In September of 1986 I steered my powerless car onto the shoulder of the New Jersey Turnpike. My heart’s pounding sounded noisier than my automobile. Now what? I sat for a moment and pondered my predicament. Nearly midnight, the only light shone from a streetlight one hundred feet away. Well, there was also a faint sliver of moonlight that peaked through skittering clouds. It barely penetrated the gritty, stale-tasting air. In the midst of a scene dominated by oil refineries and smokestacks, the irony in the motto “Garden State” shrieked with each passing truck.


My previous car, a red Toyota Corolla, had performed flawlessly for three years. I had hoped to keep it for at least two more, when ice, combined with a steep hill and a telephone pole, made that impossible. I survived the crash unhurt but shaken with the reality that life is short. A single lawyer on the cusp of turning thirty, I decided to upgrade my wheels in terms of style, sportiness and fun.
With insurance money in hand I researched my choices in the Sunday newspaper. A BMW cost too much. “Muscle cars” like the Camaro or Grand Prix were below the dignity I deemed required by my career. Then I saw an advertisement for Pontiac’s new two-seat model, the Fiero. It boasted of a modern marvel, sheathed in plastic instead of aluminum, an automobile that growled like a racecar, looked like a Ferrari, and cost like a Pinto.
I resolved to check one out during a weekend visit to Philadelphia. There, I would see my parents as well as my brother, Barry, twelve years my senior, who was visiting from Los Angeles. Perhaps, I thought, Barry will assist me. After all, world renowned in his career as a corporate attorney, he had just fashioned the multi-million-dollar financial wizardry behind the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics. Surely, he could negotiate a deal on a car for me.


I was ten when Barry arrived home with his first car. A law student at the time, he needed basic transportation from his rental house on the outskirts of New Haven to Yale. He chose a used, light-green Dodge Comet that he dubbed “the vomit.”
By 1986, Barry had long-since forsaken such humble transportation for a Mercedes two-seat convertible. When I showed Barry the photograph of a Fiero, his enthusiasm for the sleek-looking automobile nearly overcame his aversion to anything produced in Detroit.
“It looks sharp,” he said. “Pontiacs aren’t terrible, on the outside, at least.”
“The suggested retail price is $12,000,” I told him.
“Ha, we’ll see about that,” he said.
Barry and I piled into my parents’ car to drive to an auto mall in Bryn Mawr. At the Pontiac lot I stood transfixed by my first sight of a Fiero in person. As promised, it looked like a miniature Ferrari, low, sleek and powerful. Pontiac offered no subtle shades with this baby. The only models available were black or fire engine red.
“What do you think?” asked Barry.
“Wow,” I said, wide-eyed. “How can it be so inexpensive?”
“Don’t talk like that in front of the salesman,” he said. “Dad would be upset.”
I laughed. Indeed, our father had enjoyed dueling with car salesmen like a cat enjoyed playing with mice. How many times could he get them to “go back to the manager?” How many free oil changes could he get them to “throw in?”


Expecting to encounter the usual middle-aged man, we were surprised when an attractive college-aged woman dressed a mini-skirt welcomed us.
“My name’s Gina,” she said. “Can I help you?
Barry and I glanced at each other with expressions that conveyed “unusual, but why not?”
“Okay, sure,” we said.
We explained I might be interested in a Fiero but needed to take a test drive first.
“That’s great,” said Gina. While she went to retrieve a key, we whispered to each other.
“She doesn’t look like a person who sells cars,” said Barry.
“She barely looks old enough to drive,” I said.
“Should be an easy negotiation,” said Barry.
I nodded.
“The car’s only got two seats,” said Barry. “You go with her, but don’t reveal anything, got it?”
“Yes sir,” I said, happy to have a supreme strategist on my side.
Moments later, I settled my lanky body deep into the low-slung driver’s seat. I felt as if I were taking charge of a rocket ship. Gina sat on the other side of a massive center console that contained temperature and radio controls worthy of a jet, as well as a gear shifter covered in walnut veneer. I pictured myself wearing a leather jacket and driving gloves; a person outside the car would never think the transmission was automatic. They’d never guess I didn’t know how to drive a stick-shift.
Confined to a small space with Gina, I became conscious of her perfume, her layers of make-up and the fact that she was chewing gum. Much of what I saw over the console was her bare knees and a substantial amount of thigh. It was hard to concentrate on the performance of the car.
“How long have you been selling cars?” I asked.
“This is my first day. Am I doing okay?” Her tone was so hesitant and vulnerable I felt sorry for her.
“Of course,” I said.
Actually, I had a rush of thoughts in that moment. First, I couldn’t believe my car salesperson was younger, less experienced and more insecure than I. Next, I pictured Barry talking her into selling the car practically for free. Finally, I knew I should listen to the engine, feel the steering, and consider the car’s responsiveness. But my first and second considerations dominated the third.
After we returned from the test drive, I felt I had to buy the car just for Gina’s sake, so her career would start off successfully. I gestured a thumbs-up to Barry. Without the benefit of the ride, of course, Barry had no such inclination.
“The price of $12,000, you realize, is out of the question,” he said, as we settled into a cubicle containing Gina’s small desk. She sat on one side, and we sat opposite her on metal chairs.
“Really?” she said, sounding hurt. “I’ll try my best.”
“Aren’t there other colors?” asked Barry though he knew black was fine with me.
“I’m sorry,” she said. “There are only two.”
“And plastic panels don’t seem very safe,” he said. “The car shouldn’t be priced higher than ten thousand dollars.”
Gina looked dismayed, as though she were about to cry.
“You know,” continued Barry, as he started to stand up. “I think we’ll keep looking.”
“Wait, wait,” said Gina. “Let me talk to the manager.”


