Tuesday, August 15, 2017

August Thoughts

I will begin with some mundane but nevertheless august thoughts. I was on the shores of New York Harbor this past Saturday. Never forget that the Bronx is up but the Battery’s down. It was the ideal August day to be there: overcast, breezy, and no-jacket-required cool. There were tourists aplenty in the vicinity. Spanning the entire age spectrum, many of them appeared fixated on capturing every single moment of their New York experience on their smartphones. They weren’t quite living in the moment, I thought, but were instead captive to these ubiquitous hand-held devices. But what’s the point of pointing that out? Yada…yada…yada.

Once upon a time, I enjoyed riding the Staten Island Ferry, which departs from the Battery, the lower tip of Manhattan. The ferry has always been a bargain—it’s free to ride now. But for me it was never about traveling to Staten Island, which is one of the city’s five boroughs. I took the ferry for the ride—period and end of story. With the exception of the ferry terminal on Staten Island, I’ve never actually set foot in the borough. It’s hard to get around the place without a car and hard to get there—and expensive—with one. The short ferry trips supplied vivid panoramas, especially the return trips to Manhattan. The last time I was on the ferry, the Twin Towers were what loomed like colossi on the approach.

In the environs of Battery Park City, I saw people boarding boats to the Statue of Liberty. I was on Liberty Island once, but that was a long time ago—when Richard Nixon was the president. I watched the passengers getting on and disembarking the boats—navigating the unsteady gangplank, or whatever it’s called—and concluded my seafaring days are over.

I began this journey into Manhattan at the Van Cortlandt Park station—the first and last stop of the Number 1 train. I am always assured a seat and opt to sit in the lead car going downtown, which is typically the least crowded on southbound trains. Moments before take-off, I was alone in the car. But just before the buzzer sounded—and one actually does before the doors close—a fellow passenger materialized and chose a seat not too far from me. He had his breakfast with him—a sandwich—and proceeded to consume his morning repast. Its aroma wafted my way. I’ve smelled worse in the subway—a lot worse. Recently, I read where the Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) was considering banning eating on the trains. I don’t see how that edict could be enforced, but—it cannot be denied—malodorous fare in cramped and closed quarters can be awfully nauseating. I won’t hold my breath on that one.

Permit me to switch gears now and offer one last august thought. Nowadays, there are all-too-many ridiculous memes floating around Facebook and elsewhere in the virtual ether. This week’s winner, in my opinion, declares: “President Trump says he’ll be encouraging stores to say ‘Merry Christmas’ instead of ‘Happy Holiday’ this Christmas. Do you support that?” The ridiculousness of this…well…let me count the ways. For starters, it’s the middle of August. And, too, there are certainly more pressing concerns on the president’s plate at the moment. Finally, my mother had a “Happy Holiday” banner on our front door in the early 1960s.

Composer Irving Berlin was the wind beneath the wings of “Happy Holiday,” which was first sung by crooner Bing Crosby in the 1942 film Holiday Inn. Since Christmas music is now played on the radio the day after Halloween, I would wager that an awful lot of men, women, and children have heard Perry Como’s version of the song. Don’t get me wrong: I’m all for saying, “Merry Christmas” when you feel like saying, “Merry Christmas.” However, I’m more concerned in the dog days of summer of a possible nuclear winter.

(Photos from the personal collection of Nicholas Nigro)

Monday, August 14, 2017

What $1.30 Used to Buy

(Originally published on August 14, 2013)

Exactly thirty-nine years have passed since my father took my two brothers, a friend, and me to Shea Stadium. It was the afternoon of August 14, 1974, five days after Richard Nixon resigned the presidency. But I’d hazard a guess the Watergate scandal and the historic changing of the guard in Washington were not on my radar. Baseball—and only baseball—was.

The Mets were saddled with all kinds of injuries in 1974, including star pitcher Tom Seaver’s ongoing battle with nagging sciatica in his left hip. He was uncharacteristically struggling and, when all was said and done, my revered idol went 11-11 on the year and my favorite team, an unimpressive 71-91. (The Mets had won the National League Pennant the year before.) Still, it was an exciting afternoon as we plopped ourselves down wherever we darn pleased in the far reaches of the upper deck—grandstand seats for $1.30 a pop and closer than anyone else in the ballpark to the airborne planes taking off and landing at nearby LaGuardia Airport. As a boy, I always loved those loud, periodic interruptions, particularly the spitting sounds of the planes’ engines that drowned out the stadium din for a fleeting moment. It was part of the unique and unrivaled ambiance of attending a game at the “Big Shea”—and even added spice to listening to home games on the radio and watching them on TV.

Courtesy of today’s ready access to information, I discovered that the Mets beat the Los Angeles Dodgers three to two on that day, scoring two runs in the bottom of the ninth inning to pull it out. Normally, I remember details like this, but I have no recollection of the game itself or that Tom Seaver was the starting pitcher. Tug McGraw got the win in relief. I have this faint memory, though, of my father insisting we leave an inning early to avoid the post-game parking lot’s traffic snarl. Attendance was 33,125. It was one of his hang-ups, which I can appreciate now having inherited his “I really and truly don’t like driving and excessively fret about things like traffic” gene. Nevertheless, this early departure meant that we missed a thrilling, come-from-behind, bottom of the ninth inning victory. (Thrilling for me, I should add, and not my die-hard Yankee fan and Met hating father.) I imagine we were listening to the game on the car radio as we headed back home. I’d wager, too, that I was simultaneously ecstatic at the win and disgusted at having missed it live and in person.

