December 31, 2019
It’s New Year’s Eve. I want to watch When Harry met Sally and not pay for it, but it doesn’t look like that’s gonna happen tonight. Feeling slightly nostalgic, I wanted to watch it because it came out shortly after New Year’s Eve 1988, thirty years ago, a month after the hubby and I started dating. Not having free access to the movie and the hubby being asleep since 8:21PM, my New Year’s nostalgia bubble has quickly burst. Looks like I’ll be the only one in the house up at midnight again this year. Even after the kid fought tooth and nail to stay awake for New Year’s Eve her first time back in 2010, she passed out on the family room floor at exactly 11:45PM, the hubby snoring faintly by her side.
At this point I’ve settled on The ‘Burbs (which I own, of course). For those of you who don’t know the movie, it’s a film directed by Joe Dante during the writers’ strike of 1988. Although there was a script written for the movie and the writer of the script appeared in the film, he was not allowed to contribute any ideas while on set, so most of the scenes were completely improvised by the actors. In a nutshell, the story revolves around the Klopeks, a strange foreign family who have moved into a typical suburban neighborhood located somewhere in middle America, and how their neighbors respond to them. All kinds of theories involving the Klopeks abound after an older neighbor has gone missing without a trace, from which the entire movie is focused.
Since birth, I’ve lived in the ‘burbs, except for a brief stay in Astoria, Queens when the hubby was in law school, our neighbor across the hall being the Egyptian taxi driver who fashioned a hookah out of car parts and smoked the finest Turkish tobacco only money could buy the equivalent to the best cocaine on the planet. At the time we lived in Astoria, our apartment was located in the primarily Greek Ditmars/Steinway neighborhood, a large portion of our neighbors being widows who spoke little English. We knew they were widows because it was explained to us that after their husbands died, they would only wear black clothing. We lovingly referred to the old widow who lived in apartment A1 on the first floor as “The Mayor.” She knew everyone in the building and everything about them, regardless of whether or not you personally spoke to her. Once The Mayor knew who you were, your business was everyone’s business by the end of the day you moved into the building. During the warmer months, the widows spent their days sitting outside in chairs brought from their kitchens, no doubt gossiping about the neighbors. I wouldn’t know because they only spoke Greek, which we sadly never learned to speak the entire 2 ½ years we lived there. I also assumed they were gossiping because numerous times we were confronted by a member of the widow gang who would ask questions they could only ask if they knew personal information about us. I will admit, after a while it didn’t bother us having our laundry aired out in this small slice of gyro heaven. Having lost all of our grandmothers years before, it was kinda nice having so many built-in bubbies who actually did care about and watch over us.
One of the things I loved about that neighborhood in Astoria was its diversity. Aside from the widow gang, our building was filled with four stories of mixed nuts, each floor containing six apartments full of life. Living on the second floor, there was Muhammad, the Egyptian taxi driver who lived across the hall. Muhammad had moved to the United States with his wife some years before, wanting a better life for his family. Despite having an engineering degree obtained in Egypt, Muhammad could not find work, his credentials seemingly useless in America, forcing him to start driving a taxi, making chump change on the side repairing cars for friends and neighbors. Eventually, his wife would give up and return to Egypt with their two small children, leaving Muhammad alone, he questioning us as to the protocol for hiring a live-in woman who could cook and clean for him. Next door to Muhammad was the young male graduate student who loved arguing creation versus evolution with the Jehovah Witnesses, groups of two or three adults and children somehow finding their way into the building every Sunday afternoon and who we ultimately discovered were getting into the building via our neighbor upstairs we affectionately referred to as “the prostitute,” thanks to her stiletto stomp on the wood floors above us at all hours of the day and night. Next door to us was the Saudi couple we could hear shouting over the telephone on a nightly basis as they spoke to their families back home during the first Iraq war, Operation Desert Shield. In the 2 ½ years we lived in our apartment, I never once met the wife, nor had anyone else. However, the husband was very friendly and conversed with us often. The occupants of the other two apartments remains unclear to us. I’m not sure if we ever met them or just simply forgot who they were, their life stories not being indelible enough for us to recall.
