Thursday, January 31, 2013

Premature Senior Moment

Recently, while on a daily errand run on the heavily trafficked Broadway, I spied a young fellow with a clipboard in hand. I generally try to avoid clipboard-wielding men and women for a variety of reasons. Foremost, I’m not typically interested in their particular causes or their winning business opportunities. And—even in the rare instances when I am on their wavelengths—I can’t help but be leery and on guard for some sort a scam. These are the times we live in…and I live in the Bronx.

Try as I did, though, I just couldn’t bypass this chap. He said, “Hello,” and since I didn’t say, “Goodbye,” he began his spiel, which I politely listened to while not breaking stride. Strange, but I thought I heard him say he was pitching a program for “young people” like me. So, I listened further to what was tumbling out of this poor guy's mouth. Under the circumstances, I couldn’t help it. Is he actually pitching a senior daycare plan to me—with door-to-door pickup, Medicare, arts and crafts, etc.—I wondered? And indeed he was. The flier he handed me told me as much and listed the countless benefits and the many exciting things I could do at this geriatric daycare center. Why there were gentle exercises and mental stimulation games to be enjoyed. Really, what more could a person ask for? Actually, the “Relaxation Room” didn't sound half bad.

Despite being cane and able, perhaps my walking along with such an aid added fifteen or twenty years to my chronological age, I don’t know. But from this young man’s perspective, I was a geezer who just might enjoy playing a game of checkers with a fellow geezer. I take small solace here—very small in fact—from a friend from high school, who when asked to hazard a guess of the age of our high school chemistry teacher, answered, “Sixty.” Well, thirty plus years later and she’s still teaching the same subject at the same place—and she’s not ninety-three. She was probably in her late twenties—maybe early thirties—when we had her as a teacher. Nevertheless, AARP solicitations aren’t very far off, I know. And to paraphrase a favorite author of mine, I’m more cognizant than ever before that every day amounts to “more and more subtracted from less and less.”

Friday, January 25, 2013

Jimmy's Roller Skates

While editing for the umpteenth time a YA work of fiction of mine—and very possibly making it less readable than before—I momentarily contemplated adding a scene involving a roller-hockey game. Set in the Northwest Bronx neighborhood of Kingsbridge, 1978, I thought it might add further color to this youthful tale from what was—most definitely—a colorful snapshot in time.

Anyway, one thing led to another and I Googled “old roller skates,” or some such thing, and cast my eyes upon an image of an old pair of roller skates, the utilitarian metal kind that were, once upon a time, the rage. They sported leather straps that secured them to roller skaters’ feet. As I recall, the straps were sometimes spray-painted red, yellow, or black. The cheap paint jobs, though, invariably chipped away, revealing both the age of the roller skates and the amount of mileage on them. I would be remiss here if I didn't mention these vintage roller skates' keys—indispensable keys—that tightened adjustable clamps. Tightened them— flush at the soles of feet—to roller skaters’ footwear. They weren't one-size-fits-all, but more like one size fits several size shoes.

While these old-time roller skates were still around when I was a very young boy, more modern and stylish boot-like renditions were fast casting asunder these relics—keys and all—from the past. Nevertheless, when I spied a photo of these charming metallic dinosaurs with wheels, I remembered the only pair I ever owned. I didn’t do much roller skating in my youth. (While hockey on roller skates was popular on the area’s ample asphalt and concrete, it just wasn’t my thing.) Originally, my roller skates belonged to an older kid named Jimmy, who lived just around the block from me. When Jimmy outgrew them, his mother gave them to my mother to give to one of her boys, which turned out to be me. I was six or seven, and Jimmy might very well have been five, seven, or even ten years older than me, when the roller skates changed hands. Actually, I have no personal memories of Jimmy at all. I only recall that he was “mentally retarded,” which was the commonly used and accepted term back in the 1960s and 1970s. It wasn’t pejorative, although it sometimes became so depending on the circumstances. In fact, the term was then medically sanctioned, considered largely benign, and a vast improvement over prior callous monikers.

I remember I was hesitant to even put the roller skates on because they once belonged to Jimmy. I thought he had some sort of communicable disease, I guess. As I warily surveyed the raggedy, peeling yellow leather straps on this very old pair of roller skates, I figured I might enter the Twilight Zone, or some such thing, if I put them on—that I would become a “mentally retarded” person like Jimmy.

