Wednesday, September 14, 2022

Never Borrow Money Needlessly...but When You Need to Borrow

(Originally published 1/27/12)

Today’s search keywords that escorted Internet surfers to my blog included “boring adult classroom,” “a really strange family,” “a water bug,” “johnny hot dog,” “pic slices of pizza,” “bowling alley signs,” “alf,” and “old burger king uniform.” If nothing else, this proves beyond a shadow of a doubt that my blog is eclectic. If fact, the search keywords included one more entry: “listen to hfc never borrow money needlessly.” It was this particular grouping of words, which I realize has little meaning to the preponderance of folks on planet Earth, that struck me most of all.

In my past blogging, I have obviously mentioned the Household Finance Corporation (HFC) jingle, which frequently played on early-1970s New York Mets' radio broadcasts. I was so into the Mets as a boy that I earned the nickname “Mr. Met.” My loyalty to that baseball team from Queens stood out in a Bronx neighborhood awash in fans of that other New York club in that other league. But this essay is not about a cross-town sports team rivalry. It’s about HFC and a commercial that still resonates in my brain. I have, on occasion, found myself singing the catchy HFC jingle in the shower and in other places, too, forty years later.

I can’t exactly explain why, but the ad was a lovely marriage of words and music that would effortlessly segue into the broadcast booth. Radio listeners would then hear the din of the stadium crowd only for several seconds. To a little kid mesmerized by the game of baseball and, too, the voices of Lindsey Nelson, Bob Murphy, and Ralph Kiner who would soon chime him, it was a beautiful sound.

The HFC jingle was uniquely harmonious in a simpler age of lending for sure: “Never borrow money needlessly, but when you need to borrow, you get more than money from HFC—more than just money—Household Finance.” To think that somebody actually wrote these lyrics and somebody else, the musical score. But that was forty years ago. Who knows where these people are today? Still, if you have an individual singing your little jingle in the shower, or somebody googling “listen to hfc never borrow money needlessly" four decades later, I’d say you, as artists, have definitely left your marks and your lives have certainly not been in vain.

Saturday, August 20, 2022

Go to the Park or Make One

Walking along the picturesque pathway from Battery Park City to Battery Park proper—which up until the mid-1960s would have placed me in the Hudson River—I encountered ominous banners on partially painted blue lampposts. The blue paint climbed the posts to the estimated storm-surge level during a “100-year storm” in 2050. Thus, on a beautiful and dry August morning in 2022, I had something to mull over—our dire future with its myriad misfortunes—and a little arithmetic to do, too. Yes, I could still be breathing in 2050, but I’d be pretty ancient with my strolling around Battery Park days in the distant rearview mirror.

Further down the same pathway put me in a pleasant piece of parkland named after a devoted public servant and the son of former three-term New York City mayor Robert F. Wagner, Jr. As I recall, Robert F. Wagner, Jr.—the son with the same name—maintained a mournful but earnest countenance. He was—by all indications—a truly dedicated and scrupulously honest man, atypical among the pandering and posturing Gotham pols of his day. Signs posted on this neatly manicured, green sliver of earth imparted a different tale of woe. Robert F. Wagner, Jr. Park, with its popular, independently owned restaurant with views of Lady Liberty and—most appreciated—a well maintained public restroom would soon be closed for extensive renovations. To address the previous signs’ portentous possibilities, the work is expected to take two years.

I Googled Robert F. Wagner Jr. Park and learned more about the plans for the new and improved Robert F. Wagner Jr. Park. It would be raised ten feet, considerably altered with less green space, and emerge resilient. Well, that’s the plan anyway. I appreciate that—when the sea is angry—that sliver of Manhattan is especially vulnerable to flooding. You don’t have to be a marine biologist to come to that conclusion.

Still, anytime a government project is proposed, it should be looked upon with a critical eye. And the neighbors should be fully apprised about the goings-on. Just around the bend of Manhattan Island from Robert F. Wagner, Jr. Park, engineers are preparing for the future’s anticipated sea-level rises. Nevertheless, the question remains: Is this makeover a necessity at this moment in time or a boondoggle—its price tag is $221 million—feathering certain people’s nests at the expense of others? For starters, I would wager that it will take more than two years to complete this transformation scheduled to commence next month. And what about the restaurant and—lest we forget—the restrooms? There’s a contented squirrel population there, as well, along with dozens of mature trees, including maples and weeping willows. The park’s only a quarter of a century old. Too young to die? Or has its time—courtesy of climate change—come? Should Robert F. Wagner, Jr. Park get with the program? Is it a matter of adapt or die a watery death down the road? I can't say for sure, but were I a squirrel, I know what my answers to the above questions would be.

(Photos from the personal collection of Nicholas Nigro)


Thursday, August 11, 2022

How 'Bout a Hamburger

It’s been there for as long as I can remember: a billboard along the El at W240th Street. Without interruption for decades, the same two businesses advertised on it: nearby McDonald’s and the car wash alongside it. While both establishments endure to this day, they have—for whatever reasons—opted out of the billboard promotion. Right now, Smashburger is pointing people their way. It’s a sign of the times, I guess. The hipper burger joint pitching their hipper burger selections to the public at large, which seems to have acquired more sophisticated tastes than when I was a kid.

I haven’t patronized Smashburger, but I did peruse their menu on GrubHub. The prices seem reasonable enough, but every one of their burger selections comes loaded with unacceptable toppings—from my culinary perspective—and the place doesn’t afford you the option to remove any of them. McDonald’s, on the other hand, does remove what I want removed from their hamburgers: chopped onions and pickles. Strange as it may seem, ordering a plain hamburger from McDonald’s was—once upon a time—a showstopper. Staff would literally remove the onions and pickles from the hamburger and not do a particularly good job at that. Nowadays, remove means don’t put them on to begin with—a simple act of omission. Years ago, though, McDonald’s burgers were conceived with chopped onions and pickles on them—or so it seemed. Of course, removing any toppings from McDonald’s regular burgers leaves you with nothing burgers, invisible between the buns. But insignificant as they are, I must say that—in moderation—they are perversely appealing. Every now and then, I conclude: It’s worth the inevitable sour stomach to follow.

