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)

Thursday, June 29, 2017

A-Treat Summers

Lydia Maria Child’s Thanksgiving poem begins like this: “Over the river, and through the wood/To Grandfather’s house we go.” But I recall singing, “Over the river and through the woods to Grandmother’s house we go,” while en route to Bangor, Pennsylvania, home of my maternal grandparents. From my family’s Bronx point of origin, the first river we crossed was the then pretty grimy Hudson; the second and last, the muddy Delaware.

Before Interstate 80’s tentacles reached Teaneck, New Jersey— in close proximity of the George Washington Bridge and New York City—our Bangor adventures found us on Route 46 for a spell. While the trips took a whole lot longer on such meandering back roads, they were much more interesting—for kids anyway. We passed through many small towns, including Hackettstown, New Jersey with a hamburger joint called Leo’s on its main thoroughfare. Suffice it to say, my father didn’t have the fascination that his offspring had for mysterious fast-food establishments—i.e., the ones we spied only through a moving car’s windows in places that we had never set foot.

It should come as no surprise then that I vividly remember when my dad consented to stop at Leo’s for lunch. It was the summer of 1976—the United States Bicentennial year—a simpler and more civil time to exist. It was of an era before presidential tweets and daily Twitter outrage. We were on our way back to the Bronx when this memorable moment in history occurred. At long last, my younger brother and I sampled Leo’s burgers and French fries, which we knew for certain wouldn’t disappoint—and they didn’t.

Actually, we brought our take-out fare from Leo’s to nearby Budd Lake and briefly picnicked on the side of the road. My father had packed his preferred brew, Schaefer Beer, in a cooler bag, so he needed no liquid refreshment from Leo’s. On the other hand, my brother and I washed down our tasty repasts with A-Treat brand sodas: orange and birch beer, respectively. I was intrigued back then—as youth are wont to be—by enticing products unfamiliar to me, like A-Treat Beverages, whose hanging signs were ubiquitous outside of country grocery stores. We didn’t have A-Treat sodas on grocery store shelves in New York. A-Treat was a local outfit. So, naturally, the opportunity to sample them in such faraway places as Northwest New Jersey and East Central Pennsylvania was heavenly.

After ninety-seven years in operation, I learned, A-Treat shuttered its plant in Allentown Pennsylvania in early 2015. However, the collective voice of a thirsty and nostalgic people clamored for its return. I can fully appreciate why—to those served by this regional institution—life just couldn’t go on without A-Treat. I’m happy to report that an entrepreneur brought the soda line—with original recipes—back to life.

Forty-one years ago while sitting on the banks of Budd Lake with an A-Treat soda pop in hand, I couldn’t in my wildest imagination portend the future. Calling attention to the A-Treat soda cans, I recently posted a picture on Facebook from that historic day in 1976.  And lo and behold, advertisements for A-Treat appeared in my Facebook feed shortly thereafter. Such is the insidious new world we now call home—but at least A-Treat is still in it.

(Photo one from the personal collection of Nicholas Nigro)

Friday, June 23, 2017

Summer Daze

Once upon a time, I relished summer days and nights. The heat and humidity didn’t faze me in the least. No temperature or relative clamminess was too high to prevent a stickball game of ours. In fact, playing on searing asphalt on a scorcher—without water—was par for the course. There was no such thing as bottled water in the 1970s! Sure, we could have brought along a cooler, thermos, or canteen to our games, but it just wasn’t on our radars in those days. Looking back, we sometimes played doubleheaders in ninety-five-degree heat without liquid pick-me-ups. After game two, we were a parched lot in a mad-dash search for a non-contaminated watering hole—tap water from the kitchen sink or powdered iced tea. What American TV western didn’t feature its protagonists short of water and in a do-or-die search for it in super-dry desert climes?

