Monday, August 28, 2017

It’s Not Michael V. Gazzo’s Parking Lot Anymore

I was on a mission this past Saturday, endeavoring to pinpoint the precise location of a parking lot—a very special one that existed, once upon a time, in lower Manhattan. The parking lot is no more, but has been forever immortalized—from my perspective at least—in a 1975 episode of Kojak called “A Question of Answers.”

In this season-three opener, the incomparable Michael V. Gazzo played Kojak’s chief antagonist, a super-bad seed named Joel Adrian, who owned and operated the parking lot in question. Actually, it was the ideal front business for a cutthroat loan shark. After The Godfather made such a splash, television mobsters—for some early politically correct reason—were often given generic-sounding, non-Italian surnames. But we the viewers knew better. For the year before his guest appearance on Kojak, Gazzo played Frankie Pantangeli in The Godfather: Part II and won a Best Supporting Actor Oscar.

It’s strange how things sometimes play out in life. Apparently, “Leave the gun; take the cannoli” Richard Castellano got too big for his already big britches and wanted complete control over his dialogue in the sequel movie. For the record: Castellano’s widow disputed this account, claiming that her husband didn’t feel his character would betray the Corleone family. Whatever was stuck in Castellano’s craw, the powers-that-be didn’t think Peter “Fat” Clemenza was worth it, so they killed him off and brought in Gazzo as Pantangeli. Castellano got to star in a 1975 sitcom, Joe and Sons, which I remember watching. The series lasted fourteen episodes. Had Castellano played “Fat” Clemenza in The Godfather: Part II, it’s unlikely Gazzo would have appeared in the Kojak episode. And it remains to be seen if I would have gone in search of an old parking lot, which wouldn't have been Michael V. Gazzo’s parking lot.

With that backstory properly digested, Kojak’s “A Question of Answers” was filmed entirely on location in New York City, when the metropolis was at its gritty and grimy best—picture perfect. The fiscal crisis was in full bloom then, impacting everything from the subways, which were graffiti laden and prone to breakdowns, and the various parks, which were barely maintained. Emblematic of the times, Michael V. Gazzo’s parking lot was the genuine article. It stood due north of the Twin Towers, which had opened only two years earlier, and the thirty-two story New York Telephone Company building, also known as the Barclay-Vesey building. Built in 1927, this latter edifice was badly damaged on 9/11, but soldiers on today as the Verizon headquarters on West Street. It served, too, as my mission’s vital landmark.

I had, in fact, passed by the Verizon building on West Street many times, but didn’t connect the dots vis-à-vis Michael V. Gazzo’s parking lot until recently. For that area of Manhattan, Tribeca, bares little resemblance to its former self. When Kojak filmed there, the old elevated West Side Highway was visible to the west, although it had been previously closed to traffic after an eighty-foot section collapsed and sent an asphalt truck—repairing the deteriorating highway—and automobile to the street below.

The dilapidated and increasingly obsolete elevated highway in lower Manhattan was not rebuilt and was gradually torn down. The West Side Highway is now on the street level—West Street—and zigzags through a rather hip, expensive part of town. When Michael V. Gazzo’s parking lot existed, virtually everything to its west was rundown and destined for the ash heap of history. There’s a new Department of Sanitation building in the vicinity now and still some factory remnants of what was. But the exact locale of the parking lot and the surrounding area is currently home to expensive high-rise buildings, residential and commercial, and a school.

Here’s what New York magazine had to say about the neighborhood that Michael V. Gazzo’s parking lot once called home: “By many criteria, Tribeca could be considered the best place to live in the city. It enjoys minuscule crime levels, great schools, tons of transit, well-planned waterfront access, and light-filled loft-type apartments in painstakingly rehabbed industrial buildings. But having already overtaken the Upper East Side as the city’s richest precinct, it is prohibitively expensive, and any traces of racial and income diversity are long gone.”

It’s not Michael V. Gazzo’s parking lot anymore—not by a long shot. Mission accomplished.

(Photos from the personal collection of Nicholas Nigro)

Thursday, August 24, 2017

New Bin on the Block

Big brown recycling bins were delivered to every single address in my part of the Bronx today. Beginning next month, New York City residents will be expected—or at least encouraged—to recycle food scraps, food-soiled paper, and yard waste. That is, unless we are guinea pigs in an experiment, which is possible. These organic materials will be picked up on our regular recycling day, a weekly occurrence. Recycling of any kind is a plus for the environment and worth giving the old college try. However, considering the number of self-absorbed, materialistic slobs that populate the five boroughs, I suspect this noble endeavor will be—at best—only mildly successful. One small step for man, though, and I will do my part.