The other thing I loved about that neighborhood was its relative safety. I never felt scared walking the streets alone, regardless of the time, day or night. We rarely heard of any criminal activity, mostly thanks to the Catholic high school across the street keeping us out of harm’s way. And we never heard of or saw any kind of neighborhood strife thanks to the increasing diversity of the community. Despite being a part of New York City, it still felt like the ‘burbs to us…until the day we moved out.
At the end of June 1991, upon graduation from law school, we hired Israeli movers to pack up and move us back to New Jersey where the hubby would begin his lifelong career as a legal aid attorney. We knew the day wasn’t going to be one of our best when the movers showed up four hours late, announcing that they were going to breakfast. Reluctantly sending them to the Pakistani-owned market on the corner where we had shopped for 2 ½ years without incident, our Israeli friends abruptly returned, relaying their story of the Middle Eastern conflict having just taken place at the corner market. I quickly went down to the market to demand an explanation from the man whom I visited almost daily to buy a cup of coffee on my way to work, but he refused to speak to me and looked past me as if invisible. That’s when I went back home and brought my friends to the Greek market around the block. While out, there was a shooting at the Catholic school across the street…and then we discovered that all the moving boxes were labeled in Hebrew…after the movers were already gone. Vowing to never live in the city again, we moved ourselves back to the ‘burbs, where we believed it was going to be a lot safer.
Returning to the pinelands where we first met while attending college, the hubby and I moved between several different apartment complexes in search of the perfect location. Of course, as our luck would have it, each residence brought with it those interesting characters we just couldn’t avoid. In our first apartment, there was Ingrid, the single mom living below us who drank herself into oblivion on a daily basis while listening to music that bellowed throughout the entire complex, oftentimes leaving her 10-year-old daughter to fend for herself on the weekends she wasn’t visiting daddy. Ingrid literally howled when having sex with whatever man she brought home on the weekends her daughter was absent. Whether it was the loud stereo, the neglect of her child and/or enraptured squeals, calling the cops was a fruitless effort. It seemed the entire local police force was either a relative of Ingrid’s and/or a sexual partner. There was no getting around it.
At our second apartment, a gang of kids hung out with baseball bats in the parking lot on a nightly basis, leaving us hostages in our own home. There was also the “family” across the landing who seemed to grow in number, despite the legal maximum capacity never enforced by the management. And then I discovered that a client was living in the building next door.
We weren’t in our third apartment long enough to even meet a neighbor, the hubby and I breaking the lease after discovering the bedroom flooded every time it rained. Having one of my clients, a budding child arsonist and his adoptive father, moving into the complex also definitely rushed the process.
Ultimately landing in a house for rent, we had moved four times in as many years, each home being within a five-mile radius. Unbeknownst to us, the owner decided to secretly divorce her husband and offered to sell the house to us, wanting to pocket the money that was rightfully hers before escaping with her son and leaving her abusive spouse. We were thrilled to finally be “home.”
It wasn’t just the ‘burbs, it was the boonies…and we loved it. It was a small ranch house situated on a cul-de-sac filled with a mélange of families. We had the Burnes family, a blended family of four. The wife, Patty, had a daughter name Caroline from a previous relationship, the father having died in an automobile accident shortly after Caroline’s birth. Patty later married Bill, with whom she had given birth to Robert, a boy who would become the kid’s very first true best friend. Sandwiched between us and the Burnes’s was Mr. John, a widower whose wife had passed from cancer several years earlier and was now remarried to his wife’s best friend Georgia. Mr. John was another transplant evacuee from the city of Brooklyn, also looking for the safety of the ‘burbs. Mr. John insisted on doing everything himself, refusing to hire anyone to repair anything or to work around his home, his penultimate moment being the night he got stuck on the roof of his house in an attempt to clean his gutters, Bill coming to his rescue with a ladder.
