Sunday, December 7, 2014

RIP Sleepy Eyes' Sister

I just learned that an old woman from the old neighborhood passed away. I was told she had lived with her family in the Bronx’s Kingsbridge for almost three-quarters of a century. At one time both a mother and father lorded over a brood of five children. Seeing as the decedent was just shy of ninety years of age—and the youngest among her siblings—you can imagine there aren’t too many of them left. Only one sister, in fact, remains on this earthly plane, and she is in a nursing home.

Such is the march of time—out with the old and in with the new. However, this large family of three boys and two girls avoided tying the knot altogether. Not a single one of them married and had children of their own. I’m certain there were layered reasons for this life course, particularly in a time when dysfunctional families were more prone to live under the same roofs come hell or high water; when men went off to war, too, returned home, and sometimes had to permanently anesthetize themselves to forget the horrors they experienced.

I really don’t recall anything about this particular family, who lived only a couple of blocks away from me while I was growing up, so I don’t have a clue what their particular life situation was, and why they chose to live the lives they did. I didn’t even know their last name until a couple of days ago. From my perspective at least, it is an unusual one that begins with the letter Z and is synonymous with the words “acne” and “pimple.” Actually, I feel a certain loss that I wasn’t aware of their surname in my spry and enthusiastic youth, because I’m certain it would have entertained me on some higher level. It would have been a perfect last name to affix to a character in a work of fiction.

In light of this woman’s passing, I was asked if I remembered one of her brothers, who was known in some neighborhood circles by the moniker “Sleepy Eyes.” There was a surfeit of oddball characters in the old neighborhood. Many of them were assigned clandestine nicknames—for identification purposes only. However, I didn’t recollect "Sleepy Eyes." His branding must have occurred before my time, I concluded. I heard, too, that old “Sleepy Eyes” liked his drink, and was often seen venturing to, or coming from, one of the neighborhood’s many watering holes.

Light bulb above the head moment: I recalled a fellow who frequently walked by my house when I was a boy—a man whom I also remember lived in the vicinity of where this family called home for the better part of a century. While I didn’t know him as “Sleepy Eyes,” his unique visage gave him a certain star appeal in the pantheon of intriguing neighborhood characters. He had a rather large head, distinctive bulbous nose, and assorted zits of the permanent variety. And—if this man was indeed “Sleepy Eyes”—this latter affliction was very apropos considering his curious last name.

When I described this craggy sort—and equally craggy memory—to someone in the know, it was confirmed he was one and the same: “Sleepy Eyes.” With a little Internet detective work on my part, I discovered his name was George and that he passed away in 1980, which would have been just about right. While he was a guy that roamed the neighborhood for many years before my time, getting noticed as a genuine character by the star-struck me was definitely a 1970s thing. I never knew he died because I didn’t know who he was. Just like that, “Sleepy Eyes” never walked by my house again, which is life in a nutshell. In trying to paint a mental picture of him in my mind all these years later, I’d say he resembled character actor Kenneth Tobey, minus, of course, the orange Irishness. The end of an era for sure. RIP "Sleepy Eyes'" sister and "Sleepy Eyes" thirty-four years after the fact.

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

If Tom Seaver Is Seventy...

A couple of days ago, Tom Seaver celebrated his seventieth birthday. And, really, if he’s turned the big 7-0—and become a septuagenarian—I, too, must be getting a little long in the tooth. As a wide-eyed Met fan in the 1970s, “Tom Terrific,” as he was affectionately known, was my favorite player bar none. Games where he took the mound assumed a little extra meaning to me, because I constantly fretted over his won and loss record and earned run average. I remember a boyhood friend—and fellow Seaver aficionado—and I commiserating over a tough loss in which our idol gave up four whole runs. “Do you know what that’s going to do to his E.R.A.?” he asked with genuine concern in his voice. Yes, back in those days, four runs scored against our ace pitcher—and future Hall of Famer—was a very bad outing indeed.

As a boy, I didn’t give much thought to how much Tom Seaver meant to me. Although he was larger than life from my youthful perspective, I didn’t christen him my “hero” or any such “official” thing. I didn’t conclude that I wanted to grow up and be a Major League Baseball pitcher like him. And although I would have loved to have been his next-door neighbor, I didn’t dream of living in Greenwich, Connecticut—the tony town he called home—either.

Nevertheless, I proudly wore his number “41” on the back of my “Property of the New York Mets” gray T-shirt, and I felt genuine disgust when a pal of mine—who didn’t even follow baseball, let alone revere Tom Seaver—donned a similar shirt. As the neighborhood’s most dedicated Tom Seaver disciple—it was by and large a Bronx neighborhood full of Yankee fans—I didn’t appreciate my uniqueness being challenged. And challenged by a non-believer making a fashion statement no less! (Major League Baseball merchandising was pretty primitive back then. “Property of” tees were the rage and, as I recall, that was the long and short of it.)

Anyway, Tom Seaver is seventy and there is no turning back the clock. Three thousand miles away from where he once so magnificently plied his trade, Shea Stadium—which is, alas, no more—the baseball great grows grapes for his own wine label. No too long ago, Tom Seaver was pretty sick and diagnosed with Lyme disease. Its symptoms led some to suspect  the man they called “The Franchise” might be in the early throes of dementia. Now that was a scary thought! Happily, he’s of sound mind. When all is said and done, though, I suspect he really was my hero—and the only one I ever had.

I realize that Tom Seaver has something of a reputation for being haughty and a bit full of himself. He doesn’t always appreciate his loyal fans, which isn’t an admirable quality. But then again, he’s got ample reasons to be impressed with his accomplishments in baseball. The man was the consummate professional in an era when one could respect, above all else, on-the-field performances and not be hopelessly distracted by the endless sideshows that accompany contemporary sports and sports figures. Today, athletes are very often multi-millionaire celebrities—spoiled and overexposed. When Tom Seaver and I were younger, the world we simultaneously cohabited was a whole lot different place than the current one. Great pitching mechanics and a fastball with movement and snap, crackle, pop were the stuff of heroes. The man, by the way, pitched 231 complete games in his career. Imagine that.

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

A Day in the Life

I called on the New York State Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) today to renew a driver’s license. Based on both past experiences and the bureaucracy’s somewhat notorious reputation, I understandably was not looking forward to the adventure. Where I call home afforded me a variety of choices as to where to complete this task. I could have ventured up to the DMV in Yonkers, just past the New York City line, and closer to my hometown Bronx’s alternative on Fordham Road, which I could have also accessed via a twenty-minute bus ride—give or take a few minutes.

I journeyed instead into Manhattan, calling upon the License Express on 30th Street near Fifth Avenue. So, even if it took me a little more time—via a subway ride and a several block walk—it was a wise move on my part. Who ever heard of getting one’s business sorted out in a DMV office in under a half hour? The times are a-changin’ and this is an instance of changin’ for the better.

In my travels this morning en route to the DMV, I encountered an elderly man—a face, really, that somehow got into mine for a split second. Our eyes met. “I know that guy,” I said to myself. “Sure, that’s Joe Franklin…I think…a New York City radio institution.” To verify my sighting, I Googled him as soon as I got home and, happily, discovered he’s still among the living at the ripe old age of eighty-eight.

On my subway ride home—with just about everyone in the car preoccupied with his or her iPhone—a religious zealot touted the importance of reading the Bible and preparing for eternal life in either Heaven or Hell. He phonetically spelled out the word Bible, too—B-I-B-L-E—so that there would be no misunderstanding. He, though, wasn’t asking for any money and just wanted to save subway straphangers’ souls. A little while later, somebody who was asking for spare change materialized. He said he’d just gotten out of Riker’s Island, a well-known jail complex in these parts, and was valiantly trying to get his new life in order, starting with getting his clothes cleaned. I would have given him something, but it was too difficult for me to access the change in my pocket while seated uncomfortably and scrunched beside a heavyset fellow with both an umbrella and halitosis. This troubled young man came up empty, which made me feel kind of bad because maybe he was telling the truth. My unsolicited advice to him in future subway appearances is to work with some sort of money receptacle, because handing over cash and coins to the actual hands of those with a hand out, as it were, is an extra and unnecessary hurdle to maximizing the bottom line.

