Thursday, January 29, 2015

Boom...There Goes the Dynamints

For many years, family excursions from the Bronx to Bangor, Pennsylvania—to visit my maternal grandparents—found all concerned on the wending Richmond Road, which zigzagged through sleepy, picturesque farmland with barns, silos full of corn, and—a personal favorite of mine—algae-strewn ponds. This enticing visual was the last leg of our journey from urban to rural, and I remember being especially captivated by one pond in particular. Sure, I liked the one with the white ducks in it and the abandoned yellow school bus filling in the backdrop. But the pond with the diving board alongside it had a special allure. I often wondered what it would be like to dive into that muddy-looking drink with those ubiquitous dragonflies and mosquitoes hovering all around it. I wondered, too, how deep the thing was and how a person might extricate himself from its mysterious muck. My youthful flights of fancy imagined the pond’s floor as possibly quicksand.

On this very same pastoral thoroughfare, at the intersection of the intriguingly named Ott’s Corner, was also a bona fide “general store”—the Richmond General Store to be exact—replete with a couple of gas pumps out front, a pay telephone, and a Coca-Cola soda cooler. It was an ordinary residence—a house— that doubled as retail space. From our city perspective, this was Ike Godsey’s place in the bright light of day. My brothers and I perpetually pined to stop there, but my father—ever suffering from driver’s fatigue and an unquenchable desire to get to his destination—regularly ignored our pleas. Then one day on a return trip to the Bronx, he—for some inexplicable reason—relented. We finally stopped at the general store and purchased—of all things—a couple of packs of Dynamints. They were Tic Tac candy rip-offs that were stocked at the time by the Richmond General Store. In the big picture, though, we got a whole lot more than a couple of packs of Dynamints. We entered the general store to jingling bells, which alerted the proprietor that potential customers were on the premises. From a back room, a very sweet, elderly woman in her nightgown emerged to transact with us and make change for our considerable purchase. Having at long last patronized a real country general store—one that we had had our eyes on for a long time—it was definitely a morning to remember.

This general store is no more. The last time we passed by it was a house—and just a house—again. The gas pumps, pay telephone, and soda cooler were all gone. Locals, I suspect, no longer need a general store anymore. And Dynamints, too, haven’t stood the test of time, but I’m certainly glad we interrupted a kindly businesswoman’s morning coffee to buy a couple of packs of them all those years ago.

Saturday, January 24, 2015

What's Fare Is Fare

So, the fare for a New York City bus or subway ride is going up to $2.75 this March. And it appears, too, that the going rate for another popular fare in these parts—a slice of pizza—is that very sum or close to it. For some inexplicable reason these two decidedly unrelated things—one a service and the other a favorite fast-food staple—have been inextricably linked for quite a long time.

Recently, I unearthed a newspaper article in my overflowing archives—dated 1992—from The Riverdale Press, a local Bronx newspaper. I had saved this piece of ephemera—a review of the area’s pizzerias—for a reason, probably because I was a renowned pizza-holic who had sampled most of the neighborhood shops, but had a special attachment to one in particular. Naturally, I was surprised at my preferred pizzeria’s somewhat poor rating of just two slices (out of five maximum), although by the 1990s its quality was—I will concede—somewhat inconsistent. I was curious, nonetheless, to ascertain whether or not the price of transit ride corresponded with the going rate of slice of pizza that year. I wanted to know if this pizza connection of mine had historical legs. Not too long ago, an individual on Facebook remembered when the price of a New York City slice of pizza was just .15, which, coincidentally, was the cost of a bus or subway ride at the time. Now, I can recall pizza as low as .35 a slice—in the early to mid-1970s—that, interestingly enough, corresponded to the day’s bus and subway fare.

Anyway, this neighborhood newspaper pizza review noted the cost of a slice in the various places surveyed as anywhere between $1.30 and $1.40. The 1992 bus and subway fare was $1.25—close enough to establish the fare and fare conjoining though time.

It should be noted that while New York City bus and subway service has gotten measurably better through the years—particularly the latter—the pizza slice has gotten considerably slighter. That is, courtesy of the costs of cheese and tomato sauce—and every other foodstuff for that matter coupled with criminally high cost of doing business—the ubiquitous slice of pizza’s mass has suffered. If not in taste then definitely in size, the slice of pizza isn’t what it used to be around here. And size matters.

