Friday, December 18, 2009

Love Thy Neighbor (ninth increment)

November, 2003

We learned a few weeks before that the owner of the building that housed the biker bar, whom we knew was very ill, had finally died (and I say finally with all the respect owed a man who made our lives a living hell for his continued and obscene profit). We also learned that his out-of-town sons were planning on selling the place. The guy who managed the bar for years—a retired NYC cop—did not want to pay good money for the decrepit building, so it was up to us to decide if we wanted it. After Dean took a tour through the structure, he was frightened off, but the good news was that the price the father wanted for it was almost halved by the sons. We were biding our time, attempting to wait out a better deal when we left for California for the Thanksgiving holiday. I was unable to reach my broker, Lisa L., for an update before I left.

I finally reached her minutes after our plane landed. She told me the owners had accepted an offer from a plumber who planned to make the bar bigger and better. ("C'mon, God, haven't you toyed with us enough?)

I stiffened my resolve. “Listen, Lisa, you have to be our advocate here. If this plumber gets the place, our property value becomes friends with zero. Make a higher offer and an entreaty to the owners to do the right thing. No one needs a busy bar on a residential road, one that is impossible to get to without driving to and from it. That place dumps a lot of drunk drivers on the road (not to mention the drive-by shooters).

And it did. One time I stood in my driveway with a deputy sheriff who was there at my request to see how fast people drove on my road. He wore a hat that was about four feet tall and the idiot drivers easily spotted him and were flashing lights to warn each other. The result was that all of a sudden, everyone was driving 30 mph, the speed limit. This officer was either incredibly dense, in denial, or liked to speed himself. He dismissed the notion that they were onto him, insisting since his car was parked well down my driveway, no one could see him. Uh, and your four-foot hat is invisible, I suppose, officer?

During my uncomfortable few minutes with this guy, I casually mentioned all the drunk drivers on the road because of the bar next door. He said, "Oh, I don't think that's true." I looked at him incredulously, searching his face for a hint of humor. None was to be found. Either he liked to drink at the bar himself or he was covering for his retired police buddy who ran the joint. Whatever. If the cops refuse to see the people staggering to their cars, then who will ever do anything? The answer, of course, is no one. My kids' bus drivers would often complain but their efforts would fall on deaf ears 'cause the cops didn't give a shit.

February, 2004

We bought the bar. The owners did the right thing and made a cool five thou extra in the process. The building was one of the most disgusting places I’ve ever been unfortunate enough to see. I seriously had to take a shower after every time I stepped foot into it. It was about a hundred years old and no one had spent a nickel on it since, it seemed. Part of the agreement for purchase at a reduced price was that we could not have an inspection. Normally, we would never buy real estate without an inspection but in this case we had no choice. It was either buy the bar or chuck everything and move back to California or Santa Fe. Why oh why didn’t we move back to California or Santa Fe? What is it about us that insists upon torture? Perversity is a family trait, I fear.

A few months before the sale went through, the manager had rented the apartment above the bar to a single woman with a beautiful Siberian husky. The older woman who moved in after the very boisterous family of six (in a junior 2-bedroom!!) and was delightfully quiet, had fled after the drive-by shooting. Because I am an animal lover and I know how hard it is to find an apartment that takes dogs, I told my broker to allow the tenant with husky to stay. She thought it was a bad idea but it became moot anyway since the woman moved out before the closing date. I've always felt badly about that especially after I heard she was pregnant—the woman—and the dog was really cute.

Since the building was delivered to us vacant, we planned to gut and renovate the apartment first and get it rented to secure some income, warding off the money hemorrhage—or at least bandaging it. So in February '04 we headed up there to do just that.

It was a decent layout, and it was sunny and warm. The attic door that had been nailed shut to ensure that we had no access to it during the walk-through, was filled with the noisy family's garbage and family memorabilia. (Why they bothered to move it all from the trailer to the apartment only to leave it all behind I'll never know. Apparently they absconded in the wee hours of the morning so as to avoid paying any rent.) The bathroom was one notch above gas station restroom. We did see the attempts, however feeble, of the genteel older woman, to try to make the place habitable. There was fresh paint on the walls and carpet nails along the edges where she ripped out her carpet when she moved.

One of the first problems we noticed was the uneven floor when you first walked in. You kind of lost your balance right inside the front door. The bathroom floor was also lopsided. When we ripped up the multiple layers of linoleum flooring we had a surprise: apparently there was a major fire in the building at one time and rather than replacing the charred joists, they had just installed new ones atop the others, hence the uneven floors.

It gets better. The bathroom floor was uneven 'cause they didn't feel like carving a slight notch in the floor joists to lay the pipe. They just plopped it right on top and covered it with vinyl flooring so there was a huge lump where the pipe lay. We ripped out all the flooring and put down tile in the bath and faux wood laminate in the rest. The bathroom was completely redone, all in white. When I went in to paint the walls red, I felt almost like a criminal, doing away with fresh white walls by smearing some obnoxious bloody red all over it. After about six coats, though, it finally stopped looking like a gory murder scene and actually looked good.

With the bathroom looking really fab, sporting an all new white tub, toilet, vanity, mirror trim, and floor, and Pottery Barn polished nickel hardware, we moved on to the kitchen and living room. All that winter, while keeping company with Air America, I painted and fixed things. Little did I know that while Rachel Maddoe would end up having her own television show (without Liz and Chuck D.) Al Franken would go on to become the U.S. senator of the great state of Minnesota. You go, Al. When I was pulling off the acoustic ceiling tiles in the living room, skeletons of mice and others began raining down. I quickly made the executive decision that the tiles would stay in the rest of the apartment. After all, it was a rental so it's not smart to renovate to one's taste anyway—and I just don't handle skeletons of any size very well. Some people find treasures in the walls or in the attic—maybe an original copy of the Constitution? I only find vermin skeletons and old negatives of a little boy in knickers on the running board of an old truck. Creepy, and not exactly like winning the lottery, is it?

We put beadboard on the living room ceiling, and fresh paint on the acoustic tiles in the other rooms (much easier said than done, by the way. Acoustic tiles do not take paint easily; rather they absorb it). Since the apartment had no architectural flair whatsoever, I tried to make it interesting with paint colors. I bought four of the five shades on a Martha Stewart color swatch in soft sage greens. I put the lightest one in the kitchen—it was almost white with just a titch of green. The darkest one, a deep sage, I put in the hallway for a bit of drama. The medium color I used in the small bedroom.

The master bedroom gave me copious amounts of grief. The pretty green/taupe cottage-y color (a shade lighter than in the smaller bedroom) went up on the walls like a shocking lime-ish pastel. I had to repaint the entire room in ivory (meanwhile, the room was getting smaller with all the paint on the walls). When I used the same green on the window frames, it came out exactly right. Go figure. It was just the way the light hit the walls that made the color funky.

In the kitchen, we reconfigured the room. We installed pretty maple flat panel cabinetry and a green laminate countertop to pick up the green in the wall color. I found a maple pot rack at Crate and Barrel that matched the cabinets perfectly, which we put above the range. I bought new white midrange appliances and a white fan/light fixture. Satin nickel hardware was installed on the cabinetry, and a stainless sink finished the renovation. Voila. The kitchen was now done.

Dean enlarged the entrance into the living room and fixed or replaced all the window frames and sills. We installed white plantation wood blinds in all the front windows, and put miniature blinds in the rest (I had dreamed of doing that for all those years that I stared at the decrepit mismatched curtains hanging in the windows that none of the tenants ever thought to change). We installed all new light fixtures, some acquired on ebay.

