Saturday, February 22, 2014

Honor Thy Father

Happy 282nd birthday to George Washington. I think it’s fair to say the “Father of Our Country” is given short shrift nowadays. Sure, he’s still on the dollar bill, but a dollar doesn’t go very far in 2014. When it can’t buy a cup of coffee in a diner, something’s seriously amiss. He’s got a lot of things named after him as well, but then the big enchilada, Washington, D.C., is probably something he’d be embarrassed to be associated with more than two centuries after his passing.

Alas, George has lost his birthday as a national holiday, too, which once upon a time was celebrated on the third Monday in February. While growing up, I remember the family’s wall calendars plainly listing that day as “Washington’s Birthday.” Now, the generic, completely meaningless “Presidents’ Day” has hijacked the date. Washington’s annual moment to shine is no more. It’s supposed to honor the whole kit and caboodle of presidents, I guess, including all those who succeeded the G Man—everyone from Martin Van Buren to James Buchanan to Andrew Johnson to Rutherford B. Hayes to Warren G. Harding.

As I recall from grammar school, George Washington and Abraham Lincoln were the big cheeses of American presidents. And February was their month. Lincoln was born on February 12th, which is a state holiday in Illinois, where he was born. And mid-winter school recesses covered both Lincoln and Washington’s birthdays—yet another reason to appreciate our first and sixteenth presidents. 

In 1972, I saw the movie 1776 at Radio City Musical Hall at Christmastime. It was a fifth-grade field trip. And while George Washington wasn’t physically present at the Continental Congress, he loomed like a colossus as the secretary read the man’s missives from the frontlines, including this one: “As I write these words, the enemy is plainly in sight beyond the river, and I begin to notice that many of us are lads under fifteen and old men, none of whom can truly be called soldiers. How it will end, only providence can direct. But dear God, what brave men I shall lose before this business ends.”

I was only ten years old when I saw 1776 for the first time, and it inspired me to read various books on Washington and Revolutionary War, including—as I glance over at my bookshelf—Washington by James Thomas Flexner, Patriarch by Richard Norton Smith, and Angel in the Whirlwind by Benson Bobrick. I suppose it’s futile to importune those who make the laws in Washington to give Washington his day back, so I won’t bother.

(Photo from the personal collection of Nicholas Nigro)

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Kingsbridge: Characters and Character

Shared from Cream Sam Summer
Cream Sam Summer is a novel set in the Northwest Bronx neighborhood of Kingsbridge. The year is 1978, and I can personally attest to the fact that it was a great place to grow up in back then—an amalgam of urban grittiness and small town charm. The book’s narrator is a sixteen-year-old boy, which, not coincidentally, was my age in 1978. Permit me now to introduce you to a new work of fiction as well as a very real place in an intriguing snapshot in time.

For both young and old alike, there were many perks to living in Kingsbridge in the 1970s. Everything it seemed was at our fingertips. In an age before computers and iPhones, texts and tweets, we very literally lived in our neighborhood. We didn’t have the option of holing ourselves up inside with today’s advanced technological gizmos and instantaneous communication devices. When we came home from school, we promptly went outside to play, or whatever else we could find to do. Sometimes we settled for hanging out on our front stoops, or the grounds of our concrete backyards, and engaged in the lost art of conversation. The summers were especially memorable—incredibly active and a lot of fun, even if they were quite often uncomfortably hot and humid. Many families, including mine, miraculously survived without the luxury of air conditioning. We played the games that little people had played for generations in the big city, but had this sinking feeling we were the last ones who would ever do so—and we were right.  

In 1978, Kingsbridge’s commercial hub, W231st Street leading down to Broadway and the elevated subway tracks of the Number 1 line—the El—accommodated a wide variety of stores from jewelers to druggists to shoemakers. Just about everything you needed could be found in the neighborhood. Whether you were in the market for a deli sandwich, women’s hosiery, or tropical fish for the apartment aquarium, a local shop had what you wanted. There was even a movie theater, bowling alley, and wintertime ice-skating rink in the area.

In those days gone by, merchants established genuine rapports with their customers and were an integral part of the neighborhood fabric. There was a strong sense of community in the environs of Kingsbridge—an inviolable bond that we were somehow all in it together. Despite the vast and varied personalities of the residents—good eggs and bad eggs—we shared common experiences like exploring the sprawling Van Cortlandt Park, enjoying a slice of the appetizingly greasy Sam’s Pizza, or attending Sunday Mass at St. John’s Church, which was uplifting to some and boring as all hell to others, particularly the younger set.

Kingsbridge was blessed, too, with a rather interesting topography. An exception to the “Bronx Rule of Flat,” it was hilly terrain with all kinds of nooks and crannies. The Hudson River was also nearby—on the shores of Riverdale, Kingsbridge’s more pedigreed neighbor to the west. The Harlem River Ship Canal—walking distance and just to the south—added further color to the landscape. Crossing the canal via the Broadway Bridge at W225th Street put Kingsbridge denizens in the Inwood section of the world’s most visited borough: Manhattan.

