Saturday, April 30, 2016

Why Nothing Matters…It Really Does

What follows is an essay written for some online concern. As the author of Seinfeld FAQ, I was asked to delve into the subject of nothing...and I did.

It’s been eighteen years since the last episode of Seinfeld—“The Finale”—aired in prime-time. Since then, the iconic sitcom has proven beyond a shadow of a doubt that nothing matters and, too, that nothing lasts forever.

Ironically, Seinfeld’s creators, Larry David and Jerry Seinfeld, never, ever promoted the notion that their trailblazing sitcom was about nothing—on the contrary as a matter of fact. David and Seinfeld admit to having been absolutely flabbergasted that a joke—a line from the mouth of George Costanza—became a mega-hit with the fan base. The “show about nothing” aside in “The Pitch” assumed a life of its own and became ingrained in the popular culture. It also established a remarkable staying power as the simplest way to describe what Seinfeld and the off-the-wall antics of Jerry, George, Elaine, and Kramer were all about.

While the show was very obviously about something—a whole lot of somethingSeinfeld’s distinctive nothing aura is precisely why it has legs. Sure, in the eyes of some, it is hopelessly dated—a ‘90s thing they just can’t get past. After all, Seinfeld was largely of a time before the Internet, smart phones, and GPS technology. It was a pre-Netflix age when individuals actually patronized—in the flesh—brick-and-mortar video stores to rent movies on clumsy VHS tapes. And God help the poor sap who forgot to rewind one before returning it—like the hapless George, who had rented Rochelle, Rochelle in “The Smelly Car.” For the younger generations, videotapes, phone booths, and Rolodexes are the sole province of museums and, of course, nostalgic baby boomers’ Facebook memes.

Time marches on with the inevitable technological advances and changes in everything from sartorial tastes to hairstyles to societal mores. The only constant with the passage of time is nothing. And better than any sitcom before or after it, Seinfeld’s savvy writers understood this. In wading through the daily grind—in engaging in the mundane minutia that is part and parcel of everyday living—human behavior invariably runs true to form and hasn’t really changed all that much over the centuries. Shakespeare is timeless because The Bard of Avon was keenly cognizant of the potent and enduring force of nothingness. He knew that nothing mattered. It really did. Some four centuries later—as a committed observer of the human condition—Jerry Seinfeld followed in the man’s not inconsiderable footsteps.

There were low-talkers and close-talkers in Shakespeare’s day. Neurotic, nihilistic men and women have long been part and parcel of “man’s inhumanity to man.” George once so eloquently described what is undeniably an unenviable task—for anyone, anywhere, and at any point in history. “I hate asking for change,” he said. “They always make a face. It’s like asking them to donate a kidney.” The man who ran the mercantile store in Dodge City, circa 1870, no doubt had a similar reaction when asked to make change. A nothing snapshot in the humdrum moment—perhaps—but something much larger in the grand scheme of things.

Once upon a time in the sixth grade at St. John’s parochial grammar school in the Bronx’s Kingsbridge, classmates and I discoursed on—of all things—the subject of nothing. We were twelve years old and this is what passed for philosophical discussion. We had long been inculcated in our school—and in church—that we came from nothing and would one day return to nothing. So, naturally, some of us couldn’t help but wonder: “What would nothing look like?” Fast forward four decades and I think I know the answer. It would look a lot like Seinfeld because I, for one, think of the show very often as I make my appointed rounds. I experience Seinfeld moments—nothing moments—time and again, so they really must mean something. Nothing matters, I’m certain of that much.

Saturday, April 23, 2016

The Mount Airy Lodge Life Lesson

As a boy growing up in the 1970s Bronx, there were more than a few television commercials that played repeatedly on local New York City stations—businesses chumming for customers in the sprawling demographic. Mount Airy Lodge in the Pocono Mountains—the “premier honeymoon hideaway” with its floor-to-ceiling mirrors, heart-shaped bathtubs, and every conceivable amenity—was one of them. “All you have to bring is your love of everything,” the resort’s commercial jingle intoned. No mention was made to bring a credit card, which I suspect would have come in handy as well. Their ads always ended with the melodiously uplifting lyrics: “Beautiful Mount Airy Lodge.” Why would anyone want to honeymoon anyplace else? After seeing its various commercials—probably hundreds of times over the years—one couldn't help but feel that Mount Airy Lodge was somehow immortal, and would be there for generations to come.

