Wednesday, May 24, 2017

The Orphan Baseball

During my morning constitutional in nearby Van Cortlandt Park yesterday, I encountered an object in my path that—forty or so years ago—would have consumed me with delight. It was an orphan baseball that had found its way from a nearby field to the footpath. In my youth, this sort of find was akin to a gold strike. But in the here and now, I was absent any glee. I merely paused, recalled what once was, and moved on. Sure, I momentarily considered picking the ball up and taking it home with me. But that would have necessitated placing it in my pocket—a not inconsiderable task that, if successful, would have certainly attracted attention.

Were it 1977 with Jimmy Carter in the White House, I would have unquestionably added another baseball to my inventory. While we in the neighborhood sometimes played baseball on the crab grassy fields of Van Cortlandt Park—and a few other fields of green—concrete and asphalt surfaces were our primary playgrounds. And as hard as the “hard balls”—our moniker for baseballs, which distinguished them from the various other balls we played with—were, they took a beating on concrete and asphalt. I remember playing with baseballs that had lost their original cowhide covers. The cover substitutes consisted of several layers of electrical tape. Granted, electrical-taped baseballs were in their death spirals, but it was a frugal time. And like just about everything else back then, a baseball wasn’t taken for granted. It was a throwaway item only after it had accumulated sufficient mileage and died a proper death.

Speaking of baseball and electrical tape, I plugged in my old Schaefer Beer “Welcome” light-up sign for the first time yesterday. I've had it for a while now. Copious amounts of electrical tape on its cord had kept me from doing it before. But I finally threw caution to the wind and, I can report, no sparks flew. Four decades ago, Schaefer was the most popular beer in New York and the surrounding areas. It was my father’s preferred brew and he drank truckloads of the stuff before it went by the wayside in the 1980s. Schaefer Beer was at one time the official beer of the New York Yankees and then of my beloved New York Mets. But all good things come to an end. I passed up a perfectly good baseball. And Pabst Brewing Company now owns the Schaefer label and produces a pale imitation—crappy and cheap—of a former giant, which I will pass on, too.

(Photos from the personal collection of Nicholas Nigro)

Tuesday, May 16, 2017

Tail of Two Cities

While running errands this morning, a woman handed me a small sheet of paper. I stuck it in my pocket, continued on my journey, and took a wild guess as to its purpose. She was doing the Lord’s work, I surmised—trying to save my soul. When I arrived home and plucked said paper from my pocket, I saw that I was correct in my assumption. Heaven or hell—take your pick! Utilizing biblical quotes that separated “Candidates for hell” from “Candidates to reach heaven,” the bottom line advice from a certain pontificating pastor was: “I recommend you to choose heaven.” What the hell! I thought. Why not?

Somewhat off my predictable beaten path today, I walked along a bizarre stretch of parkland—a narrow strip of fenced-in weeds, trees, and garbage. It’s been a tangled eyesore forever in my memory. The peculiar park grounds that I speak of rest on a bluff looking down on the Major Deegan Expressway—I-87—and have long served as an atmospheric hot spot for rats and those on two legs engaging in some form of clandestine misbehavior. Suffice it to say, it is not—and never was—a place for a family picnic.

Recently, I read that an effort was afoot to clean up the spot and turn it into something unrecognizable. It is, after all, part of New York City’s parklands. In fact, I had forgotten—if I ever knew in the first place—that this poor excuse for a park has a name: Tibbett’s Tail. Tibbett’s Brook was once prominent in the area of the Northwest Bronx I call home. I’ve seen old pictures of the swampy-looking brook meandering through a lot of sea grass—or whatever is the freshwater, urban equivalent. A century or so ago, the brook was diverted underground and gradually filled in. The elevated subway line carrying the IRT Broadway-Seventh Avenue “Number 1” train—commencing and ending at Van Cortlandt Park and W242nd Street—can be seen in early twentieth-century photos lording over the murky waters of Tibbetts Brook. The El was definitely a harbinger of things to come, though, because this corner of the world bares little resemblance to that bucolic snapshot in time. The El and Van Cortlandt Park endure, however.

There’s a sign at Tibbett’s Tail—noting that it’s a recipient of a grant—which bespeaks hope for this mysterious park. There’s even a rack with plastic bags hanging nearby, importuning the inconsiderate dog-walking slobs who inhabit the area to pick up after their pets. Tibbett’s Tail and its adjoining public sidewalk have been treated like dirt for decades. But I couldn’t help but think of the canine waste picked up with those plastic bags ending up in the garbage and then in a landfill. The excrement will decompose pretty quickly, but the plastic bags might still be around in five hundred years. Right now the Number Two is feast for the flies of Tibbett’s Tail, which—I guess—has its benefits, providing you’re not in breathing distance of the place.

(Photos from the personal collection of Nicholas Nigro)

Tuesday, May 9, 2017

Memories and Alternative Memories

There are memories and there are alternative memories—fiction. Since we live in an age of alternative facts, I consider alternative memories a natural offshoot. Not too long ago, I attended a gathering and chatted with a ghost from my past. He was an affable enough fellow, but he loved nothing more than to hold court and be the center of attention—the type of guy who is hard to stomach for any extended period of time. What annoyed me most of all was not so much that he was a blowhard, but that his recollections of the past frequently veered into fantasy.

