Friday, November 22, 2013

Where I Was Fifty Years Ago Today

I was among the living but not glued to the television set like the adult world around me was on this day fifty years ago. I was just a year old, so I can’t claim that I remember the assassination of President John F. Kennedy and its immediate aftermath. I know that’s not possible. Still, I feel like I was not only there in my Bronx home, but aware as well, because I heard so much through the years, particularly as an impressionable youth, about those dark days in November 1963. 

As was the norm, my father headed off to work that Friday afternoon for his four-to-midnight shift at the General Post Office on Eighth Avenue near Penn Station. He typically left the house between 2:15 and 2:30 and hopped on the Number 1 train to mid-town Manhattan; it’s something he did for twenty-five years. Mrs. Harvey, a neighbor from up the street, alerted him on his way out that the president had been shot. He continued, though, on his way to the job. Upon his arrival, the word was out that the shooting had been fatal. My father remembered with disgust—and he was a staunch Republican all his life—more than a few of his co-workers concerned, foremost, about the possibility of getting Monday off for the president’s state funeral.
           
For many years my father accumulated a box load of newspapers—ones that he had put aside because of their historical significance, including the New York Daily News edition with a front-page headline that read: “Kennedy Assassinated.” The picture that accompanied it was of Lyndon Johnson standing alongside a dazed Jackie Kennedy. I recall thumbing through that paper years later and being both intrigued and a little unnerved by it. As a boy, what I most found fascinating when poring over this old paper was how this earth-shattering and tragic news story commingled with mundane articles and advertisements, which were obviously slated to run in the paper prior to the assassination. This notable dichotomy somehow spoke volumes to me—how life goes on no matter what happens. Despite contemplating a cancellation, Macy’s soldiered on with their annual Thanksgiving Day Parade the following Thursday, but the talk on that day of thanks and turkey was mostly of the week that everyone had just lived through and hoped they would never, ever again have to relive.

I’ve been watching some of the retrospective news coverage concerning the assassination anniversary. Again, I’ve been at once intrigued and a little bit unnerved. The contrast of the Abraham Zapruder 8mm silent color footage and the black-and-white videotaped news coverage is compelling and eerie at the same time—from a simpler technological age. Jack Ruby leaping out of the crowd to shoot Lee Harvey Oswald in the stomach is surreal.

Times have certainly changed. America has changed and so has the world we live in—and not for the better on many fronts. People on the streets in November 1963 just couldn’t believe what had happened; they couldn’t conceive of a reason why somebody—anybody—would commit such a heinous act. Now, fifty years later, we know better. We’re all too aware there are countless fanatics and nut jobs just waiting for an opportunity to do harm—and the more destruction the better. So, while we’re still shocked when these horrible acts occur these five decades later, we’re not surprised anymore. And that’s the sad reality of life a half-century after the JFK assassination—shocked but not surprised has been ingrained in us.

Sunday, November 17, 2013

Old High School ID Cards and This Thing We Call Life

As a nostalgia buff who has saved countless bits and pieces from my youth, I still have my two high school ID cards. And just like The Twilight Zone's Talking Tina, they speak to me—not only about the past, but the present, and life in general for that matter.

My first high school ID card picture was taken in September 1976, when, sartorially speaking, we were still in the colorful, frequently garish 1970s. This goes a long way in explaining why I’m wearing a pinkish shirt in the photo. For the first several weeks of school in my alma mater, the boys were excused from wearing the required jacket and a tie. After all, it was still officially summertime for two-thirds of the month of September. In the colder climes thereafter, I wore a blue polyester sports jacket with that same shirt, a multi-hued tie from my father’s extensive 1960s and 1970s collection, and gray plaid pants. In a year or so, though, that kaleidoscope of colors completely vanished as the late-1970s became, in essence, the 1980s.

We had our original high school ID for two years. At some point during that time, my card cracked in half and I taped it together. Another serious crack is visible, too. When I first examined it after many years in storage, I wondered how it had cracked in the first place. It was made of heavy plastic, like a credit card, and I don’t recall having much need for it.

As I pore over my increasingly antiquated, peeling, and badly cracked ID card with the tape on it now seriously yellowed, I realize it is actually a metaphor for life. For I, too, am, metaphorically speaking at least, peeled, cracked, and yellowed. And this metamorphosis is not something that was on my mind, or even on my distant radar, when I was fourteen, wearing pink shirts, and awash in youthful exuberance. In a couple of years time, our high school ID cards took a serious hit and became cheesy, laminated photos with no pizzazz at all—a precursor of all too many things to come. The cheap laminate, however, didn't break in half like its predecessor, the ID credit card. It was physically impossible.

Times have really changed—in a big way. I actually opened my first bank account with an expired school ID card. Imagine that! Nowadays—no matter our age—we are presumed to be up to no good and possibly even a terrorist. I remember, too, in grammar school being taught how to distinguish between the words “principle” and “principal.” We were told that a living and breathing “principal” was our “pal,” which I never quite felt to be the case. Still, I absorbed the lesson. The "pal" on my 1976 high school ID card was—decades later—part of a Catholic Church lawsuit settlement for you know what. When he was our principal, I don’t remember him being much of a pal to anyone. He was a hot-tempered and disagreeable. He only received cheers when he declared a rare school holiday not on our original schedule—for stellar fundraising on our parts or some such thing.