When Luigi—who bore a striking resemblance to Lurch—of Luigi’s Pizzeria tossed his dough into the heavens, one definitely got more for his or her money. And, when push came to shove, Luigi no doubt made more dough, too. It was the end of an era for sure—the 1990s—when Italian immigrants from Italy still owned a New York City pizzeria or two. But then, a Greek man, who made a full-bodied and tasty pizza slice whose likes will never be sampled again—certainly not at a price that shadows the transit fare—owned and operated my pizza place of record. The slice of the past: Rest in Pizza.

(Photos from the personal collection of Nicholas Nigro)

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)

Friday, January 2, 2015

When the Cuo-mobile Came to Kingsbridge Town

It was the summer of 1977. I was fourteen years old at the time and keenly interested in politics. Not issues per se—what does a kid know about such things anyway—but the political theater. I’d been collecting political buttons, too, since the acquisition of my very first—a small blue and red “Nixon for President” pin-back—when I was just six.

There was a hotly contested New York City mayoral race raging back then, and I was enthusiastically tuned into the spectacle. After a rather unimpressive first term, including coming perilously close to the city under his charge declaring bankruptcy, Mayor Abe Beame had his sights set on a second term. A lot of people wanted Beame’s job that summer. Congresswoman Bella Abzug was christened the early front-runner. She was nationally known and as vociferous as they come. Viscerally, the youthful me couldn’t stand her. In mayoral debates, which included the eventual winner, Ed Koch ,and runner-up, Mario Cuomo, Bella lived up to her bellicose reputation. She badgered Mario Cuomo in one encounter for having already accepted the Liberal party nomination for the general election, while still contesting the Democratic party nomination. Bella wanted an answer as to how Cuomo—who had never been a member of the Liberal party—could accept such a backroom deal. (He was considered Governor Carey’s handpicked candidate to replace the diminutive and ineffectual Beame.) “I’d like to have an answer,” she said over and over and over, cutting off Cuomo time and again as he attempted to do what she asked. “Well, when you close your mouth, I’ll answer!” he finally—and very loudly—exclaimed in exasperation. The debate’s live audience, in chorus, emitted an appropriately shocked but nevertheless highly entertained gasp.

Politics was a whole lot more honest back then. And nobody was more genuine to me than Mario Cuomo that summer. When he visited my neighborhood—Kingsbridge in the Bronx—on his Cuo-mobile, the fourteen-year-old me was in attendance, hoping to both see the candidate in person and pick up some campaign spoils, which I did. And there he was in the flesh, looking an awful lot like relations on my father’s side of the family. With his shirtsleeves rolled up, Cuomo spoke of his plans for the city, which was in pretty bad shape all around, although I didn’t seem to notice. I loved the 1970s—high crime, graffiti, and dirty streets notwithstanding.

When a local took exception to the candidate’s stance on capital punishment and attempted to heckle Cuomo into submission, he got more than he bargained for. Mario Cuomo climbed down from his Cuo-mobile and spoke face-to-face with the heckler in question. The cowed fellow was suddenly, and without warning, in a civilized conversation—candidate and constituent now reasoning with one another. Why was the death penalty even an issue in a mayoral race? Because one of Cuomo’s opponents, Ed Koch, had made it so to win over as many crime-weary voters as he could.

Unfortunately, from my youthful perspective, the good guys lost in 1977. A couple of years later, Mario Cuomo—having been elected lieutenant governor of New York State—visited my high school in the East Bronx. Thoughtful and poetic in his remarks, he was nonetheless confronted with a tough question from a classmate of mine, an unkempt genius of a kid who sketched Rubik-type cubes to pass the time. Boy Einstein wondered how a practicing Catholic politician could publicly support abortion on demand. He essentially accused this pubic servant of engaging in a form of sophistry—i.e., saying that he accepts the church’s teaching that abortion is murder, but doing nothing about in practical reality because, he says, he has no business doing so. Cuomo, as I recall, gave his usual eloquent retort, a tribute to his intellect and, too, to the Catholic high school I attended, which—at least back then—celebrated differences of opinion and welcomed free-flowing give-and-takes.

Mario Cuomo may have, in the end, been a better philosopher than politician, but he was a man of principle. Unlike the petty man who defeated him in the Democratic party primary for mayor in 1977—the same man whom Cuomo defeated in the Democratic party primary for governor of New York State in 1982—he exhibited both sophistication and heart, which are in short supply nowadays among the political ruling class. Mario Cuomo will definitely be missed.