Wednesday, April 30, 2008

May Theme: Mom's the Word

It's fairly predictable to dedicate May's theme to Mothers, but I didn't just choose it because of Mother's Day. May's theme is mostly inspired by a number of my friends who are either on the cusp of motherhood or have recently welcomed new members to their families. All this excitement made me think of my mother, grandmothers and great-grandmothers. I can say without exaggeration that I am not the most 'interesting' woman in my family. I'm sure everyone has funny, thoughtful, moving or nostalgic stories about their mother or their experiences as a mother. So that's our theme for May. (You can guess what July's theme is going to be).

The same rules apply to the stories. Write and post as many stories as you would like. I did have a wonderful story submitted to me in April, which I unfortunately couldn't post because of the length (and I never heard back with permission to post it in sections). If you want to write a long story, I suggest writing it in parts (I, II, III) so readers don't have to scroll too much.

I look forward to everyone's stories!

Thank you to everyone who voted on June's theme. We have a winner, "Oh The Places I Have Been."

Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Tall Tale from a Short Girl

It was a dark and stormy night…

Oh wait – it was bright and lovely afternoon.  (Gotta admit, the first set up is a lot sexier.)  I had hopped the T headed for a date in Harvard Square.  This was an online thing so the plan was non-commital hot beverage consumption.  Brice was a six-foot-eight-inch tall non-profit consultant who obviously didn’t get the memo that he was supposed to be a point guard for an obscure midwestern franchise.

Our designated meeting spot was the top of the train station stairs.  Truth be told - we didn’t need to get that specific.  It’s kinda hard to miss someone when they are a full 15 inches taller.  I imagine I was my usual ten or so minutes late.  My date was über prompt and waiting when I arrived.

They say women decide (well, you know) within five minutes.  Unless there’s a significant emotional investment, I usually have four minutes and 55 seconds to spare. This was one of those instances.  I can’t point to a specific reason for the lack of attraction. (Perhaps I sensed emotional availability.)  'It’ just wasn’t there.  Considering high the percentage of people who don’t hit it off - not such a big deal.  Chalk it up to one less man to date in search of that ‘indescribable something’.

In any case, meeting someone new is rarely a complete loss.  Everyone is interesting in some way.  The less apparent it is, the bigger the challenge it is to draw it out.  That’s how I amuse myself, anyways.  As we walked to the coffee/chocolate shop, I commenced with the small talk:

“Are you from around here?”
“You came up here for school. Which one?”
“Bergsen M.B.A., huh? What year?”
“Oh- do you know Drew Smith?”

[Cue: Awkward laughter.]
Brice did know Drew. From the look on his face I could tell that our mutual acquaintance wasn’t gonna earn me any bonus points. Now it was his turn to ask the questions:

“How do you know Drew?”

Well... Drew and I had dated on and off during the 2nd semester of my sophomore year. It was an odd pairing (better suited to friendship) but things ended amicably enough that we kept in touch. My fondness not withstanding, it wasn’t a shocker to learn that someone else held a different opinion. Drew was no diplomat.

Apparently, my old friend had “pursued” Brice’s girlfriend the year before they got together.  I can imagine he was, how shall I say… “forward” in his approach.  Several months after my coffee date, I heard the other side of the story (at Drew’s wedding, no less.) Everyone from the B-school crowd confirmed a similar story.  Basically, Brice hated Drew with the fire of a thousand suns and Drew found the whole thing slightly amusing.

Not withstanding the unpleasant shock dealt to Brice by the fickle internet gods, he was a gentleman and offered to give me a lift home.  I accepted, started to give directions and was stopped mid-sentence.

“Wait, wait, wait… that’s less than a block from where I live.”

It was.  Our backyards are catty corner, on opposite sides of the same corner house.

You might be thinking.  “Wow – what a coincidence!  That’s a great ending to the story.”

You would be wrong.


When I got back to my apartment, I told my roommates about my afternoon.  As I was telling the story I remember something.  Something that turned the world from small to flat-out claustrophobic in three seconds flat.

[Flashback to a few months earlier]
My roommate, Hank, and I were chatting in the kitchen.  He glanced out the window as he was stirring the sauce.  All of a sudden, Hank began to gesturing for me to take a look at something- something that I had to see.

“K... K... Come ‘ere. Have you ever noticed this?”

By "this" he was referring to the unobstructed view into the first floor bathroom of the house behind ours... currently occupied by a guy... who was buck naked... on the commode... and obviously unfamiliar with the principals of horizontal blind usage for maximum privacy. That subject must not be a part of business school curriculum.

Now, if you'll excuse me, I need to go poke out both of my eyes while you go outside to see what kind of free show you have been putting on for the neighbors.

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Hell in a Hand Basket

The neighborhood was going to hell in a hand basket, and Mrs. Thompson blamed Walter for planning everything so poorly that she had ended up here to begin with. When they had first moved to the little apartment, there were just middle class (but respectable) white people around. Now, all kinds of people wandered around the neighborhood, acting like they owned the place and nothing was out of sorts. Skinny hippies with their long hair and ugly clothes; disco-crazy young women with no morals; and worst of all, white people who had married black people pushing their mixed babies around as if nothing was wrong. Unfortunately, no one in the management office did anything about her complaints.

The neighborhood was going to hell in a hand basket and she did not approve.

But of all the people that walked around the neighborhood, moved in and eventually moved out, no one bothered her more than her upstairs neighbors. She knew they were up to no good the moment she laid eyes on them. Sure, they were deceptively quiet and even their children didn't make much noise, but they were no good and she let anyone who stopped by know it. Including them. They knew they couldn't get away with anything because she was watching the heathens' every move. She was eventually proven right when they took all those hostages. Maybe not them personally, but their fellow Eye-rainians did it and she made a point to remind everyone that they were all the same. The always mournful looking wife who would come and go at all hours of the day and night with strange people with her baby tucked firmly in her arms; the dark man that was probably the husband and was gone to Lord knows where for months at a time and The Girl. There was something wrong with that child. She did not play and make noise like her own grandchildren, she hardly ever smiled and worst of all, she hid behind curtains (or her mother's dress) watching people go by as if they were the aliens.

They were an altogether suspicious family, and she did not approve.

One summer day, Mrs. Thompson was sitting on her lawn chair at the foot of the steps reading her Bible. She could feel The Girl watching her from behind the screen door and felt more and more irritated that her quiet time was being disturbed by a nosy child. She closed her Bible, walked up the steps and stood in front of her neighbors' door.

