Saturday, February 20, 2021

No Sound and Fury


Recently, my desktop sound deserted me. It happened once before—not too long ago as a matter of fact—but I resurrected it by following one of those “How to get your sound back on Windows 7” tutorials. This time, however, my sound played hard to get—really hard to get. Finally, I had to employ the nuclear option, System Restore, returning to an earlier date when both sight and sound were all around and—eureka—they were back in tandem! But then my browser wouldn’t open and I couldn't access the Internet. So, I fast forwarded to the quietude of the present and considered my options. Perhaps it was time for a new computer. After all, I had purchased a reconditioned one ten years ago from for $125. I suppose I got my money’s worth out of it. It’s difficult, though, to part with such an old and trusted friend that rarely—in all those years—gave me trouble.

Without computer sound for a couple of weeks, I realized how much I rely on it in my day-to-living. Not only do I watch a lot of YouTube videos, but every night an Amazon Prime or Netflix program. I also missed the Recycle Bin scrunching sound. What, pray tell, was I to do in the interim between the old and new? Fortunately, I had this obsolete laptop in the closet with a DVD player and some practically obsolete DVDs, too.

Several years ago on YouTube, I encountered episodes of two old TV westerns that I had never seen: Wagon Train and Rawhide. I binge-watched them before they were removed by the Copyright Police. When these two shows debuted—in 1957 and 1959 respectively—I didn’t exist, and when they rode off into the sunset, I was three years old. Neither show ever aired in reruns on local New York stations. Bonanza, on the other hand, was rerun ad nauseum. Anyway, I was impressed. They held up rather well, I thought, and eventually bought several seasons on DVD.

For two whole weeks—while contemplating my next move—I watched various episodes of
Wagon Train. They didn’t quite hold up as well as I previously concluded. It’s the inevitable by-product of viewing contemporary period piece westerns like Godless, Deadwood, and Hell on Wheels. The happy endings—with everything tied up neatly in a bow—of every Wagon Train episode just didn’t do it for me anymore. Granted, there was still something relaxing about watching the show’s formulaic plots, but I couldn’t help but wonder about the sanitation and the body odors of every man, woman, and child on those long and often treacherous journeys through rain and wind and weather. Season after season, there were feverish, badly wounded, or otherwise seriously ill folks in bed in the wagons, but nobody, it seemed, oversaw the changing of soiled clothing and linens.

Yes, the return to normalcy has begun. Hopefully, my spanking new reconditioned desktop will last ten years like its steadfast predecessor. It certainly is faster. I had gotten so used to not especially fast that I assumed it was the norm. In other news on the normalcy front, I patronized a local diner for the first time in almost a year. Recently, the Emperor of New York State gave New York City eateries the greenlight to open at twenty-five percent capacity. They had, in fact, reopened at that capacity for a spell and got shuttered again during a virus spike in December. Next week, it’ll be thirty-five percent capacity. Do I hear fifty percent!

It was a somewhat unusual dining experience that commenced with a temperature check and the signing of their guest book—the tracer as it were. But it was the beginning of a long and winding road back to normality, I reckon. I was in that very diner on the eve of the original indoor dining ban last March 16th. Still fixated on Donald Trump a year later, my dining companion then and now wanted to rave about him some more. Enough of all that, I told him, the man’s gone and the diner is serving food indoors again. Let’s talk about the chicken parmigiana hero and fish cakes and spaghetti specials instead and, with some luck, the happier days ahead.

(Photos from the personal collection of Nicholas Nigro)    

Wednesday, February 10, 2021

The Winter Blahs

A longtime friend of the family died recently. He was a good man. His wife passed away not too long before him. She was a good woman. Their deaths triggered a distant memory. Connecting the dots back in time, I found myself resurrecting a ghost from the past—this girl called “Blah” from the old neighborhood. Well, actually, Blah wasn’t her real name and nobody ever called her that to her face. Blah was a nice enough person as I recall, but her general demeanor was—how should I put it—blah.

It was my mother who was the wind beneath the wings of this moniker. Some four decades ago, Mom described a young neighbor of ours as “blah” and it seemed so spot on that it merited a nickname that would stand the test of time. As the years passed, Blah became a young woman with a steady boyfriend who was—how should I put it—similarly blah. They were thus the Blahs—plural. Their courtship and subsequent marriage turned the notion that opposites attract on its head.

Anyway, here’s the connection to the deceased family friends. When the newly married Blahs were shopping around for their very first home, the family friends had their house on the market. Located in a suburban hamlet in neighboring Connecticut, it was still a long way from the Bronx, which is where both the Blahs and I resided. Yes, in a country with hundreds of millions of people, the Blahs ended up buying that home—a place I had visited once or twice as a boy. The family friends, who had a big family of their own, also had a swimming pool in their backyard. There weren’t too many of them in the Bronx. I don’t suppose the pool was still there when the Blahs assumed ownership of the property—it was one of those above ground, rather commonplace, circular things. Nevertheless, the moral of the story is this: It’s a very small world that we live in.

Okay, on to more contemporary winter blahs: Garbage is piling up all over town. Recent snowstorms have found the Department of Sanitation otherwise engaged. With picking up trash taking a backseat to snow removal for a spell, it’s now catch-up time. It’s pretty shocking, though, to see the mounds of garbage on sidewalks. It makes one ponder: Where does it all go? How long can we keep this up? Are those recyclables really getting recycled?