It’s kind of hard to believe that it’s been thirty-seven years since that first high school ID picture was taken. It seems like yesterday in one respect, but a long, long time ago in another. It’s a bygone era for sure. And who is that kid in pink? My life then amounted to fourteen years in total. Thirty-seven years have passed since then. I don’t likely have another thirty-seven years coming to me. And I can’t say for certain that I’d want another thirty-seven years. There really is a lot staring back out at me from my two high school ID cards. You have been warned. If you have your old high school ID cards somewhere: Be prepared at what they've got to say.

(Photo from the personal collection of Nicholas Nigro)

Sunday, November 3, 2013

A Novel Idea

It seems sometimes that just about everybody and his or her grandmother is writing, or has written, a novel. It’s apparently both every writer’s dream and every non-writer’s dream, too. And, yes, I have written one, which is actually my second. But I've decided after careful consideration that the latter, entitled Zigzag Run, will not see the light of day—at least in its entirety—and I have my reasons.

Now one would think that a published non-fiction author like me would have a slight leg up in getting a work of fiction considered but, I can tell you in all honesty, that’s not the case. For most publishing professionals, the mere thought of another novelist roaming Planet Earth merits at best a big yawn or, more likely, utter contempt. 

Happily, though, advancing technologies and the brave new world that we live in supply writers of all stripes and talents the opportunity to circumvent the traditional publishing world—an indifferent world most of the time with “no” a more a familiar answer than “yes.” There are venues like Smashwords.com that permit authors to publish their works as e-books in multiple e-formats at no charge. The royalty rates offered by Smashwords are considerably better than what mainstream publishers pay. The author actually gets the preponderance of the book's cover price. The catch, of course, is selling the book—and it's a very big catch indeed. But, still, Smashwords is getting noticed by the publishing brass and established authors, too, who like the idea of controlling their own destinies and keeping the lion's share of the profits.

On Smashwords as of October 31, 2013 is my novel, CreamSam Summer, which is based—loosely sometimes and not so loosely at other times—on an amalgam of characters, circumstances, and places from the neighborhood where I grew up. It’s Kingsbridge in the Bronx, 1978, and the narrator is a sixteen-year-old boy, which, coincidentally, was my age that year. Admittedly, I knew a man in my youth whom my friends and I called "Cream Sam" despite him having a more widely known nickname: "Red." You'll have to read the book to discover why, or at least the available free sample. Cream Sam Summer, though, is a work of fiction and not a roman a clef. The book is categorized as a YA (Young Adult), but it's for adults, too, I'd like to think—sort of like Paul Zindel’s The Pigman. The Harry Potter series was, after all, YA.

When one writes a book of any kind—puts oneself on the frontlines as it were—it's up to readers to decide in the end the work's worth or non-worth. That's the long and short of it. Not surprisingly, there's a mother lode of pretty awful stuff published on Smashwords, but that's to be expected. Again, readers can separate the wheat from the chaff—what they like and what they don't they like. So, to paraphrase Rod Serling: "Submitted for your approval: Cream Sam Summer."

For a little more background on the book, visit the Cream Sam Summer blog.

Saturday, November 2, 2013

The Salamander Lot

Sometime in the early 1970s, I went salamander hunting. The place: the Bronx. It was not too far from where I lived but, as a boy, it seemed like something of a hike. This geographical reality made it more of an adventure, like we were going someplace faraway and unknown. Interestingly enough the salamanders collected their mail in tony Riverdale, which was the more pedigreed neighbor to the west of Kingsbridge, my hometown.

There were still a few vacant lots around in those days and, I don’t exactly know why, but this particular piece of earth had oodles of pinkish salamanders under its rocks. Those of us on this salamander hunt intended on keeping them as pets—our motives were pure—and we did. I don’t recall what they ate or how long they lived in the fish bowl that became their new home after the Salamander Lot, as we called it, but I don’t think very long.

Just about every piece of available earth has been built on in the old neighborhood, but not the Salamander Lot. It is an odd piece of ground—a steep hill as a matter of fact—perched directly above a parking lot of a tall building in the valley below. The Salamander Lot is not a very big slice of property, so I guess it would be difficult to erect a structure there. However, I’ve seen more unlikely spots developed.

I noticed, though, that there’s now a very tall fence surrounding the Salamander Lot. We wouldn’t have been able to get into it with that thing there—not at our ages as salamander hunters. But then I don’t think there are very many kids in the vicinity of the lot today who would be interested in salamander hunting, unless of course it was a game on their computers.

The question that I have long wondered is this: Do the salamanders still exist in that snippet of earth in Riverdale? Theoretically, there’s no reason why they shouldn’t still be there. I don’t think our hunting them down for pets was sufficient to do them in as a species in this neck of the woods. But why am I confident if I lifted up rocks in that very same piece of property, there would be no salamanders to be found. Like so many things, they existed in simpler times in the Bronx, I suspect, and opted to get out while the going was good.