Tuesday, January 31, 2017

Unhappy Sunday

I was in Manhattan on Sunday. I would have otherwise been in front of my television set watching the Sunday morning news programs, which was something I desired avoiding at all costs. I just said no to the sights and sounds of alternative fact-spouting flacks and yes to the great outdoors.

Due to construction, the Number 1 train was running from W242nd Street in the Bronx to 14th Street, instead of South Ferry, in Manhattan. Since I typically exit on 14th Street on these spontaneous adventures of mine, all was well. The fact that the Number 1 was operating a shorter run than the norm, and bypassing several stops, made it “Special” apparently. Yes, that special word replaced “South Ferry” as the train’s last stop on the individual subway car signs. The best laid plans of mice and men: This special train trip didn’t quite make it to 14th Street. At 137th Street, we passengers were held in the station for a few minutes, awaiting clearance from a dispatcher that never came. The conductor at last broke the bad news. “This train is going out of service!” he announced. Translation: Everybody out!

I patiently waited with everyone else for the next Number 1 to come along but—despite it, too, being special—the train was not surprisingly overcrowded. As a C-Leg wearer, I abhor crowds. (I didn’t particularly like them pre-C-Leg.) But I wasn’t in a particular hurry, so I decided to wait the eight or so minutes for the next train. At the far end of an elongated underground subway station, I stood alone with the sole exception of an unhinged-looking fellow ambling my way. I took this reality snapshot as the latest sign that I should navigate my way onto street level and commence my Manhattan journey from there. (I employed a variation of my Charles Manson Rule for subway travel. And because of it, found myself at an unusual starting point—way, way up north and walking southbound, the direction the special Number 1 train was supposed to take me.)

So, on this sunny, benign winter’s morning, I strolled down Broadway in the environs of City College and then Columbia University. I hoped prayed that I wouldn’t be subject to any “Crazy Creamsicle” Trump chatter or protests, because I wanted a few hours free of presidential thoughts and, again, I don’t like crowds. Despite the bizarre antics of the aforementioned commander-in-chief in his first ten days in office, life in the big city went on without a hitch. I didn’t overhear or detect any political babble at all. I passed by Tom’s Restaurant of Seinfeld fame and felt compelled to take the obligatory picture. I should eat in there one of those days, I thought, before it, too, is claimed by New York City’s diner purge.

I had actually forgotten as I wandered through this area of Manhattan that it had a few hills to navigate, which like crowds, I’d prefer not tackling on a C-Leg. Fortunately, I passed through unharmed. At one point, I found myself at the intersection of hoity-toity West End Avenue and 100th Street, where I spied a telephone booth. Pay phones are getting increasingly hard to find nowadays, but I thought phone booths had gone the way of the Rolodex. Perhaps Clark Kent lives in the area.

I was back on Broadway at 96th Street, a slice of earth I hadn’t traversed above ground in fifteen years, I'd guess. There was a diner called Happy Burger in the vicinity, I recalled, which I patronized once upon a time. I wondered if it was still there, but suspected it was more than likely a casualty of gentrification. The surrounding area told me in no uncertain terms that Happy Burger’s ship had sailed. A CVS drug store covered a good portion of the block where Happy Burger once served coffee at a tiny fraction of the new king of the hill: Starbucks.

Upon my return home, a Google search filled me in on all I needed to know about the demise of Happy Burger. It had closed its doors in 2004, I learned. Its Greek immigrant owners had planned to keep the place open until their lease expired in 2008, but the landlord made them an offer they couldn’t refuse to close shop four years earlier. They shut Happy Burger down without giving their many loyal patrons a right and proper heads-up. Life...life. A unexpected special train going out of service and a deranged-looking man on a subway platform augured the unhappy discovery that Happy Burger—like so many happy things—is no more.

(Photos from the personal collection of Nicholas Nigro)

Friday, January 27, 2017

Death of an Icon

A week or so ago, something that I now cannot remember inspired me to search YouTube for The Mary Tyler Moore Show opening. Such an extended and catchy sitcom opening theme is a relic of a bygone and, I daresay, better time. Why have a minute-and-a half opening when three commercials can run in its stead? I’m just happy that this bottom-bottom line mindset didn’t exist on network television when I was growing up.

