Tuesday, July 25, 2017

Never Going to Be the Same

I was in the environs of One World Trade Center on Saturday. Several relations of mine wanted to experience the building’s observation deck, which is 1,368 feet in the air. An antennae’s further reach puts the building’s height at the historically significant 1,776 feet. I briefly considered joining them, but a lengthy line of ticket-holding tourists patiently waiting to walk on high made the decision for me.

Instead of the ascent into the heavens, I walked a few blocks west to the harbor. It was a hot, humid, and hazy afternoon, but there was a cool breeze coming off the water—an authentic sea breeze. I’m old enough to remember when the scents wafting in the ether alongside the Hudson River and New York Harbor were less than pleasant. Now, the same waters are considered clean enough to swim in—some of the time, anyway. Lady Liberty has been there in good odors and bad. I visited Liberty Island once—possibly twice—as a youth and climbed the statue to its torch. Did the Empire State Building thing as a boy, too, but recall very little about it. And unless you count shopping in a Borders bookstore on one of the tower’s ground floor, I was never inside either of the Twin Towers.

It’s hard to believe that the sixteenth anniversary of 9/11 is less than two months away. In the immediate aftermath of the attacks, a common refrain was heard: “We will never be the same.” After all, how could we be? For a short period of time that sentiment didn’t seem so far-fetched. We Americans had come together as never before—or so it appeared. Well, that was then and this is now. While it’s true that we aren’t the same as we were on 9/10/2001, I don’t think the nature of our different perspectives is what we had in mind sixteen years ago. We were supposed to be less partisan and more cognizant of life’s fragility. We were supposed to behave as if we were all in this thing together and appreciate what we have in common. We weren’t going to sweat the small things anymore. Needless to say, we haven’t quite evolved that much. But then we were probably foolish to think we could. In fact, we’ve devolved. Exhibit A: Donald Trump’s address to the 2017 National Scout Jamboree. “Who the hell wants to speak about politics when I’m in front of the Boy Scouts?” the man began. And it was downhill after that.

Social media didn’t exist in 2001. Thank god for that! I can’t imagine what the Facebook posts and Twitter tweets would have been like in the days, weeks, and months after 9/11. Actually, I can. It’s no stretch to say that social media forums are contributing mightily to our ongoing decline as an intelligent life form. Exhibit B: a video uploaded to Facebook of teenagers watching a drowning man and laughing at the spectacle. They didn’t report the incident to the local police, who learned of the video's existence days later. The dead man had been reported missing. This sort of thing is an everyday occurrence now. And then there are the ubiquitous trolls. They are omnipresent online, a constant reminder of society’s growing crassness, ignorance, and indifference. I no longer wonder who these people are in the bright light of day. After all, I have an account on Facebook. I know some of the trolls by name and by reputation. Go to the bank on it: We will never be the same.

(Photos from the personal collection of Nicholas Nigro)

Friday, July 21, 2017

Good Humor and Bad Humor in the Summertime

It’s officially a heat wave here in New York City—several days in a row of ninety-plus degree temperatures—and I don’t like it. I realize that I romanticize the summertime of my youth every now and then—outdoors much of the time and playing the games that little people played for generations, which, by the way, they don’t play anymore. But even as a spry and callow boy, the one-two punch of summer’s heat and humidity was never something desired and rarely, if ever, appreciated. My father’s mantra was that it—the discomforting clamminess and unhealthy air quality—was all in our heads. He didn’t realize it then, but he was a Buddhist at heart. Mind over matter.

Growing up in a seven-person household on the top floor of a three-family house with no air conditioning in the summer months was—in retrospect—pretty brutal. In the 1960s and 1970s, we experienced recurring electrical brownouts as well. During the high-consumption months of July and August, utility Con Edison’s answer to avoiding total blackouts was a brownout. The lights would flicker on the warmest nights, which was no big deal. But brownouts were especially unforgiving when it came to ice cubes. Heat, humidity, and half-frozen ice cubes with a foul taste were a familiar summertime threesome. On some of the cruelest of summer eves, an ice-cold drink wasn’t even an option.

