all roads do lead home, but feeling like a trapped animal in Queens that night seemed, I must confess, like the plot from a bad TV movie. Serval Zippers, though, will always be a fond memory.

Monday, October 7, 2013

Reflections on Waxing Nostalgic

Why do I so often wax nostalgic in this blog of mine? Why do I choose to typically write about the past and not current affairs? Rest assured, I’m not living in the past, although sometimes I really wish I could venture back in time and experience, for one brief shining moment at least, some of that lost youthful exuberance. No, I’m well aware that it’s 2013, and that my government is on holiday. And, too, I’m not as spry as I was in 1978, or even 1997 for that matter, with a lot less hair atop my head. My wiffle and stickball days are only memories.

When I started blogging a few years ago, I had no master plan for what I’d write about. I had no agenda. Initially, I considered writing about writing, because that’s what I do. But I quickly realized there wasn’t much that I could say that hasn’t already been said, and what I would say would be largely clichés. Occasionally, I’ve written about stuff going on in the here and now, but I try to keep it personal and anecdotal. I endeavor to avoid political diatribes or rants on the burning issues of the day. Why bother? Everybody and his grandfather is sounding off, and I’m not about to convince anybody to join my side, so why write about the dunderheads in Washington, D.C., or a New York City mayoral election that should, on paper, be interesting but instead is a colossal bore.

Rewinding the clock and recalling bits and pieces of the past are usually a safe bet. Virtually everybody loves blasts from the pasts—from a seemingly simpler time before iPhones, cable television, and outlandish grocery store prices. Time travel somehow bridges the partisan divide, as does love for cats, dogs, and the animal kingdom. One of my favorite movies of all time is About Schmidt starring Jack Nicholson. He plays a retired insurance man named Walter Schmidt, who feels his life has largely been meaningless. Walter decides to sponsor a child in Africa named Ndugu, and periodically corresponds with him. Near the end of the film, we hear Schmidt’s voice-over reciting a letter sent to Ndugu. “Relatively soon, I will die,” he says. “Maybe in twenty years, maybe tomorrow—it doesn’t matter. Once I am dead and everyone who knew me dies, too, it’ll be though I never even existed. What difference have my life made to anyone? None that I can think of—none at all.”

About Schmidt, to me, is the quintessential "meaning of life movie." We can take from it whatever we choose to take from it. We see in the film’s final scene that Walter’s life made a difference—to Ndugu at least. But still we are left to contemplate if that really is enough. Walter Schmidt, though, absolutely hits the nail on the head about people soon being forgotten once those who knew them are gone. I see it happening right now with friends and relations in my life who are no longer among the living. 

So, really, that’s another big reason why I blog about the past mostly. It's sort of writer’s duty, I'd say—to help us remember what was and to never forget where we came from. The picture accompanying this blog is of my grandmother, aunt, father (then on leave from his stint in the army), and grandfather. It was the early 1950s in a neighborhood called Kingsbridge in the Bronx—a partially bucolic setting back then and worlds apart from whence they came. The Nigros moved to this predominantly Irish enclave in 1946 from Manhattan's Morningside Heights. Despite a handful of their Irish neighbors on the unwelcoming committee saying, "There goes the neighborhood," it was paradise. It's up to me, I guess, to not let it be a paradise lost forever.

(Photo from the personal collection of Nicholas Nigro)

Monday, September 30, 2013

The Man We Called Cream Donut

I don’t exactly know what made me think of the man we once called “Cream Donut” today. I think it happened when I passed by a Dunkin’ Donuts and thought about how expensive their products have become, and how they seem to be getting smaller and airier as the days pass. Cream Donut owned and operated a place called Twin Donut in the Bronx’s Kingsbridge during the 1970s. It was a franchise, I believe, because there were Twin Donuts scattered about the city back then. Actually, there still are handful around, although their numbers have dwindled considerably through the years.

Twin Donut had a large variety of donuts, which was quite impressive in its day. Several stores to its east was a Baskin-Robbins ice cream parlor, known to many of as "31 Flavors." I guess what Baskin-Robbins was to ice cream, Twin Donut was to donuts. Where else could you purchase a butternut crunch donut or one with apple filling? My favorites, though, were the more traditional vanilla cream and chocolate cream kinds. Adding to their appeal, I think, was how the shop’s proprietor, an older Greek man, pronounced them—and always in the loudest of tones. “Shaw-Co-Lot cream and Vah-Nella cream!” he’d bellow. As far as my younger brother and I were concerned, his rather unique pronunciations, coupled with the extremely high volume, struck a funny bone.

The pre-caller ID 1970s was also the era of the funny phone call. I know we called Twin Donut a time or two and asked Cream Donut if he had any cream donuts on hand. Of course, we knew the answer was yes. And when he’d answer in the affirmative, we’d ask him what kinds of cream donuts he had. “Shaw-Co-Lot cream and Vah-Nella cream!” he’d roar, even over the telephone. He couldn’t whisper those two words if his life depended on it.

The one thing we never bargained for was an in-the-donut-shop negative experience with Cream Donut himself. One afternoon, my brother and I had ordered several cream donuts—chocolate and vanilla, naturally—and Cream Donut, like a well-schooled Mynah bird, repeated our order just to make certain he got it right. But that enunciation of the two flavors of cream donuts—and decibel level—caused the two of us to temporarily lose it. And while we were desperately trying to get a grip on ourselves, Cream Donut took notice and didn’t like what he saw.

True, Cream Donut had given us a bravura performance that day—we couldn’t have asked for more—but he was an intimidating sort of guy that we really didn’t want to cross. The last thing a couple of innocent youth wanted to do was incur the wrath of this man. But incur his wrath we did. “YOU LAUGHING AT ME?” he angrily queried. We were indeed, but sheepishly said we weren’t. He didn’t believe us but sold us the cream donuts anyway. Under the circumstances, I wouldn’t have blamed the man for pulling a Soup Nazi and saying, “No donuts for you!” Cream Donut was an imposing presence for sure, but a businessman above all else. 

A postscript: Twin Donut served tasty enough donuts but they left an aftertaste that repeated on you throughout the day. And Cream Donut’s little shop at the intersection of Kingsbridge Avenue and W231st Street was notorious for hosting a mice fest every night after lights out.

