Monday, September 30, 2013

The Man We Called Cream Donut

I don’t exactly know what made me think of the man we once called “Cream Donut” today. I think it happened when I passed by a Dunkin’ Donuts and thought about how expensive their products have become, and how they seem to be getting smaller and airier as the days pass. Cream Donut owned and operated a place called Twin Donut in the Bronx’s Kingsbridge during the 1970s. It was a franchise, I believe, because there were Twin Donuts scattered about the city back then. Actually, there still are handful around, although their numbers have dwindled considerably through the years.

Twin Donut had a large variety of donuts, which was quite impressive in its day. Several stores to its east was a Baskin-Robbins ice cream parlor, known to many of as "31 Flavors." I guess what Baskin-Robbins was to ice cream, Twin Donut was to donuts. Where else could you purchase a butternut crunch donut or one with apple filling? My favorites, though, were the more traditional vanilla cream and chocolate cream kinds. Adding to their appeal, I think, was how the shop’s proprietor, an older Greek man, pronounced them—and always in the loudest of tones. “Shaw-Co-Lot cream and Vah-Nella cream!” he’d bellow. As far as my younger brother and I were concerned, his rather unique pronunciations, coupled with the extremely high volume, struck a funny bone.

The pre-caller ID 1970s was also the era of the funny phone call. I know we called Twin Donut a time or two and asked Cream Donut if he had any cream donuts on hand. Of course, we knew the answer was yes. And when he’d answer in the affirmative, we’d ask him what kinds of cream donuts he had. “Shaw-Co-Lot cream and Vah-Nella cream!” he’d roar, even over the telephone. He couldn’t whisper those two words if his life depended on it.

The one thing we never bargained for was an in-the-donut-shop negative experience with Cream Donut himself. One afternoon, my brother and I had ordered several cream donuts—chocolate and vanilla, naturally—and Cream Donut, like a well-schooled Mynah bird, repeated our order just to make certain he got it right. But that enunciation of the two flavors of cream donuts—and decibel level—caused the two of us to temporarily lose it. And while we were desperately trying to get a grip on ourselves, Cream Donut took notice and didn’t like what he saw.

True, Cream Donut had given us a bravura performance that day—we couldn’t have asked for more—but he was an intimidating sort of guy that we really didn’t want to cross. The last thing a couple of innocent youth wanted to do was incur the wrath of this man. But incur his wrath we did. “YOU LAUGHING AT ME?” he angrily queried. We were indeed, but sheepishly said we weren’t. He didn’t believe us but sold us the cream donuts anyway. Under the circumstances, I wouldn’t have blamed the man for pulling a Soup Nazi and saying, “No donuts for you!” Cream Donut was an imposing presence for sure, but a businessman above all else. 

A postscript: Twin Donut served tasty enough donuts but they left an aftertaste that repeated on you throughout the day. And Cream Donut’s little shop at the intersection of Kingsbridge Avenue and W231st Street was notorious for hosting a mice fest every night after lights out.

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

RIP Youthful Exuberance: 1977-2013

With the 2013 New York City mayoral primaries in the history books—and no Democratic run-off required—I’d like to return to the political contests that I remember most of all. The year was 1977. I was fifteen-years-old at the time and, admittedly, not especially interested in the hot-button issues of the day. For some reason, though, I was mesmerized by the game of politics—the theater of it all. As a youth, I collected political buttons, literature, and posters. I watched candidate debates on local TV, which were a whole lot more enlightening and entertaining than today’s overly scripted, canned answer snore-fests.

In 1977, New York City was in the throes of a fiscal crisis. The city was crime-laden, dirtier than ever, and conspicuously in decline. The scuttlebutt was that its best days had come and gone. In my neighborhood, Kingsbridge in the Bronx, I nevertheless considered the 1970s a golden era—a heyday that included playing stickball games at John F. Kennedy High School, sipping tasty egg creams at Bill’s Friendly Spot after a grueling day at Cardinal Spellman High School on the other side of the Bronx (the flat, colorless side), and chowing down on Sam’s Pizza, a greasy delight that mere words cannot do justice. But even if I was blissfully unaware of it, change was most definitely in the offing—some of it good but most of it not so good. The city’s best days were behind it.

The diminutive Abe Beame, a well meaning but hapless clubhouse politician who inherited a train wreck from his predecessor, John Lindsay, was the sitting mayor and something of a eunuch vis-à-vis governing. Smelling blood in the water, he was challenged in his bid for a second term by a diverse lot of some notable and some not so notable politicians: Bella Abzug, Mario Cuomo, Ed Koch, Herman Badillo, Percy Sutton, and a businessman named Joel Harnett. The Republicans even had a primary that year featuring liberal Manhattan Congressman Roy Goodman versus conservative radio talk show host Barry Farber. Both races were highly contested and entertaining spectacles. I loved the drama of it so much that I taped several of the debates with a Panasonic recorder I had received as a gift the previous Christmas. Audiotapes were made back then by setting the recorder nearest the television set’s sound speaker and demanding complete silence in the room, which was usually impossible.

As I recall, venerable local newsman Gabe Pressman hosted one of the more feisty primary debates. The candidates were seated side by side and interacted with one another. I remember Bella Abzug badgering Mario Cuomo for being on the Liberal Party line in November come what may, while insisting he was never a member of the party. She wanted to know why he was awarded that ballot line. (Cuomo was Governor Hugh Carey’s anointed candidate to defeat what he considered the clueless, counterproductive Beame.) “I’d like to have an answer,” Bella repeated over and over as Mario tried to get a word in edgewise. Finally, he exasperatingly interjected, “Well, when you close your mouth I’ll answer!” The audience at this debate let out a big “Oooh” or some such thing. And, really, this was the tenor of the contest—combative and genuine. In this age of political correctness, Cuomo would very likely have to apologize for implying a female opponent of his had a big mouth. But Bella Abzug did have a big mouth—that was her stock-in-trade.