Nevertheless, those were the days. Regardless of the temperature or relative humidity of a summer’s day, stoop sitting was a hallowed evening ritual, as well as—for a spell of time—a Good Humor truck passing by. This daily happening provided a brief respite from the heat, particularly if something icy was purchased like a watery, cola-flavored Italian ice, lemon-grape rocket pop, or lemon-grape Bon-Joy swirl. Lemon-grape was a winning combination.

First there was Larry the Good Humor Man, who drove the classic little truck that required him to step outside and pluck the ice cream from its back-of-the-cab freezer. And then there was Rod the Good Humor Man, who conducted business in a stand-inside truck. Apparently, Rod lived in the neighborhood. He would see us playing during the Good Humor off-season—parts of fall, spring, and the entire winter. So he said. Concentrating on grocery sales alone, Good Humor sold off its fleet of trucks in 1976. And that was the end of that! I see the present owners of the brand recently resurrected the ice cream truck and—along with it—the ice cream man and woman. I suspect they are stationed at parks and such, where ice cream vendors are still spotted. But chumming for business on neighborhood side streets? I doubt it. If a Good Humor Man materialized around these parts, he would find few kids playing outside in the hottest of weather. And as for off-duty sightings during the winter months—fuggeaboutit!

Epilogue: Larry the Good Humor Man was last seen driving a New York City yellow cab. Oh, but that was more than forty years ago. And Rod the Good Humor Man suffered a heart attack in the mid-1970s and lived to tell. I don’t know how or why I know that. I guess Rod told us at some point. Oh, but that, too, was more than four decades ago. Larry, as I recall, was on the younger side as a Good Humor Man, so he might still be among the living, but he would be pushing eighty by now. If he’s still extant, I hope he’s in good humor. Rod, I fear, is more likely among the angels. With any luck, he’s ringing the celestial equivalent of his Good Humor truck bells, an inviting sound for countless living and dead souls who bought ice cream on steamy New York City nights a long time ago.

(Photos from the personal collection of Nicholas Nigro)

Monday, July 17, 2017

Suspended Animation in the Bronx

The New York City subway system is quite antiquated. Suffice it to say, it has neither kept up with the times nor the technology. There’s been a spate of incidents recently—electrical failures, derailments, etc.—that underscore this reality. Yesterday morning, I ascended the steep flight of stairs at the Van Cortlandt Park station at W242nd Street. I knew there was ongoing track replacement work downwind, which was causing assorted delays and screw ups on the Number 1 line, but was willing to chance it.

When I arrived on the platform, I entered the sole train in the terminal. It was being held up due to signal issues in the vicinity of the track work. Announcements were periodically made concerning the delay along with an unenthusiastic "thank you for your patience" wrap-up. Ten minutes passed, then twenty, and finally a whole half hour. That was my wait. How long the train had been idle before I showed up, I can’t say. 

Now it was big announcement time: “There will be no train service between W242nd Street and Dyckman Street!” Say what? Bedecked in their fluorescent vests, a couple of Metropolitan Transit Authority (MTA) employees ambled up and down the platform shouting, “No service! All suspended!” Not surprisingly, some of the passengers were infuriated. They had been waiting for a half hour or more on the train, expecting it to eventually move. One young fellow was on the verge of assaulting an MTA employee, which is a felony punishable by up to seven years in the big house. At least that’s what the signs say in the subway cars. He took exception to the attitude of a couple of the men in fluorescent vests. “You act like it’s our fault!” he bellowed before storming away. Still, a lot of people remained on the train. I’ve seen this happen before. I don’t know if it’s a language problem, a listening one, or both. They don’t move and appear unmoved by instructions.

For those who had a place to be—like a job for instance—the best bet was to promptly descend to the street level and hop on a bus or two to Dyckman Street. And that’s what many people did. After all, we were told in no uncertain terms that service was suspended. Why hang around? However, the MTA world is full of surprises. As I reached the sidewalk after this unexpected and unwelcome development, I had canceled my morning plans. Hopping on a bus to a train didn’t appeal to me on what was a hot and humid morning. 