As Gina departed, Barry settled back into his seat like a lawyer who’d just summarized a winning case to the jury.
“You want the car, right?” he asked me. “She’s gonna give it to you for under eleven.”
“Sure,” I said, impressed. I knew that without Barry, I probably would have offered to pay $11,800.
Gina returned and showed a slip of paper with the number $11,750.
“Gina,” said Barry. “You’ll have to do a lot better than that. Go ask the manager for the real price.”
Gina departed again. When she returned, she looked shaken.
“My manager’s really angry,” she said. “I’m not supposed to ask him again without a counter-offer.”
“He’ll get over it,” said Barry. “What’s the price now?”
“He said I can do $11,500, but not a penny less,” she said.
“Okay, here’s a counter-offer,” said Barry. “$10,500.”
Gina looked stricken. She walked towards the manager’s office like a prisoner to the gallows.
“I’d pay $11,500,” I whispered to Barry.
“I know,” he said. “But let’s see how low she’ll go.”


Unable to form a single cogent thought about how to proceed during ten minutes on the shoulder of the Turnpike, the arrival of a State Policeman was a great relief to me. Someone must have notified him of the disabled car. The officer parked behind my car, his lights flashing, and approached as though I were a criminal. Once he saw I was merely a likely lemon-law victim, he relaxed.
“Sure is a pretty little car,” he said.
“Can’t judge a book by its cover,” I said.
“I’ll call a tow-truck,” he said.
“I have Triple A,” I said. “I think they provide free towing.”
“Not on the Turnpike they don’t,” said the officer. “You have to use our contract tower.”
He handed me a business card for “Elite Towing Services.”
“Uh-oh,” I said. “Sounds expensive.”
“Yep,” said the officer. “Call them in the morning and tell them where to deliver the car. I’ll drive you to a payphone now so someone can pick you up.”
“Thanks,” I said.


Gina appeared to be trembling when she returned. She held out a piece of paper on which was scrawled in angry, male handwriting: “$11,250. Take it or leave.”
“Is that how to address a customer?” asked Barry.
“My boss is really angry,” said Gina, not looking up.
“We’ll leave,” said Barry.
I would have been delighted to pay $11,250, but I remembered my father’s scorched earth strategy when he had negotiated for my Corolla. Although unpleasant, we had ended up with the car and several hundred additional dollars in savings.
“Don’t worry,” said Barry, when we reached the parking lot. “Walk slowly. You’ll see. She’ll chase after us in a minute.”
We dawdled. We stalled. No Gina.
“I’m impressed,” said Barry. “I guess we’ll have to actually drive home and make the deal over the phone. They’ll need a couple hours to prepare the car, anyway.”
Barry’s confidence buoyed me. He had a feel for the process. I pictured myself in the Fiero by that evening, driving around the neighborhood like the Grand Prix, people looking and pointing in admiration.
When we arrived home after a twenty-minute ride, Barry handed me the phone.
“You seal the deal, counselor,” he said. “She’ll take eleven.”
I dialed the number and asked for Gina.
“Who’s calling?” asked the receptionist.
“Stuart Sanders,” I said.
“I’m sorry,” said the receptionist. “She can’t come to the phone. She’s busy.”
“Will you have her call me back?” I asked.
“Um, no,” said the receptionist. “She’s not allowed to talk to you or your brother.”
I hung up and related the conversation to Barry.
“This is outrageous,” he said. Not one to miss a battle, he said: “Let’s go!”
Barry and I headed back to the dealership.
“We won’t be treated this way,” Barry said, as he drove.
I don’t recall the rest of our conversation, but it consisted of an odd mix of disbelief, anger and respect for the toughness of the negotiations. When we arrived at the entrance a large, middle-aged man blocked our way.
“You’re not welcome here,” he said.
Shocked, Barry asked: “You are telling me you won’t sell us a car?”
“That’s correct,” said the man. “And if you don’t leave right now, I’ll call the police and tell them you’re trespassing.”
“I’ve never experienced anything like this at a car dealer,” said Barry.
“There’s a first for everything,” said the man.
Shaken, we retreated to our car.
“You might have to check out a dealership in North Jersey,” said Barry to me. “They’ll probably have better prices anyway.”
“Yes,” I said. “That was weird.”
“The weirdest,” said Barry.
We speculated for the rest of the weekend about what had happened. Was that particular dealership the only one in the world where customers paid list price? Was Gina the owner’s daughter or in some other way intimately connected? I didn’t think Barry had said anything offensive or abusive. I knew I hadn’t. What transpired at that dealership still remains a mystery.
As soon as I returned home I went to the bustling, local Pontiac dealership. I struck a deal with a disinterested, toupee-topped salesman for $11,200 without theatrics. When I told him what had happened in suburban Philadelphia, he just shrugged. “They probably don’t do much volume,” he said. “We got lots of cars.”
Even as I drove my new car off the lot, I realized I’d made a mistake. Throughout the year of my ownership, I experienced soreness because my neck never adjusted to the forty-five degree angle necessary for me to climb into the Fiero. The slightest miscalculation often resulted in bashing my head against the roof frame. After two months, the door locks malfunctioned. After four, one headlight failed to open. I began to notice that the one-headlight-up, one-headlight-down status typified other Fiero’s I saw on the street.
To the uninformed public, the Fiero looked as sharp as advertised.
“Hey buddy, wanna race?” said a teenager at a stoplight, while he revved the engine of his Camaro. I just smiled and stared ahead.
By that time, several months after my purchase, I understood the Fiero wouldn’t stand a chance in a drag race. Its power rivaled a low-level Buick’s more than a sports car. On occasion, a sound signaled the loosening of some essential component under the hood. Prior to owning a Fiero, I knew nothing about the various wires, pipes and belts that represented the guts of an engine. To my dismay and amazement, I could now distinguish the squeal of a loose fan belt from the grinding of a transmission. As I suspected, the complete detachment of the fan belt is what landed me on the shoulder that evening.


