Monday, August 26, 2013

The Old School Shadows

Today was the first day of class at my alma mater Manhattan College. Starting school in August just seems unnatural to me. Next week the Catholic high schools in the city will open their doors, and the following week the public schools will follow suit, which means—from where I sit nowadays—more traffic and mayhem to contend with, and very little upside. 

The days are growing shorter. The sun is casting shadows that bespeak autumn, even when the weather is warm and humid. I remember it all too well. Knowing that the new school year started the next morning produced the most dreadful feeling—one that mere words cannot express. I recall sitting on my front stoop the night before school began, when there was still ample summer warmth in the air. This recurring act of summertime, however, compounded the doom and gloom. Summer was over and done with—once more. A loud chorus of crickets always played a funereal dirge on those nights. While I actually prefer fall to summer now, the old school shadows have this uncanny knack for casting a certain pall, even these many years later. Sure, the pall is more short-lived these days, as I quickly acclimate to the more agreeable climes, but it’s real and it's palpable.

I suspect the grammar school and high school experiences are somewhat different than when I was a school kid more than thirty years ago. While revisiting my old high school report cards recently, I couldn’t help but notice the consistency of my inconsistencies. I’d go from the nineties to the seventies at the drop of a hat, and then back to the nineties again. At the end of the day, I was a cumulative eighties student. In my junior and senior years in high school, the report card, which was called the “Scholarship Report,” enabled teachers to leave automated comments. The comments I received, too, ranged far and wide from “Is Courteous and Cooperative” to “Always Well Prepared” to “Poor Study Habits.”

I was most struck by the dual comments I received from my Chemistry teacher in the second quarter of my senior year: “Is Working to Potential” and “Inconsistent Work in Science.” She must have seen right through me, recognized that I’d never be a chemist or even a chemistry teacher, and concluded that my potential was “inconsistency” at best. Funny, but in the first quarter her two comments were: “Excellent Work in Science” and “Very Conscientious Student.” My grades for the first two quarters were an identical "92," but I scored a mere "84" on the mid-term, which is what, I guess, prompted the “inconsistent” dig. She might have at least waited until the third and fourth quarters when I truly earned my inconsistent stripes with an "84" and an "86," and worst than all of that, a miserable "72" on the Chemistry Regents. The fact that it was my last semester in high school, and that I was already enrolled in college, might have had a little something to do with this swan song. I don’t know.

Teachers didn’t keep their emotions in check like they do today. I remember my Chemistry teacher, whom I actually liked despite her general crankiness and periodic snits and tizzies, crying out with a combination of anger and disappointment, “Shocked!” as she handed back an exam in which I had, evidently, underwhelmed her. This woman was a truly dedicated teacher. Fortunately, I did reasonably well in another subject, Finite Math, in my senior year. Because the wry nun who taught the course would return test papers to us by parading up and down the aisles, plunking them down on our desks with these words: “You know what you’re doing,” “You know what you’re doing,” “You DON’T know what you’re doing.” So, I shocked a Chemistry teacher but always knew what I was doing in Math class—inconsistent to the end.

(Photo from the personal collection of Nicholas Nigro)

Sunday, August 18, 2013

Remembering “How Long Am I Gonna Live?” and the Lightning Bug

Once upon a time the neighborhood where I grew up in the Bronx teemed with lightning bugs on summer evenings. I even recall swatting them with my whiffle ball bat every now and again, which I know wasn’t very nice, but they were remarkably resilient insects.

As the years passed, and empty space became hard to come by—and mostly a relic of the neighborhood’s past—the lightning bugs’ numbers naturally dwindled along with their habitats. Still, a fair share of them existed, reminding one and all that the lightning bug—the firefly—was once an important part of summer in these parts. If one landed on you, it invariably left an unpleasant odor as its calling card. And while they were a marvel to observe while clumsily flying through the night and illuminating, they were pretty creepy to look at up close.

There are nonetheless plenty of private homes in the old neighborhood with grassy backyards, and nearby parkland as well. So, there must be something else at play here that has cast the lightning bug asunder. I should note this is not a scientific field study on my part. They may, in fact, still be around in some diminished capacity—and probably are in the parks and such. But no matter how you slice it, the lightning bug has seen better days in the big city. And from the looks of things, so has the bee population—a very worrisome trend. I remember countless species of bees and wasps while growing up, and getting stung by more than a few. Their numbers were legion—everything from honeybees to yellow jackets to mud wasps. We used to call mud wasps “mud whoppers” for some reason, and I never liked the looks of them. I don’t see anymore of them around, either.

