Wednesday, June 29, 2016

The Eliot Ness Story

He told me that his former co-workers called him “Eliot Ness.” Why? Because his first name was Eliot and last name something like Ness, but not quite. I also learned that Eliot was of Cuban descent and was—once upon a time—a fireman. He referenced, too, an ex-wife and a son. It’s possible Eliot’s been around my neighborhood for a while, but I can’t be certain. I never noticed him before we met for the first time.

I encountered Eliot about a month ago when he very vociferously informed me what a beautiful day it was. And he was right on the money: It was a beautiful day. Eliot then asked me how I was doing and offered me a thunderous parting salvo: “God bless you!” There was something slightly menacing about the man, I thought, even though nothing he said—in actual words—suggested that. But if I may employ a relation’s favorite term for the Eliots of this world: He just didn’t seem “right in the head.”

Not having seen him before this meeting of the minds, I didn’t give Eliot a second thought as he wandered away. But then a couple of weeks later he materialized again in my little corner of the world. This time around he extended his hand to me. I discovered now where Eliot shops for food bargains—a German grocery called Aldi’s—and where he lives, too. Again, Eliot seemed hot-wired—inebriated would have been a good guess. I bumped into the man one more time after that and—as the old saying goes—the third time’s a charm. Any and all doubt that Eliot liked his few were removed. The proof was in the pudding: a bottle of Coors Light in his hand, a spare in his back pocket, and beer breath on top of all that.

Eliot shook my hand—that's twice if you’re counting—and admitted to having had a cold one or two. He began waxing nostalgic—about something his ex-wife once said to him—and got emotional. “I’m sorry, I’ve got to go because otherwise I’m going to cry.” It was a poignant moment for sure—sad and all—but I nonetheless heaved a sigh of relief that Eliot went on his merry way with his Coors Light bottles.

There’s obviously a whole lot more to Eliot’s life story than what he relayed to me in our brief tête-à-têtes. After all, everyone’s got a story with some of them—granted—a little more dramatic than others. And so many of these life stories don’t have happy endings—or beginnings and middles for that matter. Suffice it to say, you don’t want to find yourself in middle age with a Coors Light in your hand and one in your back pocket while ambling down a city street. It’s how Eliot arrived in his present predicament—which could happen to just about any of us—that is the most troubling.

Tuesday, June 28, 2016

Happy Junior Fence Day

Today is Junior Fence Day. It is indeed and has been since I recorded the date on a piece of loose leaf paper chronicling the noteworthy events of 1978’s spring and summer. On that June 28th—a Wednesday by the way—I found myself reading the novel Jaws at a front window overlooking the sidewalk below. I spied two youths—who shall remain nameless—run past and didn't give it a second thought, because in those days kids played outside all the time and did a lot of running. However, several seconds later, I saw a fellow whom we knew as “Junior Fence”—son of "Mr. Fence," of course—race by. This running game had assumed new meaning now because the boy and girl in question were thirteen and ten, respectively, and Junior Fence was a grown man in his twenties. He was a scary dude, too, with—the preponderance of the evidence concluded—a serious drug and/or alcohol problem.

I subsequently uncovered the whole truth and nothing but the truth concerning the “Great Chase” I had witnessed. The two youths had been tossing rocks atop the Fence family back porch awning, which was made of aluminum. One stone, apparently, missed its intended mark and crashed through a glass door leading into the Fence Family kitchen. And the fleet-footed Junior Fence was out for blood—for justice—in a New York minute. The boy in question laid low for a while because the Fence family was vigilantly on the prowl for the guilty party. The little girl had been quickly exonerated when her father told Junior Fence in no uncertain terms that she was a good girl and to bug off. Fortuitously for the boy, his family went on vacation for a couple of weeks beginning on July 1st. By the time he returned to the neighborhood, the manhunt had pretty much been called off and life returned to normal.

While making my appointed rounds today, June 28, 2016, I was reminded of Junior Fence Day when a car pulled up alongside me and an angry young man got out. Coincidentally, he wanted to know if I had seen a couple of kids run past me. Evidently, they had thrown an egg at his car in the vicinity of Ewen Park, which isn’t very far from where the Junior Fence incident went down. He pointed out the splatter as Exhibit A and said he was after the juvenile delinquents. I hadn’t seen them but a couple of others seated on a nearby bench had and told him as much. Like Junior Fence thirty-six years ago, he was hopping mad and intent on exacting justice the old-fashioned way.

Returning home after this encounter on this solemn day, I walked past a couple of school kids—a boy and a girl—and overheard a snippet of their conversation. Girl to boy: “Genesis don’t like you no more because she thinks you like Chase.” Why would anybody name a kid after a bank? Let there be light on this Junior Fence Day.