Suffice it to say that 1974 was a vastly different time for the world in general and baseball in particular. We traveled from the Bronx to Shea Stadium in Queens on the game day—a twenty-five or so minute ride—and purchased tickets at a ticket booth for $1.30 each. An in-law of mine recently ventured to the new Yankee Stadium—the House that Ruth Didn’t Build. He spent $75 for tickets that were far from the best seats in the house and spoke of the stadium runways being more like shopping malls than the hot dog and beer-smelling passageways—with the sticky concrete floors from copious concession spillages—that we both recalled so fondly. (I’d add to these evocative olfactory memories the urine and urine-masking deodorants from the stadium’s bathrooms.) A trip to the ballpark used to be foremost about the game of baseball and rooting for the home team, not going on an expensive shopping spree and dining on Penne a la Vodka and exotic-flavored rice pilaf during the game in an upscale eatery.

The game has been remade by an uber-corporate mentality that has completely refashioned the baseball brand to suit the times and the ever-waning attention spans of its customer base. It’s hardly the affordable family game that it once was, and it’s not the American pastime anymore. What is? Major League Baseball is marketed as an event—a happening. The game on the field is secondary to all the glitzy, technological distractions and the unrelenting clamor. And, to add insult to injury, there are the A-Rods who make mega-millions of dollars and cheat on top of that, rendering records suspect at best and often meaningless.

The simple pleasure of attending a baseball game at Shea Stadium and sitting in the upper deck in the summer of 1974—even if my impatient father ruined the denouement for me—is gone with the winds of time. There will never be another outfield featuring the likes of Cleon Jones, Don Hahn, and Rusty Staub. I’m happy, though, to have been a youthful fan in an era when the bottoms of my PRO-Keds sneakers got all sticky as I exited the ballpark, and I when didn’t have to pass by the Hard Rock Café and Wholly Guacomole on the way out.

(Photo from the personal collection of Nicholas Nigro)

Thursday, August 10, 2017

The Waning Agog Factor

(Originally published on August 10, 2014)

Thirty-seven years ago on this day (now forty), 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.

(Photos from the personal collection of Nicholas Nigro)

The Code of Broccoli Rabe

When I was a boy, my paternal grandmother made broccoli and spaghetti that was otherworldly. When it was in season, she substituted with broccoli rabe, which was equally delightful. Often utilizing the most basic ingredients, my grandmother had a knack for turning out taste sensations. And her dishes always turned out as expected. She was nothing if not consistent. When broccoli rabe and spaghetti was served, I knew what it was going to taste like. For some inexplicable reason, spaghetti was only used with the garlic and oil fare: broccoli, broccoli rabe, and Christmas Eve’s Aglio E Olio. Her pasta dinners—likewise singular and unmatched—were typically of the homemade variety, but never what you would classify as spaghetti.

As with so many things in life, broccoli and broccoli rabe don’t seem to be packed with the same flavor punch as I recall from my youth. I prepare the aforementioned spaghetti dishes from time to time, but the end-results vary greatly. Sometimes the broccoli and broccoli rabe are practically flavorless, even when utilizing half a bulb of garlic. I remember when broccoli rabe was a seasonal vegetable, available during certain times of the year only. Now, just like countless other fruits and vegetables, it’s a year-round food. Does this contemporary growing fact have anything to do with the flavor drain? Only Andy Boy knows for sure. Of course, my grandmother isn’t around anymore. She would have managed, I’m certain, to extract the maximum flavors out of today’s unpredictable broccoli and broccoli rabe.

Shifting gears somewhat, but in keeping with this essay’s title, I was riding the subway recently when I had the misfortune to be in the same car with three generations of boors: grandmother, mother, and daughter, I surmised. Of course, the family elder in this instance was probably in her late thirties or early forties at the oldest. Anyway, they were misbehaving on public transit, which is very annoying indeed. Outrageously loud and vulgar, the threesome was getting on everyone’s nerves. One man sitting very near them—too close for comfort, as it were—got up from his seat and went into an adjoining car. This move angered the family. I mean—really angered them. Why? Because they lived by a code, you see, and felt dissed by this fellow passenger. The trio could actually see the man sitting in the next car. While contemplating whether or not they should confront him, the three generations made threatening faces. There are codes and there are codes. My grandmother, who grew up in genuine poverty in a rocky mountain town in Southern Italy called Castelmezzano, lived by a strong code of right and wrong. She literally counted her blessings, too.

I would be remiss if I didn’t recount a warped code story that is a personal favorite of mine. After a shopping spree at the Cross County Mall in Yonkers, New York, my elderly neighbor—pushing eighty at the time—returned to her car for the drive home. As she opened the driver’s side door, a complete stranger sidled up on the passenger side and demanded to be driven several miles to an address in the city of Mount Vernon. Justifiably fearing for her well-being, my neighbor reached for her pocketbook, which was on the front seat. The woman hijacker was indignant. She no doubt felt she was being profiled and said: “What are you reaching for that for? I ain’t gonna steal your bag!” And let me just say for the politically correct record: Warped codes recognize no race, creed, or ethnicity. They are at once bizarre and infuriating to behold.

(Photos from the personal collection of Nicholas Nigro)

Saturday, August 5, 2017

The Almighty Doesn’t Live Here Anymore

While in Manhattan yesterday, I spied something unusual sticking out of a sidewalk garbage can. It was a pair of crutches. The receptacle was located on the southeast corner of Seventh Avenue and 14th Street, a mile or so from 34th Street. The close proximity to where a celebrated miracle once occurred—with the real Santa Claus coming through as he did—made me wonder if another one had come to pass. Perhaps I just missed the miracle of somebody lame being made to walk. Timing, after all, is everything in life. I would have been more than happy to place my foldable cane in that container and hop on the subway sans an assistive device. Better luck next time.

While on the subject of matters ethereal, a local church is in the news. I just read where the Archdiocese of New York officially “deconsecrated” the Church of the Visitation of the Blessed Virgin Mary—Visitation, for short—a neighborhood institution for as long as I’ve been alive and then some. While growing up in Kingsbridge and Riverdale, Catholics one and all belonged to a parish. It was part of our DNAs—American, New Yorker, Bronx resident, and—in my case—member of St. John’s parish.