"Do you love Jesus, young lady?"

Silence, even though she was looking the child in the eye.

"Do you know Jesus?"

Silence, again, except for the slight sound of movement and then, little feet running up the stairs.

Well, that was the problem. The child did not speak English, did not know Jesus and spent her days spying on innocent adults who were minding their own business. It didn't seem the mother had time or interest in teaching the child any manners. She probably didn't speak English either. And of course they didn't love Jesus, the woman walked around in baggy, shapeless clothes and scarf wrapped tight around her head, practically screaming that she hated Jesus. Maybe Mrs. Thompson would try to be neighborly and take them to Church one Sunday. If they saw how friendly and nice everyone was, they might accept The Lord into their lives. They would probably even thank her. It would be a very good deed. She smiled at the thought of being so charitable, and wondered when would be a good time to invite them to join her.

A couple of months passed, and during those days she managed to smile each time she saw one of them. She even called out, "GOOD MORNING!" a couple of times as the young mother rushed down the stairs, little brown baby in arms.

Her plan to be neighborly to the Eye-rainians was right on schedule until she saw The Girl running home one afternoon--if you could call it that. As Mrs. Thompson stood outside watering her potted plants, she saw the strange child trying to run with a giant backpack strapped to her back. It seemed she had a limp for some reason, all together looking like the Hunchback of Notre Dame trying to escape something. As she looked up to see what the crazy child was trying to get away from, she saw three older boys running--much faster--and catching up with her, yelling something. Before she could react, The Girl had grabbed her legs and was crying, "I DON'T HAVE ANY HOSTAGES!!!"

And with that she realized everything that had happened. These boys had chased The Girl home, taunting her with words that were probably too big and ugly for her to understand--even if she did speak English. She was suddenly filled with an incredible rage. Rage at these stupid boys, bullying a smaller child; rage at the adults who had seen what was happening and didn't do anything to stop it along the way; but most of all rage at herself for being just like them.

She turned toward them and sprayed them with the hose. "Shame on you! Get away from her! Go tell your mothers to wash your mouths out with soap and teach you some manners! If I see you near this child again, I'll give you all a whoopin' you'll tell your grandkids about. GET LOST!"

She stood there trembling, looking down on The Girl who was probably the same age as her own grandson. She wanted to make this shrinking child feel safe, but could see that she was just as afraid of her savior as she was of the bullies that had chased her home. Perhaps the child did not understand English, but she understood the looks that she had received for so many months.

"Come, Child. Let's take you upstairs to your mother. Next time one of those boys bothers you, come and get me. I'll teach them a lesson they won't forget."

"Yes ma'am.", said the voice connected to the small hand that was leading her upstairs to her neighbors' house.

Behind Closed Doors

When my family moved to Saint Charles, I was 5 going on 6 years old. After careful research and planning, my parents had decided on a kid-friendly neighborhood within walking distance of what would become my grade school. Once we moved in, I was delighted to learn that my neighborhood was chock full of kids at or around my age to chum around with.

And chum we did. Lemonade stands, Freeze Tag, Ghost In The Graveyard, we played 'em all throughout the long hot summers. In the winter we'd move indoors playing such fascinating games as School and Craft Fair. We weren't particularly inventive, but we had a good time. These were the times I would get nostalgic for as I grew, remembering the particulars and vagaries of sun-drenched afternoons together when the most important thing on our minds was how far we could jump from the swings.

Across the street, kitty-corner to my house lived a house with three boys, all older than we were. The middle on was my brother's age and the youngest one was about 5 years older than I was. His name was Chris, and sometimes he would head over to my house and play with me when he had nothing more interesting to do.

We'd draw with chalk on the pavement, coloring from my driveway to my next door neighbors without breaking a sweat.

He, like the rest of us, were just a bunch of nice kids.

Sure, his family was a bit strange, but at that age EVERYONE'S family is weird. It's not something we ever dwelled on too much, because it just didn't matter. Playing in the sprinkler mattered very much, as did building sandcastles, but worrying about our respective families just never crossed our minds as something to concern ourselves with.

We were just a mess of kids trying to stay busy.

As I got older and my sense of judgement became more well-honed, I did begin to notice the strange dynamic in the red-ranch kitty-corner to my house. Chris's dad would spend hours upon hours painstakingly maintaining the lawn, practically cutting it with scissors rather than the lawnmower. He always waved at us, the throng of us on our bikes racing down the street to catch the elusive Ice Cream Man or pedaling furiously toward the park, because he was always outside, but he never looked really happy to be out there working on his yard.

Chris's mother was strange as well, I began to see. Since I was the only one in my house to receive phone calls, I was always the first in line to answer if anyone called. And several times a week she'd call, greeting me quickly before asking me questions about her house. Was there a car in the driveway? What color was it? Was the garage door open or closed?

To this day, even as an adult I have no real clues about what specifically she was looking for when she'd call us. It was obvious that she didn't want a certain car to be outside her home, but what still confuses me is that she would often call from her own home.

I'd have thought she could have cracked a window to see for herself, but no, she preferred my impish self to trundle outside and answer her questions.

Years passed, we all grew up and we all busied ourselves with our new lives with new school friends. The lemonade stand was relegated to the basement where it sat collecting dust as I went on dates, broke up, grew, dated, and went to college.

My first semester at college, my mother called me. I could tell immediately from her voice that something was wrong, and demanded that she spit it out.

As the story goes, the eldest boy in the red ranch house with the blindingly white shutters had gotten a girlfriend whom he lived with. This girlfriend had a young child, perhaps a baby of some young age from a previous relationship. One night, she went out--where I'm not sure. Work perhaps? Maybe out with friends?--leaving my old neighbor to watch the baby.

As babies are wont to do, it cried and cried and cried. No matter what my neighbor from the red ranch house did to soothe it, it just kept crying.

And he became frustrated by this.

And he shook the baby.

The baby died from brain injuries stemming from this incident.

My former neighbor will now spend the rest of his life in jail.

I've never gotten the story about what went on in that house, and all that I can surmise from my own experiences as a pretend adult is that this red ranch house with white shutters and a perfect lawn was sad, hard and lonely place to grow up.

Thursday, April 10, 2008

And The Lord Said, "Go Sox"

I never cared for baseball. America’s Pastime is and forever shall be football. Thanks for playing baseball. Take your mitt and fuck off into the cornfield.