Aside from navigating around heaping helpings of refuse this morning, I passed the evergreen hedge that only a week ago—post-blizzard—was peculiarly teeming with flies. There didn’t appear to be any there today. Flies are literally here today and gone tomorrow. On my way to the bank, the best laid schemes o’ mice an’ men were thwarted by one too many snow-inspired obstacles in my path. I had to alter my course and call on a different branch, which I generally prefer to avoid, even if it is closer to home. This bank typically has a doorman at the entrance of the ATM room—a doorman holding a paper cup. Today, there were two doormen on the scene, both with paper cups. Doorman Number One rested on his walker seat, while Doorman Number Two opened and closed the ATM entrance door for customers. Last week these same men were engaged in a heated quarrel, with Doorman Number One claiming that he was there first and accusing Doorman Number Two of cutting into his take. Looks like they resolved their differences—for today anyway.

And so I part with one final memory of Blah as a girl and her family. It was commonplace back then for neighbors one and all to hang clothes out to dry on clotheslines. Blah’s mother was wont to leave clothes out for days, including during inclement weather. It was not unusual to see stiff-as-a-board shirts, pants, and underwear lifelessly hanging on their clothesline in the dead of winter, soldiering on through the slings and arrows of the season. I am left now only to wonder whether the Blahs had any children of their own and, if so, did they turn out blah, too?

(Photos from the personal collection of Nicholas Nigro)


Saturday, February 6, 2021

The Flies of February

There’s this hedge—some kind of evergreen—in the neighborhood. It is swarming with flies. Yes, in the month of February. I was, very literally, assaulted by these irritating insects as I passed by. From a fair distance, I had witnessed my mailman walk that very route before me. No doubt he was targeted, too, by the mob. Granted, the experience was not quite an Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds-style attack, but it was nevertheless as unpleasant as it was unexpected. And the time of year compounded the unpleasantness.

I was heading home from an errands’ run—just a few days after an unwelcome blizzard—and encountering myriad obstacles along the way. Somebody didn’t shovel his or her sidewalk. Okay, backtrack and locate the nearest cleared driveway. Venture then out into the street to bypass the obstruction. Walking, though, on snowstorm-narrowed streets with two-way traffic is a problem in and of itself. While New York City’s very generous salt spreading policy obviously has its benefits, there is a definite downside. You could get clipped by one of the spreaders or slip and fall on the massive amounts of rock salt on the road.

So, really, the Flies of February aren’t appreciated, particularly when they don’t keep to themselves. These irksome winged bugs don’t have a very long lifespan even in the best of times. Being hatched in the cold climes means they are in their prime and even their golden years—metaphorically speaking—without the best of summer’s stink at their disposal.

I see the Flies of February as emblematic of where we currently stand. Forty-three years ago today, I was enjoying the first of three snow days. Courtesy of the Blizzard of ’78, the high school grind came to a grinding halt for one brief shining moment. The city's Department of Sanitation didn’t throw nearly as much ice melter back then or plow the streets as often as they do now. From blizzard to blizzard, I could never have envisioned the depths of the changes in the world we call home. Jimmy Carter was the president in 1978; Joe Biden was in the Senate back then. He’s been around a long time.

I love what Senator Ben Sasse had to say upon being censured by Nebraska Republicans: “You are welcome to censure me again—but let’s be clear about why: It’s because I still believe (as you used to) that politics is not about the weird worship of one dude.” Not only were the blizzards better in 1978, but the political scene certainly was, too.

Meanwhile, on the other side of the crazy spectrum, woke insanity marches on undeterred. It’s unbelievable—and downright sad—what The New York Times, the Gray Lady, has become. If you haven’t heard the latest, search the name “Donald G. McNeil, Jr.” He was a reporter with the newspaper for a very long time. Read his apology letter for his alleged sin. The mob’s taken down another one. Does McNeil actually believe he committed a transgression? Probably not. He should, though, have gone out with his head held high, not with a coerced hostage-like confession letter.

The cudgel du jour is feeling unsafe, even—God help us—in the newspaper business. I feel unsafe, so I want you out of here, rendered null and void. This kind of thing—a new kind of McCarthyism being welcomed in journalism of all places—was not happening at The New York Times or elsewhere when that nor’easter struck with a vengeance in February 1978 and when Jimmy Carter was fifty-three, not ninety-six. Insanity to the right of me, insanity to the left of me, and the Flies in February—I say no thanks to all three.

(Photos from the personal collection of Nicholas Nigro)


Thursday, January 28, 2021

When Character Actors Had Character

Some enterprising fellow made a compilation of every guest star on every Cannon, a detective show starring William Conrad that ran from 1971 to 1976. I salute him for his efforts. Posted on YouTube, this rather impressive undertaking pieces together announcer Hank Simm’s trademark openings—for years running—of this “Quinn Martin Production.” Honestly, there were a lot of superb character actors back in the day, like Sorrell Booke, Dana Elcar, Jacqueline Scott, John Fielder, Vera Miles, and William Windom. It’s positively unsettling to absorb the fact that most of the Cannon guest stars—a show that I watched as a kid—are deceased. So many of the men and women who were busy plying their trade during my youth—familiar faces that would pop up on TV series running far and wide—are now exclusively on that great small screen in the sky.

