Friday, February 24, 2017

No Jacket Required

It cracked seventy degrees here in New York City today. I don’t ordinarily expect to see my trusty mailman, Yu, in his summer shorts in the month of February. But fear not: I’m not going to turn this weather anomaly into something political. You know: Yu in his summer wear in wintertime as Exhibit A and absolute proof of climate change. If I did, I’d be on as thin ice as Senator Inhofe was a couple of years ago when he brought a snowball from the great outdoors—during an especially harsh winter—into the hallowed halls of Congress. He held it up as Exhibit A that climate change was a hoax. The only thing he proved beyond a shadow of a doubt was that he was not especially bright.

Whatever the meteorological reason for the current warm spell is doesn’t much matter. Two years ago, the temperature in the Bronx didn’t rise above freezing once during February. It was like living in the Arctic Circle without the midnight sun. Give me warm over cold any day of the week. After all, the especially agreeable climate enabled me to leisurely walk around this morning and take note of things that I otherwise might have missed with winter brain freeze.

For example: I experienced multiple Iron Eyes Cody moments. Litter is everywhere and in places it shouldn’t be if people weren’t boorish slobs. God forbid an individual hold on to his or her garbage and locate a trashcan that’s not at full capacity. And there are not only a lot of litterbugs around my neck of the woods, but self-centered, reckless drivers, too. I live in a residential area with nearby shopping centers, parks, and an El train. Translation: a never-ending flow of men, women, and children crossing streets. 

There is a particular stop sign near a Van Cortlandt Park entrance where drivers merge on to busy Broadway. A majority of them ignore or quasi-ignore—by not coming to a full stop—the sign. It’s at a location where pedestrians of all ages cross the street in front of it. I’ve on occasion spotted a patrol car from the local 50th precinct lying in wait to ticket transgressors. But it’s the enforcement equivalent of a drop in the ocean. New York City has cameras at various traffic lights to catch drivers who run red lights. Why not put a few at important stop signs? Generally speaking, I’m not a fan of Big Brother surveillance, but something more has got to be done to punish irresponsible drivers who put the rest of us at risk.

Despite these annoying but not unusual observations on my morning excursion, no jacket was required. Lastly, I noticed two local grammar schools—one public and one parochial (my alma mater)—with their respective flags flying. The public school’s flag was at half-staff; the Catholic school’s wasn’t. I wondered about that and found nothing on the Internet to explain why. It was—for me at least—symbolic in some way of the present bizarre times. And as for seventy degree days in winter, I’ll take them when I can get them.

(Photos from the personal collection of Nicholas Nigro)

Sunday, February 19, 2017

Midwinter Musings

Yesterday, my plans were derailed—literally. At the W238th Street elevated subway station, I discovered the hard way that the Number 1 train wasn’t running due to track work. There were a mess of notices with various service changes posted at its entrance, but straphangers, like me, were confused and scaled the El’s considerable flight of severely rusting—and over one hundred years old—metal steps, expecting a Saturday morning train, which typically run every eight minutes on weekends. When we reached what was formerly known as a token booth, however, it was about-face time.

There were alternate routes available, of course, including free subway shuttle buses at street level to the A train a mile-and-a-half to the south. I seriously considered this option and was a split-second away from hopping on one of the buses. But as a wearer of a prosthetic knee, I prefer not riding on them if I don’t have to—too many erratic stops and starts. The subway’s rocking and rolling is much more predictable to me. I can better anticipate the trip’s jolts—severe as they sometimes are—as long as I have a seat. Buses, too, have very high steps—it’s practically a foot drop into the street sometimes. And while I’ve managed to successfully navigate these hurdles so far, who needs the added anxiety of worrying about getting flung head first across a bus's floor after a sudden breaking? There’s always a first time, too!

So, with this unexpected and unwanted change of plans, I wandered into nearby Van Cortlandt Park and spied a gaggle of Canada geese. They were chilling on the park’s snow-covered “flats.” Because the temperature was expected to surpass sixty degrees later in the day, this snow pack from last week’s storm was hours away from extinction. And what a difference a day makes: Today the flats—so picturesque yesterday morning—were an unsightly mess of mud and geese droppings.

