The House from Hell

For nine years I lived in a freak house. I'm not talking about my family, necessarily, but about the house itself. I lived in one of the most upscale suburbs and school districts in the country--but our house was a falling-down rental at the end of a long, rutted driveway. It wasn't exactly The Glass Castle, more like Grey Gardens without the money.

Today that driveway is a smoothly paved road through a development of multimillion-dollar houses in Westchester County. But in my memory it lives on as a hellish byway of broken asphalt, ancient patch jobs and loose gravel that scared away parents and children, and ruined Halloween (and many an undercarriage).

When the access to your house involves a quarter mile of bottoming out, you'd better believe you won't have too many visitors. Factor in darkness and you've definitely got the place to yourself. I remember when I used to be driven home by dads after a night of babysitting: they would stop their precious Benz or Caddy at the beginning of the driveway and shine their headlights to guide me as I stumbled home. Hey, thanks for the ride! By the way, your son's a pyromaniac!

Once you got all the way to the end, it was pretty spooky, even in the daylight, and even on days that weren't Halloween. The property had been a nursery, and had several leaning outbuildings--two garages and a greenhouse--as well as a rusted old gas pump. When I was younger, the acres of overgrown fields, the woods, the apple orchard and even the crumbling greenhouse held immense charm. As I hit puberty, however, I learned to be ashamed of the way we lived. Like generic rice puffs and knee socks that wouldn't stay up, our house was a mark of failure, a manifestation of how we didn't measure up to those whose driveways were short and smooth, whose houses were sturdy and professionally decorated, whose cabinets were filled with Cap'n Crunch and drawers with socks that didn't droop.

On Halloween we kids had to make our way down the driveway to join friends for trick or treating at "real" houses. No one ever trick or treated at our house. My parents thought this a benefit--imagine the savings on Fun-Size Snickers! But then they also enjoyed the beautiful setting and unavoidable privacy in a way that a self-conscious adolescent just could not fathom. My mother actually looked forward to mowing the massive yard that she personally carved out of what had looked like a wheat field when we moved in. What gawky adolescent could make sense of that?

After trick or treating I would return to our house, with its clawed-foot bathtubs, its extension cord running up the stairs to provide electricity to my own personal attic, its dank basement and odd layout of bedrooms. I would replay the comments I'd heard during the course of the night: "Do you live in a haunted house?" "How do you go down that driveway? Aren't you scared?" "Do you ever get any trick or treaters?" I would recall my swaggering answers, all bluff and bluster: "I hate new houses!" "There's nothing to be scared of. I feel sorry for people who live in boring houses." "We don't get trick or treaters but that just means we get to eat all the candy ourselves."

And then I would eat all the candy myself.

Halloween Date From Hell

It just seems wrong to complain about a Hellish Halloween. After all, isn't that the whole point? Yes, there are parades and parties and dressing up. But the holiday's very nature is to be creepy. It's about scaring small children, TPing and egging, eating too much candy, getting separated from your hard-to-recognize friends...there are so many ways this gruesome holiday can go bad. Here's one you may not have thought of before.

One October in my twenties I was single and going through a dry spell. OK, large chunks of my twenties were dry, but that's another (hellish) story. I went out to dinner with a couple of girlfriends, and one of them brought her brother, Andrew. Andrew was, like me, a writer, but unlike me he actually had published several books.

Andrew and I hit it off. Sure, he was short, pudgy and bald, but at least he was funny. Ask my friend Peter--my main dating credo is "As long as he's funny." I believe the way he put it was, "Well, no one could accuse you of having a physical 'type.'" Frankly, Peter was always unable to differentiate between laughing with my dates and laughing at them. But I digress.

After dinner Andrew offered to walk me to the Fifth Avenue bus. I was living in Chelsea, and as we walked we talked about our upcoming Halloween plans. I figured I would catch the infamous Halloween parade in Greenwich Village and go to a couple of nearby costume parties. He asked if he could accompany me. I figured, why not? I rarely had dates on any of the major holidays. By major I mostly mean Valentine's Day and New Year's Eve, but Halloween as a party night is also pretty major. Just not ideal for a first date, as I discovered.

We had a brief discussion about what costumes we would wear. He was noncommittal. Yes, he would wear one, but he had no idea what it might be. Certainly we would not be in anything coordinated since we barely knew each other--and by the way, I dislike it when couples coordinate their costumes, so that was fine by me. I generally wore something pretty girly since, well, what the hell. (There was the year I put a box over my shoulders and went as a table with my head for a centerpiece, but I was engaged by then and had different priorities.)

