Saturday, January 17, 2015

Nothing and Something

As a gift for her seventy-fifth birthday, I presented my maternal grandmother with “The Nothing Book.” In 1980, this hardcover tome, with its dust jacket and multi-colored interior pages, was a real novelty. Actually, it was little more than a blank journal. What would ultimately make it a “gift to remember” were the words eventually written in it.

I came across that very “Nothing Book” recently—it’s in my possession again—and perused my grandmother’s scribbling therein. She was a positive person—thoughtful and empathetic always—and her writings reflect that. My grandmother wasn’t about to use a diary, as it were, to trash anybody, even if some were deserving of trashing. Rather, she chronicled events, reflected an awful lot on the passage of time, and expressed gratitude for her family and friends in what were the last years of her life.

There was one notable exception to her mostly upbeat and often philosophical musings on her life and times. It involved a certain landlord. When this individual appeared in my grandmother's life, she had been living in the same house in Bangor, Pennsylvania for thirty-six years. She first moved into the place when there wasn’t a functioning indoor toilet, but just an outhouse in the backyard, which my mother remembers not especially fondly. 

It was, in fact, the only residence of hers that I ever knew, although it had a workable bathroom by then (but only a tub and no shower). This cozy abode on Miller Street with its grassy backyard, and dirty black walnut tree hovering above it, had a slate tiles pathway leading to its back porch. I must concede that her Bronx-born grandsons periodically tore up the yard in the summertime with our wiffle ball games. I distinctly remember slicing off one of my grandmother’s potted geranium flowers with a searing line drive and hoping that she wouldn’t notice. We even pitched a pup tent in the backyard and killed off some of her grass in the process. Actually, without exception, my grandmother tolerated our passion of youth when visiting—from our ultra-urban perspective—the country. Notwithstanding the Bangor summers’ ubiquitous and infuriating gnats, it was a Shangri-La. For a spell as a boy, I even envisioned living there in my adulthood. The Bronx versus Bangor....

Anyway, something that both the urban and rural had in common—much to my grandmother’s surprise and despair—were awful landlords. She notes in the aforementioned “Nothing Book,” a particular “unsavory character”—one that she subsequently dubbed a “horrible character.” Said character bought the house she lived in—and leased—for thirty-six years, most of the time with my grandfather, who had died a couple of years earlier. 

The house was owned by a kindly gentleman—whose mother, in fact, lived just across the street—and he kept the rent stable and affordable for decades. In other words, he wasn’t in it for the money, although he no doubt made a small profit. But then along came this particular fellow—this character—who purchased the place upon the previous owner’s passing. He—who shall remain nameless—viewed real estate as a moneymaker and moneymaker only. Real life people be damned. Yes, even in bucolic Bangor in the state’s leafy Slate Belt, where the folks always seemed a bit kinder and gentler to me—generally speaking—than their counterparts in the Bronx, there were bad apples. And some three decades later, I see that my late-grandmother’s former landlord is still making waves—and lots of enemies—in the town he still calls home.

(Photos from the personal collection of Nicholas Nigro)

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