Growing up, I focused mostly on kicking and hurting: soccer, karate (not the cool sounding kind, the pay for a belt kind) and wrestling. I played competitive baseball for one year. Being a tiny tike, I had no strike zone. I was often sent to chase butterflies in left field. I had one hit the entire season, which got me a diving double. We won the championship. I went out at the top of my game.

My father was a Yankees fan from way back, having been raised in Scranton, which is closer to NYC than Philly. After several trips to Cooperstown, I was able to appreciate the Yankees of long ago. Yes, it was true; I was a Yankees fan. But of the 1917 team. That’s like being a history buff more than a baseball aficionado. It’s like telling people your favorite king.

Back home, we rooted for the Phillies, because they were our home team. Not because they were good. We used to go to the games and eat our picnic lunches and enjoy the weather at the Vet. You didn’t go to watch baseball.

So when I went to Boston for grad school in 2003, I didn’t think I’d get sucked in. I mean, the Red Sox hadn’t won anything in forever. As a Philadelphia sports fan, I could appreciate losing. Over the past decade or so, every single major Philadelphia sports team has gotten to the final game in their prospective series, only to lose. Worse yet, we consistently come close, only to have it snatched from our hands. It was as God was playing keep away hoping the crushing defeat would garner him extra cheesesteak laden souls dead from heart attack.

But I neglected to appreciate the fact that the Red Sox are more than just a mere sports team. It’s a goddamn religion.

Boston is an angry town. Everyone’s bundled up and cold because it’s winter ten months out of the year (two months is summer when it’s 104 degrees and every gets extra stabby). All you can see peeking out from behind scarves and gloves and hateful stares. Since the road system looks like a spastic toddler’s interpretation of spaghetti, most people take the T, the trolley system glutted like a Philly artery. Humanity clogs the trains, faces in armpits, legs akimbo, desperately seeking an inch or two of purchase to stand on, like a 3-D game of Twister in hell. Old women clutching grocery bags, pregnant Latinos, tough black kids with headphones bobbing to their own beat, drunk college students drifting from bar to bar: these are your fellow passengers on the ferry shuttle to Acheron’s heart.

But no matter what, you can ask “What’s the score?” And everyone’ll know. The old woman will be the one who pipes up, “Foah two in the eighth. Fuckin’ Manny blew a double.” And everyone will sigh and nod.

It was impossible not to drink the red Kool-aid. It started in bars, the game perpetually on in the background on at least one TV. It was an easy way to make awkward conversation when standing and freezing waiting for the GODDAMN T WHICH NEVER COMES AND IS ALWAYS FULL!

So I became an occasional Sox fan. I’d find myself leaving the game on in the background while working on screenplays. Or we’d go over to one of the bars that surround Fenway. My parents came to visit and my brother and I took them to a game, because my dad loves historical ballparks. And Fenway really, really is something special. It rises from the middle of the apartments and bars around it like a bad tooth jutting up from a hillbilly smile. You can feel the excitement and the history, like walking through a graveyard or an old battlefield. The smells rise up, the people are always happy to have gotten one of the limited tickets, the crowd swells because they BELIEVE. This is their year. It’s gotta be.

I was there in 2004, right down the street from the intersection of Harvard and Brighton Avenues, in Allston, which is right up against Cambridge and Boston Proper. It’s the nexus for about 15 city bars ranging from the divey to the really fucking divey. This was the year when the Sox won the series. But frankly, that was just icing on the cake. It was the division series that meant more to everyone. When they came back from behind to sweep the evil Yankees in four games. People swelled out of their homes, there was cheering and hooting and hollering in the streets. Dancing, drinking, you would have thought it was New Years. Nobody expected the Sox to get to the series, let alone win. They were just happy they embarrassed the fuck out of those pretty boy paychecks in pinstripes. I sat on my stoop and drank beers with my neighbors. Kids who’s names I didn’t even know. We just sat on our stairs cracking up at the drunks carousing in the alleys.

The thing that made victory over the Yankees so sweet was the constant sense of doom pervading everywhere. Everyone was just waiting for the other shoe to drop. They were down three games. All they had to do was lose one, it was over. Okay, so they win one. Big whoop, everyone was expecting failure. This was a town that was drenched in failure. When they won two, it was worse, because some small sparkles of hope were starting to flair, like lighters in a Dave Matthews crowd. The diehards quickly squelched that. It was far worse for them to tease everyone like this. It was puppy drowning cruelty. Just fucking lose already! Then when they made three, they won three goddamn games in a row, you would have thought the streets would run red with blood. But it would have been slit wrists. Cause they’re was NO FUCKING CHANCE they were winning that shit. No way. That doesn’t happen. So the victory brought everyone out of their homes, to celebrate. Because the big dance was over as far as they were concern. Rocky stayed up for 12 rounds, who cares about the series, we’re the fucking Red Sox, we never win.

But as the games progressed, until the final catch was made to seal history, people were in shock. The curse. The curse was finally over. People came out of their houses as if awakened from a dream. It was the Munchkins emerging to see what had crushed the witch. Was she truly dead? Is the curse lifted?

Then the party began. I remember high fiving policemen on horseback and hugging complete strangers. My neighbors and I sprayed beer all over each other. You would have thought a war had ended. All these bitter hateful people came out into the streets to celebrate the hometown glory. We were all family, everyone was your friend. It was a beautiful thing.

Growing Pains

I don't know how many times over the past couple of years I've wondered: How did it come to this?

I've had a variety of unusual neighbors over the years. When I was a child, we moved fairly frequently, and usually across oceans. So I never really had a chance to get to know my neighbors, until our final move back to the States. And then our neighbors were a strange lot - we had a hippie couple on one side, and the wife tried to seduce my father once. Which is a whole OTHER tale, for another time. One the other side was an elderly Latvian couple who spoke limited English, and would peer curiously at our family of mixed-race crazies as we ran around like spastic lunatics.

[Quick anecdote: When I was in high school I did a mess of drugs. One day, when a friend and I were waaaaaay high on LSD, we saw them puttering about in their garden. My friend froze in fear, and urgently said to me, "Omigawd... your neighbors! They can see us!" To which I hissed, "QUIET! They're Latvian!" Cut to us desperately running away.]

OK, so you kinda had to be there.


