Tuesday, December 22, 2015

Uncle Mickey and the House Without a Christmas Tree

In my pre-Christmas wanderings today, I came upon something unusual. It was lying out with a building’s trash. This peculiar sighting would have commonplace in the first couple of weeks of 2016, but not on December 22nd. I beheld a fair-sized, reasonably fresh-looking Christmas tree that appeared—prior to getting the heave-ho—to have been in a stand of some kind. I was left to wonder about that house without a Christmas tree and its backstory. I remember a TV movie from the early 1970s called The House Without a Christmas Tree. It starred Jason Robards and was rerun at Christmastime for years on CBS. But that tale ended on a happy note—the house without a Christmas tree at long last had one.

From houses with and without Christmas trees to “Uncle Mickey.” Well, actually, he’s not my uncle, which isn’t a bad thing. In fact, Uncle Mickey is anything but avuncular. A friend of mine and I cryptically refer to the man as such—and not to his face by the way—because of something that once hung on the wall of his place of business. Strangely enough, Uncle Mickey is better known around town as “Crazy Mickey,” a well-earned moniker based on years of bizarre and sometimes scary behavior. For convenience purposes, I have long patronized Mickey’s shop. Let’s just say the guy has a few anger management issues. On more than one occasion, I’ve seen him hurl his telephone against a wall. Mickey’s unpredictable, borderline violent brand of customer service regularly shocks and awes unsuspecting patrons. A nearby entrepreneur, who offers some of the same services as Mickey, told me that he frequently hears war stories from the frontlines. War stories, that is, from shell-shocked former Crazy Mickey customers. He posed the most obvious of questions that day—and still an unsolved mystery—“But how does he stay in business?”

Uncle Mickey may have finally “Jumped the Shark” vis-à-vis me. In my presence this past week, he punched in anger—the genuine article—an inanimate object that he shouldn’t have punched, and then treated it pretty roughly after that. By the end of our transaction, Uncle Mickey had calmed down sufficiently to mutter, “Happy Holiday!” This is modus operandi. Suffice it to say, I didn’t feel his season’s greeting was all that heartfelt. “But how does he stay in business?” Yes…good question…because he is an equal opportunity Raging Bull, who rages against everybody and anybody for no apparent reason.

Why pray tell have I returned to the belly of the beast as often as I have? That’s another good question. Somebody once told me that I turn everybody into characters. Perhaps there’s some truth to that. Uncle Mickey, after all, is a character extraordinaire—and I, evidently, have a high tolerance for inappropriate behavior. Nevertheless, it’s one of my New Year’s Resolutions to bid a not-so-fond farewell to Uncle Mickey. I understand that I might be missing out on something big on the life stage—bigger than the trashing of the telephones—but I just don't want to chance it any longer. Being Uncle Mickey’s piñata—when he totally goes postal—is something to be avoided by all who know him.

Thursday, December 17, 2015

The Charlie and Mama Christmas Miracle

Some fifteen years ago, a possible miracle occurred in the Riverdale section of the Bronx. To set the stage, my favorite local eatery had sadly changed hands. After refurbishing the place, its new owner—a man named Nick—reopened its doors. Many of the old customers returned for this second act, including a remarkably cranky old couple. No, not a husband and wife, but a seventy-year-old man and his ninety-nine-year-old mother. My frequent dining companions and I had long ago nicknamed the pair “Charlie and Mama.”

Witnessing a dutiful son lovingly caring for his aging and ailing mother is often uplifting, but it very definitely wasn’t in this case. In fact, it was downright deflating, even a bit creepy. You see, very old Mama was the embodiment of mean—looked it, sounded it, and acted it. She scolded her septuagenarian son like he was a five year old. But this was all going down in 1996—not the Roaring Twenties. Son Charlie, however, merited very little sympathy and understanding because he was an incredibly fussy, inconsiderate, and annoying man. Mother and son were frequently spotted walking the streets arm-and-arm, with antiquated Mama looking like she was a light pat away from crumbling into the dust from whence she came.

Suffice it to say the entrepreneurial-minded Nick didn’t acclimate very well to the diner milieu and its colorful cast of characters, which included bothersome eccentrics like old Mama and her insufferable son. Charlie regularly ordered a burger for his beloved mother sans the bun. Despite it saving him a hamburger roll, this request really got under Nick’s skin. But it was the three or four French fries that Charlie wanted for his mother that irked him to no end. When Charlie informed the diner's put-upon proprietor that old Mama couldn’t possible eat a regular order of fries, he didn’t say it nicely and, too, expected the sparrow’s portion to be on the house.