Harold Gould guest starred on more than one Cannon. He also played Martin Morgenstern, Rhoda’s father, first on The Mary Tyler Moore Show and then on Rhoda. Gould was, too, the original Howard Cunningham in an episode of Love, American Style entitled “Love and Happy Days.” He had a Ph.D. in theater, taught classes in Cornell University, but was never credited as “Dr. Harold Gould.” But then again, he was no Dr. Jill Biden, Ed.D.

Frank Marth likewise appeared on multiple Cannon episodes. He, though, will always be that big guy from The Honeymooners. Among many roles in the series, the tall, lanky, somber-faced Marth played one of the bank robbers who held the Kramdens and Ed Norton hostage in the Kramden apartment.

Actress Cloris Leachman died this week. She was ninety-four and known for many roles in television and movies, including landlady/neighbor Phyllis on The Mary Tyler Moore Show and then Phyllis on Phyllis (1975-1977). The latter spin-off series, as I recall, was only so-so, just like Rhoda. The Phyllis character was more tolerable in smaller doses, I guess. The show nonetheless featured some recurring characters played by notable character actors of the day: Henry Jones, Carmine Caridi, and Richard Schaal. It also made a little old lady, actress Judith Lowry, a familiar face in the role of Mother Dexter. Congenial old geezer Burt Mustin played her boyfriend, Arthur Lanson, for three episodes. The pair got married in the last one: “Mother Dexter’s Wedding,” which aired on December 13, 1976. Sadly, Judith Lowry passed away a couple of weeks before the airing. Happily, Burt Mustin got to tune in. He soldiered on for another month or so after that, but couldn’t outlive Phyllis in the prime-time lineup.

Those were the days, my friends, we thought they’d never end—when we tuned in to watch Mother Dexter marry Arthur Lanson and Rhoda marry Joe Gerard. Concerning the latter coupling, the writers quickly realized what a mistake that was vis-à-vis comedic plotlines. So, Rhoda and Joe got divorced, but Rhoda never quite recovered her quipping wit from The Mary Tyler Moore Show days. Julie Kavner and Nancy Walker got most of the laughs, playing Rhoda’s sister and mother, respectively. And, as always, it was a pleasure to watch Dr. Harold Gould…in whatever role he played.

So many thespians have passed in the wake of Judith Lowry and Burt Mustin. Television is a wholly different experience nowadays. Everyday living is a wholly different experience nowadays. But there was something to be said for a “Quinn Martin Production” and the memorable intonations of Hank Simms. There was something to be said for character actors getting their due. 

Friday, January 22, 2021

Swinging the Bat

(Originally published 11/10/15. It was a simpler time for sure.)

I swung a baseball bat an awfully lot as a boy. I didn’t even have to be involved in an organized game of any kind to do it. In fact, for a few years running—I’d say from the ages of eight to ten or eleven—most of this swinging of mine was done all by my lonesome. For the record, I never swung the Louisville Slugger that I received at a New York Yankees’ “Bat Day” promotion—with its Jake Gibbs facsimile signature on it—at anyone’s head or any such thing. Rather, I played a singular version of fantasy baseball—it would seem—in the alleyway that separated my house from a next-door neighbor’s. And I wasn’t pretending to be Cleon Jones, Tommie Agee, or Ed Kranepool. No, what I did in that alleyway all those years ago was completely original and a figment of my imagination—imagine that.

I would just go out and “swing the bat”—period and end of story—for anywhere from several minutes to a couple of hours. I remember alerting my mother as to where I could be found. “I’m going out to swing the bat,” I’d say. And that’s not only what I said but what I did. The time of day didn’t matter a whit, either, but it was a seasonal thing. I’d swing that piece of lumber morning, noon, and night, too, in the summertime by and large. An older neighbor of mine—an affable dullard of a teen as I recall—was positively bewildered when he witnessed me one summer’s eve exiting the house with my bat in hand. “He’s going to play baseball in the dark!” he exclaimed. And the doofus was right. I didn’t need the light of day to play whatever it was I was playing.

Recently, I thought about “going out to swing the bat” as a kid, and wondered how that sort of thing might be received today. First of all, a kid in a Bronx alleyway with a bat in his hand—most especially at night—would be frowned upon. After all—just as they shouldn’t play with fire—kids shouldn’t play with baseball bats, either. That is, unless they are being swung under the supervision of an adult in good standing. 

I also don’t know how the act of swinging a baseball bat for hours upon hours—all alone—would be perceived on the contemporary psychiatric front. My behavior might very well be judged as aberrant, and my parents alerted to this noxious bat-swinging compulsion of mine. I’d quite possibly be prescribed some drug du jour to calm me down. You know: to take that unhealthy desire to swing the bat away from me. No more fantasy baseball. Just be a lump, stay indoors as much as possible, stare into a smartphone…and everything will be hunky-dory.

(Photo from the personal collection of Nicholas Nigro)

Wednesday, January 13, 2021

In the Year of Our Lord 1976

A month before I graduated from grammar school—in May of our bicentennial year—the entire eighth-grade class embarked on a field trip. This was the big enchilada—a reward of sorts for making it that far. And far it was in comparison with past field trips that ranged from a stroll over to the local police precinct to a subway ride downtown to Radio City Music Hall to a bus trip to a decrepit amusement park in Lake Hopatcong, New Jersey. This latest bus excursion, though, was a four-hour one to our nation’s capital, Washington, D.C.

