Monday, August 15, 2016

The Handwriting Is Not on the Wall Anymore

It was only recently that I learned that school kids—many, if not most of them—were no longer being taught how to write in script. The contemporary educators call it cursive script. I must admit to being stunned at the news that penmanship instruction has seemingly gone the way of the beeper, typewriter, and Rolodex. It’s something I assumed was in the “here to eternity” column—infinite like the barber profession, Coca-Cola, and cat litter.

I appreciate, of course, that this is an advanced technological age we live in, where the physical act of writing a letter by hand—to someone or some entity—is quite rare, just as note taking at school or at the office is. But—as I recall from my school days—writing by hand in a penmanship all my own took my writing to a higher level, even when it was less than incoherent. I couldn’t conceive of printing out an essay during those years. Printing the individual letters of the alphabet to form words, instead of in script, would have taken a whole lot longer and, too, taken away a fair chunk of my individuality. Sitting down, putting pen to paper, and writing by hand in script stimulates the brain in ways not realized when banging away on a keyboard. I read where students who took notes in their own cursive writing hands, rather than on their laptops, had a much better recall of the materials. Makes perfect sense to me.

Okay, so the handwriting is not on the wall anymore. I understand. Who needs a personal signature when our eyeballs can be scanned? But I just thought of something. I collected all sorts of things as a boy, including autographs. I’d get players at the ballpark to sign my scorecard if possible. And it was all very exciting. Acquiring an obscure journeyman’s signature was even a thrill. Fast-forward a couple of decades from now and the autograph, I guess, will be reduced to something akin to a caveman’s mark.

Anyway, in expressing my surprise at penmanship’s untimely swan song, I was apprised of this college-aged young man who cannot read anything written in script. It's all Greek to him and might as well be hieroglyphics—because he can’t decipher a word of it. And I suppose he is not alone in this affliction. For starters, let’s rule out a career as a historian. Fifty years from now, maybe, he could cut the mustard and research a biography of someone from this Pokemon Go day and age of ours by combing through e-mails, tweets, and Facebook posts, but not now.

So, yes, it’s going, going gone—the postcard from a friend or family member written in that familiar hand. The grammar and high school tests handwritten by the teacher and mimeographed on top of that. The teacher commentary with that personal touch on the report card—the one that came in a brown envelope where we wrote in script our names and classroom numbers. All I can say is that if John Hancock were alive today he’d be rolling over in his grave. And I’d bet the ranch that most folks who don’t write or read script haven’t a clue who John Hancock was.

(Photos from the personal collection of Nicholas Nigro)

Saturday, August 13, 2016

Channeling Iron Eyes Cody

I’ve often written about the colorful and simpler 1970s, my all-time favorite decade. For I was boy growing up in the Bronx back then. The fact that New York City suffered through a fiscal crisis during those years—with conspicuous cuts in services like policing, sanitation, and park upkeep—mattered little to me. Sure, that snapshot in time has a well-deserved reputation for being on the scarier and the dirtier side of the ledger. The subways, for one, were an unattractive visual of grime and graffiti, crime infested, and prone to break down. And, while on the subject of visuals, the urban decay in some parts of the city resembled war zones and became photo-op stopovers for grandstanding politicians of all stripes.

I nevertheless remember that my neighborhood and the surrounding ones were a whole lot cleaner and certainly less congested than they are today. There are so many more vehicles on the area roads in 2016—and it’s every man and every woman for him or herself. Crossing the street at a green light is sometimes more dangerous than crossing on red. Pedestrians, it appears, no longer have the right away.

Recently, I’ve been channeling Iron Eyes Cody, aka the “Crying Indian,” from the popular “Keep America Beautiful” public service announcement commercials of the 1970s. Cody is seen in them canoeing through litter-strewn waterways with unsightly, belching smokestacks in the backdrop. He is understandably distraught at what he beholds. Later, on foot, Cody emerges at the edge of a busy highway, where a bag of garbage is hurled out of a passing car’s window. It burst open at his feet. This indignity is the proverbial straw that broke the camel’s back and Cody sheds a famously big tear.

Fast forward forty years and “there’s a lot of litter messing up our land” and those “litterbugs are getting out of hand.” What I know wasn’t the norm in the old neighborhood—fiscal crisis or not—were individuals in parked cars using the great outdoors as a garbage dump. It’s commonplace in these parts to find today’s lunch remains or yesterday’s lottery stubs strewn across the ground at curbside. Apparently, it’s too much for too many people to find a nearby garbage can. They are—I can attest—all over the place. Can’t find a litter receptacle? Take the stuff home and dispose of it there! Is that too much to ask?

It’s all very disheartening and a sign of the times. When I walk around nowadays, I often feel like Iron Eyes Cody, who, by the way, was not a Native American but a second-generation Sicilian actor born Espera Oscar de Corti. Tossed out of non-moving cars, Win 4 lottery stubs seem to be the litter de jour of the oblivious and inconsiderate. All I can say to these Win 4 folks is: Take 5, will you, and consider what you are doing. And, until you learn that littering is a no-no, I hope you don't win and lose over and over and over.

(Photo three from the personal collection of Nicholas Nigro)

Thursday, August 11, 2016

The Waning Agog Factor

Thirty-nine years ago on this day, I was at once in Boston and agog. The adult impresario of this Bronx to Beantown adventure was a neighbor and friend named Rich. My brother Joe and I—two teenagers absent as-yet-invented iPads or flip video cameras—accompanied him to what then seemed like a very faraway and even exotic destination.