At the appointed hour Andrew rang my doorbell. I opened the door in whatever mildly sexy get-up I had adlibbed for the evening. He was standing there in a loud, patterned shirt, white pants that cut off just above his ankles, and white shoes. From the neck up he had done nothing. He was still bald. Oh, and of course he was still short and chubby, too. He carried a straw hat which he put on his bald head with a flourish. (I know I seem to be stressing the "bald" part, but after all he was the one who had chosen a costume where baldness was highlighted.)

"What are you?" I asked with what I hoped did not sound too much like horror.

"An old Jew!" he proclaimed proudly. "Straight out of Miami Beach!" He spoke in a heavy Brooklyn accent.

"Wow," I said. Sort of the way people say, "That sure is something!" when what they're really thinking is "...something hideous and misguided." It felt so anti-Semitic, even though he was Jewish. It felt less Halloween, more Purim, less a costume and more an insulting impression.

"Do you like it?" he asked, with the inflection of a star of Yiddish theater.

"Wow," I repeated inanely. Just as one's life supposedly flashes before one's eyes in the moments before death, various possible exit strategies presented themselves and were instantly rejected. How could I say the parties had both been canceled? And the parade? He would never buy that! I obviously hadn't sprained my ankle. Or fallen down a flight of stairs. But it wasn't too late! I still had to get out of the building...oh, I had to face the truth: I was going to attend parties given by people I liked and respected with someone I suddenly didn't.

At the last minute it occurred to me that I could wear a mask. If only I'd had the prescience to buy one.

All night, if I saw someone I knew, I veered quickly. I managed to make it through both parties without introducing Andrew to anyone. Unfortunately that meant I didn't greet or thank the hosts, but the tradeoff seemed reasonable, even for someone as hung up on etiquette as I am. The parade was a blur. A couple of times I thought about edging away and getting lost in the crowd, but that just seemed too cruel, despite the seemingly endless Jewish jokes and that nails-on-blackboard accent.

I finally came up with an alibi to cut the evening short: my dog, the shoe-eating Harley. Of course! I had to get back and walk him! It had been a whole...two hours! He could NEVER go that long without a walk. (The fact that I had a full-time job and was gone for 10 or more hours at a time wouldn't cross Andrew's mind, would it? Oh, at this point who cared!) I was looking forward to never seeing him again. As the New Yorker cartoon says, "How about never? Does never work for you?"

The plan backfired somewhat when Andrew insisted on going with me and Harley to Union Square Park. "What kind of a gentleman would I be if I didn't escort the lady on All Hallows Eve?" was how I believe he put it. I protested, but that old Jew sure was persistent and I gave in. After all, I knew his sister, and that had to count for something.

As we walked to the park I was almost lighthearted. I could see that the night would not in fact be the bottomless chasm I had previously envisioned. It would actually end at some point, although certainly not soon enough. We watched Harley do his business--always a fun way to end a date--and returned to my building without incident. I said goodbye downstairs, declining his repeated offers to "come up and see me some time." And so, finally, he walked away. His last words to me: "Hey babe, no promises."

Originally published October 29, 2007.

Christmas Is Always Coming

No, you're not imagining things. Christmas consumerism comes earlier every year. And this year may set the record: Dollar Tree has just released its 2017 "Holiday Book."  

A Public Service Announcement: Emergency Communications

Being unable to find out if my mother was dead or alive in Puerto Rico for five days post-Maria was terrifying, especially because she had a broken leg and was housebound. I learned a lot from this horrendous experience, mostly that you need to have a plan in place BEFORE a disaster. And that plan has to be more than “Call me as soon as you can.”

Here are my hurricane-inspired guidelines for communication in emergency situations.

1. Phone. The most frustrating aspect of the Hurricane Maria emergency was the complete lack of working phones anywhere – not just on the island, but on widely shared lists of governmental aid agencies like FEMA. NONE of those numbers worked, even when their area codes were in places not affected by the hurricane. Here’s a newsflash: you will not be able to rely on the government for communication in case of an emergency. It will be private citizens and NGOs that make things happen.

That said, even though phone service may be out for days, phones are still your first line of defense. Create a network of friends and family in different states and even countries. If the person in the disaster zone can get through to even one, he or she can spread the word to the rest of the network. Create your own plan, with people you know and trust, and watch out for each other.

Note that sometimes texting works even when regular phone service doesn’t. Keep calling and texting. At some point, phones will come back online. Don't fill up voicemail in case others need to leave messages.  