Days before the big adventure, our principal, Sister Estelle, furnished us with the trip’s itinerary. We were poised to cram in a lot of sightseeing in a single day’s daylight minus, of course, the eight hours traveling from and back to the Bronx. Sister Estelle later remarked to a smaller group of us, which included little Mikey C, “Maybe we’ll see someone important like President Ford.” Mikey, who fancied himself a thirteen-year-old wit extraordinaire, replied, “He’s not important!” When his snarky rejoinder fell on deaf ears, he repeated it to a second resounding thud.

What I remember most about that day was assembling at the school in dawn’s early light. Down the street, the hearty staff of Bill’s Friendly Spot gathered up and assembled the new day’s various newspapers. This fortuitous set of circumstances permitted Jimmy M to have a thermos bottle filled with his drink of choice—a chocolate egg cream—for our impending long and exciting day. And, as memory serves, we didn’t see President Ford or anyone all that important, except House Speaker Carl Albert—a little known figure in those days—presiding over a rather empty chamber. We did spend an inordinate amount of time in a Capitol building gift shop with very long lines. For my grandmother and aunt, I purchased a decorative aluminum bowl that featured images of everything from the Smithsonian National Museum to the White House to the Washington Monument. Despite being a non-smoker and it having nothing to do with Washington, D.C., a skull-shaped ashtray so intrigued me that I bought it for myself. The skull sported a pair of metal glasses, which doubled as cigarette holders.

I distinctly recall walking through the impressive Capitol Rotunda in awe—a kid’s kind, especially one interested in American history and American institutions. Fast-forward almost forty-five years and a ragtag band of faux insurrectionists barreled their way through the very same hallowed halls, ostensibly to interfere with and cast aside a free and fair democratic election. Egged on by the loser of the election, it was simultaneously unprecedented and unbelievable—a disturbing visual from disturbing times. The aforementioned President Ford is reputed to have said, “If Lincoln were alive today, he’d be turning over in his grave.” He certainly would!

I consider myself fortunate that I don’t have another forty-five years to witness further erosion of American democracy and the Constitution. The genie’s out of the bottle and absolute nuttiness now travels at the speed of light. Many seemingly intelligent people—and lots of really dumb ones, too—throw in nowadays with the most preposterous conspiracy theories. So, pardon me for briefly returning to 1976, when we weren’t completely obsessed with red and blue allegiances, cult worship of unsavory demagogic politicians, and insidious woke censorship—when most people voted because it was their civic duty and then got on with their lives.

Back to Washington, D.C. back in the day: As our multiple buses pulled into Arlington Cemetery—the last leg of the day’s journey—the skies opened up big time. Courtesy of Mother Nature, we couldn’t even exit the bus to lay eyes on that Eternal Flame. A footnote here: Sister Estelle, a rather large woman, was nicknamed Sister Estell-e-phant by some, which wasn’t very nice. Yes, kids can be cruel—and adults, too. Gerald Ford certainly wouldn’t have called her that, but Donald Trump would have had no such hesitation. That about says it all, I think.

Lastly, approximately a month after our field trip of all field trips, little Mikey C hosted a graduation party in his old walk-up building apartment. Most of the apartments in the neighborhood were in old walk-ups. A couple of friends and I were invited and we turned up in jeans and sneakers, only to discover that the party was “formal.” We didn’t get the memo. Oprah would have said, “Awwwwwkward!” I must say that entering a Ralph Kramden-esque apartment and encountering a group of my peers sitting on the barren floor dressed to the nines was a rather silly spectacle. I don’t remember much else about that party, except that I didn’t have a good time. Perhaps if I was wearing my Sunday best, things might have been different. I do, though, miss those more genteel, intelligent, and quieter times.

 (Photos from the personal collection of Nicholas Nigro)

Sunday, January 3, 2021

They Said, They Said


As we begin 2021, I thought I’d offer up some random thoughts concerning this, that, and the other thing. The U.S. House of Representatives is poised to go gender-neutral and replace he and she references with “they.” So, I suppose, he got up to speak would be replaced with they got up to speak. To paraphrase a senior citizen whom I worked alongside in retail a long, long time ago: “That don’t make no sense!” He was a “he,” by the way, not a “they.” At least I think they was.

In two-and-a-half weeks The Donald Trump Show will mercifully conclude its four-year run. It’ll be the stuff of history books. And speaking of them, imagine the spate of books in the offing—from weary insiders released from their bondage. In the ensuing weeks, however, this reality show’s going to get weirder still before it rides off into the night. I don’t know why I’m both astounded and ashamed that so many prominent politicians who should know better put partisanship above country and the Constitution, but I am. When I was a youth collecting autographed pictures of senators, governors, and mayors, they were very definitely a better breed. Apparently, some of these contemporary dunderheads reason that their anti-democratic antics—and being on the wrong side of history—will aid and abet their careers. I somehow doubt that.

Okay, enough of all that. It’s worth noting that while COVID-19 has—according to the numbers—reared its ugly head again, we the people don’t appeared all that fazed. I’ll not soon forget the fledgling days of the virus spread here—ground zero at the time—in New York City. It was freak-out time for sure. Toilet paper, hand sanitizer, and soap were coveted items and hard to come by. I’ve got this image seared in my mind of local deli owners festooned in hazmat suits with cases of Poland Spring bottled water barriers in front of their counters. Fast forward ten months and these very same folks wear masks around their necks but rarely over their noses and mouths. Nevertheless, the vast, vast majority of men, women, and children are masked when making their rounds. They are taking the necessary precautions and rather serenely living their lives in what has become the new normal.