(Photo from the personal collection of Nicholas Nigro)

Sunday, June 26, 2016

The Summers of Our Content

Season’s greetings: It’s summertime again. I know that for sure because I spied a solitary lightning bug the other night—a rare sighting nowadays. These luminescent insects were—once upon a time—ubiquitous in the old neighborhood. But the one-two punch of over-building and excessive lighting has pretty much cast them asunder in these parts.

As a boy growing up in the Bronx, the fledgling days of summer—and the longest days of the year—augured many things, including a “vacation” of some sort in the near future. Typically, a week or two spent away from the bright lights of the big city. For many years, my family and I vacationed along the Jersey Shore, in towns like Manasquan, Forked River, and Lavallette.

In Manasquan in the early 1970s, we rented a three-bedroom “railroad-car style” cottage for $75/week. It was a couple of short blocks from the ocean and a couple of short blocks from the Manasquan Inlet. We couldn’t ask for more—and we didn’t. From its enclosed front porch, we could even see a sliver of the inlet and a railroad bridge in the distance. At that point in time there was also a sizable ferryboat in view—a working one in its day, but now permanently docked and operating as a restaurant. Although we never dined there—we couldn’t afford to eat in restaurants back then—it was nonetheless a compelling visual. The streets in the neighborhood where we stayed were named after fish: Salmon, Trout, Pike, Whiting, and Perch. The $75/week rental with—as I recall—garage sale furniture, threadbare bedspreads, and sandy floors is now a two-story abode worth a million dollars. Hey, it’s a stone’s throw from the Atlantic.

While a very different experience from Manasquan, Forked River was nevertheless an intriguing place to vacation. We rented a family friend’s cozy little house, which was situated in woodsy terra firma that was slowly but surely becoming less so. Lagoons were being dug all around the area and small homes were rising one by one by one. There were reservoirs of standing water everywhere from all the digging. Now, the mosquito population knew a paradise when they saw one and were a big-time nuisance for two-legged vacationers. A truck periodically passed by spraying some chemical concoction into the air to do away with those airborne, bloodsucking  pests. God only knows what it was, but it probably caused cancer in laboratory rats. The mosquitoes, though, were unbowed through it all and we had to wear rubber bands at the bottoms of our pants to co-exist with them. The sound of electric saws taking down pine trees was commonplace, too, while we vacationed there. But as a kid, such incessant noise and the mother lodes of mosquitoes didn’t detract from in the least the wonderland of wildlife and forest of pine trees that I felt I was in. After all, miniature toads hopped around in the back and front yards. Big box turtles luxuriated in the woods next door. And whip-poor-wills called out in the night. It was like we were camping.

Camping indeed. The water that poured out of the Forked River faucets was brown and needed to be boiled before cooking with it. The nearest telephone was at an Elks “clubhouse” several blocks away. Both Barnegat Bay and the Forked River itself were a stone's throw away. I don’t mind telling you that the combination salty sea-pine needle aroma in the air was intoxicating to yours truly. If I were placed in that same environment today—forty years later—it would be like I was a contestant on Survivor. And with my luck, I’d probably catch the Zika virus.

Life, though, is all about moments. And nothing could get in the way of a grand time all those years ago. Not dirty bedspread, armies of mosquitoes, or rusty drinking water.

(Photos from the personal collection of Nicholas Nigro)

Tuesday, June 14, 2016

Lost Magic

Exactly thirty-six years ago, something magical happened in my life and in the lives of others who shared an affinity for a certain baseball team. Then New York Mets’ left fielder Steve Henderson—“Hendu” we called him—belted a walk-off three-run home run to beat the San Francisco Giants seven to six at Shea Stadium. My favorite team on earth had been down six-to-one in the game, so it was a bona fide comeback win. Magic is a subjective thing, I know. But the Mets had previously experienced three horrific down years as a miserly, patrician stuffed shirt named M. Donald Grant single-handedly destroyed one of the most profitable and respected franchises in baseball.

After the disastrous 1979 season the team was happily sold. The new ownership promised a return to past glories. While it took a few years of rebuilding, they kept their word. In 1980, however, the first year of the new regime—with inherited manager Joe Torre still at the helm—the Mets hovered close to the .500 mark on June 14th. It doesn’t sound like such a big deal, but it was an accomplishment for a team that had been down-and-out—and with such low expectations—for what seemed like an eternity.

"The Magic Is Back” was the Mets’ advertising slogan during the 1980 season. “Magic Is Back” posters with Mets’ players—Lee Mazzilli, Doug Flynn, Joel Youngblood, et al—inviting fans to return to the ballpark festooned New York City subway cars. “Magic Is Back” bumper stickers were spotted on cars. Some devotees, like me, proudly sported orange and blue “Magic Is Back” tees. While vacationing on the Jersey Shore that summer, a pizza parlor counter girl asked me what “The Magic Is Back” meant. As I remember, explaining what it meant wasn’t so easy. While this promotional campaign was understandably ridiculed in some quarters, I nonetheless felt that there was something to it—magic as it were. Change was very definitely in the air—a feeling of liberation from the past three years when Shea Stadium had been christened “Grant’s Tomb.” Just knowing that reasonably intelligent people roamed the front office—men who were willing to spend a few bucks to make the team a contender again—was magic enough for me.