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

RIP Youthful Exuberance: 1977-2013

With the 2013 New York City mayoral primaries in the history books—and no Democratic run-off required—I’d like to return to the political contests that I remember most of all. The year was 1977. I was fifteen-years-old at the time and, admittedly, not especially interested in the hot-button issues of the day. For some reason, though, I was mesmerized by the game of politics—the theater of it all. As a youth, I collected political buttons, literature, and posters. I watched candidate debates on local TV, which were a whole lot more enlightening and entertaining than today’s overly scripted, canned answer snore-fests.

In 1977, New York City was in the throes of a fiscal crisis. The city was crime-laden, dirtier than ever, and conspicuously in decline. The scuttlebutt was that its best days had come and gone. In my neighborhood, Kingsbridge in the Bronx, I nevertheless considered the 1970s a golden era—a heyday that included playing stickball games at John F. Kennedy High School, sipping tasty egg creams at Bill’s Friendly Spot after a grueling day at Cardinal Spellman High School on the other side of the Bronx (the flat, colorless side), and chowing down on Sam’s Pizza, a greasy delight that mere words cannot do justice. But even if I was blissfully unaware of it, change was most definitely in the offing—some of it good but most of it not so good. The city’s best days were behind it.

The diminutive Abe Beame, a well meaning but hapless clubhouse politician who inherited a train wreck from his predecessor, John Lindsay, was the sitting mayor and something of a eunuch vis-à-vis governing. Smelling blood in the water, he was challenged in his bid for a second term by a diverse lot of some notable and some not so notable politicians: Bella Abzug, Mario Cuomo, Ed Koch, Herman Badillo, Percy Sutton, and a businessman named Joel Harnett. The Republicans even had a primary that year featuring liberal Manhattan Congressman Roy Goodman versus conservative radio talk show host Barry Farber. Both races were highly contested and entertaining spectacles. I loved the drama of it so much that I taped several of the debates with a Panasonic recorder I had received as a gift the previous Christmas. Audiotapes were made back then by setting the recorder nearest the television set’s sound speaker and demanding complete silence in the room, which was usually impossible.

As I recall, venerable local newsman Gabe Pressman hosted one of the more feisty primary debates. The candidates were seated side by side and interacted with one another. I remember Bella Abzug badgering Mario Cuomo for being on the Liberal Party line in November come what may, while insisting he was never a member of the party. She wanted to know why he was awarded that ballot line. (Cuomo was Governor Hugh Carey’s anointed candidate to defeat what he considered the clueless, counterproductive Beame.) “I’d like to have an answer,” Bella repeated over and over as Mario tried to get a word in edgewise. Finally, he exasperatingly interjected, “Well, when you close your mouth I’ll answer!” The audience at this debate let out a big “Oooh” or some such thing. And, really, this was the tenor of the contest—combative and genuine. In this age of political correctness, Cuomo would very likely have to apologize for implying a female opponent of his had a big mouth. But Bella Abzug did have a big mouth—that was her stock-in-trade.

Mario Cuomo visited Kingsbridge in his Cuo-mobile in the summer of 1977 during the primary campaign. Ed Koch, too, passed out fliers on W231st Street, the neighborhood’s commercial hub. I picked up some campaign literature and buttons for my collection on the local streets, which pleased me to no end. I didn’t quite exclaim, “Life is good,” because that New Age bromide hadn’t yet been invented, but I was feeling something along those lines. Before the September primary day, I had in my possession posters of the candidates from both parties, with the exceptions of Roy Goodman and Joel Harnett, who may not have produced any. I snatched them off telephone and traffic light poles and they were covered in staples. Fiscal crisis notwithstanding—the politicians of the day blitzkrieged area neighborhoods with their posters. They don’t do that today. Campaign buttons are even hard to come by.

For what it’s worth the fifteen-year-old me supported Mario Cuomo for mayor, even though I couldn’t vote. He came in second, and since the winner, Ed Koch, didn’t achieve the requisite 40%—part of the New York City election law—there was a run-off election several weeks later. Koch edged out Cuomo once again. In the general election, Cuomo, running on the Liberal Party line, gave him a run for his money but came up short.

Thirty-six years have passed since the summer of 1977 and that contentious and always interesting campaign for mayor. I’m a lot older—thirty-six years as a matter of fact—and more attuned to issues, but the youthful exuberance of that time and place has long expired. I’ll vote in November—I always do—but it doesn’t seem to matter as much as it did in 1977, when I couldn’t vote and didn’t really care about the issues. At some point in time, my mother threw away the posters I had collected that year. They had been stashed under my bed for far too long, I suppose. It was many years later that I rued that act as akin to throwing away a prized baseball card collection. There will be no more Cuo-mobiles passing through my life—ever—and no more chumming for campaign posters to add to my collection, which is sort of deflating to me. But vote early and often in November anyway.

Saturday, September 7, 2013

Michael Styles, Austin of NYU, and Bad New York Pizza

New York City has a well-earned reputation for serving up tasty pizza—a quality that is rarely duplicated in other parts of the country and indeed the world. But with its many top-notch pizzerias and pizza restaurants come a lot of ill-tasting, stomach-upsetting losers as well. The sheer quantity of pizza places in New York ensures many a bad "slice" experience, and today I had one.

The lame pizza I stumbled upon was in the vicinity of New York University and Washington Square Park. From the outside the shop had a certain charm and looked like a place that would serve first-rate New York pizza. Patrons had to walk down a few steps to enter the place, which added to its appeal. But the alluring ambiance ended rather abruptly, I must say, when you physically entered the establishment. A blackboard out front trumpeted its $1.00 slice—impressive considering the going rate is $2.50 and more these days. However, once inside, another sign—call it the fine print—said there was a $1.00 tax on the $1.00 slice. Did Mayor Bloomberg and the City Council impose this tax in the dark of night? While I know they get their jollies doing stuff like that, I really didn’t think there was a separate pizza tax. Rather, I believe this was a little pizza parlor legerdemain—clumsy, sleazy, and illegal. And even at $2.00 a slice—still cheaper than the norm—it didn’t rise to the level of real New York City pizza. Not even close. Beware the $1.00 slice, even the ones without a $1.00 tax attached to them.

