OFF THE TENURE TRACK

January 3, 2010, 10:23 a.m.: My heart skips with anticipation when my inbox includes mail from Dr. Hunt, the Dean at the University of North Carolina’s School of Business. “I’m delighted to confirm your appointment as adjunct professor for the undergraduate course: Residential Real Estate, Law and Finance. Please come tomorrow morning for orientation on classroom technology. Your first class will be next Tuesday, January 11.”
I sit for a moment before the screen and contemplate the serendipitous path that led to this point. We’d moved from New Jersey to Chapel Hill just five months earlier. I’d retired from practicing law in New Jersey, but thought I might eventually do “something” in North Carolina.
Faster than I’d imagined, it all came together. Only several months after we arrived, my wife, Katie, met a woman playing tennis who indicated she taught a class at the business school. When Katie mentioned I’d been a real estate lawyer for twenty-six years, she suggested I fax my resume to the Dean.
“He just announced that he’d like to expand the real estate curriculum,” she said.
I completed and submitted a brief summary of my career in less than fifteen minutes. After all, I’d been my own boss for decades. There wasn’t much information to list. The home phone rang within an hour.
“Please come meet with me next week, “ said Dean Hunt, after we exchanged pleasantries.
He continued: “The basic course on house closings has been taught by a prominent local realtor for fifteen years, but he wants to retire. I’d like to add mortgage financing and legal issues to the mix, and your background is perfect.”
I couldn’t believe my luck. Faster than I could say “on-campus parking pass,” I was on the way to becoming a teacher at UNC and, thus, a full-fledged member of the semi-retired population of Chapel Hill. It’s a rare local person with an advanced degree, after all, who is not somehow affiliated with a university or two, as instructor, mentor or consultant.
*****
My initial meeting with Dr. Hunt, a fit man of about fifty, surprised me. I expected to explain how my law practice had evolved, what I thought I could teach the students, and how the subject matter could be presented. I expected him to list his expectations and ask a number of questions about whether I had teaching experience (I didn’t), whether I could relate to college-aged students, and whether my temperament was suited to the task. Worried I would be deemed unsuitable I spent time preparing responses with Katie, an educator with thirty years of experience.
Instead, as we sat down on opposite sides of his desk, he pointed to various pennants of European and South American soccer teams on his walls, and asked: “Are you a fan?”
“Yes,” I said. “I played soccer myself and coached all three of my children.”
“Wonderful!” he said, a broad smile spreading out from his brown-hued beard and mustache, his eyes twinkling. “You’ll be an asset to the faculty team.”
“Um,” I said, “Are there any particular things you’ll want me to cover in the course?”
“Oh,” he said, “There’s plenty of time for that. It doesn’t start until January. Tell me about your kids’ teams.”
And so it went for thirty minutes. The only information somewhat relevant to teaching at UNC concerned the summer classes the business school offered in England, China and Brazil.
“Great soccer there,” he said. With a wink, he added: “There’ll be plenty of opportunities for faculty to chaperone the trips, you know.”
When I sensed we’d exhausted the subject of soccer, the Dean said he was late for a meeting. As I stood up, I asked: “Are there any further steps I need to take?”
“Oh, it shouldn’t be a problem to list your course for the spring semester,” he said. “I’ll speak to the administration and confirm. In the meantime, let’s put together a curriculum. Why don’t you send me an outline?”
*****
After our meeting, per Dr. Hunt’s suggestion, I compiled a proposed syllabus. I expected he and I would work closely to make sure all the necessary aspects of the subject were covered. Instead, each time I forwarded a proposal, he took several weeks to respond. September gave way to October. October bled into November. The Dean neither rejected nor embraced my ideas specifically. He merely tinkered via e-mails with a concept here and there. “Perhaps you’ll have a guest speaker on house-flipping,” he wrote once. “Maybe the students will role-play as though they are realtors, mortgage brokers or clients,” he wrote another time.
Each week, I spent several hours working on the syllabus, sometimes more.
Changing the order of things and breaking down ninety-minute sessions into fifteen-minute segments, I felt like I was painting in the dark, adding a stroke here and there, but never certain how my final product would appear.
“You’re spending a lot of time on this,” said Katie one evening in November, while I pored through a collection of New Yorker cartoons in search of humorous but memorable representations of real estate topics. “You’re sure you’re hired to do this, right?”
“I’m starting to wonder myself,” I said. “But Dr. Hunt was confident. He should know, right?”
“I guess so,” said Katie. “But UNC’s pretty bureaucratic, from what I hear.”
“I’ll ask him again,” I said.
*****
The next morning, after my e-mail inquiry bounced back with an out-of-town notice I called Dr. Hunt’s office.
“He’s at a conference,” said the receptionist.
“Will he be in next week?” I asked.
“No, he’ll be at his beach house until after Thanksgiving,” said the receptionist.
“Okay,” I said. “Can I make an appointment to see him the following week?”
“One moment, please,” she said. “I’ll check his schedule.”
While I waited I pictured the life of the Dean. It seemed like a lot of meetings, interspersed with ballgames, conferences and the beach house. When did he get any work done?
The receptionist returned to the phone and said: “Dean Hunt is out until December 5. You can reach him after that.”
I decided to put the syllabus aside for a couple of weeks, but the course was never far from my mind. I tried not to boast to anyone outside my family before I received confirmation, but I couldn’t help being excited. Besides the parking pass, there would be tremendous discounts at the UNC golf course and sporting events. Plus, it’d be fun to say, with nonchalance, “I teach a course at the University.”
I did have concerns about the technological and psychological aspects of teaching. Teaching involves varied skills, involving power point presentations, grading papers and lecturing. Instead of knowing the situation of each of my clients from a position of strength and expertise, I would be offering a set of knowledge to twenty or thirty students whom I barely know.
And then there were practical considerations. For instance, do I wear a suit? A blazer over khakis? A shirt and tie? Will the students call me “Mister” or “Professor?” How often do adjuncts chaperone summer sumeer students abroad? Are these working vacations or mere boondoggles? Dean Hunt certainly implied the trips were fun. Will I have my pick of countries? Will the University pay for my wife to go, too?