Finally, finally in mid-August it was ready to rent. We managed to find a great tenant through a friend of a friend. Now it was time to turn to the first floor.

Saturday, November 28, 2009


Chapter Five

Buying the Bar


Five years had passed since we bought our house. Including sweat equity, we've easily spent over a hundred thousand dollars in improvements and renovations. Alas, the neighborhood has not been improving at the same rate as our house. We kept hearing that a bike path would be built—the third leg of it, actually—across the road, following the path of the old Putnam railroad line. The first two legs have been finished for a while and this third part would really make life much more bearable for us. Walking anywhere in this town means you must have your insurance paid up for there is an excellent chance that you will be mowed down.

The residents of the rehab center, though their behavior improved after our efforts, continued to have a penchant for obscene language and decibel-splitting music. It was much quieter in Manhattan, actually.

More salt in the wound: three years ago, in 2000, I was surfing on a real estate Web site (the same one that handled the Garrison house) when what should I see but “the Garrison house.” Stunned, I note the asking price is almost double what it had sold for two years prior. Something, however, is not right. It lists only 1.8 acres instead of 2.8. I call the broker. The house has already been resold, I’m told, at nearly the asking price. The buyers (who had prevailed over us) had sold off an acre of property and apparently used the proceeds to make a few cosmetic renovations, subsequently selling the house at twice the price. I felt so badly for the original elderly owners who rightfully should have realized the enormous profit from the stratospheric rise in property values. And I was heartsick that the scenic property had been fragmented and reduced.

I told Dean about it. His philosophy, skewed though it may be, is that even though the house would be worth over half a million (land intact), he would never have sold it had we acquired it. He would have lived there forever. So . . . it wouldn’t matter how much it was worth on the open market. See?

No, I really do not since I am a clear-eyed realist. His sweet sentiment did not make me feel a whit better. That $31,500 price difference that once had me beaming had ballooned into a whopping $300,000 difference in market value in a mere few years. Ten times the original disparity. I kicked myself for the gazillionth time—the black and blues were piling up— and vowed never to let my husband forget our collective stupidity, for which he is somehow more responsible than I was. I’m happy to report that I’ve been fulfilling that promise over the ensuing years.

So now everyone is asking, why is she agonizing over a measly six or seven hundred thou when she could have made millions if she bought in Tribeca in the late 70s/early 80s and sold when the world went mad? Well, yes, that’s true but in the late 70s when I moved to Tribeca I was earning somewhere around $11,000, if that. Annually. So buying was not always an option for me. As time went by, it just seemed easier to rent. I had heard horror stories about co-op boards and the draconian personalities that get elected to those boards and I wanted no part of them. I had a friend who lived in a Soho building that had a monstrous shareholder. This person is a partner in a famed New York gourmet food store but he is such an ugly little person that when my friend or I would leave food for the stray cats in the neighborhood, he’d wait at his window and, as soon as we left, scurry down and throw away the food. I wished the building's rats well. Since he tried to eradicate the cats, I felt it fitting for him to have rats instead.

Anyway, Dean and I had seen the real estate prices rocket up in every neighborhood we ever lived in . . . almost as soon as we left. By no means are we trendsetters, though. We’re just poor and cheap and the areas we picked were always the most affordable ones available. At this point our New York City neighborhood, our Chicago neighborhood, and our L.A. neighborhood have all fallen prey to the tragically hip and affluent. I’m not sure about our Santa Fe neighborhood. Anyway, I picked the Garrison house that got away to suffer over.

This story is a cautionary tale for naive, fallible first-time home buyers. I figured, why not help others avoid our insane mistakes? What I wasn’t willing to admit, even to myself, was that other home buyers probably have much more sense than we had. How could two educated, experienced, older people—and by older I of course mean over 25—commit such careless, unthinking mistakes when making one of the most, if not the most, important purchases of their lives?

Well, we did. The adage about location, location, location holds a lot of weight here. Tis far better to buy the worst house in the best neighborhood than to buy the best in the worst. While most people do the former and set about making their abode a better place, we decided to buy a nice house and then change the neighborhood. A few points to clarify here: one, we did not buy the best house in a lousy neighborhood, simply a house, one that had potential but was still what is quaintly referred to in the real estate world as a fixer; second, the neighborhood wasn’t bad, per se, just not really our cup of tea, um, ideologically, let's say. And our house sat on a busy, ever growing busier, road. Very bad, unless you plan to sell coffee out of your living room (which we plan to practically do but I get ahead of my story).

So after having lived in some really rough areas—Dean in parts of Brooklyn and L.A., me in Hell’s Kitchen in the 70s—we have to move to Brewster, "the place where the country begins," to get up close and personal with a drive-by shooting. Yes, there was nary a freeway drive-by in L.A (where they were invented) when we lived there but in Brewster—well, we found one right next door.

The Shootout (2002)

Sitting on the living room couch one night, around eleven-ish when all of a sudden, boom boom boom. The loud sounds seem to come from right behind our heads somewhere. And they did since right behind our heads were our windows and out those windows was the bar. Dean immediately recognized the sounds as gunshots—I don't know why, now that I think about it. A few minutes later we saw the red and blue lights on the police cruisers outside and Dean went to speak to them.

Basically, the police gave him no information other than that there was a drive-by shooting at the bar, which we already knew. He told him to go back inside.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Love Thy Neighbor (seventh increment)

About a year before, I had discovered Tip and Toe living under my neighbor's shed. They were wee black kittens that looked like twins and apparently were on their own. Unfortunately, they were feral and wouldn't let me near them. I began leaving food—the universal sign of friendship—near the shed every day. As they grew older and realized I had not yet attempted to brutalize them, they started getting a tiny bit bolder. As more time passed, the absolutely gorgeous-faced one became my friend. I called them Tip and Toe because the less friendly one—Tip—was all black except for the tip of her tail, which was pure white. Both girls were polydactyl (extra toes). So they were dubbed Tip and Toe, though admittedly the name Toe wasn't the most fitting moniker for a raven beauty.

About a year after I met this dynamic duo, Dean casually mentioned that it was about time to have them spayed before they started proliferating. He made the announcement and then it was entirely up to me to carry it out. First, I had to find a Have-a-Heart trap. Done. Then I had to trap each of them. Finally, done. Then I brought them to a vet to be spayed. Done . . . not so fast. The vet called me a few hours later to report that they were on the table unconscious but both were in an advanced state of pregnancy.

I went to get them. They waited for their kittens' birth in a room in my basement that bears a startling resemblance to a medieval dungeon. Tip gave birth to four kittens the night before we left for a trip to Florida; Toe had five kittens sometime thereafter. So now I had nine kittens, all male save one, to find homes for. A local rescue group helped me place most of them and we ended up keeping two. Poor Luca, I gave away his favorite kitten. It's not that I enjoy being cruel to small children. It's just that he tormented the kitten for the seven or eight weeks we had the little guy. Also, that kitten was the most striking of the lot, with fantastic markings. I knew he would be adopted and he was indeed the first one to go, as predicted. The decision to give away Luca's kitten would come back to bite me (literally) a few years later when I had to make amends.