When I was a boy in the 1960s and 1970s, the Catholic Church was thriving. However, its days of wine and roses were numbered. The priests were still largely respected. St. John’s men of the cloth were on the benign side of the ledger, with one notable exception, the monsignor. While the church elders revered the guy—they loved the unbeatable combination of businessman and disciplinarian—the younger set, including me, saw something else. The monsignor was a self-righteous, petulant scold, certainly not what I perceived as a humble servant of God. But those were the days when priests aplenty received their “calling” from on high. Something happened on the way to the sacristy room. Nowadays, few are called and even less are chosen. Apparently, the Almighty is back at the drawing board with respect to His calling formula. The             red flag: an all-too-high percentage of molesters getting accepted into that special fraternity.

I was educated in Catholic schools from the first grade through college. It was a solid, predominantly secular education in which students were thought to think for themselves and to reason. God as one entity was hard enough to conceptualize. But God in three persons—blessed trinity—was an even tougher pill to swallow. A good education teaches one not to accept things purely on faith and to follow the truth wherever it may lead. That’s the Catholic Church’s present-day dilemma.

The Church of the Visitation of the Blessed Virgin Mary was originally located to the east of its present location. It was compelled to move a short distance to the west during the building of the Major Deegan Expressway, I-87. Visitation’s current property is considerable and worth a whole lot as a piece of real estate. I suppose the Almighty Dollar trumps the Almighty in this instance. But far be it for me to believe the Catholic Church hierarchy would have anything but the best interests of their parishioners at heart. And if you believe that, I have a church to sell you in the Bronx.

(Photos from the personal collection of Nicholas Nigro)

Sunday, July 30, 2017

This Old House

This old house is no more. It stood in the same location in the Bronx for close to a century and, it’s fair to say, witnessed innumerable and seismic changes. If this old house could only have spoken before it was demolished, it would have had a lot to say. The home’s original owner built the structure with his own two hands, which wasn’t unheard of in the Bronx of yesteryear. People who had the privilege of crossing its threshold reported that the rooms were small and the ceilings, low. It was a dwelling for a different time and place. Pat Mitchell, a renowned local grocer, rented a furnished room in the house’s attic after World War II. While an average-sized adult couldn’t stand up straight there, rooms were really hard to come by after the war.

I am old enough to remember the builder’s then-elderly daughter living in the house with her grown son, who was called “Buddy.” Buddy, who bore a striking resemblance to actor Jason Robards, had a faithful German shepherd. Buddy was not what you would call a conversationalist. Outside of walking his dog or silently lounging around in his windowed front porch with a can of beer in his hand, he was rather nondescript. Buddy most likely used his car, which was parked in a driveway next to the house, to do his grocery shopping and keep the refrigerator stocked with his preferred brew. The neighborhood’s nastier wagging tongues considered Buddy something of a slacker. He never appeared to be duly employed and was never without beer money—a deadly one-two punch as far as they were concerned. And, too, the family had a summer place in the Catskills, where Buddy and his mother vacationed and eventually moved to after selling this old house.

What was most fascinating about the house—a true original in every respect—was that its foundation was laid atop the recently covered-over Tibbetts Brook, which meandered through this area of the Bronx until the early part of the twentieth century. When it was first ready for occupancy, there were still vestiges of the stream at the surface. Initially, this old house’s builder had a swimming hole in his backyard—water in which he actually swam, or at least wallowed in. Its basement was quite often flooded.

When my grandparents moved to Kingsbridge in 1946, the old man's wife was still among the living. There were empty lots in neighborhood at that time and people planted what they called “victory gardens” in some of them, even after the war. My grandfather tilled a plot in close proximity of this old house. Approximately ten years later, he and fellow gardeners were asked to vacate the premises in the name of progress. The original developer of the property—directly behind this old house—went bankrupt after running into unforeseen water issues courtesy of the underground, but ever-tenacious Tibbetts Brook. Two tall buildings were subsequently erected, which were dubbed Tibbett Towers. And this old house now had a parking lot alongside it.

Happily, my grandfather and a few friends found a new site in which to indulge their penchant for gardening. It was not too far from their old garden space—walking distance in fact—and just to the north of this old house. A makeshift fence promptly enclosed the new garden and a well was dug that tapped into Tibbetts Brooks, which supplied the place with a regular source of water. It was this garden that I came to know during my youth, before it, too, was plowed under. I recently learned that the old man who built this old house planted a Sycamore tree in his backyard. It’s still there now and probably over eighty years old. No surprise: the developer is going to cut it down—in the name of progress naturally.

(Photos from the personal collection of Nicholas Nigro)

A Garden Grew in the Bronx

(Originally published on June 24, 2013)

With another summer officially underway and everything green and in bloom, I am reminded of “The Garden.” That’s what everybody in the neighborhood called it, and it was a rather remarkable piece of earth. In fact, as time marches on this garden in the Kingsbridge section of the Bronx seems more remarkable than ever to me. Like so many things from the past, we took it for granted. It was there and a part of our summers. I consider myself very fortunate that the place somehow endured from 1958 to 1971. After all, this was a period of time when empty lots were slowly but surely vanishing from the local landscape. I was just nine years old when the garden was plowed under to make way for one more building, but old enough to remember its incredible uniqueness and beauty on an otherwise urban landscape.
The garden flourished on a sprawling empty lot—multiple empty lots as a matter of fact—on the northwest corner of Tibbett Avenue and W232nd Street. My grandfather and three other men enclosed the space with a makeshift fence comprised of assorted woods and metals. The fence was utilitarian—esthetics weren’t factored into the equation. Built into it, too, were both front and back entrances—doors that opened with actual keys that magically slid pieces of wood over to unlock them. Our Gang couldn’t have devised anything better.