Friday, October 10, 2014

Forty-One Years Ago

Forty-one years ago today, October 10, 1973, the New York Mets defeated Cincinnati's "Big Red Machine" in the National League playoffs at Shea Stadium. My beloved Mets were the underdogs to put it mildly—and the team that sent Pete Rose and company home for the winter. What I wouldn’t give to relive that day in, of course, my eleven-year-old body taking directives from my eleven-year-old psyche. The passion of youth made that day oh-so-special with my boyhood idol, Tom Seaver, on the mound and getting the win, and “Ya Gotta Believe” Tug McGraw coming in the ninth inning to douse the fire and record the save.

Sitting in the living room and watching the game on my family’s sole black-and-white TV, I won’t soon forget legendary Mets’ announcer Lindsey Nelson’s call of the game’s final out, and how he animatedly repeated three times: “The New York Mets have won the pennant…The New York Mets have won the pennant…The New York Mets have won the pennant.” He then described the “wild scene at Shea Stadium” as fans stormed onto the field in what was an era—to say the least—of lax crowd control. The wild bunch ripped the field to shreds and frightened Mets’ and Reds’ players alike, who hurried as fast as they could off the field. Fortunately, stadium groundskeepers had a full week to get it back in shape for the World Series.

With the convoluted and uber-expensive television rights that define today’s professional sports, it’s worth noting that the playoff games were carried in New York by the Mets’ local station, WOR-TV, Channel 9, as well as the network, NBC. Such a generous arrangement would be unthinkable in this day and age. I was thus able to listen to Lindsey Nelson, Bob Murphy, and Ralph Kiner do the play-by-play for the entire series. The Mets televised a lot of games on free TV back then. Lindsey, Bob, and Ralph became family. It was right and proper then that I got to hear Lindsey Nelson—family—put the icing on the cake of an improbable pennant in an October to remember. Baseball like it was once upon a time...and life like it really ought to be.

Thursday, October 9, 2014

When Life Gives You Lemons...Watch Hogan's Heroes

Through the years when feeling blue, I’ve been wont to hark back to—yes, drum roll, please—simpler times. From my perspective at least, many of the television programs I enjoyed as a youth serve as a very welcome pick-me-up in the here and now. In need of a lift recently, I opted to put Hogan’s Heroes in my Netflix queue. I soon after discovered that every episode—seasons one through six—was on YouTube (for the time being at least).

Over the past few weeks, I’ve been plowing through the series with glee. While Hogan’s Heroes is steeped in some controversy, it nonetheless holds up extremely well in my opinion. Werner Klemperer as the ineffectual, vainglorious Colonel Wilhelm Klink and John Banner as the endearing but bumbling Sergeant Schultz never grow old from where I sit.

Originally, I watched the show—for the most part—after it exited the prime-time stage in 1971. It went into syndication right away and played on, as I remember, local station Channel 5 every night at 7:30. In the colder climes when we were under house arrest, watching these shows over and over—be it The Munsters, The Andy Griffith Show, I Love Lucy, Gilligan’s Island, or Batman—was therapeutic They were comforting back then when the stresses of growing up reared their ugly heads. There was just nothing quite like sitting in front of television set and watching the familiar antics of Herman, Barney, Lucy, Gilligan, and Chief O’Hara.

TV Guide included Hogan’s Heroes on its list of the worst television shows of all-time. This selection was contemporary PC at work, with the show taking a hit forty years after it went off the air for making light of a time and a place that wasn’t very funny—World War II and a German POW camp. Nazi characters appeared regularly, too, on the sitcom, and constant references to their beloved leader were made. However, Colonel Robert Hogan and his trusted subordinates always thwarted them.

Hogan’s Heroes was good satire. During the war itself the Nazis were regularly mocked in comedy fare, including in Three Stooges’ shorts. Make the most heinous folks on the world stage appear foolish and asinine—why not? It’s a healing route that says we are somehow all in this together. We’re going to laugh at the insanity. Robert Clary, who played diminutive Corporal Louie LeBeau, survived a concentration camp and has a tattoo on his arm as a lifelong reminder of the experience. John Banner escaped from his native Austria but lost many family members in the Holocaust. Werner Klemperer and Leon Askin, who played General Burkhalter, likewise fled persecution. If these men were willing to assume prominent roles on Hogan’s Heroes, surely the judge and jury of TV Guide could find it in their hearts to cut the show some slack and give it its due as a timeless classic.

Saturday, September 20, 2014

Don't Smoke on Me

While watching reruns of the television classic Perry Mason, starring Raymond Burr, it never ceases to amaze me where the show’s myriad characters "light up." From today’s perspective at least, they smoked cigarettes in the strangest of places. Apparently in the serene 1950s, it was perfectly acceptable to puff away during an elevator ride, in a taxicab, and—believe it or not—in a hospital room as well. Just this past week I accompanied a patient to New York City’s leading cancer hospital and was pleased to see signs posted outside the building prohibiting smoking. Until very recently, the sight of hospital staff, including doctors and nurses, smoking by its entrances seemed downright surreal. It was, after all, a cancer hospital.

I’m not a proponent of the Nanny State. I fully support smokers’ rights to engage in their poisonous pleasures until death do them part. However, I realize now more than ever that their right to smoke does not include transmitting their second-hand smoke to innocent bystanders. That is, impinging on others’ rights to breathe clean—or relatively clean—air. So, if you smoke and can contain the habit to your little sliver of the world, more power to you. If you cannot, then you’re blowing smoke—really—when it comes to talking about your “rights.”

When I was a high school student in the late 1970s, my peers and I rode in what were called “special buses.” They were leased city buses and it was—even back then—against the law to smoke on them. Nevertheless, the bus drivers didn’t enforce the law. It didn’t matter to them that our buses to and from school were more often than not packed like the proverbial sardines in a can. We’d invariably arrive at school in the early morning, and back home in the middle of afternoon, reeking of second-hand smoke. Our clothes, fingers, and hair stunk to high heaven. The smoking class regularly assaulted the non-smoking class on these always-disagreeable bus rides. Breathing in all that second-hand smoke, and stinking of it, to begin and end each school day couldn’t have been very healthy.

What’s with smokers, too, who think nothing of throwing their butts on the ground. Does that not constitute littering? The telltale evidence of smokers—who are by and large are compelled nowadays to take their habits to the great outdoors—is a surfeit of discarded cigarette butts in front of places of business and office buildings. It’s a new wrinkle in a new age, but it sure beats riding those special buses that weren’t really special at all, and having untold minutes subtracted from our lives for doing something we just couldn't avoid—something scientifically known as "breathing."

Thursday, September 18, 2014

Say Hey, Derek Jeter

I read in yesterday’s Daily News that soon to be ex-ballplayer—and future Hall of Famer—Derek Jeter has gotten his very own publishing imprint with Simon & Schuster. It’s very imaginatively called “Jeter Publishing” and the first book wearing said brand is a children’s novel, “The Contract,” by none other than Derek Jeter and, of course, his ghostwriter, Paul Mantell. The novel’s chief protagonist is a boy named Derek Jeter, who gives it his all on the baseball field, always plays fair, and respects his family, friends, and teammates. The book will no doubt further cement the angelic aura of Derek Jeter. After all, he’s an athlete who played his entire baseball career with the same team—the New York Yankees—and has never been embroiled in any scandal or suspected of cheating like so many of his peers.