I appreciate the fact that memory is a tricky thing—not an exact science. My recollections of the past don’t always jibe with others’. But there are certain memories—historical claims—that the aforementioned ghost from my past spewed that were patently false. They were downright slanderous to a couple of people from the old neighborhood who are long dead and buried. Unfortunately, in a small room sans an escape hatch other than a visit to the bathroom, listening to alternative memories was the price the rest of us on hand had to pay.

And now for something completely different: a memory rooted in reality plus a little science. For every action there is an equal and opposite reaction: Saw that my maternal grandparents’ old home on Miller Street in Bangor, Pennsylvania was for sale, which resurrected a traumatic experience. Arriving from the Bronx for a visit some forty-five years ago, I was carrying my Matchbox case full of cars to the house. In what was most unfortunate timing, the case snapped open in the street—directly above a sewer grating—and several cars from my impressive collection rolled out of the case into it. Visible to the eye, they remained for the entire world to see until the next heavy rain.

This painful memory, nevertheless, prompted me to search the Internet for vintage Matchbox cars and purchase a few, including a few of my all-time favorites: the Greyhound bus, station wagon ambulance, and Studebaker wagon. Back then, those of us with matchbox cars played with them until they were scratched and tattered. These die-cast gems were originally manufactured by an English toymaker—Lesney—with great attention to detail. The Studebaker wagon, for instance, had a retractable roof in its back. In a play moment with my younger brother—in the great outdoors of Bangor—it’s the car we deemed to belong to “Yia Yia.” Yia Yia, by the way, was our next-door neighbor in the Bronx—an elderly Greek woman and grandmother—who didn’t drive in real life. And that’s not an alternative memory. But as to who were the “owners” of my other matchbox vehicles in that playtime a long time ago, I don’t remember and won’t create an alternate reality. I’ll leave that kind of thing to that ghost from my past and his epigones in the alternative memory fraternity. 

(Photos from the personal collection of Nicholas Nigro)

Thursday, May 4, 2017

The Scarlet Pimple Face

While in the cozy confines of Van Cortlandt’s Tail—my box seat to the elevated tracks of the Number 1 train—I spied something unusual. It wasn’t Freddie flicking a sandwich bag full of crumbs to his frenzied feathered friends. There’s nothing unusual about that. Nor was it nearby track workers in fluorescent vests carrying flags on the El. That’s a common sight, too. Rather, it was a teenager with a pronounced case of acne.

Via Facebook, I’ve gotten to see a cross-section of my generation’s kids. While not a scientific survey, I have concluded that most of them amble through their teen years without seeing a pimple, squeezing a blackhead, or living with oily skin. When I was a teen, I suffered from periodic acne flare-ups, particularly during the grueling school months. Remarkably, when on summer hiatuses from the educational grind, my face totally cleared. Healthy doses of sun and fun worked wonders.

Back then, as I remember, many of my peers suffered with acne—some of us with worse cases than others. The most common remedies in treating the scourge were over-the-counter products like Oxy cleansing pads and Clearasil, which I don’t remember having much of an impact on our embarrassing pimple problems. There were a handful of kids with pretty ghastly cases of acne who visited dermatologists, but that sort of thing wasn’t on the radar for most families, including mine. Acne was considered part of growing up and that it, too, shall pass. And for most of us it did, leaving—in some instances—the telltale signs of what once was.

I know there are still plenty of kids with acne concerns, but it’s probably more of a class thing now. After all, Oxy cleansing pads and Clearasil are still around. But the suburban youth of today appear to have their zit troubles nipped in the bud. It would seem that modern medicine has done it again. I am, too, astonished that these same youth have Hollywood teeth—pearly white and straight as an arrow. How their parents pay for all these unblemished faces and perfect chompers—not to mention $50,000/year college tuitions—I can’t say.

There was a time when just hearing about or seeing a copy of The Scarlet Pimpernel in a bookstore or on a library shelf, would prompt me to think and maybe even say out loud, “The Scarlet Pimple Face.” And, once upon a time, teens from all walks of life could readily identify with The Scarlet Pimple Face. Not so anymore. But are kids who never know pimples better off in the long run? I don't know. However, I do know they’ll never appreciate the joy of getting rid of them. A little imperfection along the way sometimes has its benefits, because in life’s mirror are one zit after another.

(Photos from the personal collection of Nicholas Nigro)

Wednesday, May 3, 2017

What Would Washington Say?

I found myself in lower Manhattan this past Saturday—about as low as you can get on a warm and humid morning. I walked among the caverns of Wall Street—a labyrinthine maze of streets—and through the memorials for 9-11. Tourists from all parts of the United States and the world were everywhere. A big police presence, too. Prior to 9-11 the very same terra firma was—as I recall on weekends—relatively quiet. But that was then and this is now. It’s 2017. The next anniversary of 9-11 will be its sixteenth.