Okay, it seems to me that during past holiday seasons, some person or persons in my small circle had the flu or a very bad cold. This year, though, everyone was—relatively speaking—healthy. I guess wearing masks while grocery shopping, sitting in a doctor’s waiting room, and riding mass transit has its benefits beyond preventing the spread of COVID-19. Perhaps daily mask wearing will survive this pandemic. Sporting one in the aforementioned circumstances during the flu season certainly makes sense.

Now, on to some good news: It’s Mayor Bill de Blasio’s last year in office. Most of his wannabe successors, though, appear as bad or worse than him. Murder and mayhem have returned to the Big Apple with a vengeance this year, but reducing crime is apparently a low priority with this sorry bunch. I refer you to what I previously said about the current political class. I do, however, like Andrew Yang and voted for him in last year’s Democratic presidential primary. But that was more a demeanor thing—a non-politician among a sea of pandering politicians. Time will tell what his mayoral run looks like.

A couple of final notes: I sincerely hope that 2021 brings back bi-partisanship in comedy. In the good old days, comedians were equal opportunity destroyers, as it were. In the post-Trump era, perhaps some of them will realize that Joe Biden, too, is comic gold—an inarticulate and ancient hack pol who wasn’t the brightest bulb in the chandelier during his prime. Let’s, too, rely on science over political posturing—that means you, as well, Democrats, the party of science. Enough also of identity politics and woke insanity—less is definitely better. Honestly, I’m not holding out much hope for any of that, but it is a new year and hope is supposed to spring eternal, isn’t it—for the first week in January at least?

(Photos from the personal collection of Nicholas Nigro)

Monday, December 21, 2020

Ghost of Christmas Future: The Next Generation

Once upon a time, in the weeks leading up to Christmas, holiday specials on the small screen were must-see TV. Adults and children alike dutifully noted the day, time, and channel that Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, A Charlie Brown Christmas, and Frosty the Snowman would air on network television. After all, it wasn’t Christmas until Burl Ives—in his Rankin/Bass snowman incarnation—plowed through the powdery white, banjo in hand, and crooned, “Holly, Jolly Christmas.” It likewise wasn’t Christmas until Jimmy Durante, schnozzola—in vivid 1960s animation—gravelly croaked, “Frosty the Snowman.” All these years later, the lyrics linger: “Thumpity, thump, thump, thumpity, thump, thump. Look at Frosty go. Over the hills of snow.”

I would be remiss here not to mention How the Grinch Stole Christmas with the funny-looking but harmonious folks of Whoville, who, by the way, knew the true meaning of the day. And worth mentioning, too, is The Little Drummer Boy narrated by the somewhat forbidding “Miss Greer Garson”: "Our Storyteller" to be precise. True, “Aaron hated all people,” but that accrued rancor completely dissipated when he laid eyes on the luminescent Christ Child. Was the luminescent thing recorded in the New Testament? Anyway, Aaron witnessed his little lamb, Baba, get hit by a reckless chariot driver. The African king—among the diverse three kings of Orient that also included an Asian and an obese Caucasian—informed the grieving boy that the lamb was near death and that he could do nothing for Baba. “But you are a king,” Aaron said. “A mortal king only…but there is a king among kings,” his majesty replied while gesturing to the glowing infant in the manger. “But I do not understand,” Aaron responded. “It is not necessary that you understand!” the king answered. Understanding has its place.

Flesh and blood folks like Bing Crosby, Perry Como, and Andy Williams did annual Christmas shows as well and we awaited with bated breath for them to sing their signature yuletide songs: “White Christmas,” “Ave Maria,” and “It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year,” respectively. Even Dean Martin Christmas specials appeared for a spell. Nobody sung “Marshmallow World” like old Dino at his campy best. Comedian Bob Hope’s holiday specials regularly included—for some unknown reason—introducing the AP All-American college football team with a procession of painfully unfunny jokes like: “Leslie is so wide. When he plays he has to wear a number and a license plate.” The recurring spectacles reminded me of high school pep rallies and I could never quite establish the Christmas connection. But Bob would ultimately sing “Silver Bells” and all was forgiven.

There were also the variety-show flavors of the day back in the 1970s. Groups and individuals who hosted shows include The Carpenters, The Osmond Family, and Julie Andrews. While the music holds up well in them, the sketch comedy is excruciating to watch. Guest stars on The Carpenters: A Christmas Portrait, 1978, were Gene Kelly, Georgia Engel, Kristy McNichol, and Jimmy McNichol. Only on a TV Christmas special in the 1970s could you see a sister and brother, Kristy and Jimmy, sing “Fum Fum Fum.” I would also say that the busiest guest on holiday variety shows from that era was impersonator Rich Little, who got to do Jack Benny as Ebenezer Scrooge on The Perry Como Christmas Show, 1974. Harvey Korman performed a frenetic one-man Christmas Carol on The Carpenters at Christmas, 1977, which also included Kristy McNichol as a guest star. She must have been pretty big back then to appear in two successive Carpenters’ Christmas specials. They were simpler times for sure.

(Photos from the personal collection of Nicholas Nigro)

Saturday, December 19, 2020

Christmas 1972: Starring Celery Rolaids, Jams Onion, and Apple McCarrot

(A reprise of a holiday essay with the passing year count updated. Courtesy of the pandemic, Radio City Music Hall is shuttered this Christmas.)