If nothing else, the sight of Ryder delivery trucks in the neighborhood crammed with hundreds of New York City Department of Sanitation issue bins will at least give us residents something novel to talk about. When it comes to chance encounters with familiar faces—where a little small talk is in order—I like to keep things light and lean. That means: no politics. Let’s just say I find it difficult to listen to people defend the indefensible. So, we chat about the guy with the six-foot tomato plants. Some local yokels actually gripe that he has them in the front of his house and not out back. The fact that his backyard consists of concrete and a garage is not factored into the equation. And while I don’t consume any of them in their original incarnations, I happen to think tall tomato, pepper, and eggplant plants are a sight for sore eyes. Other timely topics of discussion include the awning that a neighbor recently erected over his front stoop: a Plexiglas monstrosity befitting the entrance of a hotel. It’s the sort of thing that might have worked at the Milford Plaza—“the lullaby of old Broadway”—but not in a row of attached houses on a tree-lined street.

But now we can discourse about the spectacle of every hearth and home receiving a fair-sized plastic bin with little plastic tubs inside of them for the interior gathering of organic wastes. I can’t help but wonder how much this thing will cost the city. After all, there are a lot of people in New York. This sort of government largesse—door-to-door freebies—is unprecedented and has to be an expensive undertaking. But why look a gift horse in the mouth?

Meanwhile, the city mothers and fathers are reviewing statues for potential removal. The statue of Christopher Columbus at Columbus Circle is foremost on the hit list. Leave it to pandering politicians to jump on the bandwagon and shoot themselves in the foot. Mixed metaphors, perhaps, but fighting this inane “culture war” is counterproductive. I fear that the Ralph Kramden statue at the Port of Authority bus terminal is on the list. Let’s face it: Ralph intimated violence against his wife on a regular basis, physically and verbally abused his best friend, and cruelly bullied a pipsqueak named George. What kind of message is that sending to weary travelers coming and going to the Big Apple?

(Photos from the personal collection of Nicholas Nigro)

Tuesday, August 15, 2017

August Thoughts

I will begin with some mundane but nevertheless august thoughts. I was on the shores of New York Harbor this past Saturday. Never forget that the Bronx is up but the Battery’s down. It was the ideal August day to be there: overcast, breezy, and no-jacket-required cool. There were tourists aplenty in the vicinity. Spanning the entire age spectrum, many of them appeared fixated on capturing every single moment of their New York experience on their smartphones. They weren’t quite living in the moment, I thought, but were instead captive to these ubiquitous hand-held devices. But what’s the point of pointing that out? Yada…yada…yada.

Once upon a time, I enjoyed riding the Staten Island Ferry, which departs from the Battery, the lower tip of Manhattan. The ferry has always been a bargain—it’s free to ride now. But for me it was never about traveling to Staten Island, which is one of the city’s five boroughs. I took the ferry for the ride—period and end of story. With the exception of the ferry terminal on Staten Island, I’ve never actually set foot in the borough. It’s hard to get around the place without a car and hard to get there—and expensive—with one. The short ferry trips supplied vivid panoramas, especially the return trips to Manhattan. The last time I was on the ferry, the Twin Towers were what loomed like colossi on the approach.

In the environs of Battery Park City, I saw people boarding boats to the Statue of Liberty. I was on Liberty Island once, but that was a long time ago—when Richard Nixon was the president. I watched the passengers getting on and disembarking the boats—navigating the unsteady gangplank, or whatever it’s called—and concluded my seafaring days are over.

I began this journey into Manhattan at the Van Cortlandt Park station—the first and last stop of the Number 1 train. I am always assured a seat and opt to sit in the lead car going downtown, which is typically the least crowded on southbound trains. Moments before take-off, I was alone in the car. But just before the buzzer sounded—and one actually does before the doors close—a fellow passenger materialized and chose a seat not too far from me. He had his breakfast with him—a sandwich—and proceeded to consume his morning repast. Its aroma wafted my way. I’ve smelled worse in the subway—a lot worse. Recently, I read where the Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) was considering banning eating on the trains. I don’t see how that edict could be enforced, but—it cannot be denied—malodorous fare in cramped and closed quarters can be awfully nauseating. I won’t hold my breath on that one.