Full disclosure: I grew up a rabid Met fan in a Bronx neighborhood of mostly Yankee fans, including my father, who lived and died with his team. Through his power of example, he taught me from an early age that being a New York City baseball fan absolutely precluded double dipping. That is, a bona fide fan could not possibly root for both the Mets and the Yankees. It was inorganic. In fact, diehard fans—as both he and I were—loathed with heartfelt passion our cross-town rivals. And so, even all these years later—with my father no longer among the living and my baseball ardor gone with the passage of time—I haven’t fully divested myself of that strong distaste for the Yankees. I never, therefore, partook in Derek Jeter worship.

Nevertheless, I was curious to see what he would say on Derek Jeter Day at Yankee Stadium. With his retirement at the end of this season, I imagined it would be an emotional farewell—saying goodbye to the fans after twenty years in the same uniform and in the same town. I vividly recalled Willie Mays Night at Shea Stadium on September 25, 1973. After floundering for much of the year, the Mets were in an improbable and excitingly competitive pennant chase, and Willie had announced his retirement at the end of the season. Willie Mays—who had been brought back to New York to finish his career where it all began—spoke from the heart that night with tears in his eyes. The poignancy of the moment was overwhelming for young and old alike. I wasn’t yet eleven and had tears in my eyes, too. Willie—the “Say Hey, Kid”—was an icon. And while it was sad to see him go, it was all too evident that age had caught up to him and eroded beyond repair his formerly incredible skills. He was forty-two but fittingly exiting the baseball scene on a team that would make it all the way to the seventh game of the World Series.
Yes, I expected at least a little poignancy in Derek Jeter’s parting salvo, but found his speech to the fans cliché-laden and devoid of any deep emotion. It got me wondering if it was just Derek Jeter’s way, or maybe that the absence of any Mays-like poignancy transcended him and was a reflection of the times. Mays played in his first major league baseball game in 1951, just four years after Jackie Robinson had broken the color barrier. It wasn’t a cakewalk for him in those early days, nor was Willie raking in millions of dollars. Willie Mays played stickball on the streets of New York with neighborhood kids. And when the Mets honored him that September night, a pedestrian banquet table was set up on the field with gifts aplenty on top of it for the retiring legend. Today’s game is so awash in money and glitz that it cannot help but negatively impact even the retirement of a baseball great like Derek Jeter, whose last contract was for $60 million over four years (a pay cut, too). Willie Mays's journey through baseball was a storied one, and when he remarked on his night, “There always comes a time for somebody to get out,” it was not only true but palpably sad as well. So sad because somehow we knew we would never see his likes again—and we haven’t. The times just won’t allow it.

Thursday, September 11, 2014

Thirteen Years Later

It’s kind of hard to believe that it’s been thirteen years since 9/11. I was sitting in front of my computer that morning, responding to a couple of e-mail queries from a copy editor who was working on the manuscript of The Everything Collectibles Book, which I had submitted several months earlier. Simultaneous with me doing this, I spied a headline AOL news story with an image that showed white smoke billowing out of one of the Twin Towers in lower Manhattan. The initial scuttlebutt was that a small plane had crashed into it. Like just about everybody at first, I assumed the craft had accidentally slammed into the building.

I promptly clicked on my television set for further details. And what transpired before my eyes over the next few hours was surreal—an unfolding nightmare. There was talk at one point of there being 30,000 potential victims at the "Ground Zero" site. What all of us were witnessing in real time was the stuff of an apocalyptic disaster movie; inconceivable only a day earlier. It was not something that we ever imagined could happen on American soil in the world’s most renowned city.

At around lunchtime that Tuesday morning, my younger brother and I walked to our neighborhood’s main thoroughfare a few blocks away. It appeared that life itself was in suspended animation. Everything had gone quiet. The standard impatient hustle and bustle and honking of horns, on what typically was a busy street at that hour, was missing. There was a kind of hush enveloping our sliver of the Bronx and—we knew—every section of the city as well. I distinctly recall the local convenience store run by Arabs had placed a big American flag by its front door. The owners no doubt feared being associated with the perpetrators. Later, a very loud jet fighter flew over and unsettled what could best be described as a stunned calm. All of us wondered and worried, too, whether further attacks were in the offing. Suddenly and without fair warning, living in the big City of New York didn’t seem so big anymore. A feeling of vulnerability, which we had never before experienced, was palpable. Neighbors emerged in the late afternoon with candles and silently walked up and down the streets. Flags emerged in places I had never before seen them flown. Ironically, it was a picture perfect September day with blue skies, comfortable temperatures, and low humidity, which apparently aided and abetted the monsters, who had hijacked the jet planes, in locating their targets.

The talk in the terrible days and weeks after the attack was how we would never be the same. After all, how could we be after witnessing this horror in a locale that always seemed so grand and impervious to any harm? Thirteen years have passed and we—very definitely—are not the same. The world is an extraordinarily dangerous place and the threats of terrorist violence are omnipresent. Traveling on airplanes, for one, has become a time-consuming, chaotic ordeal. The thought of having to pass through metal detectors to attend a baseball game is one more glaring example of how—even in our leisure pursuits—our freedom of movements have been compromised beyond repair. So many of the things that we do from now on are going to be attached to some measure of hassle because of a possible terrorist threat, even when the possibilities of one coming to pass are slim. It’s an unhappy state of affairs we find ourselves in, and the passage of time is not going to return us to what was—in retrospect—the less complicated world we called home on September 10, 2001.


Saturday, August 30, 2014

Labor Day Blues

On paper, it’s a holiday that pays homage to the American labor movement. Nevertheless, I’d venture to say that most of us aren’t giving “labor” all that much thought on what is the unofficial ending of Summertime 2014. Summer’s “last gasp,” as it were, has mostly been about barbecues, beaches, and beer.

I’ve attended a fair share of Labor Day events through the years, and the differences between them and the month of May’s Memorial Day festivities was always stark. After all, one national holiday signaled a beginning and the other an ending—and an abrupt one at that. As a general rule, beginnings are more celebratory than endings. Life is about both, I know, but Labor Day has the unenviable task of marking the end of a lot of good times for a lot of people; the gradual diminishing of daylight, too; and, from a school kid’s perspective, the start of yet another protracted educational slog.

Although I’m long removed from my formal educational odyssey, Labor Day—replete with the sun casting its signature autumnal shadows—always brings me back to my youth. There was no more melancholic time than this particular end. Or, to be technical, this non-celebratory beginning. Yes, the school year commencing with carefree summer memories still seared on the brain—and vestiges, too, of the waning season’s hot weather—was difficult to stomach. From my perspective, there was no worse feeling than attending school in oppressive heat, which happened quite frequently in the month of September. Sans any air conditioning, school and high temperatures were about as depressing a one-two punch as one could imagine.

Despite preferring the cooler climes of fall in my advancing years, I still feel a little blue at this latest ending—one more summer in the books. It’s a reminder of time’s passage, I guess. and for some of us, that we've experienced more summers than we've got left. In my Bronx high school, all boys were required to wear jackets and ties. We got to forgo both sartorial expressions, though, in the month of September. This was the “freakin’ bone” tossed our way. It was intended, perhaps, to slightly lessen the pain in what was post-Labor Day culture shock. At least I don't have to attend high school orientation this coming week.

(Photo from the personal collection of Nicholas Nigro)

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

August Body

One of my favorite scenes in the musical 1776 is when the Second Continental Congress debates the verbiage of Thomas Jefferson’s just completed “Declaration of Independence.” Suggestions for changes and deletions are bandied about in rapid fire. One member suggests eliminating a line that he feels unnecessarily takes to task the esteemed British Parliament. “Do you think it wise to alienate such an august body?” he asks. To which John Adams replies: “This is a revolution, dammit! We’re going to have to offend somebody!”

