Thursday, January 13, 2022

The Return to Normalcy on Hold

 It’s been a zany, alarming, disheartening few years. Anxiously we await a Warren G. Harding-style “Return to Normalcy.” I foolishly assumed that’s why we elected old Joe Biden. He was packaged as the anti-Trump, which was qualification enough in 2020. Despite my long-held belief that the man was a not-very-intelligent hack, political weathervane, and incoherent blowhard on his best days, I voted for him anyway. But after yesterday’s hyperventilating, dishonest, demagogic speech in Georgia on "voting suppression," I realized—actually, I’ve known it for quite some time—that he is no Warren Harding or Gerald Ford for that matter. Not by a long shot!

On August 9, 1974, Gerald Ford was sworn in as president a few minutes past the noon hour. I was eleven years old at the time and visiting my maternal grandparents in bologna country, leafy Bangor, Pennsylvania. Richard Nixon had delivered his resignation speech the previous night. My adolescence notwithstanding, I was fully aware that the Watergate scandal was a big deal, and that the citizenry at large were fixated on it. But this momentous day in history occurred in an age before Twitter, 24/7 cable television, and free speech zones on college campuses. So, for the average Tom, Dick, and Harriet, it wasn’t quite all consuming.

Still, I remember the relief felt by many Americans as Ford delivered what was, in essence, his inaugural address in the East Room of the White House. It was succinct, self-effacing, and reassuring. “Our long national nightmare is over,” he intoned. Ford was the anti-Nixon and lived up to the billing—the only president to assume office not having been elected by we the people. Upon Vice President Spiro Agnew’s ignominious resignation, he was appointed by Richard Nixon to fill the vacancy and—as instructed by the 25th Amendment to the Constitution—confirmed by both houses of the Congress. “The Constitution works,” Ford also said on that solemn afternoon. Yes, it really does. If only the craven, short-sighted politicians of today could see that.

But it’s a vastly different time and place. My mother pointed out that Mr. Ford looked somewhat like her dad, my grandfather, all those years ago. I could see the resemblance, but there the similarities ended. No, it’s 1974 by a long shot! I was further reminded of this fact while shuttling back and forth in a car service this past week. One driver’s GPS spoke in a sensuous woman’s voice: “Turn ri-iiight. Turn le-eeeft.” Listening to these commands for a half hour was slow torture. Seems, too, that GPS has a mind of its own—sensuous or all business, it doesn’t matter—particularly on local back streets. I was dropped off on the street to the west of me, and another time on the street to the east of me. One driver whizzed past my address before I could holler, “Stop!”—you know, like the policeman in Frosty the Snowman. (The Microsoft Word editor suggested I be more inclusive and say, “police officer.”)

No, it’s not 1974 by a long shot! Visiting a patient in a hospital required me filling out a form on my smartphone. It was a real hassle. Approval was then sent to my e-mail address, which I had to access to show a receptionist. That was a hassle, too. I assume there are a fair percentage of folks without a smartphone or with one and not especially proficient in navigating it like me. Nevertheless, I made it from point A to point B and then had to show my vaccination card and ID to advance to point C.

So, what’s the big deal about presenting an ID when voting? This isn’t the 1950s or 1960s. An ID is essential nowadays for every adult with a pulse. Recently, I had to display mine when purchasing a bottle of Nyquil cold medicine. It’s manufactured hysteria for the Twitter rabble and blathering talking heads obsessed with politics and their respective agendas.

Sadly, the Gerald Ford tonic is no longer available. Its expiration date having long expired. Oh, and New York City pols want non-citizens to have a say in municipal elections. A thirty-day residency requirement is all they ask. What could possibly go wrong? A whole lot more, I fear. Our Long National Nightmare 2.0 is not over and a “Return to Normalcy” seems unlikely anytime soon. Why? Because it’s not 1974 by a long shot!

