Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Even the Garbage Was More Special

Why, yes, the 1970s were a simpler snapshot in time…for me, and probably for a few others, too. Midway through the decade, 1975, had some extra-special resonance. Gerald Ford was the president of the United States, having succeeded Richard Nixon, who had resigned the previous year amidst the Watergate scandal. I had originally written “in disgrace,” but I thought it a bit cliché to do so.

Actually, Gerald Ford was a pioneer in the annals of American history—a truly unelected president—appointed by Nixon after his elected vice president, Spiro Agnew, resigned in disgrace in October of 1973. By his own admission, he was a “Ford, not a Lincoln,” but startlingly benign in contrast with his dubious predecessor. He asked Americans to wear “WIN” buttons back then, an acronym for “Whip Inflation Now,” in what were inflationary times.

But I turned thirteen that year, and inflation didn’t mean all that much to me. In fact, I don’t recall ever wanting for anything because of skyrocketing prices. Now, the government’s inflation statistics suggest that everything is hunky-dory—under control—in this pricey arena. It’s funny, but while I may have been a callow youth back in 1975, I don’t recall prices rising as fast and as frequent as they do today. And it’s not just the rising prices but also the sizes of everything that are shrinking.

While I don’t do political blogs—and this isn’t one—I can’t help but conclude that those inflationary times, in the 1970s, were better times, particularly for individuals on fixed incomes and families. They weren’t, then, buying shrinking rolls of toilet paper and half gallons of orange juice that were fifty-nine ounces. The pound of coffee from 1975 is a distant memory. The thirteen-ounce coffee is even a thing of the past.

This blog, however, is really about the 1970s in general—and 1975 in particular—when even neighbors’ garbage seemed more interesting. My father was wont to pluck from area garbage heaps unusual items. In the spring of 1975, just in time for my younger brother’s Confirmation party, he brought home a rather large wooden advertising placard for, of all things, Kentucky Fried Chicken. "Let Us Do Your Catering" it read. Where exactly he found it—and why it was there in the first place—I’ve since forgotten. Nevertheless, he propped it up in the dining room for the party and it was conversation piece. Many of us posed for pictures in front of it during the festivities. Wearing flowery dress shirts were also kind of cool, as I recall, when Gerald Ford was president and KFC was still Kentucky Fried Chicken.

Ironically, for those of us in Catholic grammar school, the 1970s color infusion, which seemed a bit over the top and even somewhat strange on occasion, supplanted some of the most ridiculous-looking, downright creepy outfits imaginable for the Holy Sacraments. (Compare with prior Communion and Confirmation attire.) A little color went a long way, I'd say. Now, if we could only Whip Inflation Now.

(Photo from the personal collection of Nicholas Nigro)

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

The Cough Drop Kid

I knew a kid in grammar school whose favorite candy wasn’t candy at all, but a cough drop. It was, however, displayed and sold alongside the Sweet Tarts, Razzles, and York Peppermint Patties—so perhaps it was candy after all. The candy store proprietors in the neighborhood didn’t mind that ten- and eleven-year-old kids were purchasing and eating cough drops like they were Milk Duds and Mary Janes. They didn’t request purchaser evidence of a cold, allergy, or scratchy throat. And nobody suggested, then or now, that there was anything wrong with selling cough drops in the same fashion as Bubble Yum, Good & Fruity, and Starburst.

When it was time to graduate from said grammar school in 1976, graduates one and all were asked to share a fond, funny, or noteworthy remembrance—from their first-grade to eighth-grade educational experiences—for possible inclusion in the class yearbook. You know, for the montage page of fond, funny, and noteworthy remembrances—like the time the bee flew up Suzy Q’s uniform dress during recess, or the time Frankie McGuirk got bus sick—and lost his cookies—on a class field trip to an amusement park in Lake Hopatcong, New Jersey. I submitted the memory of the Cough Drop Kid, who was renowned for both loving a particular brand of cough drops and John Wayne. My special memory didn’t make it into the yearbook—the school censors, I guess, didn’t think it appropriate or interesting enough. And the memories competition was pretty stiff in my esteemed graduating class.