Anyway, after my aforementioned YouTube search, I chanced upon a bona fide treasure trove: complete episodes of The Mary Tyler Moore Show with the openings and closings intact, including the renowned MTM meowing cat. (MTM trivia: The feline was captured yawning and the meow a dub job.) I imagine the episodes will be eventually taken down for copyright infringement, but in the meantime I’ve been watching and thoroughly enjoying them. Despite it being a 1970s sitcom, the look, feel, and humor of The Mary Tyler Moore Show, I believe, holds up well all these years later.

I was telling a friend last week that I had gotten hooked on The Mary Tyler Moore Show via YouTube. I told him that—with the exception of Ted Knight—the main cast of the show was still among the living, including ninety-five-year-old Betty White. Considering that the show debuted in September 1970—more than four decades ago—that’s no small accomplishment, I said. And just a few days after this exchange, Mary Tyler Moore passed away.

From my perspective, Mary’s show represents a portal into the simpler days of my boyhood, when my brothers and I descended a flight of stairs to watch prime-time television with our paternal grandmother and aunt. They owned a color television set—a Zenith model with a light-up channel dial—and we didn’t. Somehow to me, The Mary Tyler Moore Show underscores both the serenity and fervor of youth. It aired on Saturday nights, which meant there was no school the next day. This fact alone added to the show’s incomparable and agreeable ambiance. Not having to get up early the following morning and trudge to a place I loathed going to—let’s just say—mattered a great deal. And Mary’s original apartment was a soothing visual with its picture window and outdoor deck overlooking what was supposed to be Minneapolis. The fake snow frequently falling outside inspired pleasing thoughts of Christmas and wintertime frolics in an age when I revered the white stuff.

There was even that mysterious woman crossing the street and caught in a freeze frame—looking puzzled in Mary’s direction—when the show’s star gleefully tosses her hat into the air during the intro. I recently found out her name. She was Minneapolis resident Hazel Frederick, who just happened to be on a shopping trip when the production team was filming exterior shots in the city. I recall saying how Hazel resembled Mrs. Heegan, a schoolmate of mine’s mother. (In The Bob Newhart Show’s opening, Bob gets on a train to go to work in the morning. An anonymous woman is seated across from him, a dead ringer for a neighbor’s grandmother known by one and all as Mama.) It’s minutia like this that was a huge part of being young and unsaddled with life’s baggage. It’s just one of many reasons why the death of an icon like Mary Tyler Moore is so sad.

Tuesday, January 17, 2017

The Best Doesn’t Come Easy

While meandering in lower Manhattan on New Year’s Day morning, I made my way through the Chelsea section of the borough. Within its cozy confines, I came upon a pizza place—one among hundreds in the bustling metropolis. But what differentiated this eatery from so many others was its name: “The Best Pizza.” Could it actually be the best? The best at a dollar a slice? Presently, the going rate for a plain slice of pizza in New York City is $2.75, the price of a subway or bus ride. I longed for answers to my questions, but it was well before lunchtime when I passed by. I couldn’t sample their fare. I could, however, hazard a guess as to whether it was the best pizza or not. Going out on a limb, perhaps, I concluded that it was probably not the best pizza.

Yesterday, I found myself on the very same urban terra firma. It was my intention this go-round to try The Best Pizza’s pizza. Unfortunately, the establishment had very limited indoor seating and a take out for me wasn’t practical. Despite my burning desire to know for certain if The Best Pizza lived up to its name, I wasn’t about to take the pizza—best or not—on a subway journey to the Bronx. And, from my vantage point, it was a little too cold to chow down on the street. Besides, I don’t do that in the best of climes.

It’s worth noting that Chelsea, apparently, attracts the best and the brightest. It values excellence, too. Case in point: A few stores down from The Best Pizza is a new restaurant on the cusp of opening—Excellent Dumpling House. In the vicinity of both is Best Shoe Repair. There’s a Laundromat next door to Best Shoe Repair that’s evidently not the best, but I’m sure it’s excellent nonetheless. I’d surmise that Best Cleaners is somewhere in the area—on some side street that I missed. I did encounter the next best thing: Nice Laundry. And a little kindness goes a long away these days, especially on the mean streets of New York.