Tip and Toe were spayed and immunized as soon as the kittens were weaned. I wrestled with the decision as to what to do next. Toe was easily adaptable to life inside; Tip was stubbornly feral. In the end, I released them but figured they'd stay close with their two kittens inside. I figured wrong, as usual.

In the beginning it worked out nicely. We would put Greyboy, one of Toe's babies, on a leash and let him cavort with Ma. Tip would eye their fraternity suspiciously and I came to realize that we probably kept two of Toe's kittens inadvertently and none of Tip's. Polly was the only female and the second kitten we ended up with and she was fast becoming a pain. She wasn't interested in either Tip or Toe, and followed her own bitchy agenda, which eventually included peeing all over the house in surprising places, as in, Surprise, guess who has been here first? Grey and Toe were so adorable together but their time was short. In October, just before Halloween, I spotted a dead black cat on Route 6, a major artery by our house, and as I drove back with shaking hands, I prayed it wasn't one of my girls but I sort of knew it was.

It was Toe and she was almost in pieces. I asked Dean to come home from work so he could pick her up but he couldn't. I asked the Humane Society if they could get her for me so I could bury her but they would not. I am too squeamish to do it—especially since I got a look at one particular horrific injury—so I waited until Dean came home and by then she was gone. Her body fell right by the hotdog truck and the operator called the highway department to pick her up before I had arrived at the scene. They must have gotten her soon after. My inability to do right by her haunted me for months and years to come, especially since Tip kept looking for her sister. I also worried that perhaps she was still alive and I left her there alone and mortally wounded. Intellectually, I know it was not possible but I simply agonize over these types of torments.

Afterward, Grey would continually go to Tip, thinking she was his mother and she would rain paw punches upon his head until they became mortal enemies. Tip thought I had stolen Toe and would sit on our steps meowing for hours. It was heartbreaking and I blamed myself for letting them out again. On September 11th, I had felt so guilty coming back to my home where everything was so normal and unscathed, my two Nubian princesses there waiting for me, quiet peace amid a vibrant blue sky . . . while dark chaos had descended on and enveloped my family, friends and city. Now fate was catching up with me, it seemed.

After a week or so, Tip decided to leave and rejoin her feral cat family, I could only surmise. I was relieved for I didn't know how much more grief I could bear. But about two weeks after Toe died, Dean went out to the garage and saw three pairs of eyes peeping out at him from under some stuff. Those eyes belonged to three tiny kittens who were somehow deposited in the garage and left to fend for themselves. And the cycle started again.

Enough about cats. I had a bunch of burly bikers to deal with. One night I was feeling really ill and I retired early. My bedroom is in the back of our house and was partially shielded from the din of the bar. I was lying in bed, propped up by pillows, reading a book (probably something intellectually stimulating like Crime and Punishment, or War and Peace; certainly not Patricia Cornwall with her grisly forensic descriptions of murder victims). The window was open and a silky breeze slid into the room. It's the little things in life that make it worthwhile. Then a motorcycle started up. It revved and revved. I kept saying to myself, it will stop soon. He'll take off soon; he can't sit there forever. But it didn't stop. It just kept roaring. Five minutes, ten minutes, fifteen minutes.

That's it! I've had enough of this fucking shit. I jumped out of bed, ran downstairs, and into the porch, my loyal Houston glued to my side every step of the way. Dean just sat in the living room with a "What are you gonna do" look on his face. In Dean's world, you don't go against when it comes to the sacred motorcycle culture. I flung open the porch window and screamed at the offending biker, "Will you take off already or cut off the engine? I'm trying to sleep." Houston accompanied my tirade with loud, angry barking to punctuate our collective anger. Good boy!

The son of a bitch yelled back, "That's what you get when you buy a house next to a bar."

What? What the fuck? (Excuse the blue language but I'm being true to the story.) How dare this little dick say that to me? I was primed and ready to do battle. "I'm calling the police and you can explain to them that I shouldn't have bought the house, okay? We have tried to be good neighbors but this is enough bullshit already!" Long before the police came he took off, the gutless coward.

Back inside Dean told me he recognized the engine on the motorcycle and knew it was the bar's manager. Wait, back up a sec. You recognize the sound of the engine? What is wrong with you, Dean?

Okay, so I knew it was the manager slash bartender. I told the police all about it when they finally arrived. They went over to tell the bar people to keep it down, for all the good it did. In our town the police hold no sway. The two or three officers we have are really just for show. They don't solve crimes—I don't think they even know how to go about it. They don't give tickets for driving infractions, Lord knows. What do they do? Hmmmm. That's a good question.

Now what? What was the best course to pursue? While I was mulling this question over, Steve on the other side of us, decided to sell one of his many cars. Did he list it in the Pennysaver? Uh-uh. On ebay? Guess again. He parked it on the saddle of land that straddles our driveways—it's his property but it looks like it's mine. He stuck a FOR SALE sign on the lawn near my driveway and that was that. The problem was that everyone who was interested in the shitbox thought I was selling it and pulled into my driveway. Grrrrrr. So I asked Steve if he could move the sign closer to his driveway to clear up the confusion. He kindly acquiesced and moved it two inches to the other side. Problem solved.

So, for the foreseeable future I had lots of scary looking people pulling into my driveway and blocking it while they ogled the junk car. Until Steve finally gave up and moved the car, it was an eyesore that gnawed at my soul, but it was our fault. After all, that's what you get when you buy a house next to a bar.

Sunday, November 1, 2009

Love Thy Neighbor (sixth increment)


Ah, and it's back to the neighbors: Dean wasn’t as bothered by all of the grievances. He was mostly disturbed by the noise pollution and, though he has loved motorcycles his whole life, he came to hate the sound of them—at least for a few minutes. But what stuck in his craw the stickiest was the weekend noise generated by the substance abusers. After working all week and only getting to enjoy his greenery on the weekend, he expected some peace and quiet. Didn’t get it, though. Our house is located downwind from the rehab town homes a.k.a the ugly houses, so with a canyon effect, the sounds traveled efficiently right to our door. And these people had a fondness for ear-shattering decibels of rap music, not to mention very colorful language. And so one day while I was in Westport, Connecticut, happily shopping for new bedding at Eddie Bauer, my cell phone chimed.

“Hello?” I answered quickly.

“It’s me,” Dean responded. “I may have gone too far but we have to do something about that damn place in back of us."

"Did you . . . kill anyone?" I asked, for "going too far" implied something serious in my dictionary.

"No. They were screaming and blasting their music so I told them to shut up and they just got louder. I put the kids in the car and drove over there . . . I lost my temper. (Pregnant pause.) Maybe you should come home.”

Dean's "going too far" was actually quite pathetic. I was expecting blood and lots of it. “Well, there's nothing I can really do to help at this point. And Eddie Bauer Home is having a close-out sale, Dean. Close out, as in the store is permanently closing? Your tantrum is really inconvenient." Long sigh. "I'll be home as soon as I can. Don't worry, we’ll get a lawyer and we'll make it right. See you soon.”

So we called a lawyer and made an appointment to go in for a consultation—but not before I got my new luxury mattress pad and 400-thread bed linens. We had chosen one of the better-known local attorneys, though we had never met him. He walked into his tacky, leather-covered office and we explained our problem to him. He nodded his head knowingly and began to tell us all about the rehab center. Finally, here was someone who knew about the center, knew they actually existed and what they did, because the health department claimed, indeed insisted, that they didn’t even know they were there and the police knew nothing—or so they claimed—and we were beginning to think we were hallucinating the whole freaking thing.