I've lived in cities, in suburbs, in apartment buildings, dormitories, cockroach-infested studios, row-homes, you name it. I lived in safe communities and in... less safe ones. I've lived in concrete jungles and beach-side apartments. I've had every imaginable kind of neighbor.

So why am I so befuddled by the ones I have now?

The truth is, we have moved to a marvel of small-town living. We live on a dead-end street, at the end of which is a delightful town forest with hiking trails and a summer camp. The neighbors gaily wave hello to each other when taking out their trash. We talk to each other over breaks between raking leaves and mowing lawns (frequent topics of discussion: types of lawnmowers, good contractors we know, elementary schools and dogs). Girl scouts knock on our door when they're doing charity drives. I've never seen a police car. I've never heard any loud music (save my own). There are a remarkable number of minivans and SUV's.

In short, it is the Twilight Zone. Because the truth is, for all of the different places I have lived, all of the myriad neighbors I have had, I've never experienced anything like this. And it puzzles me. At first, we were actually suspicious - as if some day, this Mayberry-like facade would be torn away to display a Stepford-like cult, or perhaps we'd go over to a neighbors house, only to discover a giant hive in their basement, from where they and the rest of the Pod-people on our bucolic little street were hatched, where they polish their ray-guns and wait to take over the Earth.

It is particularly startling for a couple such as us - we are first time homeowners, the youngest adults on the street, and the only childless household. I tend to drive down the street with either hip-hop or hardcore music blaring from my windows. Our barbecues are not the tidy, cheery affairs that our neighbors have - instead it's 15-20 20- and30-somethings playing drunken Wiffleball, listening to Blackalicious and getting high in the garden shed. We are the black sheep. In fact, if one of my neighbors were to write for this blog, I suspect they would write about us!

Except that it doesn't work that way for the Pod People of Mayberry, MA. Because despite all of our decidedly un-Mayberry-like quirks, they still seem to like us (or perhaps it's just Mrs. TK that they like). They bring us vegetables from their garden, and offer to watch our pets when we're away. This is particularly jarring for me, because I am, and always have been, extremely uncomfortable around people who are outside of my bubble of companions.

But what is most disconcerting are the children. Our street is lousy with kids. They play in groups with each other, running up and down the sidewalks playing Tag, throwing acorns and playing basketball. They squeal with glee when the ice cream truck comes. And of course, the only thing that makes me more anxious than people? Children.

Because in truth, children completely befuddle me. I have no idea how to talk to them, or relate to them in general. I find myself speaking to them as if they were dogs - "good boy!" and making that kissing noise when I want them to come to me and "Fetch!" I am completely flummoxed at how to deal with them. Babies frequently start to cry when I hold them, and small children seem to fear me. I don't know if it's my size or demeanor or tone of voice or what, but all of these things combined make me even more anxious. And when I get anxious, I get irritated. And when I get irritated I get... well, sometimes unpleasant.

So. All of this leads me to three particular neighbors. Andrew (12), Francis (9) and Philip (7). Three brothers who live up the street, who are completely fascinated by me and Mrs. TK. Perhaps because we are younger than the other grown-ups, perhaps because our lifestyle is more rock 'n' roll than that of their parents. What initially brought us to their attention was our animals - as many know, Mrs. TK is a veterinarian and we are a traveling menagerie - three cats, two dogs and a guinea pig, and they are endlessly amused by our pets and her tales of animal chicanery.

So now they have become staples of our weekends. They come over and ring the doorbell and ask in their cute little-boy voices if their dog can play with our dog. Because we're also the only house on the street with a fenced-in yard. So we let them in, and they roll around and wrestle and generally make a ruckus with their puppy and our doggies. It's so goddamn adorable it makes me want to vomit. But what I really don't get is why they keep coming back. I mean, I'm completely un-fun with them. One time when they saw me throwing my dogshit over the fence, they stammered, "but... but we play back there sometimes." To which I deadpanned, "Well, watch your step kid." Another time I yelled at them for having acorn fights on my driveway since I'd just cleaned it off. I find myself being more gruff than usual with them, because I get frustrated that I don't know how to communicate with them. This makes me even more annoyed, because it leads me to the inevitable question: What's it going to be like when I have kids? These things keep me up at night.

But what's even more fascinating is that despite all my coarse language, my grouchy looks, my reprimands and my dour demeanor... they keep coming back. In fact, they've even gone so far as to play pranks on me, the little bastards. For a long time, I just didn't get it. My friends laughed at the fact that I'd become the grumpy old man, yelling at the kids to "git off mah damn property!". But then I eventually realized something... for whatever reason, these little whippersnappers like me, perhaps even because of my personality, and not in spite of it. And that, in turn, has made me start to like them.

I'm getting used to this quiet suburban existence. I'm getting used to the quiet nights and the banal conversations and the "oh-my-God-the-ICE-CREAM-MAN-IS-HERE!" squeals of joy. I'm getting used to mowing my lawn and raking my leaves and... God help me,I guess my neighbors, young and old, are helping me get used to growing up.

But I'll be damned if I'm turning my music down.

Wednesday, April 9, 2008

It Only Takes One Douchebag to Screw It Up for Everyone

I was 23. A fresh-faced stockbroker right out of journalism school. (Well, what else do photojournalists do to make a living? Don't you judge me.) And I was purchasing my first home. A condo, to be exact.

It was perfect. Located in my favorite little mountain town, right off the Blue Ridge Parkway, with a network of hiking and biking trails -- literally -- right out of my back door. An end unit. Without anyone above or below me. A pool. Best of all: mine, aaaaaall mine.

Having come straight from college, I wasn't prepared for the typical neighbors that exist everywhere. I was used to the late night, heavily drinking, no one above the age of 30 neighbors. Not the "a bit past middle aged librarian/rasta band manager" neighbor, the grown mother and daughter sharing a one bedroom with 10 cats neighbor, or the "crazy camouflage wearing dog hating" neighbor.

Now, I was born and raised in the South, honey. I'm no stranger to animals. My grandparents raised horses, cows, and chickens. I learned how to train horses with my grandpa. I know all about weeks-long hunting trips for deer, turkey, or bears. And I actually know a lot about the habits of the aforementioned animals, not from hunting them, but from listening to my uncles and cousins talk around my grandparent's dinner table on Sunday nights. And no animal elicited more awe amongst these seasoned hunters than bears.