Fortunately, there were more uplifting and interesting events in my life today than bad pizza and unscrupulous pizza makers. I was witness to an NYU student acting as a tour guide for incoming students and their families. His name was Austin, and he told the assembled it was his boyhood dream to attend the university because of his favorite show, Friends, which featured Dr. Ross Geller, a professor at NYU, played by David Schwimmer. Why did I want to go to my alma mater? Because I could walk there, maybe?

Today’s busy day began with me riding the subterranean A train into Manhattan, instead of the Number 1 train (track work, what else?), my usual, brighter mode of transportation. I’ve always found that A train rides feature much more entertainment and homeless standup than on 1 train rides. I actually wanted to give a particular homeless man a buck or two this morning, because his importuning was simultaneously eloquent and poignant, but found it too difficult to get into my wallet while seated scrunched up next to someone. On my return trip, three spry youths took advantage of the A train's captive audience between its lengthy express stops—59th Street and 125th Street—to break dance, or whatever it was they were doing. They were remarkably agile in spinning around the subway floor, standing on their heads, swinging on the poles, and contorting their bodies into frog-like and pretzel postures. I would have given them a buck or two, too, but again concluded reaching into my wallet was more trouble than it was worth.

Last but not least, I met Michael Styles today, a Manhattan conman and philosopher with an opinion on just about everything. What did I learn about Michael in the short time we spent together? Well, he wanted to be an actor and appeared in a few commercials at some earlier point in his life. He’s a hair stylist now, but can’t find enough work to make ends meet. So, if I got it right, he’s actually a homeless hairstylist. By his own admission, the man's also an alcoholic. Perhaps that's why he can't find full-time hair-cutting work. He’s “had” hundreds of women through the years, he said, but is no Wilt Chamberlain. Michael's got five women, in fact, who want to enter into “relationships” with him, but he finds them—relationships—entirely too complicated. He would rather just have sex with them and leave it at that. At the end of the day, Michael Styles was looking for a few bucks—to buy a sandwich, not a drink, he said. I wonder if he was telling me the truth.

Monday, August 26, 2013

The Old School Shadows

Today was the first day of class at my alma mater Manhattan College. Starting school in August just seems unnatural to me. Next week the Catholic high schools in the city will open their doors, and the following week the public schools will follow suit, which means—from where I sit nowadays—more traffic and mayhem to contend with, and very little upside. 

The days are growing shorter. The sun is casting shadows that bespeak autumn, even when the weather is warm and humid. I remember it all too well. Knowing that the new school year started the next morning produced the most dreadful feeling—one that mere words cannot express. I recall sitting on my front stoop the night before school began, when there was still ample summer warmth in the air. This recurring act of summertime, however, compounded the doom and gloom. Summer was over and done with—once more. A loud chorus of crickets always played a funereal dirge on those nights. While I actually prefer fall to summer now, the old school shadows have this uncanny knack for casting a certain pall, even these many years later. Sure, the pall is more short-lived these days, as I quickly acclimate to the more agreeable climes, but it’s real and it's palpable.

I suspect the grammar school and high school experiences are somewhat different than when I was a school kid more than thirty years ago. While revisiting my old high school report cards recently, I couldn’t help but notice the consistency of my inconsistencies. I’d go from the nineties to the seventies at the drop of a hat, and then back to the nineties again. At the end of the day, I was a cumulative eighties student. In my junior and senior years in high school, the report card, which was called the “Scholarship Report,” enabled teachers to leave automated comments. The comments I received, too, ranged far and wide from “Is Courteous and Cooperative” to “Always Well Prepared” to “Poor Study Habits.”

I was most struck by the dual comments I received from my Chemistry teacher in the second quarter of my senior year: “Is Working to Potential” and “Inconsistent Work in Science.” She must have seen right through me, recognized that I’d never be a chemist or even a chemistry teacher, and concluded that my potential was “inconsistency” at best. Funny, but in the first quarter her two comments were: “Excellent Work in Science” and “Very Conscientious Student.” My grades for the first two quarters were an identical "92," but I scored a mere "84" on the mid-term, which is what, I guess, prompted the “inconsistent” dig. She might have at least waited until the third and fourth quarters when I truly earned my inconsistent stripes with an "84" and an "86," and worst than all of that, a miserable "72" on the Chemistry Regents. The fact that it was my last semester in high school, and that I was already enrolled in college, might have had a little something to do with this swan song. I don’t know.

Teachers didn’t keep their emotions in check like they do today. I remember my Chemistry teacher, whom I actually liked despite her general crankiness and periodic snits and tizzies, crying out with a combination of anger and disappointment, “Shocked!” as she handed back an exam in which I had, evidently, underwhelmed her. This woman was a truly dedicated teacher. Fortunately, I did reasonably well in another subject, Finite Math, in my senior year. Because the wry nun who taught the course would return test papers to us by parading up and down the aisles, plunking them down on our desks with these words: “You know what you’re doing,” “You know what you’re doing,” “You DON’T know what you’re doing.” So, I shocked a Chemistry teacher but always knew what I was doing in Math class—inconsistent to the end.

(Photo from the personal collection of Nicholas Nigro)

Sunday, August 18, 2013

Remembering “How Long Am I Gonna Live?” and the Lightning Bug

Once upon a time the neighborhood where I grew up in the Bronx teemed with lightning bugs on summer evenings. I even recall swatting them with my whiffle ball bat every now and again, which I know wasn’t very nice, but they were remarkably resilient insects.

As the years passed, and empty space became hard to come by—and mostly a relic of the neighborhood’s past—the lightning bugs’ numbers naturally dwindled along with their habitats. Still, a fair share of them existed, reminding one and all that the lightning bug—the firefly—was once an important part of summer in these parts. If one landed on you, it invariably left an unpleasant odor as its calling card. And while they were a marvel to observe while clumsily flying through the night and illuminating, they were pretty creepy to look at up close.

There are nonetheless plenty of private homes in the old neighborhood with grassy backyards, and nearby parkland as well. So, there must be something else at play here that has cast the lightning bug asunder. I should note this is not a scientific field study on my part. They may, in fact, still be around in some diminished capacity—and probably are in the parks and such. But no matter how you slice it, the lightning bug has seen better days in the big city. And from the looks of things, so has the bee population—a very worrisome trend. I remember countless species of bees and wasps while growing up, and getting stung by more than a few. Their numbers were legion—everything from honeybees to yellow jackets to mud wasps. We used to call mud wasps “mud whoppers” for some reason, and I never liked the looks of them. I don’t see anymore of them around, either.

