Sunday, December 31, 2017

Eve, I Can't Believe

Approximately forty-five years ago on the way to Sunday Mass with my younger brother and aunt, an elderly Italian woman from the next block uttered these apropos words: "Frosta...frosta." It was a bitterly cold morning when old Lizzy rather pithily summed up the weather situation. She is waddling now among the angels, I suspect. Yes, she waddled while earth-boundat least when I knew her. And I have no doubt if Lizzy were around on New Year's Eve 2017, she would repeat her chilly mantra. On this frigid final day of the year, permit me in words and pictures to reflect on an eclectic hodgepodge of recent moments.
On a snowy morn that I wasn't banking on, I took the Number 1 train into Manhattan yesterday. Instead of riding in the first carmy typical modus operandiI plopped down in the second. You see, the first was occupied by a passenger who looked more than a bit hung over. He even answered nature's call between one and two. (See above photo.) Apparently, the young man had started making merry early because on my return tripwhen the first car magically morphs into the last at South Ferryhe was unmoved and still sleeping it off. What better place than on the subway to visit the Land of Nod.
When it's "frosta...frosta," a trace of snow is enough to inspire bedlam.
Looks like a blizzard in the making, but the snow amounted to very little. But a dusting of the white stuff is all it takes to bring a never-ending series of ice melter pellets into my apartment.
In my adventures, I prefer a train with a booming and coherent conductor. My first attempt uptown found me in car with a malfunctioning PA system. I couldn't hear a word, which explains why I thought I was getting off at 28th Street when it was Penn Station. Had I not changed trains, though, I would have missed riding back with the drowsy reveler.
Gotta love a diner with a choice of six soups.
"Neither snow nor rain nor heat nor gloom of night stays these couriers from the swift completion of their appointed rounds." Speaking of "gloom of night," I found my mail outside and on the ground in the gloom of the night before last. This happens sometimes on my trusty regular mailman's off day. 
The fuse has been lit.
When I first saw this bird perched like this for an extended period of time, I thought it might be a hawk or some such exotic feathery creature. A hawk by any other name is a pigeon.
When I grew up in the Bronx's Kingsbridge, shopping malls weren't in neighborhoods. They were islands unto themselves.
If one wants to survive in the diner business, attention must be GrubHub.
I wonder what Crack Head Rick is planning for New Year's Eve?
Next year's MTA Christmas card...
A window on the world...
My cable's "Sounds of the Season" channel is pretty awful. Some classics are in the mix, but most of the selection—from artists I've never heard ofis grating to one's ears.
I imported from Pennsylvania some A-Treat beverages this Christmas. Highly recommended for pop aficionados.
My commemorative New York Mets World Champions 1986 Christmas bulb. It's hard to believe that more than thirty years have passed. As Christopher Hitchens said in his memoirs; "It's more and more subtracted from less and less."
The frozen tundra that is Van Cortlandt Park.
The December sun meets the January thaw? One can dream.

(Photos from the personal collection of Nicholas Nigro)

Friday, December 29, 2017

Lots for Less

On January 1, 1971, New York City—as measured in Central Park—received over six inches of snow. Thanks to the wealth of information on the Internet, I was able to confirm my memory of that very snowfall. There was enough of the white stuff for my best friend and I to build a snowman in what we in the neighborhood affectionately called “the lot.” We got out the sled, too, and descended a hill into what was a filled-in portion of the once visible and meandering Tibbetts Brook. That swampy snapshot was before my time, but at least I got to experience the lot.

In the early 1970s, there were still some empty lots in the Bronx and the other boroughs of New York City. However, their days were numbered. Most of the remaining lots would be built upon—and sooner rather than later. In the name of progress, the lot and an adjoining victory garden were plowed under and fenced in several months after our snowman building. That snowman was therefore history in the making. For never again would a Frosty rise on that hallowed ground, which in due time would be a parking garage for a six-story building.

The snowman-building story wouldn’t be complete without mentioning the neighborhood tough who materialized and assisted us with our task. My friend and I were on tenterhooks in the company of this uninvited visitor. With good reason, we feared he might cause trouble and—quite possibly—knock down our snowman. But life is full of surprises. Without an entourage to encourage destruction and mayhem, the punk from the next block pitched in and all went well in the fledgling moments of the New Year 1971.

Forty-seven years have since passed. My then best friend isn’t my friend anymore. No acrimonious breakup to report. Childhood friends aren’t always for keeps. The passage of time sees to that. I’ve seen the bully boy as an adult and we said hello to one another. I really should have thanked him for not knocking down the snowman. I don’t see him on Facebook, but see plenty of his kind from the past. In their adult incarnations, most of them relish recounting such tales of knocking down someone else’s snowman in their misspent youths, which, by the way, they think were peachy-keen.

