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.