So, imagine my shock when I discovered the place had fallen into utter disrepair in the 1990s—a dilapidated eyesore that had little choice but to face the wrecking ball lock, stock, and barrel. Even beautiful Mount Airy Lodge had a finite lifespan. Nothing lasts forever, it seemed. (Having been completely demolished, the Mount Airy Casino Resort now sits on the same terra firma.)

My earliest recollections of ubiquitous television commercials involved the Palisades Amusement Park in Palisades, New Jersey, just across the Hudson River. Its jingle became embedded in my brain at a very young age: “Palisades from coat to coast, where a dime buys the most. Ride the coaster, get cool in the waves in the pool. You’ll have fun, so come on over. Palisades Amusement Park swings all day and after dark.” I did get to go there at least one time, but remember only that it was a rather bleak, rainy day. Naturally, I anticipated enjoying the park on a sunny summer’s day in the future, when I was a little older and could ride their famous roller coaster and swim in the park’s saltwater pool. But despite what the eight-year-old me surmised after watching its commercial invitations on the television over and over and over, Palisades Amusement Park, too, was not immortal. It shut down its rides and attractions for the all time in September 1971. A developer made the park’s owner an offer he couldn’t refuse, and the old park space is now a series of luxury apartment buildings with stellar views of the Manhattan skyline.

And worth mentioning is the Haunted Mansion in Long Branch, New Jersey. Its commercials ran continuously during the warmer climes around here, and they always ended with the bloodcurdling invitation: “The Haunted Mansion in Long Branch…it’s waiting for you.” I, though, never did get to “wander through its myriad of secret passageways and winding labyrinths” because it burned to the ground in 1987. Again, further proof that nothing lasts forever. Fortunately, I visited its ethereal neighbor to the south, The Brigantine Castle, in Brigantine, New Jersey. It, too, ran oodles of commercials on New York City airwaves—and it, too, is no longer with us. So, gather ye rosebuds while ye may.

Finally, and perhaps the bitterest pill to swallow, was the closure of the Albert Merrill School in Manhattan. One commercial with spokesperson Jimmy Randolph ran for years on local TV. It featured a young woman, by happenstance, bumping into Jimmy Randolph, who was standing pensively on the busy streets of New York and staring off into space. She recognizes him immediately as the man who does the commercials for the Albert Merrill School. Coincidentally, she’s looking for the place, which gives Jimmy the perfect excuse to walk her over there while simultaneously extolling this grand vocational school's countless virtues. It’s funny, but this was the only commercial I remember ever airing, yet the actress recognizes Jimmy Randolph from the commercials. A Seinfeld episode? Post-modern television for sure. But even the Albert Merrill School is a mere memory now, which I never would have thought possible when I was a teen. It, too, didn’t endure as a permanent fixture on the landscape to aid and abet students of all ages in this increasingly dog-eat-dog world of ours. Rest assured, everything here today will be gone tomorrow—one of these days.

Human to Human

I had a curious close encounter this morning. For one brief shining moment, I thought I was running errands in Dickensian London and not tony Riverdale in the Bronx. My peripheral vision observed an individual approach a Hispanic man, who was sitting alone on a park bench with only his iPhone as company. I heard him say, “Excuse me, SeƱor, can I have a word with you?” The man told him in imperfect English, but in no uncertain terms, to make like a tree and leave. “I’m not trying to sell you something,” he said to no avail.

Waiting nearby for a light to turn green—and fast—I realized that one man’s courage to kiss off an unwanted intruder was another man’s potential albatross. Mine, I feared, in this instance. Purposely, I hadn’t even glanced over at this person, who was looking for a word. Keeping eye contact to a minimum in the hopes of keeping any contact to a minimum—or better yet, none at all—was what I had in mind.

The best laid plans of mice and men. After getting the brush-off, said individual looked around and saw only one person in taking distance—me. “Mind if I talk to you—human to human?” he asked as he came up alongside me. I didn’t say yes and I didn’t say no, which to him meant yes. When I got a fair glimpse at my fellow human, I was surprised to see how young he was. He appeared to be teenager, or maybe a little older than that—but I doubt it. As a formerly young person, I find divining people’s ages increasingly problematic with the passage of time. Some forty year olds look like they’re collecting Social Security; and some seventy year olds could pass for fifty-somethings. But this was a kid...or so it seemed to me.

