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.
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.
Preparing to go out to dinner with our daughter, Sarah, her boyfriend, Matt, and his parents for the first time, I am more careful than usual in selecting my outfit. Though assured the restaurant is “extremely casual,” I garner my wife, Katie’s approval by selecting long pants instead of shorts, shoes instead of tennis shoes, and a brand-new polo shirt instead of a golden oldie.
“This is nerve-wracking,” I say. “It’s like going out on a first date.”
“That’s silly,” says Katie. “It’s just dinner.”
“This is a rite of passage,” I say. “We’re now old enough to meet our kids’ romantic partners’ parents with all kinds of freight attached. We might know these people for the rest of our lives.”
“I hate to tell you, but we’ve been old enough for a long time,” she says.
Fresh out of the package, my purple (Sarah’s favorite color) shirt is
“This needs ironing,” I say, hoping Katie will volunteer.
She doesn’t bite. “Make sure you use steam,” she says.
lroning is a rare activity in my life. Several times a year, I enter the laundry room, open the ironing board, and semi-competently run the hot appliance over a shirt or two. I’ve never mastered the liquid, however. I’m always wondering about technique: “Do I pour water on the shirt? What button do I press to get steam?” lf only I’d paid attention as a child, I would be an expert.
Throughout my early-mid 1960’s childhood, on Tuesdays, Naomi presided over our basement rec room. She was what was called “an ironing lady.” Though she was probably in her forties, I always thought she was elderly, since she stood on solid, black “old-lady shoes” and wore compression stockings that bunched up around her shins. Heavyset and dark-skinned, Naomi also apparently wore a variety of wigs. I would never have noticed such a detail if her style, color and length didn’t change nearly every week.
We’d had a succession of “cleaning ladies” when I grew up. We weren’t wealthy to the extent that we had full-time help, but it was typical in our middle class neighborhood to have a once-a-week cleaner. Among the several I remember were toothless Essie, who could not be understood; beautiful-accented Pearl from Trinidad who was incredibly kind; and, Corinne, black as night, who always came to work in a meticulous uniform of white stockings and black top fringed with white lace, and who proudly told us she’d once worked at a Dupont estate in Delaware.
Each of these women, and numerous others whose names I cannot recall, moved in and out of our lives within a year or two. The one constant was Naomi. She held dominion over the basement; at least, that’s how I viewed it.
When I came home from school on Tuesdays, I opened the basement door and went down to say “hello.” Once, when I was six or seven, I forgot to do so, and Naomi came upstairs, found me in the kitchen, and asked: “What, you’re too busy to say ‘hello’? You’re too important?” I never forgot again.
Visible at the bottom of the stairs was a green and white-checkered linoleum floor, a low, seven-foot ceiling, knotted-wood paneling, several old couches, and a black-and-white television with rabbit ears, that often failed to hold the picture horizontal. In the middle of the room, presiding over the ironing board, with a pile of clothing nearby, stood Naomi. While she worked, the iron hissed and sighed, like an old, asthmatic man struggling to reach the top of a flight of stairs.
I don’t recall many specifics from our conversations. Naomi asked me about school. I probably volunteered information about my little league baseball team. But I do recall she had opinions. Though she watched soap operas on the old television much of the time, she also watched news programs.
“That Nixon, he’s a nasty one,” she said.
Another time, she declared: “Vietnam is a waste of our young men.”
I’d never heard a cleaning lady offer an opinion on a subject not related to grease removal or vacuuming. I respected Naomi for her outspokenness.
The only gripe I had with Naomi concerned coffee ice cream, a staple of my diet. My favorite brand was Breyer’s, and we usually had a container in the freezer. Every Tuesday, I noticed, the half-gallon took a significant hit. When I was about eight, one Tuesday morning before I left for school, I built a barricade in the freezer around a brand-new ice cream carton. It was the first thing I checked when I returned home that afternoon. As I’d feared, Naomi had managed to remove the ice cube trays, packages of chicken and other food I’d placed in its way, found the ice cream, and made a monstrous gouge in the block.
Since I was always at school or camp when Naomi had lunch, I didn’t know if my mother had told her to help herself to the contents of the refrigerator, or just dessert. All I knew is I was angry Naomi felt entitled to systematically root through our freezer to get at “my” ice cream. I knew she knew that I had tried to hide the ice cream. Yet, she’d intentionally defied me. I recall our conversation that day was short and strained.
