Sunday, March 26, 2017

Thoughts of Barbicide

I was in Greenwich Village yesterday morning—at brunch time as a matter of fact. In contrast with most of the month's temperatures, it was pleasantly warm—near sixty degrees—and the local hipsters were milling about in great numbers. Many of these men and women patiently waited their turns to dine in over-crowded and over-priced holes in the wall. From my perspective at least, all that waiting around spoils the dining experience. What the waiting inevitably portends is rarely pretty—dining in a sardine can with fellow sardines.

In my travels, I walked through Manhattan’s Meatpacking District, still home to an ever-decreasing number of meatpacking enterprises. Mostly, the area has morphed into a gentrified playground offering luxurious places to live—in converted slaughterhouses in many instances—and a bevy of posh restaurants and boutiques. I recall my father’s stories of watching hundreds upon hundreds of railroad freight cars carrying livestock along the Hudson River to the Meatpacking District. That’s one visual I’m happy I never witnessed. So, I can’t really say I miss the old Meatpacking District.

It’s just that New York City is fast becoming devoid of diversity and charm. And I’m not speaking of diverse peoples, but of diverse character and entrepreneurship. For example, I stumbled upon this chic, peculiarly named business called Acne Studio. I thought at first it might be the office of some dermatologist—a Dr. Zizmor epigone. After all, a dictionary definition of acne is: “The occurrence of inflamed or infected sebaceous glands in the skin; in particular, a condition characterized by red pimples on the face, prevalent chiefly among teenagers.” But no, Acne Studio wasn’t peddling $5.00 jars of Oxy face cleansing pads, but fashion instead like derby shoes with painted cap toes for $800 and $50/pair boxer briefs.  

Often in my Bronx to Manhattan adventures, I exit the train at the corner of 12th Street and Seventh Avenue. For many years, a neat row of mom-and-pop retailers greeted me on the northeast corner, including an independently owned pharmacy with a modest mortar and pestle neon sign. That same strip is now a Duane Reade chain drug store and a Subway sandwich franchise. This is the law of the jungle now.

Happily, small barbershops and locksmiths—to name a couple—are weathering the changes. Not too far from Acne Studio were two barbershops that I noticed. One was called Fellow Barbershop; the other took a page out of Shakespeare’s book and posed the immortal question: What’s in a name? The owners decided not to call it Best Barbershop or some such thing, but merely Barbershop. A barbershop by any other name would smell as sweet—or like Barbicide.

The great equalizer in this New York experience is a subway ride. It’s still a bargain and transports patrons of Acne Studio and Target alike. No special privileges here when—after pointing at the hanging zebra boards—subway conductors open their doors. It is then that we know for certain that while the stars may not be properly aligned, the subway cars most assuredly are.

(Photos two and three from the personal collection of Nicholas Nigro)

Monday, March 20, 2017

Spring Ahead

Once upon a time my brothers, playmates, and I went sleigh riding in a nearby empty lot—down a small hill into what had been, a half century or so earlier, the meandering, above-ground Tibbetts Brook. Empty lots in the Bronx are hard to come by nowadays, and so is winter merriment as far as I’m concerned. Happily, said season is officially over. Good riddance!

Tomorrow, in fact, marks a week since the big-bad blizzard that didn’t quite live up to its billing. In my neck of the woods, I’d estimate we accumulated anywhere between six and eight inches of snow and ice, which was a whole lot better than the anticipated twelve to eighteen. Still, this week’s been a real pain in the butt. It got bitterly cold in the snow’s aftermath, creating treacherous obstacle courses—for several days—in getting from point A to point B.

I’ve touched on this sore subject before. One of the biggest differences between now and when I was a callow youth on the back of a sleigh is neighborliness—plain and simple. In this day and age there is a palpable lack of consideration in the ether—on numerous fronts. Many street corners remained blocked with snow mounds and ice for days. Certain storekeepers, too, did the bare minimum in shoveling their sidewalks—enough, I guess, to avoid a summons from the Department of Sanitation. These self-interested retailers and absentee commercial property owners, who ply their trades in heavily foot-trafficked areas, made the tiniest, one-way pathways with their snow blowers. God forbid they had taken an extra ten or fifteen minutes to clear the way so that two people could walk in opposite directions, without one of them stepping up onto slippery snow and ice to let the other pass.

When I was a boy, homeowners, building supers, and storeowners not only thoroughly shoveled their own walkways, but corner passes into the street as well. Folks from the old country had a certain code back then, which is less in evidence today. I’m painting with a broad brush—perhaps—but most men and women gave thought to their neighbors who might have difficulty ascending ice walls and navigating extended stretches of slush.

Fortunately, Mother Nature has done the jobs that all too many of these inconsiderate oafs—interested in making money above all else—neglected to do. We’re now left with piles of filthy snow in the streets and puddles—lots of them—everywhere. Snowy sidewalks, busy sidewalks, dressed in week old snow is not a pleasing visual. Canines’ calling cards are ubiquitous in the snowmelt. And garbage hasn’t been picked up all week. Whenever I spy a week’s worth of garbage piling up, it amazes me that we aren’t buried in it.