In a very confined radius in the old neighborhood—a hop, skip, and a jump from one another—is now a McDonald’s, Wendy’s, and Smashburger. Something for everyone’s tastes. Turn a corner and there’s a couple of hipster joints specializing in—what else—burgers and steaks. This very area was once home to multiple bars with clienteles that weren’t averse to mixing it up from time to time on the front sidewalks. One of the eateries—a steakhouse—just recently opened. I noticed it on GrubHub and checked out the menu. A filet mignon steak—eight ounces—is $37; the porterhouse steak, $57. Both come with a side, but if you want it to be macaroni and cheese, it’ll cost you an extra $2; truffle fries, an extra $5. If you started your meal with an appetizer, like the grilled octopus, at $23, this starts adding up to real money. But it’s a night on the town, with—remember—McDonald’s, Wendy’s, and Smashburger just around the corner for the next time.

(Photos from the personal collection of Nicholas Nigro)

Saturday, August 6, 2022

The Fruitless Journey

In the fledgling days of vacationing on Cape Cod, my younger brother and I—Bronx born and bred—would venture out on what we eventually deemed “fruitless journeys.” We would hop in the car and just drive, sometimes on the more heavily trafficked Route 28, but quite often on the quieter, leafy Route 6A. Fruitless journeys serve a real purpose in life. During these excursions, there were no specific destinations or events on our itineraries. We might stop at an antique shop—not a Sotheby’s stuff place, but the junk-store kind that appealed to us—or walk an obscure nature trail, call on a flea market, or yard sale. On many occasions the drive turned out to be just that—a drive with no stopovers whatsoever.

The beauty of fruitless journeys revolves around their unrushed simplicity, spontaneity, and Zen-like pacing. I know there are people who must be doing something during their every waking hour. They can’t sit still for a nano-second and are ever on the run. Case in point from thirty-five years ago: After an exhausting four-hour-plus trip from the Bronx to Cape Cod with friends, one gal was not content to chill out for even a moment. Of course, she was not involved in any of the driving. Almost immediately upon exiting the car, she exclaimed, “Let’s do something!” The rest of us just wanted to relax with a liquid refreshment in hand for a spell. Exhale now: There is always a sense of relief after a long haul, where a pause—a mission accomplished moment to be savored—was in order. But some folks aren’t content to hit the pause button, even for a well-earned breather. Suffice it to say, the fruitless journey model had no appeal for that old friend.

As time passes, I appreciate the fruitless journeys taken more and more. In the 1950s and 1960s, it was commonplace for families to take “drives.” The fruitless journeys from this snapshot in time were as American as apple pie. An older neighbor of mine fondly remembered taking his family out on Sunday drives up Central Avenue, aka Central Park Avenue, in Yonkers. In those bygone days, it was a Northwest Bronx resident’s nearest “drive in the country” hotspot, even if it wasn’t exactly “the country.” He frequently reminisced about Patricia Murphy’s restaurant with its duck pond on the front grounds. Retracing that route today would find yourself in heavy traffic with strip malls, fast-food restaurants, and big-box retailers having long ago displaced any vestiges of country.

For what it’s worth, the fruitless journey is not the sole province of the automobile. It can be accomplished on foot as well. For decades, I met a friend in Manhattan, and we would embark on fruitless journeys. Our modus operandi involved selecting a particular area of the city—lower Manhattan, midtown, upper Manhattan, eastside or westside—with no concrete plan as to where exactly we were going or where exactly we would end up. We covered a lot of ground—fruitless to the let’s do something crowd, but anything but.

Fruitless journeys are less likely to be undertaken today. Technology with its ubiquitous devices have seen to that. Do kids even look out the windows of cars anymore? Still, I say long live the fruitless journeys. If you haven’t already, you might want to try one sometime and see where it takes you or doesn't take you.

Thursday, August 4, 2022

Dog Days and Nights Repeated

 

I haven’t been blogging much in 2022. The reason: insufficient quality time to put fingers to keyboard. That is, I’ve assumed the role of caretaker for a family elder, which has been the be-all and end-all of every one of my days this year. The abiding experience has been something akin to the movie Groundhog Day, starring Bill Murray: I woke up every morning and repeated the day, day after day after day. I valiantly endeavored to maintain a daily routine, hoping and praying there wouldn’t be any major snafus along the way, which there sometimes were. Mercifully, though, the baton has been passed—temporarily at least—and I can do a few of things that I always did.

During the past several years, I’ve witnessed first-hand what life in a facility—be it a nursing home, rehab, or hospice—is like. And it isn’t pretty. I understand some are better than others, but suffice it to say, I’ve visited a fair sampling of the bottom of the barrel with—for starters—lousy food and overuse of disinfectants whose insidious scents established residence in patients', visitors’, and staff’s hair, skin, clothes, and presumably in the not-so-fine fare served as well.

Last year, my mother landed in the rehabilitation wing of a medical complex that included various specialty clinics, a large hospital, and a nursing home. As so often is the case, the place appeared respectable on the surface. But isn’t a rehab stint supposed to accomplish some semblance of rehab? In this instance, it set the patient back months. After a bout with gout and dehydration, the task at hand was getting Ma mobile again. Diagnosis from a physical therapist: She will never walk again. Wrong! Her waking hours at this joint were spent mostly in a wheelchair staring into space.