I began venturing down Broadway in the same direction that I had anticipated traveling via the subway. About six or seven minutes had passed since I had been informed that train service was suspended. Were my eyes deceiving me? The train that I was sitting in less than ten minutes earlier was pulling out of the station above me—with passengers in it!

I did an about-face and contemplated what had just occurred. Service had been suspended that sent countless men, women, and children scrambling for alternative routes to their destinations. And several minutes later it was restored. Now, I don’t blame the employees who are powerless regarding these snafus. They have a tough job dealing with an often arrogant and unforgiving public. But somebody somewhere is responsible for canceling all service, which seems to me to be a big decision, and then restoring it seven or eight minutes later. That's a big, bad decision. Somebody goofed. And the winners: the folks who don’t hear, listen to, or understand instructions.

(Photos from the personal collection of Nicholas Nigro)

Thursday, July 13, 2017

Close Encounters with a Close-Talker

It was already ninety degrees—with the heat index approaching one hundred—at ten o’clock this morning. Scorcher of a day or not, I, just like the postman, had to make my appointed rounds. In fact, I was headed to a post office, but not the one closest to me. This trivial tidbit of information would be of monumental interest to a man I bumped into en route.

On a stifling hot and humid morn, the last thing I wanted was an encounter with a close-talker—a person who gets in your face during ordinary conversation. (Seinfeld brought the close-talker phenomenon to light in “The Raincoats” episode.) To compound my misfortune, I not only found myself chatting with a close-talker, but one with halitosis as well. I should mention that he is likewise a long-talker. The man in question is fond of holding court and supplying listeners with lengthy back stories—laborious minutia—to events with punchlines that aren’t all that interesting. My close-talker has a habit, too, of punctuating his conversations with the word “anyway.” It’s his way of alerting you: “Are you ready for the big finish?” Fashion your seat belts, there is always another “anyway” and another one after that.

Anyway, this close-talker ambushed me as I walked past his building earlier this morning. He informed me that a friend of his was supposed to pick him up at 9:30. But it was closer to 10:30 when we met. He’s a man in his seventies and not a cell phone user, so he might still be waiting there now. Maybe he got the day wrong. Don’t get me wrong: The close-talker is a well-meaning fellow. He’s been a friend of the family—of an aunt actually—since the dawn of time. However, he can be a very irritating individual, especially when you meet him in a chance encounter. I feel obligated to talk with him when fate intervenes. But I believe that I have earned the right to avoid him if I can. Typically, I reconnoiter while in his neck of the woods and, if I see him coming, take the necessary steps—sometimes retreating entirely or even walking into traffic—to make a clean getaway. 

The close-talker and I chatted for a while. He was absolutely fascinated that I walked to the tiny post office several blocks from his building entrance, when a larger facility was nearer my front door. I explained to him the simple reason: There’s usually no waiting in the little post office during the morning hours, while the bigger place is invariably a zoo. Although I can’t explain why, my reasoning was of supreme interest to the close-talker. He, nevertheless, did most of the talking. As I kept backing away from his too-close-for-comfort-conversing, we physically moved in something of a large circle—like Earth’s revolution around the Sun, only in a smaller space and shorter time frame. Everything you wanted to know about Type 2 diabetes but were afraid to ask. Well, I learned it today from the close-talker, who has been diagnosed with it.

(Photos from the personal collection of Nicholas Nigro)

Wednesday, July 12, 2017

Gross Notions and Polka Dots

The garbage piling up takes on a higher meaning during summertime. In keeping with the season, it’s almost a year since I penned “Midsummer Musings,” an essay that critiqued the theatrics of the 2016 Republican National Convention and—among others—Charles “Chachi” Arcola’s appearance there—wah wah wah. In contemplating such theater in the here and now, I must say that I am relieved that the president will soon be back on American soil. When that man travels overseas, I am reminded—for some strange reason—of a familiar Hollywood plot device. You know the one where more-or-less sophisticated folks attempt to civilize the boorish in their midst. An overbearing, affluent snob endeavored, without success, to refine Moe, Larry, and Curly. Sheriff Andy Taylor gave it his best in transforming hillbilly Ernest T. Bass into a gentleman. But his best wasn’t good enough. I suspect that a well-intentioned Andy-type teaching simple etiquette to The Donald would likewise be a fool’s errand.