Tuesday, January 11, 2022

Just Like Rip Van Winkle

A couple of weeks prior to Christmas 1999, I brought a package to a private mailing outlet that I frequently patronized. The local post office is the pits! On this occasion, the shop’s proprietor and I discussed the impending year 2000. “Remember,” he asked, “how we used to calculate how old we would be in the year 2000?” Funny, but I did recall doing such math at some point in my youth. You know, when I felt immortal and impervious to the slings and arrows of life.

The new century seemed so far, far away back then. So far, in fact, that it appeared as a mirage, something that was just too distant to ever come to pass. But come to pass it did—and then some—and it’s been pretty much all downhill since. Well, not all downhill. I am grateful for Amazon Prime and Netflix. I just binge-watched Cobra Kai season four on the latter and will be watching Wycliffe for a second time on the former. Wycliffe is a 1990s British detective series based on novels by W.J. Burley. It’s pre-Internet and cell phones, and the lead detective has minimal angst to contend with—his personal life isn’t an unfolding soap opera—which is a welcome change in the genre. Granted, there are a lot of uber-angst laden policemen, like Luther, which I enjoyed as well.

Not very long after my philosophical confab with the postmaster-entrepreneur, I visited a friend in Manhattan on New Year’s Eve day 1999. When we parted ways at the 72nd Street subway station entrance, I said to him, “I’ll see you in the next century…century (fade out).” I solemnly uttered the sentence with a distinct accent, reprising the words and manner of Doctor Farwell played by actor Oscar Beregi in The Twilight Zone episode “The Rip Van Winkle Caper.”

Plot: The mastermind, Farwell, and his cohorts hijack a train load of gold on its way to Fort Knox. The plan: Put everyone in his aberrant entourage to sleep for one hundred years and—when the heat is off—wake up free to spend their ill-gotten gains as extremely rich men. The chief problem with the plan—ingenious as it was—is that the future is an unknown quantity. Farwell and company smell the coffee in 2061 all right, which is only thirty-nine years from now. But that world is full of people driving George Jetson-type Teslas and sporting minimalist-futuristic apparel. The gold bullion, by the way, is worthless, because in the intervening one hundred years, humans found a way to manufacturer the stuff.

Doc Farwell in 1961, of course, didn’t take into account things like climate change. Had he made it out of Death Valley alive—which is where the gang slumbered for a century—he’d no doubt have been surprised how different his home of state of California was and the country at large, too. A lesson here: The Big Brain figured out how to put people to sleep—with all the body functions in suspended animation—but was like a helpless child in a new world full of new things and new attitudes. Think of all the newfangled technology that would have been at his fingertips had he made it out of the desert. God only knows what the technology will be like in 2061.

So, why not? Let me calculate my age in 2061. Oh, never mind: I’ll be dead as a doornail then. And considering what I see happening in the here and now on so many fronts, there are worse things than that. Personally, I believe Farwell would have done better to go back in time to 1860, so long as he avoided combat, typhoid fever, and dysentery.

Friday, December 24, 2021

Christmas Eve Traditions and Memories

(Originally published 12/22/12)

For a lot of people, Christmas comes attached to a healthy dose of melancholy intermingled with all the colorful lights, festive music, and hustle and bustle. As a boy I could never conceive of why one single person wouldn’t welcome Christmas with open arms and a happy heart. For me, its one-two punch of anticipation and excitement truly made Christmas “the most wonderful time of the year.” But now with my youthful exuberance pretty much spent, and so many key Christmas players no longer on the scene, the season just isn’t what it once was—and I understand completely.