Anyway, this is my August body in blog form—reflections on happenings this month and in past Augusts. Looking on the bright side of things, the summertime weather for both July and August has been as tolerable as I’ve ever experienced. Not a heat wave all summer with largely bearable temperatures and reasonable levels of humidity. New York City summers can be brutal with their disagreeable combinations of heat and humidity.

An August anniversary was duly noted this year. Forty years ago, Richard Nixon resigned the presidency in the wake of the Watergate scandal. I was a mere lad when he departed the Washington scene—eleven years old—but I remember where I was on the night of his resignation speech. I was in Bangor, Pennsylvania. While my grandmother was away visiting relatives, my mother looked after my grandfather. After our new president, Gerald Ford, was sworn in, my mom informed her dad that the pair resembled one another. There was a bit of resemblance, I suppose. In August 1974, my grandfather also tasted lentil soup for the first time—my mother’s homemade version—and offered his opinion on the fare. “I’ve tasted worser soups,” he said.

Suffice it to say, August 1974 was a little bit different than its progeny: August 2014. I don’t mean to beat a dead horse, but kids don’t seem to play much anymore. Our every youthful waking hour was spent outdoors in those bygone summers. Now, nobody’s playing wiffle ball, which I loved doing more than anything else as a young boy. Even though there was no such thing, I dreamed of being a professional wiffle ball player some day. Then stickball came along. In fact, we played every conceivable version of baseball from box baseball to punch ball to curb ball to kick ball. The boxes on the concrete sidewalks and the curbsides are still around, but one would be hard-pressed to find a solitary soul utilizing them for sport anymore.

We have become a zombie-like society. Every day, I see mothers pushing their children in strollers who are completely preoccupied with their iPhones, even when crossing heavily trafficked streets. Fathers are equally oblivious. What, pray tell, are these folks checking out every single moment in time? That’s what I’d like to know. It’s both creepy and dispiriting. Exactly how is this sort of behavior going to impact future generations? Nevertheless, I had a lot of fun in August 1974, even if we were in the midst of a “national nightmare,” as newly sworn in President Ford termed it in his first speech to the nation. “Our long national nightmare is over,” he said. I didn't get sidetracked—even for a second—during that protracted nightmare. I was too busy playing wiffle ball.

(Photo 1 from the personal collection of Nicholas Nigro)

Thursday, July 31, 2014

The Zen of Mr. D

In my freshman year in high school, I had this history teacher who, in retrospect, is among my all-time favorite educators. He was the anti-pedagogue incarnate. The reasons for me remembering Mr. D so fondly is not that he instilled in me a lifelong passionate interest in the subject matter. (The course he taught was called Asian and African Cultural Studies, and the year was 1976.) Rather, it was the man’s delightful sense of humor and agreeable playfulness, which made his classes both unpredictable and a lot of fun. More than likely, Mr. D’s methods wouldn’t fly today in the one-size-fits-all, hypersensitive, politically correct educational system.

I penned a couple of past blogs about the man’s engaging classroom demeanor, chronicling some of his “greatest hits.” Recently, though, I thought of one of his more prominent tag lines that I had somehow overlooked in the previous essays. They involved time. 

My high school’s myriad clocks were sans second hands. Instead of quietly and imperceptibly advancing through the torturous school day, they visibly clicked from one minute to the next. One was therefore aware—if practicing the timeworn tradition of clock-watching—when there was precisely one minute left in a class. Mr. D was particularly keyed in on that final minute of each of his classes. He often concluded his lectures with the phrase, “Take a minute for yourselves!” or a shortened version, “Take a minute!” In the pressure cooker otherwise known as high school, it was at once a welcome minute break and something more substantial. Despite it seeming inconsequential in the big picture, it was consequential indeed. Mr. D supplying his students with a minute all their own each day tallied up to a few hours over the course of the school year. This benevolence on his part looms larger and larger over time because it really is important for us to take a minute for ourselves every now and then. So, take a minute!

Thursday, July 17, 2014

Congratulations to Neil, Buzz, and Mike

It was forty-five years ago this week that Apollo 11 astronauts Neil Armstrong, Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin, Jr., and Michael Collins touched down and then cavorted on our planet’s sole satellite, the Moon. “That’s one small step for a man; one giant step for mankind,” Neil Armstrong intoned upon first touching the Moon’s surface. I don’t remember all that much about this obviously newsworthy goings-on—I was only six years old at the time—except that my mother composed a makeshift banner from a rather large scroll of yellow paper my uncle had purloined from his place of employment, the “phone company.” Yes, people back then worked for the “phone company” because there was only one of them. The paper banner proudly flew above our front door—fortunately, it didn’t rain—and read, “Congratulations to Neil, Buzz, and Mike.”  

I recall, too, a neighbor—the local rabbi’s wife—querying a group of us playing on my front stoop as to whether we were related to the “Banner Woman.” I proudly said I was. She appreciated the fact that my mom, without fail, recognized both holidays and historic national events with decorations and, in this instance, a somewhat crude banner celebrating the achievement of three valiant astronauts. After Neil, Buzz, and Mike's mission was a done deal, President Richard Nixon said, “As a result of what you’ve done, the world has never been closer before.” That may, in fact, have been true—for one brief shining moment at least.

In retrospect, though, what I find most fascinating about July 1969—and growing up in the Bronx’s Kingsbridge—is the evident duality. My youthful memories are of a gritty urban lifestyle organically commingling with a small town charm. The late-1960s and early-1970s were tumultuous times in the country at large and, to a great extent, in Kingsbridge as well: the Vietnam War, social unrest, drugs—the whole kit and caboodle. I, though, was spared all of the above. Three men actually walking on the surface of the Moon—and my mom commemorating it—is just one of many fond recollections from my boyhood. I don’t think there is anything that could occur today that would generate a banner of congratulations in the old neighborhood. A leisurely walk on Mars wouldn’t even do it; wouldn't come near capturing that singular Apollo 11 snapshot in time.

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Pitcher and Catcher RIP

Among the countless outdoor activities I engaged in while growing up in the Bronx was a simple game called “Pitcher and Catcher.” Two people played it, as it were, with one acting as a pitcher and the other as both a catcher and balls-and-strikes-calling umpire. Three strikes and you were out...and three outs meant it was time for the pitcher and catcher to swap jobs.

I can honestly say I don’t see any contemporary youths playing “Pitcher and Catcher” in the old neighborhood, or much else for that matter. And it’s summertime! What a dramatic change in the old order of things. I do see kids staring into their iPhones, texting, and yakking on their cells—all the time as a matter of fact. I’m left to conclude they spend the preponderance of their time indoors during the dog days of summer, which is sad.

As a kid in the colorful 1970s, the great outdoors is where I was expected to be—as much as it was physically and meteorologically possible. Even a party of two knew how to entertain themselves. I had countless catches with my brothers through the years in our concrete communal backyard. “Want to go out and have a catch?” was a regularly posed query. Virtually every teenage male—and plenty of females, too—owned a baseball glove, assorted balls, and a bat or two.

Chancing upon a couple of kids having a catch in the old neighborhood is unlikely these days. Whatever became of those urban summers when people—young and old alike—ventured outside for the sport of it? To play, to socialize, or to play and socialize. There are many dark sides to advancing technologies, but none more so than its anti-social foundation—one that underscores interaction on Facebook, Twitter, and text messaging over in-the-flesh human contact, like in the game we called “Pitcher and Catcher,” or just that catch in the backyard.