The midwinter recess, as it was called in my schooldays, is upon us as well. A week off from the drudgery of primary education in the dead of winter was very welcome as I recall. These weeks of leisure always included the federal holiday: Presidents’ Day. That’s tomorrow, by the way—a day, once upon a time, celebrated as the Father of Our Country’s birthday. I can still picture the black construction paper cutouts of George Washington's and Abraham Lincoln’s heads in profile on the windows and bulletin boards of the area grammar schools. I believe the reason for the creation of the inane Presidents’ Day was to cut back on a holiday. We used get both Lincoln’s—on February 12th—and Washington’s birthdays off.

America has never really been big on holidays and time off from work—especially in the private sector. This work-until-you-drop mind-set was supposed to be what separated—metaphorically speaking—the men from the boys on the world stage. I remember Grandpa Walton on the TV series The Waltons enunciating his mantra for living. “There are only two things in life” that really matter, he said: “Love and hard work.” I can think of a few more, but that’s for another blog.

Speaking of hard work, there’s a lot of political chatter now about saving Social Security. For some the solution is obvious: Raise the retirement age to eighty-seven. We are—after all—living longer and longer nowadays. However, there aren’t exactly jobs to keep all the oldsters and oldsters-to-be duly employed until they’re eighty-seven years old. With more and more people purchasing stuff online, even Wal-Mart greeter positions will be hard to come by.

There was this friend of my father’s—in his golden years—who secured a job as a Con Edison electric and gas meter reader. He was officially retired, wanted to keep working, and, very importantly, knew someone. At the time, flesh-and-blood human beings read every single meter in New York City and parts of nearby Westchester County. But now all the meters are read electronically. I’ve often wondered what happened to all those out-of-a-job Con Edison employees. I would get to know the meter readers who read my meters and once a month loudly screamed “Con Ed!” outside my window at seven-thirty in the morning. Electronically read meters, cashless tolls, and living to be one hundred with a greater chance of suffering from dementia. As always: Something to look forward to.

(Photos from the personal collection of Nicholas Nigro)

Thursday, February 16, 2017

There Used to Be a Mailbox

Neighborhood mailboxes have been targeted the past few years. Not booby-trapped or filled with mysterious powders, but victimized. The post office even posted warnings on certain mailboxes that were fished of their contents. Thieves in the cloak of darkness opened mailbox levers with their unique fishing tackle at-the-ready: a plastic bottle or something comparable smothered in a glue-like substance and connected to a string.

Dangling bottles and such into mailbox booty was their modus operandi. Envelopes readily stuck to the bait. What the rogues would do with their ill-gotten gains varied. It depended on the particulars of their catch. Checks mailed to utility, cable, and credit card companies were altered—a hundred dollar check made out to the phone company converted, for instance, to a one thousand dollar check made out to Freddy Felon or Rosie Reprobate. In other cases, invaluable personal information—like credit card and bank account information—was gleaned.

Nothing is sacred anymore. I remember learning at a tender age that it’s a federal crime to tamper with the mail. The United States Post Office response to this unsettling crime spree was to change the mail levers on the mailboxes to modest slots—a good idea under the circumstances. They also removed many of the boxes altogether—a not so good idea.

While out with a letter in hand a couple of days ago, I figured I’d mail it in a box I’ve utilized many times before—one directly across the entrance to the local police precinct. It’s a mailbox that happily had not been previously fished and, too, a survivor of the purge. Unfortunately, I couldn’t get to it because it was surrounded by snow and ice. No problem, I thought, another mailbox was nearby, in the direction of my errand run. However, what I discovered was that it—like so many others before—had been unceremoniously taken away.

I walked around for a bit, recalling where I believed mailboxes once stood for decades—but none were found. And this mission of mine occurred in the Bronx in the vicinity of busy Broadway and the noisy El. The bottom line: Lots and lots of people with fewer and fewer mailboxes. The local post office’s advice to neighbors one and all: Mail letters in the safety of the post office itself. Of course, walking a half-mile in the dead of winter or heat of summer to mail a birthday card isn’t always feasible for everyone.

(Photos from the personal collection of Nicholas Nigro)

Tuesday, February 14, 2017

For Whom the Bell Tolls...

Thirty-seven years ago I was a college student who worked part-time in a pet food and supplies shop called Pet Nosh. Located in the borough of Queens—in the pleasant enough, leafy neighborhood of Little Neck—my brother and a neighbor co-owned this mom-and-pop. A commute from Kingbridge in the Bronx, where we all called home, to Pet Nosh found us crossing the Throgs Neck Bridge and the East River. What little kid didn't call it the Frogs Neck Bridge? The toll at the bridge was seventy-five cents back then. A sign at the toll plaza importuned drivers to “Save time. Have Exact Change.” Fast-forward to the present and exact change isn’t—in a manner of speaking—so exact anymore. If one doesn’t have an E-ZPass, where the toll price is $5.54, it’s $8.00 to cross the bridge—in both directions. To paraphrase an old politician: $8.00 here and $8.00 there—well—pretty soon you’re talking about real money.