And now for something completely different: There was an elderly Italian lady who lived up the street from me in my youth. I nicknamed her “How long am I gonna live?” because she frequently posed that question to one and all in her path. She was a “sweet old lady,” not a “mean old lady.” And the neighborhood was chock-full of both. Anyway, she often asked neighbors, including me one time, to “Guess how old I am?” And I guessed. “Eighty-six?” I said. “No, eighty-nine!” she gleefully replied, knowing she had outsmarted yet another patsy. A week or so later, I had another encounter with her and another chance to guess. But this time I knew the answer to her question. “Eighty-nine,” I said very confidently. “No, eighty-seven!” she responded and went on her merry way. “How long am I gonna live” was an old eighty-seven- or eighty-nine-year-old woman. People that age back then, for the most part, really looked their age. They led rougher lives and typically came from hardscrabble places in an age before modern medicine and the many meds that not only make us live longer, but look a little less ancient as we approach the finish line.

I don’t exactly know why the lightning bug and this sweet old Italian lady merited a blog coupling. But maybe it’s that if the lightning bug could talk, it too might pose the question, “How long am I gonna live?” Not forever, it would seem. 

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

When Kingsbridge Town Came to Bangor, PA

Fifty-eight years ago today, Kingsbridge denizens en masse descended upon the small town of Bangor in Pennsylvania’s lush Lehigh Valley. It was my mother and father’s wedding day. The former was born and raised in this picturesque hamlet with its working slate quarries and delicious bologna. The folks got married in the town’s sole Catholic church. While Catholics were a ubiquitous lot in the environs of Kingsbridge, they were a tiny minority in Bangor, which hosted houses of worship of every conceivable Protestant denomination and a synagogue, too.

Courtesy of Hurricane Diane churning in the nearby Atlantic, August 13, 1955 was a horrible day weather wise—dreadfully humid, extremely windy, and completely waterlogged. Several days later, in fact, this very same, slow-moving hurricane would wreak havoc in Pennsylvania’s Pocono Mountains and elsewhere in the northeast with epic rainfall, flash flooding, and many reported deaths. So, in this age before GPS and SUVs, destiny divined an anything but smooth voyage from the Bronx to Bangor.

My paternal grandfather—and father of the groom—determined that it would be best for one and all to charter a bus for the trip. He correctly surmised it would be a major hassle for such a diverse cast of characters to travel independently to foreign terrain sans both the aforementioned GPS and Interstate 80, which had as yet reached the New York Metropolitan area. Back then, a trip to Bangor involved numerous twist and turns and the venturing through scores of small towns. Traffic lights and traffic jams were all too common. Opportunities to make wrong turns and get hopelessly lost were multifold. And this reality snippet didn’t even take into account the possibility of inclement weather. (Pre-Interstate 80, a Kingsbridge to Bangor trip took three hours or thereabouts. Post-Interstate 80, that time was cut in half.)

A bus was thus chartered to transport an eclectic group of Kingsbridge residents and others to the wedding. It was an arduous ride through unremitting heavy rains and ghastly humidity. Smoking on the non-air-conditioned bus ride was permitted in those days—and a lot of people smoked. Happily, there were no reports of passengers needing oxygen when they at long last set foot on Bangor soil. Taking into consideration the foul weather, the wedding Mass had been delayed in anticipation of Kingsbridge Town meeting Bangor, PA.

The oral history passed down to me has it that the bus trip to Bangor was decidedly somber as the driver carefully navigated through flooding rains, but considerably more raucous on the return trip home. The boys—my father’s buddies from the old neighborhood—brought along a barrel of beer with them to help pass the time. And all of this after a fun-filled reception at the Blue Valley farm fairgrounds. There was no bathroom in the bus, which I expect added further drama to the successful Kingsbridge meets Bangor experiment.