I grew up watching the "urban wildlife" develop around me. In my little mountain town, urban spread encroached on the habitats of local wildlife, forcing them to search elsewhere for food and the means to survive. It was commonplace to see wild turkeys strutting down my street or to upset a group of pheasants in the underbrush on a hike. I remember being so excited at age 8, seeing a bear for the first time, digging through the trash bins outside of a McDooms. I begged my mom to get closer, but she absolutely refused, and with good reason. Shortly after we left, the bear attacked a mother and her two children in the parking lot. (Apparently small humans look strangely like bear food.) I've been a lover of nature and animal behavior ever since.

When I moved into my First Home as a bonafide owner, I was anxious to discover what the surrounding woods held. Trekking down a trail for my first official hike, I came across one of my neighbors. She was the neighborhood Sweetheart, probably in her late 70s, wielding a machete to clear the trails, and had the most divine garden I had ever seen: basically she was a bad ass. As we spoke, she mentioned the nightly -- that's right folks, nightly -- visits of bears to our communal trash bins that were a mere 10 feet from the buildings. It seems that the condo association, a.k.a. the Neighborhood Nazis, didn't want to spend the measly $1000 to purchase bear-proof receptacles, so we had to resort to buying rubber bungee cords to keep the bears from opening the bins and feasting on our trash.

I was never brave enough to venture out and take a look when the bears were in mid gorge because that would mean walking the length of my building in the dark, and there were bears out there, dammit! But every morning, the evidence of their nightly feast was spread around the grass.

A few months after I moved in, I was returning home late one evening, after the sun had set, and saw a small cluster of people gathered at the end of the building where the trash cans lived. Intrigued and always curious, I tottered over on my 4-inch heels (hey, I was still single then) to see what was happening.

What was to come is probably the biggest piece of idiocy I have EVER SEEN (and this is including a neighbor I had in Charlotte that a) used a fucking power drill to aerate his yard, b) went swimming in his pool in a thunderstorm, and c) put his gate spring on the wrong side so that it didn't swing shut, but sprung open and into your face when you opened the latch).

Once I peered past the small gathering of people, which included children and elderly, I saw a mother bear and her two cubs pawing through the garbage. Despite the fact that there is almost nothing more dangerous than a mother bear with a cub, much less two, they seemed completely unperturbed by our presence, and so we all watched them in wary delight. We all watched in wary delight, that is, until Big Tough Camo-Wearing Dog Hater came out of his condo. His unit was closest to the trash bins, so he must have heard the gathering group. (If only we had known, we would have shut up so as not to disturb him from his den.) Camo-Idiot comes out of his house, wearing full hunting regalia, and carrying a high-powered spotlight. Well, okay, sure -- a spotlight. Not so crazy, right? I didn't think so either, until he positioned the spotlight right on the cubs, picked up a hand-full of rocks, and started throwing them. I was already placing my hand on my neighbor-children's shoulders and moving them back from the impending atrocity, when the moron actually hit one of the cubs. The mother bear's head whipped around and stared him straight in the face, she got down on all fours with head lowered, and I don't know exactly what happened next because I had already grabbed the kids and 4-inch hoofed it into my place. I didn't know what happened, that is, until about 2 seconds later when I heard his terrified howl.

Everyone scattered. Everyone but Camo-Douche. What was he thinking, throwing rocks at bear cubs with this group of people standing around looking like future bear jerky? I suppose we will never know, because the bear attacked him, put him in the hospital, and I never spoke to him again.

Every time I think about this little nugget, I can't help but shake my head at nature. If evolution had a consciousness, the bear would have killed him. Hell, I wanted to kill him.

Thank god the man never reproduced.

Sunday, April 6, 2008

Memory Lane

I have no stories to tell of eccentric neighbors, no tales of odd people or strange happenings. But I have a story to tell. I have the story of the neighbors of my youth, the story of the people who defined the word neighbor to me.

I will never have neighbors like the neighbors I had growing up on Virginia Avenue, of this I am sure. It was a small, quiet street in the city of Lancaster only one block long surrounded by busy streets on all sides. Our house, where I lived until I was 12 years old, was a brick semi-detached house with a small sloping front yard situated in the middle of the block. Most of the other houses on the block were some variation of ours; some had front porches while others had sunrooms, a few had the added luxury of a small garage in the back. It was the type of neighborhood where the kids could safely play in the street and the adults could wander down the street, afternoon drink in hand, to gab with the people sitting on their porch.

The people were a mix of older retired couples, families with high school and college aged kids, and many young families. The couple who lived in the other half of our house were Mr. and Mrs. Stiely, an older retired couple. I remember very little about Mr. Stiely, he always seemed gruff and uninterested in the kids of the neighborhood, although he would chat with my dad from time to time. Mrs. Stiely was the opposite of her husband, very kind and friendly to my sister and me. She would often offer us lemonade or cookies. We would feed her fish when they went away. I was intrigued by their home, full of knick knacks, doilies and crocheted quilts. It was full of, well, stuff but it never seemed cluttered. Everything had a place. It always reminded me of a Grandma's house.

Our neighbors to the other side were the Atheys. They were a family with older kids, although I can only remember one by name. Eric Athey was probably about ten years older than me and played in a band which made him undeniably cool. What made him even cooler was that he tolerated all the younger kids in the neighborhood. He would sit out on their front porch playing his guitar and when we inevitably arrived to pester him he would play songs that we could sing along to, letting one of us strum the guitar with the pick while he held down the chords. His band would practice in their basement in the evenings. On warm summer nights my friends, my sister and I would gather around one of the open basement windows and listen to them play. They knew we were out there, sitting on the sidewalk between our two houses in the dark. Eric would make up song titles to the songs they were about to play and announce them, "this next song is the Krissy-Katie-Megan-Missy-Jackie song" and we would giggle with sheer joy that the older boys were paying attention to us.

Across the street from us were the Martinos. The Martinos had two kids that we played with, Missy was a year older than me and Scotty was a year younger. Their dad was a geeky city politician guy who thought it was funny when he referred to us girls as "boys" and the boys as "girls". Their mom, on the other hand, was what my dad would refer to as "a looker". She typically dressed to show off her figure and usually complemented her look with full make up and jewelry. I was always dumbfounded by the fact that Missy and Scotty were allowed to leave the dinner table after taking just two bites of their meal and rejoin the rest of the neighborhood kids playing outside only to go in later and eat dessert. My parents (whose philosophy on parenting was vastly different) disagreed with this behavior and a few others, like Scotty's incessant climbing on things he wasn't supposed to (like trees, cars, roofs) and Missy's tendency to wear whatever she felt like despite the outside temperature. Still, when my great-grandmother who lived with us fell and broke her hip, it was Mrs. Martino who scooped up me and my sister and took us across the street to their house while my parents called the ambulance. I remember she let us watch what was happening from the door.