(Photo from the personal collection of Nicholas Nigro)

Saturday, July 5, 2014

July 4th Throwbacks

During the summer of America’s bicentennial year, 1976, it seemed almost everybody in the environs of New York City was talking about “Operation Sail.” This Fourth of July celebration slowly but surely got rolling in the weeks leading up to Independence Day. Hundreds of tall sailing vessels—throwbacks to a past age—made their way to New York Harbor. They traversed, too, the Hudson River.

I was thirteen years old that summer and, as I recall, “Operation Sail” was a pretty big deal. An aunt of mine, younger brother, and I hiked over to the Henry Hudson Bridge, which connects Northern Manhattan with the Northwest Bronx at the confluence of the Harlem River Ship Canal and Hudson River. In this rare instance—the only time in my memory—the bridge was closed to traffic so that one and all could congregate on its span and feast their eyes on some of the ships on the river. It was quite a spectacle with New Jersey’s Palisades supplying the perfect backdrop. Bicentennial fever added an extra heft to the day's significance.

Perhaps the biggest difference in today’s Fourth of July festivities—as compared to the past in my old Bronx neighborhood—is the almost complete absence of firecrackers, bottle rockets, Roman candles, and their various offshoots. These things were all illegal when I was a kid, but it seems that anybody who wanted them could get hold of them in Chinatown or someplace else. The police, for the most part, turned a blind eye on possession of fireworks. Firecrackers popped weeks before the Fourth, and the day itself was one big bang. The morning of July 5th found the local streets covered with spent everything. I remember combing through the street debris for the occasional unused firecracker.

Can people even buy a box of Sparklers nowadays? They were pretty harmless, even though I set the family garbage can on fire by prematurely discarding one. It’s a good thing garbage cans in those days were made of metal and not plastic. The garbage men who had to lug those heavy things around are no doubt better off today, but those hearty cans survived Sparkler fires and lived to tell.

(Photo from the personal collection of Nicholas Nigro)

Tuesday, July 1, 2014

The Iceman Cometh…The Wiseguys Go-eth

Joseph Nigro, my paternal grandfather, first came to America with his father as a six-year-old boy in 1898. William McKinley was the president at the time. Father-son returned to their hometown, Castelmezzano, Italy, for several years after that, but they couldn't resist the allure of the states.

Their peripatetic ways were all about finding work and earning some decent money in what were hardscrabble times. Their native land was not exactly a land of opportunity. When, however, my grandfather reached young adulthood, he resented the old school ways of turning over everything he earned to his father and receiving—in return—a meager allowance. Understandably, he wanted to keep the fruits of his labor and forge a life of his own. His father, though, found such a request beyond the pale and wouldn’t give an inch. This father-son dispute set the wheels in motion.

Having more than he could stomach of what was, in essence, indentured servitude, my grandfather hopped on a boat back to Italy, which proved to be very poor timing on his part. For it was the eve of World War I and he was, upon his return, promptly drafted into the Italian army. My grandfather spent a couple of years in a German prisoner of war camp, where enemy combatants weren’t exactly treated humanely. But fortunately, he made it home—alive and in one piece after the war—when so many men didn’t. He also made it back to the United States. This go-round, though, he was his own man and wasn't about to turn over any of his earnings to a higher authority. In the mid-1920s, my grandfather brought his wife and daughter—my grandmother and aunt—to live here. They would all become Americans. My father and a brother were born on American soil several years later during the Great Depression, which was around the time my grandfather founded his own ice business. He was an iceman when most people had iceboxes in their homes and refrigerator technology was in its infancy. The man lugged countless heavy blocks of ice up countless flights of stairs in the tenements that housed the preponderance of his customers. He had some business clients, too, including the Lucky Club, a speakeasy on Broadway in the Morningside Heights section of Manhattan.

Upon making an ice delivery at the Lucky Club one afternoon, my grandfather was confronted by a man who made him an offer he couldn't refuse. He was informed that all of his wholesale ice purchases would thereafter be made through this hoodlum's outfit. Of course, the cost of the ice would be somewhat more than he was paying. My grandfather said no in no uncertain terms to this business arrangement, and was told something to the effect of “We have ways of making you change your mind.” A short time later, two men set upon my grandfather as he exited the Lucky Club after making an ice delivery. And they made the same proposal. Buy the ice from us...or suffer the consequences. My grandfather informed the pair of goons to, in effect, take a hike. They didn’t take kindly to the suggestion. In fact, they were about to show him the “ways” they had to make a person change his mind when my grandfather pulled out an ice pick from his pocket and thrust it toward them. He exited the club forthwith, wondering if what he had done was the wisest thing to do. After all, Mafia hoods didn't subscribe to the philosophy, “May the best man win,” which, in this instance, was definitely my grandfather. He worked very hard for his money—and it wasn’t a whole lot in those days—and didn’t intend on sharing it with slimy thugs.

As fate would have it, my grandfather knew a neighborhood police captain who had some sway with the local wiseguys. The cop put in a good word for him and requested he be left alone—and that no retaliation come his way. My grandfather never did buy his ice from the syndicate. And this intercession turned out providential for a whole host of people, including me, who might not have been born thirty years later without it. While my grandfather’s ice business melted away in the 1940s, when refrigeration became accessible to the masses, he nonetheless had saved up enough money to buy a house of his own in the Kingsbridge section of the Bronx. He worked at the Sheffield Milk plant—first in the Bronx and then in Brooklyn—until the day he retired. And he needed no helping hands from the Luca Brasis of the world.

(Photos from the personal collection of Nicholas Nigro)

Thursday, June 26, 2014

The Case of the Missing Mud Whopper

While walking the streets of the Bronx’s Kingsbridge last Saturday—the summer solstice—something monumental jumped out at me. Something, that is, which isn’t around anymore. For many years now, I’ve noticed the precipitous decline of honeybees. When I was a boy, they were everywhere from front-stoop flowerpots to grassy stretches in the neighborhood's parks. Not so anymore, and the same could be said for bumblebees and other species of bees and wasps. There are obviously some around, but the buzz is not nearly as loud as in the not-too-distant past.

There was this peculiar-looking wasp—metallic blue in color—that always seemed to frequent a certain kind of weed in the bygone days of my youth. Their sharp blue color and fluid wing motion were very noticeable in the thickets of their favorite weeds. Being wasps and all, they simultaneously frightened and intrigued me. I didn't want to be set upon by one, let's put it that way. They were definitely more interesting insects than their meaner-looking brown cousins, who always seemed to be on the warpath. Individuals who even mildly disturbed their routine were fair game. My friends and I called the blue wasps “Mud Whoppers.” Something, though, told me that in our youthful exuberance, we had, quite possibly, transposed a scientific name—or that we had given the insect a unique moniker made completely out of whole cloth. Kids can be creative in that way. But now—courtesy of the Internet—I found the answer to this nagging riddle when I Googled “blue wasps” and stumbled upon images of the “Mud Whoppers” from my past. They were not, in fact, called “Mud Whoppers” but instead “Mud Daubers”—close enough. And that explains a lot.

There were bees and wasps aplenty in my youth. Everybody got stung at one time or another. Small, bright yellow-and-black striped bees were sure to be in the vicinity of discarded soda cans in trash receptacles. I don’t see their kind anymore, either. More buildings and fewer empty spaces have no doubt been contributing factors to their demise around here. But when the wide-open spaces in the area’s parks aren’t teeming with bees and insects like in the past, it certainly gives one pause.

Monday, June 23, 2014

Whence I Came

I was very fortunate to know my paternal grandmother for the first twenty-six years of my life. When she died at the age of ninety-three in 1989, she was an old ninety-three. Men and women of her generation—from before the many modern medical miracles—tended to be old before their time. In sharp contrast with those of us existing in the pampered present, they led patently rougher lives. I, for one, couldn’t imagine doing hard labor on the railroad as a teenager, which is what my grandmother did while all the able-bodied men from her town were off fighting in World War I. She hauled big rocks long distances. I could envision even less fighting in the trenches and getting gassed in the "war to end all wars."

