Tuesday, March 29, 2016

Death Never Takes a Holiday Anymore

Actress Patty Duke died today; actor James Noble, yesterday, at ninety-four. Courtesy of trending Facebook obits only hours ago, I learned of their respective passings—such is life in 2016. It was indisputably a simpler time when must-see TV for me was Benson (1979-1986), a network sitcom that starred the melodiously named Robert Guillaume as the equally melodiously named Benson DuBois and the aforementioned Noble, who played the dimwitted but unfailingly affable Governor Eugene Xavier Gatling in the series. Happily still among the living, Guillaume is eighty-eight.

What I would really like to know is how so many of the men and women who graced the small screen of my youth grew so old—so really, really old? Joe Garagiola, who died at ninety this past week, was ubiquitous during my younger days—an always-agreeable presence teamed with the likes of the late Curt Gowdy and now eighty-year-old, long-retired Tony Kubek—on NBC’s weekly and postseason Major League Baseball games. But that was hardly the Garagiola be-all and end-all. I recall tuning into an eclectic smorgasbord hosted by the man—everything from a game show called Sale of the Century to the Today show to the annual Macy’s Thanksgiving Parade.  

Earl Hamner, Jr. also passed away this week. He was ninety-two. Apparently, you’re nobody if you don’t live to ninety nowadays. I religiously watched his baby, The Waltons, downstairs with my grandmother and aunt in what was, seemingly, the last chapter in the extended family era. For some reason, Hamner’s voice-over narrations at the beginning and ending of each episode never failed to amuse my younger brother and me. In fact, more than forty years later, I can still recall some of the lines that we would parrot in an embellished Hamner-tone, such as: “Those were not the last mistakes Jim-Bob and I were to make, but we were truly ahead of the game. Our parents gave us decent rules to live by…yada...yada...yada.” Our teenage whimsy would sometimes have us refer to Jim-Bob as “Jim Boob.” Being from the Bronx, Hamner’s Virginia accent and singular intonations sounded very, very foreign to us.

Actor Joe Santos died this month, too. He was only eighty-four. The man played Dennis Becker on The Rockford Files, one of my all-time favorite TV shows. Who’s left from the cast? The seventy-six-year-old Stuart Margolin, Angel, that’s who. It’s been a rough month indeed—Frank Sinatra, Jr., Gary Shandling, and Mother Angelica have all breathed their last. Mother Angelica, founder of the EWTN cable channel, falls into the category of: “I thought she already met her maker.” As I encounter a never-ending story of death notices, this phenomenon is happening more and more to me. I guess when I read about some serious illness or major health setback, like a stroke, my brain reasons the afflicted individual is for all intents and purposes dead.

All I can say is that when I was watching Joe Garagiola in his camel trench coat in front of Macy’s more than forty years ago—his breath visible in the Thanksgiving morning chill—I was not remotely into what was trending vis-à-vis folks going on their vacations with God. (An elderly neighbor of mine coined that catchy phrase. She said at the time she was "not yet ready to go on her“vacation with God.” She has since has gone on that permanent  vacation.) I kind of prefer the days when death took a holiday—from my perspective at least. 

Monday, March 14, 2016

Life and the Jar of Peanut Butter

This year marks the thirty-sixth anniversary of my graduation from high school. Putting this number in some larger perspective is kind of weird—even a little bit disturbing—because I turned eighteen the year I graduated. And, lo and behold, I have subsequently lived eighteen more years and then another eighteen years after that. The sum total of my entire existence in 1980, which seemed to have covered a lot of ground at the time, was a mere drop in the bucket.

With the obvious accelerating passage of time, I can’t help but reflect on all that was and how I arrived at the present. I will say that a handful of things in my life have remained pretty constant through the years, like my preferred breakfast: peanut butter on toast with coffee. Growing up in the Bronx with an extended family—three generations under one roof—brought peanut butter and coffee, too, into my life at an early age. If we so desired, coffee was served to us at seven- and eight years old. Maybe it was an Italian thing or just the simpler times—I don’t know. What I do know is that my grandmother—a culinary wizard whose likes I will never see again—always kept a big glass jar of Skippy peanut butter on the premises for her grandsons. She, though, never once sampled the stuff. There was something about “peanuts bud,” as she pronounced it in her thick Italian accent, which absolutely repulsed her.

I remember finding a mini-jar of Skippy peanut butter in my Christmas stocking one year—glass again with an aluminum top. And not one of those jars ever ended up in the trash. They were repurposed time and again in an age before recycling; in an age of peanut butter. My family used to get a circular loaf of Italian bread delivered daily—in the 1960s and 1970s—from a nearby wholesale bakery called Willow Sunny. Imagine having a fresh slice of bakery bread slathered with peanut butter every morning for breakfast. My grandmother cut the bread like she was playing a violin—a true maestro—knife slicing across toward her body.