Back to this day in history: June 14, 1980. I was watching the game in my bedroom, while my father had it on in the family living room. He was an inveterate Mets’ hater and I, in turn, loathed with a passion his beloved Yankees. If the Yankees were simultaneously playing a televised game, I had nothing to worry about. He’d be watching his team. If, though, there were no competing game, he’d tune in the Mets and revel in their misfortune. When things weren’t going the Mets’ way, I would be visited by him repeatedly and heckled unmercifully. A father-son baseball rivalry is not a pretty sight.

I distinctly recall on this particular night parrying my father’s inevitable taunts as best as I knew how. When Hendu hit that home run, it was extra sweet because he was watching the game along with me, albeit in a different room. I had the last laugh on this almost-summer evening and returned the favor before venturing outside to sit a spell on the front stoop. In the warm darkness of this June night, I enjoyed a bona fide natural high. Stoop sitting in our Bronx neighborhood is what we did back then. It’s where we went to unwind and to celebrate, too, like on June 14, 1980. I’m glad I didn’t have an iPhone to stare at or an app to worry about. We were outdoorsmen through and through. Lost magic for sure.

Thursday, June 9, 2016

Ivor Meets Ivan

Looking back on my life thus far, something really—really—stands out. I marvel now at the fact that I rarely passed through a hospital door in my first three decades of living. And that was kind of nice—the way life ought to be. I remember as a teenager visiting my grandmother in one after her glaucoma surgery. She spent a whole week in the hospital for that. And since I don't recall being born, that's the long and short of my early hospital memories. The times have certainly changed.

In my last two decades on the planet—in stark contrast with the first three—I’ve logged entirely too many hours in the hospital milieu—as a visitor, patient, and escort, the hat I donned this past week. When all was said and done, I found myself in a waiting room at New York City’s premier cancer hospital. If one needed proof that cancer is an equal opportunity disease, this was the place to be. I’ve long been fascinated at the diversity of mind, body, and soul that I chance upon in this hospital. While family members typically accompany the patients on the scene, there are always some people who go it alone. And this is particularly poignant when these solitary souls are getting up in years. Traipsing around to doctors’ appointments and myriad tests without a shoulder to cry on—or an ear to chew on—is not desirable in the golden years. Unfortunately, it’s just an unavoidable reality for some.

Anyway, this go-round I spied an elderly gentleman—all by himself—in the waiting room. Gingerly pushing his walker around the premises—the kind with a handy seat—a forlorn aura surrounded him. The man was borderline unkempt and had bypassed his morning shave and probably the one before that—a visual snapshot that considerably added to his lonely air. And boy did he ever want to talk—to anyone and everyone in earshot—which, I suppose, is understandable. Still, I was glad he didn’t sit across from me or next to me.

This guy reminded me of someone that I couldn’t quite put my finger on at first. Then it dawned on me. He facially resembled the late great character Ivor Francis. Let's call him Ivor from this point forward. Ivor was very, very interested in the waiting room’s amply-stocked pantry. I watched him in this little alcove carefully considering the various options at his disposal—coffee, tea, or hot chocolate, not to mention the saltine or graham cracker munchie quandary. A burly, grim-looking fellow subsequently joined him in the pantry. He looked like a 1960s sitcom Russian stereotype—picture Stanley Adams as Ila Klarpe in The Addams Family—as he navigated the cramped pantry. Ivor meet Ivan.

Destiny had surely brought these two men together. When Ivor at long last decided what his next move would be, a paper cup was the final piece to the puzzle—to steaming hot bliss and some tasty crackers to nibble on. As fate would have it, Ivan was in close proximity of the coveted paper cups at that very moment. Ivor sheepishly but oh-so-politely asked Ivan if he would hand him one—a simple request if ever there was one. Ivan didn’t think so, however, and glared angrily and suspiciously at Ivor. He then made a grumbling noise and furiously gestured at the stack of cups. Ivan’s message to Ivor was all too clear: Get it yourself!

Ivor meekly muttered a response, “I just asked because you were near the cups.” Well, from the looks of things, the Cold War still raged. If mutual affliction with cancer couldn't thaw things out—what pray tell could? Perhaps Ivan was just having a bad day—he was in a cancer hospital after all—but I still wish he didn’t take it out on lonely and frail Ivor. He could have effortlessly handed him an empty cup and made an old man with cancer happy.