Once upon a time Christmas Eve meant gathering with the cousins, exchanging gifts, and enjoying a traditional Italian dinner featuring Spaghetti Aglio e Olio—garlic and oil—and multiple fish dishes. I believe the official tradition calls for seven, but we never quite reached that number with fried eels, baccalà (salted cod) salad, boiled shrimp, and calamari (squid) in tomato sauce rounding out the menu. Honestly, I can’t say I ever relished this particular fishy mélange, but my grandmother had a knack for making just about everything as good as it could possibly be—really. Fish, in fact, were very hard to come by in my grandmother’s hometown of Castlemezzano in the rocky mountains of Southern Italy. Her village was pretty poor and accustomed to the humblest of fish fare, and the tradition crossed the ocean. There were no swordfish steaks, lobster tails, or sushi on our Christmas Eve tables. Actually, her spaghetti was more than enough for me on this one night a year. I would sample an eel or two, which were peculiarly edible, and a few benign shrimp as well—but that was the long and short of my seafood intake.

The image of my grandmother preparing Christmas Eve dinners, with a mother lode of cooking oil at her disposal, is seared in my memory. Interestingly, though, it isn't olive oil I recall but peanut oil—in big gallon tins. It seems that during World War II, olive oil was pretty hard to come by and—when available—too expensive, so my grandmother substituted with Planter’s peanut oil. It was comparatively cheap and, as it turned out, tasty enough to pass muster. She purchased it at the Arthur Avenue retail market in the Bronx’s "Little Italy." Times have changed. Peanut oil is now hard to come by and pretty expensive when you do find it.

The Christmas Eve tradition endures—I think we’ve even reached the magic number of seven fish—but the memories do too of genuinely exciting times from the past and the people who made them so. There is a definitely a downside in having exceptionally fond memories of what once was and is no more.

(Photo from the personal collection of Nicholas Nigro)

Sunday, December 19, 2021

The Polar Local

One of my fondest childhood memories is Christmas shopping “downtown,” as we called it. It was an annual tradition in early December during that colorful snapshot in time: the 1970s. My brothers and I would accompany my aunt on a subway ride to 34th Street—yes, where the miracle occurred. We would exit on Seventh Avenue directly across the street from the main entrance to Macy’s, the “World’s Largest Department Store.”

We would then commence our long, but exciting day by descending to Macy’s renowned Cellar, a wonderland of pleasing sights, sounds, and smells. After plowing through many of the store’s upper levels as well, we would make a beeline to nearby Gimbel’s, not the world's largest department store, but pretty big. Later, we would visit the “big Woolworth’s” on Fifth Avenue, which was, in fact, quite sprawling with an unforgettable fragrancea peculiar amalgam of scents from the kitchen, candies, soaps, and everything else in the store, which covered a lot of ground . There was Brentano’s bookstore with its winding wooden staircase, a book “superstore” before there was such a thing. S.H. Kress’s, a Woolworth’s clone, was the place we would chow down—hamburgers and fries at a circular counter with barstools. What more could a kid ask for? Post-repast would find us at Korvette’s department store and ever-closer to St. Patrick’s Cathedral and Rockefeller Center with that—must see—big tree. Our trip was meticulously timed for us to lay eyes on the tree as the five o’clock hour approached and darkness set in.

While the first leg of our journeys from yesteryear, Macy’s, and the last leg, the Rockefeller Center tree, remain, just about everything in between has changed. There are no more stores like Woolworth’s, S.H. Kress’s, and Brentano’s. Where we once tread is now quite gentrified and the shopping choices reflect that. I wasn’t retracing my steps yesterday or last week for that matter. Instead, I ventured to lower Manhattan, which we rarely visited as kids. Christmas in New York is still something to see, but it’s worth broadening the field a little. There’s a lot more to New York than mid-town.

Then as now, I took the Polar Express—actually, the Number 1 local—into Manhattan these past couple of weeks to sample New York at Christmastime. And while there always has been homeless, assorted lunatics, and panhandlers on the trains and in the stations, the numbers of them have skyrocketed. Yesterday, a fellow entered the subway car with two Santa Claus-sized sacks of recyclable bottles and cans. He didn’t appear homeless as he talked and texted on his smartphone, but he came across as unsavory and more than a bit off. This guy didn’t concern his fellow passengers until he lit up a cigarette. When a person does that in a closed underground setting, the oxygen level dramatically plummets. Coincidentally, another chap popped in and likewise lit up—the perils in riding in the last car on an uptown trip. As there was a menacing air about him, I exited the car and waited for the next train. Who needs all that?