And now for something completely different: There was an elderly Italian lady who lived up the street from me in my youth. I nicknamed her “How long am I gonna live?” because she frequently posed that question to one and all in her path. She was a “sweet old lady,” not a “mean old lady.” And the neighborhood was chock-full of both. Anyway, she often asked neighbors, including me one time, to “Guess how old I am?” And I guessed. “Eighty-six?” I said. “No, eighty-nine!” she gleefully replied, knowing she had outsmarted yet another patsy. A week or so later, I had another encounter with her and another chance to guess. But this time I knew the answer to her question. “Eighty-nine,” I said very confidently. “No, eighty-seven!” she responded and went on her merry way. “How long am I gonna live” was an old eighty-seven- or eighty-nine-year-old woman. People that age back then, for the most part, really looked their age. They led rougher lives and typically came from hardscrabble places in an age before modern medicine and the many meds that not only make us live longer, but look a little less ancient as we approach the finish line.

I don’t exactly know why the lightning bug and this sweet old Italian lady merited a blog coupling. But maybe it’s that if the lightning bug could talk, it too might pose the question, “How long am I gonna live?” Not forever, it would seem. 

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

When Kingsbridge Town Came to Bangor, PA

Fifty-eight years ago today, Kingsbridge denizens en masse descended upon the small town of Bangor in Pennsylvania’s lush Lehigh Valley. It was my mother and father’s wedding day. The former was born and raised in this picturesque hamlet with its working slate quarries and delicious bologna. The folks got married in the town’s sole Catholic church. While Catholics were a ubiquitous lot in the environs of Kingsbridge, they were a tiny minority in Bangor, which hosted houses of worship of every conceivable Protestant denomination and a synagogue, too.

Courtesy of Hurricane Diane churning in the nearby Atlantic, August 13, 1955 was a horrible day weather wise—dreadfully humid, extremely windy, and completely waterlogged. Several days later, in fact, this very same, slow-moving hurricane would wreak havoc in Pennsylvania’s Pocono Mountains and elsewhere in the northeast with epic rainfall, flash flooding, and many reported deaths. So, in this age before GPS and SUVs, destiny divined an anything but smooth voyage from the Bronx to Bangor.

My paternal grandfather—and father of the groom—determined that it would be best for one and all to charter a bus for the trip. He correctly surmised it would be a major hassle for such a diverse cast of characters to travel independently to foreign terrain sans both the aforementioned GPS and Interstate 80, which had as yet reached the New York Metropolitan area. Back then, a trip to Bangor involved numerous twist and turns and the venturing through scores of small towns. Traffic lights and traffic jams were all too common. Opportunities to make wrong turns and get hopelessly lost were multifold. And this reality snippet didn’t even take into account the possibility of inclement weather. (Pre-Interstate 80, a Kingsbridge to Bangor trip took three hours or thereabouts. Post-Interstate 80, that time was cut in half.)

A bus was thus chartered to transport an eclectic group of Kingsbridge residents and others to the wedding. It was an arduous ride through unremitting heavy rains and ghastly humidity. Smoking on the non-air-conditioned bus ride was permitted in those days—and a lot of people smoked. Happily, there were no reports of passengers needing oxygen when they at long last set foot on Bangor soil. Taking into consideration the foul weather, the wedding Mass had been delayed in anticipation of Kingsbridge Town meeting Bangor, PA.

The oral history passed down to me has it that the bus trip to Bangor was decidedly somber as the driver carefully navigated through flooding rains, but considerably more raucous on the return trip home. The boys—my father’s buddies from the old neighborhood—brought along a barrel of beer with them to help pass the time. And all of this after a fun-filled reception at the Blue Valley farm fairgrounds. There was no bathroom in the bus, which I expect added further drama to the successful Kingsbridge meets Bangor experiment.

(Photo from the personal collection of Nicholas Nigro)

Monday, August 5, 2013

When Meatball’s Car Went Missing

In early August 1978, a neighbor’s car—a dark brown Ford LTD—was stolen. It was parked on the street one night and gone the next morning. Courtesy of my youthful penchant for noting historical neighborhood events on pieces of loose leaf and assorted scraps of paper, the exact date of this Grand Theft Auto has been recorded for posterity. On August 8, 1978, the dark brown Ford LTD was gone for good. I even remember its license plate number: “418 KZY.” It’s funny, but we memorized by osmosis things like that back then. We were outside an awful lot, particularly in the summertime, and saw our neighbors coming and going with their cars. Their vehicles were very distinct in the 1970s, and so were they.

This particular LTD, though, was more than just any old neighbor’s set of wheels. It belonged to “Meatball” and was the car that chauffeured a bunch of us neighbor kids—just before it went missing as a matter of fact—to Jones Beach on Long Island. “Meatball’s” son, an older mentor of sorts, was always taking us places. On this Jones Beach excursion, a friend of his tagged along named Frank. Our chaperones, as it were, were twenty-seven years old and we were teenagers. I was the youngest at fifteen.

Frank was known to a bit of a fusspot and whiner. He was, suffice it to say, a certifiable oddball. Frank once scrubbed his car down with AJAX and took the paint off of it. His day-at-the-beach attire included patent leather shoes. When Frank fell asleep in the front seat on the ride out there, he became a tempting target for one of the LTD’s backseat passengers. With his mouth agape while in the Land of Nod, a friend seated to my right and next to an ashtray, reached in and plucked out an old cigarette butt. He dangled it close by the sleeping Frank’s open mouth. I don’t think he planned on dropping it inside, which wouldn’t have been a good idea. A joke’s a joke, but a man choking to death isn’t all that funny. Our driver and Frank’s friend was not amused one bit by the backseat antics.

As we neared our destination—the Jones Beach parking lot—we found ourselves in bumper-to-bumper traffic. Frank remained asleep when that same friend of mine attempted to snatch one of the two headrests from the front seats. His intention: to bop Sleeping Beauty with it. Our exasperated driver, navigating the heavy traffic, simultaneously tried to stop the headrest horseplay, and in so doing rammed into the car in front of him. It was a significant enough hit that the sleeping Frank’s head crashed into the windshield. He wasn’t wearing his seat belt in the pre-seat belt law days of the past, which was commonplace. The windshield actually cracked—X marked the spot—where Frank's rather large cranium, as I remember, met the very solid auto glass.