After three full months there—until Medicare coverage ended—Mom comes home with awful pain in her feet, confused, and was dead weight. In addition, she was released with a seriously infected wound from a skin cancer, which this medical behemoth neglected to diagnose or treat in any meaningful way. Soon after the discharge, a visiting nurse took one look at the unsightly thing and said my mother belonged in a hospital ASAP.

Enjoying my newfound freedom this morning, I passed by the neighborhood Carvel ice cream store. I couldn’t help then but reflect on the passage of time and what’s in the offing for so many of us. When I was a youth, the local Carvel was a standalone shop originally owned and operated by a mother and daughter. It had a giant ice cream cone on its rooftop, window service only, and was seasonal. The building was subsequently torn down and a mini mall took its place, which includes a Carvel all these years later. The ice cream is still okay, but the unique Carvel taste of yesteryear—like so many other things—is gone, along with the reasonable prices. A famous Fudgie the Whale Carvel ice cream cake costs $49.99 and a quart of ice cream, $13.99, for delivery via GrubHub!

There were a series of tennis courts alongside the Carvel of my youth, which were cast asunder to build a McDonald’s. A McDonald’s in the neighborhood back then—the mid-1970s—was a real happening. No ordering with apps in those days gone by. No breakfast served, either. Imagine that!

Anyway, I hope the Carvel daughter took care of her Carvel mother in her sunset years. The latter seemed ancient to me while still on the job. But then again, everybody seemed older than they were in those days. She could have been in her fifties for all I know. I would hazard a guess that the daughter cared for her mother. It’s what people did once upon a time. But the question is: Who was around to care for the daughter when her time came? Who indeed? Ice cream for thought as the clock ticks.

(Photos from the personal collection of Nicholas Nigro)


Monday, July 25, 2022

Fifty-Six Years of Summer


(Originally published on 8/3/19)

Yesterday was the fortieth anniversary of Thurman Munson’s death. I wasn’t a Yankee fan—quite the opposite as a matter of fact—but it was nevertheless a real shocker and very sad day. I remember where I was—in Lavallette, New Jersey on a family vacation—when I first heard the news. My father—a Yankee fan extraordinaire from way back—was listening to a game on the radio. Sipping from a can of Schaefer Beer, he was stunned and said not a word. Munson was a hard-nosed baseball player from the old school—you don’t see his likes anymore. From my youthful perspective, baseball in the 1970s was the game’s heyday. It seemed that the summers were defined by baseball—not just the professional game, but the amateur kind as well that so many of us played in various incarnations and in various places.

Presently, I’m in the midst of a 1969 “Miracle Mets” fiftieth anniversary read-a-thon. Perfectly timed for a memoir onslaught, I’ve finished retrospectives by Art Shamsky and Ron Swoboda. Right now, I’m plowing through one by utility player Rod Gaspar, whose baseball career didn’t amount to much, but whose name will be forever linked with the Amazing Mets and history itself. I’ve got one more book in the bullpen, too: They Said It Couldn’t Be Done by sportswriter Wayne Coffey. Its subtitle: “The ’69 Mets, New York City, and the Most Astounding Season in Baseball History.”

Now, I was several weeks shy of my seventh birthday when the Mets realized that miracle in full on October 16, 1969. Soon after, I officially broke from family tradition—and most of my Bronx neighbor baseball fans—by declaring allegiance to the Mets. I don't actually remember choosing sides like I did, but I do know that in the spring of 1970 I was watching Mets' games on the family's black-and-white television set and listening to games on a radio, a gift from my godmother for my "First Holy Communion." I wanted it solely to listen to Mets' games, which totally Metsmerized me. And most of the players from the 1969 team were on that team!

Oddly enough, I do recall being in Bangor, Pennsylvania—the home of my maternal grandparents—at some point during the 1969 World Series. (That's First Street in Bangor, circa 1985, in the picture above.) We were visiting friends of my mother and a game was on television. I subsequently learned that my father lost a forty-dollar bet on the series. And that was a lot of money back then and a big deal for a family scrimping by! Of course, he bet against the Mets. My father hated the Mets with a passion just because they were the cross-town rival Mets and I would—in due time—come to hate the Yankees with equal disdain because they were the cross-town rival Yankees. And I think for other reasons, but that's another story.

As previously noted, baseball was so ingrained in our lives during those summers. On so many levels, it shaped our days and nights. It forged relationships and repeatedly tested one's fidelity. At the tenth anniversary of the 1969 World Champion Mets, the 1979 team was in last place and—when all was said and done—attendance at Shea Stadium plummeted by two million. That’s a rather precipitous fall in a very short period of time. But I remained loyal to the losers because I believed that being a fan was akin to being in a marriage—in good times and in bad—and that better days were on the horizon.

I’ve now lived through fifty-six summers. So much has changed, which is not unexpected. The game of baseball is a shadow of its former self—albeit an expensive, showy one with five-inning starting pitchers and home run hitters, who strikeout over two hundred times, making tens of millions of dollars. The cork in baseballs has been replaced by a super ball. Like countless players of his time, Rod Gaspar sampled a taste of the big leagues but was out of the game in a few years. In those days, the window of opportunity was a fleeting one for those fighting for the finite jobs. And, as things turned out, most of those guys had to find real jobs in the real world after their baseball careers.

And so goes another summer. Some of my earliest memories of this season are of fun and games —from wiffle ball to stickball to box baseball—on the concrete and asphalt of our home turf. When I was very young, a “victory garden” across the street supplied me with a portal into a past that—I didn’t realize then—would soon only be a memory. When the Mets won the World Series in 1969, the garden endured, but its days were numbered. There were a whole lot of insects around my part of the Bronx back then—lots of bees, butterflies, and ladybugs. Fifty summers later and their numbers—for a whole host of reasons—are drastically diminished.