Next door to the Martinos were the Randalls. The Randalls had a son about six or seven years older than me and a son who was a year younger. Being a family with only boys, my parents probably associated with them more than my sister and I did but, in a strange twist, six months after we moved away from Virginia Avenue the Randalls bought a house in our new neighborhood and moved in behind us. Since neither we nor the Randalls knew many people in the neighborhood our families became closer and we saw a lot more of them in later years than in our years on Virginia Avenue. They still live behind my parents today.

Like most of the streets in the city, we had an alley behind our house and considered the families "across the alley" our neighbors as well. This is where my best friend Megan's family, the Decks, lived. I remember my mom and Sue Deck spending summers sitting on the front porch or in the backyard of one of our homes, chatting and drinking iced tea. Our families had "game nights" together where we would play Trivial Pursuit and Scattegories. I considered their house a second home and they were, by far, our closest neighbors.

The family beside the Decks were the Retalicks. They had four girls, Lisa, Ginny, Diane and Kathleen who all used to babysit for us. Next to them were the Wilsons who I started babysitting for shortly before we moved. The Wilsons had a swingset in their backyard and anyone could come and play on it, even if they weren't home. Looking back, I realize now how many people we knew in our little neighborhood. Miss Dehaven across the street gave me and my sister piano lessons. She was the first adult woman I knew who had never been married. There was an older gay couple next to Miss Dehaven, although it wasn't until years later that I found out they were gay. It just never occurred to me as a child. The Weavers were a family younger than ours, two doors down. I used to spend hours at their home playing with their two little girls.

Every summer we would get permission from the city to close off the street and we would have a huge neighborhood block party. It was the highlight of the summer. We would wait eagerly all day for it to start and then at 3pm the city trucks would arrive with the barricades. Grills would be fired up, baby pools would be filled with ice for soda and beer. Coolers full of hamburgers and hotdogs sat beside picnic tables full of salads, veggie trays and potato chips. Everyone brought out their folding tables and lawn chairs and set up in the street. There was music playing. Neighbors from "across the alley" were included in the block party. The parents organized games and activities for the kids. My mom's face painting station was my favorite. As the evening wore on and more beer was drunk, the men would drag the coolers out into the street as makeshift "goals" and play kick-the-can. We never wanted it to end.

I hope that one day I will again have neighbors that I feel as close to as those first neighbors, but I doubt it. I knew them in a very specific point in time, a time that seems almost surreal. The people of Virginia Avenue are etched into my memory from a child's point of view. My memories are some of the most simplistic, most mundane moments, some that I couldn't put into words if I tried. I hope that my story has brought a hint of nostalgia to you, the reader. I hope that you've enjoyed my walk down memory lane, or as I call it, Virginia Avenue.

Saturday, April 5, 2008

A Face to Meet the Faces That You Meet

"Good morning, Peter!" Our part-time doorman, a middle-aged Chinese man who commutes in from Queens before I leave for my job is sweeping up the sidewalk out front, smoking a cigarette. I love the way that he smiles with his eyes and agressively nods his head up and down when I greet him.

The tall and lanky owner of the café to my left and the ice cream shop to my right walks between his two locations, chatting with his regulars and keeping watch over his employees who are carrying the morning's freshly baked muffins up from the basement. Sometimes he catches my eye and says hello, but he is so tall that I think he looks over my head to something happening down the avenue.

In the window of the laundry and dry-cleaning shop, the little Chinese lady sits at her ancient sewing machine with her walkman headphones covering her ears. If she happens to look up, she will nod and smile. Later I will need to once again spell my last name when I pick up my laundry, even though I am there every week, but she was so excited when I had stopped in to drop off maternity clothes to be hemmed, wrapping her hands around my new belly and laughing.

A white-haired gentleman sits at the single café table in front of the aforementioned coffee shop. He is tall and attractive, and sits casually and cross-legged, wearing expensive jeans, a button-down shirt, and loafers. Sometimes he talks with a companion and sometimes he sits alone with his espresso. Once again I wonder who he is and what he does, but as always our eyes meet, our heads nod and our hands wave.

Rounding the corner, my little friend at the bodega who is always trying to teach me Spanish arranges the flower bouquets and bids me "Hola! Buenos días!"

French expatriates and nannies rush by with their children and charges to the French school across the street. They are always the best dressed people I will see all day.

Towards the end of block, the teenagers gather outside of the high school, completely oblivious to the world outside of their circle. If I were running a few minutes late, I would catch their teachers herding them all inside with far more attitude than I ever heard from mine. While maneuvering around the mob I see the doorman on the other side of the street wave as he opens the door for one of his wealthy tenants.

The delivery men parked outside of the restaurants on Second Avenue stop their trolleys loaded with meats and produce so that I can hurry past on the sidewalk and cross the street. They seem to be more cautious with me now, with my small but obvious baby bump leading the way.

I am happy to see the old Asian man sitting alone at his table through the window of the corner diner, eating his eggs and toast. He wasn't there yesterday and I'd been worried.

The Eastern European doorman outside of the highrise on the next block asks me how I am today. I reply favorably; I've been grateful for his morning watch since my days managing the 6 a.m. shift at the hotel in SoHo.

Through the bank window on my left, the bank manager who had set my account two years ago is starting up his desk computer. If he had happened to look up at that moment, I know he would have waved today.

On my right, the fruit man is readjusting his price signs. He is not very friendly and even less efficient, but if the light had just turned and I had a spare minute, I would buy a banana or a box of blueberries to suppliment my breakfast. Today he is too preoccupied and the walk sign is flashing, so no words are exchanged.

Across the street, a smiling Middle Eastern man stands in his pushcart making coffee. He looks up and yells out "How are you my friend? Are you good? When will you stop to talk to me again?" as he collects money from the people standing in front of his window. I yell back "tomorrow, Ali, I promise!" and he laughs and waves me on. He would be setting up when I would make this walk at 5 a.m. only a year and a half ago, when he would not let me pass before making me a cup of tea.