Speaking of tolls and the times we live in: Yesterday, I crossed the Henry Hudson Bridge from Northern Manhattan into the Bronx. Several minutes after traversing the George Washington Bridge and the Hudson River from New Jersey, this is the same bridge that placed us in the close proximity of home sweet home after my family’s many summer vacations along the Jersey Shore and visits with the maternal grandparents in Bangor, Pennsylvania. The Henry Hudson Bridge spans the Harlem River Ship Canal, which connects the Harlem River with the Hudson River. For several decades, its toll was ten cents—a thin dime even in the 1970s when the Throgs Neck Bridge was a whopping seventy-five cents—but those days are long gone.

In fact, there are no toll plazas on the Henry Hudson Bridge anymore. That’s good news for motorists, because the traffic backups—courtesy of the tolls mostly—were considerable during rush hours. Really, the bridge was not designed with today’s traffic volume in mind. It’s not, however, good for all the toll takers who lost their jobs and those who will when all of New York City’s bridges follow suit. This cashless operation is clearly the wave of the future. Either one has an E-ZPass or gets a bill in the mail for the privilege of crossing one of master builder Robert Moses’ bridges.

As far as the Henry Hudson Bridge, which opened in 1936: What was once ten cents now costs $2.54 with an E-ZPass and $5.50 without one. The world has turned upside down. We used to get discounts for paying cash. And, by the way, that ten-cent toll was advertised as temporary, until the bonds to build the bridge were paid off, which they were a long, long time ago. But Robert Moses knew a good thing when he saw it—the cash cows of bridge and tunnel tolls. For whom the bell tolls? It definitely tolls for thee.

(Photo one from the personal collection of Nicholas Nigro)

Friday, February 10, 2017

The Winter of Our Discontent

It snowed yesterday in New York City. In the part of the Bronx I call home, I’d estimate we got around five inches. Central Park in Manhattan recorded over nine inches. I was though pleased to be on the low end of the snow spectrum. As a boy, I would have exceptionally disappointed that the storm named Niko by the Weather Channel didn’t live up to all the hype—in my little snippet of the world at least. Nevertheless, shoveling five inches of heavy wet snow was no walk in the park; no Sunday picnic. And the fact that it got bitterly cold overnight seriously compounded those measly five inches. While it wasn’t exactly a winter wonderland this morning, it was quite icy. Courtesy of a ton of rock salt and calcium, the area streets were a slushy mess. Walking to and fro was not for the faint of heart.

In the snow-loving days of my distant past, unshoveled walkways didn’t give me pause. They were obstacles effortlessly overcome with a pair of good construction boots and youthful agility. That was then and this is now. Unshoveled, or minimally shoveled sidewalks, make me angry nowadays—really angry sometimes—because I look upon them as a matter of life and death. After all, an unshoveled piece of concrete can throw a big-time wrench into getting from point A to point A. And having to walk out into the Bronx streets to bypass icy stretches amounts to swapping one potential danger for another. I don’t want to get hit by an SUV on the post-snowfall narrower city streets, or meet my maker at the foot of a snowplow or salt (and calcium) spreader.

Looking on the bright side of things, this winter has been relatively benign—weather wise. But it’s other events and circumstances—beyond the fickle whims of Mother Nature—that have made this a winter of discontent for a lot of people. Surfing the New York City Department of Sanitation’s web page today, I noticed a list of holidays. I was buoyed by the fact that Monday, February 20th was classified as Washington’s Birthday, the way it once was—and should have always remained—before it morphed into the wishy-washy Presidents’ Day.

After watching three seasons of Turn, the compelling AMC series based on the best-selling book Washington’s Spies, on Netflix, I developed this insatiable urge for stuff on the Revolutionary War and the Founders. I even ordered on DVD an old PBS series from the 1990s called Liberty. And all I could think of when watching it was how far we’ve fallen. But I don’t believe we’ve fallen and can’t get up. This too shall pass, he said.

(Photos from the personal collection of Nicholas Nigro)