The Spook House

In the woods next to our pink split level house on the cul-de-sac of Comfort Court was an abandoned house known to the neighborhood kids as The Spook House. Most of the children in the neighborhood were forbidden to go there. But many did. It was rumored someone had fallen through the second floor and legend was that more terrible things lurked there. The boys and girls from the closely set homes in our small sub-division had grown up together, playing kickball until our parents called us in for dinner, climbing the apple trees in our back yard, and building forts in the woods while avoiding the decrepit house that seemed right out of a horror movie.

I was ten years old when my best friend Jeanne and I decided we were old enough to go see it up close for bragging rights to our bravery. It couldn’t have been more than fifty yards from my house but it felt like we were Dorothy and the Cowardly Lion approaching the witch’s castle. We crept up the path tamped down by those who had ignored the warnings and we made it to the front of The Spook House. The house was boarded up except for a broken first floor window. The only color around the drab peeling house was a flowering purple lilac bush left by its long gone owners. Peeking inside I could see an ancient wooden wheelchair and some dusty books on the floor. My heart raced. I was a 50 pound sissy who slept with a nightlight. Jeanne repeated the tale her older brother, Rusty, had told her. He said a ghost lived in the house and that if we looked up to the second floor window we might see her waving. Knees trembling, I looked up and I thought I saw a pale, disembodied hand waving slowly up and down. I ran the whole way home wondering if I’d actually seen that horrifying apparition or if my mind was playing tricks on me.

Jeanne and I stayed far from that house after that. But the frights weren’t contained to the dark woods. They were right there in plain sight. As we all grew up I learned to be wary of other things. The rambunctious boy, Chris, who lived behind our house, pushed me down one day and I came home with bloody knees. I learned to stay away from him. When we were twelve and finally allowed to go to the bus stop alone, there were more opportunities for his torment. As I stood one morning with Jeanne, he and another rough boy from the development threw coins towards me. I stared at the pennies as they spun around and landed on the sidewalk. I had a bad feeling it was a set-up.

“Pick up the pennies,” said Stephen, a pale, freckled hooligan with a crew cut and glasses.

“Why should I? I don’t want them,” I said.

He looked at me with a mean glint. “Don’t Jews like money?”

My face paled. A few kids laughed. The bus pulled up and I got in and walked to the back. I slumped into a seat and tried to make myself invisible. I learned to fear the monsters at the bus stop. I dragged my feet to miss the bus or got stomach-aches and stayed home. I dreaded going to my locker at school where a group of bullies would find me and harass me about my looks, my friends, my religion. I stopped playing outside after school. Mercifully, my body summoned a case of Mono and I spent weeks at home recovering my health and my confidence. After only a month back at school my parents announced we were moving to another town. I’d like to think it was because of my problems and the anti-semitic neighbors, but in reality they were motivated by the horror of sharing one bathroom with three daughters. Nevertheless, I was glad for the escape route.

Several years ago, I was in the area and curious to see my old street. The Spook House was long gone — replaced with a white Colonial and green lawn. I am not haunted by that vision of a waving hand. I am sure I imagined it. I know I did not imagine the terrorizing of the real phantoms. It turned out the scariest things didn’t live in the crumbling empty houses. They resided in the pretty painted houses. I don’t like scary movies. But I’m not afraid of the dark anymore. Sometimes the most frightening things happen in broad daylight.

Boots on the Ground

I was wearing black Billy Martin cowboy boots, a sweater and leggings when I met my husband on a blind date. He wore a towel. I was trying to project nonchalant chic.  He was running late, but I’m pretty sure he was just boasting his biceps.  Boots and leggings are pretty much still my uniform, but I’ve since trained my husband to wear pants when answering the door.

Thirty-two years have passed, but when the leaves and the temperatures drop and boot season begins, I am reminded of that fall when we fell in love. Maybe that’s why I still love wearing boots.  Boots are comfort food for my soles. My feet have taken me through almost sixty years, twenty-five countries, fifteen years of work pumps, hundreds of runs in stiff ski boots, thousands of uneven subway steps, hours of parties in crippling stilettos.  I’ve worn shoes that would make Chinese foot binding feel like Ugg slippers.  My big toes have endured two painful surgeries as a result.   My feet have earned the right to be comfortable.

