Thursday, July 21, 2016

Midsummer Musings

Since I don't typically do politics in this blog, look upon this as a theatrical review. Yes, it was positively surreal seeing Scott Baio—Chachi Arcola—as a featured speaker at the Republican National Convention this week. Perfectamundo, he wasn’t. If the Democrats are smart they have recruited Donny Most—or Anson Williams if he wasn't available—for their upcoming convention. Donny, who prefers the moniker "Don" now, has still got it, I hear.

Honestly, it’s too bad actor Eddie Albert isn’t around anymore and
doing Ecotrin commercials. The punch line that he delivered with great √©lan some three decades ago—and what distinguished this safety-coated aspirin product then as well as now—was: “It’s orange!” Were he still among the living, Albert could have effortlessly reprised the pithy phrase in ads for the GOP standard-bearer.

There are certain politicians, I believe, who really should have heeded George Costanza’s power of example. He didn’t learn all that much along life’s highways and byways, but he did appreciate how it was better to “go out on a high note.” Take Rudy Giuliani and Chris Christie. Respectively, they were “America’s Mayor” and “America’s Governor.” For one brief shining moment at least—post-9/11 and post-Superstorm Sandy—they seemed to transcend partisan politics and actually lead. But for ambitious politicians of any stripe, going out on a high note is a pretty tall order.

Uber-tough prosecutor Chris Christie, by the way, said Melania Trump’s speech at the convention was at least 93% original. As a writer who has worked with publishers and their plagiarizing check software programs, I can say without hesitation that seven percent of somebody else’s words in a book of mine—without attribution—wouldn’t cut the mustard. It would cut the cheese instead, and I’d be branded for life as a cheat in the business. Oh, and I wouldn’t get paid anything further and have to return my advance on top of that.

A Facebook friend of a friend of a friend recently remarked how he “couldn’t wait until the election was over” so he could “get back” to liking his “friends.” I fear there is a gaping hole in this well-intentioned fellow’s overly optimistic outlook. Let’s call it the Wishful Thinking Department, because this election—regardless of who wins—will never be over. It is a contemporary never-ending story—a Groundhog Day. While “The Nothing” threatened Fantasia in The NeverEnding Story, “The Something” threatens us. But the former was a fantasy and the latter is real—all too real. Wah wah wah.

Saturday, July 16, 2016

Lotsa Luck!

I heard the first of summer’s cicada bug’s yesterday—incessantly loud buzzing in the trees of a nearby park. For me at least, their melodious vociferousness has this uncanny knack of underscoring summertime’s one-two punch of heat and hush. It’s actually been pretty hot in New York City the last few days, but I’ve experienced a whole lot worse over the course of my life. Growing up on the top floor of a three-family house in the Bronx, without any air conditioning, wasn’t for the faint-hearted, particularly in the days of recurring summer brownouts that did a number on our ice cubes. My father absolutely believed that feeling the deleterious combination of heat and humidity was psychological, not biological. In other words, it was all in our heads. I must say that the paternal side of my family—the Italian side—left very small carbon footprints in their wake. Nothing was wasted, including electricity to run those totally unnecessary—downright sinister—air conditioners.

If the temperatures were in the nineties and the humidity levels unbearable, it mattered little when I was a kid. My contemporaries and I bore much of the discomfort in the great outdoors. It was summer after all, a once-a-year thing to be relished. I don’t want to beat what has become an annual dead horse, but youths outside in the warm climes have gone the way of the VHS tape. They certainly are not playing the venerable street games that my generation played. And we were the Last of the Mohicans, as it were, who played the games little people had played for generations in urban milieus. Of course, as a fifty-something fellow now, who has grown accustomed to the more-or-less serene summertime streets, I’m kind of happy my windows are not being pelted with spaldeens and Wiffle balls, or my paths being intersected by marauding kids playing Round-up, Ringolevio, and Flashlight by night.

I was a big fan of a sitcom called Lotsa Luck! The show aired for one season (1973-74) only and starred Dom DeLuise. It had a great opening theme song that lamented the passage of time—when one “used to buy a pickle” that “only used to cost a nickel.” It emphasized, too, how things had taken a serious turn for the worse in the mid-1970s with its high inflation, increased traffic, and big-time stress and anxiety wherever one turned. Alas, the good old days “could be forgotten,” the song said, because “the world has gotten rotten.” And the cold hard reality was that “every day is getting tougher and it keeps on getting rougher.” The lyrical punch line and only apparent elixir for a world in such a sorry state were ample doses of luck—lotsa luck in fact! “In order to survive just to keep yourself alive,” one needed a heaping helping of it.