I should explain that in Putnam County, New York, the term “conflict of interest” is entirely devoid of meaning. Here's a case in point: a group of us were trying to stop one of the lake communities from slaughtering Canada geese whose droppings were despoiling their pretty green lawns, apparently (they really should be much more worried about their hideous houses that sit on those lawns). Across the region there were about five of these communities that were planning a wholesale kill, downy goslings and all. The judge who was hearing one of the related cases happened to live on the shores of one of the lakes planning the slaughter but not the precise one we were suing to try to prevent the killing. His lake was a mile or two away. This judge saw no conflict of interest and refused to recuse himself. Of course, the geese lost the case and were duly rounded up and slaughtered in the most horrific way. The judge never saw a problem with his behavior, and, unfortunately, managed to defy the mandatory retirement age. He continues to wreak havoc to this day.

So, what constitutes conflict of interest anywhere else is business as usual here: this attorney graciously accepted our money and agreed to help us despite having the owner/director of the rehab facility’s telephone number on his speed dial. To Dean and I that was a shout-out that there may be a slight . . . ahem . . . conflict, to represent us against a friend, an individual he knows so well that his number's on his speed dial? Our response was just to say okay, whatever, just make them stop. The two hundred dollar price tag was well worth the peace and quiet it would hopefully bring. He quickly arranged an appointment for us to meet directly with the people behind this facility, so to speak. He further informed us, in a gossipy tone, that the rehab's clients—the patients—were very wealthy and some were even famous, and they all paid enormous sums to be rehabilitated. He personally knew the director and he assured us that he would be reasonable once he learned of our problems with the site.

Economic discrimination pisses me off more than many other injustices. These people, both the rehab clinic as well as the families of the "clients," want them to live among a community—but not their community. It's NIMBYism at it's worst. Let's plop them in a neighborhood where the people have no clout to get them out. And that inclination infuriates me above all.

On thing we learned, a lesson driven home again and again when you live in a small town, is that corruption is not reserved for the big players only. It is alive and well, and thriving in small-town America.

Smarmy is the word that best describes the creepy man we met with, one of the honchos of the rehab facility. He was grotesque, and I couldn't believe any parent would consign his or her child to this man's care. But they did, and in droves. (I guess a drugged out kid can really impinge on the lives of the rich and famous.) He was very patronizing in his approach and expressed how happy he was to hear that his patients were so rowdy for that meant they were actually getting better. Say what? Well, can we move the facility into his backyard so he could celebrate firsthand?

The only concession he made to us was to provide us with a direct contact number to the on-site director so that if the noise became unbearable, we could complain. He refused to consider putting up a fence or anything that might reduce the noise, ergo cost him money. And that settled that. In subsequent years, the OSH has been trying to shut down this sad excuse for a rehab facility but with no success thus far. It (OSH) revoked the center's license to practice and fined it heavily but guess who reinstated the license and repealed the fines? Did you guess the corrupt judge who killed the geese? Bingo. Still, there are former patients who won't go away quietly. It seems that some of them did not appreciate the physical and emotional abuse they were subjected to and have had the temerity to complain. Here's hoping that it eventually goes their way.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Chapter Three (fifth increment)

In the fall we lost Egg. Grief is a physical assault, in addition to the emotional devastation. You feel it in your twisting gut, your imploding chest, your constricting throat. I suppose that’s where the term brokenhearted gained its currency. Losing a companion animal is something you can never get used to, no matter how many times you suffer it.

Dean and I met at a doggie playgroup in our neighborhood in 1992. A bunch of dog people would meet up every evening in a little park on North Moore and West Streets in Lower Manhattan. The financial services company that had "developed" (euphemism for destroyed for profit) the open land formerly there, which sat atop an historic foundry, threw us a bone with the miniscule park but, outrageously, dogs were not allowed to enjoy it. They gave the community these two really tiny, manicured parks at either end of the block that were pretty much useless for anything a park normally offers, useless for anything really, other than sitting and ruminating about how this miserable company ruined the neighborhood.

This travesty occurred after our delightful Mayor Koch gifted the corporation with a prime piece of real estate and energy abatements to "entice" them to stay in New York, when they had no intention of leaving anyway. The sweetheart deal reconfigured the streets, created so much more pedestrian and auto traffic, and gobbled up the only open space the neighborhood had. It was inconvenient on so many levels: the mob now needed to find a new place to dump bodies, the homeless had to relocate their cardboard boxes, the stray cats had to search out new hiding crevices, the giant river rats were rendered vagabonds, and the worst part of it was that our makeshift dog runs were devoured by unsightly, really ugly architecture. Seriously ugly. Really.

Though the little red signs in the center of each park clearly stated NO DOGS ALLOWED, we obviously ignored them. Our playgroup dogs actually seemed to smile while urinating on the offending signs (such a sense of humor they had). The original playgroup dogs (in addition to my two) were Igor, a magnificent husky, Lena, a show-quality Portuguese water dog, Jessie, Penelope, and Dudley, all of mixed heritage (Penelope was Tim's special someone, by the way, and would eat biscuits out of his mouth), Buffy, most likely a bearded collie, a Ridgeback named Daisy, and some exotic breeds whose names I no longer recall, alas. One day Dean brought Egg—a dog that looked mostly like a Doberman but was the size of a Great Dane— and my dogs, Tim and Lucy, introduced themselves. As I continually called, then pleaded, for them to return to me, like a precision drill team in perfect unison they totally ignored me and continued on with dog business.

Lucy was a foundling, mostly husky or malamute. I discovered her in the rain one night on Greenwich Street. Yes, she was barefoot and pregnant, I'm afraid. Eventually she gave birth to three pups. Tim, one of her two sons, was the runt of the litter. The pups were mixed with collie—I'm assuming the father's lineage? Very blond and tall, with a chocolate brown raccoon mask, Tim was a true gentle giant of a canine. We became a family shortly after my adored Lucy died and Timmy, bereft at losing his mother, turned to Egg for companionship. Dean and I looked at each other and shrugged. Why not?

We left Tribeca shortly after getting married and moved west: first to Chicago, then Santa Fe and finally to Los Angeles. When he was only eight years old, and with no warning at all, Tim died suddenly. It was horrible and sad—the stuff of nightmares, mine anyway. Then there was only Egg. As hard as that was, and as brutal as it was to lose all of my other adored animal friends, Egg was the hardest, as I always expected.

Egg was Marmaduke stepped off the comics page. He was an “in-your-face” dog. Every photo, every video—there’s Egg, front and center. He slept in our bed; he shared all the furniture. He also shared all the food . . . of course, I use the word "shared" loosely. He was truly a dependent in every way. He sowed his reputation from downtown Manhattan, to Chicago, to L.A. Everywhere he went, people and dogs knew his name and his penchant for holding three balls in his mouth. His leaving Earth wrecked our lives and we couldn’t deal with it very well. True, by now we had Greta, a mixed breed with a pinhead who turned up on our L.A. doorstep, but she didn’t do it for us. Dean didn’t want another dog. I did. I needed someone like Egg, or Tim or Lucy or Rodney (my incomparable cat).