An old friend and I now refer to four-year spans as “Spellman cycles.” We both attended Cardinal Spellman High School in the Bronx from 1976-1980—four interminable years from our perspectives. I hadn’t yet turned eighteen on graduation day. So, four years in time amounted to almost twenty-five percent of my life in toto. Right now, four years represents just a shade over seven percent of my existence. I guess this explains why four years go by in a heartbeat nowadays, and how four Spellman cycles have just about passed since that awful day in 2001. And nine Spellman cycles have come and gone since my high school days!

Speaking of the passage of time, I chanced upon the historic Fraunces Tavern in my recent adventure. Located on the corner of Pearl and Broad Streets, it’s the hallowed spot where General George Washington, upon the British surrender and evacuation of New York, bid farewell to his officers. I most devoutly wish that your latter days may be as prosperous and happy as your former ones have been glorious and honorable,” he told the assembled. The date: December 4, 1783—fifty-eight-and-one-half Spellman Cycles ago.

If he could return today for a visit, I wonder how the Father of Our Country—the man on the dollar bill—would feel about things in the here and now. Esmerelda on Bewitched brought the man back to life for a spell, but that was in the colorful and contentious early 1970s. Armed Forces of Puerto Rican National Liberation  (FALN) detonated a deadly bomb in Fraunces Tavern several years later, But more than ten Spellman cycles have run their course since then. What I would like to know at this moment in time is what General Washington would make of the Subway franchise located right next to Fraunces Tavern in 2017? Seriously, is this what New York City has come to? When only a stingy-portions sandwich chain—apparently—can afford the astronomical rent in that historic part of town. The hair and nail salon above it likely gets a better deal. I don't know exactly what Washington would say about it all. Perhaps the hair and nail salon might intrigue him. A place he wished existed in the eighteenth century to powder a wig on a whim.

(Photos from the personal collection of Nicholas Nigro)

Monday, April 24, 2017

Freddie McFlicker

There’s this little patch of land that’s considered part of Van Cortlandt Park. In fact, it’s called “Van Cortlandt’s Tail” because it’s at the park’s far end—or beginning from where I sit. And speaking of sitting, this tail section of the park is a circle—or a horseshoe might be more apt—of benches. That’s pretty much it. Sure, it’s got a live Christmas tree in its center, which is decorated every year. And right now it’s festooned with tulips and past-their-prime daffodils.

It’s a piece of earth—well, asphalt mostly—that I passed by regularly for decades. Since I was a boy as a matter of fact. It was a place that I couldn’t conceive of ever hanging out in—for any reason. There was no conceivable need. Why would I want to sit on a bench that overlooks the El and the noisy Number 1 trains constantly coming home to port and heading out on their Manhattan-bound returns.

Life, though, is full of surprises. Nowadays, I find myself in Van Cortlandt’s Tail quite frequently to rest my weary bones. I find the coming-and-going deafening trains almost soothing. It’s the urban equivalent, I guess, of going down to the harbor and watching the boats come in and out. 

Several blocks south of the tail is another small snippet of land with New York City park designation. When all of us were growing up—in the non-politically correct, freer 1970s—it was known as the “Bum Park.” Not nice—yes—but suffice it to say the place attracted some unsavory characters, many of whom were down on their luck.

Van Cortandt’s Tail is not quite the Bum Park North, but it hosts its fair share of characters, including a man I have not-so-affectionately dubbed Freddie McFlicker. I see him regularly roaming the area, sometimes eating a sandwich and other times with a small bag of bread scraps to feed the birds. But there is something very dark about old Freddie. He flicks one crumb at a time and watches—with sadistic delight no doubt—the birds battle over it. He lives in a nearby building, I think, and my detective work surmises that he is unmarried and has abused alcohol at one time or another. He’s wears an angry face and doesn’t fraternize with anyone but the birds.

Strangely, I’ve come to despise the mere sight of him. All of us, I suspect, have a Freddie McFlicker or two or three in our lives. The bird feeding bit speaks volumes to me. I’ve also noticed that he has a preferred bench. It’s where, coincidentally, I like sitting. The bench is at the beginning of the tail, so you’re never surrounded by people and a quick, unobtrusive exit is always possible.

Well, today, I was sitting on Freddie’s bench—the only one in the whole tail until Freddie in the flesh appeared. There were dozens of empty benches to choose from. But what does Freddie do? He sits on the one right beside me and commences eating his lunch. I could feel hostility in the air. I wanted to get up right away in protest—in disgust—but decided I couldn’t let Freddie McFlicker win this round. So, I stayed for a bit and finally exited the tail, leaving sneering old Freddie alone with his half-eaten sandwich and maybe a few crumbs to be flicked to the birds. He muttered something as I left, but I don’t know if it was meant for me or his feathered friends.

(Photos from the personal collection of Nicholas Nigro)

Sunday, April 23, 2017

Special Day

I rode the Number 1 train into Manhattan this morning and it was quite literally a special journey. When there is construction down under and the train doesn’t complete its usual appointed rounds, it is deemed “Special” by the powers-that-be in the Metropolitan Transportation Authority. Today, the train’s last stop on its southbound run—and start of its northbound return—was 14th Street, instead of South Ferry. Less is better and special on the New York City subway. Superstorm Sandy damage repairs are reportedly still being done below 14th Street. The “storm of the century” occurred five years this October. Not convinced that time flies and circumstances change, I give you Chris Christie, “America’s Governor” in the immediate wake of Sandy.