Coincidentally, the garden location was directly across the street from the three-family brick house my grandfather had purchased and, too, the one where I grew up. When he originally moved his family, including my father, into the neighborhood in 1947, he had his heart set on a garden. In stark contrast from where he came from—Manhattan’s Morningside Heights—parts of Kingsbridge were downright bucolic back then. But while my grandfather pined for property with garden space, he needed tenants to help pay the mortgage and settled for a cement backyard and a couple of garages instead.
A friend of my grandfather's—already living in the neighborhood—told him not to worry about a garden. There were ample empty lots in the area, he said, in which he could plant one. “Victory gardens”—holdovers from the war—still existed in the environs of Kingsbridge, and my grandfather found a workable plot just up the block between W232nd Street and W231st Street. His garden was one among many garden plots there. When all were evicted so that ground could be broken for buildings that would subsequently be called "Tibbett Towers," it was time to look for another location, even with the pickings slimmer than ever.
Before the garden that I came to know was planted, the realtor who had the property on the market gave the gardeners his blessing. His one proviso was that they keep the place clean. It was a different world altogether in the late 1950s. The New York City bureaucracy, for one, wasn’t nearly as intrusive as it is today. Imagine a contemporary realtor—even with the consent of a property owner—permitting strangers to build a makeshift fence around the land for sale. And, too, allowing the construction of tool sheds, an outhouse, a bocce court, and a horseshoe pit with bleachers. Utilizing a fifty-gallon drum, my grandfather even dug a well on the property, which tapped into the formerly aboveground Tibbetts Brook just beneath the surface. This supplied the garden with all the water needed. My grandfather knew there was water to be found there, because just to the south in his former garden space the builders of Tibbett Towers were very literally waterlogged. The tenacious Tibbetts Brook was causing unforeseen and overly expensive problems in laying the foundations, which caused the original builder to go bankrupt. This debacle is possibly why the garden across the street from me survived as long as it did. Prospective buyers of the property were perhaps gun shy—and with good reason.  (The owner of the garden space reportedly hoped that the NYPD would build its new 50th Precinct station house there and, of course, pay his not inconsiderable asking price of $1.2 million. It didn’t happen. They found a more reasonable spot a few blocks away.)
The garden nonetheless was amazingly fertile. Tomatoes, eggplants, lettuce, peppers, beans, and onions were grown there. The tomato crop was so bountiful that my grandparents used to make a year’s worth of tomato sauce with garden tomatoes. My grandfather once planted 148 tomato plants, which he grew from seed in a garden hotbox. The Irish contingent of gardeners grew lots of hearty cabbages because they ate lots of cabbage. Potatoes may have been the only vegetable they tried to grow in the place without success. There was something with the soil.
The garden, too, had fig trees, peach trees, and an apple tree on the premises. Flowers were everywhere. Big, bushy marigolds were scattered about because they repelled bugs worth repelling. Tall sunflowers were bee havens. But what I remember most about the garden were the parties thrown during holidays and on summer weekends. Yes, on someone else’s property there were festive barbecues and, as I recall, lots of adult beverages being consumed. Somebody could have gotten hit on the head with a horseshoe, or fallen into the well and drowned. Just looking into the well scared me. But people weren’t conditioned to sue one another back then, so the realtor and the property owner had very little to worry about.

The garden was an oasis in a Bronx neighborhood in a tumultuous time for both New York City and the country at large. When my grandfather passed away in 1965, my father promptly filled his shoes. I always considered it my father’s garden and mine by extension. As a boy, I thought it would always be there, but that was not in the cards. From the perspectives of young and old alike, not only "The Garden" but an entire era was bulldozed on that sad day in October 1971.

(Photos from the personal collection of Nicholas Nigro)

Friday, July 28, 2017

Homeless Is Where the Heart Isn’t

This past week the old neighborhood learned that a recently constructed building on Broadway, whose eventual residents will be able to reach out and touch a passing subway train, is slated to become the residence of eighty-three homeless families. Market-rate apartments is what locals had been told the building would contain. But somewhere in the dark of night, the city fathers and mothers struck a deal with the structure’s developer. They obviously figured it would be best to report the bait-and-switch when it was a fait accompli and nothing could be done to stop it.

Yes, something has to be done about the homeless problem, which is worse than ever. The city mouthpieces proclaim, “Every neighborhood has to share in solving the problem.” Now, that’s fair enough in theory, but—let’s face it—homeless shelters aren’t popping up in every neighborhood in the city. The well-to-do addresses have nothing to fear but, maybe, fear itself.

Naturally, many area residents were up in arms at this sudden turn of events. On Facebook, men and women vented their spleens, including many who haven’t lived in the neighborhood for decades. A few people reported their personal experiences in working with homeless families in what is described as “transitional housing.” Two of them portrayed it as total chaos with a sorry cast of drug-addled adults, deadbeat dads, and neglected children. Another fellow painted a completely different picture. The majority of the homeless families he worked with were more like the Waltons in the throes of a temporary rough patch. While I am more inclined to believe the chaos model, perhaps the truth is somewhere in the middle. For all concerned, we can only hope for the best. Only time will tell, but if the city’s track record in these matters is any indicator, the “best” bar will have to be lowered.

Yesterday morning, I passed by the building and encountered a truck delivering spanking-new stainless steel refrigerators and stoves. They were all over the sidewalk as Exhibit A that this project was a done deal. A community board meeting held last night concerning it would amount to too little, too late. Any resident complaints, no doubt, fell on deaf ears. A day earlier, I found a flier in my door alerting me of the meeting. Unfortunately, it listed the wrong tomorrow. While the date, 27th, and year, 2017, were correct, the month, June, had come and gone, just as any hope at locals having a say had come and gone.