While we were out of town the “Son of Sam” was captured. A Boston Globe headline in a sidewalk newspaper machine alerted us that the fiend was in police custody. We were pleasantly surprised when we dropped a dime in the slot and the machine’s front door pulled open, permitting each of us to grab a paper. Evidently, man and boys alike had never purchased one from an inanimate object. I guess we thought it would be dispensed like a bottle of soda or a candy bar. Still, we felt like we were a long way from home when we read the details about this serial killer, a man who had been in our midst during that especially hot summer and the summer before.

We had seen the Red Sox at Fenway Park the night before and also peed in a communal urinal there, which was yet another first for us. I sat beside a gangly grandfather and his grandson, I surmised, because the latter called the former “Pops.” Pops was pretty old and, when nature called, had more than a little difficulty navigating the ballpark’s steep steps and cramped aisles. He was a dead ringer for Our Gang's Old Cap. The Red Sox beat the Angels 11-10 that night in a back and forth slugfest. The Globe deemed it one of the most exciting games ever played. Rich, however, noted how “dilapidated” the environs were, and obviously liked the sound of the word, branding countless Boston edifices and nearby locales with the same unflattering moniker.

Dilapidated or not, the three of us were generally agog throughout the trip, blissfully going about the business of exploring foreign terrain before anything called e-mail or Twitter existed. Joe had a hand-me-down, fold-up camera with him that took blurry pictures. Rich wore a strap around his neck attached to an over-sized instant camera during our sightseeing. His photos developed a bit on the green side, including shots at Harvard University and of the Charles River. No flash meant no pictures could be taken of the Green Monster by night. On our way home, we naturally couldn’t pass up America’s most historical rock in Plymouth. This rather pedestrian boulder had at some point cracked in two and been cemented together—not a particularly compelling visual and even less so in shades of instant-picture green.

There were no digital cameras or iPhones in existence, so thus no capacity to post our pictures on Facebook, which wasn’t around either. We were merely content with being agog as we climbed the Bunker Hill Monument and toured Old Ironsides. The dilapidated surroundings all around us actually astounded us. We called home from pay phones. In the present age of instant gratification, with all too many people engrossed in their Blackberries or some such technological device—and walking the streets like oblivious automatons—I fear that the Agog Factor just ain't what it used to be…can’t be what it used to be…and that’s really kind of sad.

(Photo from the personal collection of Nicholas Nigro)

Sunday, August 7, 2016

The Bluefish Flush Flashback

It was a pleasant summer’s day in the Bronx—on the warm side but with low humidity, which sharply contrasted with yesterday’s soupy feel. On this agreeable morning, I was mistaken for a man named Malcolm; twenty-four hours earlier it was a fellow named Joe. While scam artists are legion in this town, I believe the two distinct individuals who thought I was Malcolm and Joe, respectively, really do know—although not especially well—a Malcolm and a Joe who somewhat resemble me.

I frequently cross paths with the elderly man who thought I was Malcolm. He always looked me over, like he had something on his mind. Well, now I know what it was. Okay, if I’m a dead ringer for Malcolm, he’s Ben Bernanke twenty years from now. As for Joe and the previous case of mistaken identity, I watched a stranger make a beeline toward me from a Broadway sidewalk under El. I was sitting on a bench—in “Van Cortlandt Park’s Tail,” the sign says—when he approached me.

“Joe?” he said.

“Excuse me?” I replied.




“Yes, no.”

“Sorry. I thought you were somebody else.”

And off he went—two ships that passed in the night. As I watched him heading south down Broadway, I remembered being stopped—in the vicinity of where he was headed—a couple of years back. It was by a man who thought I was—yes—Joe. It must have been him. I sure hope he finds the real Joe because, really, time waits for no man. Then again, maybe the scam revolves around finding an actual Joe and then taking it from there.

Happily, I encountered one man today who wanted to speak with me because I’m me, not Malcolm or Joe. I’ve run into this fellow before. His modus operandi: a perpetual request for seventy-five cents. Not a dollar or fifty cents, but seventy-five cents. But he phrased it a bit differently this morning. “Can you spare just three quarters?” he asked. When in the past he asked me for seventy-five cents, I declined to give it to him. He once asked me twice in the same day—in different locations within an hour’s time—believing, perhaps, I was Malcolm and then Joe. If nothing else, the man is tireless. I gave him a buck this time around and off he went without so much as a thank you. He was reasonably well dressed with a fanny pack (for all those quarters, I guess) and took off like a bat out of hell. He had something very specific in mind to do with that dollar.

Finally, after the seventy-five cents guy departed, I witnessed a young rat frolicking in the grass and flowers. An area squirrel seemed stunned by it—the rat was on its patch after all—and initially moved toward it. After a start and a stop in every direction on the compass, the squirrel thought better of it. Even squirrels are leery of rats apparently—regardless of their size.

But my adventures weren’t yet over. I had approximately eight blocks to go when I realized that I had to go. Fortunately, I’ve never had an accident in my adult incarnation, but there were a few close calls. The last one being about fifteen years ago and the byproduct of my favorite diner’s dinner special: bluefish. It tasted good as I recall, but came with a post-dinner kicker a couple of hours later. A friend of mine experienced the very same thing and it has forevermore been deemed the “Bluefish Flush,” a natural enema like no other. Like last time, I made it just in time this time.