Mario Cuomo visited Kingsbridge in his Cuo-mobile in the summer of 1977 during the primary campaign. Ed Koch, too, passed out fliers on W231st Street, the neighborhood’s commercial hub. I picked up some campaign literature and buttons for my collection on the local streets, which pleased me to no end. I didn’t quite exclaim, “Life is good,” because that New Age bromide hadn’t yet been invented, but I was feeling something along those lines. Before the September primary day, I had in my possession posters of the candidates from both parties, with the exceptions of Roy Goodman and Joel Harnett, who may not have produced any. I snatched them off telephone and traffic light poles and they were covered in staples. Fiscal crisis notwithstanding—the politicians of the day blitzkrieged area neighborhoods with their posters. They don’t do that today. Campaign buttons are even hard to come by.

For what it’s worth the fifteen-year-old me supported Mario Cuomo for mayor, even though I couldn’t vote. He came in second, and since the winner, Ed Koch, didn’t achieve the requisite 40%—part of the New York City election law—there was a run-off election several weeks later. Koch edged out Cuomo once again. In the general election, Cuomo, running on the Liberal Party line, gave him a run for his money but came up short.

Thirty-six years have passed since the summer of 1977 and that contentious and always interesting campaign for mayor. I’m a lot older—thirty-six years as a matter of fact—and more attuned to issues, but the youthful exuberance of that time and place has long expired. I’ll vote in November—I always do—but it doesn’t seem to matter as much as it did in 1977, when I couldn’t vote and didn’t really care about the issues. At some point in time, my mother threw away the posters I had collected that year. They had been stashed under my bed for far too long, I suppose. It was many years later that I rued that act as akin to throwing away a prized baseball card collection. There will be no more Cuo-mobiles passing through my life—ever—and no more chumming for campaign posters to add to my collection, which is sort of deflating to me. But vote early and often in November anyway.

Saturday, September 7, 2013

Michael Styles, Austin of NYU, and Bad New York Pizza

New York City has a well-earned reputation for serving up tasty pizza—a quality that is rarely duplicated in other parts of the country and indeed the world. But with its many top-notch pizzerias and pizza restaurants come a lot of ill-tasting, stomach-upsetting losers as well. The sheer quantity of pizza places in New York ensures many a bad "slice" experience, and today I had one.

The lame pizza I stumbled upon was in the vicinity of New York University and Washington Square Park. From the outside the shop had a certain charm and looked like a place that would serve first-rate New York pizza. Patrons had to walk down a few steps to enter the place, which added to its appeal. But the alluring ambiance ended rather abruptly, I must say, when you physically entered the establishment. A blackboard out front trumpeted its $1.00 slice—impressive considering the going rate is $2.50 and more these days. However, once inside, another sign—call it the fine print—said there was a $1.00 tax on the $1.00 slice. Did Mayor Bloomberg and the City Council impose this tax in the dark of night? While I know they get their jollies doing stuff like that, I really didn’t think there was a separate pizza tax. Rather, I believe this was a little pizza parlor legerdemain—clumsy, sleazy, and illegal. And even at $2.00 a slice—still cheaper than the norm—it didn’t rise to the level of real New York City pizza. Not even close. Beware the $1.00 slice, even the ones without a $1.00 tax attached to them.

Fortunately, there were more uplifting and interesting events in my life today than bad pizza and unscrupulous pizza makers. I was witness to an NYU student acting as a tour guide for incoming students and their families. His name was Austin, and he told the assembled it was his boyhood dream to attend the university because of his favorite show, Friends, which featured Dr. Ross Geller, a professor at NYU, played by David Schwimmer. Why did I want to go to my alma mater? Because I could walk there, maybe?

Today’s busy day began with me riding the subterranean A train into Manhattan, instead of the Number 1 train (track work, what else?), my usual, brighter mode of transportation. I’ve always found that A train rides feature much more entertainment and homeless standup than on 1 train rides. I actually wanted to give a particular homeless man a buck or two this morning, because his importuning was simultaneously eloquent and poignant, but found it too difficult to get into my wallet while seated scrunched up next to someone. On my return trip, three spry youths took advantage of the A train's captive audience between its lengthy express stops—59th Street and 125th Street—to break dance, or whatever it was they were doing. They were remarkably agile in spinning around the subway floor, standing on their heads, swinging on the poles, and contorting their bodies into frog-like and pretzel postures. I would have given them a buck or two, too, but again concluded reaching into my wallet was more trouble than it was worth.

Last but not least, I met Michael Styles today, a Manhattan conman and philosopher with an opinion on just about everything. What did I learn about Michael in the short time we spent together? Well, he wanted to be an actor and appeared in a few commercials at some earlier point in his life. He’s a hair stylist now, but can’t find enough work to make ends meet. So, if I got it right, he’s actually a homeless hairstylist. By his own admission, the man's also an alcoholic. Perhaps that's why he can't find full-time hair-cutting work. He’s “had” hundreds of women through the years, he said, but is no Wilt Chamberlain. Michael's got five women, in fact, who want to enter into “relationships” with him, but he finds them—relationships—entirely too complicated. He would rather just have sex with them and leave it at that. At the end of the day, Michael Styles was looking for a few bucks—to buy a sandwich, not a drink, he said. I wonder if he was telling me the truth.