Saturday, January 30, 2016

Red Light...Green Light

As kids growing up in the Kingsbridge section of the Bronx, we used to play a game—among so many others—called “Red Light…Green Light.” In this youthful diversion of ours, somebody was It. More times than not, being It in an urban street game was the booby prize. But not in “Red Light…Green Light.” It is what the game’s myriad players aspired to be, because the Anointed One got to cry out, “Red Light…Green Light…1, 2, 3...1, 2, 3” with It's eyes covered and back turned to all others. And right after this rapid-fire recitation, It promptly pirouetted in an attempt to catch advancing players in the act. That is, the game's players endeavoring to reach the coveted finish line. Players who could not—under any circumstances according to the rules—be caught in motion. We were permitted to advance only during the “Red Light…Green Light…1, 2, 3...1, 2, 3” clarion call. If caught moving forward by the All Mighty It, we would be sent back from whence we came—the starting line, actually, and a long, long way from being the game’s impresario. That’s the way “Red Light…Green Light” was played—if that makes any sense. And, believe me, it was a lot of fun being It and not It, too.

But this blog is not about the game just described, which I played forty-five years or so ago—and one, by the way, that withered on the vine with just about every other street game after my generation, the baby boomers, retired our spaldeens. No, this “Red Light…Green Light” game that I played some forty-five years ago was a One Night Only affair, an on-the-spot creation of yours truly as darkness set in one chilly, pre-Christmas December evening just before suppertime. I was nine years old and playing outside with my six-year-old brother. We did that sort of thing in the 1970s. We were outdoors as much as physically possible, even in cold weather and without the light of day.

True, the 1970s were a high crime time here in the Bronx and just about everywhere else in New York City. There were plenty  of muggings, break-ins, and the like. Still, I don’t think my folks were even remotely guilty of parental negligence. Anyway, this “Red Light…Green Light” derivative involved a literal, working traffic light on Kingsbridge Avenue, a street a couple a blocks away from where I called home. My younger brother and I participated in a frenetic running game that took us down alleyways, over a short backyard wall, and through a curious nook and cranny—a small space to slither through that bordered a low wrought iron fence with spikes atop it. It was there—X marks the spot—where one could catch a glimpse of that traffic light. Red meant stop and green meant go—simple enough. But for an energized nine year old, stopping on a dime—for a red light in this instance—could augur trouble, especially with a spiked fence in the vicinity.

So, yes, I got a spiked that night—beneath my chin—and the blood flowed. Without delay, Mom brought me to our family doctor up the hill on Kingsbridge Avenue, a mere block away from the notorious red light. The old sawbones stitched me up—I have the scar to prove it—and informed my mother and me that a half-inch or so to the left and I might have been impaled. The following day, my best friend in grammar school at the time—a kid named Mark D—mockingly pointed out to my peers that I was wearing “one bandage over another” on my chin. What are friends for? This, in fact, is how I can remember how I old I was when the near-impaling incident occurred. I’ve got a signed report card envelope to prove it. 

Postscript: I've noticed that modern-day fences of the kind that nearly impaled me are sans spiked tops. They're flat.  And this flatness is a good thing. I’m glad, though, that I was permitted to go outside and play a game—for lack of a better word—that I conceived in the moment. I’m happy, too, that there was a family doctor still in his office to patch me up—one bandage over another—without any fanfare. Kids with their smartphones just don’t know what they’re missing.

(Photos from the personal collection of Nicholas Nigro)

Wednesday, January 20, 2016

It’s Not Your Grandfather’s School Cafeteria Anymore

I have few fond memories of high school. One, however, is the institution of fine learning’s cafeteria. Of course, I was a teenager back then—in the scintillating 1970s—with teenager culinary tastes and peculiar gastronomic desires. I salivated over certain foods then that might very well leave me dry today. I don’t know if I’d appreciate the school’s exceptionally gooey Friday “grandma slices” of pizza or cardboard-textured Wednesday roast beef wedges (with optional Au jus)—personal favorites—as much now as I did when Jimmy Carter was president. I wonder, too, how my adult palate would take to the “Mashed Pot” served with the aforementioned roast beef wedge. Yes, that’s what the a-little-too-small cafeteria special board read every Wednesday. Were he still among the living, Cardinal Spellman would certainly have cried foul.

Anyway, while perusing my alma mater’s website recently, I came upon a link to its “cafeteria menu,” which I thought strange. When I clicked it, a PDF file opened up with this week’s—Monday through Friday—menu. And it was a tad different from what I recall with such fondness. I remember one unique “hot” special every day of the week—like the pizza and roast beef wedge—plus the ubiquitous daily alternative: hot dogs. The hot dogs were thirty-five cents when I was a freshman, fifty cents when I was a senior, and worth every penny.