Funny, but while I recall Jimmy’s roller skates becoming my own for one brief shining moment in the late 1960s, I don’t—as I previously noted—ever remember encountering him, although I must have. I don't recall anybody saying anything negative about him to frighten me into avoiding his skates like the plague. That was just it—the long and short of it. Very few people back then spoke openly about people like Jimmy and what could be done to truly help the “mentally retarded.” We kids were thus left to fill in the blanks and imagine all sorts of things—like catching “mental retardation” from a pair of skates.

Sunday, January 20, 2013

The Ralph Factor

Thirty-two years ago this January, I met Ralph—a salesman and bona fide peddler who represented a small pet accessories company that sold assorted wares to mom-and-pop retailers in the environs of New York City. Still in high school at the time, and working in one such store in Queens, Ralph fascinated me.

When he strolled through our shop’s back door—called Pet Nosh, by the way—for the first time on that cold winter’s morning when Jimmy Carter was the president; Ed Koch, the mayor; and Hugh Carey, the governor, Ralph wasn’t exactly dressed to the nines. Rather, he looked like a real nerd—the genuine article—when I first laid eyes on him festooned in earmuffs and an old Muscovite man’s winter hat. As something of a nerd myself, perhaps I’m being quick to judge here, I recall thinking as I watched Ralph remove his multiple layers of winter garments, including galoshes, which seemed to me like overkill considering the day was sunny, dry as dust, and the grounds snow free.

No, Ralph was a full-blooded nerd all right with his completely buttoned up white dress shirt and 1960s—maybe even 1950s—old tweed sports jacket. Yet, there was something mesmerizing about Ralph—special—as I eyed him lifting up his suitcase full of wares onto our front counter. Actually, it was more of a chest than a suitcase. Ralph was a happy-faced, upbeat version of Willy Loman. While his kind still plied their trade in 1980, their days were definitely numbered. Ralph, however, was as enthusiastic as ever—the eternal optimist—and viewed the impending pet care trade’s boon as a godsend.

In 1980, the industry was on the cusp of becoming a really big deal, and Ralph and his employer were right in the thick of this awakening, peddling a hodgepodge of merchandise that we all thought was pretty unique and quite cool for its time: attention-grabbing cat and dog toys, every imaginable kind of treat, and state-of-the-art accessory items like the Step ‘N’ Dine. Incredible, but this thing could actually keep pet foods fresh with its plastic covering—one that would only open up when a cat or a small dog approached it and stepped onto its welcome mat mechanism that, in turn, raised the plastic cover. The only problem—and it was a considerable one in retrospect—was that the plastic cover slammed shut every time the cat or dog stepped back off the welcome mat, which was often, to chew and digest their dinners. Suffice it to say, not a very pleasant dining experience. The consensus: Step ‘N’ Dine scared the dickens out of felines and canines alike who would—so pet parents complained—starve themselves before ever again approaching this invention from hell.

Fortunately, though, Ralph had a treasure trove of goodies in his suitcase-chest that pets of all stripes could appreciate. He wrote his orders by hand on scrap paper. I actually gave him scrap paper on more than one occasion, which he greatly appreciated. It was like gold to him because he used so much of it due to a Korean War injury that affected his handwriting. (Ralph wrote in very big strokes. A single order sometimes took up twenty or more pages.) There were no modern-style computers back then and the Ralph Way of doing business was not unusual. “The catch is you gotta buy a dozen,” Ralph often said. In his eighties now, the man is still at it. He has somehow survived all the growth and changes in the business. It can be explained only by the Ralph Factor.

Friday, January 11, 2013

Really...It Ain't Over 'Til It's Over

Funny, but I can recall as a kid doing the math with a friend of mine. We calculated how old we would be in the year 2000, which seemed so very, very far away—a science fiction-y sort of benchmark. Actually, we envisioned ourselves being downright ancient by then—in our late thirties—but reasoned, I suppose, that it would take so long a time in coming that it just might never come to pass. Well, it did—2000 has come to pass and then some. It’s 2013 now and counting. And time is accelerating, too.

Recently, the sports writers who elect members of the Major League Baseball Hall of Fame failed to select a single one for induction in 2013, despite several marquee names with Hall of Fame numbers on the ballot, including Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens. Their more than suspected use of performance-enhancing drugs torpedoed their chances—this go-around anyway.