The neighborhood was remarkably accessible, too. Riders on the Number 1 subway line, which cut a swath through the heart of Kingsbridge, could be in mid-town Manhattan in forty-five minutes. Countless locals rode the rails to school and to work. Others hopped on ubiquitous area buses, which took them to wherever their hearts desired in the Bronx and parts of Manhattan as well.
It was indeed a fascinating time and place to be a kid: so much more civil, neighborly, and innocent than today, yet paradoxically feral and coarse as well. The local 50th police precinct logged its fair share of crimes in the 1970s. Burglaries and break-ins were routine, with the burglars hauling away TV sets and kitchen appliances in broad daylight. It’s hard to envision contemporary thieves making off with the Mr. Coffee, toaster oven, and vegetable chopper. Street muggings were also commonplace, so it paid to be eternally vigilant.

The Kingsbridge of 1978 had both character and characters—that cannot be denied. This compelling stage is where the myriad characters in Cream Sam Summer confront past ghosts and ponder their futures, too, because nothing stays the same—nothing at all. Not neighborhoods and not people.

(Photos from the personal collection of Nicholas Nigro)

Friday, February 7, 2014

Ralph and Me

Hall of Famer Ralph Kiner passed away yesterday at the age of ninety-one. Yet another key link to my childhood is gone. In 1970 when I—a seven-year-old Bronx boy—bucked both my father's and the neighborhood tradition and became a devoted New York Met fan, rather than a Yankee fan, Ralph Kiner became an integral part of my life. In fact, announcers Lindsey Nelson, Bob Murphy, and Ralph Kiner were constants in my life that I wrongly presumed would endure forever.

These three men painted the baseball word picture so beautifully, without the game ever being about them. Ex-ballplayer Ralph Kiner, for one, made the game—the American pastime—extraordinarily large by bringing to life its storied past and the storied characters both on and off the field. I must have heard him recount a thousand times—but never tired of hearing it—how legendary baseball executive, Branch Rickey, cut Ralph's salary after he led the National League in both home runs and RBIs. Naturally, Ralph asked for and expected a raise for his Herculean exploits, but the Pittsburgh Pirates, for whom he plied his trade, finished dead last that year. Rickey uttered something along the lines of “We could have finished last without you,” and that was the end of that. I used to throw sidearm in my youth and recall Ralph talking about a sidearm relief pitcher from his era, Ewell Blackwell, who threw a “purpose pitch” at batters—the “purpose was to separate their head from their shoulders.” I didn’t do that while playing stickball. No matter where it was thrown, a tennis ball just lacked the “purpose.”

As Ralph’s myriad obits reveal, he was the genuine article, and that’s the greatest testament to a man. Even as a little kid, I sensed that Ralph Kiner was real—whom he appeared to be during the broadcasts. There was never any posturing on his part, or ham-fisted attempts to make himself the center of attention. Ralph Kiner was from a bygone era. Not too long ago, while listening to audio clips of Mets’ broadcasts from the early and mid-1970s—my all-time favorite time to be a fan—I was surprised how really good Ralph was a play-by-play man. I was young then with a non-cynical, youthful exuberance. I’d grown accustomed to him in the later years being more of a color man—an analyst and raconteur—but he was remarkably quick on his feet and well versed as an announcer.

Then, of course, there was Kiner’s Korner after each and every Mets’ home game. It was not to be missed. I even stay tuned and watched opposing teams’ players on the show after a Mets’ loss, which was always a tough pill to swallow. But it was worth watching because of Ralph. Sure, his malaprops were the stuff of legend. But what made them so amusing and entertaining, I think, was that Ralph was a very intelligent man. He just had a penchant for mangling the English language while on the air, and on occasion confused people’s names. He called Gary Carter “Gary Cooper”;  Tim McCarver, "Tim MacArthur"; and Hubie Brooks, “Mookie” throughout an entire Kiner’s Korner show. To Ralph, Fernando Valenzuela was always "Fernando Venezuela." On Father’s Day, he graciously wished all the fathers in the viewing audience a “Happy Birthday.”

In the early 1980s, the New York cable station SportsChannel was just getting underway, with Ralph working the games alongside Jiggs McDonald, a hockey announcer by trade. The duo had importuned viewers to send in baseball trivia questions, which McDonald would pose to Ralph. If he was stumped by the query, the questioner would receive two complimentary box seats to a Mets’ game. Well, I stumped Ralph Kiner with this question: “What unique distinction did Mets’ hitters not achieve during the 1972 season"—or some such thing? I recall being jelly-legged when I heard Jiggs posing my query to Ralph. He guessed that no Mets’ hitter surpassed the .300 mark that year, but the correct answer was that nobody on the team totaled more than 100 hits. It was an injury-plagued season—Yogi Berra’s first as manager upon taking over after Gil Hodges’ untimely death in spring training. So, yes, I stumped Ralph Kiner and won two tickets to a game. “Congratulations to Mr, Nick Negro,” Jiggs McDonald said on air, mispronouncing my name, which was par for the course. Virtually every schoolteacher did the same thing.

My SportsChannel spoils—two free tickets—were subsequently stolen, and I was sent a couple of handwritten passes instead. When my brother Tom and I arrived at the game, a police detective was sitting directly behind us. He asked us if we were from “SportsChannel.” We said yes and were asked to play it cool. He was hoping somebody would turn up with the stolen tickets for our seats. They didn’t. So why steal them?

Goodbye, Ralph Kiner, and thank you for so many years of incredibly good times, when baseball was still a game and civility and class meant something.