In NYC shoes are transportation. My favorite wheels are my worn-in, black, knee-high Aquatalia boots that have mercifully morphed to the topography of my aching feet.  They are low-heeled, waterproof, and rubber soled. They are an SUV for my feet – sturdy, reliable and designed for all types of terrain.  I zip them up like I am buckling my seatbelt and I’m ready to hit the road. I’m a superhero.  I feel like Wonder Woman — without the bustier and the gorgeous hair.  NYC is my territory.  In boots I can cover a lot of ground – taking in street after street of Chelsea galleries without getting a blister.  I feel powerful hopping on a Citibike and pedaling to Soho with my trusty treads and my foldable helmet. I have no fears heading to the Union Square farmer’s market with the confidence that I can stride back home lugging bags of apples, greens and a bouquet of zinnias.  The Lake Erie size slush puddles are no match for these boots as I conquer the icy mountains and melting pools that form on street corners after a winter storm.  I’m impermeable.

Each fall I head to Saks and Bergdorfs to hunt through the shelves of stunning shoes and boots.  But those shoe departments might as well be a shoe museum.  The pointy, high heeled styles are like a European sports car – sleek and sexy, overpriced, impractical and hard to get into.  At least a sports car is built for speed.  These are most definitely not.

I feel fast and safe and strong in my favorite boots. But it’s time for a change – so I’ve bought them in gray.  For too many years I chose style over comfort.  In my boots and leggings I have the best of both worlds.  I can truly be comfortable in my own shoes.

Snakes in the Grass – A Father’s Lesson 

I grew up the middle of three sisters in a pink house on a cul de sac in the suburbs of Randolph, NJ, in a neighborhood so idyllic our street was named Comfort Court. My sister Meredith was four years younger so she was either being ignored or tortured by my sister Lisa and me. Lisa was only 16 months older than me. We couldn’t have been more different. While I was always in girly clothes with a bow or headband in my hair, Lisa was a tomboy with horn-rimmed glasses and frizzy hair. I played with dolls…she collected all kinds of pets and insects. Despite our differences we liked to be outside exploring our neighborhood together.    

Across from our house was my best friend Jeannie’s house, and behind their house was a sheep farm. We liked to visit the wooly sheep and feed them carrots. To get to the pasture you had to jump over a small stream, scramble onto a large flat topped boulder the neighborhood kids named “Big Rock”, and hop over the low security wire fence onto the grassy field. One afternoon, we must have been about 10 and 11, and we were wandering in the sheep field when I spotted a striped garter snake wriggling among the grass. It couldn’t have been more than 8 inches long but to me it might as well have been a python. I was terrified. I jumped onto the nearest boulder as high pitched screams came from my tiny 60 pound frame. My sister calmly grabbed up the snake for her menagerie as my cries pierced the air. It was only a minute or too later that I spotted my savior — my terrified father running up Jeannie’s driveway sweating in a white undershirt and pants, looking stricken and shouting, “What’s the matter?! What’s wrong?!”  

“HELP! I saw a snake… Lisa caught a snake!!!” I shouted, knowing that I was about to be saved from this dangerous viper. Realizing that no one was bleeding, kidnapped or dead, and angry that I had caused him so much alarm, my father looked at me standing there knock-kneed and screeching. With relief and annoyance he chastised me, “That’s why you’re screaming like that?!” Before he even crossed into the field for my rescue, he turned and walked back towards our house. Somehow I managed to gain the courage to jump off that rock and run home too.  

Don’t get me wrong – my father is warm and sweet and loving. He’s also a war hero who experienced danger much graver than a harmless snake. At 18 years old, he left for WWII and earned a purple heart, an oak leaf cluster and a silver star for his brave actions in combat. He seemed to love being the only guy in a household of women, but he wasn’t about to raise a bunch of sissies. During the late 1960s when traditional roles meant girls couldn’t even wear pants to my school, my father taught us to be confident and strong. He taught us to draw, and grow pink roses and how to plant string beans and corn in our garden. He also taught us to shoot a bb gun into an old Clorox bottle used as a target hanging from the swingset in our back yard. He taught us to bait a hook, ski down a mountain, and change a tire. He showed us how to fix a broken toilet, and a broken heart.  

That day in the sheep pen my sister gained a new pet. I gained an insight into where my father’s patience for nonsense ended.

Meredith has forgiven me for the teasing. My sister Lisa has a farm now. She raises chickens and takes in neglected animals. I still like fancy clothes and accessories. But I also have my own power tools and I can patch sheetrock.  

 One thing my father never taught me – a love of snakes. Good thing I live in a city now.  

A Tale of Two Cities

When my son, Dylan, moved to Chicago almost two years ago I was really sad. I consoled myself with the hope was that he would work there for two years and then return to New York. As I wished – he started to express interest in coming back this summer. He loves his job but he misses family and friends and he contacted some head hunters and has an interview coming up. I was hopeful.