Permit me to switch gears now and offer one last august thought. Nowadays, there are all-too-many ridiculous memes floating around Facebook and elsewhere in the virtual ether. This week’s winner, in my opinion, declares: “President Trump says he’ll be encouraging stores to say ‘Merry Christmas’ instead of ‘Happy Holiday’ this Christmas. Do you support that?” The ridiculousness of this…well…let me count the ways. For starters, it’s the middle of August. And, too, there are certainly more pressing concerns on the president’s plate at the moment. Finally, my mother had a “Happy Holiday” banner on our front door in the early 1960s.

Composer Irving Berlin was the wind beneath the wings of “Happy Holiday,” which was first sung by crooner Bing Crosby in the 1942 film Holiday Inn. Since Christmas music is now played on the radio the day after Halloween, I would wager that an awful lot of men, women, and children have heard Perry Como’s version of the song. Don’t get me wrong: I’m all for saying, “Merry Christmas” when you feel like saying, “Merry Christmas.” However, I’m more concerned in the dog days of summer of a possible nuclear winter.

(Photos from the personal collection of Nicholas Nigro)

Monday, August 14, 2017

What $1.30 Used to Buy

(Originally published on August 14, 2013)

Exactly thirty-nine years have passed since my father took my two brothers, a friend, and me to Shea Stadium. It was the afternoon of August 14, 1974, five days after Richard Nixon resigned the presidency. But I’d hazard a guess the Watergate scandal and the historic changing of the guard in Washington were not on my radar. Baseball—and only baseball—was.

The Mets were saddled with all kinds of injuries in 1974, including star pitcher Tom Seaver’s ongoing battle with nagging sciatica in his left hip. He was uncharacteristically struggling and, when all was said and done, my revered idol went 11-11 on the year and my favorite team, an unimpressive 71-91. (The Mets had won the National League Pennant the year before.) Still, it was an exciting afternoon as we plopped ourselves down wherever we darn pleased in the far reaches of the upper deck—grandstand seats for $1.30 a pop and closer than anyone else in the ballpark to the airborne planes taking off and landing at nearby LaGuardia Airport. As a boy, I always loved those loud, periodic interruptions, particularly the spitting sounds of the planes’ engines that drowned out the stadium din for a fleeting moment. It was part of the unique and unrivaled ambiance of attending a game at the “Big Shea”—and even added spice to listening to home games on the radio and watching them on TV.

Courtesy of today’s ready access to information, I discovered that the Mets beat the Los Angeles Dodgers three to two on that day, scoring two runs in the bottom of the ninth inning to pull it out. Normally, I remember details like this, but I have no recollection of the game itself or that Tom Seaver was the starting pitcher. Tug McGraw got the win in relief. I have this faint memory, though, of my father insisting we leave an inning early to avoid the post-game parking lot’s traffic snarl. Attendance was 33,125. It was one of his hang-ups, which I can appreciate now having inherited his “I really and truly don’t like driving and excessively fret about things like traffic” gene. Nevertheless, this early departure meant that we missed a thrilling, come-from-behind, bottom of the ninth inning victory. (Thrilling for me, I should add, and not my die-hard Yankee fan and Met hating father.) I imagine we were listening to the game on the car radio as we headed back home. I’d wager, too, that I was simultaneously ecstatic at the win and disgusted at having missed it live and in person.

Suffice it to say that 1974 was a vastly different time for the world in general and baseball in particular. We traveled from the Bronx to Shea Stadium in Queens on the game day—a twenty-five or so minute ride—and purchased tickets at a ticket booth for $1.30 each. An in-law of mine recently ventured to the new Yankee Stadium—the House that Ruth Didn’t Build. He spent $75 for tickets that were far from the best seats in the house and spoke of the stadium runways being more like shopping malls than the hot dog and beer-smelling passageways—with the sticky concrete floors from copious concession spillages—that we both recalled so fondly. (I’d add to these evocative olfactory memories the urine and urine-masking deodorants from the stadium’s bathrooms.) A trip to the ballpark used to be foremost about the game of baseball and rooting for the home team, not going on an expensive shopping spree and dining on Penne a la Vodka and exotic-flavored rice pilaf during the game in an upscale eatery.

The game has been remade by an uber-corporate mentality that has completely refashioned the baseball brand to suit the times and the ever-waning attention spans of its customer base. It’s hardly the affordable family game that it once was, and it’s not the American pastime anymore. What is? Major League Baseball is marketed as an event—a happening. The game on the field is secondary to all the glitzy, technological distractions and the unrelenting clamor. And, to add insult to injury, there are the A-Rods who make mega-millions of dollars and cheat on top of that, rendering records suspect at best and often meaningless.