Anyway, this young fellow, whatever his age, began our human-to-human talk by decrying the state of the economy and how tough it was to find work. I couldn’t argue with him on that score. He then proceeded to tell the tale of his having to buy a new jacket to go on job interviews—the one, in fact, that he was wearing, which cost $65. He told me, too, that he had gotten a haircut, so as to look his best while job hunting. The problem was that he was now broke, and he wondered whether he should return the $65 jacket and go on interviews with his old, ratty coat and, of course, school transcripts showing that he was qualified for a job, despite looking like Oliver Twist.

At one point he said, “Sixty-five dollars may sound like a lot of money to you,” which momentarily confused me. A more effective argument might have been: “Sixty-five dollars may not sound like a lot of money to you…but to me…it is.” Our little chat largely occurred as we crossed a very busy street. My fellow human being never delivered the punch line I thought was coming. Brother can you spare an inflation-adjusted dime. I’ll sell you my $65 jacket for $30—a bargain if ever there was one. He seemed, though, to sincerely want an answer as to whether or not he should return his $65 jacket. I believe that I was spared further discussion with this young man when he found another ear—at a bus stop—in our path. My parting words to him were: “Good luck.” And he replied, “You see: Even you don’t know what to do.”

This parting salvo, in particular, disturbed me on multiple levels. After all, this kid was in a bad way no matter how you slice it. Drugs…possibly. Out of work…definitely. Family…where were they? Of course, I could have been on Candid Camera or Punk’d. Har har hardy har har. That’s really funny: Should I return my $65 jacket—or keep it even though I’m broke—and take my chances with my rags and fair to middling school grades. Sometimes the truth is stranger than fiction. However, I don't know the truth in this case, which is probably for the best.

(Photo from the personal collection of Nicholas Nigro)

Friday, April 22, 2016

Good and Evel

Recently, I encountered a ghost from my past festooned in a garish leather jumpsuit. Actually, it was by pure chance that I unearthed the memory of this individual—someone whom I hadn’t thought about in a very long time. And when I was a callow youth back in the colorful 1970s, he was big—really big.

The man’s occupation was daredevil. He liked jumping over things—usually while riding his motorcycle but, occasionally, utilizing other forms of transportation, like a steam-powered rocket. Dean Martin roasted the guy—the ultimate evidence back then that he was a somebody. Robert Knievel, aka Evel Knievel, was his name and he’s in the Guinness Book of World Records for having cumulatively broken more bones than anybody else…and lived to tell. Evel Knievel is no longer among the living, but his iconic status is eternal.

Evel Knievel impacted our lives. I remember this affable kid named Eddie from the old neighborhood, who wasn’t, in retrospect, the brightest bulb in the chandelier. Eddie was coaxed by his  friends, who regularly made sport of him, into performing an Evel Knievel stunt on his old Sting-Ray bicycle—with the banana seat. The agreeable, always-game, and stupidly fearless Eddie rode his bicycle up a wooden plank into the air, which enabled him to hop a short wall. What goes up six feet, though, must come down six feet—it's the law of physics—and down Eddie came. He lost control of his bicycle on the concrete grounds and crashed into a garage.

I witnessed this local Evel Knievel moment, which had been advertised—date and time—by word of mouth. And like Arthur Fonzarelli, aka the “Fonz,” who jumped the shark on Happy Days, it didn’t quite end on a high note. At least the Fonz made it over the man-eating white shark, which was his goal. Eddie’s goal amounted to  just doing it—come what may. Mission accomplished, He hurt himself—just like Evel and the Fonz—but lived to tell and ride another day.

Wednesday, April 20, 2016

Big Ben: the Bell Tolls for Thee

While growing up in Kingsbridge in the 1970s, independent pharmacies and pharmacists ruled the roost—the Bronx Prescription Center, Stuart’s, and this hole in the wall storefront run by a man named Benjamin Something or the Other. Actually, we called him Benjamin "Decker," which may or may not have been his real name. Probably not but pretty close. I wish I could remember the actual name of the pharmacy, but I don’t.

I do remember Benjamin, however. He was a cadaverous figure—picture William Hickey in Prizzi’s Honor. Old Ben was a bona fide eccentric and more than a bit strange. For some reason, my younger brother and I bought candy from him for a period of time. With so many more traditional alternatives in the area, I think I know why. We were somehow drawn to oddball characters and off-Broadway theater. We were fascinated with this unconventional, peculiar-looking neighborhood pharmacist—the master of his little shop that not only filled prescriptions but sold everything from toiletries to shampoos to hair brushes. I only wish I had snapped a picture of this charismatic geezer—this independent medicine man—from an era when the little guy still counted.