Across the station from me during this eight-minute interval between trains was an individual rambling on a phone to someone or babbling on to himself—it was hard to tell. He was, however, saying the darndest things. I won’t go into details, but he had a lot to say about drug use. The man had sampled them all. After hearing a Whoopi Goldberg COVID-19 public service announcement alerting us that masks were still required while riding New York City mass transit, he changed course. Suffice it to say, he didn’t approve of the comedienne’s appearance and wouldn’t you-know-what with her if she was the last woman on earth. In fact, he would seek out a gentleman before her. Granted, it wasn’t quite on par with the Radio City Christmas Spectacular, whose remaining shows have been cancelled due to a major spike in the citizenry testing positive for the virus. But it’s nonetheless unavoidably part of my Christmas in the City adventures in 2021.        

(Photos from the personal collection of Nicholas Nigro)

Monday, December 13, 2021

The Bohack Premium Beer Can Parable

As the years whiz by and increasing numbers of people in my life pass along, I can’t help but contemplate my stuff. Yes, my stuff—my lifetime of accumulation—and what will become of it. I would like very much that my Bohack Premium Beer can, which I purchased on eBay several years ago, go to someone, somewhere who would appreciate it. After all, it’s not merely a tin can, it’s a piece of history. My earliest memory of a supermarket is of the Bohack’s down the street. Bohack’s was a New York City chain in the compost heap of history by 1977. Oh, once upon a time, my paternal grandfather collected compost from the grocery store’s garbage for use in his “victory garden.” Simpler times for sure!

But as I’ve recently participated in the clearing out of an estate’s things, I see that the recycling blue bag and the garden-variety trashcan is where so much stuff ends up. It’s a sorry final resting place that underscores how life is so fleeting with very little staying power. I have assorted collectibles and miscellaneous ephemera that have great meaning to me, but not to very many others in my life circle. And the individuals most likely to understand the sentimental value of my myriad stuff—never mind the dollar value—are my family contemporaries. The problem, though, is that they have a lot of stuff on their plates and now is not the time to assume more of it, like a Bohack Premium Beer can.

Yes, it’s Christmas, a holiday that through the years compounded our stuff inventories. For example, I have saved the board of the Parkers Brothers game Landslide. Outside of Monopoly, Landslide was the most popular game in my household—among my brothers, friends, and me at least. The goal of Landslide was to reach or surpass 270 electoral votes and declare victory in a presidential election. It was not only an exciting game but a valuable lesson in civics, too. I loved the sport of politics as a kid and beyond, but not so much anymore in these hyper-partisan, wacky times.

The Landslide board featured a map of United States with the individual states noted along with their electoral college vote total. At the time, New York State boasted forty-one electoral votes, topped only by California’s forty-five. Florida tallied up only seventeen back in 1971, the year I received my favorite board game as a Christmas gift. Yes, I recently contemplated that old game board of mine and its destiny. I wondered what would become of it. Really, it shouldn’t end up in the trash, but—the truth be told—not everyone will see the value and the history in that half-century-old gem. I can honestly say that I won’t be getting anything like Landslide this Christmas. I give and receive presents now that are mostly edible and drinkable. No more stuff to be tossed away at a time growing increasingly closer.

Oh, I was in Manhattan yesterday, down in the financial district. The New York Stock Exchange erects a big tree every year that is not only chock full of lights but ornaments as well. There were plenty of tourists around but nothing like the teeming masses at Rockefeller Center. Christmas in New York should include a visit to lower Manhattan. Buy yourself a mini-Statue of Liberty while you are there. It’ll be something for somebody else to throw away when your times comes.