My grandmother was born in 1895 in a place called Castlemezzano, a rocky mountain town in the province of Potenza in the Basilicata region of Southern Italy. From my perspective as a boy, she was always an old lady. That is, an old lady in the most positive sense, revered for the wisdom she amassed while navigating through the rough and tumble of life.  From an impoverished existence in a small village with no electricity, running water, or plumbing of any kind to a new life in the Morningside Heights section of Manhattan during the Great Depression, she always appreciated what she had, even when it wasn’t much, and was never heard to complain about anything.

My grandmother’s father—my great-grandfather Antonio Casa—was a musician who could read and write in a place and in a time when that sort of thing was exceptional. He made a little money and received bottles of wine and freshly made cheeses by reading and writing letters for townspeople. The problem with “Signore” Casa was that he didn’t have much of a work ethic and didn’t feel remotely obligated to his family—a wife and two daughters. My grandmother’s mother—my great-grandmother Maria Casa—worked every conceivable odd job to provide for her children. She baked breads for neighbors in her brick oven for, quite literally sometimes, bread. Her roguish husband was known to pilfer what little the family had and, with the spoils, endeavor to impress his numerous lady friends around town. Antonio Casa—with his piercing, manic-looking green eyes—was the antithesis of a faithful husband and devoted father. He employed his reading and writing talents to win over more than a few hearts and—so said the scuttlebutt—purposely misread a letter or two for personal gain. Those scenarios, however, are left to our imaginations.

Antonio Casa eventually assumed the role of transatlantic guardian—for a fee, of course—when he accompanied a woman from town across the ocean to reunite with her husband, who had settled in America. Upon learning of his departure from Italian soil, his long-suffering wife—my great-grandmother—kissed the ground and prayed to the Almighty that she would never, ever see the louse again. She never did. Thereafter, she raised the Casa family without interference. Maria Casa even insisted her two girls go to school and learn to read and write, just like their no-good father, which was not very commonplace back then. Ignorant folks in the village sneered at the audacity of her desire to see her two girls get an education.

Mission accomplished. Antonio Casa arrived safely at his final destination, Al Capone's Chicago, where he lived for a spell. The historical account gets a bit sketchy here, but it seems the man did more than reunite a husband and wife on American soil. Apparently, he was engaged in a full-blown affair with the woman he accompanied to America. When his transgressions came to light, the Lothario was compelled to get out of Dodge and fast. Antonio Casa subsequently found himself in New York City, where he announced with fanfare he was returning to his native Italy to live with his daughter, my grandmother, whom he had abandoned many years earlier. While in America, his eldest daughter had passed away during the Spanish flu, and his wife soon after that of a stomach ailment. As his birthright, though, he expected his only surviving child would care for him in his sunset years.

The best laid plans of mice and men. My grandmother was at that very moment—the mid-1920s— prepping to come to America to join her husband, my grandfather, who was already here. In fact, my grandfather attempted to convince Antonio Casa to stay put, but he refused and rather ham-fistedly attempted to keep my grandmother in Italy. The old man nonetheless got to live out the remainder of his life in the house that his wife had purchased with the sweat of her brow while he was a philandering gadabout. My grandmother, who inherited the house upon her mother's death, sent her father a few dollars from time to time until the day he died. He was, after all, family.

I’ve always wondered what it must have been like to look back on a life like my grandmother led—one that witnessed two World Wars, a worldwide depression, and the Spanish flu, which devastated her town and killed her only sister. What was it like to have a father like Antonio Casa? I can’t conceive of that life journey through a world like that. I do know that my grandmother never wanted to return to Italy and the town of her birth, Castelmezzano. She was just grateful for everything she had in the here and now, and was a loving and large presence because of it. That’s what I remember most about her (and, of course, her unparalleled cooking acumen whose likes, I’m certain, I will never see again).

(Photos one, three,and six from the personal collection of Nicholas Nigro)

Monday, June 2, 2014

Curb Your Dog, Not Your Enthusiasm

Once upon a time in the 1980s, I had a canine companion named Ginger. Dog owners one and all walked their beloved pets in the street back then. In my Bronx neighborhood, it was the recognized law of the land—the way things worked. Nowadays on the very same topography, dogs are almost invariably walked on the sidewalk, which is understandable considering the increase in traffic, not to mention the quantity of, and the size of, the parked vehicles on the street.

Faithfully, I walked Ginger in the street, weaving, as I recall, in and out of parked cars. On certain days of the week and times of the day, I often found ample road without, believe it or not, an obstructive parked car. “Curb Your Dog” was the city’s clarion call to dog walkers back then. Posted signs told us as much. Our dogs should do their “business”—as my father dubbed it—in the street but never, ever on the sidewalk proper or in a tree patch. Before 1978, "curbing" one's dog was enough to comply with the letter of the law. So long as the business at hand was conducted off the curb and in the street, one was not required by law to pick it up and discard it in the trash.

As I remember in those simpler times, the streets, and a lot of other places, too, were strewn with canine feces. After all, if curbing your dog was enough, a heaping helping of droppings naturally languished in the streets that all of us crossed—until, of course, the street cleaners came along to whisk it all away. It was, however, a vicious cycle. Stepping in it was commonplace. So, despite having received a $100 ticket more than thirty years ago—an awful lot of money at the time—for not picking up after Ginger, I think it is a very good thing that contemporary dog owners are required by law to pick up after their four-legged friends, or suffer the financial consequences.

Recently, I discovered that the city fathers have been systematically taking down all “Clean Up After Your Dog” and their forebear “Curb Your Dog” signs. The rationale for this undertaking is to reduce the city’s excessive sign clutter. Anyway, shouldn’t every single New York City resident know by now that it’s his or her business to pick up his or her dog's business? The vast majority of dog walkers do know. And those who don’t know, I suspect, actually do know. They just don’t care, and posted signs importuning them to pick up their dogs’ crap probably isn’t going to make much of a difference. Despite the sidewalks being dog-walking central in the twenty-first century—and the "Curb Your Dog" mantra being a relic of the past—I say good riddance to those ubiquitous signs. I've already paid my dues: a $100 fine when, in fact, I actually curbed my dog.

(Photo 1 from the personal collection of Nicholas Nigro)

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Burger King and the Decline of Society

I haven’t eaten in a Burger King restaurant in more than twenty years. When I did frequent this fast-food chain, I preferred it to its chief competitor, McDonald’s. The reason I did was that Burger King enabled me to have my burgers “my way.” That is, I could “hold the pickles…hold the lettuce” and everything else without a big to-do. I ordered my burgers plain and ate them plain. At McDonald's, ordering a plain hamburger invariably initiated panic among the staff. I could never quite understand why getting a plain hamburger was such an ordeal. It would seem to me the simplest kind of order in a burger joint. But not, I suppose, when the burgers are born with pickles, ketchup, and chopped onions on them. I remember receiving “plain” burgers that had undergone a crude scraping off of the aforementioned fixings. Fully scraping off ketchup and chopped onions is well nigh impossible—and forget about the pickle taste.

That was then and this is now. I no longer patronize fast-food burger chains. Still, I was interested in the news that Burger King is scrapping its longstanding “Have It Your Way” slogan and replacing it with—drum roll, please—“Be Your Way.” Now, I don’t know what on earth that means. I do know that it’s a ridiculous reflection of the ridiculous times in which we live. How much money did this burger conglomerate invest to re-brand itself? McMahon and Tate. I daresay, would have delivered something a little more sensible for a lot less money.