A year ago—on New Year’s Day 2017—I visited Manhattan in the morning and waded through the remains of the previous night’s New Year’s Eve bash. There were concrete barriers everywhere and the area mailboxes were all padlocked. It’s not only going to be frigid when the ball drops at Times Square a couple of nights from now, but security will be even tighter than last year. I read where two million people are going to be in attendance. Being there on the last night of the year has never been on my to-do list. It’s not on my bucket list, either.

On January 1, 2017, I spied a sign in a shuttered Manhattan eatery window. It read: “We are closed for Happy New Year.” The Wishful Thinking Department, I daresay. In the waning days and hours of 2017, I can’t help but note the movie in the theaters about Winston Churchill called Darkest Hour. Mike Huckabee recently compared Donald Trump to Churchill. And Senator Orrin Hatch thinks the Trump presidency may be the “greatest ever.” Churchill, Washington, and Lincoln—to name just a few—are no doubt rolling over in their graves. When I was eight years old and building that snowman at the start of a new year, it was a simpler time—for me at least. It wasn’t so simple for those fighting in Vietnam or those receiving draft notices in the mail. Darkest hours are in the eyes of the beholder, I guess. So, what will 2018 bring? A happy new year? I can’t say. I can only say there won’t be any snowman building in the lot.

(Photos from the personal collection of Nicholas Nigro)

Tuesday, December 19, 2017

It's Beginning to Look A Lot Like Christmas

It's Christmas in New York again. Wow, it seems like only yesterday that I visited the environs of Times Square after the New Year's Eve hoopla. A sign in a local eatery read: "We are closed for Happy New Year." In retrospect, I'd classify that sentiment as wishful thinking.
I pass by this sign in a local bodega's window quite often. It's never once made my mouth water. For some strange reason, though, it always makes me think of the Burgermeister Meisterburger.
Nearby building's holiday decor didn't survive a night. Time to replace the board.
Bought my tree here. On the pricey side this year.
The squirrels in these parts have obesity issues.
Once upon a time, watching nighttime snowfall with the aid of a street light was pretty exciting. Not so much anymore.
Old meets newer meets new. And the winner: Old!
Read a news account of a Manhattan tree seller asking for over two hundred dollars for a seven footer. He complained that business was down this year. I wonder why?
Before political correctness took hold, I would have said this photo was taken in the Bum Park North. But in the interest of PC, I won't.
Snow remnants always remind me of Frosty in the greenhouse. "Happy Birthday!"
Snow on subway tracks translates into lots of blue sparks. Very Christmassy.
These frozen pizzas always look good, but rarely taste good.
Gave proof through the night that our flag at Stew Leonard's Christmas Shop was still there.
"The Bronx is up, but the Battery's down."
My preferred kind of snowflake nowadays.
For the Three Wise Men, it's New Jersey or bust. Oh little town of Fort congested we see thee lie.
But they'll be a little late...bridge traffic. Hope it's not another traffic study.
Madison Avenue used to be able to sell snowflakes to Eskimos.
Henry Hudson Parkway...George Washington Bridge...say it ain't so...two dead white guys...
If you believe in yesterday, don't bother calling.

(Photos from the personal collection of Nicholas Nigro)

Tuesday, December 12, 2017

Thoughts of Landslides: Real and Imagined

With the first snow a done deal—and no big deal—my thoughts took me to games little people played. Among my all-time favorite Christmas gifts was a Parker Brothers board game called Landslide. Its box dubbed it a “Game of Power Politics.” The goal of Landslide’s two to four players was to be elected President of the United States by amassing a majority of the electoral votes. While it takes 270 to be elected the real thing, three or four players often made reaching that number problematic. And since the games couldn’t be thrown into the House of Representatives to determine winners, the Parker Brothers brain trust, understandably, took a little liberty with the American electoral vote system.

Landslide debuted in 1971. I received the game from an aunt and uncle a year or so later on Christmas Eve. Strange as it may seem, ten-year-old me was fascinated with the sport of politics and the workings of the American government. My brothers and I—and sometimes friends—played Landslide a lot, which is not something we could say for most board games. I remember Christmas gifts from the past—like Parker Brothers Masterpiece and Careers—played for one brief shining moment before disappearing altogether under the bed or in a closet. With the exception of Monopoly, I’d say Landslide was played in my house more than any other board game.

What I never dreamed possible in my youthful innocence was how debauched the American political front would become. The Man of Steel stood for “truth, justice, and the American way.” Now we have a president—closing in on an abominable year in office—who is the Bizarro Superman, the embodiment of the worst qualities of Americans and, really, humanity. Dishonest, vulgar, and ignorant, the man’s a cheeseburger-wolfing, tweeting narcissist who doesn’t read books and is captive of the small screen—a boob glued to the boob tube. When I first played Landslide, Richard Nixon was the president, hardly a paradigm of virtue. But he and his nogoodniks kept their gutter talk and illicit designs underground, recognizing at least that America was a nation of laws with a constitution. In other words, they hoped and prayed they wouldn’t get caught. The Nixon White House endeavored to maintain a presidential veneer—a public decorum that the American people expected of their presidents—in good times and bad.