(Photos from the personal collection of Nicholas Nigro)

Tuesday, December 7, 2021

The Charlie and Mama Christmas Miracle

(Originally published on 12/17/16)

Nineteen 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 nicknamed the pair “Charlie and Mama.”

Witnessing a dutiful son lovingly caring for his aging and ailing mother is often uplifting, but it definitely wasn’t in this case. In fact, it was downright deflating, even a bit creepy. You see, very, very old Mama was the embodiment of mean—looked it, sounded it, and acted it. She scolded her septuagenarian son as if her were 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 possibly 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)

Friday, December 3, 2021

The Sun Also Rises

It’s a wonderful place to watch a sunset: Battery Park at the tip of Manhattan Island. With the days growing shorter and shorter, it disappeared behind Ellis Island around 4:30 p.m. this past Saturday. I wish I had dressed warmer for the occasion. There was a distinct chill in the air and a pesky wind blowing off New York Harbor. It was, though, fitting weather for the start of yet another Christmas season. Christmastime in the city: The Rockefeller Center tree is all lit up, the Rockettes are strutting their stuff a block away, and the belching street steampipes are working overtime.

It’s hard to believe that fifty-one years have passed since I saw Scrooge at Radio City Music Hall followed by the Christmas show, including the Rockettes of the day, who would now be in their seventies and eighties. My mother was one of many chaperones on the trip, which was an annual event in St. John’s grammar school.

I consider Scrooge the all-time greatest Christmas movie and most entertaining adaptation of Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol.” Father Maloney would disagree with me on this, for he advised his students at Cardinal Spellman High School to avoid all animated and musical versions—which Scrooge was—of the Dickens’ classic. The late film critic Roger Ebert appreciated star Albert Finney’s interpretation of Ebenezer Scrooge but dismissed the music therein as not worthy of anybody’s time. Are you kidding, Roger, the movie is chock full of charming, moving, and memorable tunes by Leslie Bricusse. Granted, “See the Phantoms,” as croaked out by Sir Alec Guinness, is not quite in the same league as “Sing a Christmas Carol.” Julie Andrews sung the latter in a 1972 Christmas special, and "I'll Begin Again" was performed by, among others, the Mormon Tabernacle Choir.

Another Christmas classic is The Homecoming, Earl Hamner’s “Christmas Story,” which inspired The Waltons TV series. It absolutely captured a time—the Great Depression—and was a gritty, believable period piece. Guess what? A remake of The Homecoming has been made and aired in 2021. Richard Thomas, who played the original John-Boy, provides the narration. I haven’t seen it but have read reviews and saw stills from the movie. The original featured actors who looked the part. They weren’t Hollywood handsome in neatly pressed, spiffy clean, new-looking clothing. And why pray tell did the current version ditch one of the kids: Ben? I read about a scene where Grandpa, John-Boy, and Mary Ellen go out to cut down the family Christmas tree. In the original, Mary Ellen wanted to accompany John-Boy and Grandpa, but was sternly informed by Mama, played with earnest elan by Patricia Neal, that “Cutting down trees is men’s work. A girl’s place is in the kitchen.” You see, that would have been the mentality in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia in Depression-era America. Political correctness can’t even let period pieces stand on their own. I suppose some people would be triggered if Mary Ellen wasn’t permitted to boldly go wherever she wanted to go in 1933. This is 2021.

When The Homecoming, set in 1933, first aired on CBS in December 1971, thirty-eight years separated the two. Now, with the latest version, eighty-eight years separate the two. That’s a lot of water under the bridge. So much has changed since I watched The Homecoming debut in my grandmother’s and aunt’s living room all those years ago. They had a color television set, which my immediate family didn’t have upstairs from them. With all this passage of time, I guess I should take heart that the sun also rises.