During my first couple of summers on both Planet Earth and in the Bronx, John F. Kennedy was president. He promised that America would land a man on the moon by the end of the decade. In the summer of 1969—during that miraculous baseball season—Apollo 11 landed on the surface of the moon. My mother hung a homemade paper banner outside that read “Congratulations to Neil, Buzz, and Mike,” the astronauts Armstrong, Aldrin, and Collins. This woman who always put up such things on special occasions so fascinated the local rabbi’s wife. I’m not certain what else Mrs. Turk was referring to, but she was definitely a fan. Many summers have passed and miraculous things don't happen anymore. Not that anyone would notice anyway as they blankly stare into their devices, thumbing and thumbing and thumbing while the summers pass them by.

(Photographs from the personal collection of Nicholas Nigro)

Wednesday, July 13, 2022

This Day in History

(Originally published 7/13/13. It's now forty-five years since the lights went out at the Big Shea and throughout the big city. A footnote: The lights permanently went out at Shea Stadium in 2008.)

Thirty-six years ago tonight the lights went out at Shea Stadium. Give or take a couple of minutes, the time was 9:34 p.m. Save a handful of Rockaway, Queens neighborhoods not served by local utility Con Edison, the rest of New York City also went dark. I was not in attendance of this historic Mets’ game versus the Chicago Cubs, but I always wished I had been on what turned out to be a night to remember. I happened to be a long away from home—on a family vacation in a place called Chadwick Beach along the New Jersey Shore—and listening to the game on my favorite radio of all-time. It was a durable Christmas gift that also picked up the audio of local television stations.

I vividly remember Mets’ announcer Ralph Kiner saying that he could see cars going over the darkened Whitestone Bridge in the distance. Ralph had mistakenly called it the Throgs Neck Bridge in the past, which is not visible from the radio booth. The man, a great storyteller who is sorely missed, had a charming knack for sometimes getting things wrong.

Riveted at this blackout that I wasn’t home to enjoy—history in the making—I continued listening to the suspended game. I figured it was a temporary glitch that would soon be remedied—but it wasn’t for twenty-four hours. It didn’t take very long for the Mets’ radio station to lose its signal—several minutes—leaving me in the dark concerning the goings-on back in my hometown. Awaiting the power’s return, I subsequently learned that New York Mets’ organist Jane Jarvis plowed through her entire repertoire, and even started playing holiday carols like “Jingle Bells” and “White Christmas” to keep the fans entertained until the lights came back on, which they didn't that night.

Although not nearly as brutal as New York City’s infamous three "H" weather—hazy, hot, and humid—it was a rather steamy evening in Chadwick Beach, too. While the thermometer hovered close to one hundred degrees that day in the Big Apple, it was in the nineties in our vacation hamlet. That summer, our Bronx neighbors from just up the street shared the same shore house with us. They resided in the upper floor while we set up vacation shop in the lower half. Without air conditioning in this two-family rental, which they were accustomed to in the Bronx, it got a wee bit too hot for them a day or so prior to the blackout, and they returned home to bask in refrigerated indoor air until the heat wave broke. From their prospective, it was preferable to sweating putty balls on the New Jersey Shore. The fact that both Barnegat Bay and the Atlantic Ocean were a stone's throw away mattered little.

Ironically, as things turned out, our neighbors were back in the Bronx, instead of on vacation, when the city went dark and put their air conditioning on ice. I know they didn't see it that way, but I recall thinking how lucky they were to be back home, sweating and suffering, watching and waiting, for the lights and the air conditioners to come back on. Such was the passion of youth.

Friday, July 1, 2022

The Summers of Sam’s


(Originally published on 6/22/18)

Today is the first full day of summer. Once upon a time that distinction meant a great deal to me. For summertime in my youth—while often incredibly hot and humid—was chock full of fun, freedom, and frivolity. It little mattered that I didn’t have air conditioning in my family’s upstairs lair and that local utility Con Edison periodically zapped neighborhoods—typically the less well-to-do ones—with brownouts. In other words, our ice cubes would half melt, refreeze, and taste pretty awful at the end of the day. A cool refreshing drink during the worst dog days of summer wasn’t always possible.

While I consumed an awful lot of pizza in the fall, winter, and spring, there was something special about summertime and a place called Sam’s Pizza—a hot dog at the ballpark sort of thing. In its Kingsbridge heyday in the 1970s when I was a teen, the spot was my preferred dining establishment. A slice cost fifty and sixty cents then—a different era for pizza and just about everything else. On the hottest of hot days, there was nothing quite like dropping by for a couple of slices to go or, better yet, a couple of “Sicilians,” which cost a whopping ten cents more.

Forty years ago, Sam’s Pizza sole source of beating the heat was a small fan atop the front door. Suffice it to say, the contraption didn’t do much in combating the torridity of the Summers of Sam’s. In fact, the fan underscored the unbearable clamminess that came with the territory of peddling pizza on a busy Bronx thoroughfare in the months of June, July, August, and September.

I can vividly recall the humming of the fan on an oppressive summer’s afternoon. While my slices of pizza warmed in the oven, I perspired in the stifling interior of Sam’s while awaiting my take-out, which locals could readily detect by the grease stains on the brown paper bag. Sometimes the bags were so laden with oil, they would come apart on the street. Grease was definitely the word back then. The funny thing is that it either enhanced the fare—good grease—or took it down a peg or two. Bad grease! Bad grease and summertime were a nauseating combination.

