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)