(Photos from the personal collection of Nicholas Nigro)

Tuesday, November 23, 2021

Last Night I Had the Strangest Dream…

No, I didn’t sail away to China in a little rowboat to find ya. But it was a strange one, nonetheless. The dream commenced in my childhood bedroom, and I was a boy. My father and mother were there. While opening the back window for a reason that now escapes me, it fell—swoosh—to the concrete grounds below. Remarkably, the glass didn’t shatter. During the Wonder Years, in fact, we had our share of window problems. Our newer replacement windows had decidedly shorter lifespans than their venerable predecessors.

After a while, many of our apartment windows just wouldn’t stay open without an assist from a piece of wood, several books, or glass bottle. My mother would hang out wash—it's what people did back then—and hold the window open with a metal rod that once upon a time belonged to the window proper. This was a dangerous undertaking as I recall. If the rod ever dislodged, the window would come crashing down like a guillotine. In addition, the cheesy windows were at risk of descending—as in my dream—to earth.

Anyway, back to my dream chronology: I raced to the backyard to retrieve the fallen window, only I found myself indoors and walking down a flight of stairs to the basement of the Spat House. The “Spats” were our neighbors across the way—an unfriendly crew with a fitting surname. Their three-family brick home—like mine—had a uniquely painted exterior that distinguished it. I, though, encountered no Spat family members in the dimly lit and dreary basement.

My intact window was there all right alongside a bunch of unsavory looking sorts. One of them offered to carry the thing home for me. He was on the scary side—as were all the basement loiterers—but I nevertheless agreed and walked with him. What choice did I have? Along the way the scoundrel said, “It’s going to cost you $18.” Why $18? I informed him that I didn’t have cash on my person but would get it at the house. Generous as always, I told the creep I’d give him a $20 bill. “Today’s your lucky day!” he replied to my offer. “Take your pick,” the foreboding fellow—Microsoft Word recommends “person” as gender-neutral and more inclusive—said, opening a bag containing what appeared to be various sandwiches wrapped in wax paper. There was an unwrapped donut on top of them, which I said I’d grab when I returned with the money.

I plowed through measurable snow to access my front door, which was odd. The snow wasn’t there earlier. And I was wearing a prosthetic knee while doing so, which I can honestly say would be a treacherous exercise outside of a dream. I was no longer a boy, too. How did that happen? When I returned with cash in hand, the mystery man had vanished. He didn’t get his $20 and I didn’t get my donut. What does it all mean? Freud said, “Every dream is a wish.” Well, at least that’s what Dr. Sidney Freedman of M*A*S*H said he said. Strange dream. Strange wish. Ain't nothin' gonna break my stride.

(Photos from the personal collection of Nicholas Nigro)

Monday, November 22, 2021

Thanksgiving Sensory Overload

Youthful exuberance is quite something. It’s too bad it doesn’t last a lifetime. But if it did, it wouldn’t be called youthful exuberance, now, would it? That’s my little segue into Thanksgiving 2021. Once upon a time, my father escorted my younger brother and I on a Thanksgiving morning walk into a private neighborhood enclave called Fieldston. It was only a half-mile or so from home, but from my eight-year-old perspective, it seemed far, far away—another world altogether.

Actually, Fieldston was—another world altogether—with its wending, hilly, tree-lined streets. There aren’t many Bronx neighborhoods where manicured mansions are the rule. The place was only a stone’s throw away from Kingsbridge—where I called home—with its pre-war, walk-up apartment buildings and modest private homes. Manhattan College is in Fieldston—on its southeast periphery—which is where I attended college. I walked to school, and it didn’t seem as far away as it did on my earlier stroll with my father. I don’t exactly know why that particular Thanksgiving morning moment has left such a lasting impression on me. I think, maybe, it was its sensory overload: the crisp autumn feel, lots of fallen leaves on the ground, and the aroma of burning logs wafting in the chilly air. If you live in a mansion, you’ve got to have a working fireplace and the logs certainly must crackle on the fire on Thanksgiving Day. Throw in the anticipation of Thanksgiving dinner, a few days off from school, and Christmas right around the corner, and what more could a kid ask for?