Well, more than forty years have passed and, I daresay, the rottenness of the world has reached new and unimaginable heights, making 1973 and 1974 a "Marshmallow World" by comparison. I hesitate to turn on the TV nowadays for fear of encountering the tragedy du jure. And there’s no light that I can see at the end of this tunnel. What exactly will the world be like in another forty years? I take some solace in the fact that my luck will have run out by then. But in the meantime: Lotsa luck!

Friday, July 15, 2016

Hello, Dummy...Goodbye, Dummy

The year was 1975. The place: Kingsbridge in the Bronx. It was summertime when our Frankenstein monster was born and hit the streets. Actually, it was just a dummy—an old pair of pants and a shirt stuffed with newspapers (the Daily News and New York Post, I suspect). It was all stitched together with multiple safety pins. The dummy’s cranium was a Styrofoam mannequin head. I don’t recall where that came from, but most likely from a neighbor’s or neighboring business’s garbage pail.

This Frankenstein dummy was brought to life, specifically, to appear in a five-minute Batman film that we were producing. Our movie camera employed eight-millimeter film sans any sound. The film’s stars were aged sixteen, fifteen, and twelve. I was the twelve year old who got to live his dream by playing the Joker in a feature film. Granted, it was a low-budget independent film—and indie—that brought in a mere three dollars at the box office. That is, during a screening in one of the star’s basements. The film, nevertheless, transcended time and place.

The Frankenstein dummy, really, was the true star of this flick. He—if I may—assumed multiple roles in the film. He played Batman’s stuntman and scaled a three-family brick home in search of the Joker. Ever versatile, he then took on the role of the Joker himself, getting tossed out of the window of said brick home. Perhaps more prestigious, he also played the Joker’s kidnapped victim—a man who lived up the street from the film’s stars named Dr. Y. This man wasn’t a medical doctor, but a Ph. D.—a bona fide egghead, scientist, and university professor—which made him both a celebrity in the neighborhood and someone with whom to have a little fun.

While none of the young, flesh-and-blood thespians went on to bigger and better things in the acting business, the Frankenstein dummy nonetheless endured. His creators laid him on the sidewalk in front of one of their front stoops, with one of my father’s empty thirty-two ounce Schaefer Beer bottles beside him. Passersby were startled, assuming the Frankenstein dummy was a poor, unfortunate human soul who had entirely too much to drink or, the even worse scenario, had drank himself to death. But nobody said a word until one obviously concerned fellow came along. “There’s a man down here. Is he okay?” he asked. We assured him that he was.

The Frankenstein dummy had one last role to perform before calling it quits and riding off into the sunset. He scaled the fence of a man I had previously nicknamed “Mr. Fence,” because of his strange obsession with his beloved backyard fence. The Fences—Mr. and Mrs.—shrieked wildly at the Frankenstein dummy, telling him in no uncertain terms to get down from there and be on his way, or suffer the consequences. Ah, the life and times of this newspaper-filled dummy were grueling and thus very short-lived. But he spent his enduring life in the awkwardly creative and genuinely interactive urban world that existed once upon a time in the Bronx and elsewhere. He was certainly a dummy to remember, who will live on in our hearts for as long as there are dummies in this world.

Sunday, July 10, 2016

I Say the Neon Lights Are Not So Bright on Broadway

They say the neon lights are bright on Broadway. Honestly, I don’t know who they are, but they are definitely painting with a broad brush. Because the part of Broadway I traversed today was virtually neon free. Granted, there may have been a neon sign or two in the shop windows in the vicinity of the first or last stop—depending on which way one is headed—of the Number 1 train. But, really, even the contemporary retail light-up signs appear to be fast and furiously moving away from neon. Cheaper to buy and maintain, I guess.