Ah, but summer days just aren’t what they once were to me. It's more like summer daze. This week, the calendar officially said that it was summer with the longest days of the year upon us. As a youth in the third week of June, I was uber-active in the great outdoors until the last sliver of daylight vanished. Now, I spend well-lit summer evenings inside and do all that I can to circumvent the infamous New York City heat and humidity. Air conditioning has its place. For me, there is no more stoop sitting and chewing the fat with neighbors on poor Air Quality Index (AQI) days. I don't recall whether or not the AQI was calculated in the good old days. However, I can say that the air quality in the 1970s was considerably worse than it is today.

Bad air notwithstanding, the summers of my youth found the Good Humor man turning up every night at around the same time. Good Humor’s cola-flavored Italian ice—a favorite of mine—was a rock-solid frozen block. In attempting to sliver off pieces of the ice with the tongue-depressor spoon supplied, its paper cup would get punctured beyond recognition. Actually, the only cola taste—if you could call it that—of their watery Italian ices was found at the bottom of the paper cups, which by then would be casualties of war. But what did we expect for twenty cents? They were worth every penny.

Summertime also meant a vacation on the seashore of New Jersey or Long Island. It meant day trips to the happening hot spots incessantly advertised on the New York City metropolitan area airwaves, like the Brigantine Castle—a haunted fortress on the Atlantic in Brigantine, New Jersey. A three-hour drive trip from the Bronx to the Brigantine Castle was a memorable summertime adventure. The equivalent for my peers’ kids today—on the satisfaction front, I'd say—would be two weeks in the South of France or Swiss Alps.

A final summertime footnote and memory from forty years ago. It’s the solitary snapshot kind not associated with anything monumental. I had completed a high school final exam during my freshman year. It was an afternoon in mid-June, 1977. I was alone and on my way home via mass transit—from the East Bronx to the West Bronx. Standing at a bus stop on Jerome Avenue across the street from two of the ugliest-looking buildings in the borough—Tracey Towers—I patiently waited for the BX1, which would take me on the last leg of my journey home. It was overcast, terribly humid, and I remember seeing lightning on the distant horizon—heat lightning, I think. This far-away hot flash nonetheless signified so much to me—school’s end, summer, and a couple of months of incredible bliss.

(Photos from the personal collection of Nicholas Nigro)

Monday, June 19, 2017

Sneaky Pete’s Dragon

A few days ago, I spied “No Parking” signs covering a several block radius in my neighborhood. Beginning at ten o’clock last night, remaining vehicles would be towed away. Upon closer inspection, the signs revealed the reason behind this local upheaval: location filming of Sneaky Pete, an Amazon original series. While the show has been recommended to me, I have thus far not seen it.

I recently wrote about a certain stroll down memory lane. That is, watching episodes of Kojak, my favorite TV detective of all-time. As previously noted, my contemporary complaint of this 1970s production is the cheesiness—the unevenness—of the filming. As a kid, the tough but compassionate New York City cop on the streets of New York, which more often than not were the streets of Los Angeles, didn’t faze me in the least. As I recall, it was quite costly in those days to film in New York versus Tinseltown. It still must cost a fair chunk of change, but today’s politicians clearly have the welcome mat out for such endeavors. Many more TV shows and movies are filmed here than in Kojak’s day. Blue Bloods, starring Tom Selleck, is exclusively shot on the streets of New York, including the outer boroughs of Brooklyn and Queens. While it looks really good—and real—I found the show somewhat heavy-handed and self-conscious. In other words, looks can be deceiving. So what if Kojak makes reference to a restaurant parking lot in midtown Manhattan, or that countless scenes include a stationary crowd of curious onlookers. 

While TV shows and movies are typically enhanced when filmed on location, the process is disruptive. In densely populated neighborhoods with limited parking spaces, residents are impacted. I can attest to the fact that road rage and parking rage, too, are not uncommon on the mean streets of the Bronx. It’s dog-eat-dog out there. Remove a couple of hundred spots and the competition—the cat fighting—gets taken to another level.

