Friday, May 31, 2013

He Said It Absorbed the Perspiration

With the weather turning so hot so quickly in the Bronx these past couple of days, I couldn’t help but recall the simpler times of my youth. Yes, when the neighborhood I grew up in had both character and characters—lots of them in fact. When perspiration streamed down my face while in the great outdoors today—rapidly and of a considerable magnitude—I realized something. The perspiration absorber that I once owned—a full head of hair—was no longer at my disposal, which explained a lot of things.

One thought led to another as my unprotected brain baked on this uncomfortable day in May. Heat-inspired memories of growing up in hot times—in a hot spot that is no more—consumed me. Mr. C lived up the street from me during my boyhood. And he had a perspiration absorber all his own. On my front stoop one warm summer’s eve a long time ago, Mrs. C revealed her husband’s secret to beating the heat at bedtime. No, it wasn’t an air conditioner. That contraption didn’t cool rooms; it only increased electric bills beyond the pale. Mrs. C let us all know that her husband—and she always referred to him as “my husband”—faithfully wore a T-shirt to bed, even on the hottest, most humid nights that Mother Nature had in her arsenal.

“He says it absorbs the perspiration,” Mrs. C went on to say, revealing her family’s equivalent of the Coca-Cola recipe. Fortunately, my younger brother and I happened to be in earshot when this sage advice on waging war against the worst that perspiration had to offer was uttered. In fact, we made it immortal and still quote Mrs. C to this day, although I kind of prefer letting perspiration have a go at me on an uncomfortably warm night without an absorbing tee.

It was a city neighborhood tradition once upon a time on sultry evenings—stoop sitting and sounding off. First, second, and third generations occasionally sat around in the same general vicinity. Verbal gems could therefore be absorbed—along with the perspiration—and be passed on to future generations. Unfortunately, first, second, and third generations spitting the breeze on front stoops are harder and harder to come by nowadays. Why sit out on the front stoop, anyway, when one can be inside in air conditioning staring at an iPad or laptop sans any perspiration at all? Why? I don’t know, but sometimes a little interaction and perspiration goes a long way…a long way.

(Photo from the personal collection of Nicholas Nigro)

Thursday, May 23, 2013

Men at Work: The Pete Charlia Story

If you wandered the streets of my New York City neighborhood these days, you would be hard-pressed not to conclude that the economy is rosy and jobs pretty plentiful—in the blue-collar, build-and-fix things trade at least. Scaffolding is everywhere. Local streets are forever being dug up to repair or replace antiquated infrastructure. Old edifices are being torn down and new ones are going up. Area homes are being gutted and rebuilt to twenty-first century standards that beget twenty-first century rents. Hard hats, street dumpsters, and cigarette butts are ubiquitous.

Now, while I’m certainly pleased there are all these jobs for all these people in these difficult times, I can’t help but resent having to run daily obstacle courses in my travels and endure the incessant noise that comes with the territory. Gone are the days when men at work and such mayhem appealed to me. Granted, I was only a ten-year-old kid at the time when a six-story building went up across the street from me. The foreman in charge of the construction crew was a man we all knew as “Pete Charlia”—a little Italian guy with a potty mouth and boxer shorts that rode up his stomach and backside, too. He was ahead of his time.

In the 1970s, Italians—from Italy no less—were still building things in these parts. And we kids in the neighborhood relished watching them ply their trade. The grating sound of a pile driver was music to our ears. When the building’s foundation was initially laid, a handful of daring youth—much older than me—would walk along its maze of concrete and risk serious injury or worse. In no uncertain terms, Pete Charlia informed us one day that he intended to push—to his death if need be—the next kid he caught in his work in progress. This way, he reasoned, the others would learn their lessons and appreciate the risks of falling into the abyss of his foundation. Invading his domain, which was fenced off to keep interlopers out, had its consequences after all.