I distinctly remember tins of the sore throat lozenges, Sucrets, on a rack in front of Benjamin’s unusual glass mirror-prism countertop. How long would that last today? But it was the larger than life man himself, festooned in his sky blue pharmacist smock, that made the drug store worth visiting. When the jingling bells attached to his front door sounded, alerting the proprietor he had a potentially paying customer on the premises, Big Ben would emerge from the recesses of his apothecary. He was a certified Notary Public, too. He notarized my $1,500 student loan for Manhattan College—from the Washington Heights Federal Bank just next door to him—which covered about half of my year’s tuition. Notarizing the document with an expired ink stamp, and altering the expiration date with the stroke of a pen, the wizened pharmacist said to me, as I signed the document in his presence, “Singing your life away, eh?”

I truly miss Benjamin Decker—or whatever his real name was—in this age of ever-encroaching big chain pharmacies (and big everything else). Little guy pharmacy businesses, like Big Ben’s on W231st Street in the Bronx, are dinosaurs. I suppose the bitter pill would be easier to swallow if the big pharmacies were actually bigger and better—bargains—but they’re not. Sure, they carry everything—but not really everything—and can pay the exorbitant rents around town, but it's the Decker personal touch that is sorely missed.

Tuesday, April 19, 2016

Morning Calls Remembered

A loud shout on the streets of the Bronx in the early morning hours is the wind beneath the wings of this blog. Awoken from a sound sleep, my brain—sans any couching on my part—retrieved two words lodged in its vast memory bank: morning call. I don't exactly know why, but in my groggy state, I recalled my maternal grandmother’s daily newspaper, The Morning Call—the one she found on her front porch every morning on Miller Street and then on South Second Street in Bangor, Pennsylvania. As a youth, I always thought that was such a great name for a newspaper, and I’m happy to report this Allentown-based daily is still in business. But my brain wasn’t done yet. It returned to the Bronx and dredged up one more morning call—my own.

Some forty years ago, it was not unusual to find me in a neighboring alleyway at around seven o’clock in the morning and calling on my best friend “Johnny Boy.” Considering all the advances in technology and the colossal cultural shift, it seems kind of strange to envision a youngster arising so bright and early, before anybody else in the household, and venturing out onto the mean streets of the Bronx without first alerting Ma and Pa. After all, local crime statistics were even more cause for concern back then, and the nine- and ten-year-old me didn’t even have a cell phone to communicate with the home office.

But it’s just the way it was. Roaring at the top of my lungs, “Johnny Boy!” when most everybody in earshot was asleep on a weekend, or on an early summer’s morning, was commonplace. My friend would often respond to my bellow with the logical rejoinder, “What?” I would then say, “You coming out?” Occasionally, one of his sisters would answer for him and shout, “He’s sleeping!” Looking back these many years later, I can understand why some others might not have appreciated this morning call—not too long after the sunrise—of “Johnny Boy!” It was, however, a different and, I daresay, simpler time—completely uninhibited and not remotely technologically driven. It was also more annoying to those who didn’t get up with the roosters.

While I rue all that has been lost to the youth of today transfixed with their latest electronic gadgets and, above all else, impatience with everything and anything that doesn’t move at the speed of light, I take great solace in the contemporary quietude. There are no little people anymore waking up at daybreak, going out to play, and disturbing formerly young persons like myself. Nowadays, when the legions of youth arise from their slumbers, they reach, foremost, for their iPads and iPhones. Venturing out into the great outdoors—the urban jungle—and calling on their best buds is unheard of. When a text message or tweet will suffice, why wake up the wider world anyway? And now, too, I can read the The Morning Call online.

Monday, April 18, 2016

All Hail, Cesar!

Once upon a time I was a collector of many things, including autographs. As a teenr, I wrote letters to individual baseball players care of their teams and requested their signatures. I even bought mailing lists with players’ home addresses and sent them baseball cards to sign, which most of them eventually did. Asking for autographed pictures, I sent fan letters, too, to politicians in Congress and in state houses, and almost always got them. Granted, some of the signatures were the work of autopens and, the worst of them all, rubber stamps. And there were even some very high-quality secretary forgeries in the mix.

