Tuesday, October 29, 2013

XYZ: Examine Your Zipper

(Photo: Long Island and NYC Places That Are No More)

Watching the New York Mets, on the family's black-and-white television set in the early and mid-1970s was mesmerizing. It was youthful exuberance, I suppose. In fact, I remember being transfixed by the Serval Zippers factory that one could see in the distance beyond Shea Stadium’s left field fence. During televised night games on WOR-TV, Channel 9. the factory’s sign, attached to an impressive-looking clock tower, could be seen blinking on and blinking off—“Serval” on and "Serval" off followed by “Zippers” on and "Zippers" off. This light show added to the already formidable ambiance of my favorite team and their singular ballpark. For a boy from the Bronx, Flushing, Queens, where the Mets plied their trade, seemed very far away. It was like a foreign country—at once mysterious and exciting—even though it was only a twenty-five minute or so car ride away.

Times have certainly changed in Flushing, Queens, home of the Mets—and everywhere else in New York City for that matter. Shea Stadium has been demolished and Serval Zippers is long gone, too. The former zipper factory is now a U-Haul without any flashing sign on the clock tower, which is, at least, still standing. There were once a lot of factories in that part of the city, including a Tastyee Bread plant, which have also gone by the wayside.

The mystery and the excitement have also vanished. And although I attended a fair share of Mets’ games—most of them post-Serval Zippers—I never quite warmed to the borough of Queens. I worked in Little Neck for a spell in the early 1980s—a nice neighborhood at the time—but it was never home. It seemed that Queens’ folks knew and loved Queens and Bronx folks knew and loved the Bronx.

Once upon a time in the early 1990s, I exited a congested Shea Stadium parking lot by turning right instead of the left turn that I knew would lead me to the Grand Central Parkway, then the Major Deegan Expressway, and eventually home, sweet home. This was a very bad move on my part because I ended up, from my perspective at least, in a Nowhere Land with confusing Queens’ street signs and numbers that didn’t make any sense to me at all in this era before GPS. It didn't help matters that it was late at night and, too, that I loathed driving, most especially when I didn’t know where I was. I might as well have been on a dirt road in Bangladesh.

I nonetheless just kept driving and driving—what else could I do—making periodic turns and praying that I’d hit upon a familiar landmark, or some main thoroughfare, which would lead me back to civilization. I felt like I was in the Twilight Zone and worried that some hitchhiker might soon appear in my rear view mirror. But, lo and behold, fate moved its huge hand and I found myself on a service road approaching the Triborough Bridge—now called the RFK Bridge courtesy of politicians with nothing better to do—leading me back to the Bronx on this night to remember. Perhaps all roads do lead home, but feeling like a trapped animal in Queens that night seemed, I must confess, like the plot from a bad TV movie. Serval Zippers, though, will always be a fond memory.

Monday, October 7, 2013

Reflections on Waxing Nostalgic

Why do I so often wax nostalgic in this blog of mine? Why do I choose to typically write about the past and not current affairs? Rest assured, I’m not living in the past, although sometimes I really wish I could venture back in time and experience, for one brief shining moment at least, some of that lost youthful exuberance. No, I’m well aware that it’s 2013, and that my government is on holiday. And, too, I’m not as spry as I was in 1978, or even 1997 for that matter, with a lot less hair atop my head. My wiffle and stickball days are only memories.

When I started blogging a few years ago, I had no master plan for what I’d write about. I had no agenda. Initially, I considered writing about writing, because that’s what I do. But I quickly realized there wasn’t much that I could say that hasn’t already been said, and what I would say would be largely clich├ęs. Occasionally, I’ve written about stuff going on in the here and now, but I try to keep it personal and anecdotal. I endeavor to avoid political diatribes or rants on the burning issues of the day. Why bother? Everybody and his grandfather is sounding off, and I’m not about to convince anybody to join my side, so why write about the dunderheads in Washington, D.C., or a New York City mayoral election that should, on paper, be interesting but instead is a colossal bore.

Rewinding the clock and recalling bits and pieces of the past are usually a safe bet. Virtually everybody loves blasts from the pasts—from a seemingly simpler time before iPhones, cable television, and outlandish grocery store prices. Time travel somehow bridges the partisan divide, as does love for cats, dogs, and the animal kingdom. One of my favorite movies of all time is About Schmidt starring Jack Nicholson. He plays a retired insurance man named Walter Schmidt, who feels his life has largely been meaningless. Walter decides to sponsor a child in Africa named Ndugu, and periodically corresponds with him. Near the end of the film, we hear Schmidt’s voice-over reciting a letter sent to Ndugu. “Relatively soon, I will die,” he says. “Maybe in twenty years, maybe tomorrow—it doesn’t matter. Once I am dead and everyone who knew me dies, too, it’ll be though I never even existed. What difference have my life made to anyone? None that I can think of—none at all.”

About Schmidt, to me, is the quintessential "meaning of life movie." We can take from it whatever we choose to take from it. We see in the film’s final scene that Walter’s life made a difference—to Ndugu at least. But still we are left to contemplate if that really is enough. Walter Schmidt, though, absolutely hits the nail on the head about people soon being forgotten once those who knew them are gone. I see it happening right now with friends and relations in my life who are no longer among the living. 

So, really, that’s another big reason why I blog about the past mostly. It's sort of writer’s duty, I'd say—to help us remember what was and to never forget where we came from. The picture accompanying this blog is of my grandmother, aunt, father (then on leave from his stint in the army), and grandfather. It was the early 1950s in a neighborhood called Kingsbridge in the Bronx—a partially bucolic setting back then and worlds apart from whence they came. The Nigros moved to this predominantly Irish enclave in 1946 from Manhattan's Morningside Heights. Despite a handful of their Irish neighbors on the unwelcoming committee saying, "There goes the neighborhood," it was paradise. It's up to me, I guess, to not let it be a paradise lost forever.

(Photo from the personal collection of Nicholas Nigro)