While I waited to be picked up by a friend from a motel just off the exit in Ridgefield, NJ, I resolved to dump the Fiero as soon as possible. I realized the outward appearance of the car didn’t make up for its debilitating lack of dependability. Like a woman wearing flats because stiletto heels killed her feet, I craved a car that would just take me where I needed to go. Having decided to embrace dullness over what I now knew to be false pizzazz, I traded with little negotiation for a four-door, navy blue Ford. No one would crane a neck when I drove by. No longer the envy of teenagers and other uninformed car enthusiasts, I resumed total anonymity on the roads.

Postscript: Two months after I said good riddance to my Fiero, a drunk driver plowed into the rear of my Ford at forty miles per hour while I waited at a red light. My car was totaled but I survived with just a minor bruise and a cut from flying glass. Had I been in my tiny two-seater, it’s fair to say this story would not have been written.


For thirty hours, I consumed the prescribed yellow glop, and almost nothing else, in preparation for undergoing a colonoscopy. The AARP should include a coupon for the procedure, a classic rite of passage into life’s second half.
Unfortunately, the five-year interval between procedures keeps passing and the promised end of the preparation ordeal never seems closer. It’s like the 100-mile per gallon cars that are always five years away. They remain there, elusive, out of reach.
By the morning of the procedure I am completely without energy, without content and without charm. My wife, Katie, has long since found something to do, somewhere, anywhere else.
“Um, I have to go see if the public library needs help alphabetizing,” she said yesterday, when I was halfway through the liquid. This morning, she said, “I have to check on the bird-feeders.”
“But ours is full,” I said.
“I mean the ones in the rest of the neighborhood,” she said. I heard the door close behind her before I could reply.
I don’t usually consume large amounts of liquid. I force myself to sip water between games when I play tennis. I’m not a coffee drinker and I’ve never chugged a beer or even iced tea from top to bottom of an eight-ounce glass. Sixty-four ounces is a long, slow slog.
The first time I did this, ten years ago, the purgative tasted and looked like chalk. In a modest measure of progress, it now hints of lemon. While the taste is slightly better, the visual and physical challenges of consuming a gallon of vaguely yellow liquid persist.


When I arrive at the hospital, I’m given a remarkably threadbare hospital gown. Why are they called “gowns” when that sounds so substantial? How about “rags” or “shmattas?” Anyway, the “gown” is open at the back. At a normal medical appointment, this is okay because the patient is sitting, facing forward, his cold feet dangling, as the doctor thumps and harrumphs around him. With a colonoscopy, however, the open rear is the access point, the field where the ball game is played. In fact, it’s the entire disgusting stadium.
The doctor, nurse and an assistant or two stand behind me gaping with attitudes of practiced professional distance. But I know they are just one small fart away from laughing hysterically. I wonder if I’m being compared favorably to other patients; I consider whether I’d like to hear what they say as soon as they’re in private.
To the horror of the assembled professionals, I’ve opted to endure the procedure without sedation. Having already ruined two days preparing, I’d rather suffer pain for several moments than spend the rest of the day in woozy non-comprehension.
“Are you sure?” asks the nurse.
“Absolutely,” I say.
“It can be uncomfortable,” says the doctor.
“I’ve done it before,” I say.
The actual procedure takes about forty minutes. The doctor inserts a prod and manipulates it through the lower intestine revealing cave-like images on the screen before me. Mostly, it’s merely unpleasant. But at two or three turning points, the feeling is intensely nauseating; my insides being kneaded like dough.
“Hmmmm,” says the doctor.
“What is it?” I want to cry out, but remain silent, in order to preserve a tiny shred of dignity, while laying in front of a room of people with my ass exposed and occasionally dribbling yellow liquid.
“Hmmmm,” he says again.
I think he’s forgotten I’m awake. I picture hearing about polyps and biopsies and similar words I never want to hear concerning my body.
“What is it?” I finally blurt.
“Mnnnnn,” he says. “Hang in there a little longer.”
The suspense is torturous. The minutes go by like hours. Finally, it’s over. I release my hold on the metal bar in front of me. I think I’ve made an indentation.
“Everything looks good,” says the doctor, doling out the words like fine jewels.
I breathe deeply and reach for a towel.
“Will this procedure ever become simpler?” I ask.
“Sure,” says the doctor, as he always does. “Within five years, I‘m sure we’ll be able to do this without the prep.”
Is he serious? I can’t tell.


My earliest political recollection, from when I was several months short of my fourth birthday, is of the 1960 debate between Kennedy and Nixon. My parents and at least one of my older brothers gathered in the downstairs recreation room to watch it on our black-and-white, rabbit-eared television. While they sat on a low-slung couch about fifteen feet from the television, I set up my toy trucks and soldiers on the green and white-checked linoleum floor in between.
Why, I’m not sure, but in the presence of ardent Kennedy supporters, I took the contrarian position of rooting for Nixon. The same impulse made me root for the Cubs in a household of Phillies’ fans and for the Cowboys where only Eagles flew. Perhaps a child psychologist might have a theory. It can’t be because Nixon looked like a nicer guy.
Eventually, I gravitated into my family’s progressive orbit and supported Gene McCarthy’s insurgency against Johnson in 1968, McGovern in 1972, and so on. Attending a Quaker school from 1968-1974 reinforced my support of basic positions that fell most often in the following categories: anti-war, pro-equal rights, pro-environment. When bombing took place in Laos and Cambodia in 1970, a vague distaste for then-President Nixon hardened into outright revulsion. By the time of the 1973 Watergate hearings, which I watched with fascination, he had become the evil bogeyman that would persist in my mind and that of millions of others.
Through it all, and in spite of my father’s ardent distaste for politicians of every stripe, including the ones he supported, I found politics interesting. When I went to college in 1974, I planned to major in political science. Though English literature became my primary field of study, I completed enough courses in such mind-numbing subjects as “Structures of State and Local Government” to qualify for a double major. I still believed our efforts to govern ourselves, as well as those who did the governing, were worthy of respect.