In the good old days, George—the venerable owner of Sam’s—would prepare a rack load of pizza pies in the morning before the shop opened. This modus operandi ensured that the over-the-counter slices weren’t always the freshest. And it assumed further significance when the thermometer topped ninety degrees. But even during those sultry summers, there was nothing quite like a piping-hot-out-of-the-oven Sicilian slice from Sam’s. My younger brother and I frequently hankered for one, but knew we had to apply the “petrified” test before proceeding. Typically, this could be accomplished with a glancing visual of the Sicilian pie on the countertop. If the pie was down to a precious few rectangular slices—or had been sitting around for too many hours to count—the pizza was deemed “petrified.” Regular slices were then our only recourse. For they had a knack for surviving the sands of time and could more often than not be salvaged during the reheating. Still, it amounted to casting your fate to the summer wind.

It was definitely a hot affair in those hot times. Sam’s Pizza only sold pizza, Italian ices, and soft drinks—and eventually Jamaican beef patties—in the 1970s. Regular or Sicilian slices were the be-all and end-all. The topping possibilities were limited to extra cheese, pepperoni, sausage, mushrooms, and anchovies. There was no such thing as lasagna pizza, salad pizza, or white pizza. In fact, it always grossed me out when someone ordered a slice with mushrooms or anchovies. I’d be forced to watch George stick his hands into big cans and smother the slice with said toppings. He would then wipe them clean with a dirty rag.

Happily, I have lived to tell. And in commemoration of the Summers of Sam’s, I ordered a couple of Sicilian slices from a local pizzeria. They were pretty good as far as contemporary Sicilians go. But I can say without exaggeration that the fresh Sicilian pizza enjoyed in the Summers of Sam’s—thick, doughy, and oozing with cheese—will never be tasted again.

(Photos from the personal collection of Nicholas Nigro)

Tuesday, June 28, 2022

Happy Junior Fence Day

(Originally published on June 28, 2016. Happy Junior Fence Day!)

Today is Junior Fence Day. It is indeed and has been since I recorded the date on a piece of loose leaf paper chronicling the noteworthy events of 1978’s spring and summer. On that June 28th—a Wednesday by the way—I found myself reading the novel Jaws 2 at a front window overlooking the sidewalk below. I spied two youths—who shall remain nameless—run past and didn't give it a second thought, because in those days kids played outside all the time and did a lot of running. However, several seconds later, I saw a fellow whom we knew as “Junior Fence”—son of "Mr. Fence," of course—race by. This running game had assumed new meaning now because the boy and girl in question were thirteen and ten, respectively, and Junior Fence was a grown man in his twenties. He was a scary dude, too, with—the preponderance of the evidence concluded—a serious drug and/or alcohol problem.

I subsequently uncovered the whole truth and nothing but the truth concerning the “Great Chase” I had witnessed. The two youths had been tossing rocks atop the Fence family back porch awning, which was made of aluminum. One stone, apparently, missed its intended mark and crashed through a glass door leading into the Fence family kitchen. And the fleet-footed Junior Fence was out for blood—for justice—in a New York minute. The boy in question laid low for a while because the Fences were vigilantly on the prowl for the guilty party or parties. The little girl had been promptly exonerated when her father told Junior Fence in no uncertain terms that she was a good girl and to bug off. Fortuitously for the boy, his family went on vacation for a couple of weeks beginning on July 1st. By the time he returned to the neighborhood, the manhunt had pretty much been called off and life returned to normal.

While making my appointed rounds today, June 28, 2016, I was reminded of Junior Fence Day when a car pulled up alongside me and an angry young man got out. Coincidentally, he wanted to know if I had seen a couple of kids run past me. Evidently, they had thrown an egg at his car in the vicinity of Ewen Park, which isn’t very far from where the Junior Fence incident went down. He pointed out the splatter as Exhibit A and said he was after the juvenile delinquents. I hadn’t seen them but a couple of others seated on a nearby bench had and told him as much. Like Junior Fence thirty-eight years ago, he was hopping mad and intent on exacting justice the old-fashioned way.

Returning home after this encounter on this solemn day, I walked past a couple of school kids—a boy and a girl—and overheard a snippet of their conversation. Girl to boy: “Genesis don’t like you no more because she thinks you like Chase.” Why would anybody name a kid after a bank? Let there be light on this Junior Fence Day.

(Photo from the personal collection of Nicholas Nigro)

Sunday, June 19, 2022

Father's Day Words...

(Originally published on 6/17/12)

My father died just about four years ago. The family delivered Father’s Day cards to his hospital room—he had five kids—but he wasn’t in the least bit interested in Hallmark sentiment. He was too sick and his conscious mind was slowly but surely ebbing away.

A few days ago, I picked up a book I had purchased upon its publication in 1982. It was Norman Mailer by Hilary Mills, a biography of the prolific novelist and mercurial man about town. For reasons unknown, I just never got around to reading it over the past quarter of a century. However, I did lend it to my father—as I did hundreds of my books through the years—and he both read and enjoyed it. In fact, he read it twice because I would occasionally repeat lend some of my books to him. He often read books faster than I could add new titles to my personal library.

The paradox here is that my father was not remotely known as a lover of books or a reader of anything but the local dailies—the New York Post and Daily News—which he devoured each day. The man labored for thirty years in the James A. Farley Post Office located on 34th Street and Eighth Avenue in Manhattan. He took the Number 1 subway line to and from this sprawling edifice every single weekday, working the four to midnight shift—inhospitable times to be a straphanger. (This, by the way, is the post office with these famous words engraved on its facade: "Neither snow, nor rain, nor heat, nor gloom of night stays these couriers from swift completion of their appointed rounds.")

Nevertheless, he read oodles of books, most especially in his retirement years, on a wide range of subject matter (like his namesake son). He rarely talked about what he read, except to me on occasion—and usually only when prodded—and certainly never tried to impress others with any knowledge gained or insight gleaned, which often is a byproduct of reading about others’ lives, different times, or well-crafted works of fiction that strike a chord. I’ll never forget his pithy comment upon reading Descent from Glory: Four Generations of the John Adams Family by Paul C. Nagel, a favorite of both of ours. “That was some family,” he said.