On to happier thoughts: Forty years ago tomorrow is the anniversary of a historic New York City blackout, one that underscored the metropolis’s descent into the darkness. That is, if you consider a fiscal crisis, high crime, and dirty parks the be-all and end-all. It was—in many respects—the city’s low point, but that decade is the most memorable and eventful for me. New York City in the 1970s still had character. No block-long Duane Reade drug stores or Chase banks in those days.

Sadly, I missed that seminal moment in New York City history. I received the first inkling that something wasn’t kosher when the lights went out at Shea Stadium. On vacation with the family in Chadwick Beach, New Jersey, I was listening to the Mets on the WNEW radio, which I was wont to do back then. Simultaneous with an excited gasp from the crowd, legendary slugger and broadcaster Ralph Kiner proclaimed, “And the lights have just gone off here at Shea Stadium!” As things turned out, it was a lot more than that.

It was hot as hell that night in the city and, for that matter, along the Jersey Shore. Hapless Mayor Beame was fit to be tied and blasted utility Con Edison for their “gross negligence.” I remember that phrase amusing me. I was only fourteen years old. Maybe it was because I had neighbors named “Gross” or some who were just plain gross, I don’t know. But it was nonetheless a sweltering snapshot in time with areas of widespread looting. With respect to New Yorkers, no one will ever say, “This was their finest hour.”

So it goes—from “gross negligence” to “if you see something, say something.” We’ve come along way…to nowhere in particular. I came upon a stray bag with polka dots on a subway platform this week. It was resting on a locked bin of some sort. I saw something but didn’t say something. Perhaps I was remiss. It was my ticket to having my picture plastered on a New York City bus or in a subway car. But polka-dotted bags, as far as I'm concerned, don't pass the suspicious test.

One final thought on the passage of time—1977 to 2017—and the changes it has wrought. I recall this strip of stores on Manhattan's lower east side. I forget exactly where, but there was a shuttered eatery among them called “Sticky Fingers.” In the front window was a griddle with a lonely bacon press on top of it. Abandoned all. Presently, that same strip is gentrified beyond recognition. The historic bacon press a memory of only one person—me. I don’t suspect too many people living in the neighborhood now dined at Sticky Fingers. I sometimes wonder, though, how the place would have fared with the contemporary Yelp review crowd? I suspect some might have found it gross and said so.

(Photos from the personal collection of Nicholas Nigro)

Friday, July 7, 2017

Extra…Extra…Read All About It

On Independence Day 2017, I found myself on a subway jaunt into Manhattan and back. Passing the 181st Street—George Washington Bridge—station on my downtown ride on the Number 1 train, I remembered a bizarre rumor that persisted during my boyhood in the early 1970s. It was that the Fuhrer did not, as widely reported, commit suicide in his bunker in April 1945. And the urban myth of local interest took it from there. Somebody somewhere spread the word that the octogenarian monster—who would have been in his eighties in the seventies—had miraculously managed to escape Germany and was very much alive. More specifically, he was peddling newspapers for a measly living in the subterranean recesses of the 181st Street station. I don’t recall what, if any, newspaper—Daily News, New York Post, etc.—figured in this remarkable account.

I do recollect as boy of eight, nine, and ten years old passing by the station—as I did a few days ago—and getting the creeps. That's a phrase we used a lot as kids. We lent credence to stuff as children, I know, that didn’t pass the smell test, including that the 181st Street station was simultaneously under the Hudson River and the George Washington Bridge. Entering and exiting it required a ride on a ferryboat, I guess. A friend and I were once absolutely convinced that the clouds in the sky were stationary. The Earth’s rotation—not wind—was the sole wind beneath their wings. I take some solace in the fact that we were only eight years old at the time with a lot to learn and not making government policy.