Fast forward a few years to an earth-shattering discovery of mine. I learned there was more to peanut butter than Skippy. There was Peter Pan, Superman, Smuckers, and the best of them all, I concluded—Jif.  Naturally, I expressed my newfound opinion to all who would listen that Jif tasted a whole lot better than Skippy. A certain family elder—undeviating in her worldview then as well as now—sniffed, “You just want to be different.” Granted, kids want to be recognized as unique individuals and I was no different. There’s that word again. But the fact remains that I did—believe it or not—prefer Jif to Skippy. I still do as a matter of fact. The proof is in the plastic jar of Jif that I pluck out of the cupboard at breakfast time all these years later. I guess I was really different after all.

Monday, March 7, 2016

The Misadventures of Pizza Man

He was oozing optimism when he first opened his pizza place’s doors. His little restaurant was poised and ready for what was certain to be a mad dash of salivating clientele. The shop was staffed like a bustling Midtown Manhattan pizzeria—its multiple employees festooned in matching red, logo-emblazoned baseball caps and staff shirts. The adrenalized new owner, who had succeeded an unsuccessful pizza peddler, who in turn had assumed the reins from still another failed pizza guy, had—it seemed—all his bases covered. This latest entrepreneurial endeavor was sure to prove—despite its cursed locale—that a third time's a charm.

Long a pizza devotee and forever a Bronx denizen, the shortest distance from point A (home) to point B (a quality New York slice of pizza) mattered to me. Therefore, I would throw myself at the mercy of the new kid on the block and hope for the best. I was perfectly willing to tolerate any and all growing pains, including extraordinarily green employees, who didn’t in the slightest strive to be otherwise. So, I wasn’t bothered when the two slices, plus a small fountain drink—the $5.00 lunch special—wasn’t afforded me because I declined the free drink. (I didn’t want to carry it home.) The clueless staff actually charged me $5.50, the cost of two slices when not on special, because I didn’t accept the drink! And then there was the improperly wrapped pizza conundrum, where exceptionally oily slices saturated takeout bags beyond their capacity to do the job. On more than one occasion during this establishment’s fledgling days, my bag split open before I arrived home, splattering my clothes with mozzarella, tomato sauce, and scorching hot, orangey grease. I was nonetheless hopeful things would improve once the gang that couldn’t shoot straight got the hang of it. I would thus ignore that countless pizza slices lost their tips when being plucked out of the oven and when being yanked out of the takeout bag. Call me naïve, but I was convinced the pizza man would soon appreciate that his pizza pies were usually too thin, often too crisp, and sometimes a deadly combination of both. I had been served pizza slices with burnt bottoms before in my fast-food culinary travels, but never this degree of burnt offerings.

This pizza shop in the Northwest Bronx began with both high hopes and a full showcase of every conceivable specialty pizza. Quickly, though, a conspicuous dearth of sales cut the pizza selections on display to a haphazard, forlorn-looking medley of slices. A portent of things to come occurred when the restaurant’s top pizza oven went on the fritz and was not repaired for months. Truth be told, it was painful to behold the well-intentioned, formerly optimistic owner preparing his pizza pies in an oven that was practically on the floor. God knows the man tried. He inundated the surrounding neighborhood with fliers on several occasions. In fact, one of them heralded that the place would be open for breakfast. But—go figure—he never opened for breakfast. It would have been the opportunity of a lifetime—and a first—to sample “Mash Potato” on a roll to start my day.

When all was said and done, the pizza served was pretty good—above average, I'd say—even if the slice size and its mass fluctuated from one day to the next. My last takeout purchase of a couple of slices—with pepperoni on them—was practically weightless. It was as if I had bought them on the moon. Unquestionably, there was a consistency issue. You could get the freshest, tastiest slice one day and a soggy muddle the next. Refrigerated pizza from the prior day is a definite no-no in this business. And pizza visuals matter! The place’s showcase was too often unsightly—practically empty with just a few petrified-looking options. Nevertheless, I genuinely liked the proprietor and hoped and prayed he would eventually get his act together. He never did. His almost two years of misadventures seemed like an eternity to me, a loyal customer. I can only imagine what it seemed like to him. And if this pizza man tries his luck someplace else—which I believe is very possible—I sincerely hope his pizza slice tips stay put. I also hope in the next go-round that if he advertises “open for breakfast” he does, in fact, open for breakfast.

(Photos 1 and 2 from the personal collection of Nicholas Nigro)