(Photos from the personal collection of Nicholas Nigro)


Sunday, June 5, 2022

Catching the June Bug

Once upon a time, the month of June stood out from the pack. It embodied so much: long days, the school year's end, backyard barbecues, baseball in its many incarnations, and imminent summer vacations in exotic locales like the Jersey Shore and the North Fork of Long Island. Thirty years ago in June, I regularly attended a poetry open mic at a now defunct establishment called Sidekicks CafĂ©. A poet named Ron—who was especially good and the exception to the rule—recited his original verse in a soothing Southern accent, a muted cadence not typically heard in the Bronx. One poem of his repeatedly referenced the “June bug.” It was quite evocative as I recall. Brought to life was this awkward insect wandering the night, careening its way toward a light source, while rowdily crashing into countless windows and screen doors in the process.

In the beetle family, the June bug was not a sight for sore eyes. Contrarily, its nighttime companion, the lightning bug, was a welcome summer visitor. Flashing on and off as the fledgling summer days of June turned dark, few insects could compete with that light show. Meanwhile, the June bug might just as easily bump into your head as a window or screen door. I don’t imagine the creature was dangerous—not a carrier of malaria or sporting a lethal stinger—but it was gross nonetheless. Come to think of it: While the lightning bugs were impressive visuals on warm summer nights, human contact was not recommended. Their inevitable calling cards: a nasty, lingering odor not easily scrubbed away. And, too, in the bright light of day, they were rather unsightly.

June was the ultimate anticipatory month, a time to get the summer ball rolling. We had the June bug, as it were, and it impacted all ages—from those of us who waited patiently for the Good Humor man to make his daily evening rounds to the adult set who commenced with their nightly stoop sitting. Stoop sitting was an urban art form for generations. It’s still practiced to some degree, but not as extensively as when I was a boy. It supplied the ideal setting for neighborhood gossip, the perfect stopover for passersby, and furnished a ringside seat for the unexpected. Like the time a new neighbor and homeowner was seen chasing his sister down the street while uttering an extended string of profanities. I wonder what that was all about. Footnote: The man lived in the same house for fifty years before passing away last year. I don’t know whatever became of his sister, if she inherited his property, or if she's even among the living.

Just as Good Humor retired its fleet of trucks and became exclusively a supermarket brand, so many of those who caught the June bug along with me have gone the way of a funeral parlor’s laminated prayer card. It’s fair to say that I’m not quite as enamored with June as I once was. Still, the June bug lives on in nature and in many memories as well. I’ll have a grape-lemon-flavored Bon Joy Swirl please.

(Photos from the personal collection of Nicholas Nigro)

 

Thursday, May 26, 2022

Good Humor and Bad Humor in the Summertime

(Originally published on 7/21/17)

It’s officially a heat wave here in New York City—several days in a row of ninety-plus degree temperatures—and I don’t like it. I realize that I romanticize the summertime of my youth every now and then—outdoors much of the time and playing the games that little people played for generations, which, by the way, they don’t play anymore. But even as a spry and callow boy, the one-two punch of summer’s heat and humidity was never something desired and rarely, if ever, appreciated. My father’s mantra was that it—the discomforting clamminess and unhealthy air quality—was all in our heads. He didn’t realize it then, but he was a Buddhist at heart. Mind over matter.

Growing up in a seven-person household on the top floor of a three-family house with no air conditioning in the summer months was—in retrospect—pretty brutal. In the 1960s and 1970s, we experienced recurring electrical brownouts as well. During the high-consumption months of July and August, utility Con Edison’s answer to avoiding total blackouts was a brownout. The lights would flicker on the warmest nights, which was no big deal. But brownouts were especially unforgiving when it came to ice cubes. Heat, humidity, and half-frozen ice cubes with a foul taste were a familiar summertime threesome. On some of the cruelest of summer eves, an ice-cold drink wasn’t even an option.

Nevertheless, those were the days. Regardless of the temperature or relative humidity of a summer’s day, stoop sitting was a hallowed evening ritual, as well as—for a spell of time—a Good Humor truck passing by. This daily happening provided a brief respite from the heat, particularly if something icy was purchased like a watery, cola-flavored Italian ice, lemon-grape rocket pop, or lemon-grape Bon-Joy swirl. Lemon-grape was a winning combination.

First there was Larry the Good Humor Man, who drove the classic little truck that required him to step outside and pluck the ice cream from its back-of-the-cab freezer. And then there was Rod the Good Humor Man, who conducted business in a stand-inside truck. Apparently, Rod lived in the neighborhood. He would see us playing during the Good Humor off-season—parts of fall, spring, and the entire winter. So he said. Concentrating on grocery sales alone, Good Humor sold off its fleet of trucks in 1976. And that was the end of that! I see the present owners of the brand recently resurrected the ice cream truck and—along with it—the ice cream man and woman. I suspect they are stationed at parks and such, where ice cream vendors are still spotted. But chumming for business on neighborhood side streets? I doubt it. If a Good Humor Man materialized around these parts, he would find few kids playing outside in the hottest of weather. And as for off-duty sightings during the winter months—fuggeaboutit!

Epilogue: Larry the Good Humor Man was last seen driving a New York City yellow cab. Oh, but that was more than forty years ago. And Rod the Good Humor Man suffered a heart attack in the mid-1970s and lived to tell. I don’t know how or why I know that. I guess Rod told us at some point. Oh, but that, too, was more than four decades ago. Larry, as I recall, was on the younger side as a Good Humor Man, so he might still be among the living, but he would be pushing eighty by now. If he’s still extant, I hope he’s in good humor. Rod, I fear, is more likely among the angels. With any luck, he’s ringing the celestial equivalent of his Good Humor truck bells, an inviting sound for countless living and dead souls who bought ice cream on steamy New York City nights a long time ago.