When I was ten or eleven, a transit strike hobbled Philadelphia’s buses. The first week, Naomi didn’t come to work. But the second week, with a pile of dirty clothing growing unmanageable, I overheard my mother arrange a taxi to pick up Naomi. At the end of the day, when it was time for my father to take Naomi home, I asked to go along. From the back seat, I watched wide-eyed as we traveled to a neighborhood I’d never seen before. The row houses were tiny and the side streets so thin only one car at a time could fit.
“Make sure your door is locked,” said my father, at one point, his words hanging in the air like a dark cloud.
There were bars on every corner and men hanging around, smoking and drinking out of bottles barely concealed by paper bags. I recall being petrified we would suffer a flat tire from the pot-holes and trolley tracks that blighted the streets.
Naomi stared straight ahead. The ride might only have taken twenty minutes, but it felt like hours in the silence. Finally, pointing to the right, she said, “That’s it. Turn there.”
My father carefully swung into a dimly-lit street. Midway to the other end, Naomi said: “That’s good. Thank you.” She got out, and we watched Naomi slowly climb a flight of stairs and disappear behind a small, wooden door. Several of the neighboring houses were boarded-up.
“Do you want to move to the front seat?” asked my father.
“No, thanks,” I said. “I don’t mind it back here.”
What I really meant was: “I’m afraid to step out of the car.
Naomi continued to work for my parents until I went to college, though her visits were less frequent. My mother said she drifted out of our lives due to health issues. I’d looked at her more sympathetically after that ride to her home. It’s not that I wasn’t aware her circumstances were difficult, it’s just hard to picture for a youngster without actually witnessing it. Nothing really changed in our conversations as I matured; but I never attempted to hide the ice cream again.
LARGER THAN LIFE
I was born in 1956 to a household devoid of hero worship. We enjoyed movies and shows, but it wasn’t in our make-up to fawn over actors or entertainers; though my siblings and I were sports-minded, we didn’t collect autographs or have posters on the walls. There were baseball players we rooted for, but no one we loved. Perhaps, the futility of the Phillies in the early 1960’s had something to do with that. Still, even if they’d won more, I doubt I would have declared a personal “favorite.”
My father neither participated in nor was interested in sports. He may have had athletic genes, but they weren’t developed in a childhood spent selling cigarettes to the White and Red Russian soldiers who alternately took control of his neighborhood in Kiev. It fell upon my older brothers to teach me the rudiments of ball-playing and my mother to take me to such landmark events as “my first major league baseball game.” She also was the rare mother on the sidelines of my little league games.
The “athlete” in our extended family was my Uncle, Lou Fox, who’d married my mother’s sister and lived in Chicago. With prematurely white hair, he was called “The Silver Fox.” His sports were bowling and golf, and I grew up with the impression he was a professional. I avidly followed news of his tournament wins and looked forward to basking in his glow at some point.
With my father tethered to his clothing store seven-days-a-week, our family rarely traveled. Uncle Lou’s wife, Aunt Fran, returned to visit the family in Philadelphia fairly regularly. I don’t have any recollection of Uncle Lou visiting in my earliest years, though I’m sure he did.
What I recall with an odd mixture of vividness and haziness is my now-almost-fifty-years-ago visit to Chicago, in 1965, with my mother. As the trip approached, Uncle Lou had promised over the telephone to play ball with me, take me to a Cubs game at Wrigley Field and also take me to his bowling alley. So excited was I at the prospect of all three activities, my first lifetime plane flight barely registered.
Upon arrival at my aunt and uncle’s low-slung brick bungalow, I made two observations: my aunt had plastic on all the sofas, so indoor ball-playing was unlikely, and there wasn’t much outdoor space, either. Still, Uncle Lou appeared immediately in the living room with a ball and two gloves and took me to the tiny rear yard to play catch. There he informed me that due to tragically bad timing, the Cubs were out-of-town the entire duration of our visit, so a visit to the iconic stadium would be impossible.
“Can we go to a White Sox game?” I asked.
“No,” he said. “No one goes to the White Sox games. The neighborhood is too dangerous.”
I couldn’t imagine anywhere more dangerous than the area near Connie Mack Stadium in Philadelphia, where I’d seen my mother pay a dollar to local street urchins to “watch our car.” I must have looked crestfallen.
“But there is a solution,” announced my uncle. “This weekend, we’ll drive to Milwaukee and see the Braves.”
Though the Braves lacked the magical aura of the Cubs, the notion that we would drive one hundred miles to a baseball game was immensely exciting. My family would never have considered such an adventure.
Though not the sort of kid to jump up and down and yell, “Yippee!” I’m certain I expressed excitement, since my uncle was showing me a whole different way of approaching life.