So I went surfing and found Houston, an Egg-lookalike, on The point of this sad and meandering story is that though Houston may look like Egg, he doesn't act like him (he's much too gauche). Egg would never, ever run away. He was way too much of a baby and knew when he had it good. But Houston is part hound dog and thusly follows his nose wherever it takes him. Having experienced him backing out of his harness, jumping a fence, and running away in the time it takes to make instant oatmeal, and this on the second day I had him, I now had to take to walking the stupid ass on a leash every day. We have over half an acre of backyard and I still have freaking dog-walking duty. My God, but my life is ridiculous. And that is how I was bitchslapped with the knowledge that the townhouses located directly behind my property were actually part of a rehab facility for troubled young adults.

Cute story: I’m walking Houston (or as we fondly refer to him: You-stink) in my backyard when suddenly someone starts shouting from those ugly townhouses that he wants to do sexual things to my dog (not his exact vernacular). Ah, the local color had to be one of my motivations to move to a highly inconvenient but slightly rural region.

We took the abuse for another two years or so. Steve, our next-door neighbor, referred to their noisy sports gatherings as the delinquent Olympics. Two years later, when I mentioned this to the doctor treating these people, he laughed. He thought this was funny. Lovely man, this was a doctor treating people who suffered from substance abuse, addictions, among other things, and the man reeked of stale cigarettes. Now, I may be crazy but I found this to be a bit ironic. These “kids” were paying enormous sums, or so the lawyer I hired to make them go away told me, to this doctor to cure them of their addictions and he himself was addicted to nicotine!

But I get ahead of myself here. Once I started being treated to profanity in my own backyard, I didn’t automatically make the connection that there was a rehab center up the hill. In addition to the druggies, the center also treated people with severe personality disorders. That's right, little ones. Go outside and play in our backyard. Just steer clear of the axe-wielding neighbors. Sheesh. (A few years later one of their patients would decapitate his mother's neighbor and carry her head around with him. The facility would deny that they treated this person.) On one side a biker bar, behind us a rehab facility and throw in a busy road that encourages drivers to make swift turns in my driveway whenever they feel like it—even if I happen to be standing in it—and you begin to get an idea of the shape of my life at this point.

During my four years of living out west, people were so polite and considerate that I found it shocking to my toughened New York sensibilities. In L.A. there was the heavily made-up platinum blonde at Von's supermarket, who always asked me how my day was going and if I needed help out to the car. Back then I felt as if I had landed on another planet where the people were nice and smelled good. Granted, they didn’t dress as well as New Yorkers but you can’t have it all, right? I never felt put upon and never had any altercations with strangers. Now I'm back in the fray. Upon moving back east, it took one trip to the local supermarket in Tribeca where the cashiers wore buttons that said "I heart customers" but who would sooner rip out your eyes than smile, and I knew I was home. Now, I was on constant alert to protect my rights and my personal space, practically keeping my hands up in a defensive position. Did you know that some people in Manhattan have a sick need to pick fights with visibly pregnant women? Don’t ask me for the psychology behind it because I just cannot figure it out but it’s true. Just ask my husband how many times I came home crying to him, my hormones having got the best of me.

And while I'm warming to my subject, I might as well tell you about the denizens of Putnam County. It's one thing to have nasty New York City residents to deal with—at least they're thin and dressed well. But up here in Putnam County, you have the nasty without the panache. I'm talking about grossly overweight people with long lacquered nails (the women anyway), bad hair, and the most inconsiderate attitudes of anyone I've ever met, bar none. It is unbelievable. In addition to having to deal with the uglies, we had other issues. Aside from being thinner and better looking than other residents, we really didn't fit in that well. We happen to be agnostic, liberal vegetarians and we landed in a place that is very Christian (and by Christian I mean they go to church every Sunday, not that they're kind), blue-collar, conservative, and carnivore. Not that there's anything wrong with that . . . It's just that people are tribal (as our friend Dennis explained to us) and like to be around their own kind. And by own kind, I refer to people who think the same way, act the same way, like the same types of things, and who think intelligence and education are not dirty words to be spat out in political arguments.

By now you've got to be thinking: Why didn't they just move? Any sane people would have done just that and in short order. Not us. Here's the mentality behind it: Why should we give up a tiny, cute house that we'd quickly outgrow, that would bleed us dry of money, health, youth, and vitality, just because we hated everything about the region? By God, we would stay and fight to change everything about the whole county instead. As an added benefit, so far I've gotten in eleven years of complaining. Why would I want to give that up?

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Love Thy Neighbor (fourth increment)

While we were hard at work planning and carrying out various renovations, shit didn't take a break and continued to happen. For example, in September, 1999, Hurricane Floyd hit the northeastern seaboard. It was downgraded to a tropical storm by the time it mauled us but that didn't make a difference to our basement. Now, I've always wanted a swimming pool, but not in my basement and not filled with filthy, murky water, which is what I got. Three feet or so of inky black fluid—or so it appeared to my horrified eyes—flowed into the basement and ruined whatever was not raised off the ground by more than three feet. To me it was just a slap in the face--par for the course in my life. To quote my friend Peter Kirk, when faced with all the scary things that life outside of the city offers, "My God, in the city all you have to do is be a little leery on the subway!" Here there are biblical events to deal with such as floods and lightning strikes that burn your house down (not terribly up on my Bible--were there lightning strikes?).

It is especially terrible to look down into one's basement and see deep water—very traumatizing. But a particularly nervy friend (she returned a toilet bowl to Home Depot after using it for the better part of a year) told me to apply to FEMA for relief, since our region was declared a disaster area. FEMA sent over a nice man—pleasant looking in a nondescript way—who had a cup of coffee with me and surveyed the damage. All I expected was an offer of a low-cost loan but instead we got a check to cover all of our damages—so great. The coffee must have come out okay that day. That money went to upgrade the septic system that was compromised in the flood. I know, I'm spoiled rotten.

Chapter Two

Farewell to Orange

Summer, 2000

We finally had enough cash on hand to hire painters to eradicate the neon yellow-orange paint my poor house had suffered with for God knows how long. I like to think the house was embarrassed about its condition and thrilled when we moved in to restore its dignity and reputation. Dean, however, thinks differently. He often says that the house has fought him every step of the way. Well, maybe it's ambivalent? Or maybe just maybe Dean isn't as easy to get along with as he thinks he is. Perhaps the house is female and is tired of him nailing, screwing, and banging her, with no regard to the pain he's causing. Who knows?

Did I mention that though most of the house was the neon yellow, the part just under the apex of the roof was still a dirty, neglected white? Steve—our neighbor—told us that our friend Joe had painted the house himself, rappelling from the roof to paint the upper story. He either couldn't reach that one spot or he realized how stupid a method of painting it was. The thought of someone rappelling with a bucket of sloshing paint is almost unbelievable. One begins to understand why Mrs. Joe may have been . . . what's the politically correct way to say it? Oh right, out of her mind crazy.

We had spent the previous two years gleefully planning the colors we would use to give our little gem its woefully needed makeover. We loved the color of the Restoration Hardware shopping bags so whenever we went to look at paint chips the little bag came along. As it turned out, we weren’t the only ones who liked this color, called Silver Sage, and RH decided to sell the shade of paint in their stores. Since they only carried interior paint, we matched the color in a Benjamin Moore color catalog and set about choosing accent colors. Dean’s suave and handsome uncle Tony—who lives in craftsmen-dotted Los Angeles—suggested a shade of red for under the eaves. We both liked the idea so we found a nice hue—sort of a brick red with a titch more pink in it. The trim color we went with was a creamy off-white and the trio of hues looked so beautiful on the swatches that we couldn’t wait to make it happen.