Frank was understandably quite rattled at being awoken in such a violent fashion. “Is there any glass in my head?” he hysterically asked. Fortunately, the answer was no and we eventually went on our way. With the exception of the windshield, damages were minimal to the dark brown Ford LTD. After our day at the beach with fussy Frank—anticlimactic after the accident—we returned home to the Bronx with a story to tell of how the accident really happened. Our driver’s thong sandals slipped as he was hitting the brake in that snarling beach traffic. No mention was ever made of the headrest horseplay behind it. The true story of what happened on the fateful day in August 1978 was buried—and known by only the handful of people in the car—until now. I don’t know whatever became of Frank. In fact, I never saw him again. But I sincerely hope the headache that he complained about on the ride back cleared up.

(Photo from the personal collection of Nicholas Nigro)

Friday, August 2, 2013

Ode to the Front Stoop

Like so many other things, stoop sitting in the big city is a lost art. While it’s not completely dead and buried, its heyday is definitely a thing of the past. Once upon a time stoop sitters were a ubiquitous lot on summer nights in the Bronx’s Kingsbridge and elsewhere. It’s what city folk did as a rule before the advent of computers and Facebook. After suppertime in the warmer climes, men and women of all ages migrated to the great outdoors to sit on their stoops, spit the breeze, and—yes—dish the dirt. Some hit the stoops with beach chairs. Others emerged from indoors with pillows to soften the blow of resting their derrieres on brick and concrete. Heartier souls just plopped down on their stoops’ rock-hard steps and sidewalls and found it perfectly comfortable.

Stoop sitting was emblematic of the sense of community that existed. It brought neighbors together on a daily basis and encouraged the art of conversation. Stoop sitters from the past had no cell phones in their pockets. They weren’t on tenterhooks awaiting calls and texts. Nor were they checking their iPhones every thirty seconds to see what breaking news and incredibly important stuff was happening in their lives in real time. These groundbreaking—and, yes, stoop breaking—technologies were decades down the road.

As a boy, my evening itineraries didn’t entail me sitting around and chewing the fat with the older generations on the front stoop. Post dinnertime, we kids were otherwise engaged in street games, even after sunset. “Flashlight,” or “Flashlight tag,” as I’ve sometimes seen it referred, was a favorite night game of ours. Still, I recall ending up on the front stoop after the elders had said their "good-nights." It’s where we typically finished our always-busy summer days and shared some final thoughts.

Of course, I spent countless hours sitting on the stoop in the daytime, too. “So, what do you want to do?”—summertime’s most frequently posed query—was Front Stoop 101. And after doing what we had settled upon doing, the stoop was where we usually ended up afterward to both catch our breaths and plot our future adventures.

There’s very little sense of community in these parts anymore—and a lot of other places it would seem. I remember knowing just about everyone who lived on my entire block and well beyond its borders, too. When there were things called neighborhoods—real neighborhoods—we even knew people that we didn’t know. Knew their names at least. We didn't all associate with one another or like one another. There were the good, the bad, and the ugly around town. But it was a neighborhood—with character and characters in a vastly different time.

I remember how our family dog, Ginger, so quickly acclimated to being a Bronx stoop sitter. She instinctively knew when we were just going outside to sit on the stoop, and she’d promptly assume her position on the third step, where she could both contentedly rest her head on a low wall and keep a vigilant eye on all the goings-on in the neighborhood. RIP: the energy of the front stoop.

(Photos from the personal collection of Nicholas Nigro)

Thursday, August 1, 2013

Pigman in the Archives

Recently, I unearthed a box load of papers from my high school years (1976-1980). For more than thirty years now, I have haphazardly archived a diverse assortment of tests, absentee passes with teachers’ initials on their backs, schedules, report cards, school notices, etc. Thumbing through this stuff didn’t exactly bring back fond memories. Foremost, it made me wonder what would become of it all this stuff when the grim reaper came calling. And I think I know the answer.

High school ephemera in my voluminous archives are just the tip of the iceberg. I have saved through the years countless bits and pieces from the times of my life. And since I’m not Thomas Jefferson, Michael Jackson, or Babe Ruth, my labyrinthine, dribs and drabs paper trail will not likely be of interest to too many people. When whoever comes around to clean out my closets and dresser drawers, a scrupulous inventory of all that I have left behind will not likely occur. I’m certain that anything of value will be promptly located and quickly separated from 1977 high school Spanish tests and student handbooks informing us boys that our hair should not touch our ears or the back collars of our shirts. (My high school, Cardinal Spellman in the Bronx, did not literally enforce this overly strict hair rule in the late 1970s, which was an era of mop tops and pretty long hair as a rule. I know this because I violated the handbook’s written dictum for the entire four years. The powers-that-be did nonetheless have a “your hair is too long” standard that they willy-nilly enforced by threatening transgressors with “get it cut or we’ll cut it for you.” I recall a peer of mine asking me if I was told to cut my hair. When I said no, he said that he was given the haircut ultimatum, and that my hair was a lot longer than his.)

I have thus reevaluated the business of archiving my life and times. Separating the memories’ wheat from the memories’ chaff, I’ve begun paring it all down and recycling what—at the end of the day—merits recycling. My mission: to spare my heirs—sometime down the road—having to unceremoniously discard this man’s life in one fell swoop.

Of course, I will pick and choose items worth saving—like my report cards for instance—and do away with such things as impossible to understand Geometry tests and lamely written English essays. (If the tests are any indicator, I have forgotten an awful lot of stuff since high school.) I will, however, think long and hard before scrapping such things as handwritten, mimeographed quizzes, like the one on The Pigman, a book by Paul Zindel and freshman year required reading. I don’t suspect there are too many teachers penning tests in their own hands these days, and then mimeographing them for distribution. As I see it, The Pigman test transcends one mere student and assumes an historical importance—one worth preserving for future generations to appreciate. Really…throwing stuff out can be a very complicated affair.