During the several days leading up to the trip to Milwaukee, Uncle Lou took me to “his” bowling alley. At the time, I thought he had an ownership interest, though I eventually learned he was just a very accomplished, regular bowler, who was acquainted with all the men behind the counter. He arranged for me to play “as long as I wanted” while he went off to work at his real job at a ceramics factory.
I recall the initial thrill of having a whole bowling alley practically to myself, since it was mid-morning on a weekday. I played game after game until I couldn’t lift my arm. When Uncle Lou returned to bring me home, he asked if I wanted to play again the next day. Considering the blisters on several fingers, I declined.
We drove home in my uncle’s brand-new Buick Electra 225. The car was massive, and it was the first time I’d ever seen power windows and air conditioning.
“This smells new,” I said admiringly.
“I get a new car every year,” said Uncle Lou.
“You do?” I said, trying to imagine such extravagance.
“Yep,” he said.
I gazed out the window awestruck.
When the day finally arrived for the trip to Milwaukee, my mother, Aunt Fran and I piled into the Buick.
“We’re eating at Frenchie’s before the game,” declared Uncle Lou.
“Will they have hamburgers?” I asked.
Everyone laughed. Hamburgers were all I ever ordered. That phase ended sometime in my twenties.
“You’ll like it,” he said. “It’s not a typical restaurant.”
Sure enough, Frenchie’s was a first for me. Apparently, in Milwaukee, it was an institution, “THE” downtown steakhouse with massive portions delivered by scantily-clad waitresses in fishnet stockings and high heels. I couldn’t find hamburgers on the menu, but Uncle Lou declared: “Don’t worry about it. You’ll like the food.”
He proceeded to order a Delmonico steak for me. In the re-telling over the years, the size of the steak has grown from ten to twelve to sixteen to, perhaps, twenty-four or thirty-two ounces. All I remember is that it was ENORMOUS and I ate the whole thing.
I also recall that Uncle Lou sat at the head of the table and commanded the room. With a sparkle in his eye, he was handsome and elegant. He joked boisterously with the waitresses and the other patrons. My mother, aunt and perhaps my cousins were present, too, but I only noticed my uncle. He was a force of nature, magnetic and charming.
The ballgame proved memorable, primarily for what was lacking. The Braves had declared their intention to move to Atlanta before the 1965 season, but the move was delayed by legal wrangling. With the impending move confirmed by the time of our visit, Milwaukee fans boycotted the games, so we found ourselves in a 50,000 seat stadium with fewer than 500 other people. It was dreary to watch a game amidst such emptiness, but if ever an eight-year-old had a good chance to retrieve a foul ball, this was it. Unfortunately, no luck. I recall the Cincinnati Reds, with a young player named Pete Rose, beat the Braves.
The drive home proved more memorable. A mid-western thunderstorm of epic proportions rolled in and multiple lightning strikes were visible simultaneously across the flat landscape. At first, I was scared of the noisy storm, but Uncle Lou approached driving through it like another exciting adventure, shouting “boom” with each burst of thunder. Eventually, I curled up on the vast, boat-like backseat of the Buick, and fell asleep amidst nature’s fireworks which were matched only by the dazzling good cheer of my uncle.
When we returned to Philadelphia, I suffered pangs of conscience because I wished my father were more like Uncle Lou. Though dependable and doting, my father lacked bravado and sportiness. He’d apparently used up all his sense of adventure finding his way to this country, via Poland and Cuba, back in the 1920’s. But time and attention shift quickly in the life of a child; after several weeks, I didn’t ponder Uncle Lou’s qualities again, and I appreciated my father’s unceasing, unquestionable devotion.
Just a few years after our visit, my Aunt Fran was diagnosed with cancer. She fought a hard and bitter fight and deserved every bit of sympathy for her misfortune and her struggle. However, she was not one of those cancer sufferers who appear on the last segment of the evening news for inspiring those around them with an amazing attitude. She was angry and she was depressed.
From a distance, it was my understanding Uncle Lou proved a steadfast partner. But after several years, his wife’s fight against the disease sapped his energy, too. When they visited Philadelphia together, he golfed one day with my brother, David, and me. By now, I was aware he was not a professional golfer. Probably, the eight-year-old me thought being a “club champion” conferred professional status that my twelve-year-old self understood did not. Still, he was an excellent player. The buoyancy in his personality was diminished, however.
At the risk of stereotyping, perhaps men in that era did not keep in touch as much as women. After Aunt Fran died, we rarely heard from Uncle Lou, and my only source of news about my uncle came from overhearing my mother’s discussions with my father. I learned he re-married fairly quickly to a long-time family friend whose husband had also died. He played lots of golf in Florida. As far as I could tell, no one in our family begrudged him his remarriage; he’d suffered enough.
