Monday, April 24, 2017

Freddie McFlicker

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(Photos from the personal collection of Nicholas Nigro)

Sunday, April 23, 2017

Special Day

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

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

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

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

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

(Photos from the personal collection of Nicholas Nigro)

Saturday, April 22, 2017

And There Still Is a Ball Field Right Here

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

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

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

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

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

(Photos from the personal collection of Nicholas Nigro)

Friday, April 14, 2017

TGI Good Friday

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

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

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

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

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

(Photos from the personal collection of Nicholas Nigro)

Sunday, April 9, 2017

A Palm Sunday Piece of My Mind

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

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

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

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

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

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

(Photos from the personal collection of Nicholas Nigro)