It used to be that the difference between Democrats and Republicans most often had to do with tax and spending philosophy. Obviously, there were individual variations, and that was the beauty of it. A Republican like Lowell Weicker or Arlen Spector could appeal to Democratic voters. A Democrat like George Wallace could be as despicable as a banana republic dictator.
Fast forward four decades. It’s virtually impossible to have enthusiasm for a single candidate on either side. They aren’t normal people. They are narcissists or blowhards or exhibitionists or liars or multi-millionaires who were born on third base and think they hit a triple. Most likely, they are all of the above. What happened? Is it the 24-7 cable news cycle? Is it the special interests? Is it the unlimited campaign money?
When Nixon and Kennedy debated, one could reasonably believe that some insight into their positions might be gleaned. Doubtless the candidates of that era prepared and practiced. But did they merely memorize talking points? If they did, at least it seemed possible the talking points were their own. They weren’t provided a script by a national organization funded by the likes of the Koch Brothers.
Now, one party can generally be described as feckless and incompetent. The other is heartless and willfully ignorant. When I go to the polls in two weeks, my senatorial choice in North Carolina is between two candidates: one is a wealthy woman who promises adherence to the middle, as though mediocrity is a virtue, and who has accomplished exactly … I can’t think of a thing; and, the second is a corporate-owned cipher who brags about having led the charge to dismantle educational spending, environmental protections, voting rights and who opposes freedom of choice for women and gays. Oh, and did I mention he denies climate change and supports carrying guns at the State Fair?
I’ll vote for the woman, since she’s too ineffectual to harm most of the things I favor. I have no hope she’ll advance an important cause. For instance, she won’t lead the charge to establish something like the EPA. She won’t threaten her corporate contributors with something like the Clean Air Act or the Clean Water Act. She won’t initiate a major health initiative like the War on Cancer. She won’t figure out how to peacefully desegregate schools or achieve a diplomatic breakthrough with a sworn enemy. She won’t preside over a radical societal change like Title IX, which ended gender bias in universities. In other words, I’ll vote for someone without the slightest hope she will turn out to be a visionary, like, it’s incredibly, unbelievably, amazingly painful to say, Richard Nixon.


Anyone who has watched a soccer game knows the goaltender’s job involves intermittent spasms of exertion followed by long stretches of inactivity. Only the goalie of a completely overmatched team is active enough to be physically worn out. Mentally, however, the position is exhausting. It’s essential to remain focused no matter how far away the ball, so decision-making and reactions are sharp, when necessary. Unfortunately, early in one particular game in my first season as goaltender for Dickinson College, my thoughts flitted like flies due to repeated fouls I endured from the opposing Number Nine. As a result, the only punch I’ve ever thrown began to percolate.
Until that fateful day, violence played no part in my life. Some credit is due my temperament, I suppose, but my parents deserve primary credit. They created a safe environment. My father, in particular, disdained physical confrontation. He most often expressed his distaste in connection with sports, a field that held great interest to me, but none to him.
“Animals,” he grumbled each time the television news showed a highlight. Though otherwise respectful and engaged in my activities, my father ignored my near-obsessive participation in baseball and soccer, and left my mother the task of taking me to and from practices and games. Football and ice hockey didn’t appeal to me, fortunately, or we might have argued. Although my father didn’t exercise a veto of my choices, if he had, I wouldn’t have played anything more physical than table tennis.
To put this in perspective, my father never saw me play soccer in middle school or high school. He saw only parts of several baseball games over the years. The only athlete’s name he seemed to know, from local news reports, was the Phillies’ 1970’s-era catcher, Bob Boone. My father liked to repeat his name as fast as possible, as though the resulting sound proved his point.


The first time he fouled me, Number Nine kicked my ankle. It struck me as accidental and not extraordinary, given the context. I’d gone to my knees to gather a low shot and he arrived hoping for a rebound. He even mumbled: “Oops, sorry.”
The second time, only moments later, Number Nine nicked my nose with his forearm after I had caught a routine shot. The referee called a foul and, again, Number Nine said: “Sorry.” I glared at him as formidably as possible to try to convey: “Don’t do that again.”
Only a few minutes later, I dove to block a bouncing shot with my chest, and pounced on the rebound. Enough of an interval passed for me to stand up with the ball in my arms when my tormentor plowed into me from behind and caused me to fall to the ground. The referee ran over and showed Number Nine a yellow warning card, and said to him, “One more and you’re out of the game.” Again, my apologetic opponent said “Sorry” as he jogged away.
“Quit saying sorry and quit doing it!” I blurted to his departing back, as I wiped grass and dirt off my forehead. He turned and glared at me as though there were something wrong with me, as though I should be more understanding, as though the opportunity to be a human piñata was an honor he had bestowed upon me. I thought I detected a smirk. I recall having felt disbelief mixed with anger, my heart pounding.


My consolation was that Number Nine had been warned and certainly wouldn’t hit me again, lest he be thrown out. For fifteen or twenty uneventful minutes, I focused exclusively on the flow of play. After I caught a slow, non-threatening shot, to my amazement, Number Nine ran alongside me and swung his elbow into my shoulder. Instinctively, I shifted the soccer ball to my left hand and flung my entire body, led by my right hand, at his receding head. I felt only air and a few strands of his hair on my knuckles. I nearly fell over from the effort. Simultaneous with the referee’s shrill whistle I looked up to see my father, wide-eyed and open-mouthed, standing just ten feet behind the goal, having chosen to surprise me by driving over two hours to the game.
Here I was, his son, away from his home for just one month, trying to deliver a knockout punch like Muhammed Ali, though not nearly as gracefully or successfully. The referee arrived to wave a yellow card in my face and then turned to Number Nine with a red card, ejecting him. Thus, justice was done, but my father received my explanation over dinner with evident skepticism.
“This is what they teach you at college?” he finally asked.
For certain, nothing he saw that day changed his opinion about sports.