Fast forward fifty years and the many Thanksgivings gone by—and here I am. Yesterday, I more-or-less retraced my steps from a year ago. I ventured into Manhattan and made a beeline to Radio City Music Hall and then Rockefeller Center. On November 21, 2020, Radio City was shuttered—no Christmas show and no Rockettes for the first time since 1933. What a difference a year makes. The Christmas Spectacular has been up and running for two weeks now. And, as it was last year at Rockefeller Center, the Christmas tree was being decorated behind scaffolding. However, the big difference in 2021 was that ice skaters were back on the ice rink below it. And when the famous tree is officially lit in a couple of weeks, visitors won’t need time-monitored passes to approach it.

Experiencing New York City in the pre-vaccine COVID-19 era was, I must say, memorable if nothing else. It was surreal ambling around town then, something akin to the Twilight Zone episode “Where Is Everybody?” and I was Earl Holliman. I’m pleased the crowds are back and that there is some semblance of normalcy in the ether. But there was something appealing about the quietude. Having fewer folks to plow through on the city sidewalks, not-too-busy sidewalks was nice while it lasted.

Yes, it’s beginning to look a lot like Thanksgiving with the Rockefeller Center tree hidden behind scaffolding. Christmas decorations, though, are appearing in greater numbers nowadays in the month of November. Granted, folks have been getting a festive jump on things for years, but the pandemic has accelerated the movement. And why not? The unwritten rule when I was growing up: No outdoor holiday decorating before December 15th. That’s gone by the boards and I’m not complaining. Stringing up outdoor lights and other décor is a time-consuming process. My philosophy has long been that—for my troubles—I want the whole shebang up for a month at the very least.

(Photos from the personal collection of Nicholas Nigro)


Monday, November 15, 2021

Movin' on Up or Down?

(Originally published 11/10/18)

This morning—a breezy and rather chilly one for this time of year—I was approached by a man with a business card in hand. Not a good start to the day! Foremost, this fellow wanted to know if I knew of anyone looking to buy or sell a home. I said that I didn't. Not missing a beat, he then asked, "When are you thinking of moving?" This guy was making a lot of assumptions about me with that question, I thought, which he couldn't possibly know, and crashing through my wall, tooand before the clock even struck ten! Despite it not being any of this real estate bloke's business, I paraphrased Mario Cuomo and said, "I have no plans on moving and no plans to make plans." Absolutely true in that exact snapshot in time. For the historical record, Cuomo uttered something similar—sans the moving partwhen being badgered about whether or not he was going to run for president in 1988 and again in 1992. He was presidential timber du jour in those bygone days. And now for some further observations and recollections...
Oh, yes, the hawk has Van Cortlandt Park!
Pigeon, a Bronx delicacy, and an early Thanksgiving feast on the apropos barbecue grounds.
The "HUTE MASTE": Jack of all trades, master of none?
It was pouring rain this past Tuesday, Election Day, when I cast my ballot, which got a little wet in the process. Apparently, mine wasn't the only soggy vote. Courtesy of Mother Nature's deluge and our wet paper ballots, the various machines that scanned them ceased doing what they were supposed to be doing. Voters at my precinct, including me, had to slide our ballots into an "Emergency Ballot Box." There is a first time for everything.
When I ordered two scoops of chocolate ice cream at a local diner last night, I didn't anticipate eating a pint's worth. For every action there is a reaction.
Many years ago, a friend of mine attended a free actor's workshop in Manhattan. The guest speaker was none other than Alec Baldwin. According to my pal, the man was quite gracious and patiently answered all questions posed. Of course, my friend had taken mass transit to the event that night and wasn't vying with Baldwin for a parking spot.
Wonder Woman's preferred clothier?
While on the subject of superheroes, the Man of Steel has got to remember to take his garbage with him. This isn't the 1970s!
Straight-line clouds, deep-blue skies, and the building where a man nicknamed "Q-ball" lives. Two out of three ain't bad.
It's one big hill and a park to boot: Ewen in the Bronx
The Purple Testament...but to Ewen Park on the day after Halloween.
This Bud's for you...or the first can and bottle collector...who ascends or descends the formidable stairs of Ewen Park.
Johnny Carson: "They are so friendly!" Johnny Carson Audience: "How friendly are they?" Me: Not as friendly as you might think.
When Frosty the Snowman rides in a New York City subway car...
This is the end-result...
To get out those stubborn Escargots de Bourgogne stains, this is obviously the place for you...
This is not a homeless man. He's a wizened New Yorker who just put his smartphone in his pocket. You know...somebody once said, "Everything happens in threes." Chinese tradition holds that the number is a lucky one. In my religious upbringing, God was an amalgam of Three Personsthe Trinityas if one wasn't enough. Come and knock on our door...