Hope springs eternal, however. On the eve of spring, the New York City bus and transit fare confusingly went up with miscellaneous MetroCard changes, including a quarter spike for a one-way fare, but most of us won't pay more, I think. These kinds of moves used to be both straightforward and big news. Ditto when the post office raised the price of a first-class stamp. But when you get right down to it, forty-nine cents to mail a letter and even three dollars to ride a bus or train isn’t highway robbery. On the other hand, the tolls at New York City bridges and tunnels are—very literally—that. I’ll leave you with a spring proverb: Avoid, for peace of mind, interactions of any kind with men and women who went to the School of Hard Knocks.

(Photos from the personal collection of Nicholas Nigro)

Friday, March 17, 2017

St. Patrick's Day Musings

In the early 1970s, a hipper, more progressive education took hold in St. John’s grammar school and, I suppose, a lot of other places. I remember a lecture in the fourth or fifth grade about the evils of ethnic stereotyping. Examples of stereotypes were provided. I recall a couple of them. The one of most interest to yours truly was: Italians have dirty houses. The ten-year-old me tried in vain to explain to my parents what I learned at school that day. Suffice it to say, Ma and Pa didn’t appreciate the Italian stereotype. The paternal side of my family—including a grandmother and aunt who lived in the apartment below in a pretty clean house—was Italian.

The whole point of the lecture, of course, was that stereotypes were unfair and, in most instances, untrue. The Italians in my family circle, nonetheless, were on the defensive and singled out the many Irish families they knew with dirty houses. Kingsbridge in the Bronx, where we all called home—in clean and dirty houses both—was a predominantly Irish neighborhood in those days. My grandfather opted to live in an Irish enclave because he didn’t want my grandmother interacting with only the Italian-speaking. He figured she would better learn English kibitzing with the Irish rather than relying on her native tongue in the company of just Italians. My grandfather was a wise man. While my grandmother spoke with a heavy Italian accent all her life, she had a reasonable command of the English language. To this day, my brothers and I—in what amounts to an affectionate tribute to her—employ certain English phrases that she was wont to use. When she didn’t like a particular food, my grandmother would say, “No too good,” or “I no like a-too much.” These two patented phrases of hers are on the tip of my tongue nowadays—and they are apropos in describing more than what’s for dinner.

Really, I don’t know where the “dirty houses” stereotype originated. Were the educators afraid to touch upon genuine stereotypes—the ones that all of us were familiar—like Italians are garlic-eating greaseballs in league with organized crime. Funny, but the second example of an ethnic stereotype supplied to us in our lesson was: The Irish drink something funny. What’s that supposed to mean? Irish men and women will freely tell you what the real stereotype is—and some of them will say it’s not a stereotype at all.

I’ve known a fair share of people with drinking problems from a variety of ethnicities. My best friend’s Irish mother—who kept quite a clean house, by the way—perhaps summed it up best when she said: “The Italians are secret drinkers. The Irish like to make a show of it.” It certainly described my grandfather and father, who preferred to imbibe clandestinely in the comforts of home. My grandfather made his own wine for a spell. He kept gallon jugs of it in the closet, which he would pull out in the evenings after a hard day’s work. I was told after sampling a few glasses of the grape, he often reached for his harmonica. My grandmother “no like a-too much” this little bit of theater. Now, if all that sounds a little stereotypical—so what!

Nobody, in fact, laughed harder at Italian stereotypes roles than my father. He loved The Soprano’s. With the exception of the Corleones in The Godfather—who had a degree of nobility amidst the brutality—I don’t care much for Italian gangster-themed television shows and movies. And it’s not because I am offended at how Italians are portrayed. I just find absolute boorishness and wanton violence a bad combo.

My mother—whose maternal grandparents came from Austria and spoke German—always decorated our front door for St. Patrick’s Day and, too, made corned beef and cabbage for dinner. When my mother’s kin first settled in Allentown, Pennsylvania in the early 1900s, my grandmother reported that Irish schoolmates would say, “You Huns…go back to Germany!” When my grandfather bought his first and only home in Kingsbridge, he had to go to court to evict an Irish family in order to move his family in—and it took a couple of years. Said Irish family whispered, “The guineas are taking over.” Now, this particular family kept a dirty house and the roach infestation that greeted my grandfather, grandmother, and their three children is the stuff of legend. And so is the fact that we all lived happily ever after—friends for life regardless of stereotyping and name calling. Erin go Bragh!