Eventually, the mere sight of the approaching Charlie and Mama sent Nick into spasms of rage. They came to embody everything he hated about diner irregulars, if you will. Nick desperately wanted his place to be a bona fide restaurant and not a neighborhood greasy spoon. And Charlie and Mama with their bunless burgers and three or four French fries just didn’t fit into his grand plan. Then one day, Nick overheard Mama’s anything but dulcet century-old tones saying aloud, “He’s not going to make it.” His body furiously shook, but he uttered not a word to them. Instead, he beamed hate—the genuine article—their way.

Come Christmastime, I spied a row of cards taped atop the refrigerator accommodating the Jell-O, rice pudding, and apple pie—from various food suppliers and even a handful of customers, I supposed—despite the fact that Nick was the epitome of ineptness, irascibility, and miserliness all rolled into one disagreeable package. The man had raised all the prices and reduced all of the portions in one fell swoop. The formerly considerable and otherworldly hamburgers of the previous ownership had become McDonald's-sized, flavorless, and much pricier.

While I wasn’t about to send Nick a Christmas card, I nevertheless thought it would be warm and fuzzy if he received one from his worst tormentors—Charlie and Mama. And so he did. The miracle—the Christmas miracle, actually—was that I was present when the postman delivered the card, when Nick opened it, and when he read it. I witnessed the expression on his face as he came upon the sender’s names: “Charlie and Mama.” Nick expressed uncharacteristic glee, immediately showing it to his staff. He just couldn’t believe he had received this holiday goodwill from such a sinister duo. I heard him repeat several times—to no one in particular—these two words: “Charlie and Mama.” And, I can honestly say, he had a big smile on his face the entire time.

I have long believed that my being privy to the fruits of this endeavor was divine intervention, or maybe it was because I often had breakfast there at around the time the postman knocked. Still, I’d rather believe that miracles do happen on occasion. And, as things turned out, old Mama was prescient concerning Nick’s fate. He didn’t make it.

(Photo from the personal collection of Nicholas Nigro)

Saturday, December 12, 2015

Christmas in New York: Then and Now

When I was a boy growing up in the Northwest Bronx’s neighborhood of Kingsbridge, Christmas was—from my youthfully innocent perspective—the “most wonderful time of the year.” Andy Williams really nailed it, although I don’t ever remember any “scary ghost stories” being bandied about during my family's yuletide celebrations. The weeks preceding December 25th had an anticipatory feel that, I know, can never be felt again. Decades removed from that wide-eyed kid—who loved virtually everything about the holiday season—this time of year just isn’t so wonderful anymore.

The passage of time has done a number on that special feeling—one that, in simpler times, I believed was inviolable. Really, I couldn’t conceive back in the 1970s not being excited at the prospect of an impending Christmas. The first signs of the season—store decorations, typically—were enough to light that spark. Christmas-themed television commercials were next. Raised a Catholic, there was the first Sunday of Advent, the second, the third, and then the fourth—crunch time. Three purple candles and a pink one defined the Advent wreath, which we—and countless others—had in our homes. It wasn’t a hanging kind of wreath, by the way, but one that rested on a table, television set, or countertop. The solitary pink candle was lit on the third Sunday for a reason that now escapes me.

I don’t exactly know why. but I vividly recall an Advent wreath in the classroom of my fifth grade teacher, Sister Lyse—a very nice woman and personal favorite of mine—having its four candles melt into an orb-like mélange of purple and pink. This candle carnage occurred because they were too close for comfort with one of St. John’s grammar school’s uber-hot radiators. The meltdown was discovered on the morning our class was preparing to venture down to Radio City Music Hall in Manhattan via the subway— the Number 1 train to be precise, which was only a block away, and whose elevated tracks we could see from our school’s east-facing windows. Watching both a movie and a Christmas show there—Rockettes and all—was a heady experience and more of what made Christmas such an amazingly layered experience. I was of a tender age in a more tender time, and it didn’t bother me in the least that the New York City subways back then were crime-ridden and smothered in graffiti.

When my father purchased a new record player and stereo from Macy’s at Herald Square, my brothers and sisters gleefully awaited its delivery. Upon its arrival, we naturally posed for pictures around it. We piled LPs on the thing, which automatically dropped upon a record’s end, for years and years after. We had a few “Christmas in New York” albums in the family collection, and there really wasn’t anything like—once upon a time—Christmas in New York. I’d like to think there are still kids feeling the way I felt about Christmas in an age before computers, iPhones, and cable television. But getting past all of that, I know, isn't easy.

(Photo 1 from the personal collection of Nicholas Nigro)