(Photos from the personal collection of Nicholas Nigro)

Sunday, November 14, 2021

Problem Child

Riding mass transit in New York City comes attached to a price tag well beyond the $2.75 fare. Riders have little choice but to pay this considerable surcharge, an emotional toll paid the moment they step into their respective subway cars. Passengers are, by design, captive audiences to the unexpected—eyewitnesses to history and the good, the bad, and the ugly of humanity. I’ve seen plenty on New York City subways, including psychological meltdowns, a homeless man pleasuring himself, and an armed robbery. Fortunately, most subway sideshows are decidedly less dramatic, not especially revolting, and more times than not harmless.

One subsection of “Annoying Passenger,” I classify as the problem child. Typically, it’s just a kid or kids running amok in a subway car as if they were in their living rooms at home. The most galling part of these spectacles are usually the oblivious parents, who see nothing wrong with a crowded subway car performing double duty as Romper Room. Yesterday, I encountered a bona fide problem child, who entered the train with his father, mother, and sister. Immediately, he decreed that he was not going to sit alongside them and bolted to the opposite end of the subway car. Every now and then, the boy returned to verbally unleash on his family and further establish his independence.

In time, I learned that the kid was seven years old and, too, the oldest in his family, including cousins. His sister, six years of age, though, was taller than him. He informed her that the reason she bested him in the height department was that she was fat. A low blow, I thought, and very ungentlemanly. The brat then rambled on about how he has made countless people cry—an accomplishment to boast about in the Soprano family perhaps. The parents took it all in stride. Their son’s behavior was par for the course, I guess. The last straw for me was when the meandering imp began a chin-up session on the hold-onto bars directly across from me. His antics even got the attention of another little boy seated beside his father. Monkey see, monkey do. However, his dad nipped it in the bud straightaway. For some desperately needed fresh air, I exited the scene multiple subway stops before I had intended. It’s the price one pays for riding.

Consider this a prologue to my excursion: My adventure commenced with a bizarre sighting. Well, first, an unseen cry in the wild of sorts—i.e., some deranged and incensed person bellowing an unbroken stream of F-bombs, which seemed especially piercing in the early morning hours. When this individual materialized in the flesh, I realized it was a guy I’ve known by sight for the better part of my life. He always came across as strange but docile and quiet. So, it came as quite a surprise to match the fusillade of invective I was hearing with the familiar face.

It seems the poor fellow had taken a spill, couldn’t pick himself up, and blamed his canine friend for the mishap. I watched as a Good Samaritan helped him to his feet. He then smacked his dog. It was one of those life-altering moments for me, which we all experience from time to time. That is, I will never look upon that man in a benignant light again. While everybody can have a bad day, I know, you don’t blame a dog for your troubles, particularly when someone’s just done you a good turn.

(Photos from the personal collection of Nicholas Nigro)