NEIGHBORS When we moved to our previous home in New Jersey, we were excited to meet our new neighbors. At the time, we had two young children and a third on the way. Four of the five neighboring homes housed children under six and parents similar to us. We envisioned the kids growing up together like a non-related Kennedy clan, with touch football and basketball in the cul-de-sac, book groups and mahjong for the moms, golf for the dads. We’d have carpools and birthday parties for kids and adults alike, barbecues and even occasional dips in a hot tub. All the foregoing came to be, at least for a while. After several years, most of the children drifted apart. The adults, too, found other friends and interests more compelling and our little street became a place of occasional, friendly chats and waves through the car windows. We’d developed lives beyond our street, but we knew if we needed a cup of sugar or our newspaper picked up, we had people we could call. ***** And then “they” arrived, ominously dressed in black, like crows. Yes, one day, my wife, Katie looked out our bedroom window and saw two people, dressed all in black, trampling through our side lawn that backed up to thick woods. Before that day, we’d never thought about what was on the other side of the woods; we knew an old, frame house stood adjacent to a driveway leading to the street in the opposite direction from our house. The large property was pizza-slice-shaped, its point touching our cul-de-sac but then spreading back fifty yards through thick woods to where it opened up to the house site. Home alone at the time, Katie went out to investigate. “May I help you?” she asked. The couple turned and faced her sullenly. They appeared to be sizing her up. After a moment, the thick-muscled man in his late twenties said: “We’re walking our boundaries.” “You got a problem with that?” added the overweight woman beside him. “Well, actually,” said Katie, struggling to remain composed, “you’re on our property right now.” “The hell we are,” said the man. “I can go in and get the survey, if you’d like to see it,” said Katie. “Shit, let’s go,” said the woman. They turned back to the woods and began to walk away, but not before the woman turned and spat on the grass. “What a bitch,” she said, as they receded. “We should kill her,” said the man, just loud enough for Katie to hear. Katie ran into our house and dialed 911. “A pair of trespassers were just on my property and one threatened to kill me.” “I’ll send a police car ASAP,” assured the dispatcher. When the cruiser arrived moments later Katie explained what had happened. The young officer, whose last name was DiMaria, listened intently. “I’ll take care of it, ma’am,” he said, but Katie thought she detected a slight smile. “Thank you,” she said. “Will you let me know who they are when you know?” “Absolutely,” he said. Katie closed the door and called me at the office to tell me about the bizarre incident. While we were speaking, Officer DiMaria returned. Katie hung up, but related her conversation to me when I came home. “Nothing to fear,” he said. “What about the threat?” said Katie. “They’re your new neighbors, Vince and Carla Cucillo,” said the policeman. “I’ve known Vince a long time. He said he was just joking around. You must not have heard him clearly.” “I know exactly what I heard, and it was a threat,” she said. “And why were they all dressed in black?” “Oh,” said Officer DiMaria, smiling again. “Vince and Carla had a family funeral this morning. They’ll behave from now on. They’re not even moving in for a while. They just wanted to see where they come out on the cul-de-sac.” “They don’t come out on the cul-de-sac, according to our survey,” said Katie. “As to property lines, um, that’s up to the lawyers to figure out,” said the officer. “There’s nothing to figure out,” said Katie. “It’s clear, and that’s no way to meet neighbors. If they enter our property again, I’ll call the police again. You can tell your friends that.” Officer DiMaria shrugged. “Sure thing,” he said. ***** We didn’t encounter our new neighbors again for several months. Occasionally, unidentified cars drove slowly around our cul-de-sac and paused while their occupants appeared to stare at the woods. The limit of the Cucillos’ property had been marked with a pink ribbon in conjunction with their closing. None of our other neighbors had encountered the Cucillos and none seemed concerned. They didn’t take Katie’s story seriously. We tried to put the incident behind us but were still unsettled. Each time we drove into our driveway we faced the woods in their direction, saw the pink ribbon, and couldn’t help but think about who lived on the other side. One morning, we heard the sound of heavy machinery. When I drove by on the way to work, I saw the old house and garage on the Cucillo property being razed. By that evening, the lot on the other side of the woods was empty. “We still have a thick boundary of trees,” I said to Katie, seeking to reassure her as well as myself. “We’ll never have to deal with them.” “I hope not,” said Katie. Over the next several months, a frenzy of construction commenced and a massive red brick colonial emerged three stories high in our forested neighborhood of wood-framed contemporaries. “They don’t have taste,” we said, shaking our heads, along with most of the neighbors. “But they must have plenty of money.” Our next-door neighbor reportedly heard their family business was trash disposal. ***** As soon as the Cucillo family moved into their new home, activity increased in the woods between our properties. They had two sons who were about five and three. Our children were now seven, nine and fourteen. When they played in the cul-de-sac on their bikes, or shot baskets, the Cucillo boys watched through the woods. Occasionally, the boys tossed small stones or sticks and shouted something unintelligible. If anyone in the cul-de-sac moved in their direction, they scurried back towards their house. “I hate those kids,” said my youngest, Sam. “They’re so nasty,” said my daughter, Sarah. “The older one said he’s going to beat us up.” “Let him try. He’s like five years old,” scoffed Sam. “Their parents are awful, too,” I agreed. Considering their original greeting, their livelihood, and their unpleasant children, I occasionally referred to them as “the trash people.” I knew this was not enlightened parenting. Nonetheless, I found the term irresistible. When our kids repeated it, Katie and I both told them not to, but our discipline was somewhat half-hearted. ***** Incidents with the Cucillo children accumulated over the years. On Halloween, they vandalized our mailbox with eggs. Another time, they sprayed shaving cream on our cars. Frequently, we heard the boys screaming and fighting. Once, the older boy tied the younger one to a tree and left him wailing piteously for several hours. Another time they were jumping off tree limbs so high we were certain one would break his neck. We marveled that their parents didn’t come out to stop them. We thought it best to ignore the Cucillos and their children, and took comfort in the usual protection afforded by the thick line of trees. However, about three years after they’d arrived, the sound of tree removal awoke us one morning. It sounded as though we were in the midst of a logging operation. Several men with saws and grinders were assaulting our buffer. Knowing the town ordinance limited tree removal to six a year, Katie ran outside and towards the uproar. She waved her arms until a worker approached. “What are you doing?” she asked, noticing his tee shirt said “Cucillo Enterprises.” He shrugged: “Carla told us to cut ‘em down.” “You can’t just cut down the whole forest,” said Katie. “Carla’s afraid of trees,” he said. “What?” said Katie. “She thinks they’ve got monsters or something,” said the man. He laughed. Katie came back inside and called town hall, but it would be several hours before the building department answered their phone. By the time a local official arrived, only a thin line of trees marked the boundary between our properties. We learned that the Cucillos paid several hundred dollars in fines for their illegal cutting, but the harm was already done. Soon thereafter, Vince could be seen operating machinery in the now-treeless area. He used a backhoe to create several mounds for jumps and, by that afternoon, raced around the yard on an off-road vehicle along with several adult friends. The noise continued for hours. When the adults finally finished, the boys, now around eight and ten began racing on mopeds, their yelps and shrieks even louder than the roar of the engines. Again, Katie called town hall. “There’s nothing in the ordinance against it,” said a man in the building department. “You can file a noise complaint, if you want.” “What will that do?” asked Katie. “Well, if the officer comes around and hears too much noise, he’ll ask ‘em to stop,” said the official. “That’s it?” said Katie. “Yep. That’s about it,” said the man. As we feared, riding around the backyard on motorcycles and ATV’s became a weekend routine for the Cucillos. We complained several times to the town. Each time, the noise stopped for thirty minutes or an hour, and then resumed. We recognized they delighted in irritating us and there was nothing meaningful we could do. I found myself harboring awful thoughts, hoping someone would suffer a catastrophic injury. I’d like to think I would not actually be delighted if such a thing happened, but…. ***** We began to find places to go on weekends just to be away from the noise. We returned one day to see ladders beside one of the remaining tall trees. Cucillo Enterprises had constructed a massive tree house for the boys to play in. Fortunately, it was closer to our other neighbors’ driveway than to ours, but the boys would still loom over our cul-de-sac and threaten our privacy. Our next-door neighbors, Rich and his wife, Lucy, who had never found the Cucillos’ noise as bothersome as we did, went over to talk to them. They returned looking shell-shocked: “Those are the nastiest people I’ve ever met,” said Rich. “We’ve thought that for several years,” said Katie. “Vince says he can do whatever he wants,” said Rich. “Next, they’re going to build a pool,” said Liz. “Oh, no,” said Katie. “Imagine all their relatives and their kids hanging around all summer.” “Why can’t we ever anticipate the next disaster?” I said, sourly. When we went inside, Katie said: “We’ll never be able to sell this house if people see their house, their pool and their tree house when they enter our driveway.” Pondering that thought, I could only shake my head. ***** We hadn’t actually decided to move when we visited North Carolina for a long weekend away. But our children were nearly off to college and our house would seem empty without them. Between that and the Cucillos’ impending swimming pool, we were susceptible to falling in love with a warmer climate, a university town and a brand-new house. We contracted to buy on the spot. “How can you make a decision like that just on impulse?” asked a relative. “There’s more than just impulse behind it,” I assured her. Within six months, we had sold our house and arranged a move south. Our children readily agreed with our decision. ***** Now, we live in a gated community with an embarrassingly pretentious name, “The Governors Club.” There are rules and rules and rules. Motorcycles in the backyard? Laughable! A treehouse overlooking a neighbor’s home? Inconceivable. You can’t even plant a shrub without getting permission from the “Architectural Review Board.” Holiday lights can only be white. The color of our exterior paint is subject to approval. Such restrictions used to strike me as ludicrous and un-American. Our neighbor to the left is a widower who spends most of his time traveling. To our right are married university professors with whom we’ve exchanged words once, when the husband introduced himself to complain our lawn could not be cut after five o’clock. Across the street are three houses. On the left facing us resides a reclusive Chinese couple. Next to them are folks who spend most of their time at their second home in South Carolina. Finally, in the third house across from us, is an elderly pair we’ve never met, though they do occasionally wave when they trundle to their mailbox. Sounds awful, doesn’t it? Well, after living so close to “the trash people,” we love it.