When I ventured out this dreadfully humid morning into the Sneaky Pete universe of trailers, lighting, and cameras, I saw that film preparations were underway at Tibbett Diner, an iconic neighborhood eatery that has lent its singular ambiance to filmmakers before. It was closed today for the shooting, which I’m sure caught a lot of loyal and hungry patrons by surprise. But sometimes sacrifices have to be made for the greater good. Immortalized on Sneaky Pete, Tibbett Diner—and the neighborhood it serves—will endure forever.

(Photos from the personal collection of Nicholas Nigro)

Saturday, June 17, 2017

I Made It Through the Rain

I appreciate that weather is an inexact science. I don’t, for instance, put much stock in two-week forecasts. When I first checked The Weather Channel’s (TWC) extended forecast for Saturday, July 1, scattered thunderstorms and a high of seventy-nine degrees were forecast for New York City. When I refreshed the page ten minutes later, the scattered thunderstorms were no longer in the picture. Never mind what the next ten minutes would bring—how about ten days?

On the other hand, hour-to-hour forecasts I expect to be more accurate than not. On this overcast morning, I placed my confidence in TWC’s predictions for the nine to one o’clock window of my intended journey. What I gleaned was cloudy at nine, cloudy at ten, cloudy at eleven, cloudy at twelve, and cloudy at one. Had rain been in the offing, I would have altered my plans. But moments before I left, TWC had given me the green light to venture out into the great outdoors without an umbrella or rain jacket, both of which are absolute last resorts for me. The official scuttlebutt was that it would be cloudy and dry until very late in the afternoon, when there was only the slightest chance of a passing shower.

It was a shade before noon when it began raining on me. I was in the vicinity of Rockefeller Center at the time and expected the shower to be fleeting in nature. I huddled in the doorway of some closed-on-the weekend office building for a spell, but it kept on raining and increasingly harder at that. As I was only a couple of blocks from my train station, I took the plunge and got wet. I figured by the time the Number 1 train exited the tunnel at 125th Street, the rain would have stopped. It hadn’t. It was back in the tunnel until Dyckman Street, closer to home, where I again anticipated more arid climes. The fact that I got soaked leaves me with precious little confidence in TWC’s Atlantic hurricane season predictions. How many named storms this year? 

Beyond the mercurial weather and inexact science of meteorology, I nonetheless got to see human beings in a variety of hues. The subway is a human nature laboratory. There are signs in various cars nowadays importuning riders to behave like good-mannered men and women. “Don’t Be A Pole Hog” and “Take Your Pack Off Your Back” were a couple of the admonitions I spotted this morning. It’s a shame so many people need to be educated on common courtesies. Of course, it remains to be seen if placards in the subway, instructing one and all to be civilized and considerate, reap any dividends. I suspect not. Today, I saw this woman with a baby stroller blocking an entire aisle of a crowded subway car. There was perhaps a foot to pass in either direction. She was on the train for quite a while, too, staring stoically into space with a puss on her face, as if daring someone to say something to her. On the brighter side, I witnessed a young fellow offer his seat to two different people, who both politely declined his generous offer.

Prior to getting rained on in the bright light of day, I walked the streets of Manhattan. At one point, I spied a guy sipping a cup of coffee in front of a swanky boutique. He looked like its owner to me, which made what he did next especially irritating. Finished with his brew, the lout tossed the empty cup into the street before sauntering back into his shop. No garbage can inside? Seriously, if I were running a chic retail establishment in a fashionable Manhattan neighborhood, I wouldn’t want garbage on the sidewalk or in the street in front of the place. And, by the way, it’s the weekend. The street isn’t going to be cleaned for a couple of days.