(Photos from the personal collection of Nicholas Nigro)

Sunday, May 22, 2022

A Bohack's Injection

(Originally published 7/22/10)

While combing through a box load of miscellaneous relics from the past, I came upon a Bohack's supermarket matchbook. Bohack's stores were a New York City chain that went the way of the dodo bird sometime in the mid-1970s. In fact, there was a Bohack's a block away from where I grew up. It operated for many years on the southeast corner of Tibbett Avenue and West 231st Street in the Bronx. And after the Bohack's brand fell by the wayside, a Sloan’s supermarket took over the spot, then a C-Town, and then a Sloan’s again. Today, a health and fitness club conducts business on this formerly hallowed ground.

The Bohack's matchbook find lit a fire in my memory bank. Bohack's is where a sixteen-year-old friend and neighbor, my fifteen-year-old brother, and yours truly, not yet thirteen, shopped for our August 1975 camping trip to Harriman State Park, which is an hour or so north of New York City.

My brother, a Boy Scout at the time, purportedly knew the park's terrain and various nooks and crannies from past scouting trips. He was, for all intents and purposes, our fearless leader. We had the Boy Scout's handbook with us, too. And since this adventure of ours wasn't choreographed as a survival mission, we brought along a box of Bohack's matches, just in case the rubbing of two sticks together didn't do the trick.

To make a long story short: Dad dropped us off in an undisclosed location—an obscure, dead-end road somewhere on the periphery of a picturesque village called Sloatsburg. This spot admirably functioned as our portal into the forestland, where we had every intention of spending three full days and nights camped out under the stars on some off-the-beaten trail in the woods, and not some sissy campground. Unfortunately, we neglected to consult the weather bureau before our excursion, and day two in the great outdoors featured the heaviest rainstorm of the entire summer. Luckily, we had our Bohack's bounty with us: hot dogs, bread for peanut butter sandwiches, and Milky Way bars for snacks. While drowning in a flash flood or mudslide was always a possibility, we weren't about to starve to death.

We also brought along a radio, so we knew what was happening in the outside world. Yogi Berra was fired as the New York Mets manager on August 5th while we were one with nature.  Rumors were that Brooklyn Dodgers great, Hall of Famer Roy Campanella, was his imminent replacement, despite being confined to a wheelchair. We had no cell phones. These devices were still a quarter of a century away from being in the hands, ears, and pockets of the multitudes. So, if anything, God forbid, happened to one of us, a long and meandering haul to find help would have been required. And, worse still, if a Jeffrey Dahmer-guy materialized, we were toast and could have effortlessly been disposed of sans a trace that we lived and breathed, except perhaps for a few Milky Way wrappers.

It was unquestionably a simpler time to be both alive and a kid. Nowadays, it's hard to conceive of parents permitting their teens to experience such a walk on the wild side—with or without a means of communication. Anyway, the footnote to this tale is that our respective fathers rescued us a day earlier than the scheduled pick up, surmising that the monsoonal rains had put a serious damper on things. Fathers knew best in this instance. And no social workers showed up at our doors, either, to place us in foster homes. 

Thirty-five years have now passed since this camping trip of a lifetime. It was the one and only time that I bedded down on roots and tubers, slept under both stars and rain clouds, and employed a decomposing log—home to a colony of ants and community of roly-poly bugs—as a toilet seat.

(Photo from the personal collection of Nicholas Nigro)

Thursday, May 12, 2022

Freddie McFlicker


(Originally published on 4/10/18)

This essay is a reprise from a year ago. And during this revolution around the Sun, Freddie went missing for a spell. I eventually spied him looking quite thin and jelly-legged—almost unrecognizable. A major medical moment, I surmised. Now Freddie's disappeared once more and I wonder if I'll ever see him again. I miss him. Life in a breadcrumb.)

There’s this little patch of land that’s considered part of Van Cortlandt Park. In fact, it’s called “Van Cortlandt’s Tail” because it’s at the park’s far end—or beginning from where I sit. And speaking of sitting, this tail section of the park is a circle—or a horseshoe might be more apt—of benches. That’s pretty much it. Sure, it’s got a tall evergreen in its center, which is decorated every Christmas. And right now it’s festooned with tulips and past-their-prime daffodils.

It’s a piece of earth—well, asphalt mostly—that I passed by regularly for decades. Since I was a boy as a matter of fact. It was a place that I couldn’t conceive of ever hanging out in—for any reason. There was no conceivable need. Why would I want to sit on a bench that overlooks the El and the noisy Number 1 trains repeatedly coming home to port and heading out on their Manhattan-bound returns.

Life, though, is full of surprises. Nowadays, I find myself in Van Cortlandt’s Tail quite frequently to rest my weary bones. I find the coming-and-going of earsplitting trains almost soothing. It’s the urban equivalent, I guess, of going down to the harbor and watching the boats come in and out. 

Several blocks south of the tail is another small snippet of land with New York City park designation. When all of us were growing up—in the non-politically correct, freer 1970s—it was known as the “Bum Park.” Not nice—yes—but suffice it to say the place attracted some unsavory characters, many of whom were down on their luck.

Van Cortandt’s Tail is not quite the Bum Park North, but it hosts its fair share of characters, including a man I have not-so-affectionately dubbed Freddie McFlicker. I see him regularly roaming the area, sometimes eating a sandwich and other times with a small bag of bread scraps to feed the birds. But there is something very dark about old Freddie. He flicks one crumb at a time and watches—with sadistic delight no doubt—the birds battle over it. He lives in a nearby building, I think, and my detective work surmises that he is unmarried and has abused alcohol at one time or another. He wears an angry face and doesn’t fraternize with anyone but the birds.