An attraction of life in a university town is the multitude of cultural opportunities. Recently, I drove twenty minutes from Chapel Hill to Duke’s Nasher Museum to see the opening of a Robert Rauschenberg exhibit. First, I attended the keynote address, delivered by a Duke professor, a Rauschenberg devotee.
“Bob would be so pleased you’ve all come out,” she said, to the audience of several hundred.
Apparently, her friend “Bob,” who died in 2008, would have enjoyed the evening on several levels, particularly the bar at the post-talk reception. “Bob,” sadly, struggled with dyslexia as a child and alcohol addiction throughout his adult life.
Late in life, though he had achieved professional and economic success beyond his wildest dreams, Rauschenberg was plagued with ill health. His struggles were often reflected in form-negating images. One renowned series of canvases, for instance, were all white. When he finished with that, Rauschenberg produced a series of compositions that were all black.
“I work in the area between art and life,” Rauschenberg is quoted as saying. “In the crack.” Indeed. Not a surprising self-image for an artist reportedly told by his father on his deathbed: “I never did like you, you son-of-a-bitch.”

Though Rauschenberg is known for his monochromatic canvases, among other thought-provoking (head-scratching?) creations, he also produced legions of humorous and whimsical works over a half-century career. Fire hydrants, for instance, are a recurring image, as Rauschenberg is said to have considered them sexually evocative. He’s correct, if one looks from a certain perspective, and ignores their actual function. In addition, experts contend that Rauschenberg is important because he “anticipated” several trends in modern art.
Generally, I’m receptive to abstraction. Miro is among my favorite artists. Our walls at home support a mixture of realistic and non-representational art. And, though I’m not certain I understand what the artists tried to convey, I enjoy the bizarre work of artists like Dali and Magritte. But I have difficulty appreciating the artistic value of a piece I saw at the Rauschenberg exhibit consisting of the photograph of newspaper in front of a Van Gogh masterpiece, or the one where he hung a piece of scrap metal on a wall.
According to the speaker, Rauschenberg admired the work of Willem DeKooning. He manifested this by requesting one of DeKooning’s canvases and erasing it. The negation was creativity itself, asserted Bob. Reluctantly, DeKooning had played along, though he had the good sense to hand over a lesser work, one deemed unlikely to find a buyer.

