Sunday, May 28, 2017

The Age of Shoddy II

One of my favorite miniseries of all-time is Ken Burns’s The Civil War. For some strange reason, a particular segment headlined “The Age of Shoddy” resonates with me today. When I initially saw the installment, I knew what the word “shoddy” meant, but in a contemporary context only. I was unaware that in the 1860s, “shoddy” referred to an uber-cheap fabric manufactured by unscrupulous wartime profiteers—men who sold poor-quality uniforms at inflated prices to the Union army. At the time, The New York Herald contrasted the Silver Age and Golden Age of the world’s past with the unseemly Age of Shoddy, which spawned a shoddy aristocracy of millionaires. These were human beings at their most greedy amassing fortunes at the expense of those fighting and dying on the battlefield.

A modern definition of shoddy in the Merriam-Webster dictionary is “a pretentious vulgarity.” And this, I believe, is a term befitting the current age. Last year, for example, New York City subway cars were festooned with reminders of what courteous and civilized people shouldn’t do in them. Advice on placards included covering one’s nose when sneezing, not clipping one’s fingernails, and holding off for a spell on malodorous repasts. After all, a subway car isn’t a dining car. Granted, there have always been inconsiderate, loutish boors out and about, but the sheer number of them nowadays is staggering. And technology isn’t helping the situation, either.

Yesterday, while riding the Number 1 train into Manhattan, I was reminded again of the times in which we live. The subway car I was in had gotten pretty crowded by the time two teenage girls, I’d guess—although they might have been a little older—appeared with their breakfast sandwiches in hand. Standing directly above me, they began unwrapping their fare. The wafting odors of the sandwiches remained both potent and entrenched in the congested setting.

One of girls loudly complained about her sandwich, but didn’t say, “Pardon my French.” The worst of the boorishness was yet to come when the conductor announced that from 72nd Street to Chambers Street, the train would be running on the express track and only stopping at express stations, which didn’t include the girls’ stop. They opted to ask a fellow straphanger about their unanticipated predicament. “Where should we get off now?” The rider fielding their question was a walking-and-talking stereotype, who didn’t appreciate the unsolicited brain work heaped upon him. He angrily replied, “What are you asking me for? The map’s right there!” Audibly perturbed, he pointed to a subway map, which was—in fact—directly in front of the girls and, unfortunately, right above my head as well.

“We just asked you a question,” the more combative of the two girls said in response. “What’s your problem?” The put-upon passenger out of central casting then walked over to the map and a comedic—were it a sitcom—back-and-forth ensued. He was still visibly angry that he had somehow been lured into helping these damsels in distress, but it was nonetheless his life mission now to sort out the girls’ conundrum.

At ten o’clock in the morning, a man with boozy breath and two girls munching on salami and egg heroes kibitzed over my head. I would have found the circumstances and dialogue quite amusing on Sanford and Son. But it wasn’t Sanford and Son and I heaved a huge sigh of relief when one and all exited at Times Square. The girls were looking for the A train, which was simple enough to connect with, but the guy with the foul morning breath was insistent that they absolutely needed to get on the R train to reach their destination. “We ain’t goin’ on no R,” I heard one of them say as a parting salvo.

When I returned home, I switched on the news and saw clips of my globetrotting president. The Age of Shoddy II, I thought, “a pretentious vulgarity” for sure. Whether I’m walking on the street, riding in a train, or tuning in the news, it’s an age like no other.

(Photos from the personal collection of Nicholas Nigro)

Wednesday, May 24, 2017

The Orphan Baseball

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

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

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

(Photos from the personal collection of Nicholas Nigro)

Tuesday, May 16, 2017

Tail of Two Cities

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

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

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

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

(Photos from the personal collection of Nicholas Nigro)

Tuesday, May 9, 2017

Memories and Alternative Memories

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

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

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

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

(Photos from the personal collection of Nicholas Nigro)

Thursday, May 4, 2017

The Scarlet Pimple Face

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

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

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

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

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

(Photos from the personal collection of Nicholas Nigro)

Wednesday, May 3, 2017

What Would Washington Say?

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

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

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

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

(Photos from the personal collection of Nicholas Nigro)