At the end of my last block, the newspaper man with his yellow vest who looks like Tim Meadows, with his New York Post and Daily News and scattered Spanish-language papers stacked neatly at his feet, looks uneasily around, jingling his quarters in his vest pocket. But when I catch his attention and smile, he always smiles back with a sincere 'good morning,' even though he knows I won't be buying any papers from him. "Have a good day," I say with a wink, and his uneasiness seems to fade for just a moment. I can't help but wonder what he's so worried about all the time. Maybe it's the NYPD always lurking around the intersection.

There are men handing out free newspapers on both sides of Lexington Avenue. If the light is not in my favor, I will take a paper from the Metro man on the near side. He is new to the corner; the one he replaced stopped me and shook my hand on his last day and I told him he would be missed. The Union Square neighborhood has him now.

On the far side of Lexington, yelling "Metro! Metro! Get your morning MetRO!" is a man I have seen every business day for at least six months now. His papers are always perfectly folded and fanned out, ready to hand to those of us going down into the ground and those coming up, transported from uptown neighborhoods. Dozens of these new transplants are in scrubs, on their way to work in the hospitals scattered within a few blocks.

Downstairs in the tunnel, I know that I will pass a musician on the way to my waiting spot on the platform. Their music will play in my head for the rest of the commute and set the tone for my morning, and so I hope that performing today are the quartet singing Motown, the classical violinist playing waltzes, or the jazz trumpeter channeling Louis Armstrong. Regardless, I will toss a coin or two and wink at the performers, grateful for my neighbors.

Friday, April 4, 2008

Mom, Mrs. Slutty is at the Door!

A few months after we moved to Iran, my aunt, uncle and two little cousins moved out of our apartment where they had been living in our absence and we moved in. We lived on the first floor, in the middle unit of a 12 unit building. And while my parents rarely let us out of the house except for school, the neighbors provided us with plenty of entertainment. None more than the ever scandalous woman I came to know as Khanoom Shelakteh (Mrs. Slutty).

Khanoom Shelakhteh was a youngish woman with two children and a husband that didn't match her in age, beauty or style. Where she was frankly stunning and gregarious (perhaps too much so for the taste of her neighbors), he was a balding man burdened with such shyness that it seemed to weigh heavily on his slumped frame. How the two of them ever crossed paths and agreed to marry is still one of the greater mysteries of my childhood. Perhaps because of her looks and overly friendly nature, she had developed a reputation that caused women of all ages to clasp onto their spouses possessively and guard their sons' eyes. She had also acquired the nickname 'Shelakhteh'. In Farsi, shelakhteh literally means messy, but figuratively is used to mean promiscuous and/or uncouth. I did not know this. I thought Shelakhteh was a name, one of the many, many names I had never heard before. It never occurred to me that her name was always whispered by the older women after she had left, nor did I recognize the disparaging words that were used to describe her appearance. I knew my mother never spent too much time talking to her, but my aunt and uncle spoke of her warmly, removing any suspicion from my mind.

Which is why, I would smile mutely at her when we passed in the stairwell. If she noticed me at all, she would prattle on quickly using words I didn't recognize--until she got to the finale, "May God protect you for your parents.", to which I would reply, "Merci". I once tried to compliment her on her gold lame' Princess Leia outfit, but could only piece together the words "pretty" and "dress". She smiled and dashed down the stairs, glowing in a child's approval. I didn't hear the tsk-tsking of our neighbors, nor did I know they were saying she was endangering her children's reputation.

This went on for about four or five months. One night, my uncle stopped by on his way home from work. He brought some fresh bread and fresh gossip. Sitting at her window perch looking onto the street, Khanoom Shelakhteh had seen my uncle come into the building and a few minutes later came down and rang our door bell. My mom and uncle were deep in government conspiracy theories about the sudden scarcity of chicken and rice, so I answered the door. Khanoom Shelakhteh stood there in all her scantily clad glory and smiles, saying things that included my name as well my uncle's. By this time, my Farsi was much better and I had a good idea of what she was asking. I was also eager to show off my new vocabulary. Which is why I chose my words carefully as I yelled out to my elders, "Maman! Khanoom Shelakhteh dameh dareh mikhad ba Dayee harf bezaneh!" (Mom! Mrs. Slutty is at the door and wants to speak to Uncle!).

To her credit, she never batted an eyelash or said a word. She continued to stand there smiling as my uncle appeared out of thin air and wisked me away, only to be replaced by my very shamefaced mother who apologized profusely for her non-Farsi speaking daughter. After she spoke to my mom and uncle, I got an earful from both of them. I was horrified by what I had done, and swore to never cross paths with her again. I was not successful in anything but avoiding her eyes as we passed each other on the street or in the building. Our little game went on for a few months, until summer vacation at which time I tried to hide indoors as much as possible.

Of course it wouldn't end there. The coals had to be heaped higher.

One rainy afternoon, my brother came home from the produce market and announced that a bunch of the houses on the way had burst pipes and that the rain was causing sewage to flood the houses. Just about then, we noticed the stench of raw sewage. If you've ever been to a house in Iran, you know how horribly bad things can get in minutes. In seconds, my mom was rolling up the rugs, with each of us assigned to one of the smaller rugs. Everything was a frantic blur of movement with the smell of sewage becoming overwhelming, as filthy water started pushing up from the drains. At some point, my mom had opened the front door, ready to sweep the foul water out of the house if necessary. A few of the neighbors from the higher floors stood outside the house, mouths and noses covered, relieved that they didn't live on the first floor.

And suddenly, she was among us. She had rolled up her precious Levi's, kicked off her heels and was wading ankle deep in sewage. With her she had brought a linen closet's worth of decorated towels that were obviously from her trousseau and was soaking up the vile liquid before it reached our bedrooms. She never left, no matter how embarrassed my mom was and how much she insisted that we were okay.

Hours later, as my mom washed the floors and walls with bleach, she guided us outside, away from the fumes. I finally looked at her and spoke to her for the first time since the day she rang our doorbell, whispering, "Khanoom, I'm so sorry. I didn't mean it."

Lady that she was, she smiled at me and said, "You can call me Khaleh (aunt)."