However, most of the political autographs were real and many of them personalized to me. As both a young man and a collector, I was completely non-partisan in this endeavor. I received autographs from everyone from Ted Kennedy to Jack Kemp; Henry “Scoop” Jackson to Tom Bradley. New York Governor Mario Cuomo personally inscribed a photo to yours truly, and so did Vice President George Herbert Walker Bush, although he misspelled my name as “Nick Negro.” The Bush autograph was authenticated and—courtesy of financially hard times sometime later in the adult world—I sold it at auction for $175.

In the early 1980s, Louie, our cigar-chomping neighborhood mailman, used to open our unlocked front door in the Bronx, walk into the hall, and place the mail on the bottom step of the staircase leading to our upper-floor apartment. Aside from leaving his cigar bouquet calling card, he would sometimes cry out: “You got another letter from the government!” My autographed pictures typically arrived in 9”x 12” official manila envelopes with a piece of cardboard in them, so that Louie and his p.o. brethren would avoid their natural inclinations to bend  and batter mail. I think Louie came to believe we were a family of spies or secretive government agents. My father, a veteran post office man himself, eventually assuaged Louie's worst fears.

Beyond baseball players and pols, I also purchased a mailing list of celebrity home addresses one time and was excited to send a couple of “Joker cards" from the “Bat Laffs” series to none other than Cesar Romero on San Vincente Boulevard in Los Angeles. I was quite surprised to receive a postcard a week or so later from Maria Romero, Cesar’s older sister. She informed me that her brother was doing dinner theater in Texas, but would be more than happy to sign my "Joker cards" when he returned. Now this was going beyond the call of duty, I thought. And a couple of months later, I not only found the signed Joker cards in my mail, but two more autographs of Cesar as well—one a photograph of him as the Joker inscribed “To Nick Nigro, A big hello from The Joker” and another of Cesar as Cesar. And it was all in an envelope the man personally addressed himself. He paid the postage and affixed, too, a “Cesar Romero” return address label on the envelope—one he probably got as a "thank you" for contributing to a favorite charity. He also alerted the post office minions they would be handling a photo, which was to be treated accordingly. Of course, Cesar being Cesar said, "Please." I had always heard Cesar was a class act and liked by just about everyone—and the proof was in the Joker cards signing. All hail, Cesar!

(Photos from the personal collection of Nicholas Nigro)

Friday, April 15, 2016

The Very Good Whisperer: Part II

Working in a busy retail setting is a roller coaster ride—a never-ending series of ups and downs courtesy of the diverse personalities and mercurial temperaments of the clientele. Forgive the mixed metaphor, but to put the cherry atop this particular stroll down memory lane—begun in yesterday’s essay—I give you the “Hummingbird,” a Pet Nosh patron who, without fail, entered the store harmoniously humming an easy-listening melody, gathered what he came for while not missing a beat, and paid his tab still in tune. He resembled James Earl Jones.

But not all of our clientele were of Hummingbird class and caliber. Take the “Seamstress,” a woman who earned her well-deserved moniker because she surreptitiously tore open bags of her preferred dog food—a trailblazing line of natural diets known as Cornucopia—at the seams, then left them pour out onto the shelves. She claimed her canine companions could only stomach pellets of a certain hue, and that even the slightest color difference made all the difference in the world. The Seamstress said they got physically sick from the food if it wasn’t a very precise shade of gray, which only she could decipher. Under such exacting conditions, I might have just shopped around for another brand of dog food.

Initially, we accommodated the Seamstress’s idiosyncrasies and permitted her to open the bags. But one, then two, and then three inspired a retailer’s worst nightmare—no purchase and no more products to sell (to other Cornucopia consumers not as fastidious regarding pellet color variations). This rather over-generous policy of ours quickly became intolerable. And, too, the folks at Cornucopia informed us they would not accept any more returns of perfectly good bags of their foods. For they, too, were acquainted with the Seamstress, who regularly harassed them on the telephone concerning matters gray. Still, our new hard-line policy couldn't keep her at bay. The Seamstress merely went underground, determined that it was best for her to enter our shop when it was very busy—preferably on a weekend—and where she could get lost in the crowd. She even took to wearing sunglasses and a kerchief—a disguise to enable her to reach unseen her targets. Her deception worked for a while, but when we found two and sometimes three opened bags of Cornucopia—at the seams of course—we knew in no uncertain terms who the culprit was.