Last week he flew to San Francisco for the weekend to visit two great guys who had left his company last spring for jobs out there. He had a fantastic time and visited Sonoma and mentioned how much he loved it there. Who wouldn’t….!? He texted me he could live there. I texted back “Nooooooooo!”

Three days later my husband Marty and I flew out to Aspen for a last minute weekend trip. We were having a wonderful time. I had a nearly perfect day. As we headed to take the van into town Friday, Marty asked if I saw the email Dylan had sent him. I had not. He handed me his iPad. Dylan’s email to Marty said, “I was asked to fly back to San Francisco next week to meet with the guys from Rockpoint who I had met with last week and they hinted I had the job and if they offer it to me I would most likely take it”.

I was speechless. I didn’t even know he went there for an interview. I felt deceived. I felt devastated. Disappointed. Hurt. I felt like crying. I immediately texted my friend Lori to tell her what happened and how upset I was. As we piled into the van to go to town, Robin and Peter, our hosts in Aspen, tried to console me, telling me their son might move to LA. As we rode into town I started a rant – only half seriously, I loudly announced that we shouldn’t have had children – you spend time and money and kill yourself for them and they just leave you. I pictured my son across the country living his own life and not being there for holidays and birthdays and last minute dinners.

Marty didn’t seem as worried as I was. He said – “you can visit him, it’s not so bad.”
“You’re a father. It’s not the same,” I yelled. “You didn’t breastfeed them. You didn’t bond the same way. Maybe I should breastfeed you and then you’d stick around more too.” Robin thought this might be a good time to point out that there were others in the van who I hadn’t even noticed. I sulked in silence.

We got into town and walked around for a bit. I tried retail therapy. I was feeling dejected but tried to think of some positives and how I wanted to move there at his age and was held back by my parents and friends. I didn’t want to do that to him. Well, actually I did. After an hour or so Dylan called Marty. After a few minutes Marty handed me the phone. I calmly told Dylan I saw the email. “Oh, dad showed you?” he asked guiltily.

I was restrained. I told him I was sad to hear he would think about going so far. I told him it was a wonderful place to live. And I understood the appeal but wasn’t the point of leaving Chicago to be with family and friends? He said he had two great friends out there. He could go to wine country every weekend. And maybe it wouldn’t be permanent. I asked, what if you fall in love with someone there and never come home? Dylan said – Wouldn’t that be a good thing if my life was good? I have to think about myself right now..

I nearly lost it. … I was stunned. That little shit…he continued talking but I barely heard him as I thought of what to say next. Wait, what did he just say? Did I hear that right!?

Yes! April Fools. He was saying April Fools! Yes! I fell for it! I started laughing. I started crying.  It was April 1. Practically a national holiday for me. I had even mentioned that morning that I needed to try to prank him. I tried to get Marty to help me think of a plot. But after years of elaborate pranks and epic tricks that included filming him looking at his pink bedazzled bar mitzvah invitation and then playing it for 200 people, planting fake prize winning notices inside boxes of fruit roll ups, and convincing him his soccer team had to take ballet lessons since the practice fields were unavailable – he’d gotten me back. Big time. And my deceiving husband was in on it. At what point I don’t know. I guess this scenario fed into my biggest anxiety and I didn’t even take a step back to think. It was terrible. It was wonderful. The student became the teacher. I’ve never been so mad. I’ve never been so relieved. I’ve never been so proud!

And I have 364 days to plan my revenge.


The Jury is Out

I received my Jury Summons a few weeks ago – it’s always a shock to see that blue envelope – it’s like getting a parking ticket or one of those speeding tickets caught by a mounted camera. You didn’t intentionally do anything wrong and yet you are being summoned to court.

Starting Sunday, I called in for three nights in a row and my luck held out – a recording told me YOU ARE NOT REQUIRED TO REPORT TO COURT TOMORROW PLEASE CALL AFTER 5 PM TOMORROW. I breathed a sigh of relief and went about my days. I called Wednesday night expecting to hear the same but there it was… REPORT AT 8:30 AM TOMORROW MORNING with directions on where to go and what to bring (a pen with black ink) and what not to bring (phones, laptops, electronics).
I showed up at 8:30 am at 500 Pearl Street – WITH my cellphone and WITHOUT a pen. After going through security and having my phone charger picked up on the Xray I idiotically answered YES when asked if I had a cell phone.Trick question. The man unceremoniously handed me a numbered ticket in exchange for said cell phone. I thought it best not to put up a struggle.
I entered the large waiting area and took a seat trying to imagine the next seven hours without my cell phone or a book or anyone I knew within a mile. My anxiety was palpable – drawing the attention of an equally stressed out guy behind me. We commiserated as we filled out papers as instructed (with a borrowed pen) and tried to figure out our chances of getting picked.