In unveiling their new twenty-first century slogan, senior vice president of global brand management Fernando Merchado said, “We want to evolve from just being the functional side of things to having a much stronger emotional appeal.” How’s that? You sell hamburgers and French fries. How about serving better food with better service? Somehow in this day and age everything has to be about making a statement. Everything has to have some kind of narrative beyond the obvious. What does Burger King and a person’s “greater lifestyle” have to do with one another? Absolutely nothing. Where is the Duke of Doubt when we need him?

Saturday, April 26, 2014

The Scent of a Postman

In the late-1970s and early-1980s, our local mail carrier was a fellow named Louie. Never without a cigar in his mouth as he made his appointed rounds, he was a memorable postman from a bygone era. His cigar was his calling card and how we—fortunate enough to be on his route—knew that the day’s mail had arrived.

In fact, my family’s front door was usually unlocked during the waking hours, and Louie would enter the hallway leading to our upstairs apartment and place the mail on a bottom step. In his wake was always that distinctive cigar bouquet. Occasionally, he’d ask to use the toilet. Our family dog, Ginger, didn’t care much for company of any kind, especially mailmen, but Louie’s fearlessness won the day. As he delivered the mail, he could regularly be heard exclaiming, “Shut up!” to the loudly barking Ginger. Eventually, Ginger accepted Louie’s familiar cigar wafts and cries of “Shut up!” as par for the course. Louie the mailman was not an unwelcome intruder after all and received a tepid wag of the tail from her as he entered our front hallway.

Recently, I thought about Louie and our past open-door policy. The late-1970s were a high crime time in New York City, my Bronx neighborhood included. Yet, vestiges of the mentality from a more neighborly past endured. As a little kid, I don’t ever remember using a key, because the door was always open. Neither Louie nor I needed one.

Back in the Louie the Mailman era, nobody could ever have envisioned the post office would one day be on the rocks. It seemed that post offices and mail carriers were eternal, and that generation after generation would covet taking the post office test for a job with security and good benefits. It’s where my father plied his trade for a quarter of a century. But this tax season revealed once more why Louie and his vaunted employer face uncertain times. While I still mail paper tax returns to the IRS, I didn't get the tax package in the mail, which once upon a time was the norm for everybody. Courtesy of technology, there's so much lost postal business in too many places to count. I fear the scent of a cigar-chomping postman may one day be only a scent memory. Fortunately, Louie retired to Florida in the early-1980s when the going was still good. I'm sure he's delivering mail now—with his old aplomb and cigar in hand—in the Pearly Gates. 

(Photo from the personal collection of Nicholas Nigro)

Thursday, April 10, 2014

The Tow-Away Zone Revisited

(Rare photo taken of Pet Nosh owner and business neighbor of real estate man Benjamin Scheckeler in close proximity to the latter's Tow-Away Zone, circa 1980)

I spied this man on the street this morning that managed to resurrect a ghost from my past. Actually, a rather obscure ghost whom I knew mainly as a colorful supporting character at a particular time in my life. Of course, the man I laid eyes on couldn’t have been Benjamin Scheckeler because he would be—if still among the living—pushing 105, I'd say, and I doubt very much he made it anywhere near that ripe old age.

Benjamin, you see, was a tightly wound man with an explosive temper. As a teen in the early 1980s, I worked in a mom-and-pop shop called Pet Nosh in Little Neck, Queens, and the septuagenarian Benjamin plied his trade in the real estate office next door. Our two businesses, plus a few others, shared a gravelly communal backyard parking lot. But only Benjamin had a parking space reserved for himself. There was a sign posted on a fence that stated in no uncertain terms that one particular spot was for Benjamin Scheckeler and Benjamin Scheckeler alone, and that any and all violators would be towed away—and toot sweet at that.

In fact, when I saw the Benjamin Scheckeler look-alike several hours ago, my brain—without any coaxing —retrieved a recording from more than three decades ago. “Tow away…tow away...tow away” played over and over in my head in a singsong German accent. On occasion, you see, somebody would pull into Benjamin’s sacred spot and shop in our store and the others. On Saturdays, in particular, this little parking lot of ours could get quite full and the temptation to pull into Benjamin’s sometimes-unoccupied space could be quite overwhelming. After all, shoppers would be in and out, so no big deal, right? Wrong! Whenever Benjamin pulled into the lot and found an interloper in his reserved parking spot, he went ballistic and stormed into the various stores hunting down the guilty party. In very angry and very loud tones, he invariably shouted: “Tow away! Tow away! Tow way!” Almost threateningly, Benjamin attempted to educate us on the importance of educating our clientele that they—under no circumstances—should park in the reserved spot for Benjamin Scheckeler while shopping in our store. Seriously, he wanted us to cross-examine each and every customer that entered our place of business: “You aren’t parked in Benjamin Scheckeler’s reserve parking spot, are you? If you are, please move your car immediately because it will be towed away.”

I never did find out how Benjamin Scheckeler and Benjamin Scheckeler alone qualified for a parking space of his own in that little parking lot in Little Neck. But he nonetheless left an indelible mark on me, because all these years later and I still encounter a signpost up ahead every now and then that alerts me of the next stop: the Tow-Away Zone. “

(Photo one from the personal collection of Nicholas Nigro)

Sunday, April 6, 2014

When Hope Sprang Eternal

As a youth and fanatical baseball fan—New York Mets fan to be precise—hope always sprang eternal in springtime. Even during the team’s dreadful down years—1977 through 1983—I, without exception, felt excited about my Boys of Summer in the chillier climes of spring. I honestly believed my team had what it took to contend, and perhaps go all the way, despite their rosters saying otherwise.

When manager Gil Hodges informed members of the fourth estate in the spring of 1969 that he expected his Mets to win eighty-five games during the season, he was not taken seriously, despite being a very serious man. The Mets, after all, had not a single winning season in their brief existence (1962-1968). Their biggest win total was seventy-three games, which they had tallied up the previous year, Hodges’ first at the helm. And what was so different about the 1969 Mets anyway, who had lost eighty-nine games the year before?  Despite the doubters, the “Miracle Mets” won 100 games and a World Series, too—Hodges had in fact grossly underestimated the team’s performance. A short decade later—in 1979—and virtually everyone from the 1969 and 1973 pennant winning teams were gone, including my boyhood idol, “The Franchise” Tom Seaver. Only Ed Kranepool remained to play in what would be his last season and the last link to the glory days. It was a “rebuilding era,” even though the rebuilding crew in the late-1970s were incompetent tightwads who, mercifully, sold the team to more competent baseball people after the 1979 season. They were willing to do what it takes to build a winner, which they did in due course.

Still, maintained hope come hell or high water in those past springs, regardless of the product on the field or in the front office. There was just something about spring and youth that proved an intoxicating combo. In 1983, Tom Seaver was traded back to the Mets from the Cincinnati Reds, the team he had been unceremoniously shipped to during the “Midnight Massacre” of June 15, 1977. Upon learning about the deal that brought him back to where he belonged to finish his illustrious career, I’d venture to say it was one of the most joyous moments of my life—pure, right, and dramatic. Opening Day 1983 with Tom Seaver on the mound again at Shea Stadium was a dream come true. The spectacle single-handedly wiped away the mess the former ownership—and the dreadful patrician, M. Donald Grant—had made of the formerly great team in the late-1970s, when Shea Stadium was christened “Grant’s Tomb.”