*****

December 5 arrived and I still couldn’t get an appointment with Dr. Hunt. He was always in meetings or at conferences except for one time when he’d traveled to Syracuse to see UNC play a critical basketball game. In e-mails, he responded slowly and incompletely, offering almost no feedback. Still, he wrote just before the Christmas break: “I hope to have confirmation of your classroom and student roster any day now. Hang tight just a little longer.”
By this time, I’d nearly despaired of teaching the course, at least for the spring semester. Relieved I’d told so few people about the class, I could almost sleep through the night without lying awake obsessing about explaining mortgages to nineteen-year-olds or, worse, what would happen if I lost my train of thought in front the class. Then, finally, at 10:23 a.m. on January 3, I opened my e-mail and saw the long-awaited note. “I’m delighted to confirm your appointment….”
Home alone when my status as a University instructor, a shaper of young minds, a teacher, was confirmed, I hardly knew how to react.
“Unbelievable,” I said to myself. “I’m not just a professional; I’m a member of the intelligentsia.”
For a moment, I forgot how difficult it had been to pin down Dr. Hunt. I reveled in how smoothly the process had gone: Quit working, move to North Carolina, meet some people, and secure a teaching position at the eminent university.
“By tomorrow at this time,” I told myself, “you will know how to use a laser pointer.”
While still in my reverie about my new status, the computer indicated the arrival of another e-mail from Dr. Hunt. At 11:04, he wrote: “I’m so sorry. I’m so embarrassed. I’ve just been informed by the administration that, due to budget constraints, there is an indefinite moratorium on new course offerings. So sorry for the time and energy you’ve put in. Your course would have been an asset. All my best.”
I reread the e-mail three or four times. I parsed the words like a biblical scholar. My career as a professor had ended before it had begun. I expected to feel anger, outrage and disappointment. Instead, overwhelming relief welled up. I wouldn’t have the new “status.” I wouldn’t learn new skills. I wouldn’t have the inside track to see the Duke basketball game in person. But I also wouldn’t be tied down to a schedule and I wouldn’t have a dean or administration to answer to. I wouldn’t worry about whether my students “got it.”
When she arrived home, Katie and I discussed the turn of events. Our reactions ranged on a spectrum from cynical (“I wonder what relative of Dean Hunt is teaching the course instead.”) to positive (“I’ll ask him to consider me for future opportunities when the financial situation improves.”)
In the end, I chose to view the episode as a matter of fate. An opportunity that had fallen into my lap had fallen out. I didn’t “need” the job. If it came up again, I’d consider it at that time. I refrained from buying a Duke tee shirt, but just barely.


