Monday, June 24, 2013

A Garden Grew in the Bronx

With another summer officially underway and everything green and in bloom, I am reminded of “The Garden.” That’s what everybody in the neighborhood called it, and it was a rather remarkable piece of earth. In fact, as time marches on this garden in the Kingsbridge section of the Bronx seems more remarkable than ever to me. Like so many things from the past, we took it for granted. It was there and a part of our summers. I consider myself very fortunate that the place somehow endured from 1958 to 1971. After all, this was a period of time when empty lots were slowly but surely vanishing from the local landscape. I was just nine years old when the garden was plowed under to make way for one more building, but old enough to remember its incredible uniqueness and beauty on an otherwise urban landscape.
The garden flourished on a sprawling empty lot—multiple empty lots as a matter of fact—on the northwest corner of Tibbett Avenue and W232nd Street. My grandfather and three other men enclosed the space with a makeshift fence comprised of assorted woods and metals. The fence was utilitarian—esthetics weren’t factored into the equation. Built into it, too, were both front and back entrances—doors that opened with actual keys that magically slid pieces of wood over to unlock them. Our Gang couldn’t have devised anything better.

Coincidentally, the garden location was directly across the street from the three-family brick house my grandfather had purchased and, too, the one where I grew up. When he originally moved his family, including my father, into the neighborhood in 1947, he had his heart set on a garden. In stark contrast from where he came from—Manhattan’s Morningside Heights—parts of Kingsbridge were downright bucolic back then. But while my grandfather pined for property with garden space, he needed tenants to help pay the mortgage and settled for a cement backyard and a couple of garages instead.
A friend of my grandfather's—already living in the neighborhood—told him not to worry about a garden. There were ample empty lots in the area, he said, in which he could plant one. “Victory gardens”—holdovers from the war—still existed in the environs of Kingsbridge, and my grandfather found a workable plot just up the block between W232nd Street and W231st Street. His garden was one among many garden plots there. When all were evicted so that ground could be broken for buildings that would subsequently be called "Tibbett Towers," it was time to look for another location, even with the pickings slimmer than ever.
Before the garden that I came to know was planted, the realtor who had the property on the market gave the gardeners his blessing. His one proviso was that they keep the place clean. It was a different world altogether in the late 1950s. The New York City bureaucracy, for one, wasn’t nearly as intrusive as it is today. Imagine a contemporary realtor—even with the consent of a property owner—permitting strangers to build a makeshift fence around the land for sale. And, too, allowing the construction of tool sheds, an outhouse, a bocce court, and a horseshoe pit with bleachers. Utilizing a fifty-gallon drum, my grandfather even dug a well on the property, which tapped into the formerly aboveground Tibbetts Brook just beneath the surface. This supplied the garden with all the water needed. My grandfather knew there was water to be found there, because just to the south in his former garden space the builders of Tibbett Towers were very literally waterlogged. The tenacious Tibbetts Brook was causing unforeseen and overly expensive problems in laying the foundations, which caused the original builder to go bankrupt. This debacle is possibly why the garden across the street from me survived as long as it did. Prospective buyers of the property were perhaps gun shy—and with good reason.  (The owner of the garden space reportedly hoped that the NYPD would build its new 50th Precinct station house there and, of course, pay his not inconsiderable asking price of $1.2 million. It didn’t happen. They found a more reasonable spot a few blocks away.)
The garden nonetheless was amazingly fertile. Tomatoes, eggplants, lettuce, peppers, beans, and onions were grown there. The tomato crop was so bountiful that my grandparents used to make a year’s worth of tomato sauce with garden tomatoes. My grandfather once planted 148 tomato plants, which he grew from seed in a garden hotbox. The Irish contingent of gardeners grew lots of hearty cabbages because they ate lots of cabbage. Potatoes may have been the only vegetable they tried to grow in the place without success. There was something with the soil.
The garden, too, had fig trees, peach trees, and an apple tree on the premises. Flowers were everywhere. Big, bushy marigolds were scattered about because they repelled bugs worth repelling. Tall sunflowers were bee havens. But what I remember most about the garden were the parties thrown during holidays and on summer weekends. Yes, on someone else’s property there were festive barbecues and, as I recall, lots of adult beverages being consumed. Somebody could have gotten hit on the head with a horseshoe, or fallen into the well and drowned. Just looking into the well scared me. But people weren’t conditioned to sue one another back then, so the realtor and the property owner had very little to worry about.

The garden was an oasis in a Bronx neighborhood in a tumultuous time for both New York City and the country at large. When my grandfather passed away in 1965, my father promptly filled his shoes. I always considered it my father’s garden and mine by extension. As a boy, I thought it would always be there, but that was not in the cards. From the perspectives of young and old alike, not only "The Garden" but an entire era was bulldozed on that sad day in October 1971.

(Photos from the personal collection of Nicholas Nigro)

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)

Friday, June 7, 2013

“B” as in “Ball”

It’s June in the Bronx. With the school year ending, hospitable climes, and the days growing longer and longer, it was, a long time ago, a favorite month of mine. This time of year used to mean play ball—all kinds of ball in the great outdoors. Nowadays, I see very few kids playing anything on the streets. This sociological observation is why I was quite surprised to encounter a cardboard tray of rubber hardballs in a local delicatessen—one run by Arabs. For some reason, rubber hardballs in an Arab deli called to mind Dr. Z, an affable Egyptian professor of mine from Manhattan College in the 1980s. He informed our macro-economics class that in his language—Arabic—there was no “P” as in “Peter” and “B” as in “ball.” And so, naturally, he always made a “mish, mosh, moosh” out of words with Ps and Bs, like “rubber hardball.”

A Bronx deli in the twenty-first century selling rubber hardballs just struck me as odd. Perhaps I’m missing something here and there is a real demand for them—for some game to be played somewhere unknown. They could also be inventory leftovers from the 1970s and a prior deli owner. I just don’t know. I do know, however, that one, among many things, that we urban youth did to pass the time in my Bronx neighborhood, Kingsbridge, was play pitcher and catcher and games of “errors” in our concrete backyards and elsewhere. Rubber hardballs, which I presume were manufactured for exactly that—playing on rough, synthetic surfaces, provided us with the ideal ball. Gradually, even they would wear out with use. This once versatile and robust orb would eventually be deemed too far-gone—an "egg"—and be put out to pasture.

While growing up in that simpler snapshot in time, my family’s front hallway performed double duty as an equipment room, where our baseball gloves, bats, and balls were placed and plucked from as needed. The ball selection included everything from spaldeens to whiffle balls; hardballs (cowhide and rubber) to tennis balls. When purchasing one of his stickball bats, I'll never forget “Herman” of Bill’s Friendly Spot on W231st Street lecturing me. “Do not use tennis balls with it,” he said, “because the bat will break.” In other words, he would not take back splinters—a broken bat under any circumstances. Of course, I ignored Herman’s counsel and the bat broke upon a second contact with a tennis ball.

(Photo from the personal collection of Nicholas Nigro)