When I was in high school, I took a city bus there every day—one, in fact, that was christened “special.” The various “special” buses were leased from the city to take students from certain neighborhoods—like my own Kingsbridge—directly to our school. There were a lot of us, so it paid to do so. Crammed like sardines into the bus—with an unhealthy share of teens smoking in the can—it was a hellish daily adventure. I typically began my day reeking—skin to clothes—of cigarette smoke. Ditto at the end of the school day, but that was more tolerable for obvious reasons. Now that couldn’t have been too healthy. I can’t say what, if any, the long-term physical damage was of my inhaling all that second-hand smoke, but the psychological effects in real-time were pretty debilitating. What a way to start a school day in a place that I dreaded going to—“special” bus or not!

When I was in high school in the East Bronx during the 1970s, the area of Manhattan that I found myself in today was a little different in appearance and feel. Well, more than a little. I passed by a building that once housed a gay bar of renown called the Badlands. I’ve seen pictures of the place with the old elevated West Side Highway still standing in the backdrop. Gritty images from a time and place that are no more. That part of lower Manhattan was a veritable wasteland of rotting piers and such—stark but with character that’s vanished.

As a teenager, I didn’t meander around Manhattan like I’ve done the past few decades. Then, trips “downtown” had a purpose like Christmas shopping, a movie or show, or some school trip. My friends and I weren’t about to indiscriminately roam in the big city’s no man’s lands. It wasn’t only considered too dangerous; it was too dangerous. Still, I would have liked to explore that kind of character, which I remember in so many other places in town. A character that is pretty much history.

As I was strolling along the previous wasteland—now gentrified with hipsters galore bicycling and jogging along the Hudson River—the wide walkway suddenly narrowed to one lane. Bicyclists whizzing too closely beside me in their allotted path on heavily trafficked 11th Avenue made me pine for home. One little swerve on one of those bicycles traveling at such high speeds would have seriously put a damper on this special day of mine.

(Photos from the personal collection of Nicholas Nigro)

Saturday, April 22, 2017

And There Still Is a Ball Field Right Here

While walking through Van Cortlandt Park this past week, I passed by—as I often do—a hallowed entrance. It’s a small cutout in a fence that provides access to three baseball diamonds. It’s the very same opening that I—four decades ago—traversed when a bunch of us in the neighborhood decided to “hit some out.”

Sitting on our front stoops on spring and summer days (and early eves, too), we would frequently pose the immortal question: “What do you want to do?” Sometimes we’d settle upon walking to nearby Van Cortlandt Park, or Vanny as it is colloquially known, with our baseball bats, balls, and gloves in tow. If we had at least four bodies, we would upgrade “hit some out”—which was a lot of fun and good exercise—into a self-hitting game that utilized half the infield and half the outfield. And that was even more fun and very good exercise.

It’s April now—baseball season—and we’ve experienced several warm days this month. But kids batting balls around on the ball fields are hard to come by. Organized games are still played on them, but seldom are the non-uniformed spotted playing variations of the summer game. It’s kind of depressing. The passage of time has left the fields intact. In fact, Van Cortlandt Park is in much better shape than it was in the 1970s, when the city’s fiscal crisis did a number on parks and everything else. But I certainly didn’t care that the infield needed a serious manicure—bad hops were the rage—and the outfield grass appeared more yellow than green.

And so this has become my new Rite of Spring—to take note of what’s not occurring anymore in springtime. It’s getting worse, too, with seemingly everyone—including the very young—addicted to devices. Spring for me in the 1970s cried, “Play ball!” The New York Mets were back in town as well—and on the tube and radio—with the warm and reassuring voices of Lindsey Nelson, Bob Murphy, and Ralph Kiner serenading me once more. The sights and sounds of baseball were everywhere. At the start of the 1970s, April meant it was Wiffle ball season and the spaldeens were bouncing again. By the mid- to late-1970s the stickball bat had replaced its Wiffle ball counterpart and the tennis ball, the once ubiquitous spaldeen, which was already being phased out.

If given the choice of “hitting some out at Vanny” or playing with a smartphone, what pray tell would a contemporary kid more likely choose? I could hazard a guess. Now there still is a ball field where the field is warm and green. But the people aren’t playing their crazy game with a joy that’s no longer seen.

(Photos from the personal collection of Nicholas Nigro)

Friday, April 14, 2017

TGI Good Friday

I spied two mourning doves perched on an electrical wire this afternoon as a somber procession—from my old parish church, St. John’s—passed by. I couldn’t understand anything because everything I heard—from the prayers to the singing—was in Spanish, but it sounded and felt appropriately solemn. On second thought, I did translate one word into English: Jesus.