(Photos from the personal collection of Nicholas Nigro)

Monday, January 2, 2017

The Morning After

I began the new year yesterday by venturing into Manhattan—“downtown” as we in the Northwest Bronx say. It was mid-morning when I hopped on the Number 1 train for the fifty or so minute journey, exiting at 18th Street. Subject to change, my informal plan was to travel northward through—what was only hours before—ground zero of the annual New Year’s Eve extravaganza. It’s a place I never once desired being in during the waning hours of the final day of the year. Packed like sardines in a can—with drunken strangers and limited and inaccessible places to relieve oneself—just never appealed to me. And I can only imagine it’s a whole lot worse now in these “If you see something, say something” times.

As expected, both the subway ride and lower Manhattan itself were quieter than typical Sunday mornings in the city. Nevertheless, increasing numbers of men, women, and children—lots and lots of tourists—materialized as I made my way past Madison Square Garden and eventually the periphery of Times Square. I zigzagged back and forth to avoid the worst of the people crunch, which wasn’t—relatively speaking—so bad on the morning of the first day of the new year. Along the way, I spied police barriers galore in big piles now and awaiting pickup. Concrete block police barriers were also everywhere. I even spotted an area mailbox with a padlock on it. There was garbage aplenty, too, left behind by the revelers. Street cleaners and assorted sanitation vehicles were omnipresent.

Northward bound at this time of year necessitated a short detour to Rockefeller Center and the Christmas tree. As a youth, seeing the tree was an absolute must and a holiday given. But as I got older, a visit to that over-crowded piece of earth was no longer on my agenda. The tree looked the same every year anyway. Last year was the first time I’d seen it in the flesh in almost two decades. Now, it’s two years in a row. By the way, the LED lights give it a somewhat different look than I remember as a kid—at least in the daytime.

Nearby Radio City looked much the same, but I didn’t get the excited rush I got while calling on the place as a boy to see the “Christmas Spectacular.” I don’t believe it was called that in the early 1970s when my grammar school class took its yearly field trip to Radio City. The place featured movies in addition to the Rockettes back then. In 1970, 1971, 1972, I saw Scrooge, Bedknobs and Broomsticks, and 1776 respectively at Christmastime. I remember it cost each one of my classmates $1.50 for the privilege—the group rate, I guess. The average Radio City ticket price this year for the Christmas show—without a movie—was $133.47. Times have certainly changed.

I saw a lot of that change in my New Year’s Day 2017 excursion. That expensive feeling was palpable from start to finish. When my aunt took my brothers and I shopping downtown at Christmas in the early and mid-1970s—an annual tradition of ours—we began the adventures at Macy’s and called on stores like Gimbel’s, the super-big Woolworth’s, Brentano’s bookstore, and Korvette’s. Heading to the subway station on 50th Street after experiencing the big finale of our trips—the Rockefeller Center tree—we sometimes stopped at a Woolworth’s annex store for one last hurrah. I traversed that same area yesterday as I made my way to the very same subway station. I tried to envision where exactly this little Woolworth’s store once stood, but everything looked so, so expensive now that it was difficult to pinpoint.

My Manhattan voyage at an end, I got on the subway at 50th Street. Destination: uptown and home. My modus operandi for traveling in the least crowded subway cars: Last one for uptown; first one for downtown. The only fly in this ointment is that when heading uptown, the last car sometimes completely empties out before I reach my destination. And being in a totally empty subway car—even in the bright light of day on a generally safe line—is a peculiar feeling. One becomes a magnet for an unhinged individual to enter the car. With several stops yet to go for me yesterday, I found myself all alone and promptly spied a strange-looking man peering in from the adjoining car and slowing making his way my way. Since he somewhat resembled Charles Manson, I wasted no time in putting into practice my Manson Subway Rule. I nonchalantly exited at the next stop and waited for the next train. It’s better to be safe than sorry, I thought, on the first day of a new year.

(Photos from the personal collection of Nicholas Nigro)