Since my Landslide playing days, we have no doubt sunk lower than low. And the current president has bragged more than once about winning one of the “biggest landslides in American history.” Yet, he lost the popular vote by a considerable margin, which means he didn’t come near fifty percent of the twenty-five percent of Americans who bothered to vote. So, this Christmas I choose to remember Landslide, the real one, with great fondness. And I still have the Landslide board in my possession—a keepsake that takes me back to a simpler time before men strapped bombs to themselves in New York City subway tunnels.

(Photos from the personal collection of Nicholas Nigro)

Saturday, December 9, 2017

My Walkie-Talkie Christmas

(Originally published on December 15, 2013)

In my youth the anticipation of Christmastime and Christmas itself was very exciting. So, the aftermath of the holiday and returning to school was—it stands to reason—extremely depressing. Seeing decorations and lights lingering in people’s windows—while knowing that Christmas wasn’t on the horizon but a memorable fait accompli—was a pretty awful feeling. But it was a microcosm of life, I've since learned, where all good things come to an end, attached—very often—to an ugly payback of some sort.

Anyway, in January 1973, upon my melancholic return to St. John’s grammar school in the Bronx’s Kingsbridge, religion teacher Sister Therese queried each and every one of her students as to what his or her favorite Christmas present was. Except for the fact that my answer was “walkie-talkies,” I might not have remembered this banal Q&A. For Sister Therese repeated my words in a somewhat befuddled tone. It was as if she was unfamiliar with them. “Walkeee…talkeees,” she said or possibly asked with a question mark.

It was a simpler time when one wanted walkie-talkies for Christmas. A neighbor of mine had a pair and we established contact times, where he would initiate a Morse code—something that his more advanced walkie-talkies were equipped with but not, sadly, mine. I recall my mother talking with his mother on the walkie-talkies as if it was big thing—a grand technological moment akin to the very first phone call. Of course, they could have called one another on the telephone—and gotten better reception—or walked down a flight of stairs and met one another on our adjoining front stoops.

My “walkie-talkie” Christmas—1972—assumes an even a higher importance to me because they were number one on my “Santa Claus” list that year. I was absolutely certain that ol’ Saint Nick would come through with them, but he disappointed me big time. But forty years ago, I had a very generous godmother who always bought me a Christmas gift—a real one, something that I coveted, and definitely not clothes—but I didn’t typically see her to New Year’s Eve. Albeit a week later than expected, my godmother got me those walkie-talkies. Evidently, Santa Claus had arranged it with her. The pair was coolly trimmed in blue, quite hip looking, and individually packed in form-fitting Styrofoam compartments—worth the wait and then some! They had that wondrous transistor-radio plastic smell, too—something a 1970s kid appreciated. Suffice it to say,  a lot of walkie-talkie fun ensued.

I can say with absolute certainty that there will be no commensurate walkie-talkie gift this Christmas. It’s just not in the Christmas cards anymore. There will be no Morse code chatter with a neighbor, either. Such is life as time marches on.

Christmas 1972: Starring Celery Rolaids, Jams Onion, and Apple McCarrot

(Originally published on 12/9/11)

Thirty-nine years ago this very month, students at St. John’s grammar school in Kingsbridge embarked on their annual field trip to Radio City Music Hall. All I remember is that my fifth-grade class rode the subway, the Number 1 train, which we could see outside the school’s east-facing windows, into mid-town Manhattan to see not only the hall’s Christmas spectacular, but a full-length feature film as well. In this instance, it was the musical 1776. A history teacher at Cardinal Spellman High School, Sister Josepha, remarked several years later that this entertaining flick contained “much too much levity” to be considered a fair rendering of the founding of our nation. And she might have been on to something, since the historical evidence is not exactly clear that Thomas Jefferson was incapable of writing the Declaration of Independence for a spell because he “burned” at being so far away, and for entirely too long, from the misses. We will never know for sure because he burned all of his correspondences with her.

Anyway, fast forward four decades. The times have certainly changed since that school field trip. On a positive note, the subways around here are much more efficient and comfortable than they were in the 1970s. During that colorful snapshot in time, they were filthy on the outside and inside, too. Often riders had to sit atop the subway car’s heating source, and there was no room whatsoever under the seats, so the aisles were typically clogged with this, that, and the other thing. Nowadays, Radio City doesn’t feature movies at Christmastime, or anytime else as far as I know. It’s a lot more expensive as well, but then so is everything else.