The simple pleasure of attending a baseball game at Shea Stadium and sitting in the upper deck in the summer of 1974—even if my impatient father ruined the denouement for me—is gone with the winds of time. There will never be another outfield featuring the likes of Cleon Jones, Don Hahn, and Rusty Staub. I’m happy, though, to have been a youthful fan in an era when the bottoms of my PRO-Keds sneakers got all sticky as I exited the ballpark, and I when didn’t have to pass by the Hard Rock Café and Wholly Guacomole on the way out.

(Photo from the personal collection of Nicholas Nigro)

Thursday, August 10, 2017

The Waning Agog Factor

(Originally published on August 10, 2014)

Thirty-seven years ago on this day (now forty), I was at once in Boston and agog. The adult impresario of this Bronx to Beantown adventure was a neighbor and friend named Rich. My brother Joe and I—two teenagers absent as-yet-invented iPads or flip video cameras—accompanied him to what then seemed like a very faraway and even exotic destination.

While we were out of town the “Son of Sam” was captured. A Boston Globe headline in a sidewalk newspaper machine alerted us that the fiend was in police custody. We were pleasantly surprised when we dropped a dime in the slot and the machine’s front door pulled open, permitting each of us to grab a paper. Evidently, man and boys alike had never purchased one from an inanimate object. I guess we thought it would be dispensed like a bottle of soda or a candy bar. Still, we felt like we were a long way from home when we read the details about this serial killer, a man who had been in our midst during that especially hot summer and the summer before.

We had seen the Red Sox at Fenway Park the night before and also peed in a communal urinal there, which was yet another first for us. I sat beside a gangly grandfather and his grandson, I surmised, because the latter called the former “Pops.” Pops was pretty old and, when nature called, had more than a little difficulty navigating the ballpark’s steep steps and cramped aisles. He was a dead ringer for Our Gang's Old Cap. The Red Sox beat the Angels 11-10 that night in a back and forth slugfest. The Globe deemed it one of the most exciting games ever played. Rich, however, noted how “dilapidated” the environs were, and obviously liked the sound of the word, branding countless Boston edifices and nearby locales with the same unflattering moniker.

Dilapidated or not, the three of us were generally agog throughout the trip, blissfully going about the business of exploring foreign terrain before anything called e-mail or Twitter existed. Joe had a hand-me-down, fold-up camera with him that took blurry pictures. Rich wore a strap around his neck attached to an over-sized instant camera during our sightseeing. His photos developed a bit on the green side, including shots at Harvard University and of the Charles River. No flash meant no pictures could be taken of the Green Monster by night. On our way home, we naturally couldn’t pass up America’s most historical rock in Plymouth. This rather pedestrian boulder had at some point cracked in two and been cemented together—not a particularly compelling visual and even less so in shades of instant-picture green.

There were no digital cameras or iPhones in existence, so thus no capacity to post our pictures on Facebook, which wasn’t around either. We were merely content with being agog as we climbed the Bunker Hill Monument and toured Old Ironsides. The dilapidated surroundings all around us actually astounded us. We called home from pay phones. In the present age of instant gratification, with all too many people engrossed in their Blackberries or some such technological device—and walking the streets like oblivious automatons—I fear that the Agog Factor just ain't what it used to be…can’t be what it used to be…and that’s really kind of sad.

(Photos from the personal collection of Nicholas Nigro)

The Code of Broccoli Rabe

When I was a boy, my paternal grandmother made broccoli and spaghetti that was otherworldly. When it was in season, she substituted with broccoli rabe, which was equally delightful. Often utilizing the most basic ingredients, my grandmother had a knack for turning out taste sensations. And her dishes always turned out as expected. She was nothing if not consistent. When broccoli rabe and spaghetti was served, I knew what it was going to taste like. For some inexplicable reason, spaghetti was only used with the garlic and oil fare: broccoli, broccoli rabe, and Christmas Eve’s Aglio E Olio. Her pasta dinners—likewise singular and unmatched—were typically of the homemade variety, but never what you would classify as spaghetti.

As with so many things in life, broccoli and broccoli rabe don’t seem to be packed with the same flavor punch as I recall from my youth. I prepare the aforementioned spaghetti dishes from time to time, but the end-results vary greatly. Sometimes the broccoli and broccoli rabe are practically flavorless, even when utilizing half a bulb of garlic. I remember when broccoli rabe was a seasonal vegetable, available during certain times of the year only. Now, just like countless other fruits and vegetables, it’s a year-round food. Does this contemporary growing fact have anything to do with the flavor drain? Only Andy Boy knows for sure. Of course, my grandmother isn’t around anymore. She would have managed, I’m certain, to extract the maximum flavors out of today’s unpredictable broccoli and broccoli rabe.