NOT MY FATHER’S VACATION

On our vacation in Costa Rica I feel my father’s presence. Since it’s twenty years since his death, his entry into my consciousness surprises me. In general, I’m not what one would call a “deeply spiritual” person. In fact, I’m pretty far to the other end of the spectrum. Yet, in separate reveries, there he was at the pool this morning, chatting amiably with the pool man. There he was last night at the restaurant, laughing with the waiters. There he was at a clothing store, turning over “the goods,” assessing the quality, checking the prices.
*****
My knowledge of my parents’ vacations is mostly secondhand or from photographs since I didn’t exist until my father was in his fifties. But to get him out of his beloved store, Lou Sanders Men’s Shop, required extreme patience on the part of my mother. Not only did my father protest how much “critical business” he would miss at the store and how much it would cost, but he also manifested his discomfort physically.
In anticipation of departing, his sciatic nerve often plagued his leg until he could barely walk. One time, arriving at the airport distressed, preoccupied with missing the action at the store , he slammed a car door on his own fingers. A nerves-induced case of Bell’s palsy collapsed half his face just before another trip, rendering my mother’s companion similar in appearance to “The Elephant Man.”
From my childhood years, I recall almost no loud disputes between my parents. This is not to say they didn’t disagree. It’s just that my father worked seven-days-a-week, and I rarely saw them interact except during dinner and an hour or two in front of the television in the evenings. In addition, my father’s argument style, which I’m told I’ve inherited, was not to engage verbally. He chose a more infuriating, passive-aggressive technique involving glances and grunts, subtle shifts of facial expressions, and seeming disinterest.
My impression is that my parents resolved things quietly, or not at all. The only exception in my memory is when my mother couldn’t get him to respond when she pressed for his availability for a long-overdue week away. While the ten-year-old me sat tensely on a couch in the living room, pretending to read, my mother raged louder and louder in the breakfast room until a slammed kitchen door, followed by silence and a quickly departing car, indicated she’d walked out.
Moments later, my father arrived in the room where I sat, picked up the newspaper, sat in the chair opposite me, and read. I don’t know what he was thinking, but I was concerned I might never see my mother again. After several hours, she returned, and their trip was planned the next day as though nothing had happened.
Always, when my parents returned from their travels, whether to California, or Mexico, or Spain, my mother produced photographs and stories showing what a good time they had had. A picture of my smiling father, sitting in his buttoned–down white shirt atop a camel in Egypt, still highlights a wall in my mother’s home.
*****
Besides one or two day trips to Atlantic City that emerge without detail from the earliest fog of my memory, I traveled only twice with my father. Or, perhaps it is more accurate to say he traveled only twice with me. The first trip, when I was about eight, was ninety minutes away to a Pocono resort called the Union House for a weekend. Upon reflection, “resort” may overstate the case. Little more than a rustic camp, the lodgings were more log cabin than hotel.
Still, at my age, I thought we were really “on vacation.” Though my father hated to GO on vacation, that’s different from BEING on vacation. Once there, he had fun. He shocked me by interacting with the strangers at our table during meals. He smiled. He flirted with young waitresses. He told jokes. Why, I wondered, had my mother had to plead so hard to make him come?
