Wednesday, September 28, 2016

That Time in September

Yesterday morning a house blew up not too far from me—in the Bronx neighborhood of Kingsbridge where I grew up. When I heard and indeed felt the blast at approximately 7:30 a.m., I feared it might have occurred in the building I called home—an instinctive first reaction that I have experienced in the past. Distant sounding car alarms, however, told me otherwise. When I eventually opened my front door to have a look around, I spied fire trucks nearby, never imagining the horror of what transpired only moments before: a mammoth gas explosion in a residence—once owned by “Aunt Bee” and “the dentist”—that, very tragically, killed one of New York’s Bravest.

It happened on a patch of earth very familiar to me. And Aunt Bee’s been gone for some twenty years now. She suffered from a terminal form of cancer at the end of her life. I remember her telling my mother—who was friendly with her—how she hoped to, at the very least, live long enough to witness the verdict in the O.J. Simpson murder trial. For like countless Americans at the time, Aunt Bee was riveted by the antics of—to name just a few—Johnnie Cochran, Marcia Clark, and Judge Lance Ito. I can’t recall whether or not she was granted her last wish, but I can say with certainty that it’s very fortunate she and her dentist husband—who owned that modest corner house for many, many years—weren’t on this earthly plane to see it become a smoldering pile of rubble.

In recent years, Aunt Bee’s former abode had become one among many sorry signs of the times. That is, Aunt Bee-esque homeowners residing on the properties with their families have been sadly replaced—in all too many instances—with absentee owners renting to everyone and anyone. Everyone and anyone, it should be noted, who can fork over their exorbitant asking prices. Unsurprisingly, this is a recipe for high turnover and, too, shenanigans and unlawful activities. 

It appears from news reports that Aunt Bee’s old place had become a drug lab of some kind—growing marijuana plants—and the unsavory tenants may have illegally tapped into a gas line or employed another such dangerous maneuver. The owner of the house says he knew absolutely nothing about the renters. I’m inclined to believe him. Apparently, this man owns multiple homes in a neighborhood that means absolutely nothing to him. One thing and one thing only drives him—making money and the more the merrier. The drug lab operators—low lives all—could obviously afford paying the piper. And this is the sad end-result.

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

Thursday, September 22, 2016

September Song

In the ethereal radiance of the 1969 World Championship season, I became a Met fan at the impressionable age of seven. Personally, I consider the “Miracle Mets”the class of 1973. In fact, catcher Jerry Grote once said: "It (1969) was no miracle. Now, '73 was a miracle!" I was there and I was aware then—and armed with that indispensable youthful exuberance—during that memorable September pennant drive. It was a dramatically different time to be alive, to be a baseball fan, and to be a kid—a better time, I daresay, on a whole host of fronts.

It’s kind of hard to believe that forty-three years have passed since that amazing September song when the Mets catapulted from fifth place—and nine games under .500—on the last day in August to first place on September 21st. They were 76-76 after sweeping the Pirates in a two-game series at Shea Stadium that night, which was good enough to be on top in what was a mediocre 1973 Eastern Division. The Mets finished the season with a record of 82-79, beating out the second place St. Louis Cardinals, at 81-81, by a game-and-a-half.

So much happened along the way, including "Willie Mays Night" at Shea Stadium on September 25th. I recall watching it on WOR-TV, Channel 9—the Mets televised three-quarters of their games on free TV back then. Willie had announced his retirement after the season. At forty-two with a pair of bum knees and slower reflexes, he was a mere shadow of his former self and everybody knew it, including Willie. “Growing old is just a helpless hurt,” he said.

Still, just having him in New York for the last two years of his stellar career—that began in New York with the Giants—seemed so right, so special, and almost mystical from a baseball fan’s perspective. The fans of yesteryear were more steeped in the game’s history, too. No matter how poorly or uninspired Willie Mays played in the last year of his career, he was nonetheless revered and justifiably so. Just seeing him in a Mets' uniform, with that famous number twenty-four on the back, was worth more than words can express. And, yes, he supplied us with some great moments, but Willie was with the Mets primarily because owner Joan Payson wanted him in New York, where he belonged, for the final curtain. She also promised San Francisco Giants owner Horace Stoneham that she’d take care of him financially after his playing career was over.

I remember Willie Mays Night being quite a poignant affair with the baseball legend announcing his departure from the game before a full house at Shea Stadium in an excitingly tight pennant race. Mets' announcer Lindsay Nelson was on the field in the role of master of ceremonies, which he did so well, and bedecked in one of his ultra-colorful sports jackets. It was even loud on my family’s black-and-white TV set. Two of the game's greats, Joe DiMaggio and Stan Musial, were also on hand to pay their respects and watch Willie receive a treasure trove of gifts, including an expensive fur coat for the Misses and a Cadillac for himself. But it was the baseball giant's words that night that struck an appropriate and resonant chord. “When I look at the kids over here, the way they’re playing, the way they’re fighting for tells me one thing,” he said. “Willie, say goodbye to America.”

The ten-year-old me couldn’t fully appreciate then what he said next, but I found it moving nonetheless. “I never felt that I would have to quit baseball,” Willie said, “but as you know, there is always a time for someone to get out.” For twenty-two years he played the game—America's pastime—and it came to end, just like everything else does. Now, forty more years have passed and Willie Mays is eighty-two years old. Time passes by for sure and there’s nothing we can do about it. But, really, there is “always a time for someone to get out”—in baseball and in so many other areas of life as well.

Tuesday, September 6, 2016

The Court Is Now in Session

As a youth, I remember watching a Ronald Reagan movie for the first time. I knew him, then, as a former actor and politician—a man who had his eyes fixed on the presidency, not an Academy Award. I was struck in the film not by how the future president delivered his lines, which he did reasonably well in my opinion, but by his reactions to his co-stars delivering theirs. Actually, they would be better described as no reactions. Reagan seemed only to be awaiting his turn again.

Fast forward to the present and I am besieged in the bright light of day—real life—with all too many individuals just waiting for their turns. Men and women who relish holding court—period and end of story. People who seek out any old pair of ears within shouting distance so they can ramble on and on and on about their extraordinary lives and times; so they can flaunt their incredible knowledge and insight on matters great and small.

This sort of behavior bothers me so much now that I’ve literally run into traffic to avoid some of these self-absorbed bores, who don’t care a whit what I, or anyone else for that matter, have to say. I’m a big believer in conversation, but not one-way conversation where I silently sit or stand at attention. It appears Jerry, George, Elaine, and Kramer weren’t the only ones averse to learning. There are an awful lot of folks in my circle who love nothing more than the sounds of their own voices. Anything I might say—a word in edgewise—acts merely as a segue and is fuel for further raving. Let me tell you what happened to me.

Well, the court is now in session and I swear to tell the whole truth and nothing but the truth. You blowhards and know-it-alls—and you don’t know who you are, that’s the problem—just might want to listen on occasion to others. You will be surprised that there are actually a few things you don’t know. It’s possible, too, that you might actually learn an invaluable thing or two. You’ll still get your say. Fear not! And if you engage in genuine give-and-take with your family, friends, and neighbors, they might even be enlightened by something you have to say. Anything’s possible. But until that time, I’m still going to assume the risk of running into traffic to avoid you when I can—because I know who your are—and tune you out when I have no choice but to be in your intolerable presence.