Well, if it’s a somber procession with a police escort on the neighborhood’s back streets, it could mean only one thing—it’s Good Friday. The weather was certainly good—no violent midday thunderstorms to contend with. I kind of remember believing that skies typically darkened for a few hours on Good Friday to underscore the time Jesus spent dying on the cross. It must have been part of my Catholic education and probably happened a time or two, too. And speaking of stormy skies at high noon, I recall watching the movie King of Kings during several Easter holidays in the colorful 1970s. Replete with super-dark clouds, loud thunder, strong winds, and undulating lightning, it depicted the crucifixion of Christ—a scary story if ever there was one.
Another Good Friday memory revolves around Pat Mitchell’s Irish Food Center, a legendary local grocery. The place used to close during the afternoon—between the hours of twelve and three—on this sober of sober days. The shuttering was considered huge in the neighborhood, because the store was otherwise open—seven days a week during the waking hours. In the good old days, a mom-and-pop shop like Pat Mitchell’s closed during the overnight. In the same hallowed spot—but not so hallowed anymore—Pat’s grocer predecessor is now open twenty-four hours. But in the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s—the Pat Mitchell Era—that sort of thing didn’t happen. What couldn’t wait until the morning?

It’s interesting to see what’s become of so many of my peers from the old neighborhood and beyond in the Bronx—many of them who, like me, grew up Catholic and attended faith-based institutions of learning. With the exception of kindergarten, I went to Catholic schools, including college, and believe I received a quality secular education. My paternal grandfather, who emigrated from Italy, once complained that the Catholic Church desired keeping its flock ignorant. He was a wise man—not a wise guy. And the proof is in the pudding, I think. It’s not a scientific survey by any means, but I’d say that the majority of my peers and schoolmates are not practicing Catholics—and certainly not as devout as their parents and grandparents were.

My alma mater, Manhattan College, posted on Facebook apropos biblical poetry for Good Friday: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only son, so that everyone who believes in him might not perish but have eternal life.” As the recipient of the aforementioned fine Catholic education, which taught me to think and to reason, I find that bit of verse strains credulity and doesn’t quite pass the smell test. In fact, I’d even employ the words of a long-time, now deceased neighbor of mine who—when confronted with things illogical—would cry, “It don’t make no sense!” Indeed, it don’t!

Forty years or so ago, my younger brother and I decided to attend an Easter vigil on Saturday night to fulfill our Sunday obligation. We were visiting our maternal grandparents in Bangor, Pennsylvania and walked to the church, which wasn’t all that close. We made this choice—really, a Hobson's choice—to “get it over with,” so that we could be free as two mourning doves on Easter morning. It was April, after all, and the Wiffle ball bat and baseball gloves were at the ready. However, God intervened and punished us with a three-hour, incredibly exhausting mass with baptisms, readings upon readings (no Gettysburg Addresses in the mix), and the passing around of lit candles as well. An important life lesson was learned that night—getting something over with often comes attached to a stiff price. Happy Easter!

(Photos from the personal collection of Nicholas Nigro)

Sunday, April 9, 2017

A Palm Sunday Piece of My Mind

I rode the rails into Manhattan yesterday and got to experience the good, the bad, and the ugly in the land down under. I have something of a love-hate relationship with the subway, I guess. I love many of its sights and sounds, but hate—really hate—its jostling masses. In other words, I would really enjoy the subway experience without other people on the train.

As they are typically the least crowded cars—on the Number 1 train at least—my riding in the first car downtown and last car uptown is designed to minimize the people crush. But, alas, it’s not a perfect science. When the crowds find their way even there—and turn the cars into proverbial sardine cans—I can’t help but think of all the people who ride and who rode the subways during rush hours. For a quarter of a century, my father worked the four-to-midnight shift at the James A. Farley Post Office Building—the main New York City P.O.—on Eighth Avenue between 31st and 33rd Streets. It’s where you will find the inscribed post office credo: “Neither snow nor rain nor heat nor gloom of night stays these couriers from the swift completion of their appointed rounds.” He ventured downtown from the Bronx when the city schools were letting out and came home in the wee small hours of the morning. Raising five kids along the way is apt to lead a man to drink.

Really, it seems like Manhattan is getting more and more gentrified with each passing hour. Due west of where my father toiled to earn a living is a prime example of gentrification in high gear. Luxury high rises appear to be springing up everywhere—apartments that will remarkably find tenants with the financial wherewithal to live in. Who has that kind of money? Some folks, apparently, but none that travel in my circles. In the shadows of these fancy buildings, I encountered two thirty-something women, I'd say, tidying up their pup tent pitched on the sidewalk. I considered snapping a picture of their humble abode, but they didn’t appear the types to appreciate being on Candid Camera, regardless of my motives—Exhibit A in a Tale of Two Cities essay.

Well, it was home, sweet home after that sorry snapshot—on the subway again with my last car uptown strategy a rousing success. All that was yesterday and this is today. Just moments ago in fact, the post office delivered two packages to me—Sunday delivery! Jabbering on his cell phone the whole time while making his appointed rounds, this postal employee literally threw my stuff onto the top step of a front stoop, leaving it exposed to potential poachers. He could have ascended four steps and placed the small packages between a screen door and main door. But that would have distracted him from his animated personal conversation.