You would think that if you needed to hire a contractor of some sort, a painter, a plumber, or an electrician, you would be the one in control, right? After all, you are the one writing the check. But in 2000 when we were looking for a painter, the housing market was yawing into the stratosphere and people were renovating everything that stood still long enough. Finding a painter proved very tricky and finding a good one close to impossible. The best way, I found, was through recommendation. Nosiness will tell you which houses have been recently painted and you can ask the owners about their painters. I happened upon an excellent one by talking to a parent of my son’s friend. The little boy's father worked with a painter from Connecticut and he promised me that he'd take on the house, because hiring a painter during that time was like going on a job interview. They had more than enough work so they were choosy.

My situation was also more complicated, because I didn’t want my house power washed; I wanted it prepped by hand. There was method to my madness: I was concerned about contaminating the soil with old lead paint. Any house built before 1979 almost certainly has a layer or two of lead paint on interior and exterior walls and power washing is not good (and not legal in some states. I soon learned that painters, like the military, have a don't ask, don't tell sort of policy when it comes to lead paint. As long as you don't mention the word lead, they'll just assume there is none, regardless of the age of the house. Why? Abatement is obscenely expensive as I was soon to discover).

When I look back at my naiveté, I arch one eyebrow and smile knowingly. Back then, I was a purist—didn't want to change the windows, the doors, the nothing. Restore, refurbish, reuse were words I tried to live by. Now I bask in the glow of gleaming new Marvin windows, new glass-paned front, back, and side doors, new anything I can replace. It's so much easier and it looks better too. My windows weren't original to the house anyway, as far as I could tell, and the doors were cheaply made and so deteriorated they would have required extensive lumber purchases and probably an entire summer to make them whole. I did leave intact the wavy-glass windows and transoms in the porch, for they were special and irreplaceable.

As far as lead paint was concerned, I was worried about it when we moved in. Any paint that alligators (i.e. when peeling, the paint resembles alligator skin) when it begins to deteriorate is lead-based paint. Back then I worried about poisoning my young children with lead dust from the layers of old paint—ha! I fondly remember our bank balance before the lead abatement team came a-calling to remove the peeling lead paint in the porch and remove the money in our account, not too long after we moved in.

Years later, I find myself occasionally getting dizzy and nauseous from sanding and scraping paint in the bedrooms. That clues me in that it must be lead paint; I shrug and get the HEPA vacuum. A few years ago this scenario would never have happened. Never. I would have had the house roped off by men in Tyvec suits and no one would enter until all traces of the lead paint were abated and hermetically sealed for disposal. Now, though, my children's brains are already formed, for good or for bad. And, by the way, if lead paint is in good condition it poses no health hazard. It's only when it is deteriorating, creating flakes and dust that it becomes unhealthy.

Anyway, stubborn tenacity helped me find a house painter from Connecticut who would comply with my wishes. He started priming the house in June. By the second week he had lost his crew—his crew being one other guy and a part-time helper— and it was just one lonely guy working on the house. Day after day, he showed up to paint through the long, hot summer. I plied him with iced tea, cold water, and conversation during breaks. He pet my dogs and told me stories. We talked about our dog Egg and how crippled he was becoming.

That summer was particularly hard on Egg as things started going wrong in some sick Domino chain of events. Fran (short for Francis) commiserated with me on Egg’s decline. Dean had built a ramp for the dog to get up and down the porch steps and Fran had to adjust it as he was painting that part of the house. Egg kept getting worse and his veterinarian was stymied. Climbing any stairs became impossible for him. Eventually, Dean began to sleep on the living-room couch because Egg couldn’t get upstairs to the bedroom and he’d be beside himself if he couldn’t sleep with one of us.

So I’d sit with the painter during his breaks and we’d talk about lots of things—dogs, his unfaithful crew who deserted him, and his wife and child who didn't. I knew I should shut up or my house would never be finished. But long conversations and all, by the beginning of August it was done. And when Fran was done painting, he washed the windows. I don’t know how he did it—he merely used Windex and my own paper towels—but those windows gleamed for months afterward. I’ve never been able to duplicate his success and I have happily stopped trying. (Dirty windows have become my friends. Think of the benefits: no one can look into your home, would-be robbers become discouraged by the lackluster glass and rob someone else, and your fabrics don't fade as fast for the sun's rays cannot penetrate the grime. When we bought the new windows, the rooms looked so different with the clean transparent glass—it was almost like a new house! Alas, they are becoming dirty again and Fran is no longer around. The best I can do is wipe away the nose smears from the dogs looking out to bark at anything making noise.)

The good news was that our house was now smoking hot, basking in the craftsmen colors that suited it to a tee. The new silvery green color complemented the gorgeous stone foundation so perfectly and I put up sheer ivory panels in the porch windows, leaving the translucent transoms unadorned. Finally, our 1927 Arts & Crafts colonial looked the way it was meant to look: charming, cozy and inviting.

Ah, but there was so much more work to be done: it begged, nay pleaded, for a new kitchen; there was woodwork galore that required refinishing; we needed to somehow squeeze a powder room in somewhere; soon we’d need a new roof . . . the list went on so long it made me weary. Whenever I would survey all that needed to be done, I'd usually take a nap. It was too much heat on the brain to stay conscious.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Love Thy Neighbor (third increment)

Chapter One

Renovation Begins: The 20-Year Plan.

In the fall and winter of 1999, having spent over a year living with the most hideously ugly bathroom, I had had enough of the grey and avocado shabby chic décor (and I use the term chic loosely). That's what I said, grey and avocado. My theory was that the house's owner—the guy who owned the house before our friend Joe—had renovated the bathroom and used avocado green fixtures, as the times apparently demanded of every good citizen. When Joe's wife got hold of the house she set about pinkifying it, and part of that process was introducing pink to the bathroom via the new grey and pink wallpaper (because who would think grey and avocado green go together, right?). My theory was predicated upon evidence: I found a shade of intestinal-pink paint under the most recent layer of white in the dining room, a color choice that told me that someone once had dire need of the HGTV color specialists . . . and perhaps some meds. I cannot, however, explain away the grey cabinetry. Did they paint that to match the new wallpaper? Thinking about it hurt my brain.

Luckily, Mrs. Joe was back in Brooklyn, having suffered some sort of mental breakdown—or so the neighbors told me—from living in Putnam County, and that I can certainly relate to. I heard this gossip about her from a friend of a friend I met shortly after we arrived. Her friend told her the woman who lived in the neon yellow house was a nut and my friend explained that I just moved in recently. Yeah, really, let me earn my own crazy cred, people. Just give me some time here in the suburban wasteland and I'll get there. Anyway, the offending bathroom and all its accoutrements had to be done away with, so a few days before Christmas and imminent holiday guests, I decided the time was right to begin renovation, starting with the odious task of removing grey and pink floral wallpaper.

As anyone who has removed wallpaper can attest, it is a sucky job. First off, if you’re lucky to get the paper off, you are still left with an icky, sticky and most unattractive glue residue. Unless you’re like my father-in-law, who can rework crap like that with a paintbrush, and make it look like a custom wall finish, well then you just have to wet, scrape, wet, scrape, drench, scrape, and so on. Eventually it will all come off, if you have obstinate determination and don’t value your fingernails. Hence my paper ultimately did come off in entirety about two or three months later.