(Photo from the personal collection of Nicholas Nigro)

Tuesday, July 30, 2013

A Midsummer Day's Nightmare

The waning days of July have a knack of resurrecting old memories, and not always the most pleasant ones. An unwelcome packet used to arrive in my mailbox in the late 1970s at around this time of year. Amidst all the fun and frolic that I was experiencing in those summers of my youth, these manila envelopes underscored that the good times wouldn’t last forever—that their days were very definitely numbered. The fun and games would soon be over, because new school years were right around the corner.

“Once again I am writing to you in the middle of the summer with materials and information concerning the opening of school in September,” the packets' cover letters invariably began. They were actually addressed “Dear Parents,” because the first order of business was establishing what the monthly tuition bills would be for the coming school years. For those of us who attended Catholic high school, this was no small matter. In 1978, Cardinal Spellman High School’s tuition was $730, and that sum covered ten months through June 1979. Today, the tuition at my alma mater is $7,250—a tenfold increase. I suspect that the “Once again I am writing to you in the middle of the summer” packets are crammed with even more apprehension than in the past. The $3 monthly tuition raise that occurred in the 1978-79 school year was probably not a budget buster for too many parents. The necessary tuition raises nowadays are, I fear, packed with a more substantial wallop.

Honestly, I didn’t concern myself with high school tuition back then. The folks picked up the entire tab. College tuition was another story. But it was the “Once again I am writing to you in the middle of summer” packet’s recounting the school opening dates and various orientations that faithfully got me down. It always seemed that it was a little too early to have this information in my possession and, worse than that, permanently lodged on my brain. The packet, too, highlighted how fleeting summer vacations really were. If the middles of summers could come around so awfully fast, the ends of summers could, logically, come around just as quickly—and they always did, including in 1978. In fact, thirty-four summers have come and gone since then, with a thirty-fifth one soon to be in the history books.

Happily, I don’t receive anymore “Once again I am writing to you in the middle of the summer” packets in the mail, although now I don’t mourn a summer’s passing like I once did. And that’s for a whole host of reasons, with one being that I don’t have to return to high school in September. It cannot be denied that this annual summer reminder was a real bummer for those of us who loathed school. And I'd hazard a guess we were the considerable majority.

A neighbor of mine, who attended another Catholic high school in the Bronx, received similar materials in the mail at around the same time as I did. And from that day onward, he would incessantly intone that “summer’s almost over” and marvel about the speedy passage of time. In retrospect, time really didn’t fly by in my youth. The high school years seemed interminable as a matter of fact. Now, four years go by in a heartbeat, and summers even faster than that. Thank you for reading this blog of mine—in the grand tradition of my old principal Monsignor White—in the middle of the summer.

(Photo from the personal collection of Nicholas Nigro)

Friday, July 19, 2013

Tis Bitter Hot...And I Am Sick At Heart

It was close to one hundred degrees today in New York City. And once upon a time I welcomed Bronx summers and hot temperatures with open arms and a happy heart. But not anymore. My reasons are multifold and have been previously chronicled. Foremost, past summers used to mean to me the end of school—a couple of months respite from ten months of drudgery and high anxiety. Is it my imagination, or do more kids than ever actually like going to school?

Summertime also meant longer days, all sorts of games played outdoors, vacations on the Jersey Shore and the North Fork of Long Island, and a whole lot of stoop sitting to fill in the gaps. The art of conversation was alive and well back then, but I can’t remember what any of us talked about. Thirty and forty years ago, a night like tonight would have brought the stoop sitters out in full force, with the exceptions of those spoiled sorts addicted to a luxury called “air conditioning.”

I grew up with no air conditioning on the premises to help us navigate sultry Bronx summers. My father frequently opined that feeling the heat was all in our heads—a state of mind. This mentality from up above, and the fact that an air conditioner would have blown a fuse every time we turned one on, precluded any sort of technological relief from the dreadful heat and humidity one-two punch, which was so commonplace. We did, though, employ fans in the house, which were both reluctantly condoned by my father and compatible with our antiquated electric wiring.

Nevertheless, summers from those days of yore underscored the genuine neighborhood quality that existed—one that is gone with the hot winds around these parts. Very few people sit out on their stoops nowadays, even on comfortable summer nights. Kids aren’t playing outdoor games on the streets—none at all. Why...we even played a game called “flashlight,” aka “flashlight tag,” to extend our active summer days after the sun had set.

Without air conditioning in our upstairs lair, the excessive heat of the past was not a barrel of laughs. And, too, there used to be regular utility brown outs back in the 1970s, with power cut back on the hottest of nights, lights dimming, and, worse than all that, refrigerator ice cubes not fully freezing and tasting pretty bad to boot. But somehow we endured the worst of the summertime heat. We played doubleheader games of stickball on hot asphalt in ninety-plus degrees weather, and didn’t bring any liquid refreshments with us. It’s just what we did. In retrospect, I wonder why we didn’t think to bring water, or an alternative thirst quencher, in a thermos jug or something, but they were just different days. Individual bottles of water for sale didn’t yet exist, and we would have thought that quite bizarre. We just played the games we had always played—and that previous generations had played—and returned home parched. We’d then hit the iced tea jug or lemonade pitcher. A stickball peer of mine often referred to his life-saving need for “H-2-O.”

Sure, I prefer air conditioning. I’d long ago broken ranks with my late father on that score. What a great invention. Honestly, I don’t look back fondly on being miserable in the summertime heat, sucking in the poor air quality of New York City, and sticking to my bed sheets on the warmest of nights. But I do look back affectionately on the lost neighborhood, and the sense of community, that has been cast asunder—not by air conditioning, but by the times.

(Photo from the personal collection of Nicholas Nigro)

Saturday, July 13, 2013

This Day in History

Thirty-six years ago tonight the lights went out at Shea Stadium during a night game. Give or take a couple of minutes, it was 9:34 p.m.—and they also went out in the rest of New York City (save a handful of Rockaway, Queens neighborhoods not served by local utility Con Edison). I was not attending this historic Mets’ game versus the Chicago Cubs, although it would definitely have been a night to remember. I happened to be away from home and listening to the game on my favorite radio of all-time—a Christmas gift that also picked up the audio of local television stations.

I thus wasn’t in the Bronx then when everything went dark, but in a place called Chadwick Beach along the New Jersey Shore. I recall Mets’ announcer Ralph Kiner saying he could see cars going over the darkened Whitestone Bridge in the distance. Ralph had mistakenly called it the Throgs Neck Bridge in the past, which is not visible from the radio booth. The man had a charming knack for getting things wrong on occasion.