Shifting gears somewhat, but in keeping with this essay’s title, I was riding the subway recently when I had the misfortune to be in the same car with three generations of boors: grandmother, mother, and daughter, I surmised. Of course, the family elder in this instance was probably in her late thirties or early forties at the oldest. Anyway, they were misbehaving on public transit, which is very annoying indeed. Outrageously loud and vulgar, the threesome was getting on everyone’s nerves. One man sitting very near them—too close for comfort, as it were—got up from his seat and went into an adjoining car. This move angered the family. I mean—really angered them. Why? Because they lived by a code, you see, and felt dissed by this fellow passenger. The trio could actually see the man sitting in the next car. While contemplating whether or not they should confront him, the three generations made threatening faces. There are codes and there are codes. My grandmother, who grew up in genuine poverty in a rocky mountain town in Southern Italy called Castelmezzano, lived by a strong code of right and wrong. She literally counted her blessings, too.

I would be remiss if I didn’t recount a warped code story that is a personal favorite of mine. After a shopping spree at the Cross County Mall in Yonkers, New York, my elderly neighbor—pushing eighty at the time—returned to her car for the drive home. As she opened the driver’s side door, a complete stranger sidled up on the passenger side and demanded to be driven several miles to an address in the city of Mount Vernon. Justifiably fearing for her well-being, my neighbor reached for her pocketbook, which was on the front seat. The woman hijacker was indignant. She no doubt felt she was being profiled and said: “What are you reaching for that for? I ain’t gonna steal your bag!” And let me just say for the politically correct record: Warped codes recognize no race, creed, or ethnicity. They are at once bizarre and infuriating to behold.

(Photos from the personal collection of Nicholas Nigro)

Saturday, August 5, 2017

The Almighty Doesn’t Live Here Anymore

While in Manhattan yesterday, I spied something unusual sticking out of a sidewalk garbage can. It was a pair of crutches. The receptacle was located on the southeast corner of Seventh Avenue and 14th Street, a mile or so from 34th Street. The close proximity to where a celebrated miracle once occurred—with the real Santa Claus coming through as he did—made me wonder if another one had come to pass. Perhaps I just missed the miracle of somebody lame being made to walk. Timing, after all, is everything in life. I would have been more than happy to place my foldable cane in that container and hop on the subway sans an assistive device. Better luck next time.

While on the subject of matters ethereal, a local church is in the news. I just read where the Archdiocese of New York officially “deconsecrated” the Church of the Visitation of the Blessed Virgin Mary—Visitation, for short—a neighborhood institution for as long as I’ve been alive and then some. While growing up in Kingsbridge and Riverdale, Catholics one and all belonged to a parish. It was part of our DNAs—American, New Yorker, Bronx resident, and—in my case—member of St. John’s parish.

When I was a boy in the 1960s and 1970s, the Catholic Church was thriving. However, its days of wine and roses were numbered. The priests were still largely respected. St. John’s men of the cloth were on the benign side of the ledger, with one notable exception, the monsignor. While the church elders revered the guy—they loved the unbeatable combination of businessman and disciplinarian—the younger set, including me, saw something else. The monsignor was a self-righteous, petulant scold, certainly not what I perceived as a humble servant of God. But those were the days when priests aplenty received their “calling” from on high. Something happened on the way to the sacristy room. Nowadays, few are called and even less are chosen. Apparently, the Almighty is back at the drawing board with respect to His calling formula. The             red flag: an all-too-high percentage of molesters getting accepted into that special fraternity.

I was educated in Catholic schools from the first grade through college. It was a solid, predominantly secular education in which students were thought to think for themselves and to reason. God as one entity was hard enough to conceptualize. But God in three persons—blessed trinity—was an even tougher pill to swallow. A good education teaches one not to accept things purely on faith and to follow the truth wherever it may lead. That’s the Catholic Church’s present-day dilemma.

The Church of the Visitation of the Blessed Virgin Mary was originally located to the east of its present location. It was compelled to move a short distance to the west during the building of the Major Deegan Expressway, I-87. Visitation’s current property is considerable and worth a whole lot as a piece of real estate. I suppose the Almighty Dollar trumps the Almighty in this instance. But far be it for me to believe the Catholic Church hierarchy would have anything but the best interests of their parishioners at heart. And if you believe that, I have a church to sell you in the Bronx.

(Photos from the personal collection of Nicholas Nigro)