I don’t know why I thought of Pete Charlia today—some four decades later—as I observed so many men at work. And, guess what, the man’s last name probably wasn’t “Charlia” after all. A Google search of the surname took me to the United Kingdom and Australia, not Italy. His first name was probably “Pietro,” too. Pietro could very well have been in his thirties when we knew him. But everybody seemed so old to us back then. Pete Charlia—or whatever his real name was—could still be among the living all these years later. But I can't help but wonder where his life took him after this building job in the Northwest Bronx. On his staff was a tractor driver that we nicknamed the “Head” because he wore a variety of headwear, including a Slapsie the Cook hat, to ward off the hot sun. Even with our often errant youthful divining of ages, I’ll go out on a limb and say that the “Head” is dead. Whatever became of the whole lot of them, I don’t know, but I’m happy to have known Pete Charlia and his crew all those years ago.

P.S. The photograph is of my father, not Pete Charlia. The pile driver, however, belongs to Pete.

(Photo from the personal collection of Nicholas Nigro)

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Journals, Context, and the Historical Record

A while back, I revisited several journals that I kept during the early 1990s. A fair portion of the scribbling I’d classify as benign. But some of my reportage brought back unpleasant memories from—it would appear—a mostly unpleasant time in my life. In fact, I had largely forgotten the multi-layers of unpleasantness that existed back then, but there it was. A considerable chunk of these journal entries took a rather dim view of select individuals and their behaviors. Worst of all, I found myself every now and then extolling the virtues of some folks whom I subsequently discovered didn’t merit the praise—and that’s putting it mildly and among the most embarrassing things I have ever put on paper.

What I especially find interesting about these strolls down Memory Lane is the nature of journal writing itself. Exactly why was I writing so frequently in them back then? Why did I write the things that I did? Who—besides yours truly—did I ever want or expect to read my journals? The answer to the latter question is nobody but me—at least during the living years. After my death, though, I was comfortable with the journals becoming part of the historical record of my one brief shining moment of existence.

As I’ve grown both older and balder—and nearer being dead as a doornail than twenty years ago—I’m not as comfortable with the notion of bestowing my private journals to the ages. The trouble is that their content—depending on when I breathe my last—could prove hurtful to some people still among the living. Occasionally, my entries were heat-of-the-moment rants that need to put into that context. However, without me around to explain said context, the journals could very well paint an inaccurate picture—certainly an inaccurate big picture—of all that was in my little corner of the world.

This is the problem with honest journal writing as a rule, which is why I have only periodically kept them. I don’t want to be writing them with an eye on posterity and preserving, or enhancing, my reputation. Then again, I don’t want to tarnish my micro-memory on the family tree by having snippets plucked out of it as indicative of the real me that actually aren’t the real me—in total at least.

I know of some people who keep fluff-a-nutter journals that record day-to-day events in a simple, all-is-well tone. All family gatherings are warm and fuzzy—naturally. All vacations are incredibly relaxing and barrels of laughs, too. God—life is good! For sure, these journals have their place. They record the linear progression of our lives and times. And, too, their authors don’t have to ponder whether or not their journals should be set ablaze at some point in the future to keep real the historical record.

(Photo from the personal collection of Nicholas Nigro)

Tuesday, May 7, 2013

The Word Gets In the Way

I have this recurring nightmare that one day I might get ensnared in a Microsoft Word loop and never extricate myself from it. It seems that every so often the Word spellchecker advises a change, which I dutifully make, and then it tells me to change it back again. And when I do that, there’s that red squiggly line once more, directing me to change it to what it was previously…and so on and so forth. This ping-pong could, in fact, go on forever. I could sit at my computer and make these changes indefinitely.

Really, Word is rather insidious as it goes about its business, often recommending changes that are just plain wrong. But what concerns me most of all is how this software program gets under one’s skin and plays mind games. Word has the uncanny knack of creating doubt. It has the power to make you believe that what you absolutely know to be true—a correct spelling for instance—maybe isn’t true after all.

I got caught in a particular loop yesterday when Word informed me that “store owner” was one word. While I was almost certain it was two words, I nonetheless bowed to the change pending further investigation on my part. But then Word told me that “storeowner” was wrong and that it was indeed two words. actually supplies a definition for “storeowner” as one word, but the consensus spelling is two words. Word is confused and so am I.