I didn’t stop for a bite to eat in my travels, because I would have to drink something with my repast. A plus B equals C, bathroom stopover. And wandering aimlessly around Manhattan is often a biffy-free zone. I’m sure Taste Good Chinese Restaurant had a toilet for its customers. But Frosted Flakes taste gr-r-reat, so I passed. I considered Num Pang sandwich shop, but—I don’t know—that's what I expect after taking a couple of Aleve. The name just didn’t ring appetizing. Of course, I could have stopped by John Doe Bar & Kitchen, the amnesia victims preferred watering hole. In the end, however, I got wet and made it through the rain.

(Photos from the personal collection of Nicholas Nigro)

Tuesday, June 13, 2017

By George, I Think I Fist Bumped

For a third day in a row the thermometer surpassed ninety degrees in New York City. We’ve now had six ninety-degrees—or higher—days this spring, which overall has been much colder than normal. And so in this curious spring, it’s only fitting that I experienced a peculiar first. There is a first time for everything, I guess, including a fist bump. In my limited circle of friends, relatives, and acquaintances, the old-fashioned handshake has always been sufficient. There’s not a fist bumper in the bunch. But the moral of this story is to expect the unexpected and never rule out anything in life, including a fist bump.

On this June “scorcher,” I bumped—pun intended—into a neighbor. I don’t know him well, but he’s a friendly fellow who likes to talk—loudly and sometimes a little too much. While his English isn’t especially good, he makes up for it with gushing enthusiasm. On multiple occasions now, the man has called me “George,” confusing me with another local with whom he has conversed. I don’t resemble or sound anything like George, but it would seem we’re all Georges to him.

Anyway, on this sultry morn, he was his bubbly self, shaking my hand in greeting and making small talk about the hot weather. “You are George, right?” he subsequently said. I hadn’t bothered correcting him up to that point—two corrections in previous encounters was my limit. Nevertheless, in response to the direction question, I replied, “No, I’m Nick.” It was this answer of mine that inspired the fist bump—the sweaty fist bump—that I couldn’t ignore. I really thought that I would get through life without giving or receiving one, but I was wrong.

I see where a scientific study concluded that the fist bump is actually more sanitary than a handshake and less apt to spread illness and disease. Speaking of scientific studies, I ran across another one this week that deemed the French fry bad for our health. Now, that is something I’ve heard before. Considering that they are typically fried in oil and often smothered in ketchup, why should we be surprised?
 
At my favorite diner last week, I ordered a side of French fries and thought about how many I must have consumed over the years. My father used to pick up a fifty-pound bag from a fruit-and-vegetable seller in the Arthur Avenue Market in “Little Italy in the Bronx.” With Manhattan’s Little Italy a mere shadow of its former self—gentrified beyond recognition—the Bronx’s is in truth the only Little Italy remaining in New York. That big bag of potatoes, by the way, didn’t last very long in a family of seven. Depending on what was the main course, the potatoes were baked, mashed, boiled, or fried. But French fries ruled on our dinner table in a time and place that knew no fist bumps.

(Photos from the personal collection of Nicholas Nigro)

Sunday, June 11, 2017

My “Mrs. Stern Moment”

After exiting a crowded subway car yesterday morning, I escaped from the land down under with a scratchy throat. Too many people in too small a place, tunnel dust, and the heat of June—which we’ve had very little of so far—were the culprits. While walking east on 18th Street in the sunlit morning air—through a hipster land of gluten-free pizza and Dim Sum—I coughed. As I covered my mouth, the cough sounded an awful lot like a sneeze. At least that’s what a passerby thought. He said, “God bless you, sir.” I replied, “Thank you.” I didn’t feel it necessary to explain to him that I had coughed and not sneezed. The man being a Latino awoke something me—a revelation of sorts. I had just experienced a “Mrs. Stern Moment.”

Some background on Mrs. Stern: She was a regular customer in a retail shop called Pet Nosh, where I toiled several decades ago. Mrs. Stern was a nice enough woman, but somewhat neurotic and in a constant state of high anxiety. She was a bona fide animal person who fed stray cats and contributed to others who adopted homeless pets. These noble acts nonetheless compounded her perpetual unease.