Still, it’s a beautiful day in the neighborhood—a picture perfect day for Palm Sunday. What I remember most about past Palm Sundays was the mass. Courtesy of reading the multi-layered, serious business “Passion,” the mass was excruciatingly long. It was performed, as I recall, like a play. The priest assumed a part, the lecturer, and the lead singer, too. And nobody delivered Judas’s “Surely, not I” villainous line of betrayal than our own songbird Sister Therese. The typical forty-five minute service was closer to an hour-and-a-half on Palm Sunday. And forty-five minutes at mass—from where I sat impatiently writhing—felt like an eternity, let alone double that time.

On a happier note, my paternal grandmother used to prepare a special Palm Sunday homemade pasta dinner. She may have emigrated from Italy, but she embraced the American story with gusto. On this special religious Sunday, my grandmother shaped her macaroni like “cowboy hats and ropes.” Her grandkids often had a hand in shaping them. Imagine orecchiette pasta on steroids for the cowboy hats and five-stick spaghetti for the ropes. But it was delicious—never fail—and went a long way in erasing both the memory of Judas betraying Christ and being bored silly at mass.

(Photos from the personal collection of Nicholas Nigro) 

Sunday, March 26, 2017

Thoughts of Barbicide

I was in Greenwich Village yesterday morning—at brunch time as a matter of fact. In contrast with most of the month's temperatures, it was pleasantly warm—near sixty degrees—and the local hipsters were milling about in great numbers. Many of these men and women patiently waited their turns to dine in over-crowded and over-priced holes in the wall. From my perspective at least, all that waiting around spoils the dining experience. What the waiting inevitably portends is rarely pretty—dining in a sardine can with fellow sardines.

In my travels, I walked through Manhattan’s Meatpacking District, still home to an ever-decreasing number of meatpacking enterprises. Mostly, the area has morphed into a gentrified playground offering luxurious places to live—in converted slaughterhouses in many instances—and a bevy of posh restaurants and boutiques. I recall my father’s stories of watching hundreds upon hundreds of railroad freight cars carrying livestock along the Hudson River to the Meatpacking District. That’s one visual I’m happy I never witnessed. So, I can’t really say I miss the old Meatpacking District.

It’s just that New York City is fast becoming devoid of diversity and charm. And I’m not speaking of diverse peoples, but of diverse character and entrepreneurship. For example, I stumbled upon this chic, peculiarly named business called Acne Studio. I thought at first it might be the office of some dermatologist—a Dr. Zizmor epigone. After all, a dictionary definition of acne is: “The occurrence of inflamed or infected sebaceous glands in the skin; in particular, a condition characterized by red pimples on the face, prevalent chiefly among teenagers.” But no, Acne Studio wasn’t peddling $5.00 jars of Oxy face cleansing pads, but fashion instead like derby shoes with painted cap toes for $800 and $50/pair boxer briefs.  

Often in my Bronx to Manhattan adventures, I exit the train at the corner of 12th Street and Seventh Avenue. For many years, a neat row of mom-and-pop retailers greeted me on the northeast corner, including an independently owned pharmacy with a modest mortar and pestle neon sign. That same strip is now a Duane Reade chain drug store and a Subway sandwich franchise. This is the law of the jungle now.

Happily, small barbershops and locksmiths—to name a couple—are weathering the changes. Not too far from Acne Studio were two barbershops that I noticed. One was called Fellow Barbershop; the other took a page out of Shakespeare’s book and posed the immortal question: What’s in a name? The owners decided not to call it Best Barbershop or some such thing, but merely Barbershop. A barbershop by any other name would smell as sweet—or like Barbicide.

The great equalizer in this New York experience is a subway ride. It’s still a bargain and transports patrons of Acne Studio and Target alike. No special privileges here when—after pointing at the hanging zebra boards—subway conductors open their doors. It is then that we know for certain that while the stars may not be properly aligned, the subway cars most assuredly are.

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

Monday, March 20, 2017

Spring Ahead

Once upon a time my brothers, playmates, and I went sleigh riding in a nearby empty lot—down a small hill into what had been, a half century or so earlier, the meandering, above-ground Tibbetts Brook. Empty lots in the Bronx are hard to come by nowadays, and so is winter merriment as far as I’m concerned. Happily, said season is officially over. Good riddance!

Tomorrow, in fact, marks a week since the big-bad blizzard that didn’t quite live up to its billing. In my neck of the woods, I’d estimate we accumulated anywhere between six and eight inches of snow and ice, which was a whole lot better than the anticipated twelve to eighteen. Still, this week’s been a real pain in the butt. It got bitterly cold in the snow’s aftermath, creating treacherous obstacle courses—for several days—in getting from point A to point B.

I’ve touched on this sore subject before. One of the biggest differences between now and when I was a callow youth on the back of a sleigh is neighborliness—plain and simple. In this day and age there is a palpable lack of consideration in the ether—on numerous fronts. Many street corners remained blocked with snow mounds and ice for days. Certain storekeepers, too, did the bare minimum in shoveling their sidewalks—enough, I guess, to avoid a summons from the Department of Sanitation. These self-interested retailers and absentee commercial property owners, who ply their trades in heavily foot-trafficked areas, made the tiniest, one-way pathways with their snow blowers. God forbid they had taken an extra ten or fifteen minutes to clear the way so that two people could walk in opposite directions, without one of them stepping up onto slippery snow and ice to let the other pass.