From vandalism to out-and-out thievery, I submit for your approval an elderly man christened “Can’t See It.” He was a facial cross between Groucho Marx in his You Bet Your Life days and weather-beaten actor Glenn Strange, Sam the bartender on Gunsmoke. Upon being told how much he owed us, which was typically no more than two or three dollars, he repeated the phrase “Can’t see it…Can’t see it…Can’t see it,” and occasionally threw in a “Can’t be” or two to break up the monotony. It was truly bizarre. Subsequently, we discovered that Can’t See It visited the checkout to both pay his nominal tab and to perform his madcap “Can’t See It” routine, while Mrs. Can’t See It over-stuffed a shopping bag of her own with cans of dog food—out of eyeshot and bypassing the cashier altogether. We finally caught this senior citizen equivalent of Bonnie and Clyde with the goods one day, and they never again returned to the scene of the crime. This very old and very odd couple was last seen visiting a nearby psychic business. I can only surmise what vibes the psychic might have felt in their presence, but I can take an educated guess what Can’t See It told her when asked to pay for her services.

Finally, I close with memories of a personal favorite—an inscrutable fellow assigned the nickname “Choo Choo Trousers.” Choo Choo Trousers typically materialized minutes before closing time, which was then seven o’clock. Festooned in pinstriped overalls, the kind a train engineer might wear, he spoke with a southern accent of some strain—wholly unique in our urban Yonkers, New York setting—and wore a stud earring that was, believe it or not, extremely rare in a man’s ear in the early 1980s. Choo Choo Trousers would always greet us with “How ya all doing?” and wink at the younger adult staff on duty, which occasionally was just me. The unsolved mystery was whether or not this middle-aged man from somewhere in Dixie worked for the railroad. Perhaps the overalls represented some kind of fetish or fashion statement. We dared not ask. I can, however, say that Choo Choo Trousers never asked me to ride on his train. After closing the store, we would sometimes spot him awaiting his bus ride home with a big bag of dog food at his side—a priceless and unforgettable visual.

So, I am left to wonder now where Choo Choo Trousers’ train took him in life…and where the Hummingbird’s flown off to in these past three decades. As for the Seamstress and Mr. and Mrs. Can’t See It…well, they’ve more than likely shuffled off this mortal coil…such are the sands of time.

Thursday, April 14, 2016

The Very Good Whisperer

I spotted this man on the street recently who reminded me of someone—someone from the distant past. The words “very good” immediately formed on the tip of my tongue, and I whispered it twice under my breath. “Very Good,” you see, was a nickname that we—some three decades ago at a place called Pet Nosh—had affixed to a certain customer of ours. Behind the scenes of this very busy retail milieu, we did an awful lot of this sort of thing. It kept has sane.

As it turned out, it wasn’t Very Good after all—in fact, based on his chronological age back in the 1980s, he might very well be on a very good cloud in heaven right now—but the guy I spied nonetheless sported the same ill-fitting toupee and hangdog look. Very Good, you see, would repeat the phrase “very good” over and over and over as you packed his cat food cans, took his money, and returned his change with a “thank you.” The response to each one of these acts was the same: “very good,” “very good,” and “very good.”

The sighting of this Very Good mirror image inevitably commenced a stroll down memory lane to further former customers who were branded with comparable monikers. Most of the nicknames doled out by us were benign, like “Very Good,” but some were justifiably toxic. Privately always, we christened two siblings who regularly shopped together the “Grotesque Sisters” because—as you may have guessed— they were grotesque. They were involved, if memory serves, in raising Australian Cattle Dogs. They attended all kinds of dog shows and were, without fail, self-absorbed and insufferable. So, no, their nickname had absolutely nothing to do with the fact that they also had mustaches.

Long before it was fashionable, I branded a patron “The Fifties Guy.” He was an affable bloke who wore his hair and dressed like he was auditioning for a part in Grease. Perhaps he’s "The Seventies Guy" now, I don’t know. Then there was this fellow whom we called “Beautiful, Wonderful Man,” and not because he was a "Beautiful, Wonderful Man." He was pleasant enough, I guess, but received his unusual sobriquet because—week after week after week—he would tell us what a “beautiful, wonderful man,” platonically speaking, our sexagenarian sidekick was.

Then there was this college-aged customer of ours—who ended up working for the business at some later date—known as “Mr. Mellow.” It seemed that Mr. Mellow was in a cannabis-induced state of perpetual bliss. From the mellow-minded to the frenetic “Zorro,” a woman unceasingly masked and shrouded from head to toe courtesy of an allergic condition to—if I remember correctly—just about everything. Certain odors, including fresh air, could take her down in a heartbeat. As we kindly catered to her every whim, she was always demanding, distracted, and disagreeable. But in retrospect: Who could blame her?