It’s pathetic that politicians and developers are so often in bed together and broker these backroom deals for their mutual benefit. It’s been reported that the landlord is poised to get $1,800 per apartment from the city’s coffers. In the big picture, it doesn’t seem to make a whole lot of sense to place eighty-three homeless families in one building in a densely populated area with over-crowded schools. But then when is sense ever factored into these equations?

(Photos from the personal collection of Nicholas Nigro)

Tuesday, July 25, 2017

Never Going to Be the Same

I was in the environs of One World Trade Center on Saturday. Several relations of mine wanted to experience the building’s observation deck, which is 1,368 feet in the air. An antennae’s further reach puts the building’s height at the historically significant 1,776 feet. I briefly considered joining them, but a lengthy line of ticket-holding tourists patiently waiting to walk on high made the decision for me.

Instead of the ascent into the heavens, I walked a few blocks west to the harbor. It was a hot, humid, and hazy afternoon, but there was a cool breeze coming off the water—an authentic sea breeze. I’m old enough to remember when the scents wafting in the ether alongside the Hudson River and New York Harbor were less than pleasant. Now, the same waters are considered clean enough to swim in—some of the time, anyway. Lady Liberty has been there in good odors and bad. I visited Liberty Island once—possibly twice—as a youth and climbed the statue to its torch. Did the Empire State Building thing as a boy, too, but recall very little about it. And unless you count shopping in a Borders bookstore on one of the tower’s ground floor, I was never inside either of the Twin Towers.

It’s hard to believe that the sixteenth anniversary of 9/11 is less than two months away. In the immediate aftermath of the attacks, a common refrain was heard: “We will never be the same.” After all, how could we be? For a short period of time that sentiment didn’t seem so far-fetched. We Americans had come together as never before—or so it appeared. Well, that was then and this is now. While it’s true that we aren’t the same as we were on 9/10/2001, I don’t think the nature of our different perspectives is what we had in mind sixteen years ago. We were supposed to be less partisan and more cognizant of life’s fragility. We were supposed to behave as if we were all in this thing together and appreciate what we have in common. We weren’t going to sweat the small things anymore. Needless to say, we haven’t quite evolved that much. But then we were probably foolish to think we could. In fact, we’ve devolved. Exhibit A: Donald Trump’s address to the 2017 National Scout Jamboree. “Who the hell wants to speak about politics when I’m in front of the Boy Scouts?” the man began. And it was downhill after that.

Social media didn’t exist in 2001. Thank god for that! I can’t imagine what the Facebook posts and Twitter tweets would have been like in the days, weeks, and months after 9/11. Actually, I can. It’s no stretch to say that social media forums are contributing mightily to our ongoing decline as an intelligent life form. Exhibit B: a video uploaded to Facebook of teenagers watching a drowning man and laughing at the spectacle. They didn’t report the incident to the local police, who learned of the video's existence days later. The dead man had been reported missing. This sort of thing is an everyday occurrence now. And then there are the ubiquitous trolls. They are omnipresent online, a constant reminder of society’s growing crassness, ignorance, and indifference. I no longer wonder who these people are in the bright light of day. After all, I have an account on Facebook. I know some of the trolls by name and by reputation. Go to the bank on it: We will never be the same.

(Photos from the personal collection of Nicholas Nigro)

Friday, July 21, 2017

Good Humor and Bad Humor in the Summertime

It’s officially a heat wave here in New York City—several days in a row of ninety-plus degree temperatures—and I don’t like it. I realize that I romanticize the summertime of my youth every now and then—outdoors much of the time and playing the games that little people played for generations, which, by the way, they don’t play anymore. But even as a spry and callow boy, the one-two punch of summer’s heat and humidity was never something desired and rarely, if ever, appreciated. My father’s mantra was that it—the discomforting clamminess and unhealthy air quality—was all in our heads. He didn’t realize it then, but he was a Buddhist at heart. Mind over matter.

Growing up in a seven-person household on the top floor of a three-family house with no air conditioning in the summer months was—in retrospect—pretty brutal. In the 1960s and 1970s, we experienced recurring electrical brownouts as well. During the high-consumption months of July and August, utility Con Edison’s answer to avoiding total blackouts was a brownout. The lights would flicker on the warmest nights, which was no big deal. But brownouts were especially unforgiving when it came to ice cubes. Heat, humidity, and half-frozen ice cubes with a foul taste were a familiar summertime threesome. On some of the cruelest of summer eves, an ice-cold drink wasn’t even an option.

Nevertheless, those were the days. Regardless of the temperature or relative humidity of a summer’s day, stoop sitting was a hallowed evening ritual, as well as—for a spell of time—a Good Humor truck passing by. This daily happening provided a brief respite from the heat, particularly if something icy was purchased like a watery, cola-flavored Italian ice, lemon-grape rocket pop, or lemon-grape Bon-Joy swirl. Lemon-grape was a winning combination.

First there was Larry the Good Humor Man, who drove the classic little truck that required him to step outside and pluck the ice cream from its back-of-the-cab freezer. And then there was Rod the Good Humor Man, who conducted business in a stand-inside truck. Apparently, Rod lived in the neighborhood. He would see us playing during the Good Humor off-season—parts of fall, spring, and the entire winter. So he said. Concentrating on grocery sales alone, Good Humor sold off its fleet of trucks in 1976. And that was the end of that! I see the present owners of the brand recently resurrected the ice cream truck and—along with it—the ice cream man and woman. I suspect they are stationed at parks and such, where ice cream vendors are still spotted. But chumming for business on neighborhood side streets? I doubt it. If a Good Humor Man materialized around these parts, he would find few kids playing outside in the hottest of weather. And as for off-duty sightings during the winter months—fuggeaboutit!