The Union House, now long defunct, grew out of a liberal political movement. I think most of the other guests were members of humble, low-wage labor unions. My mother had doubtless convinced my father to go due to its low room rates. The main hall, where all meals were taken, featured murals on the walls by Diego Rivera. Even as a child, I was aware of the “heroic working man” vibe. I’ve never forgotten the vibrant, larger-than-life depression-era art.
One evening at the Union House, after dinner, my father took me to see the food-related staff play basketball against the room cleaning-related staff. Though it was only a friendly game between summer-job employees, my young self viewed the players like NBA all-stars. I delighted to find myself beside my smiling father who’d never previously watched a minute of an athletic event with me without complaint.
*****
My second and final vacation with both my parents was in commemoration of my Bar Mitzvah in 1970. By definition, I had just turned thirteen. Not from a religious family, I broke my tutor’s heart when I said we were taking a trip after the ceremony.
“To the Holy Land?” asked Rabbi Schichtman, with anticipation.
“No, Puerto Rico,” I said.
From that trip, I recall that the flight was delayed on the tarmac in Philadelphia for an hour before take-off. Indicative of a long-ago era of air travel, the stewardesses (as they were then called) bestowed free drinks on adult passengers to make up for the disappointment. My father was in a jovial mood, polishing off two tiny bottles of vodka in front of my disbelieving eyes before noon.
Once we arrived in San Juan, my father was our hero. Having lived in Cuba for several years in the 1920’s, he spoke fluent Spanish. He handled every interaction with taxis, waiters, the hotel, vendors, and tour-guides. My mother and I didn’t always know what the conversations were about, but we saw a man in his element, glowing with bonhomie, relaxed.
Our last meal as a trio in Puerto Rico took place at a restaurant called “Sword and Sirloin.” I remember this otherwise tiny detail because its decor was medieval knights, a fascination of mine at the time. In each corner stood a suit of armor, emptily glowering at the seated patrons. We had a young waitress, incongruously dressed as a fourteenth-century wench in spite of her Puerto Rican heritage. My father, then in his mid-sixties, MY FATHER, had her laughing in stitches. It was unbelievable. When did he become so funny? When he interacted with strangers at the store, amusement rarely rose to the fore.
The only sad thing about that trip is that that dinner, on our fourth day, marked the end of the vacation “week” for my father. He just “had” to be back at the store for the upcoming weekend, even though a slower, bleaker time of year for a retail business than late January couldn’t be imagined. My mother and I completed the last three days of the vacation alone. We had a great time, and I have distinct memories of the time with her, but it wasn’t the same without our charming, Spanish-speaking expert and fixer.
*****
I can’t help but feel badly for what I perceived as my father’s excessive devotion to his store. Yes, he provided for us, but in his single-mindedness, he also deprived himself of joy and deprived his family of the chance to see him at his best.
Meanwhile, he’s a spirit hovering over the proceedings in Coco Beach. I’d love to have him here to talk to the taxi drivers. I’d love to have him here to haggle when we visit a souvenir shop. I’d love to have him walk outside with me and greet the pool men and landscapers. They are friendly, but our conversations don’t progress much beyond “Com estas?” (How are you?”) “Bien, gracias.” (Fine, thanks.) My father would have shocked and delighted them – no ordinary visitor, he’d be an easygoing man of the people – a role he played too rarely.


EARLY MIDLIFE CRISIS CAR

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.


BE PREPARED

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.


ELECTION SEASON

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.


OUT OF CHARACTER, OUT OF LUCK

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.

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