I’d also hazard a guess the available chaperone pool for school field trips was much broader in 1972 than it is today. Most mothers didn’t work jobs outside of the home back then. One parent’s income often sufficed, which is rarely the case today. So, when my mother volunteered her services as a chaperone, I was afforded the opportunity to select three of my classmates to accompany me under her special guidance. That amounted to four of us out of a class of forty baby boomers. If my arithmetic is correct, we’re talking ten chaperones per class here.

The problem, though, with asking a ten-year-old kid to select a trio of companions is that he might have four or five friends, and somebody would be left out. And that’s exactly what happened to me. Fortunately, our little clique of friends had initiated this rather clever naming game—for ten year olds—where we assumed monikers based on foods and commercial products that rang familiar to our given names. I will thus use these nicknames to protect the innocent these many years later.

Foremost, I was Nicoban NyQuil. Nicoban was a trailblazing stop-smoking gum frequently advertised in the early 1970s. And, of course, who among us hasn’t swigged a dose or two of NyQuil at some point in time? The first two contemporaries I tapped for my Radio City Music Hall troupe were no-brainers: Celery Rolaids and Jams Onion. It was the third slot that put me on the spot because there were two strong contenders. And although I preferred one somewhat to the other, I suspected the loser would be wounded by my subsequent choice. And I was right—he was. When I chose Apple McCarrot to complete our foursome, French Fry McReynolds Wrap let me know how deeply offended he was by the slight. He said something like, “I thought I was your friend.” He was my friend and I felt really bad about it—but, then again, so was Apple McCarrot.

Nevertheless, I suspect French Fry McReynolds Wrap ended up in another quartet that suited him just fine. Field trips to Radio City at an agog age at Christmastime were very exciting. When we returned to our regular classes the next school day, my "Language Arts" teacher, Sister Camillus, informed her students what “obnoxious” meant. A catchy 1776 musical number branded John Adams as “obnoxious and disliked” within the Continental Congress of 1776. Almost two hundred years later, Sister Camillus of St. John’s grammar school stood before us as a living and breathing example of obnoxiousness. Exhibit A, yes, that the ten-year-old me didn’t quite appreciate.

Friday, December 8, 2017

The Diminished Glow

Once upon a time today’s date—the day after the “date which will live in infamy”—meant a day off from school. It was also a Catholic “Holy Day of Obligation” where the “faithful are obliged to participate in the Mass.” In the big picture, sitting through a repetitive, boring forty-five-minute Mass seemed a small price to pay for a holiday. When I reached my high school years, I was no longer compelled to—as we used to say—“go to church.” And—obligation notwithstanding—I didn’t.

December 8th is the Feast of the Immaculate Conception, which in my youth was a harbinger of bigger and better things to come—Christmas and a more extended holiday from the toil of lower education. Yes, it’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas in my neck of the woods, but then it’s been looking that way since Halloween. There’s not so much a “War on Christmas” as there is a “War on Thanksgiving,” which is given short shrift in the decoration game and is totally circumvented in songs for the season.

Today, I picked up dry leaves with my broom and shovel. Tomorrow, the latter will be called to perform a different duty altogether—snow removal—if the weather forecast holds. But then that’s the reason I purchased the shovel in the first place. Forty years ago, measurable snowfall a couple of weeks before Christmas would have been just what the teenager ordered. But that was then and this is now. Nowadays, I could do without the white stuff in real time, preferring instead that it be confined to Currier and Ives picture prints.

On the other hand, last weekend was quite tranquil. I ventured into Manhattan, which typically looks better in December, and encountered my favorite subway clock-advertisement. The ad featured the Radio City Rockettes and the slogan: “No time like the present. Make time for joy.” I was there at 10:42 a.m. and the clock read 12:30. I believe clocks have been repaired before. But this particular one in the 14th Street station apparently defies repairing. It hasn’t kept the right time in years—if it ever did.

Outside of the mysterious clock down under, the highlight of my trip was spying a sign in a retailer’s window that read: “Sorry…We’re Open.” It reminded me of my years on the retail frontier. That’s how I felt. And Christmastime made me feel even sorrier with the madding crowds even more maddening than usual. I worked at a place called Pet Nosh, which sold pet food and supplies in the pre-Internet age. Pet Nosh sold thousands of dog and cat Christmas stockings during the holiday season. They were typically filled with a hodgepodge of cheesy toys and treats, but the place would invariably sell every one of them by Christmas Eve.

Absent the help of that aforementioned subway clock, I reflect now on time’s passage. When I was fifteen, I skipped Mass on this Holy Day of Obligation. And I’ve skipped a whole lot more since then. Some things remain the same—but most don’t. In 1977, I loved snow—the more the better—and assumed I always would. Christmas and the anticipation of it were quite exciting, too. I fervently believed that “glow would never fade away.” The glow is greatly diminished now and tomorrow’s snow, I fear, will be cold and slippery.

(Photos from the personal collection of Nicholas Nigro)