Forty-eight years ago this very month, the fifth-grade class at St. John’s grammar school in the Bronx's Kingsbridge embarked on their annual field trip to Radio City Music Hall. What I remember is that we rode the subway into mid-town Manhattan—the Number 1 train—which we could see tirelessly coming and going outside our school’s east-facing windows. We saw not only the fabled Hall's "Christmas Spectacular"—at least that's what it's called now —but a full-length feature film as well. In this instance, the musical 1776. Several years later, a history teacher at Cardinal Spellman High School, Sister Josepha, remarked that this particular flick—albeit highly entertaining— contained “much too much levity” to be considered a fair rendering of the founding of our nation. And the old gal might have been on to something! After all, the historical evidence is not exactly clear that Thomas Jefferson was incapable of writing the Declaration of Independence for a spell because he “burned” at being so far, far away—and for entirely too long—from the misses. We will never know for certain because he burned all of his correspondences with her.

Anyway, fast forward almost five decades. The times have certainly changed since that exciting school field trip all those years ago. On a positive note, the subways around these parts are more efficient and indeed more comfortable than they were in the 1970s. (Contemporary photos are included with this essay.) During that colorful snapshot in time, they were pretty filthy on both the outside and the inside. Passengers, too, often sat atop the subway car’s heating source, which left no room whatsoever under the seats for briefcases, bags, and assorted accoutrements of everyday living.

Nowadays, Radio City doesn’t feature movies at Christmastime. It’s a lot more expensive as well, but then so is everything else. I’d also hazard a guess that the available chaperone pool for school field trips was much broader in 1972 than it is in 2020. Most mothers didn’t work jobs outside of the home back then. One parent’s income often sufficed, which is rarely the case today. So, when my mother volunteered her services as a chaperone, I was afforded the opportunity to select three of my classmates to accompany me under her watchful eyes. Three pals and me amounted to one-tenth of what was a class of forty baby boomers. If my arithmetic is correct, we’re talking ten chaperones per class.

The problem, though, with asking a ten-year-old boy to select a trio of companions is that he might possibly have four or five friends, and somebody would feel left out. And that’s exactly what happened! Once upon a time, our little clique of friends played this rather clever naming game—for ten-year-old kids, I'd say—where we were individually bestowed a moniker based on a food, familiar commercial product, or some combination of the two. They were supposed to sound something like our given names.

Foremost, I was Nicoban NyQuil. Nicoban was a trailblazing "quit-smoking" gum often advertised in the early 1970s. And, of course, who among us hasn’t swigged a dose or two of NyQuil at some point in time? The first two contemporaries I tapped for my Radio City Music Hall troupe were no-brainers: Celery Rolaids and Jams Onion. It was the third slot that put me on the spot because there were two strong contenders. And although I preferred one somewhat to the other, I suspected the odd man out would be wounded by my subsequent choice. And I was right—he was! When I selected Apple McCarrot to complete our foursome, Frankfurter McReynolds Wrap let me know in no uncertain terms how deeply offended he was by the slight. “I thought I was your friend," he said. Frankfurter McReynolds Wrap was my friend—and I felt really bad about it—but, then again, so was Apple McCarrot.

Nevertheless, I suspect Frankfurter ended up in another quartet that suited him just fine. Field trips to Radio City at an agog age at Christmastime transcended chaperones and insular little groups. When we returned to our regular classes the next school day, my "Language Arts" teacher, Sister Camillus, informed us what “obnoxious” meant. A catchy 1776 musical number branded John Adams as “obnoxious and disliked” within the Continental Congress of 1776. Almost two hundred years later, Sister Camillus of St. John’s grammar school stood before us as a living and breathing example of obnoxiousness. Exhibit A, yes, that the ten-year-old me never quite appreciated.

(Photos from the personal collection of Nicholas Nigro)

Thursday, December 17, 2020

The Charlie and Mama Christmas Miracle

(A reprise of an inspiring holiday essay with the passing year count updated)

Twenty-three years ago, a possible miracle occurred in the Riverdale section of the Bronx. To set the stage, my favorite local eatery had sadly changed hands. After refurbishing the place, its new owner—a man named Nick—reopened its doors. Many of the old customers returned for this second act, including a remarkably cranky old couple. No, not a husband and wife, but a seventy-year-old man and his ninety-nine-year-old mother. My frequent dining companions and I had long ago nicknamed the pair “Charlie and Mama.”

Witnessing a dutiful son lovingly caring for his aging and ailing mother is often uplifting, but it very definitely wasn’t in this case. In fact, it was downright deflating, even a bit creepy. You see, very old Mama was the embodiment of mean—looked it, sounded it, and acted it. She scolded her septuagenarian son like he was a five year old. But this was all going down in 1997—not the Roaring Twenties. Son Charlie, however, merited very little sympathy and understanding because he was an incredibly fussy, inconsiderate, and annoying man. Mother and son were frequently spotted walking the streets arm-and-arm, with antiquated Mama looking like she was a light pat away from crumbling into the dust from whence she came.

Suffice it to say the entrepreneurial-minded Nick didn’t acclimate very well to the diner milieu and its colorful cast of characters, which included bothersome eccentrics like old Mama and her insufferable son. Charlie regularly ordered a burger for his beloved mother sans the bun. Despite it saving him a hamburger roll, this request really got under Nick’s skin. But it was the three or four French fries that Charlie wanted for his mother that irked him to no end. When Charlie informed the diner's put-upon proprietor that old Mama couldn’t possible eat a regular order of fries, he didn’t say it nicely and, too, expected the sparrow’s portion to be on the house.