“One does not make art,” Rauschenberg said, in a televised interview, while his inquisitor looked on, her facial expression as though she were hearing the most meaningful pronouncement in world history. “One does art.” Oooooookay.

Clearly, I didn’t become a Rauschenberg fan during the course of the evening. I admit finding the refreshments table to have been the highlight. However, I am not ignorant of the ways of the world. If I were offered a Rauschenberg or two to put in my living room, I’d leap at the opportunity. Then, after a couple of months, I’d call Sotheby’s and see what they think.

Collusion Course

Is a “eureka moment” always a good thing? Is it always instantaneous? I had one that took several months to evolve and, when the light finally turned on, when the moment of clarity shown, when the flower finally bloomed, I felt like an idiot.

In 1983, only weeks into my career as a real estate lawyer in New Jersey, my boss (henceforth referred to as “F”) called me into his smoke-filled office and handed me a file.
“Go to the planning board hearing in Midland Park tonight,” he said, as though that meant anything to me.
“Ummmmm,” I said.
“Just be there at seven o’clock,” he continued, “and when they call the case, get up and introduce yourself, like, ‘I’m the Chen’s lawyer’ and y’know, take it from there.”
“Who are the Chens?” I asked.
“Our clients,” said F. “They bought a house a few months ago, and they applied to the planning board to open a restaurant there, that’s all. Should be a piece of cake. Just read the file.”
With that, F, who was always bustling, looked longingly at the lights blinking on his phone console and took a quick drag from his always-lit cigarette; I realized he wanted me to leave.

Working for F was an eye-opening experience. I’d spent my first year as a lawyer at a buttoned-down, conservative law firm in a neighboring town. There, I arrived early, researched banking regulations in the library, and stayed until the last partner went home in the evening. I was promised the opportunity to meet clients “within several years;” meanwhile, I worked exclusively with thick and tedious books, a pen and a pad of paper.
At the end of that year, I expressed an overwhelming sense of hopelessness and boredom to a friend who put me in touch with her uncle, who hired me without even an interview, to assist with his rough-and-tumble divorce practice. I immediately went from zero “client contact” to a soul-sucking abundance of client contact from which I began to believe the following: basically, everyone lies: the opposing party; the opposing lawyer; and, especially, your own client. Still single at the time, I couldn’t go on a date during my brief “family lawyer” phase, since I trusted no one.
Though my pay improved from my previous position, and boredom was no longer an issue, I perceived that being a “divorce lawyer” wouldn’t suit me. Excessive honesty on my part hurt several clients’ cases, and my boss also recognized my personality was unsuited to the task. He sought to hire a real SOB as his new associate, and offered my services to his brother, F, whose real estate closing practice was overwhelmingly busy. In our first meeting, F made clear his desire that I handle enough of his workload to free his afternoons for his true passion, golf.
My first few weeks as a “closing attorney” were delightful. I liked talking on the phone to generally happy clients, who were buying or selling their homes. Even cheerier were people refinancing their mortgages, since nothing makes a client happier than saving four or five hundred dollars a month. The work seemed clean, positive, and easy.
Several other aspects of real estate law were preferable, too. There were no court appearances, no crying clients and no need to keep a gun in the desk drawer, as F’s brother did. In addition, we didn’t keep track of time for billing purposes. Each transaction had a set fee and, as F often said: “If they don’t pay, they don’t close.”
Finally, real estate agents were overwhelmingly middle-aged women. They were usually pleasant to my mid-twenties self, even those who didn’t have a daughter at home they hoped to introduce to the “bright young lawyer in town.” F’s wisdom on real estate agents was, as follows: “Most lawyers treat them like dirt. Just return their calls and they’ll love you.” He was right.
Gifted at memorizing phone numbers of agents, mortgage lenders and the like, I also learned to negotiate on the fly. Most days, F went golfing by noon and I departed promptly at five. I felt HAPPY as a practicing lawyer for the first time, until….

Arriving thirty minutes early at the town hall “hearing room” to relax and read the Chen file, I sat in the front row of four wooden benches like pews in a church, except lacking bibles.
I learned F had represented Mr. and Mrs. Chen in the purchase of a small house several months earlier, for $120,000, which they intended to convert to a Chinese restaurant. F had charged them a legal fee of $3,500, 400% more than our usual residential closing fee at the time. A note on the file indicated, by way of explanation: “Commercial closing fee.”
“Wow,” I thought to myself. “F charges a ton extra when it’s not just a house.” Yet, I couldn’t figure out how this file differed from any other closing, at least up to where I found myself at that moment: at my first-ever planning board hearing. I felt a little queasy about my lack of preparation. Despite F’s assurance, how could it be that all I had to do was introduce myself, receive permission to open a restaurant on behalf of my clients, say “thank you,” and go home?
Right on time, seven individuals, six men and one woman, entered from a side door and sat behind a long table in front of the room. American and Midland Park flags stood on poles at both ends of their table. Cardboard nametags in front of each seat identified the board members. A stenographer followed them into the room and sat at a small desk between the table and a lectern. During the half hour I’d waited, several other lawyers or applicants had arrived and taken seats in the visitors’ benches, either silently, or whispering among themselves in hushed tones.
After intoning the pledge of allegiance and discussing several preliminary remarks about the previous month’s agenda, the chairman, sitting in the middle of the seven board members, scanned the room, and asked if anyone represented the Chen application.
“Yes, me,” I jumped up, dropping the file to the floor in my excitement.
“And you are?” said the chairman.
“Stuart Sanders, of the F law firm,” I said, as I retrieved the file and moved to the lectern in front of the board.
“Mr. F is not favoring us with his presence this evening?” he said.
Several of the board members and several people in the audience seemed to exchange knowing glances. I thought one man even snickered.
“Ummmm, no,” I said. “I’ve come to get approval to open the restaurant.”
More chuckles arose from around the room. I felt my face, already warm, become bright red.
“Well,” said the chairman. “Do you happen to have a magical explanation of where the parking spaces are supposed to go?”
I didn’t know what he was talking about.
“Mr. Chairman,” said the female member. “Clearly, Mr. F has chosen to dodge this meeting. He has not provided this board, or his associate, apparently, any basis to believe the property in question can support the eight parking spaces necessary for a restaurant under our ordinance.”
Another board member asked: “Should we allow the applicant one more month? Clearly, this young man is not prepared to address our concerns this evening.”
“I don’t think so,” said the chairman. “We were perfectly clear with Mr. F last month. I don’t understand how he let his clients buy this property with the expectation of opening a restaurant.
“Son,” he said, addressing me, “Do you think eight parking spaces can fit onto the footprint of this property?”
My mind was spinning. I didn’t know what sort of “footprint” he meant. All that came to mind was a footprint of a bear walking in snow. I had no idea how to respond. I shook my head.
“Motion to dismiss the application,” said one board member.
“Second,” said several simultaneously.
“All in favor of dismissal, raise your hand,” said the chairman.
Six board members raised their hands immediately. The one who had suggested a delay caught my eye, mouthed “sorry,” and raised his hand, too.