Dean then set about doing the demolition work. The bathroom, though a 70s horror, was built well and expensively. Consequently, we attempted to spare the double vanity, well made with quality wood and hardware, but after storing it in the garage for the better part of two years, it ultimately went into the Dumpster. Afterward, I realized I should have donated it to Habitat for Humanity—live and learn.

It was satisfying to wreck the built-in linen closet, the avocado tiled “bath cave” and the dark wood spindles that finished the look. I ripped up the linoleum once Dean's demo was done, and eventually we had a gutted bathroom. There was one small problem: our house had only one bathroom. We had to replace the old with the new, like, right away. All the new bathroom stuff was piled in the small upstairs hall, waiting to be installed, including the tub.

We had ordered a refinished antique tub from a small company in Pennsylvania. When the married couple that owned the company delivered it, we had a nice chat. During this nice chat I happened to notice that my one-year-old looked oddly luminescent. He appeared to be glowing. “Damn, I make fine babies,” I thought . . . but wait . . . his skin was somehow reflecting light! Curiosity overcoming good manners, I excused myself and went over and grabbed him—and he nearly slipped right out of my hands. Turned out he had smeared an entire jar—large, as luck would have it—of recently purchased petroleum jelly all over his face and head. It was everywhere—in his hair, eyelashes, brows, ears and nostrils.

Grabbing a wet rag isn’t easy without a working bathroom, so I had to run downstairs to get one from the kitchen. I gave him a quick and sloppy clean-up and then walked the tub couple to the living room to see them out. Near the door we resumed our conversation until I heard Jackson yell down that Luca was sprinkling “some white powder” all over the place. I hurriedly said goodbye and raced upstairs to find Ajax scouring powder all over the newly purchased area rug and an ear-to-ear grin on Luca’s face.

Did you know that Ajax bleaches everything it touches? I began calling these the Luca facts: things I've learned from living with him. (I’ve also learned that coins in the cassette player foul up the workings, food in the VCR disrupts one’s viewing pleasure, and kittens in the refrigerator are unhappy, even if left for a mere few moments. It's interesting to acquire the knowledge that a two-year-old toddler can figure out how to stack the chairs to make it up to the box of donuts on top of the refrigerator and can also figure out how to open a childproof bottle of cold medicine that I had trouble with. He might also mistake a Kindergartener’s glue stick for Chapstick and smear it all over his lips.)

Back to the bathroom. We wanted what was then called a skirted tub. These days it’s more commonly referred to as a pedestal tub. At that time the only one available was a beautiful Kohler soaking tub but it was too wide for our room. Since we really had our hearts set on this type of tub we opted for the antique one, which was reglazed. Reglazing sounds so permanent, doesn’t it? But, in actuality, all it means is that the tub has been painted with automobile-grade paint.

As good a reglazing job as the guy did on our tub, it could not withstand the constant use it encountered in our home—despite fanatically meticulous care on my part. Ultimately we had to exchange it for a new tub but by that time we were able to buy the skirted tub new, in a smaller size. We thought a new tub would fare better than a reglazed one. It did not. Our hard water ruined the finish in just four months.

Hard is an interesting word to describe water laden with minerals. Perhaps because it's so very hard to live with? Since our home was sited nearly atop of what used to be a very profitable iron ore mine, you can imagine the mineral content of our water. It did not bode well for anything it might flow through or come in contact with, such as furnaces, washing machines, dishwashers—you know, things that cost a lot of money and that you need in a house. What I was interested in knowing is how those corrosive qualities affected the human body. I think if a substance destroys major appliances, it must have an adverse impact on say, a stomach? Time will tell, I suppose. At that time we spent five thousand dollars to install a water filtration system but the porcelain finish was already irrevocably damaged. Caveat emptor, apparently, because no one at the tub company told me about hard water ruining porcelain despite my calling them half a dozen times with questions about hard water stains and porcelain finishes. I guess I was just supposed to intuitively know this type of tub care minutiae—if you're buying a tub you better be damn sure you know all of the tub facts, lady! And I guess I was also supposed to know that water treatment companies rip off stupid people from the city who have never had to deal with bullshit like wells and water softening before (they just turned on the tap and lovely soft water sprang forth).

The overall look of the bathroom was finalized in our collective mind’s eye. We selected a pedestal sink and matching toilet from Kohler that looked as if they were made in the 20s, and we added beadboard halfway up the walls that we painted a creamy white. The upper walls were painted a cafe au lait and all the fixtures (save the shiny chrome antique-replica ones in the tub) were in satin nickel. Old-fashioned inspired sconces were mounted on either side of the distressed white-framed mirror, and glass shelves were used to hold toiletries. A small crystal lamp provided mood lighting and two shower lights brightened the bathing area. Where once there was a low ceiling above the tub, we now added three feet in height and installed a small skylight on one side of it, painting the ceiling a bright white. I refurbished some old shutters I found in a closet that fit the bathroom window, painting them the same shade of creamy white as the wainscoting and having ribbed glass inserted into the fabric panel part.

All in all, we thought we did a grand job of transforming the room, and we did. Only problem was the room looked like a page ripped from the Pottery Barn catalog and it looked like everyone else’s new bathroom, too. Surfing a local real estate Web site showed me many a home boasting the same bathroom as mine, right down to the Kohler sink and toilet. Sigh. Were we trendsetters or sheep? I just didn't quite know.

Saturday, October 3, 2009

Love Thy Neighbor (second increment)

“Funny, I’ve never heard of Brewster before,” Dean said, as we were once again on the Henry Hudson, driving north. It was a beautiful spring Sunday morning and the New York Times was on my nearly gone lap and a cup of Starbucks—decaf—was in my hand. All was right with the world.

“Didn’t you ever watch That Girl?” I asked. “That’s where Ann Marie’s parents lived,” I said, referring to a sitcom from the 1960s, and instantly realizing I was dating myself and had to stop doing that, damn it. Time to start lying about my age or at least being less forthright about it. Anyway, it was just Dean and he already married me, fool that he is.

We were on our way to meet with still another agent, this time a pleasant young woman—Dawn—who worked with properties on the eastern side of Putnam County, as well as Northern Westchester. Upon our arrival, Dawn greeted us, and handed us about nine or ten property spec sheets she had prepared, based on our telephone conversation. It’s clear that young Dawn had no qualms about spending her Sunday with us, and I appreciated this commitment. The other agents were harried and not nearly as generous with their time. I scanned the sheets and tossed out two or three. Then we all got into the Subaru, and off we went.

“The sheet says it’s a bright yellow house,” Dawn said, shuffling papers, as we drove down a busy road. “It . . . should . . . be . . . somewhere . . . around here.” As we zoomed by I spotted an orange house with a FOR SALE sign out front.

“I think we just passed it,” I said in a disgusted monotone, fat and uncomfortable in the back seat. “Turn around.” We have seen about six houses already and none have been even remotely suitable. What were we thinking anyway? I mean, Putnam County is just too far—it might as well be another country. I never even knew it existed until a few weeks before. Dean maneuvered the car deftly and we slowly cruised toward the house.

“Yep, that’s it,” Dawn said, tapping the sheet. “More of an orange than a yellow.”

Indeed. I looked at the house. It was painted a neon orange-yellow, the hue similar to the stripes on roads indicating two-way traffic, only more vibrant and way more orange. Despite the initial shock, though, it was possible to see beyond this color faux pas, to notice that it had potential. The architecture was appealing, built in 1927—a fantastic year for houses I've since learned. It had a robust stone foundation and a gorgeous Magnolia tree in front. We pulled into the long driveway, parked, and climbed the stairs to the back door, rapping on the door lightly. A voice responded, inviting us to come in.