I’m not sure my Uncle Lou was a “hero” to me. I didn’t know him well enough, or spend enough time with him to form a meaningful relationship. But for that one week in the summer of ’65, I couldn’t help but think the earth and sky crackled around him. And it wasn’t just because of the lightning.
Thursday is senior citizens day at our local supermarket, Harris Teeter, where shoppers over sixty receive a 5% discount. Fully aware that I am approaching that age in several years, I still make some smug calculations when I encounter discount day. For instance, I steer clear of the self-checkout lines, since the “seniors” are even less technologically able than I, and always seem to get stuck. I also avoid crowded aisles where the carts move more slowly than molasses. And I park in a far-off corner of the lot, since the ding potential from those beige Buick’s is tremendous. Imagine my surprise and dismay, therefore, when the checkout girl deducted 5% from my total last Thursday, without even the decency to ASK if I qualified.
“Do I look that old?” I nearly blurted, but then thought: “If they’re going to insult me by saying I look old, I’m keeping the $2.59.” Still, another milestone on the journey of life was passed.
“What other indignities are ahead?” I asked my wife, Katie, when I arrived home.
“Be happy you’re alive and healthy,” she said.
“You’re right,” I agreed, reluctantly. But I still didn’t like this small intimation of death, like a leaf falling from a tree in late-September.
I’m not certain when I first recognized my own mortality. I was probably around forty when I calculated I was at, or close to, the “back-nine” of life, actuarially-speaking. Yet, at that time, I was still intensely busy at work and ably performing in tennis, softball and soccer. At home, my children were young, and life was simply too busy to pause for reflection, especially on a topic that had no solution, no upside, and no negotiation.
Life is different now. All three children are finished with college and established in their own lives. I retired from real estate law five years ago. If I don’t make an effort to keep busy writing or exercising, reading, or traveling, thoughts of aging creep in, like the grey hair now surrounding my temples.
The realm of athletics is a microcosm, I think, for the issue of aging. There is an inexorable trajectory, from youthful obliviousness, to full-throttle power, to coasting “at the top of your game,” to reluctant recognition that maintenance is all you can hope for before, finally, slowing down.
At fifty, in recognition of the arrival of the “maintenance” period, in the form of creaky joints, I performed triage on my roster of activities. I gave up competitive soccer, softball and racquetball in the hope of competently continuing high-level tennis.
The challenge of remaining competitive against opponents half my age is not to play “their” game. Rather, I adapt to blunting their power with guile, their speed with spin. The task is made increasingly difficult due to my inability to play as frequently as before. Basically, I play “whack-a-mole” with my body. If my elbow quits aching, my shoulder stiffens. When my heels feel solid, the shrunken cartilage in my knees becomes apparent. If, one day, I think everything feels perfect, a twinge in the neck appears.
Sports have always been important to me. My earliest memories involve ping-pong in the basement of our home. When I was four or five, I begged my older brothers to play. Well before I was able to compete with them on the table, I tried to be helpful retrieving balls from murky corners behind furniture and spider webs.
I progressed at five or six to throwing rubber balls incessantly against the outside wall of our house and, as soon as possible, commenced playing little league baseball.
Soccer was added to baseball in seventh grade when I was informed at my new school the other choice was football. While I enjoyed playing catch, being tackled by people intent upon my destruction didn’t appeal. When I was ten, my sister introduced me to tennis and I have played, with varying intensity, ever since. During college, I added squash and racquetball to the agenda. As late as my mid-thirties, I was still adding, as platform tennis, a cold-weather fusion of tennis and racquetball, became a passion.
When I began the winnowing process, it wasn’t because I enjoyed playing less; it’s that my body was not able to play as much as before. I also suspected a subtle lessening of my abilities. “I may be a pretty good shortstop, but I’m no Derek Jeter; I don’t have to do this for a living,” I noted.
Derek Jeter presently is playing out his final season of a long and distinguished career with the Yankees. While his professionalism is admired, it’s impossible to deny the decline in his performance. His defense is slowed, his power hitting non-existent, and his durability is suspect. Several fans have confided they suffer cognitive dissonance when “The Captain” takes the field. They don’t begrudge him his accolades. However, they wish he would surrender his position at shortstop to a younger, more able teammate.
I’d hate for my tennis teammates to experience such thoughts when I come to play. I don’t want to out-stay my welcome. For this fall season, I’ve forsaken the “all-ages” league for the first time, in order to play against “Over-40” competition. I’m not yet psychologically able to sign up for the “Over-55’s,” though I qualify.
If the aches and pains overwhelm, I already have a plan to return to where it all began — the ping pong table. Great sport, no running, no body contact, weightless ball, and no age limits. Every day can be senior day.
