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)