Tom Terrific didn’t have the greatest season in 1983, but pitched well enough and showed flashes of his old brilliance. He was thirty-eight years old and nearing 300 wins, too, a milestone that he would achieve in a Mets’ uniform—perfect and fitting, I thought. But while hope always sprang eternal in those days of yore, it didn’t always sustain its springy step, I discovered. Tom Seaver was left unprotected on the roster at the end of the season and snatched away as free-agent compensation by the Chicago White Sox, which is where the greatest Met of all time won his 300th game. Of all places, he ended his career with the Boston Red Sox. There was, however, one final tease that Tom Seaver would return to the Mets in 1987 at the age of forty-two and end his career on an appropriate high note sporting the orange and the royal blue baseball cap and pinstripes. It didn’t happen because the once live arm of the future Hall of Famer had run out of steam.

Nevertheless, hope sprang eternal through thick and thin. And now, it’s spring again....

(Photos from the personal collection of Nicholas Nigro)

Sunday, March 16, 2014

Deathman, Do Not Follow Me

In my eighth-grade "Language Arts" class, we had to do a book report-presentation combo. We could select a book of our own choosing, but it had to be approved by our teacher. We were permitted to pair up, too, and so a friend and I opted to read a YA entitled Deathman, Do Not Follow Me by Jay Bennett. I don’t remember much about the book, except that I really liked it as a thirteen-year-old. A kid by the name of Danny Morgan was the main protagonist, and he was daydreaming in history class at some point in time. I believe, too, that he inadvertently got involved with some art thieves or some such thing. Anyway, my project partner and I made the equivalent of an abridged book-on-tape before there was any such thing (or was there?). This was going to be our presentation part. As fate would have it, we didn’t have to go public with the tape. I don’t recall the reason, but it worked to our benefit. For starters, nobody would have understood what was going on. We flubbed our lines on occasion as well. My buddy, the narrator said “art expedition” when he meant "art exhibition."

What made me think about Deathman, Do Not Follow Me after all these years is an encounter I recently had with a passerby. I saw this man coming toward me who looked an awfully lot like someone I once knew—a man named Jerry who has been dead for thirteen years. What went through my mind as the distance that separated us narrowed—and he looked more and more, and not less and less, like Jerry—was what if he said hello to me as if it was him? What if it was like the occasional meetings we experienced for so many years—we lived in the same neighborhood—where we’d briefly chat about nothing especially important like his desiring a move to Reno, Nevada, a great "walking town." After all, if he’s standing there as Jerry and knows me by name, I couldn’t tell him that he’s dead and that I attended his wake. This potential scenario very literally played in my brain in the several seconds leading up to us passing one another. He was a dead ringer for Jerry all right, but it wasn’t him.

Had it been Jerry, what would I have done?. Would I have turned around and gone home, thinking I had either lost my marbles or was still in bed dreaming? Or would have I continued running my errands, believing that maybe—just maybe—I’d entered the Twilight Zone. Afterwards, I kind of wished it really was old Jerry that I saw on the street the other day. It would have certainly given me some food for thought. Then again, I probably wouldn't have written a blog about it.

Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Mr. C, Mr. O'B, and Sacco and Vanzetti

While poring over miscellaneous scraps of paper from my past recently, I encountered an eighth-grade history test, replete with both a matching column and "True or False" section. Mr. C, I’ll call him, hand wrote the test and had it mimeographed. That was the technology of the mid-1970s. One of the questions on it was: “In 1924 the first pizza parlor in America was opened by Sacco and Vanzetti?” I’m proud to report that I got the answer right as well as the previous question: “The 1920’s was a time of great hardship and depression?” As for the former test query, Mr. C, I suspect, would have to think twice today about associating an Italian surname with pizza pie. I'm certain somebody would turn him in for the offense—and toot sweet. Then again, everything is so standardized nowadays that a Mr. C history test—we called it "Social Studies" back then—wouldn't even reach the modern-day equivalent of the mimeograph machine.

Another snippet of paper in my archives was a handwritten summary of the "Best of Mr. O’B," my geometry teacher in high school. While I didn’t care much for the subject matter, Mr. O’B was a true original—both a good teacher and a performance artist extraordinaire. When the school year ended, and he reported that he wouldn’t be returning in the fall for another go-round—he got a better offer—I recall being profoundly saddened to think that I would never, ever see him again. His lectures were entertainingly frenetic and he loved nothing more than having fun with people’s names—both their first and their last. He was an Irishman who, above all else, enjoyed calling on kids with multi-syllabic Italian surnames. We had an awful lot of them in our high school. Somebody named Vanzetti in his class, for instance, would have had his name pronounced in a melodious sing-song:“VAN-zet-TI.” He liked one-syllable first and last names, too. A kid named “Bell,” I remember, rang well in the classroom.

From where I—and just about everybody else—sat, Mr. O'B's class is where entertainment met education, and his antics didn’t offend anybody. In fact, we wanted to be included in the show. "Oh, Nick...oh, Nick," are in my notes, so I was indeed, although I don't recall the context. More than three decades have passed since the Mr. O'B show and—so it seems—virtually everybody is conditioned to be offended for one reason or another. Mr. O’B very likely had to clean up his act at some point in his teaching career, if that is where he pitched his tent. (He probably was in his mid-twenties when I had him.) If this is what in fact happened, the irony is that his students from the 1970s—who adored him—did him in as the humorless, uptight adults they became.

(Photo from the personal collection of Nicholas Nigro)

Tuesday, March 4, 2014

High 1978

The 2014 Academy Awards are yesterday’s news. I didn’t see a single movie that won an Oscar, or even one that was nominated and lost. I just haven’t seen any new releases in a while. And not for reasons of quality or any such thing. It’s just that movies and me nowadays are largely confined to Netflix, and even then I don’t watch all that many of them. For both business and pleasure, I just finished viewing seasons one through nine of Seinfeld.

Recently, I stumbled upon various scrap-paper “journals” that I haphazardly kept in my teenage years. They mostly chronicled events in my life with occasional editorial commentary. One such "journal" listed the movies I saw in the summer of 1978 in places ranging far and wide—everywhere from my very own neighborhood to Fordham in the South Bronx to the isle of Manhattan. I patronized theaters in Lavallette, New Jersey and Mattituck, Long Island, too.

What was most memorable to me about this summer movie potpourri was not the Academy Award-winning caliber of them—quite the contrary—but the aftermath of seeing Hooper, starring Burt Reynolds, which I didn’t especially like. On our way home from Fordham’s UA Valentine theater, my friends and I were accosted by knife- and belt-wielding street thugs. They were street and we weren't—and I'm kind of happy about that in the big picture. Where are they now? Although it was a humiliating decision on our parts, we opted to run for our lives and—with the exception of a few haphazard whacks from a belt—escaped lasting physical harm. The ride home on the BX20 bus felt pretty good, although the alpha-est male in our pack wished that—in theory at least—we had stood our grounds and defended ourselves with honor. However, one of the hoodlums had threatened to “slice up the fat one,” which was he—and he wasn’t all that fat. And since we weren't in a John Wayne movie—or even a Death Wish sequel—I still believe running away under those circumstances was a good idea.

Later that summer, I saw Heaven Can Wait, starring Warren Beatty, Julie Christie, and James Mason, in a Manhattan theater. This was on the heels of witnessing an armed robbery on the subway ride down there. The fifteen-year-old me made note of the irony—Heaven Can Wait—which nobody appreciated. It was the 1970s, after all, and such things happened more frequently than they do today—and the muggers back then weren’t after iPhones, either. Heaven Can Wait was actually nominated for an Academy Award but lost out to The Deer Hunter, which I didn’t see in 1978 if I am to believe my paper trail.

If I had to parcel out an Academy Award in 1978 to my movies, I’d have given it to the one released in 1977, High Anxiety, which I saw a couple of times. While on vacation in Lavallette, New Jersey, I recall coaxing my father to see it. He was hysterical when Mel Brooks got drenched in bird poop. Simpler times for sure.

(Photo from the personal collection of Nicholas Nigro)