(Photo from the personal collection of Nicholas Nigro)

Monday, August 5, 2013

When Meatball’s Car Went Missing

In early August 1978, a neighbor’s car—a dark brown Ford LTD—was stolen. It was parked on the street one night and gone the next morning. Courtesy of my youthful penchant for noting historical neighborhood events on pieces of loose leaf and assorted scraps of paper, the exact date of this Grand Theft Auto has been recorded for posterity. On August 8, 1978, the dark brown Ford LTD was gone for good. I even remember its license plate number: “418 KZY.” It’s funny, but we memorized by osmosis things like that back then. We were outside an awful lot, particularly in the summertime, and saw our neighbors coming and going with their cars. Their vehicles were very distinct in the 1970s, and so were they.

This particular LTD, though, was more than just any old neighbor’s set of wheels. It belonged to “Meatball” and was the car that chauffeured a bunch of us neighbor kids—just before it went missing as a matter of fact—to Jones Beach on Long Island. “Meatball’s” son, an older mentor of sorts, was always taking us places. On this Jones Beach excursion, a friend of his tagged along named Frank. Our chaperones, as it were, were twenty-seven years old and we were teenagers. I was the youngest at fifteen.

Frank was known to a bit of a fusspot and whiner. He was, suffice it to say, a certifiable oddball. Frank once scrubbed his car down with AJAX and took the paint off of it. His day-at-the-beach attire included patent leather shoes. When Frank fell asleep in the front seat on the ride out there, he became a tempting target for one of the LTD’s backseat passengers. With his mouth agape while in the Land of Nod, a friend seated to my right and next to an ashtray, reached in and plucked out an old cigarette butt. He dangled it close by the sleeping Frank’s open mouth. I don’t think he planned on dropping it inside, which wouldn’t have been a good idea. A joke’s a joke, but a man choking to death isn’t all that funny. Our driver and Frank’s friend was not amused one bit by the backseat antics.

As we neared our destination—the Jones Beach parking lot—we found ourselves in bumper-to-bumper traffic. Frank remained asleep when that same friend of mine attempted to snatch one of the two headrests from the front seats. His intention: to bop Sleeping Beauty with it. Our exasperated driver, navigating the heavy traffic, simultaneously tried to stop the headrest horseplay, and in so doing rammed into the car in front of him. It was a significant enough hit that the sleeping Frank’s head crashed into the windshield. He wasn’t wearing his seat belt in the pre-seat belt law days of the past, which was commonplace. The windshield actually cracked—X marked the spot—where Frank's rather large cranium, as I remember, met the very solid auto glass.

Frank was understandably quite rattled at being awoken in such a violent fashion. “Is there any glass in my head?” he hysterically asked. Fortunately, the answer was no and we eventually went on our way. With the exception of the windshield, damages were minimal to the dark brown Ford LTD. After our day at the beach with fussy Frank—anticlimactic after the accident—we returned home to the Bronx with a story to tell of how the accident really happened. Our driver’s thong sandals slipped as he was hitting the brake in that snarling beach traffic. No mention was ever made of the headrest horseplay behind it. The true story of what happened on the fateful day in August 1978 was buried—and known by only the handful of people in the car—until now. I don’t know whatever became of Frank. In fact, I never saw him again. But I sincerely hope the headache that he complained about on the ride back cleared up.

(Photo from the personal collection of Nicholas Nigro)

Friday, August 2, 2013

Ode to the Front Stoop

Like so many other things, stoop sitting in the big city is a lost art. While it’s not completely dead and buried, its heyday is definitely a thing of the past. Once upon a time stoop sitters were a ubiquitous lot on summer nights in the Bronx’s Kingsbridge and elsewhere. It’s what city folk did as a rule before the advent of computers and Facebook. After suppertime in the warmer climes, men and women of all ages migrated to the great outdoors to sit on their stoops, spit the breeze, and—yes—dish the dirt. Some hit the stoops with beach chairs. Others emerged from indoors with pillows to soften the blow of resting their derrieres on brick and concrete. Heartier souls just plopped down on their stoops’ rock-hard steps and sidewalls and found it perfectly comfortable.

Stoop sitting was emblematic of the sense of community that existed. It brought neighbors together on a daily basis and encouraged the art of conversation. Stoop sitters from the past had no cell phones in their pockets. They weren’t on tenterhooks awaiting calls and texts. Nor were they checking their iPhones every thirty seconds to see what breaking news and incredibly important stuff was happening in their lives in real time. These groundbreaking—and, yes, stoop breaking—technologies were decades down the road.