For years, the staff at Pet Nosh gave her bag loads of free samples from the various pet food manufacturers. “Do you have samples for the strays?” Mrs. Stern would always ask. “You know I feed them.” Yes, we know! As the years passed, however, fewer and fewer samples of pet foods came our way. Apparently, it had become apparent in the dog-eat-dog industry that free-flowing freebies weren’t paying dividends. Mrs. Stern’s strays enjoying their respective repasts wasn’t exactly what they had in mind when dispensing their sample products. She and other recipients of the free sample pet foods never accepted the fact that we no longer had a bottomless trove from which to tap. In the retail environs, we discovered, no good deed goes unpunished.

Actually, the “Mrs. Stern Moment” has nothing at all to do with her animal activism. It’s something much bigger and touches on universal harmony. One summer’s day approximately a quarter of a century ago, she came into Pet Nosh even more hyper than usual. Out of character, it was a gleeful strain of hyper. Mrs. Stern explained that her buoyant state of mind involved a sneeze—the genuine article—at a red light. Motionless with her driver’s side window down at the time, a motorist across from her at the light—with his windows down—heard the sneeze and loudly said, “God bless you.” What moved Mrs. Stern so much about this random act of kindness was that the driver was a black man. She read into this encounter something so much more than a ubiquitous societal courtesy. Mrs. Stern saw the big picture. How we’re all in this together—black, white, brown, yellow. After all, we all cough and we all sneeze. And so, now you know why I had a “Mrs. Stern Moment” yesterday.

A footnote: Mrs. Stern has since passed away. She was no youngster when she patronized Pet Nosh and regularly beseeched us for free samples. But—from where I sit—she’s left a legacy. Mrs. Stern’s been gone for fifteen years, but obviously not forgotten. A trivial cough on the not-so-mean streets of Manhattan set in motion a series of events that got me thinking about her. One little cough for man—one giant sneeze for mankind.

(Photos from the personal collection of Nicholas Nigro)

Tuesday, June 6, 2017

Kojak Revisited

When Kojak starring Telly Savalas debuted in October 24, 1973, I was in the sixth grade at St. John’s grammar school in the Bronx. Pleading nolo contendere to charges of having accepted bribes while governor of Maryland, Vice President Spiro Agnew had resigned exactly two weeks earlier. President Richard Nixon’s infamous “Saturday Night Massacre” had occurred several days before. And a whole lot was happening in New York City, too, with Mayor John Lindsay in the final two months of his second term as mayor of the city Theofilides “Theo” Kojak valiantly endeavored to keep safe.

In the broader historical picture, the 1970s were not good years for the Big Apple. A fiscal crisis and layoffs of city employees, including cops, left the metropolis dirtier and less safe than it had ever been. My favorite decade is nonetheless the groovy 1970s. And it isn’t because of the increases in crime and grime. Where I grew up, Kingsbridge, there was a fair share of both, but it was notwithstanding a great neighborhood to be a kid. The old-fashioned urban childhood still existed then, but its days were definitely numbered. Simply understood, we spent an awful lot of time in the great outdoors back then—winter, spring, summer, and fall—and weren’t preoccupied with technological devices that had yet to be invented.

Along with The Rockford Files, Kojak is my favorite TV detective show of all-time. On the boxes of the recently-released Kojak DVD sets I just purchased, the character is referred to as “Bald, bold, and badass.” That’s a contemporary hipster’s description of Lieutenant Kojak, who was wont to say to a bad guy, “Cootchie-cootchie-coo,” while not-so-gently pulling on his cheek. He was the epitome of cool in his Bailey Gentry fedora, spiffy three-piece suits, and stylish sunglasses.

I liked Kojak for a variety of reasons, not the least of which was its New York ambiance. McCloud just didn’t do it for me! It didn’t matter to me that the episodes were largely filmed in Los Angeles and at Universal Studios. Kojak and company visited The Twilight Zone street, as I call it, too many times to count. You know the street: the bars are named just bars and the jewelry stores, just jewelry stores. I wasn’t even bothered that the stock shots of Kojak driving around Manhattan frequently didn’t jibe with where he was actually going in the scripts. I remember him heading north on the West Side Highway to go to Brooklyn.