Thursday, April 3, 2008

The People Under the Stairs

I've lived in my increasingly expensive apartment complex for more years than I care to count. In my time here, I've seen tenants come and go. I've greeted them and smiled the "God, I don’t know your name so please don't talk to me because that would be kind of awkward" smile when we would see each other leaving or coming home from work or some other event that took them outside the confines of our mutual residence, but that was pretty much the extent of my interactions with them. Until I met Kristine, I'd never really taken any interest in my neighbors other than trying to find out if any of them were hot, because I was a whore like that.

Since we've been together, however, this has changed (especially the being a whore part, because that wouldn't mesh well with the whole "relationship" thingy). We've taken steps to interact with those neighbors who seem friendly, we've invited the children of neighbors into our home to play with our kids, and we've even left small gifts for neighbors on holidays. I'll have actual conversations with those I meet in the walkways because *GASP!*, I'll actually know their names now. There are some that we don't actually interact with, but do see on a semi regular basis through open windows, or from afar. Those are usually the ones we just end up giving a nickname like "the masturbator", "scary black lady", "crazy PETCO lady", "the one that's probably a stripper" (turned out she was a palates instructor, but I still think I was close), and "that bitch across the way that won't bring her yapping little jackass dog inside". We like to think of ourselves now as the welcoming committee that lives just above the poverty line.

But, you take the good with the bad.

There is one particular neighbor (isn't there always?) that has managed to crawl under our (mine and Kristine's) collective skin. It started out innocently enough, with casual meetings at night or afternoons when we would walk our Shih Tzu, Thor, and they would be walking theirs, Buttercup. Or as we now refer to her, "that smelly little manic depressive bitch". We'd have conversations about pet care, our professions (the husband was in insurance claims and the wife an office manager for her brother's kitchen cabinet company), families, and the like. The wife seemed a bit off, but we attributed that to the shit for brained spaziness of youth (she's only 23)We even went out to dinner together once, and actually had a good time. From that point, we maintained a casual relationship and promises of future get togethers. Hell, we even let them talk us into spending the weekend at their time share in Palm Desert and attending a time share presentation (yeah, yeah, I know so don't start with me).

Things kind of went down shit creek once she had her miscarriage. Shortly before the Palm Desert trip, she made the announcement that she was pregnant. Great news for them, but who goes to Palm Desert when they’re pregnant? Our forecast for that weekend had been good times with a high chance of getting wasted, so her being all preggo pretty much rained on that parade. Anyway, about a month or two after that, she miscarried her baby. Being a parent, I can understand that the thought of losing a child is number 1 on a parent's List of Nightmarishly Horrible Shit You Don't Want to Ever Have Happen. To actually have it happen to you is something I don't even want to entertain the thought of.

Now, for those of you that may or may not have children but may someday want them, I may be getting into a divisive issue. Once she had her miscarriage, she was understandably depressed for while. She just lost what would have been her first child. I have kids, two of them, so I get that. Understood. 10-4. Roger. Aye aye, Cap’n. If I'm not mistaken, it was about the size of a large potato when she lost it. Some features had formed, in particular the hands and feet. However, she took grieving to a whole other God damned level. Case in point: currently there are what must be over a dozen sonogram pictures covering their refrigerator. She even went so far as to create a shadow box of memories for it that is hung on her living room wall. Now, here is where I completely checked out of anything more than a "Hi, how are you" relationship with these folks. Contained in this shadow box are a couple of knick knacks pertaining to the fetus. The crown jewels in this piece of morbid memorabilia are the hand and foot prints of the fetus taken after it was removed. So, after losing the fetus, she deliberately had hand and feet prints of the fetus taken so she could keep them. Dead baby prints. Little curled up, claw like prints of the hands, and smudged prints of the curved, not quote formed feet. That's just 31 flavors of fucking creepy, okay?. Perhaps I'm too pragmatic, maybe I'm just an insensitive prick, but I believe there is an appropriate amount of time to grieve for the loss of a child or loved one, and then there is a point at which you enter into "Poor me" territory. It's no longer about you grieving over the loss of a loved one, instead your grieving becomes a tool by which you can elicit attention for yourself in a guilt free way. Who is going to call you out on your own bull when you're doing it all under the umbrella of your dead fetus' memory, right? Right.

Shortly after this, she quit her job and has begun various get rich quick, work from home schemes that have yet to produce any substantial income from what I can tell. Her first idea was to buy a pallet full of utter shit (on credit) and try to resell it at a ridiculous mark up. By "shit" I mean the kind of crap you would find at Big Lots, and cheaper. I'm talking about broken home decor, old Christmas decorations, candles, over sized clocks, you name it. All this stuff is strewn about their small apartment in some kind of haphazard "come view my wares, kind sir/madam" display. And they'll be paying for it for y-e-a-r-s. This was to be followed shortly by her current scheme: A line of hand made jewelry called Havannah's Jewels. Why Havannah? Because that was the name of her fetus. Oy.

How do we know about all of her get rich quick schemes? She won't stop telling us about them. She's asked for our help in designing, making, even marketing the crap she calls jewelry. She's invited Kristine on trips to stores to try to get them to sell her jewelry. She's asked us to host jewelry parties so she can foist her monstrously overpriced baubles on others. She's sent text messages at eleven o'clock at night asking us to come over and look at a design. The website for her crap looks like something thrown together in a junior college remedial web design class taught by Richard Simmons, with photographs from Headshots.

Now, here is what may be my biggest gripe: She seems to be content with getting whatever she can for free, whether it's borrowing various household supplies, asking for assistance, hell even asking us to watch her dog for three days so she can fly to New York to try and scam a store into selling her jewelry. All without as much as a "thank you". She even brought a friend of hers, who would be a complete stranger to us, into our home so said stranger could sell us candies in order to raise money for her fertilization procedure... what the motherfuck what?!

In the back of my mind I do feel sorry for whatever child they (the neighbors) do manage to bring into this world. It's enough that its mother is a nut case control freak, but to have to live in the shadow of its late sister/brother will be a tremendous burden. Who knew a fetus could cast such a huge shadow?

Throughout all this I watch her husband with a mix of pity and utter bewilderment. The poor guy seems to stoically trudge along, content to be the Atlas upon which the entire weight of her insane world rests. Dragged from one scheme to the next, with the detritus of past machinations littering his home, the clawed grip of the child that never was clamped firmly on the back of his neck he seems to be content with his role in things. I think I may be seeing some cracks in the armor, but that may just be out of my hope that he one day sits her down and talks some sense into her.

Until then, when I see them I'll smile and say "Hi, how are you?"