As a boy, my evening itineraries didn’t entail me sitting around and chewing the fat with the older generations on the front stoop. Post dinnertime, we kids were otherwise engaged in street games, even after sunset. “Flashlight,” or “Flashlight tag,” as I’ve sometimes seen it referred, was a favorite night game of ours. Still, I recall ending up on the front stoop after the elders had said their "good-nights." It’s where we typically finished our always-busy summer days and shared some final thoughts.

Of course, I spent countless hours sitting on the stoop in the daytime, too. “So, what do you want to do?”—summertime’s most frequently posed query—was Front Stoop 101. And after doing what we had settled upon doing, the stoop was where we usually ended up afterward to both catch our breaths and plot our future adventures.

There’s very little sense of community in these parts anymore—and a lot of other places it would seem. I remember knowing just about everyone who lived on my entire block and well beyond its borders, too. When there were things called neighborhoods—real neighborhoods—we even knew people that we didn’t know. Knew their names at least. We didn't all associate with one another or like one another. There were the good, the bad, and the ugly around town. But it was a neighborhood—with character and characters in a vastly different time.

I remember how our family dog, Ginger, so quickly acclimated to being a Bronx stoop sitter. She instinctively knew when we were just going outside to sit on the stoop, and she’d promptly assume her position on the third step, where she could both contentedly rest her head on a low wall and keep a vigilant eye on all the goings-on in the neighborhood. RIP: the energy of the front stoop.

(Photos from the personal collection of Nicholas Nigro)

Thursday, August 1, 2013

Pigman in the Archives

Recently, I unearthed a box load of papers from my high school years (1976-1980). For more than thirty years now, I have haphazardly archived a diverse assortment of tests, absentee passes with teachers’ initials on their backs, schedules, report cards, school notices, etc. Thumbing through this stuff didn’t exactly bring back fond memories. Foremost, it made me wonder what would become of it all this stuff when the grim reaper came calling. And I think I know the answer.

High school ephemera in my voluminous archives are just the tip of the iceberg. I have saved through the years countless bits and pieces from the times of my life. And since I’m not Thomas Jefferson, Michael Jackson, or Babe Ruth, my labyrinthine, dribs and drabs paper trail will not likely be of interest to too many people. When whoever comes around to clean out my closets and dresser drawers, a scrupulous inventory of all that I have left behind will not likely occur. I’m certain that anything of value will be promptly located and quickly separated from 1977 high school Spanish tests and student handbooks informing us boys that our hair should not touch our ears or the back collars of our shirts. (My high school, Cardinal Spellman in the Bronx, did not literally enforce this overly strict hair rule in the late 1970s, which was an era of mop tops and pretty long hair as a rule. I know this because I violated the handbook’s written dictum for the entire four years. The powers-that-be did nonetheless have a “your hair is too long” standard that they willy-nilly enforced by threatening transgressors with “get it cut or we’ll cut it for you.” I recall a peer of mine asking me if I was told to cut my hair. When I said no, he said that he was given the haircut ultimatum, and that my hair was a lot longer than his.)

I have thus reevaluated the business of archiving my life and times. Separating the memories’ wheat from the memories’ chaff, I’ve begun paring it all down and recycling what—at the end of the day—merits recycling. My mission: to spare my heirs—sometime down the road—having to unceremoniously discard this man’s life in one fell swoop.

Of course, I will pick and choose items worth saving—like my report cards for instance—and do away with such things as impossible to understand Geometry tests and lamely written English essays. (If the tests are any indicator, I have forgotten an awful lot of stuff since high school.) I will, however, think long and hard before scrapping such things as handwritten, mimeographed quizzes, like the one on The Pigman, a book by Paul Zindel and freshman year required reading. I don’t suspect there are too many teachers penning tests in their own hands these days, and then mimeographing them for distribution. As I see it, The Pigman test transcends one mere student and assumes an historical importance—one worth preserving for future generations to appreciate. Really…throwing stuff out can be a very complicated affair.

(Photo from the personal collection of Nicholas Nigro)