In stark contrast to Zorro, “John Gotti” was a widely liked patron of ours affectionately known by his handle. Sure, he resembled you know whom. I once asked him if he knew how to crack open a safe. Our antiquated store safe just wouldn’t open, and I desperately needed change on a busy Saturday. He feigned total ignorance. Subsequently, he landed in prison—with no bail—awaiting trial on a series of racketeering charges. I can’t say if safe cracking was among them. Sadly, he dropped dead of a heart attack before ever getting his day in court. All who knew him at Pet Nosh felt bad when we heard the news, because he was a one of the good ones...I think.

(Next: Part II, including memories of “Choo Choo Trousers,” the “Seamstress,” and the “Hummingbird.”)

Monday, April 4, 2016

In the Windy Old Weather

It was cold and windy in these parts yesterday. And I can honestly say that excessive wind speeds make walking with a prosthetic knee a little dicey. Nevertheless, I needed the exercise and concluded by early afternoon the worst of the winds had come and gone. The furious rainstorm of the night before—featuring thunderclaps and a symphony of overturned garbage cans—was replaced by incredibly bright blue skies and that ultra-sharp sunlight unique to springtime.

So, I hit the road with every intention of turning back if the wind beneath my wings proved more than I could handle. There were occasional gusts of import along the way, but I opted to soldier on and venture to Van Cortlandt Park about a half-mile away. While in the park, I rested for a spell on a bench—one that furnished me with a bird’s eye view of the elevated W242nd Street subway station. This is the first or last stop—depending on which direction you are headed—of the Number 1 “Broadway Local” line. Day and night, the trains come and go—and come and go again—patiently waiting their turns to dock. There’s lots of loud horn blowing and nails-on-a-chalkboard screeching, too, as the trains slow up and switch tracks. What goes around comes around, I guess, because I enjoyed viewing this same spectacle as a boy. But that was then, this is now, and the verb “enjoy” is relative.

Sitting on a park bench with a trusty cane at my side—and concerned that I might get blown down on my return trip—was not, it's fair to say, on my youthful radar. In fact, the exact spot where I sat at the southern tail of the sprawling park was—in my younger days—an asphalt softball field. Like so much of the park and indeed the city at large in the 1970s, it was not properly maintained. The asphalt was a sorry mess with weeds sprouting up from home plate to centerfield; first base to third base. It was not a wise idea to attempt a Ron Swoboda-in-the-1969-World Series diving catch there—let’s put it that way. The combination of cracked asphalt and broken glass beer and soda bottles were a certain ticket to the emergency room.

The Internet is rife with images of New York City in the dirty and dangerous 1970s. The stainless steel subway cars that I cast my eyes upon yesterday were sans graffiti and underground tunnel grime. Emblematic of the city’s precipitous decline, they were covered in the stuff forty years ago, not to mention inefficient and crime laden. I witnessed an armed robbery on the Number 1 train in 1978. And in the old neighborhood, home burglaries and street muggings were more commonplace than today.

It would seem then the logical conclusion to draw is that things are a whole lot better today when compared with the awful 1970s. Yes, I’m happy to ride clean, generally safer, and definitely more efficient subway trains. The park I visited yesterday is without question a visually more appealing place in 2016 than it was in, say, 1976. But what individuals who didn’t grow up in New York in the 1970s can’t possibly understand is that—for all its well-documented problems and assorted blight—it was for the most part a great place to be a teenager. Some neighborhoods were bona fide war zones, but most were alive—believe it or not—with neighbors whom you actually knew. That sense of community is largely lost in this sterile age of gentrification—everything is so damn expensive—and obeisance to devices. I was among the last generation to play the old city street games like box ball and stoop ball. People bought homes in the old neighborhood as foremost places to live—often for their extended families—and only secondly as investments. There are countless absentee owners now who look upon their properties as ATM machines in perpetuity. They rent out apartments to a revolving door of tenants who pay top dollar for the honor and don’t care a whit where they call home. And it shows! The 1970s in New York had character and characters—lots of them—and is sorely missed. Cleaning the city up was a necessity, but apparently we threw out the baby with the bath water.

(Photos two and three from the personal collection of Nicholas Nigro)