Riveted at this blackout that I wasn’t home to enjoy—history in the making—I continued listening to the suspended game. I figured it all would turn bright pretty quickly and that is was a temporary glitch that would soon be remedied—but it wasn’t for twenty-four hours. It didn’t take very long for the Mets’ radio station to lose its signal—several minutes at best—and I, too, was then in the dark concerning the goings-on back in my hometown. Awaiting the power’s return, I subsequently learned that Mets’ organist Jane Jarvis plowed through her entire repertoire, and even started playing holiday carols like “Jingle Bells” and “White Christmas” to keep the fans entertained until the lights came back on, which they didn't that night.

It was also very hot that evening, even in Chadwick Beach, although it wasn’t nearly as brutal as New York City’s weather. The thermometer had hovered close to 100 degrees that day in the Big Apple. That very summer, our neighbors from just up the street shared the same shore house with us. They took the upper floor while we resided in the lower half. Without air conditioning in this two-family rental of ours, which they were accustomed to in the Bronx, it got a little too hot for them a day or so earlier, and they had returned home to bask in refrigerated indoor air until the heat wave broke. As they saw it, it was the preferred alternative to baking on the New Jersey Shore, even if we were within walking distance of both Barnegat Bay and the Atlantic Ocean. Ironically, they were back in the Bronx, instead of on vacation in Jersey, when the city went dark and put their air conditioning on ice. I remember wishing that I had been back home with them to sweat and suffer sans electricity. Such was the passion of youth.

Friday, July 5, 2013

Fourth of July Numerology

In addition to it being Independence Day, yesterday was also the thirtieth anniversary of Yankees’ pitcher Dave Righetti’s no-hitter against the reviled Boston Red Sox. Admittedly, for Yankee fans, that must have been a moment to savor. But since I loathed that haughty franchise from the South Bronx with its bombastic owner, I hardly savored Righetti’s accomplishment. In fact, I did my best to not even acknowledge it.

Except for an ESPN retrospective, I would not have remembered this event occurred on the Fourth of July. Nevertheless, I recalled being at home in the Bronx and watching an afternoon baseball game that very day. I was nineteen years old and tuned into the cross-town rival Mets on the TV in my bedroom. Meanwhile, my father, a Yankee fan extraordinaire since the Joltin’ Joe DiMaggio days, watched his favorite team in the family’s living room. My beloved Mets weren’t very doing well in July 1983. In fact, their manager at the opening of the season, George Bamberger, had abruptly retired, literally fearing for his health and well-being. Big Frank Howard, a team coach, took over on an interim basis. Despite their not-too-impressive 30-50 record on July 4, 1983, I remained ever-loyal to my team. 

When Righetti reached the latter innings with his no-hitter still in tact, my father alerted his Met fan son on multiple occasions of what was transpiring at Yankee Stadium, approximately three-and-a-half miles away from where we called home. Even though I was still officially a teenager, our Mets versus Yankees rivalry had, what seemed to me at least, a very long and contentious history. Granted, in 1983, the Mets were a dreadfully bad team and had been for several years. During that unhappy time to be a Met fan, the Yankees experienced a few glorious seasons. But despite the Mets’ recent history, the pendulum was slowly but surely swinging the other way. I felt it. Only weeks before the Mets had acquired Keith Hernandez and the team had lots of hot prospects. What really mattered, though, was that my anti-Yankees’ bona fides were solid. So, I wasn’t about to turn the channel on my bedroom TV to watch the Yankees’ game or, God forbid, join my father in the living room, which, come the ninth inning, he really expected me—a devoted baseball fan like him—to do. How could I possibly bypass sports history in the making? I could somehow, and he became enraged at my obstinacy.

In retrospect, I probably should have watched the top of the ninth inning of the Yankees versus Red Sox game on that Fourth of July three decades ago. My father would have definitely watched the flip side and rooted against any Mets' pitcher with unrestrained abandon. But I was different. One should never underestimate a passionate sports rivalry between father and son. Ours began when I was just eight years old. And while it had its ups and downs, victories and defeats, it was always intense.

The final score in Righetti's no-hitter was 4-0. And thanks to the Internet and its treasure trove of easily retrieved information, I discovered the Mets lost to the Phillies at Veteran’s Stadium in Philadelphia by the very same score that day. Fourth of July numerology meets a father and son battle of wills. It seems like only yesterday, but also a very, very long time ago.

Saturday, June 15, 2013

The Karma Train

I have this friend who absolutely loves spaghetti—all kinds of spaghetti, he says. The way I see it, though, spaghetti all by its lonesome is pretty much tasteless. It’s the tomato sauce and other toppings that matter, so I could never quite understand how anyone could claim to like all kinds of spaghetti dinners in all kinds of venues.

The Spaghetti Man also has a knack for finding fault with restaurant food and service. Several years ago, he recounted the story of finding a piece of glass in his spaghetti bowl at some over-priced Manhattan eatery, I cut him a little slack and conceded he had ample reason to be upset this time. Even lodging a complaint was in order. Still, I couldn’t help but see karma at work. You know, the guy who always finds something wrong—even when there isn't anything wrong—finds a small but sharp piece of glass in his spaghetti bowl. And then—some years later—it happens again at another dining establishment. Just what are the odds of that? I don't think my friend is running scams to get free meals like Angel,  PI Jim Rockford’s good buddy. I think bad karma is on his tail. Of course, it could be restaurant staff members wanting to get even with an overbearing and annoying patron. However, I think placing jagged glass in a pasta dish—a criminal offense—would have been carrying things a bit too far when saliva, a sneeze, or earwax would have sufficed.

Today, I rode the karma train from the Bronx into Manhattan and then back again. I usually ride in the first or last subway car because they are generally the least crowded from beginning to end. I rode downtown in the second car this morning only because an oblivious young woman on the platform was talking on her cell phone and ran interference, blocking me from getting to the first car. As it turned out, the second car’s air conditioning was out of order. I could have moved to another one, but the day was pleasant enough to make it quasi-tolerable for me, but apparently not for many others. Hence, the car remained less populated than it would have otherwise been. Since I didn’t pass out on the journey, I suppose it was worth remaining in warm, stale air for the forty-five minute or so ride.