It ended so soon I hardly comprehended what had happened. With my file in one hand and my briefcase in another, I hurried out of the building and drove home.
I laid awake most of the night trying to figure out how I had failed. Should I have known from the file that there was an issue with parking? How could my first board hearing end in humiliation? Though I had no idea on what basis, I was certain F would be angry with me. Upon arrival at work, I gingerly approached his office .
As usual, he was hurriedly plowing through the previous afternoon’s phone messages so he could make his tee-time.
“How’d it go last night?” he asked, pausing with the phone in one hand and his cigarette in another.
“Terribly,” I said. “The application was dismissed. They said….” I started to explain, but he waved me off: “It’s not a problem,” he said.
“It’s not?” I said.
“I’ll talk to the Chen’s,” he said. “Don’t give it another worry.”

I went back to my own office relieved, but mystified. Why wasn’t F upset? Why didn’t he want to know what had happened? I dug into my own pile of phone messages, performed a closing and, gradually, managed to recover from the previous evening’s disaster.
The next day, when I went to lunch, I saw F in line at the sandwich shop across from our office, in an animated discussion with Alex Milano, a litigation attorney and golf buddy. When I entered to place my order, they glanced in my direction and I had the distinct impression they ceased talking because of me. I wondered if F had been telling him about the planning board. I nodded in greeting, and departed as soon as I received my food.
Several days later, I saw F usher an Asian couple into his office and shut the door. This was unusual, since he almost never shut his door.
“It’s probably the Chens,” I thought to myself. As soon as they left, I went down the hall and asked F: “Was that who I think?”
“Those were the Chens,” said F. “I told them how sorry I was.”
“What happens next?” I asked.
“We’ll see,” said F. “It’s not your problem.”
“It’s not?” I said.
He just shook his head and changed the subject: “You’ll do the Moran closing this afternoon. I’ll take care of the Worley’s tomorrow morning before golf.”
“Okay,” I said. But I was still anxious.

Approximately a month later, during a relatively quiet afternoon, while F was out, a middle-aged man appeared at our office and asked our receptionist, Cheryl, if I were available. Before she even finished gesturing in my direction, the man handed me a pile of papers and bounded back out the door. I looked down at a “Summons and Complaint.” On behalf of Mr. and Mrs. Chen, Alex Milano had filed a lawsuit against me for malpractice.
I trembled. I blanched. I felt a terrible combination of rage and humiliation.
“Are you okay,” asked Cheryl.
“Not really,” I said. I sat down glumly at my desk.
Throughout the remainder of the afternoon and evening, I was miserable. I had never been sued before. I had no idea what lay ahead. I couldn’t imagine how I was responsible for what happened. And why had F told me “not to worry?”
The next morning, I showed the documents to F. Again, he said: “Don’t worry.” He added: “I’ll handle it.”
“It says I committed malpractice,” I said. “Was I supposed to know about the parking spaces?”
“There was a mistake, but you had nothing to do with it,” he said. “Don’t even think about it again. Here, do you have time to return these calls? I gotta go.”
He handed me a sheaf of messages. It wasn’t easy, but over the next several weeks, the lawsuit receded from my mind. Yet, my attitude had changed; I couldn’t identify it yet, but something was amiss.

The next time I saw F with Alex Milano at lunch, they seemed happy like two men who’d won a small lottery. Indeed, I’d learned from F’s secretary that our firm’s insurance company had settled with the Chens by paying them back their entire purchase price, plus damages. A third of that, nearly $50,000, would have gone to Alex and the balance to the Chens who still owned the house, even though they couldn’t operate a restaurant.
Gradually, I realized how “the law” had worked in this instance: Alex Milano would have paid a “referral fee” of one-third of his fee to whoever referred him the clients. Thus, in addition to the $3,500 closing fee, F received $16,000 from Alex. I never learned whether F had bungled the transaction intentionally, or merely hatched this solution to salvage the situation, after he realized the Chens’ purchase should have been conditioned on the existence of sufficient parking spaces.
Yet, the experience was not worthless. Besides humiliation, I received several valuable lessons for the remainder of my twenty-five year career, namely:

1. If you specialize in residential real estate, don’t take a commercial client;
2. If you are not familiar with a file, don’t accept someone else’s client without asking a lot of questions;
3. Be wary of dealing with anyone who says “Don’t worry about it,” particularly F, forevermore; and
4. If all else fails, be mindful of human nature, and be certain the malpractice insurance is paid up-to-date.


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