Epilogue: Larry the Good Humor Man was last seen driving a New York City yellow cab. Oh, but that was more than forty years ago. And Rod the Good Humor Man suffered a heart attack in the mid-1970s and lived to tell. I don’t know how or why I know that. I guess Rod told us at some point. Oh, but that, too, was more than four decades ago. Larry, as I recall, was on the younger side as a Good Humor Man, so he might still be among the living, but he would be pushing eighty by now. If he’s still extant, I hope he’s in good humor. Rod, I fear, is more likely among the angels. With any luck, he’s ringing the celestial equivalent of his Good Humor truck bells, an inviting sound for countless living and dead souls who bought ice cream on steamy New York City nights a long time ago.

(Photos from the personal collection of Nicholas Nigro)

Monday, July 17, 2017

Suspended Animation in the Bronx

The New York City subway system is quite antiquated. Suffice it to say, it has neither kept up with the times nor the technology. There’s been a spate of incidents recently—electrical failures, derailments, etc.—that underscore this reality. Yesterday morning, I ascended the steep flight of stairs at the Van Cortlandt Park station at W242nd Street. I knew there was ongoing track replacement work downwind, which was causing assorted delays and screw ups on the Number 1 line, but was willing to chance it.

When I arrived on the platform, I entered the sole train in the terminal. It was being held up due to signal issues in the vicinity of the track work. Announcements were periodically made concerning the delay along with an unenthusiastic "thank you for your patience" wrap-up. Ten minutes passed, then twenty, and finally a whole half hour. That was my wait. How long the train had been idle before I showed up, I can’t say. 

Now it was big announcement time: “There will be no train service between W242nd Street and Dyckman Street!” Say what? Bedecked in their fluorescent vests, a couple of Metropolitan Transit Authority (MTA) employees ambled up and down the platform shouting, “No service! All suspended!” Not surprisingly, some of the passengers were infuriated. They had been waiting for a half hour or more on the train, expecting it to eventually move. One young fellow was on the verge of assaulting an MTA employee, which is a felony punishable by up to seven years in the big house. At least that’s what the signs say in the subway cars. He took exception to the attitude of a couple of the men in fluorescent vests. “You act like it’s our fault!” he bellowed before storming away. Still, a lot of people remained on the train. I’ve seen this happen before. I don’t know if it’s a language problem, a listening one, or both. They don’t move and appear unmoved by instructions.

For those who had a place to be—like a job for instance—the best bet was to promptly descend to the street level and hop on a bus or two to Dyckman Street. And that’s what many people did. After all, we were told in no uncertain terms that service was suspended. Why hang around? However, the MTA world is full of surprises. As I reached the sidewalk after this unexpected and unwelcome development, I had canceled my morning plans. Hopping on a bus to a train didn’t appeal to me on what was a hot and humid morning. 

I began venturing down Broadway in the same direction that I had anticipated traveling via the subway. About six or seven minutes had passed since I had been informed that train service was suspended. Were my eyes deceiving me? The train that I was sitting in less than ten minutes earlier was pulling out of the station above me—with passengers in it!

I did an about-face and contemplated what had just occurred. Service had been suspended that sent countless men, women, and children scrambling for alternative routes to their destinations. And several minutes later it was restored. Now, I don’t blame the employees who are powerless regarding these snafus. They have a tough job dealing with an often arrogant and unforgiving public. But somebody somewhere is responsible for canceling all service, which seems to me to be a big decision, and then restoring it seven or eight minutes later. That's a big, bad decision. Somebody goofed. And the winners: the folks who don’t hear, listen to, or understand instructions.

(Photos from the personal collection of Nicholas Nigro)

Thursday, July 13, 2017

Close Encounters with a Close-Talker

It was already ninety degrees—with the heat index approaching one hundred—at ten o’clock this morning. Scorcher of a day or not, I, just like the postman, had to make my appointed rounds. In fact, I was headed to a post office, but not the one closest to me. This trivial tidbit of information would be of monumental interest to a man I bumped into en route.

On a stifling hot and humid morn, the last thing I wanted was an encounter with a close-talker—a person who gets in your face during ordinary conversation. (Seinfeld brought the close-talker phenomenon to light in “The Raincoats” episode.) To compound my misfortune, I not only found myself chatting with a close-talker, but one with halitosis as well. I should mention that he is likewise a long-talker. The man in question is fond of holding court and supplying listeners with lengthy back stories—laborious minutia—to events with punchlines that aren’t all that interesting. My close-talker has a habit, too, of punctuating his conversations with the word “anyway.” It’s his way of alerting you: “Are you ready for the big finish?” Fashion your seat belts, there is always another “anyway” and another one after that.

Anyway, this close-talker ambushed me as I walked past his building earlier this morning. He informed me that a friend of his was supposed to pick him up at 9:30. But it was closer to 10:30 when we met. He’s a man in his seventies and not a cell phone user, so he might still be waiting there now. Maybe he got the day wrong. Don’t get me wrong: The close-talker is a well-meaning fellow. He’s been a friend of the family—of an aunt actually—since the dawn of time. However, he can be a very irritating individual, especially when you meet him in a chance encounter. I feel obligated to talk with him when fate intervenes. But I believe that I have earned the right to avoid him if I can. Typically, I reconnoiter while in his neck of the woods and, if I see him coming, take the necessary steps—sometimes retreating entirely or even walking into traffic—to make a clean getaway. 

The close-talker and I chatted for a while. He was absolutely fascinated that I walked to the tiny post office several blocks from his building entrance, when a larger facility was nearer my front door. I explained to him the simple reason: There’s usually no waiting in the little post office during the morning hours, while the bigger place is invariably a zoo. Although I can’t explain why, my reasoning was of supreme interest to the close-talker. He, nevertheless, did most of the talking. As I kept backing away from his too-close-for-comfort-conversing, we physically moved in something of a large circle—like Earth’s revolution around the Sun, only in a smaller space and shorter time frame. Everything you wanted to know about Type 2 diabetes but were afraid to ask. Well, I learned it today from the close-talker, who has been diagnosed with it.