On my return trip, all was going well for a while. I was in an uncrowded, air-conditioned subway car—the last one as a matter of fact. But then a mother, grandfather, and young boy got on the train at Lincoln Center. The kid was unleashed, unruly, and running about like a pinball, but worse than all of that he was constantly shrieking at the top of his lungs—and I mean shrieking! He was mimicking a Ninja Turtle or something at some point. Negative karma was once again rearing its ugly head.

I noticed several people changing cars just as soon as they got the chance, but I remained stationary, pretending to fall asleep or some such thing because it was at once embarrassing and surreal. On more than one occasion, the mother told her son to keep his voice down, but to no avail. Really, she didn’t seem overly concerned about it. Like me, most people in the subway car were pretending not to notice this excessively hyper child, who most definitely wasn’t on any kinds of calming meds.

I was actually preparing to at long last to leave the subway car at the City College station at 137th Street and ride in another one, or even wait for another train if necessary. But, lo and behold, the unholy threesome—that bad karma brought to me—got off there. The entire subway car heaved a collective sigh of relief when they did—I felt it—although outwardly, like good New Yorkers, we remain poker-faced. Just another day on the Karma Train.

Friday, June 14, 2013

Roads Not Taken

Growing up in the Bronx’s Kingsbridge in the 1970s, I faithfully attended Sunday Mass after Sunday Mass—and Mass on Holy Days of Obligation, too—at St. John’s Church. It was a pretty impressive-looking place on the inside in those days, but I can’t honestly say I got anything out of the repetitive Mass thing. There was no Mass appeal if you will. The sermons from the various men of the cloth were largely uninspiring and totally unmemorable. But to paraphrase comedian Jackie Mason: “I say this with all due respect.” My mother used to say, “You get out of it what you put into it.” That cliché evidently meant something to her, but it left the young me cold.

What I mostly recall from this largely benign but monotonous experience was Sunday morning breakfast. That is, getting to Pat Mitchell’s Irish Food Center—aka “Pat’s”—before the Mass’s masses. In stark contrast with the parish priests’ sermons, Pat’s chocolate frosted donuts, miniature jellies, and fresh rolls were unforgettable. They meant an awful lot to an awful lot of people in the neighborhood, which explained why hightailing out of the church at Mass’s end as quickly as humanly possible was the order of the day. Long lines and a survival-of-the-fittest jostling in this small, but iconic neighborhood grocery store were the Sunday morning norm after the various Masses.

But this blog isn’t about Pat Mitchell’s and his tasty donuts. (I’ve tackled this important historical and culinary subject before.) It’s about a road not taken. A special announcement—a footnote of sorts—was always made at the end of the Sunday morning Mass that I normally attended. Those of us on hand were informed that coffee and donuts would be served in the church’s adjoining “Pebble Patio”—on the house of worship as it were—immediately after we all went in peace. Foremost, I was intrigued by the moniker—Pebble Patio. It somehow struck me as funny, and I wondered, too, what kinds of donuts were being served there. Were they Pat’s, from a wholesale bakery called Willow Sunny, or perhaps from nearby Twin Donut? While appealing to the palate, the latter’s donuts left an aftertaste that sometimes lasted an entire day. Could it possibly be they were purchased from Shelvyn’s Bakery? No, not a chance—their donuts were pretty big, comparatively expensive, and thus unsuitable for any of the church’s come one, come all gatherings.

What I feared most of all, I think, was that the Pebble Patio donuts came from a supermarket. You know—the old-fashioned, powdered sugar, and cinnamon-coated varieties churned out by Hostess and various generic bakers. But, alas, I didn’t venture down that road to the Pebble Patio even once. There’s an important life lesson here, and I believe it’s that we should call upon pebble patios—one and all—when afforded the chance, because what we might find there may surprise us.

Monday, June 10, 2013

Greased Lightning

While growing up in the Bronx neighborhood of Kingsbridge, I couldn’t imagine living anyplace else. There were certain things of such monumental importance to me that necessitated I remain—as long as they were there—in the geographical location of my youth. The way I saw it: Life without them just wouldn’t amount to much of a life at all.

Most kids establish reputations—deserved or not. They achieve notoriety for their personality quirks, unique abilities, and special passions. The New York Mets and pizza lust—notably from a place called Sam’s Pizza in the neighborhood—stuck to me like a barnacle to a ship’s hull.

From a very young age, I was a Met fan in an area of the Bronx teeming with Yankee fans. My father was slavishly devoted to that haughty franchise in the South Bronx since the Joltin’ Joe DiMaggio days. The first baseball games I ever saw were at Yankee Stadium. I broke ranks, nonetheless, and received the nickname “Mr. Met”—“Met” for short—which has endured for four decades. I remember thinking about the prospect of living someplace else back then—outside of New York City—and how I would be unable to see my beloved team’s games, which were televised frequently on local WOR-TV, Channel 9, in the 1960s and 1970s, but no place else. This was a time before satellite dishes, ESPN, and all that multi-media jazz. A Mets’ game televised as a network “Game of the Week” would be all that I could ever hope for—and that was hardly enough.

And then there was Sam’s Pizza. I used to patronize the place an awful lot in the 1970s through much of the 1980s. I'd say the sixty cents slice price to a dollar a slice price represented my heyday. Sam’s product in those days was both thick and cheese intensive. The oil from the pizza stained the takeout paper bags in varying degrees. My father dubbed the place the “grease shop,” and it genuinely annoyed him to see me plucking slices out of my all too familiar greasy bags. From his perspective and generation—second generation Italian no less—it was outright sacrilege for me to patronize a pizza joint as often as I did.

But as I recall, the Sam’s Pizza grease from days gone by was the tastiest grease imaginable—one that I will never know again. Occasionally, when the pizza had been sitting around for the better part of the day, the grease factor could metamorphose, take a turn for the worse, and upset the stomach. But so what? That was the price one paid for a by and large incredibly tasting pizza—grease and all. And back in the 1970s, pizza boxes were only used for whole pies. Two, three, and even four slices were placed in a small paper bag. “Grease City” as we might have said in those days of yore. One got a lot of bang for one’s buck in those days, though, which is why living down wind of Sam’s Pizza and its greased lightning once meant the world to me.

(Photos from the personal collection of Nicholas Nigro)