Now that I’m on the subject of the extraordinary rumors that permeated yesteryear’s ether, I remember a “doomsday” prediction that got some play. My first thought—all these years later—was that it was one of Jean Dixon’s many prophecies. She was, after all, the psychic du jour in the 1970s. But from what I gleaned in my virtual research, Dixon didn’t forecast the apocalypse in that singular snapshot in time. She had several years earlier—the year I was born—forecast world destruction, but not in my grammar school days. So, I’m betting that what gave me a few anxious moments as a nine year old was evangelist Herbert W. Armstrong’s 1972 prediction of the third rock from the sun’s absolute obliteration. That sounds about right. For I had my whole life ahead of me at the time, which, I suppose, is why the world ending so prematurely mattered. Think of all the pizza slices I would never have tasted. Now, forty-five years later, I say: Let Dixon and Armstrong’s snake-oil successors foretell away—and see if I care.

(Photos from the personal collection of Nicholas Nigro)   

Thursday, July 6, 2017

Fifteen Dollars Richer

I found fifteen dollars on the sidewalk this morning. After grocery shopping at a local Key Food supermarket, I was on my way home when I spotted what appeared to be bona fide American currency—not Monopoly money—in the distance. If memory serves me correctly, I found an orphan five-dollar bill once. But that was the height of my good fortune while wandering to and fro in the great outdoors—until today. I stumbled upon a few stray singles in my fifty-plus years of living, too, but lady luck has been pretty sparing in the lost cash-on-the-ground department. Considering that I’ve lived my entire life in New York City, it would have been nice to unexpectedly find a Ben Franklin, or at the very least an Andrew Jackson a time or two. Why, though, question the fickleness of fate? I’ll happily settle for the Hamilton and Lincoln that came my way today. It is, after all, a free pizza.

Still, I felt kind of guilty when I picked up the money. I nervously looked around to see if anyone was nearby. Had I had spied a bewildered individual frantically searching for something lost, I would have, naturally, approached him or her. But there was nobody in the vicinity who matched that description. And so it was: finders, keepers.

Before my unexpected good fortune on this cloudy and humid morn, I snapped a picture of what in the old neighborhood were known as “Umbrella trees.” They are actually Northern Catalpa trees, I believe. In the 1930s and 1940s, this unique-looking tree with its big leaves, string-bean-like hanging pods, and twisting trunks were, apparently, a favorite with certain builders of homes. The trees were omnipresent in my youth and attracted ladybugs. We youngsters called them “Ladybug trees” and collected the orange-and-black colored insects, which left a foul scent on our hands. I sincerely hope ladybugs are still around and not the victim of over-building or some mysterious toxin. I just haven’t been collecting them for a while, or examining the remaining Ladybug trees to see if they are still there. Call them what you want: Umbrella trees, Ladybug trees, or Northern Catalpa trees. There are still a fair share of the trees around, but I remember them being on the fragile side and not the best big city trees, particularly by the sidewalk’s edge.

I distinctly recall a homemade sign that a neighbor on the next block had painted green on a piece of aluminum, which he affixed to a Ladybug tree on his property. It read: “No dogs allowed here.” In the 1960s and 1970s, most people walked their dogs in the street. They curbed their dogs, if you will. Nowadays, everyone walks their canine companions on the sidewalk and they do what they have to do in the very terra firma where the “No dogs allowed here” was once posted. As the years passed and the tree matured, the bark grew around—above and below—the sign. Soon, it was embedded in the tree—part of the sign and part of a time as well.

Homemade signs are not as common in the here and now. Custom-made or store bought ones with threatening rules are, in fact, the rule. The streets that I grew up on are so much more congested. It would be unwise and pretty much impossible to walk dogs in them as I did a long time ago. You know: when no dogs were allowed by the Umbrella tree, the Ladybug tree, or the Northern Catalpa tree—call it what you will.

(Photos from the personal collection of Nicholas Nigro)