So, does Kojak hold up for me more than forty years later? In my opinion, Telly Savalas punctuating his sentences with his Tootsie Roll Pop is timeless. Flipping an organized crime boss out of his chair never gets old. The Universal Studios streets and buildings can be a bit distracting, I know. Floodlights in the windows of building exteriors don’t exactly enhance nighttime realism. And location shots filmed in Los Angeles that attempt to pass for Manhattan never work. Fortunately, the middle seasons of Kojak—which represent the best of the show—filmed a little more in New York itself.

In fact, season three’s two-hour debut episode, “A Question of Answers,” is filmed entirely in New York and features guest stars Eli Wallach, F. Murray Abraham, Jerry Orbach, Jennifer Warren, and Michael V. Gazzo, who plays a hooligan loan shark. The year prior, Gazzo won a Best Supporting Actor Oscar for his portrayal of Frankie Pentangeli in The Godfather: Part II. In the Kojak episode, there is a scene of Savalas and Gazzo in a parking lot just north of the Twin Towers along the Hudson River. That’s what that area was like in 1975. Run down and atmospheric with parking lots—in some instances—on property now gentrified beyond recognition. A footnote on the season three opener is that Telly Savalas’s brother, George Savalas, who played Detective Stavros, is finally credited with his full name, instead of “Demosthenes,” his middle name, which was used in the first two seasons’ credits.

Theo Kojak could do no wrong then and now, with one exception that I’ve gleaned in watching the old shows. So far, I’ve seen him toss his lollipop wrapper off a building rooftop, throw its stick on the sidewalk, and fling an unlit cigarette of Eli Wallach’s into the Hudson River. He has also placed his empty coffee up atop a fire hydrant upon exiting his car. It was the dirty 1970s after all.

One final word on Kojak’s legacy: The coolest cop is part of the Urban Dictionary. “To drive straight into a parking space, improbably available right outside the place you were headed,” which Kojak consistently did at crime scenes, midtown hotels, busy courthouses and apartment buildings, is thusly named. You have “kojaked” if you are so fortunate in your travels to find such an ideal parking spot.

(Photos from the personal collection of Nicholas Nigro) 

Sunday, June 4, 2017

Tommyrot on My Mind

I remember seeing a clip of former President Dwight Eisenhower with Barry Goldwater, the Republican nominee for president in 1964. They were at Eisenhower’s farm in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania filming a campaign infomercial. To make a long story short, Eisenhower said at one point—in reference to charges that Goldwater was a warmonger—“This is actual tommyrot.” Tommyrot was an expression unfamiliar to me, but I liked the sound of it. The word’s homespun informality had a certain appeal. Tommyrot means “nonsense”—or “rubbish” if you prefer—and has an appropriate nonsensical ring as well.

There’s this tightfisted money-worshiper in the old neighborhood who got me thinking about “tommyrot.” He’ll remain anonymous, but his forename shouldn’t be too difficult to figure out. Let’s call him Mr. T, a landlord many times over. The man buys up houses and rents the apartments therein at exorbitant prices, which sadly are the going rates for this time and place. The end-result of the practices of Mr. T and his ilk—and there are many like him—are revolving-door tenants, many of whom don’t give a whit about their transient residence and neighbors. As a favor to his son, a friend of mine looked at an apartment owned by the incomparable Mr. T. The rug in its living room was filthy, he told me, an incidental pointed out to the landlord during their tour. “That’s not my job!” Mr. T said in response. And he was asking over two grand for the two-bedroom apartment. A one-off cleaning lady was obviously not included in the price.