Fast forward almost thirty-seven years since grammar school graduation day—and forty years plus since the Cough Drop Kid indulged in his favorite candy. It’s 2013 and, as fate would have it, I spoke with the Cough Drop Kid today. He’s still alive and kicking. We chewed over his peculiar childhood addiction to a certain cough drop. Funny, but in middle age, we both couldn’t remember the brand name. It definitely wasn’t Smith Brothers—we were certain of that much.

Courtesy of the vast wealth of accessible information now at our fingertips, I Googled the phrase “soft cough drops.” I remembered the Cough Drop Kid’s preferred product was different from the competition. They were not rock-hard lozenges, but chewy. And, lo and behold, there they were: Pine Brothers. I recalled immediately their familiar 1970s box and the drops special shape and texture. While they were reasonably soft as a rule, sometimes they could be quite hard and they always stuck to your teeth. The Cough Drop Kid harked back to a lost love. I refreshed his memory, too, that a classmate, who had him as a “Kris Kringle” at Christmastime, bought him a box of cherry-flavored—his personal favorite—Pine Brothers cough drops.

The Cough Drop Kid and I were now left to wonder if Pine Brothers cough drops were still around. Neither of us had seen them for some time, but then we weren’t looking for them. Happily, we can report, they live on, although these unique cough drops evidently went on a hiatus for a spell. They are being pedaled in the new millennium as “Softish Throat Drops”—and oddish description. Perhaps the Cough Drop Kid will revisit the Pine Brothers cough drop—this “softish throat drop”—in the near future and report back as to whether or not the magic is still there.

Monday, February 11, 2013

No More Perfect Storms

My hometown dodged the worst of this recent epic snowstorm. I’d estimate we received eight or nine inches in total, which is more than enough when you have to shovel it—but at least it wasn’t two or three feet. Once upon a time, believe it or not, I used to love snow and snowstorms—the bigger the better as a matter of fact. I was a kid then and wrongfully assumed this heartfelt love would last forever. After all, what wasn’t there to love about snow and its pristine blanket of white? I couldn't imagine a man or woman alive who could not appreciate the unique hush that big snows engendered—for one brief shining moment at least—when virtually everything and anything came to a standstill.

Actually, a part of me still enjoys watching snow fall from the sky and gazing upon its sprawling, blanket of white aftermath. But it’s an increasingly smaller part of me. Nowadays, any uplifting snowfall moments are remarkably fleeting and cannot compete with the stark reality of shoveling it, driving in it, and—most importantly—walking in it (sometimes for multiple days after the fact).

As a school kid, a lot of snow meant a lot fun and frolic in the great outdoors—and, it should be noted, welcome snow days, too. The Monday, February 6, 1978 blizzard is, for me, my all-time favorite snowstorm. Snow actually began falling on Sunday night, the fifth, and continued through Tuesday morning, the seventh. The seventeen inches or so that fell in New York City amounted to three full days off from high school, which I loathed. So, this was the “Perfect Storm” in my book. As I recall, my high school re-opened its doors on Thursday of that week, but it was rather difficult getting there. Snow-cleanup technology and the New York City Sanitation Department just didn’t deal with snow removal in the 1970s as well as they do today. Our “special buses” didn’t show up that day and we had to find alternate means of getting from the Northwest Bronx to Northeast Bronx.

Fast forward thirty-plus years and here I am—a middle-aged man, still breathing thankfully, and shoveling snow with a weighty prosthetic right leg. I can still pull it off, which is reassuring—but for how long? There’s a guy up the street from me—an overweight senior citizen who smokes like a fiend, and has difficulty walking even in sunny, warm climes—who was shoveling snow right alongside me a couple of days ago. Several snow-shoveling entrepreneurs offered to help both him and me, but we declined—courteously. I, for one, cannot afford these contemporary snow shovelers' rates. Nobody is shoveling snow for five and ten bucks anymore; it’s more like fifty dollars (or more) for an average job—and I don't blame them. Five dollars buys two slices of pizza around here. Why break your back, or contribute to your chances of having a coronary thrombosis, for two slices of pizza in an over-priced metropolis and rotten, inflationary national economy?

I guess it isn’t just blizzards that aren’t what they used to be; it’s the world—both my personal world and the world at large. Perhaps dropping dead of a heart attack in a snow bank isn’t such a bad way to go. You know—in that beautiful blanket of white, virgin natural beauty, and clean, crisp, cold air. But not this year…some other time.

(Photos from the personal collection of Nicholas Nigro)