DINING IN NORTH CAROLINA
It’s been five years since we moved to North Carolina from New Jersey and I’m still learning important new things about myself. This morning, I learned I don’t like cheese on my grits.
Most aspects of life here are easy to accept. Compared to New Jersey, the winters are warm, traffic is almost non-existent, and taxes are comically low. Food, however, is challenging. One of the best aspects of life in the land of the Soprano’s was availability of excellent Italian food. The only difficulty was determining WHICH restaurant to choose. In North Carolina, “Italian food” is largely confined to the defrosted fare found in mall-based chain restaurants.
Lately, after dining experiences ranging from dismal to mediocre that require a longer drive, we confine our Italian sorties to the place closest to our home with an authentic, old-world Italian name; we ignore the fact that it is actually run by two young, Brazilian sisters. As to pizza, we now make it ourselves.
Bagels also are better in New Jersey. Every town in the Garden State has at least one shop worthy of visiting on a sleepy Sunday morning. And you can count on a selection of whitefish salad and cheeses and cream cheese to go with the bagels. Not so in Dixie. Again, there’s a chain store in a shopping mall that stands in for a bagel shop; I wouldn’t want to be the first customer in a month to order a schmeer.
North Carolina is proud of its “barbecue.” Apparently, it competes with most other southern states for the designation as “the best.” Our local variety is vinegar-based, as opposed to the tomato-based type found in Texas and elsewhere. I’m not qualified to judge. I’ve eaten a couple of sandwiches. They were okay.
North Carolina cuisine also features something called “hush puppies,” which I’d grown up thinking were casual shoes worn by people with sore feet. Instead, hush puppies here are fried, finger-sized filets of dough, seasoned with varied amounts of sugar, sometimes including onions. Barbecue and seafood establishments are equally likely to place a plastic container of hush puppies on the table in lieu of the delicious Italian bread I crave. Though not inclined to “watch my weight,” I’ve never eaten a hush puppy without thinking: “What a waste of calories!”
Back to today: I awoke with an urge to go out for breakfast. In New Jersey, we would have debated which of several corner restaurants or diners fit the bill, all of which were within a five minute drive from our home. In Chapel Hill, our selection is between two places twenty minutes away: either the pancake place of esteemed reputation among the college crowd, or the elegant restaurant attached to “Southern Seasons,” the local gourmet shop.
Dismayed by the dry, indifferently-served pancakes in our last foray for pancakes, we opted for glamour. First, let me state clearly I intend no disrespect to Southern Seasons. The store is beautifully appointed and well stocked with every kitchen utensil and ingredient known to man; it’s a fine culinary establishment. Their restaurant, “The Weathervane,” is lovely inside and includes a flower-bedecked patio for outside dining. Because the inside air conditioning created a temperature akin to the South Pole to our just-back-from-Costa Rica bodies, we opted to sit outdoors.
The menu contained the usual selection of high-end breakfast fare, such as: eggs Benedict, smoked salmon and fruit and cheese selection du jour. Each ingredient’s organic and free trade bonafides are listed. As the one who suggested this treat instead of a bowl of cereal at home, I didn’t complain aloud about the prices, though the thought crossed my mind: “$12.95 for pancakes!? Are they made with truffles?” Hmmmm, possibly.
I ordered scrambled eggs with bacon, a biscuit and grits, a respectable southern meal. Grits, oddly, are the southern taste most readily enjoyed by me. Though derived from corn, they remind me of the cream of wheat my mother served when I was young. Compared to collard greens or black-eyed peas, for instance, I find grits to be the most accessible southern staple.
Our server was a local native, full of good cheer and “how y’all doin’ this mornin’?”
“Y’all want some cheese with those grits?” she asked. “Got pepper jack.”
Pepper in my grits sounded like a bridge too far, but I was persuaded by her good cheer to include aged Scottish cheddar. After all, The Weathervane is not the Waffle House, where grits require fake maple syrup for flavor.
“Are you sure you’ll like that?” asked my wife, Katie.
“How bad can it be?” I said. “I like grits, and I like cheddar cheese.”
Alas, when the plate arrived, I found the two tastes too divergent for my palate. The grits were bland and creamy; the cheese vibrant, salty and firm. “Yuck,” I said, after one bite.
Fortunately, the eggs were tasty, the bacon crisp and the biscuit fine. When the bill came, I learned that our server had succeeded in “up-selling” me a couple dollars on the cheese. I didn’t blame her; live and learn, y’all. Most of me is happy to have moved to North Carolina; only my stomach has some misgivings.