Courtesy of Mr. T and tommyrot, I had landlords on my mind yesterday as I walked up Ninth Avenue through a Manhattan neighborhood nicknamed “Hell’s Kitchen.” Once upon a time an Irish working-class stronghold—and quite gritty environs as you might imagine—it is no longer hospitable to folks of modest means. The Irish mob, the Westies, don’t even live there anymore. Suffice it to say: It’s not your grandfather’s Hell’s Kitchen. In the rough-and-tumble days gone by, there were mom-and-pop delicatessens, not “gourmet” delis with unintentionally ironic names. The locals from yesteryear didn’t know brunch from a smoothie. The sober-minded drank egg creams, which aren’t typically available in the contemporary gourmet establishments, and the others, libations with a little more edge. This was Hell’s Kitchen, after all.

According to Wikipedia’s description of Hell’s Kitchen now, it’s become home to a fair share of Wall Street financiers. My Mr. T could probably afford to live there. I see, too, that there are various accounts of how the neighborhood received its infamous moniker. The one I like best is attributed to a veteran policeman, “Dutch Fred,” who was partnered with a rookie. The newbie is reported to have said, “This place is hell itself.” Dutch Fred then set him straight in no uncertain terms: “Hell’s a mild climate. This is Hell’s Kitchen.” It’s not Dutch Fred’s Hell’s Kitchen anymore, either.

(Photos from the personal collection of Nicholas Nigro)

Friday, June 2, 2017

Clouds in My Coffee

I noticed a lot of picturesque cloud formations in the big blue skies of the last couple of days. Mother Nature’s pleasing visuals seemed apropos in light of what has been transpiring in the wide world of politics and beyond. Until this year, I was content on worrying about—and occasionally feeling embarrassed—at things said and done by a handful of loose cannons in my life circle. I never imagined that one day I would have to assume the burden of worrying about what my president might say or do in a tweet, during a commencement speech, or while conferring with a foreign leader. But, alas, it has come to that.

As a boy, I believed in the inviolability of “American exceptionalism.” I don’t remember that exact phrase being bandied about then, but I viewed my country as the “land of the free” and “home of the brave.” It was, after all, the geographical hot spot that attracted people from all over the world—men and women who wanted to make better lives for themselves and for their families. Most of us didn’t have to look very far to see that this “land of opportunity” was in fact the real thing and not some patriotic propaganda. My paternal grandparents emigrated from Italy, and my grandmother never, ever desired returning to the Italian mountain town she grew up in—even for a short visit.

I have in my possession a composition book, which belonged to my grandmother. It’s the one she compiled in preparation of her citizenship test. Learning the English language, American history, world geography, and civics was an integral part of the process. For me, one entry in particular jumps out: “Today is Wednsday [sic], July 15, 1942. Mayor LaGuardia lives in New York City. Gov. Lehman lives in Albany. Pres. Roosevelt lives in Washington, D.C. District of Columbia.” I don’t fault my grandmother for misspelling Wednesday, which is the most difficult day of the week to spell for native English speakers. But, really, what was she feeling on that summertime Wednesday three quarters of a century ago? The world was at war, including the United States of America, the country in which she would soon be a citizen. Basic food staples were rationed. Friends and neighbors were enlisting in the service and fighting in faraway places.

In those dark days, President Franklin Roosevelt delivered radio “fireside chats” from the White House, reassuringly referring to his fellow Americans as “My friends.” Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia read the comics, including Little Orphan Annie, over the radio during a newspaper deliverymen strike three years after my grandmother noted in her composition book his city of residence, which she shared. They were simpler, though far from easier, wholly different times. And these men weren't losers!

My grandmother and her new country overcame many obstacles in the decades to follow. America became a better place on countless fronts. But I wonder if we have we finally thrown the baby out with the bath water? I would very much like to believe that this too shall pass. However, the times no longer guarantee it. When I think of the number forty-five, I choose today to recall the late Tug McGraw and his screwball. Call it mind over matter.

(Photos from the personal collection of Nicholas Nigro)