Strangely, I’ve come to despise the mere sight of him. All of us, I suspect, have a Freddie McFlicker or two or three in our lives. The bird feeding bit speaks volumes to me. I’ve also noticed that he has a preferred bench. It’s where, coincidentally, I like sitting. The bench is at the beginning of the tail, so you’re never surrounded by people and a quick, unobtrusive exit is always possible.

Well, today, I was sitting on Freddie’s bench—the only one in the whole tail until Freddie in the flesh appeared. There were dozens of empty benches to choose from. But what does Freddie do? He sits on the one right beside me and commences eating his lunch. I could feel hostility in the air. I wanted to get up right away in protest—in disgust—but decided I couldn’t let Freddie McFlicker win this round. So, I stayed for a bit and finally exited the tail, leaving sneering old Freddie alone with his half-eaten sandwich and maybe a few crumbs to be flicked to the birds. He muttered something as I left, but I don’t know if it was meant for me or his feathered friends.

(Photos from the personal collection of Nicholas Nigro)

Tuesday, May 10, 2022

A Spring in My Step

(Originally published 4/16/19)

To give or not to give—that is the question?  I give a dollar or two—and occasionally more—to many of the panhandlers I encounter in my travels. Anyone, though, with a political or race-charged rant is out of luck. Honestly, it would be impossible to give to all—or even most—considering the staggering numbers of them on the unforgiving city streets and in the dusty recesses of the subway system.
                       
There are some folks I know who just say no—period and end of story. It’s like a religion to them. They claim that such generosity does more harm than good. God forbid the recipients buy booze or some illegal substance with their windfalls. And that may, in fact, occur in a fair share of instances. So what if it does? I give with no strings attached. There’s this one rather sanctimonious fellow in my life circle who claims he only gives money to the men and women who don’t ask for it. This guy’s a political liberal. On the other end of the political spectrum, of course, there are the conservative-minded who absolutely believe that those on hard times need only to pull themselves up by their bootstraps and find employment.

I had all of this on my mind and more as I ascended the staircase of the Van Cortlandt Park subway terminal this past Saturday. A figure whom I'd seen before loomed large at its apex. He wasn’t New York City transit’s equivalent of a Wal-Mart greeter. No, the man was looking for a handout. I gave him two dollars and he replied, “You made my day!” I really hope I did. And I don’t care how he spent the money. Shortly thereafter on the platform proper, I spied this elderly woman—whom I’d also spotted before—rifling through the trash cans. She, though, never asks for money. It’s a very sorry spectacle but par for the course in that milieu. On the train a little while later was that lady with the empty mayonnaise jar. Her shtick never varies: HIV-positive, infant daughter, and no food in the refrigerator until payday, which is invariably two weeks away. I can't say for certain that her talking points would pass a fact check. But permit me to borrow from Oprah here: What I know for sure is that her getting a job is not possible and, too, wouldn’t likely solve her myriad problems.

Later, I encountered a woman sitting in a sea of rags, bags, and newspapers on a sidewalk in the environs of Penn Station. She was getting up there in the years and quite filthy. “I know…that’s right…look at me…I’m disgusting!” she bellowed to uncomfortable passersby. I wondered if that acquaintance of mine with the policy of giving to those who don’t ask for money would have given this old lady some. She didn’t ask for any.

On my train ride home, a young woman delivered a spiel that mentioned—among other things—an urgent need to purchase sanitary napkins. I tuned out of the further particulars and gave her two dollars. She returned later in the trip and repeated the same rather disjointed appeal, sanitary napkins and all. The gal also spoke directly to a passenger whom I naturally assumed was having the bite put on him. So, I was genuinely surprised to see the two of them leave the train together. Were they a grifting duo? Whatever...playing judge, jury, and executioner in these circumstances is not for me. Now, on to more benign encounters and observations from the weekend and week that was.
Seated on a bench opposite this stand, a woman mistook me for the fruit-and-vegetable vendor. She must not be from New York, I thought. Maybe forty years ago...
"Look up in the sky. It's a bird. It's a plane. It's Superman."
I've noticed increasing numbers of iron fences around sidewalk flower beds. Take my word for it, there's a three-sided fence around this one. Without them they would be poop decks for sure. 
And tiptoe though the tulips with me...  
There's graffiti and there's this. One is bad and the other is good.
It's impossible to walk the streets of Manhattan without encountering the latest casualty of a greedy landlord. Say it ain't so: Cafe Water is no more.
There is the Narcissus that I can't get enough of and the Narcissist that I wish would vanish altogether.
One hundred years ago at this very spot stood an El and a lot of wide-open spaces.
The ravages of time: The El endures; the wide-open spaces do not.
New York City politicians are considering banning single-use plastics, which wouldn't be such a bad thing. Trees may flower in spring around here, but they are adorned with plastics all year long.
I have to say that of these three businesses, my vote goes to the Great Wall for the best name.
I noticed on Facebook this week complaints about New York City planting trees that uproot sidewalks, which, in turn, compel both homeowners and business owners to repair them and pay for the work. While I'm not a fan of bureaucratic overreach, I'm glad the aforementioned owners don't have the power to chop down sidewalk trees at will. If they could, I fear we would be living in an absolute concrete and asphalt jungle.
Hey, fella, you don't know what you're missing. 
Something to always remember: There is always light in the middle of the tunnel.
I observed a group of tourists for a spell. One fellow in the mix was hopelessly lost in his smartphone the entire time. I wanted to say: "Stop! Look around! What's the point of coming here if you don't!" 
And, while you're at it, look out for Number One.
When I was a youth, New York City's garbage was largely consigned to landfills located in New York City. There was one in the East Bronx. Now they are all closed and it's garbage in and garbage out.
To end on a positive note: While they are a dying breed for sure in these parts, there are still some good diners around. You just have to know where to look.

(Photos from the personal collection of Nicholas Nigro)