(Photos from the personal collection of Nicholas Nigro)

Wednesday, July 12, 2017

Gross Notions and Polka Dots

The garbage piling up takes on a higher meaning during summertime. In keeping with the season, it’s almost a year since I penned “Midsummer Musings,” an essay that critiqued the theatrics of the 2016 Republican National Convention and—among others—Charles “Chachi” Arcola’s appearance there—wah wah wah. In contemplating such theater in the here and now, I must say that I am relieved that the president will soon be back on American soil. When that man travels overseas, I am reminded—for some strange reason—of a familiar Hollywood plot device. You know the one where more-or-less sophisticated folks attempt to civilize the boorish in their midst. An overbearing, affluent snob endeavored, without success, to refine Moe, Larry, and Curly. Sheriff Andy Taylor gave it his best in transforming hillbilly Ernest T. Bass into a gentleman. But his best wasn’t good enough. I suspect that a well-intentioned Andy-type teaching simple etiquette to The Donald would likewise be a fool’s errand.

On to happier thoughts: Forty years ago tomorrow is the anniversary of a historic New York City blackout, one that underscored the metropolis’s descent into the darkness. That is, if you consider a fiscal crisis, high crime, and dirty parks the be-all and end-all. It was—in many respects—the city’s low point, but that decade is the most memorable and eventful for me. New York City in the 1970s still had character. No block-long Duane Reade drug stores or Chase banks in those days.

Sadly, I missed that seminal moment in New York City history. I received the first inkling that something wasn’t kosher when the lights went out at Shea Stadium. On vacation with the family in Chadwick Beach, New Jersey, I was listening to the Mets on the WNEW radio, which I was wont to do back then. Simultaneous with an excited gasp from the crowd, legendary slugger and broadcaster Ralph Kiner proclaimed, “And the lights have just gone off here at Shea Stadium!” As things turned out, it was a lot more than that.

It was hot as hell that night in the city and, for that matter, along the Jersey Shore. Hapless Mayor Beame was fit to be tied and blasted utility Con Edison for their “gross negligence.” I remember that phrase amusing me. I was only fourteen years old. Maybe it was because I had neighbors named “Gross” or some who were just plain gross, I don’t know. But it was nonetheless a sweltering snapshot in time with areas of widespread looting. With respect to New Yorkers, no one will ever say, “This was their finest hour.”

So it goes—from “gross negligence” to “if you see something, say something.” We’ve come along way…to nowhere in particular. I came upon a stray bag with polka dots on a subway platform this week. It was resting on a locked bin of some sort. I saw something but didn’t say something. Perhaps I was remiss. It was my ticket to having my picture plastered on a New York City bus or in a subway car. But polka-dotted bags, as far as I'm concerned, don't pass the suspicious test.

One final thought on the passage of time—1977 to 2017—and the changes it has wrought. I recall this strip of stores on Manhattan's lower east side. I forget exactly where, but there was a shuttered eatery among them called “Sticky Fingers.” In the front window was a griddle with a lonely bacon press on top of it. Abandoned all. Presently, that same strip is gentrified beyond recognition. The historic bacon press a memory of only one person—me. I don’t suspect too many people living in the neighborhood now dined at Sticky Fingers. I sometimes wonder, though, how the place would have fared with the contemporary Yelp review crowd? I suspect some might have found it gross and said so.

(Photos from the personal collection of Nicholas Nigro)

Friday, July 7, 2017

Extra…Extra…Read All About It

On Independence Day 2017, I found myself on a subway jaunt into Manhattan and back. Passing the 181st Street—George Washington Bridge—station on my downtown ride on the Number 1 train, I remembered a bizarre rumor that persisted during my boyhood in the early 1970s. It was that the Fuhrer did not, as widely reported, commit suicide in his bunker in April 1945. And the urban myth of local interest took it from there. Somebody somewhere spread the word that the octogenarian monster—who would have been in his eighties in the seventies—had miraculously managed to escape Germany and was very much alive. More specifically, he was peddling newspapers for a measly living in the subterranean recesses of the 181st Street station. I don’t recall what, if any, newspaper—Daily News, New York Post, etc.—figured in this remarkable account.

I do recollect as boy of eight, nine, and ten years old passing by the station—as I did a few days ago—and getting the creeps. That's a phrase we used a lot as kids. We lent credence to stuff as children, I know, that didn’t pass the smell test, including that the 181st Street station was simultaneously under the Hudson River and the George Washington Bridge. Entering and exiting it required a ride on a ferryboat, I guess. A friend and I were once absolutely convinced that the clouds in the sky were stationary. The Earth’s rotation—not wind—was the sole wind beneath their wings. I take some solace in the fact that we were only eight years old at the time with a lot to learn and not making government policy.

Now that I’m on the subject of the extraordinary rumors that permeated yesteryear’s ether, I remember a “doomsday” prediction that got some play. My first thought—all these years later—was that it was one of Jean Dixon’s many prophecies. She was, after all, the psychic du jour in the 1970s. But from what I gleaned in my virtual research, Dixon didn’t forecast the apocalypse in that singular snapshot in time. She had several years earlier—the year I was born—forecast world destruction, but not in my grammar school days. So, I’m betting that what gave me a few anxious moments as a nine year old was evangelist Herbert W. Armstrong’s 1972 prediction of the third rock from the sun’s absolute obliteration. That sounds about right. For I had my whole life ahead of me at the time, which, I suppose, is why the world ending so prematurely mattered. Think of all the pizza slices I would never have tasted. Now, forty-five years later, I say: Let Dixon and Armstrong’s snake-oil successors foretell away—and see if I care.