Oh, and keep your phone charged! Have at least one portable charger like this one and keep it/them charged too.

2. The Red Cross. If you are in an emergency, register with the Red Cross ASAP, and tell your network to check the Red Cross registry for you. The Red Cross was the ONLY functioning entity I came across in the 5 days I desperately sought information. Their website worked smoothly (my mother was not registered on it) and a real person answered the phone when I called to provide my info so they could contact me when/if she did. Kudos to the Red Cross.

List yourself as safe here.
Find out if someone is safe here.

You can also call the Red Cross about a missing person. The number is (800) 733-2767. I found it staffed by caring and competent people at a time I had almost abandoned hope that such a thing existed anymore.

And, in the belt-and-suspenders category, you can download the Red Cross Emergency App and use the "I'm Safe" button to post a message to your social media accounts. Text "GETEMERGENCY" to 90999. Like, right now.

3. Social media. The only info I received specific to my mother’s neighborhood (Dorado) was on social media. Anything outside San Juan or near a shaky dam was not mentioned by the mainstream media. But on social media, I found people who lived in or had family in Dorado, who informed me that the area was not badly hit. This eased my mind somewhat (except late at night when the visions returned of my mom and her dogs floating up to the ceiling of her flooded house).

Start tweeting and posting on Facebook with specifics about who and what you’re looking for. After Maria, hyper-local Facebook groups sprang up instantly, thanks to tech-savvy angels who know how valuable these resources are. Through the Dorado subgroup and Facebook Messenger, I met a woman in Texas whose parents live near my mother. She arranged to send someone by my mother’s house to check on her! (Shoutout to American Airlines employees!)

I posted on my own Facebook page and received messages of support as well as unexpected information, including some from a friend whose aunt lives near San Juan. The kind thoughts and prayers sustained me. Shoutout to my friends!

Tweet to news sources and celebrities affiliated with the disaster, whether through location, fundraising activities, affected family members, etc. In the case of Puerto Rico, Jennifer Lopez, Lin-Manuel Miranda and Ricky Martin were all actively tweeting. A tweet I sent “@” Lin-Manuel was seen by someone who follows him – and that person got me info. The CNN reporter on the ground retweeted a message I sent him and someone contacted me with an update on the area. The power of social media is REAL.

My mother is not on Facebook, but those who are can check in via the Facebook Safety Check next time. (God, please don’t let there be a “next time”!) When enough people on FB post about a disaster, FB activates Safety Check and people in the area get prompted to check in.

Google may have a similar service, but my mother has Google-induced paranoia and refuses to use it – Bing all the way for her!

4. Apps. Internet service may be out in a disaster-affected zone, but there are many methods of communicating. Have your network download a couple of them, set up accounts, practice communicating, pick favorites and be ready. I recommend:

·       WhatsApp Messenger and WhatsApp Calling (1 billion users, internet-enabled messaging and calls)
·       Zello (50 million users, long-distance walkie-talkie functionality with no internet required)
·       Skype (500 million users, IM, voice and video calls)
·       Firechat (1 million users, messaging without signal or data)
·       Family Locator GPS Tracker (10 million users)

5. Ham radio. Yes, it lives! I had not heard that term in decades, but a friend on Facebook informed me ham radio worked in PR post-Maria. However, you must be a licensed user, and operating a ham radio takes some knowledge. Best for you and those in your network to find local ham radio operators while the sun is still shining and the ground is not moving, bake them cookies and enlist their future aid.

More info here

6. Satellite phones. These are expensive and don’t always work. However, if you have one, keep it at the ready!

A word about the elderly. My mother is in her 80s. She shuts off her computer at 5pm every day so it can’t spy on her. She has a flip phone which she only uses to call “long distance” cheaply. Until Hurricane Irma was headed her way, she had not been aware that her phone could receive texts – and she still refused to learn how to send them. Years ago, I convinced her to try Skype, but when she answered my call I saw her naked and she immediately uninstalled it. (Too late – I can never un-see my impending future body!)

Her current phone can’t download the apps mentioned here and she resists learning even lifesaving technologies. So what do I do? I communicate with her neighbor, Rose. Rose’s cell service came back 5 days after Maria; my mother’s cheapo service is still out. I will be discussing apps with Rose. I can't bake her cookies, but she will know how much I appreciate her help. 

So if you haven't gotten to know your neighbors already, what are you waiting for? Share their information with your friends and family, and have them share yours with their own. Who knows? Some may even be ham radio operators. 

My mom is fine. Me? I will be drinking heavily for a few more days.