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)