2013 also marks the fortieth anniversary of the 1973 Mets, and my then favorite team’s last place to first place August-September metamorphosis. Champions of the National League Eastern division, the Mets promptly defeated the heavily favored Big Red Machine in the play-offs—three games to two—but came up a game short in the World Series against the heavily favored Oakland A’s. It was a World Series that my beloved Mets really should have won—they were up three games to two after all. It would have been the icing atop the cake of what was—for me at least—a mystical snapshot in time that, I know, can never be replicated.

I wasn’t quite eleven years old that September when the baseball gods intervened and healed so many injured players, while simultaneously adding a little extra oomph to their on-the-field performances. The coupling of youthful, unjaded exuberance with bona fide baseball fanaticism proved a potent mix, particularly back in this vastly different, much more innocent epoch to be a kid. If I had a month to live over in perpetuity—a Groundhog Month as it were—September 1973 might very well be my choice. It was an epic run for Met fans, and most especially appreciated by the younger set, like me, who lived and died on every call made by Lindsey Nelson, Bob Murphy, and Ralph Kiner. Up to that point in time, these three guys were the only broadcasters the Mets had ever employed. They painted the word picture with class and aplomb in stark contrast with the overbearing critical eyes of so many of today’s announcers.

My all-time favorite player was pitching great and future Hall of Famer Tom Seaver—the “Franchise” as he was known in these parts. Yogi Berra managed the 1973 club and, as far as I'm concerned, will always be a Met. God, Willie Mays was on the team’s roster—back home in New York where he rightly belonged—for his final season in what had been a long and illustrious career. When the organization hosted a “Willie Mays Night” in the thick of a pennant race before a capacity Shea Stadium crowd, I remember watching the festivities on the family’s black-and-white TV set in our living room. Witnessing the Say Hey Kid “say goodbye to America” was simultaneously thrilling and poignant. It was a simpler snapshot in time, for sure, with both affordable tickets on sale at the box office and Jane Jarvis tickling the organ ivories in the ballpark. Forty years ago, 24/7 all-sports-talk radio stations didn't exist. Dissecting and criticizing players, managers, and management were largely confined to newspaper columns and miscellaneous bloviating among friends and acquaintances on the neighborhood streets, in the schoolyards, and—for the adult crowd—in the saloons.

Growing up in the Northwest Bronx—in both a Yankees-centric neighborhood and family—kicked up the pressures a notch or two for this sixth-grader Met fan. Despite it being my family living room, I nonetheless accepted the reality I’d be watching the 1973 World Series in enemy territory. High anxiety. My father—a Yankee fan extraordinaire—hated the Mets with a passion. Committed New York fans loved and loathed in those days—to the marrow of their bones. And I hated the Yankees right back with equal fervor. Real fans just didn’t play both sides of the street and, if they did, they weren’t considered real fans.

Anyway, on October 14, 1973—game two of the World Series in Oakland—scrappy shortstop Bud Harrelson scored the go-ahead run in the tenth inning on a Felix Millan sacrifice fly. But hold your horses here, veteran umpire Augie Donatelli missed the call. He anticipated Harrelson sliding—which he didn’t do—and positioned himself smack dab on the ground for a bird's eye view. The great Willie Mays—in the on deck circle at the time—couldn’t believe the out call and fell down on his knees in despair, gazing toward the heavens for some succor, which he didn't get. An apoplectic Yogi Berra cried out in both disgust and resignation, “You missed the damn thing!” Harrelson, who was tossed out of the game for something he apparently uttered to the overly sensitive Donatelli, moaned, “You can’t kick me out for your inadequacies!”

As one might suspect, I was crestfallen at the blown call and, too, the harsh ribbing I received from the Yankee fans on the premises—my father in particular. I ran off to the security of my bedroom to shed a tear or two—definitely internally and maybe even externally. I don't recall the teary details. Chagrined at having gone too far, I suspect, my dad came back to console me. He said something to the effect: “The game isn’t over. The Mets could still win it. Come back to the living room.” I did and, in fact, the Mets won the game in fourteen innings. Although I knew he wished they had lost—super-Met fan young son notwithstanding—Pop was right on the money.

There is a life lesson here—from all those years ago in 1973—I surmise. “It ain’t over ‘til it’s over,” perhaps, or “Ya gotta believe?" I can't say. However, I do know that forty years have passed and a fair share of folks from that time—and that team—are no longer among the living. And that's kind of sad. But really, life is about moments—high points—and the 1973 pennant chase and post-season were, for me, high points that will never, ever be forgotten.