The assistant DA came into the room. After a few announcements the lights started to dim, shades descended from the top of the large windows and he announced that we would be watching a “short” 30 minute film! This film depicted people being asked to be on a Grand Jury – showing how it worked, how important it was to fill this civic duty, and how much people got out of doing this duty. All I could think of was how do I GET OUT of doing this duty. Part of me thought it might be interesting – after all I watch Dateline NBC and love to figure out interesting crime cases…but they repeatedly mentioned the vow of secrecy surrounding the proceedings in a Grand Jury and I was pretty sure that would be a problem for me.

The lights came on, and the shades stayed down – adding more drama to the DA’s next announcement – they would be picking 23 people to serve on the Grand Jury – who would serve 5 days a week for a period of no less than 30 days — Hey wait – didn’t my envelope say two weeks!!? Civic duty is one thing but 30 days started to seem like a sentence. It got worse. They would be picking 2 alternate jurors who would serve for 2 days a week for 14 months – that seemed like a LIFE sentence. I don’t even think criminals serve 14 months. And they probably get to look out a window. Now I was worried. The guy behind me was worried.

We listened carefully for an escape route as they listed the six excuses that the judge would consider. The first one wouldn’t work–I’m not over the age of 70 even though my feet feel like they are. Next one – having small kids at home. Does a 25 year old son living at home count? He still needs me to pick up his socks off the floor and put toilet paper in his bathroom. Another – am I the sole caretaker of an elderly parent? My parents are in Florida and though they probably shouldn’t be driving – they do and while they would like me to be there, I’m not. The other excuses were lack of knowledge of English, or having been a convicted felon, or serving in the military or being a police officer or firefighter. No excuses here. I started to panic. I started to get creative. I started twitching in my seat and stretching my back – prepared to use back pain as an excuse. My “friend” behind me started “remembering” the two business trips he needed to take in March. I started thinking about how I volunteer at a hospital on Thursdays and how they depend on me (that is actually true) and how I suffer from migraine headaches (somewhat true) and how I had once robbed a liquor store in college (definitely not true).
I felt like Katniss Everdeen during the reaping as they started picking the juror’s names one by one out of a wooden box. My odds of winning the recent record breaking PowerBall were about one in a billion and I was confident. Here I had a MUCH greater probability of getting picked and I prayed I wouldn’t be.

The first order of business was picking the Grand Jury. As he said each name, and I heard a different consonant that wasn’t an “S” exiting his lips, I breathed a little sigh of relief. After the first 23 names were read those who were now moved to the left side of the room got their turn to speak to the judge one at a time about an excuse. Apparently there were more than six. Little by little there were only about 10 left. They repeated this process. More names were read, and more people had excuses. Every person around me was called. My buddy was called. He was excused. I was praying his empty chair wasn’t soon to be filled with my body. My fingers were tapping. My feet were twitching about. My heart rate was increasing. Steven Avery looked more relaxed than me during his murder trial, documented on the Netflix series Making a Murderer. This process went on until the Grand Jury was picked. Great – except now they were going to pick the last two alternates. The 14 month commitment. Twice a week. One hundred and twenty days. In a courtroom. For $40 a day. Few seemed to want to do this. I wanted to text a friend to share my panic only to remember I had no phone.

There were 23 people in the Grand Jury seats. There were about 90 people in the excused people area. There were about 25 people remaining on my side. There were very good odds they would call my name. I ran through my list of excuses and wondered which one to use or if I should spit out all of them and hope one stuck. I imaged me telling my husband (a law school graduate ) how I had allowed myself to get a 14 month jury position.

The last two names were called. They were excused. Then two more names. They weren’t mine. They weren’t excused. I breathed a sigh of relief. I asked a man sitting next to me if he thought we were safe. “Yes,” he said, “ as long as they don’t ask us to come back and do this again tomorrow.” My face twisted in fear. Ten minutes later those who weren’t selected for the Grand Jury were asked to go into the hallway. The announcement that our Jury Duty was complete was met with cheers and applause. So much for civic duty. I felt that I had been acquitted. I used my Get Out of Jail Free card… for four more years