(Photos from the personal collection of Nicholas Nigro)   

Thursday, July 6, 2017

Fifteen Dollars Richer

I found fifteen dollars on the sidewalk this morning. After grocery shopping at a local Key Food supermarket, I was on my way home when I spotted what appeared to be bona fide American currency—not Monopoly money—in the distance. If memory serves me correctly, I found an orphan five-dollar bill once. But that was the height of my good fortune while wandering to and fro in the great outdoors—until today. I stumbled upon a few stray singles in my fifty-plus years of living, too, but lady luck has been pretty sparing in the lost cash-on-the-ground department. Considering that I’ve lived my entire life in New York City, it would have been nice to unexpectedly find a Ben Franklin, or at the very least an Andrew Jackson a time or two. Why, though, question the fickleness of fate? I’ll happily settle for the Hamilton and Lincoln that came my way today. It is, after all, a free pizza.

Still, I felt kind of guilty when I picked up the money. I nervously looked around to see if anyone was nearby. Had I had spied a bewildered individual frantically searching for something lost, I would have, naturally, approached him or her. But there was nobody in the vicinity who matched that description. And so it was: finders, keepers.

Before my unexpected good fortune on this cloudy and humid morn, I snapped a picture of what in the old neighborhood were known as “Umbrella trees.” They are actually Northern Catalpa trees, I believe. In the 1930s and 1940s, this unique-looking tree with its big leaves, string-bean-like hanging pods, and twisting trunks were, apparently, a favorite with certain builders of homes. The trees were omnipresent in my youth and attracted ladybugs. We youngsters called them “Ladybug trees” and collected the orange-and-black colored insects, which left a foul scent on our hands. I sincerely hope ladybugs are still around and not the victim of over-building or some mysterious toxin. I just haven’t been collecting them for a while, or examining the remaining Ladybug trees to see if they are still there. Call them what you want: Umbrella trees, Ladybug trees, or Northern Catalpa trees. There are still a fair share of the trees around, but I remember them being on the fragile side and not the best big city trees, particularly by the sidewalk’s edge.

I distinctly recall a homemade sign that a neighbor on the next block had painted green on a piece of aluminum, which he affixed to a Ladybug tree on his property. It read: “No dogs allowed here.” In the 1960s and 1970s, most people walked their dogs in the street. They curbed their dogs, if you will. Nowadays, everyone walks their canine companions on the sidewalk and they do what they have to do in the very terra firma where the “No dogs allowed here” was once posted. As the years passed and the tree matured, the bark grew around—above and below—the sign. Soon, it was embedded in the tree—part of the sign and part of a time as well.

Homemade signs are not as common in the here and now. Custom-made or store bought ones with threatening rules are, in fact, the rule. The streets that I grew up on are so much more congested. It would be unwise and pretty much impossible to walk dogs in them as I did a long time ago. You know: when no dogs were allowed by the Umbrella tree, the Ladybug tree, or the Northern Catalpa tree—call it what you will.

(Photos from the personal collection of Nicholas Nigro)

Friday, June 30, 2017

Many Forms Indeed

When my subway car’s doors opened at 79th Street in Manhattan the other day, an advertisement on the platform caught my eyes. It featured a deer and the words: “City dwellers take many forms.” Further, it importuned residents to learn to live alongside them. Personally, I have not as yet laid eyes on any deer in the Bronx or elsewhere in town. But it doesn’t surprise me that they exist in some of the city’s larger parks and open spaces—like Van Cortlandt Park, which is within walking distance for me. It’s a sprawling piece of property that spans more than a thousand acres. The park’s off-the-beaten trails are pretty woodsy, which is where I suspect the deer and the antelope roam.

I am quite willing to live harmoniously alongside these nimble four-legged creatures. It’s some of the two-legged that give me pause. The city’s many bodega owners, for instance, have to put up with a lot of crap in their interactions with a cross-section of humankind, including the bottom of the barrel. Exhibit A: Ali’s, where I regularly purchase pints of Hershey’s “Creamy Vanilla” ice cream, Linden’s chocolate chip cookies, and rolls of Bounty paper towels, which I can actually reach. Apparently, the general rule of thumb in these establishments is to stock paper towels as close to the ceiling as physically possible.

Anyway, as I entered Ali’s recently, Ali in the flesh was being lectured. A patron with a cup of coffee in hand excoriated him for not saying “thank you” upon the conclusion of their transaction. “It’s proper to say ‘thank you’” the customer complained. “It’s basic human decency!” For the record: This exchange was somewhat atypical for the cozy confines of Ali’s deli. Now, I will attest that Ali sometimes says “thank you,” but not always or even most of the time. More often than not he’s engrossed in some tête-à-tête via his earphone. I’m so accustomed to that sort of thing. And chastising Ali for his dubious decorum is not my job. He’s got a lot on his plate after all.

Don’t believe me. Moments after witnessing Ali’s dressing down, a young fellow entered the place. He was engaged in an animated conversation—if you could call it that—on his cell phone. The man effortlessly unloaded F-bombs and B-bombs, too. Further, he spoke of setting his girlfriend—I guess—straight with brutal acts of aggression. It was a surreal experience. A young woman, who had ordered a bacon, egg, and cheese sandwich, was, like me, privy to this spectacle. She muttered aloud, “He should just be taken out and shot!” Meanwhile, Ali’s eyes flitted nervously, not knowing what this raving lunatic had in mind. He probably just wanted a Red Bull. However, I happily missed the final act. The woman, by the way, was of the same ethnicity as the frothing-at-the-mouth young man. So, too, was the man who scolded Ali on his deficient etiquette.

What lessons did I learn in the bright light of day? For one, Ali doesn’t have it so easy. And feral is feral—it knows no race or ethnicity and greatly troubles the non-feral. A footnote to this tale: While I’m against capital punishment in theory, I couldn’t help but heartily agree—quietly and for a brief ugly moment—with the sentiment expressed by the woman patiently awaiting her breakfast sandwich.

(Photos from the personal collection of Nicholas Nigro)