When I was a boy, homeowners, building supers, and storeowners not only thoroughly shoveled their own walkways, but corner passes into the street as well. Folks from the old country had a certain code back then, which is less in evidence today. I’m painting with a broad brush—perhaps—but most men and women gave thought to their neighbors who might have difficulty ascending ice walls and navigating extended stretches of slush.

Fortunately, Mother Nature has done the jobs that all too many of these inconsiderate oafs—interested in making money above all else—neglected to do. We’re now left with piles of filthy snow in the streets and puddles—lots of them—everywhere. Snowy sidewalks, busy sidewalks, dressed in week old snow is not a pleasing visual. Canines’ calling cards are ubiquitous in the snowmelt. And garbage hasn’t been picked up all week. Whenever I spy a week’s worth of garbage piling up, it amazes me that we aren’t buried in it.

Hope springs eternal, however. On the eve of spring, the New York City bus and transit fare confusingly went up with miscellaneous MetroCard changes, including a quarter spike for a one-way fare, but most of us won't pay more, I think. These kinds of moves used to be both straightforward and big news. Ditto when the post office raised the price of a first-class stamp. But when you get right down to it, forty-nine cents to mail a letter and even three dollars to ride a bus or train isn’t highway robbery. On the other hand, the tolls at New York City bridges and tunnels are—very literally—that. I’ll leave you with a spring proverb: Avoid, for peace of mind, interactions of any kind with men and women who went to the School of Hard Knocks.

(Photos from the personal collection of Nicholas Nigro)

Friday, March 17, 2017

St. Patrick's Day Musings

In the early 1970s, a hipper, more progressive education took hold in St. John’s grammar school and, I suppose, a lot of other places. I remember a lecture in the fourth or fifth grade about the evils of ethnic stereotyping. Examples of stereotypes were provided. I recall a couple of them. The one of most interest to yours truly was: Italians have dirty houses. The ten-year-old me tried in vain to explain to my parents what I learned at school that day. Suffice it to say, Ma and Pa didn’t appreciate the Italian stereotype. The paternal side of my family—including a grandmother and aunt who lived in the apartment below in a pretty clean house—was Italian.

The whole point of the lecture, of course, was that stereotypes were unfair and, in most instances, untrue. The Italians in my family circle, nonetheless, were on the defensive and singled out the many Irish families they knew with dirty houses. Kingsbridge in the Bronx, where we all called home—in clean and dirty houses both—was a predominantly Irish neighborhood in those days. My grandfather opted to live in an Irish enclave because he didn’t want my grandmother interacting with only the Italian-speaking. He figured she would better learn English kibitzing with the Irish rather than relying on her native tongue in the company of just Italians. My grandfather was a wise man. While my grandmother spoke with a heavy Italian accent all her life, she had a reasonable command of the English language. To this day, my brothers and I—in what amounts to an affectionate tribute to her—employ certain English phrases that she was wont to use. When she didn’t like a particular food, my grandmother would say, “No too good,” or “I no like a-too much.” These two patented phrases of hers are on the tip of my tongue nowadays—and they are apropos in describing more than what’s for dinner.

Really, I don’t know where the “dirty houses” stereotype originated. Were the educators afraid to touch upon genuine stereotypes—the ones that all of us were familiar—like Italians are garlic-eating greaseballs in league with organized crime. Funny, but the second example of an ethnic stereotype supplied to us in our lesson was: The Irish drink something funny. What’s that supposed to mean? Irish men and women will freely tell you what the real stereotype is—and some of them will say it’s not a stereotype at all.

I’ve known a fair share of people with drinking problems from a variety of ethnicities. My best friend’s Irish mother—who kept quite a clean house, by the way—perhaps summed it up best when she said: “The Italians are secret drinkers. The Irish like to make a show of it.” It certainly described my grandfather and father, who preferred to imbibe clandestinely in the comforts of home. My grandfather made his own wine for a spell. He kept gallon jugs of it in the closet, which he would pull out in the evenings after a hard day’s work. I was told after sampling a few glasses of the grape, he often reached for his harmonica. My grandmother “no like a-too much” this little bit of theater. Now, if all that sounds a little stereotypical—so what!

Nobody, in fact, laughed harder at Italian stereotypes roles than my father. He loved The Soprano’s. With the exception of the Corleones in The Godfather—who had a degree of nobility amidst the brutality—I don’t care much for Italian gangster-themed television shows and movies. And it’s not because I am offended at how Italians are portrayed. I just find absolute boorishness and wanton violence a bad combo.

My mother—whose maternal grandparents came from Austria and spoke German—always decorated our front door for St. Patrick’s Day and, too, made corned beef and cabbage for dinner. When my mother’s kin first settled in Allentown, Pennsylvania in the early 1900s, my grandmother reported that Irish schoolmates would say, “You Huns…go back to Germany!” When my grandfather bought his first and only home in Kingsbridge, he had to go to court to evict an Irish family in order to move his family in—and it took a couple of years. Said Irish family whispered, “The guineas are taking over.” Now, this particular family kept a dirty house and the roach infestation that greeted my grandfather, grandmother, and their three children is the stuff of legend. And so is the fact that we all lived happily ever after—friends for life regardless of stereotyping and name calling. Erin go Bragh!