When the kid turned 2-years-old I decided to quit working in order to stay home. The measly salary I was making was basically paying for childcare, so there really was no point in me working, plus we had finally paid off the hubby’s student loans. Of course, the upside to being a stay-at-home mom is being a part of your child’s development, something you never get back once missed. But the biggest downside to being a stay-at-home mom is having too much time on your hands while your child is sleeping. This is when my imagination takes over and fills in the blanks of the neighbors I don’t really know. Kathy, the single mom lawyer who lived next door seemed normal enough, but she decided to sell her house and downsize upon empty nesting. When the new owner, Sharon, moved in, I was convinced that she was a prostitute because she only went out at night, only to learn that she was a recently divorced single mom working in the local casinos in order to support her teenage son. Before I knew Georgia, I also believed that she was a prostitute who made house calls because she only came over to Mr. John’s at night. There was another Sharon, who I insisted was some kind of drug addict and/or dealer because she rarely left the house, had two defunct cars in the driveway and had various unknown visitors throughout the day. I would later find that she was also a single mom whose joint pain prevented her from moving around, hence not leaving the house. And, so it went, from house to house, my brain inventing scenarios that never really existed. All in all, despite my creativity and some unleashed crazy neighborhood dogs, I never felt unsafe. I walked daily for miles within the community, alone or with the kid, without a care in the world.
Our second purchased home was also on a cul-de-sac the neighbors lovingly called “The United Nations” due to its diverse inhabitants. To one side of us were the Franks, a typical southern New Jersey Italian-American nuclear family of four – mom, dad, brother and sister. Next to them was the Andersons, empty nesters with two beautiful but dimwitted Samoyeds and who ultimately decided to move because of the shenanigans of their neighbor, Mrs. Chang. Mrs. Chang was a single Chinese woman who, not unlike Mr. John, insisted on doing everything without the help of others and was often seen climbing around on her roof, her piece de resistance trying to pull a tree out of her front yard with a tiny Toyota Corolla, ultimately ripping off its bumper. Some years later, she would be found in bed by her sons on Christmas Day, two days after dying of natural causes. The Andersons sure felt like shit wanting to move after that day. There were the Filipino grandparents on one corner and the French widow on the other. Jack the Filipino was a jack of all trades and drove a jitney in Atlantic City for a little extra cash in his retirement, his son and grandchildren also living in the home. Jack would later die unexpectedly from a stroke while driving with his wife on the highway. Renee, the French widow who chain smoked, rarely came outside, especially after some car randomly plowed through the front room of her house years before. Renee’s next-door neighbor was the Wu family, a typical Chinese-American nuclear family of four – mom, dad, brother and sister. Mr. Wu would later die from cancer. In between the Wu home and ours was another Sharon who lived with her elderly mother. Sharon and I never got along, basically because she was an outright bitch. She didn’t get along with anyone else either, so I didn’t feel singled out. It wasn’t until the Andersons moved out and the new inhabitants moved in that my imagination took over once again…
I just knew they were mafia or, at the very least, some kind of gypsies (thanks to My Big Fat American Gypsy Wedding series that I was obsessed with watching at the time). Despite the parents’ claim to being involved in some kind of real estate business, doubt was immediately cast when the former owner, Mrs. Anderson, who was a long-time realtor in town, claimed she’d never heard of them and couldn’t find them anywhere in any listings. On any given day, a family member could be seen chasing their pedigree terrier dog and/or the baby sister out of the cul-de-sac, sometimes having to make the choice between the two after both sprinted in opposite directions. The dog pretty much always won that bet, the mother reminding us of how much she paid for the dog. Besides, at some point the baby would plotz and just come home, the dog, on the other hand, running as fast and as far as it possibly could in seeking refuge. But my breaking point was the day I saw the father dressed in a white suit, running from his house carrying a violin case…
And then there was the murder of Gerardina Garcia, a neighbor around the corner. I remember it was on Shabbat in the middle of the day when I, the hubby and the kid were all taking an afternoon nap. As I slowly awakened to the faint sound of a nail gun compressor followed by the crack of a nail hitting shingle at the neighbor’s house replacing their roof, a sudden louder blast repeatedly interrupted the sequence. I immediately jumped to my feet, checked on the hubby and the kid and ran out the front door looking for the source of the blast. Unbeknownst to me, Mrs. Garcia had just been shot in her SUV, her 8-year-old son in the back seat watching every moment.