(Photos from the personal collection of Nicholas Nigro)

Sunday, March 12, 2017

The Ides of March

If the current weather forecast comes to pass, on Wednesday morning—the Ides of March—I could have a foot to a foot-and-a-half of snow on the ground to shovel. And while I am well aware that New York City has had major snowstorms—blizzards in fact—in the month of March, I have been lulled into a false sense of security that this winter was going out like a lamb. I incorrectly assumed that earlier-than-usual flowering daffodils were harbingers of more serene weather tidings.

But then again, it’s the year 2017—where super-strangeness appears to be the order of the day. If I were a boy right now, I’d be super-excited about the impending big snow. And I wouldn’t, too, be concerned about a super-unhinged man living in the White House—a guy who just seems to double down on his unhinged persona with each passing day and tweet. The best part of being young, I suppose, involved not worrying about unpaid bills, serious illness, and the happenings in the wider world.  Politics, for one, ain’t what it used to be—not by a long shot. Nowadays, partisanship trumps—pardon the pun—reality. We live in a world with infinite virtual soapboxes—available to everyone, every day, and always.

I noticed recently that the IMDb website had cast asunder its discussion boards. While I never participated in any of them, I frequently perused threads. There was a lot of interesting stuff to be gleaned there—non-confrontational opinions, civilized give-and-take, and compelling trivia—but also bushel loads of bile. I sometimes think that we have been unmasked by today’s technology.

Speaking of which, I’ve been watching HBO’s Deadwood series via Amazon Prime. Admittedly, the series took a little while to grow on me—the vilest of bile factor on the small screen—but I eventually acclimated to its unrelenting brutality and relative absence of humanity. For sure, it depicts a beastly time and place—man’s inhumanity to man, and especially to woman. And I’d like to think that we’ve come a long way—a long way. But then I log on to Facebook, read commentary on news sites, and tune into cable news programs. It's enough to make me say and mean it: "Let it snow…let it snow…let it snow."

(Photos from the personal collection of Nicholas Nigro)

Monday, March 6, 2017

March Madness

Since that seventy-degrees—no jacket required—day last week, we here in New York City experienced the coldest weather of the winter. It was fourteen degrees the night before last. But if that’s the worst that Winter 2017 has to throw at us, we’ve got nothing to complain about.

When I was walking through Van Cortlandt Park a couple of mornings ago, it was in fact glove-wearing cold. The park was pretty desolate as a result. I passed a couple of hardy folks jogging, both of whom said hello to me. That sort of thing is the exception to the more familiar silence is golden rule that most of us practice. You know: Don't talk to strangers. One of the joggers—a young fellow—actually said, “Good morning, Sir"—the Bronx equivalent, I suppose, of being knighted. It’s also indicative that I’m perceived as an old guy now—an old guy strolling through the park on a cold winter’s morn. Old Guy Me couldn’t resist snapping a picture across the Van Cortlandt Park flats of the Russian Mission Residency in the nearby neighborhood of Riverdale. The Bronx White House, I call it.

Once upon a time, the month of March embodied hope and renewal for me: sprouting spring flowers, baseball players gearing up in Florida, and the slow but sure winding down of a grueling school year. But when I spied a few daffodils flowering in the park the other day, I didn’t envision happier things—like playing stickball, or getting out the baseball mitt to have a catch, or preparing to watch the Mets’ opening day. Instead, nothing! Life has become a monotonous grind. The seasons change as per the calendar, but the grind merely changes its hues.

Grind notwithstanding, at least there’s good pizza around me—walking distance always. I’ve been patronizing a place of late that has had the same family running it for half a century. Italian-Americans running a pizza parlor—now that’s a novelty! I hadn’t been in their establishment in years, but I remembered the guys from my college days—father and sons. Longstanding family businesses like theirs are increasingly hard to come by in New York City.

I guess I should include one more comforting constant vis-à-vis my college days. Manhattan College students still have a penchant for beer—cheap beer specifically. For some reason unbeknownst to me—they’ve got plenty of dorm space—the college leases several area private homes for its students. The telltale indicators of them in the houses are empty cans of Natural Light—or Natty Lights as they are affectionately called—in the garbage and outside the garbage, too. When I began my four years at that very college, the legal drinking age in New York State was eighteen; the year I graduated, 1984, it turned twenty-one. The fake ID industry thereafter flourished.

Recently, a humorous YouTube video made the rounds, playing off the fact that New York City subway conductors are required to point at a hanging black-and-white striped  zebra board when their trains come to a stop in a station. They must perform this Uncle Sam Wants You gesture before they open the train doors. I had noticed the boards in the past and speculated on their purpose, but I never observed a single conductor pointing at one. And so my mission yesterday was to stand in close proximity to a zebra board and see for myself. You are there! Mission accomplished. Missions like this are important when life becomes a slog.

I will embark on other such missions in the city where virtually every delicatessen feels it has to brand itself gourmet. Now, I’ve seen a lot of the men and women who work in these places, and Graham Kerr-types they are not. Perhaps my next mission will be to find a Graham Kerr in a New York City gourmet deli.

(Photos from the personal collection of Nicholas Nigro)