(Photos from the personal collection of Nicholas Nigro)

Sunday, March 12, 2017

The Ides of March

If the current weather forecast comes to pass, on Wednesday morning—the Ides of March—I could have a foot to a foot-and-a-half of snow on the ground to shovel. And while I am well aware that New York City has had major snowstorms—blizzards in fact—in the month of March, I have been lulled into a false sense of security that this winter was going out like a lamb. I incorrectly assumed that earlier-than-usual flowering daffodils were harbingers of more serene weather tidings.

But then again, it’s the year 2017—where super-strangeness appears to be the order of the day. If I were a boy right now, I’d be super-excited about the impending big snow. And I wouldn’t, too, be concerned about a super-unhinged man living in the White House—a guy who just seems to double down on his unhinged persona with each passing day and tweet. The best part of being young, I suppose, involved not worrying about unpaid bills, serious illness, and the happenings in the wider world.  Politics, for one, ain’t what it used to be—not by a long shot. Nowadays, partisanship trumps—pardon the pun—reality. We live in a world with infinite virtual soapboxes—available to everyone, every day, and always.

I noticed recently that the IMDb website had cast asunder its discussion boards. While I never participated in any of them, I frequently perused threads. There was a lot of interesting stuff to be gleaned there—non-confrontational opinions, civilized give-and-take, and compelling trivia—but also bushel loads of bile. I sometimes think that we have been unmasked by today’s technology.

Speaking of which, I’ve been watching HBO’s Deadwood series via Amazon Prime. Admittedly, the series took a little while to grow on me—the vilest of bile factor on the small screen—but I eventually acclimated to its unrelenting brutality and relative absence of humanity. For sure, it depicts a beastly time and place—man’s inhumanity to man, and especially to woman. And I’d like to think that we’ve come a long way—a long way. But then I log on to Facebook, read commentary on news sites, and tune into cable news programs. It's enough to make me say and mean it: "Let it snow…let it snow…let it snow."

(Photos from the personal collection of Nicholas Nigro)

Monday, March 6, 2017

March Madness

Since that seventy-degrees—no jacket required—day last week, we here in New York City experienced the coldest weather of the winter. It was fourteen degrees the night before last. But if that’s the worst that Winter 2017 has to throw at us, we’ve got nothing to complain about.

When I was walking through Van Cortlandt Park a couple of mornings ago, it was in fact glove-wearing cold. The park was pretty desolate as a result. I passed a couple of hardy folks jogging, both of whom said hello to me. That sort of thing is the exception to the more familiar silence is golden rule that most of us practice. You know: Don't talk to strangers. One of the joggers—a young fellow—actually said, “Good morning, Sir"—the Bronx equivalent, I suppose, of being knighted. It’s also indicative that I’m perceived as an old guy now—an old guy strolling through the park on a cold winter’s morn. Old Guy Me couldn’t resist snapping a picture across the Van Cortlandt Park flats of the Russian Mission Residency in the nearby neighborhood of Riverdale. The Bronx White House, I call it.

Once upon a time, the month of March embodied hope and renewal for me: sprouting spring flowers, baseball players gearing up in Florida, and the slow but sure winding down of a grueling school year. But when I spied a few daffodils flowering in the park the other day, I didn’t envision happier things—like playing stickball, or getting out the baseball mitt to have a catch, or preparing to watch the Mets’ opening day. Instead, nothing! Life has become a monotonous grind. The seasons change as per the calendar, but the grind merely changes its hues.

Grind notwithstanding, at least there’s good pizza around me—walking distance always. I’ve been patronizing a place of late that has had the same family running it for half a century. Italian-Americans running a pizza parlor—now that’s a novelty! I hadn’t been in their establishment in years, but I remembered the guys from my college days—father and sons. Longstanding family businesses like theirs are increasingly hard to come by in New York City.

I guess I should include one more comforting constant vis-à-vis my college days. Manhattan College students still have a penchant for beer—cheap beer specifically. For some reason unbeknownst to me—they’ve got plenty of dorm space—the college leases several area private homes for its students. The telltale indicators of them in the houses are empty cans of Natural Light—or Natty Lights as they are affectionately called—in the garbage and outside the garbage, too. When I began my four years at that very college, the legal drinking age in New York State was eighteen; the year I graduated, 1984, it turned twenty-one. The fake ID industry thereafter flourished.

Recently, a humorous YouTube video made the rounds, playing off the fact that New York City subway conductors are required to point at a hanging black-and-white striped  zebra board when their trains come to a stop in a station. They must perform this Uncle Sam Wants You gesture before they open the train doors. I had noticed the boards in the past and speculated on their purpose, but I never observed a single conductor pointing at one. And so my mission yesterday was to stand in close proximity to a zebra board and see for myself. You are there! Mission accomplished. Missions like this are important when life becomes a slog.

I will embark on other such missions in the city where virtually every delicatessen feels it has to brand itself gourmet. Now, I’ve seen a lot of the men and women who work in these places, and Graham Kerr-types they are not. Perhaps my next mission will be to find a Graham Kerr in a New York City gourmet deli.

(Photos from the personal collection of Nicholas Nigro)