The final straw occurred the day we moved out of that second cul-de-sac house before leaving that house one last time. Another neighbor and her daughter had been found that morning, shot to death by the daughter’s jilted boyfriend. I thank G-d every day that our buyer didn’t back down on the deal. I was no longer feeling safe – it was time to go…
“I hate cul-de-sacs. There’s only one way out, and the people are kind of weird.”
Thankfully, we moved into a community that was (for the most part) safer, relatively free of death by shootings and not on a cul-de-sac. I wanted the busiest, most traveled street in town with the local hospital and fire and police departments within walking distance.
Of course, that didn’t stop my soap opera brain from fabricating the tales of our new neighbors: the Russian spies who “worked from home” and made Cirque de Soleil look like amateurs; the other Russians and/or gypsies who stole cars, refinished them and sold them to Chinese mobsters; the drug dealer across the street who snuck out at night with a duffle bag and had numerous visitors throughout the day; and the paranoid two-time Iraq war vet who convinced me the government dropped camera probes into my sewer system. To this day, the hubby and the kid tease me about my fantasies…however, they still can’t prove that I’m wrong…I wonder what the neighbors say about us?
Since the age of five, when Kathy taught me how to ride that little red Schwinn bike, I had always owned a bike, until 1984, having sold my last bike back in Arizona in order to make some fast cash to buy a plane ticket home after becoming suddenly homeless. I didn’t buy another bicycle until 2003, when I moved into that second cul-de-sac home. Since then, I’ve spent many hours on my bike exploring the surrounding neighborhoods to see what’s what. Aside from the occasional loose dog, I’ve rarely been afraid to ride my bike alone – which is always. Many times, I’ve been asked how I can ride so freely without any protection or fear of something happening to me, to which I admit my need to believe that most people in the world are inherently good and decent people. Plus, I’m not an idiot – if it feels unsafe, I don’t stick around. However, as I’ve mentioned, those bike rides have been few and far between over the past year due to medical issues preventing me from riding, but I did manage to get in my scheduled 10-minute stationary bike ride at the gym earlier today.
There was something else I did today – I bought pepper spray at the local Target. Why did I buy pepper spray at the local Target on New Year’s Eve? The seed to that answer was planted way back when on that day in June 1991 – the day I was refused because of who I am. As if Pittsburgh and San Diego (and countless other incidents throughout the world over the past year) weren’t enough for me to fear the need for increased security in my house of worship, it was no longer about feeling unsafe – it was about the focus on a specific population of which I am a part. Sure, I have fallen guilty of judging others with my imaginative life stories, just like the neighbors in The ‘Burbs, but I never wanted to hurt, let alone kill, someone based on whatever beliefs I had about them – I am Ray Peterson.
Diversity has been one of the most important factors in every neighborhood within which I have lived. But, at some point outside my little universe, acceptance included everyone EXCEPT Jews – except me. I bought that pepper spray today because I am afraid. I’m afraid because I am a Jew. I’m afraid because there is a growing worldwide populace who hate me for who I am. They hate me because I’m a Jew. I no longer feel safe exploring my neighborhood alone. I have become a Klopek – a member of that strange foreign family who moved next door into your suburbia. On every single night of Hanukkah 2019, Jews were attacked in the New York Metropolitan Area. Jewish men, teens and boys were punched in the head and viciously attacked while innocently walking down public streets during rush hour. Jewish women, teens and girls being smacked, punched and hit in the head while shopping with their babies, children and siblings in broad daylight. Israeli tourists being verbally and physically attacked and robbed on public trains, chosen because they were speaking Hebrew. I could be in the kosher deli up the street on any given day and gunned down or attend a holiday party and be stabbed with a machete simply for who I am – a Jew.
All this because we are Klopeks…
This is America (skrrt, skrrt, woo)
Don’t catch you slippin’ now (ayy)
Look at how I’m livin’ now
Police be trippin’ now (woo)
Yeah, this is America (woo, ayy)
Guns in my area (word, my area)
This is America – Childish Gambino