The dearth of bright neon lights notwithstanding on that renowned thoroughfare, I was nonetheless pleased to patronize a certain pizzeria on Broadway. In the Bronx, yes—but still the same Broadway. One, in fact, that’s been more or less in the same locale since 1969—it moved a couple of doors down after a fire some years back but has since returned to its original address. It's been my alma mater's— Manhattan College—preferred pizza spot since astronaut Neil Armstrong took “one small step for man” and “one giant leap for mankind.” I cannot remember it not being there. In this day and age in New York City, that’s saying an awful lot. But it’s not just that this neighborhood pizza joint endures, and has through dramatically changing times and changing landlords reaching for the jugular. It’s that the very same family still owns and operates the place.

I ate at this establishment every now and then twenty-five and thirty years ago, but not recently because—let’s just say—it’s a wee bit off-the-beaten trail for me in the here and now. What pleasantly surprised me, though, when I walked into the shop late this morning—after all these years—was seeing the father of this father-son business behind the counter. I remembered him in that very guise from my college days in the 1980s, so I figured he’d be up in the years and long retired. But there he was in the flesh—looking a little older, naturally, but pretty much as he did when Ronald Reagan was president.

The slice of pizza was hearty with ample cheese and priced at New York’s current going rate, $2.75, the cost of a subway fare. It was somewhat on the bland side, I’d concede, but nothing that a topping like pepperoni or sausage couldn’t turn into a better-than-average New York slice of pizza. And as a footnote to this Bronx pizza tale: Italian-Americans run the place. That’s very unusual in 2016. Pizza and Italians are mostly a memory around here, even in Italy it seems. Of course, my favorite pizza of all-time was the culinary work of art of a Greek fellow named George, a.k.a. Sam, whose likes are getting harder and harder to come by in this extraordinarily cheesy business and more than extraordinary cheesy times in which we live.

Monday, July 4, 2016

Our Very Own “Cousin Brucie”

Once upon a time the Fourth of July was the noisiest of days. When I was a boy growing up in the Bronx during the undeniably freer, very much more colorful, if not-always-safe 1970s, it was. In fact, firecrackers and their more dangerous and ear-splitting cousins—M-80s and Ash Cans to name a couple—exploded weeks before Independence Day. A handful of locals even established reputations for being “fireworks impresarios” and put on annual shows for their appreciative neighbors.

Bruce was one such fellow—a young guy but not a little kid like me—from a generation that came of age in the late sixties and early seventies, when girls and boys both wore their hair long, smoked things that smelled a wee bit funny, and made a concerted effort to dress not to kill. They dressed to the ones, twos, and maybe the threes—tops.

Bruce sported long, shoulder-length blond hair and was renowned in the neighborhood environs for his roller-skating prowess. In those days of yore, a person could roller skate with reckless abandon up and down the area’s back streets with minimal traffic to ward off—and that’s what our “Cousin Brucie” did. But Brucie, the nimbly adept roller skater, was simultaneously a fireworks “Man of the People,” which is why I invariably think of him on the Fourth of July.

Forty years ago, firecrackers, Bottle Rockets, Roman Candles, Ground Chasers, Cherry Bombs, etc. were all illegal on the streets of New York, but nonetheless readily available—ubiquitous in the hands of men, women, and children alike. “You can get them in Chinatown” was something I remember hearing. The bottom line was that New York’s Finest weren’t overly concerned with confiscating fireworks in the 1970s. They more or less turned a blind eye and let Brucie and company do their Fourth of July things. And why not? They were once-a-year affairs. No harm done. Well, that was then and this is now. I may have heard a stray firecracker or two over this weekend, but for the most part the fireworks I do hear nowadays are the legally sanctioned ones—at the exhibitions in area parks and elsewhere.

In other words, there are no more neighborhood “Cousin Brucies” plying their trades in the big city. They are no longer roller skating up and down the streets—in their distinctive roller-derby crouches—and they are definitely not putting on Independence Day “Night to Remember” extravaganzas for their friends and neighbors. There are no more mornings after the Fourth, either, when the local streets would be awash in spent firecrackers and such, including a smattering that didn’t detonate, which were prized keepsakes for those lucky enough to find them.

Granted, it’s a whole lot safer now on the Fourth of July in these parts, and at my age I appreciate the general quietude compared with yesteryear. Unsolicited firecrackers are very, very annoying. Still, I can’t help but feel that kids today are missing out on something that was at once really fun and something to look forward to every year. Having a “Cousin Brucie” of our own was sort of special, which I guess is why I associate him with the Fourth of July all these years later.