Eventually, the mere sight of the approaching Charlie and Mama sent Nick into spasms of rage. They came to embody everything he hated about diner irregulars, if you will. Nick desperately wanted his place to be a bona fide restaurant and not a neighborhood greasy spoon. And Charlie and Mama with their bunless burgers and three or four French fries just didn’t fit into his grand plan. Then one day, Nick overheard Mama’s anything but dulcet century-old tones saying aloud, “He’s not going to make it.” His body furiously shook, but he uttered not a word to them. Instead, he beamed hate—the genuine article—their way.

Come Christmastime, I spied a row of cards taped atop the refrigerator accommodating the Jell-O, rice pudding, and apple pie—from various food suppliers and even a handful of customers, I supposed—despite the fact that Nick was the epitome of ineptness, irascibility, and miserliness all rolled into one disagreeable package. The man had raised all the prices and reduced all of the portions in one fell swoop. The formerly considerable and otherworldly hamburgers of the previous ownership had become McDonald's-sized, flavorless, and much pricier.

While I wasn’t about to send Nick a Christmas card, I nevertheless thought it would be warm and fuzzy if he received one from his worst tormentors—Charlie and Mama. And so he did. The miracle—the Christmas miracle, actually—was that I was present when the postman delivered the card, when Nick opened it, and when he read it. I witnessed the expression on his face as he came upon the sender’s names: “Charlie and Mama.” Nick expressed uncharacteristic glee, immediately showing it to his staff. He just couldn’t believe he had received this holiday goodwill from such a sinister duo. I heard him repeat several times—to no one in particular—these two words: “Charlie and Mama.” And, I can honestly say, he had a big smile on his face the entire time.

I have long believed that my being privy to the fruits of this endeavor was divine intervention, or maybe it was because I often had breakfast there at around the time the postman knocked. Still, I’d rather believe that miracles do happen on occasion. And, as things turned out, old Mama was prescient concerning Nick’s fate. He didn’t make it.

(Photo from the personal collection of Nicholas Nigro)

Monday, December 14, 2020

Christmas in New York

(Originally published on 12/9/10. Writing about a simpler time then, I can now say—ten years later—that 2010 was likewise a simpler time.)

As kids at Christmastime, one of the Nigro boys’ favorite holiday traditions was a shopping jaunt into the big city with our Aunt Rose. She labored in midtown Manhattan’s storied Garment District for her entire working life and knew the stitches of the area, if you will, inside and out. It was the 1970s—a colorful, if a bit dirty and coarse, snapshot in time—that found us year after year, on the first or second Saturday in December, riding the then graffiti-laden, and not especially efficient, Number 1 subway train from our Bronx neighborhood into the core of the Big Apple. We exited at 34th Street, Penn Station, directly across the street from the main entrance to Macy’s—the “World’s Largest Department Store.”

We would spend hours in this sprawling, multi-floored retail edifice, particularly fascinated by the store’s famous “Cellar,” which was, and still is, renowned for its alluring aromas of countless succulent edibles, as well as wall-to-wall people and, I should add, predatory prices (some things never change). I don’t recall purchasing all that much at Macy’s. Our aunt choreographed it as a critical stopover, enabling us to soak up, first and foremost, the uniquely festive and incredibly alive Christmas in New York ambiance.

For gift buying on our wee-people budgets, more affordable locales were also on these annual itineraries, including nearby Gimbel’s (a touch cheaper than Macy’s) and, the piece-de-resistance as far as we were concerned, a mega-Woolworth’s store with an extraordinarily diverse wonderland of bargains. Hoping he would take up the hobby of converting his empty beer bottles and pickle jars into flowerpots, fish bowls, and candy dishes, I bought my father a Ronco Bottle and Jar Cutter there. He never warmed to the hobby. And to quote a familiar refrain of his: “Waste! Waste! Waste!” We sometimes did lunch at this, sadly, defunct five-and-dime chain and former retail icon.

Also on Fifth Avenue in the vicinity of Woolworth’s was a not quite as impressive epigone called Kress’s. It was Kress’s food counter that served me a hamburger and French fries platter with a sliced tomato on one of the bun’s halves. The hideously gelatinous appearance of said tomato compelled me to consume my burger with only half a bun. I just couldn’t bring myself to bite down on a tomato-contaminated piece of bread. Half a bun notwithstanding, it was—as I recall—quite delicious. And, yes, I would very likely do the same thing today (some things never change).

The back-end of our Christmas shopping trips called on Korvette’s—yet another department store chain in the ash heap of history—and Brentano’s, an independent bookstore near Rockefeller Center with a winding staircase and wooden banisters. What a unique place that was back then, before the advent of book superstores, which subsequently ran this impressive indie out of business. Seinfeld's George Costanza brought a Brentano's book with him into the bathroom.

Our shopping sprees consummated in the oncoming darkness at the foot of the Rockefeller Center Christmas tree. And, finally, after passing by Radio City Music Hall, we’d get on the train for home at 50th Street—tired but satisfied. I haven’t been to Macy’s in many, many years. Gimbel’s, Woolworth’s, Kress’s, Korvette’s, and Brentano’s are all gone with the winds of time. I don’t even make it a point to see the tree at Rockefeller Center anymore. I have no desire in being the bologna in the sandwich bread of thousands of tourists. Still, what I wouldn’t give to experience Christmas in New York again. 

