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)

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