There are no hot dogs on today’s cafeteria menu. In fact, the place has been dubbed a “cafĂ©” now and is run by a culinary outfit. (I won't hazard a guess as to what happened to all the cafeteria ladies.) This contemporary bill of fare features categories like “Chef’s Table,” “Jump Asian,” and “Tuscan Bistro.” Icons identify which foods are gluten free, vegetarian, and vegan. The vegetarian side dish for January 20, 2016 was “Risi e Bisi Rice, Roasted Zucchini, and Tomatoes.” The only thing resembling a vegetable—outside of potatoes—that I remember eating in the school cafeteria was sauerkraut on my hot dog. It was the first and last time I sampled that. But sauerkraut taught me a valuable lesson: Appealing aromas don’t necessarily translate into taste sensations, particularly when they turn a perfectly edible hot dog roll into a soggy mess. (The cafeteria ladies had to keep the lunch lines moving. Draining the sauerkraut before putting it atop the frankfurter just didn’t happen.)

So, a long time ago on a Wednesday afternoon in wintertime, I enjoyed a roast beef wedge—with Au jus—and a mashed pot side in my school cafeteria. Today, I could have ordered “Chicken Scallopini Scampi,” “Hunan Chicken and Hong Sue Pork,” and “Fruited Barley Lentil Soup.” I could also have a refillable debit card to pay for it—a lunchtime E-Zpass. For sure: It’s not your grandfather’s school cafeteria anymore. Trouble is: I’m the grandfather. How did that happen?

Tuesday, January 5, 2016

January Blues

In the fledgling days of January 1994, a wannabe “motivational shaper” of young men and women—a slick, narcissistic retail store manager, actually—crudely produced an employee “handbook,” which he dubbed: “1994: A New Year, A New Focus,” It was passed out to his less than enthusiastic underlings. The thing amounted to yet another New Year’s series of resolutions to do better and be better on a whole host of fronts—yada...yada...yada. But these resolutions were for a workforce, chronicling what exactly was expected of them along, of course, with explanations why doing more for less would simultaneously build character and make the overall job experience more rewarding. While early January 1994 was, indisputably, a new year, the desired new focus, I can assure you, didn’t come to pass. In fact, whatever new there was about the 1994 focus was a whole lot worse than anything that preceded it!

From my perspective at least, the first couple of weeks in January have invariably been unpleasant—starkly so. As a boy, this stretch of time sealed Christmas’s coffin tight. All the preparation and anticipation for the holiday vanquished in one fell swoop! And the sour icing on the cake was that it was back to the always-dreaded school after a typically event- and fun-filled Christmas vacation—in the dead of winter no less—with very little to look forward to on the upcoming calendar. Trudging off to school in the New Year’s morning cold was nightmarish and a compelling reminder that all good things come with a price—and, too, come to an end. All that was left in early January was to pray for snow.

While Christmastime to me is now a mere shadow of its former self—my youthful exuberance irretrievably lost in the past—I still experience the January blues. On Christmas Eve 2015, the temperature here in New York City set a record: seventy-three. I ran an errand at four o’clock that afternoon without wearing a jacket. My trusty mailman, Yu, delivered the Christmas Eve mail in shorts and a short-sleeved shirt. He also donned his plastic postal safari hat—summer wear and a sign of the climes. This morning—less than two weeks later—the temperature was in the teens, and Yu’s safari hat rested in his locker. Today’s bitter cold, too, at long last cast asunder 2015’s geraniums, begonias, and flowering roses. No frost in these parts until early January was unprecedented in my lifetime!

By chance on the second day of this month, I found myself in the vicinity of Rockefeller Center and the Christmas tree. Once upon a time, Christmas was incomplete without seeing that tree. But I hadn’t been down there at Christmastime—on purpose—in a very long time. I decided, however, to venture past it—for old times sake and, perhaps, for the last time. Because one never knows—I’m not getting any younger. Truth be told, I wasn’t very impressed. The tree seemed smaller and scragglier than I remembered it. I doubt that it was. But seeing it in the bright light of day and, yes, in January, was a deadly one-two punch.

On the heels of my tree trip to bountiful, I walked past Radio City Music Hall. And I didn’t experience the same feelings—not by a long shot—that I had when I saw A Boy Named Charlie Brown, Scrooge, Bedknobs and Broomsticks, and 1776 at Christmastime (1969-1972.) Upon exiting a subway car at Grand Central Station at the age of just seven, I got wedged between closing doors. I was on my way to see the aforementioned A Boy Named Charlie Brown. Such is life! It’s 2016 now, a presidential election year, and there’s a thing called Facebook. When it’s too hot, people deliver sermons and when it’s too cold, they do as well. 2016: A New Year, A New Focus. Maybe this is the year I get stuck in a subway door once more and all will be well again.