For some reason, all of this reminded me of a disturbing episode of Rod Serling’s Night Gallery, where this thoroughly rotten soul, being hunted down for his crimes against humanity, wished to be absorbed into a particular painting—a resplendent portrait of sheer bliss and absolute serenity. It was a Mr. Limpet sort of thing, but with a really creepy edge. And, yes, the man got sucked into a painting all right, but not the idyllic one he had desired. Instead, he became part of a painting that portrayed horrible suffering, which is where he would now be confined in perpetuity.

I’d hate to be caught in a loop and forevermore be compelled to change “store owner” to “storeowner” and then back to “store owner.” Perhaps I should just fast-forward myself out of these snafus when they occur, but Word tells me on one page of a manuscript that “fast-forward” is indeed hyphenated, but leaves another “fast forward” uncorrected without the hyphen. Insidious indeed.

Saturday, May 4, 2013

Make Like a Tree and Leave

Barbara Walters once famously asked legendary actress Katharine Hepburn, “What kind of a tree are you?” She was subsequently mocked for posing such a juvenile question and its ridiculousness became the stuff of legend, even before things went viral. But now the rest of the story: Walters’ tree query was actually a follow-up to Hepburn saying how she was a tree or some such thing. And naturally, she was a very strong, very pretty oak tree. What else?

I thought about this blast from the past only because I stumbled upon an article about human beings and trees. Specifically, about how we can live on in our next incarnation as a tree or perennial plant of some sort. Yes, I can become a tree after I pass by having my cremated ashes placed in a biodegradable urn made of coconut shells. After adding the appropriate seed, compacted peat, and whatever other growing materials are required—Voilia!—I am a tree in the making as the nutrients of my ashes are absorbed into all of the above.

So, I can be eternal after all. Well, not quite. Said tree, first of all, has got to take root and grow. And if it does, the Tree Me will ultimately die at some point in the future. Pests might do me in, wild and woolly weather, or old age if I'm fortunate. It is nonetheless life after death—and a rather uplifting one at that—even if it is fleeting under the best of circumstances.

Now I can ponder Barbara Walters’ question for real and make like a tree and leave. This leafy green way to go—and the only avenue I know to live on for a little while at least—is certainly better than a boring tombstone, which hardly anyone will come to visit anyway. And I think I’d like to be—when all is said and done—a Weeping Willow, even if the species has little appeal to Walters. A tree grows in the Bronx. Who knows? Maybe someone will carve their initials in me.

Wednesday, May 1, 2013

Poet for a Day...In May

Thirty-two years ago in the waning days of my freshman year in college, I wrote a short poem entitled, “School’s Out.” What’s memorable to me about this piece is not that I got an “A,” but that I made the cut and landed on my English professor’s esteemed mimeograph sheet. After each and every one of our poetry assignments were turned in, he would select what he considered the best works from his two freshman-year poetry classes. Previously, I had found myself on the mimeograph sheet—uncredited this time—with a poem the professor used as Exhibit A to point out glaring errors in execution or some such thing. And I actually liked that one better.

With the honor of being on the mimeograph sheet came—unfortunately from where I sat—a live reading. The poem’s author was asked to read his or her poem aloud in class, unrehearsed, and await a critique. I somehow pulled it off on this day in May. When my professor said, “Mr. Nigro, you read that very well,” I beamed internally in my guise as “Poet for a Day.”

As I further thumbed through my college ephemera on a recent trip down Memory Lane, I was struck, foremost, by the general pedestrian quality of my writing—largely uninspiring and very unmemorable. And I got the sinking feeling I wasn’t always giving it my best shot. Although I look back fondly on my collegiate years at Manhattan College, I nonetheless wrote a poem about being happy when the school year ended. The punch line: “Three cheers for this day…In May.” On the other hand, I was not in the least bit fond of my high school days, but, I suspect, “Three cheers for this day…In June” would not have gotten me on that prestigious mimeograph sheet. A great honor, but no poetry anthology forthcoming.

(Photos from the personal collection of Nicholas Nigro)