Friday, December 4, 2020

Benjy's Rule in the City

When I was a young, I’d—yes—listen to the radio…waiting for my favorite songs. Well, actually, no, when I was a boy, I listened to Met games on the radio and not much else. When the games were played at home, at Shea Stadium, the loudly spewing engines from jet planes landing and taking off at nearby LaGuardia Airport were music to my ears. It supplied incredible ambiance to the storied American pastime—when it was a game—and youthful exuberance and wonder took it from there.

By the way, a visit from Kingsbridge, my Bronx neighborhood, to Shea Stadium in Flushing, Queens, was an outer borough to outer borough experience—a thirty- or so minute drive—never once dubbed a trip into the city and back. The excursion nevertheless furnished us with a bird’s-eye view of the city at the Triborough Bridge. This ever-busy locale is where three New York City boroughs come together in heavily trafficked disharmony—the Bronx, Queens, and Manhattan—hence, the bridge’s moniker. Well, no, not anymore. Politicians couldn’t leave well enough alone again and renamed the bridge the Robert F. Kennedy Bridge. Of course, most everybody, as they should, still calls it the Triborough. Anyway, I—once upon a time—referred to trips into Manhattan as “going into the city” or “going downtown.” It was part of the local vernacular. Despite the fact that the Bronx, just like Manhattan, was a borough in good standing in New York City, it was—as the song says—uptown.

In fact, “going into the city” didn’t even cover the entirety of Manhattan Island. I could walk from Kingsbridge in the Bronx to Marble Hill, several blocks away, and technically be in Manhattan, but—hilly terrain notwithstanding—that brief stroll didn’t rise to the level of being in the city. “Going into the city” or “going downtown” were more or less references to mid-town—shopping at Macy’s, seeing a play, or checking out the Rockefeller Center tree at Christmastime. Most of my youthful adventures “downtown” were in that same general vicinity, except, of course, when the family welcomed visitors from afar. For instance, when my father’s cousin from Italy turned up with her young son, it was off to the Empire State building for a long climb—my one and only—and further south to the Statue of Liberty, Wall Street, and a free ride on the Staten Island Ferry.

Actually, all these years later, I still refer to “going into the city” and “downtown.” But as time has passed, I came to appreciate that there’s a lot more to the city than mid-town and its madness. Lower Manhattan—further downtown—is worth wandering through. Last weekend—in this most wacky of moments—I executed a twofer: from Rockefeller Center to the Battery in one fell swoop. The Number 1 train made it all possible. That’s why, of course, it’s the Number 1 train.

This is the Henry Hudson Bridge that connects Northwest Manhattan with the Northwest Bronx. My forebears picnicked on the Manhattan side of the bridge—in Inwood Hill Park, a.k.a. Inwood Park—before it was even there. My father swam in the then extremely filthy, feces-laden waters. They lost their little private beach and piece of heaven when the bridge was built.
This sign is in Inwood Park—in Manhattan, but not the city—with the last vestiges of virgin forest in the borough.
Feeding the pigeons, I suppose, feeds this more aggressive than ever creature of the night and day.
Like Frosty the Snowman, the Radio City Music Hall Box Office, I'm confident, will be back again someday...maybe even in 2021.
And the Rockefeller Center Christmas tree viewing won't be employing the "Benjy Rule"—a ticket and a mere five minutes of viewing while six-feet apart.
What's the "Benjy Rule," you ask? Well, approximately forty-five years ago, a neighbor family up the street had a rare lot of green grass next to their humble abode, My grandfather, an iceman, had looked at the very same property for sale when he was considering relocating to Kingsbridge in the Bronx from Manhattan's Morningside Heights. He thought it the dream home with space for a considerable garden. But, alas, my grandfather needed a house with a rent-paying tenant to help with the mortgage and, besides, there were still some empty lots around for planting gardens. So, the place ended up the residence of some bona fide smart people—doctors who didn't practice medicine with a genius son named Benjy...
And the family had a couple of pear trees in their field of green...
One day my friend Johnny and I rang their doorbell to ask if we could pick some of the pears, which they, evidently, had no interest in picking. They were the baking kind, very hard, but we would eat them...
Anyway, son Benjy answered the door and agreed to let us pick pears but with a time constraint. "You have five minutes," he said and the man meant it. How do I know? Benjy came out exactly five minutes later and shouted, "Your five minutes are up!" And that was the end of that.
While I haven't seen it in many years, A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving was seriously underrated as a classic, somehow lost between the Halloween and Christmas specials.
Peppermint Patti shined, if memory serves, in the Thanksgiving episode. She really looked out for the ever-demeaned, often-bullied "Chuck."
Bazaar indeed...
In my younger days, Torneau Corner TV adds were ubiquitous on local television. This is the one on Sixth Avenue near Bryant Park.
President-elect Biden has said that he will encourage the citizenry to wear masks for one hundred days after his inauguration. Honestly, the vast, vast majority of us are wearing masks in buildings, supermarkets, and on public transit. The minority of buffoons who don't wear them get an inordinate amount of publicity. The big spike in COVID cases seem to correlate with the changing seasons and spending more time indoors.
In any event: Life goes on...
And three cheers for American ingenuity...and, I daresay, the free market...
For their rapid development of vaccines...
Count me in...

(Photos from the personal collection of Nicholas Nigro)