A young couple was busily painting the kitchen cabinets a glossy white while an older man greeted us. He was Joe, the owner of the house, and his brother and brother’s girlfriend were the hired help. Joe told us to feel free to tour the house. As soon as I managed to get past the hideous “country” kitchen, I was enthralled. Sure, there was a dirty brown shag carpet in the living room and the walls were sloppily whitewashed with cheap flat paint, but there was no disguising the good bones of the house. The woodwork was gorgeous, and in fairly good shape. The ceilings were ten feet high, with unusual detail. It was an Arts & Crafts Colonial, possibly a Sears Roebuck kit. As with many homes built in the 1920s, it was rich with architectural features. Fortuitously, most were intact and I whispered a thank-you to the gods of good taste that, somehow, this house was mostly spared from bad remodeling. Mostly, because I was soon to learn that the bathroom succumbed to the avocado-adoring 70s, but this only presented a challenge to us, This Old House aficionados.

“Would you like to see the rear of the property?” the owner asked my husband.

“Sure,” replied Dean, grabbing Jackson’s hand to take him along. They walked outside and Dean was impressed with the landscaping, which included a rock garden, a flowering dogwood (at that point I called it the pink flower tree) and some awe-inspiring giant pines. Joe told them the entire parcel was just over a half-acre, and pointed out the boundaries, some having pretty stone walls to mark them. Then Dean casually inquired about the wee pub we noticed immediately next door to the house.

“In ten years I’ve only had to call the police once. They’re pretty quiet and good neighbors overall,” our new friend Joe assured him. Oh? Only had to call the police on the neighbors once, you say? I had to remember to add that to my list of good-neighbor qualities.

Meanwhile, back inside . . . I turned to Dawn and said, “This is definitely my kind of house.” She looked mildly astonished at this statement, which struck me as semi-hilarious and I suppressed a giggle. I suppose to her it was just a shabby old house on a busy road; to me it was screaming with potential and it was cheap.

We exited, meeting up with Dean and Jackson. Our tour finished, we thanked Joe and company and got back into the car. Once on the road, we told Dawn we were going to make an offer on this house. She seemed really happy—turned out it was her first sale. The price the seller wanted was twenty-five thousand dollars less than the Garrison house. We offered him ten percent less than the asking price. After negotiations, we agreed on an amount: $158, 500. We’ve saved $31,500 over the price of the first house that stole our hearts. Woohoo! We had found our home!

On May 4th Dean's magazine folded, on May 5th the contract for the house arrived, on May 6th I went into labor. By the 7th, we'd lost our only income source, bought a house and had a second child.

We closed on the house in June and spent the next two months sanding floors and painting walls and closets, commuting from the city. On a Friday in early August, we finally moved in. In the evening I began to make our first dinner in our new house, sipping a glass of Merlot and feeling content. My new son, Luca, slept gently in his infant seat and soft jazz was wafting in from the other room. Luca's big brother was settled comfortably by the television, playing with his rediscovered toys, previously packed and part of the wall of boxes. Dean was quietly organizing our things.

Suddenly, a loud motorcycle revved up, shattering the quiet. The baby woke up, throwing his tiny fists into the air in a startle response. The deafening noise sounded as if it were right in our living room, so obnoxiously loud was the engine. Then another one started up. And another. Dean and I looked at each other, mouths agape. We were just served notice that the quiet little pub next door turned into a happening biker bar at night. The fun never seems to stop.

Our other inauguration as homeowners consisted of Jackson locking himself in one of the bedrooms. Each of the three bedrooms had a slide lock on the inside—apparently Joe's tenants had untrustworthy roommates— and Jack had managed to lock one for some reason. It got stuck and he couldn’t slide it back to open the door. Holding Luca in my arms, I frantically called Dean on the phone. Frantically, for I was sure that while Jax was locked in the room a fire would break out and I’d have to get Luca and the animals out of the house and Jax would be trapped. Dean picked up on the second ring. I quickly told him what happened. Could he come home and help? Should I call the fire department? Here was his supportive response: “Let’s not announce our presence just yet. Okay? Get him a hammer and slide it under the door.”

“Uh, Dean, he’s four, you do realize that fact, don’t you?”

“Just give it a try.”

I raced downstairs with Luca on my hip and grabbed a small hammer that a friend made for me. I ran back up and slid it under, telling Jax what to do. He tried, and then asked me for a decent hammer—his exact words. Dean heard this comment over the phone and laughed. Annoyed at Dean and his supercilious attitude, I ran back downstairs and got a larger hammer and slid that under too. The next thing I heard after a quick bang was the lock sliding back and I flung open the door. Whew, what a relief. After hanging up on Dean and his smug satisfaction, I plopped Luca down on the rug and, without taking my eyes off either boy, I backed into the closet and retrieved a screwdriver. The locks came off the doors then and there.

Saturday, September 26, 2009

Love Thy Neighbor

Hey! My foray into the blogosphere starts now. I have two books I wanted to have published. One is a YA book that I'm still gonna go for. The other is a memoir of sorts about how my hubby and I ended up buying a biker bar. I was encouraged in grad school to turn it into a book. But then I workshopped it and a colleague turned to me and said, "Why would I want to read this?" Uh . . . why would I want to read the BS you wrote? It's what we do in a writer's workshop, right? But, it got me thinking: Maybe it's not as interesting as I think it is. So, next I email queries to five literary agents about the book. I get one reply, fairly immediately. It's a no. So I send back a note, thanking her for the prompt reply and telling her that I liked her cool name. She then took pity on me and told me I had to write a proposal since it was a non-fiction book. Hmmm. A business proposal of sorts for the story of my life. Then she said it would help if I didn't make it so much about "me, me, me." She said also if I could relate it to the idea that lots of older Americans are looking for smaller homes, downsizing I guess, it would help. Again, hmmmm. Don't make a personal memoir about me, me, me. And relate a book about how two thirtysomethings royally screwed up when buying their first home to older Americans looking to downsize—and this from a literary professional. But she was nice and encouraged me to send it back to her once I had followed all the rules. Okay, so I thought, how about putting all of my energies into publishing, or trying to anyway, the other book and blog the first? That way, if it's boring as all get out, no one loses any time or money, right? So to start off my blog, I will be posting the book in increments. If no one likes it, I'll stop. Believe me, there's plenty more rejected work to post! And speaking of which . . . does anyone know the editors of Modern Love at the New York Times? Trying to get a piece in there too. Okay, so here we go.

Love Thy Neighbor or Get the Hell Out

How Not to Buy Real Estate in Any Market

January 2001


The shout came from a group of teenagerish looking males hanging about the yard of the ugly townhouses behind my rear yard. Gosh, but isn’t this why everyone leaves what is arguably the best city in the world, arguably the best neighborhood in said city, to move to the country? Who doesn’t love having obscenities shouted at her as she is walking her dog in her ostensibly private backyard? Yes, my family and I have moved 60 miles north of the city to get a piece of land and some privacy and nature—the perfect environment to raise our two boys. Right?

NOT. Oh, the house was great, a true diamond in the rough which we were ever so slowly polishing (too bad the dogs were peeing on the polish). The land was lush and large, over half an acre. The fact that it was situated on a busy road wasn’t great but it was one of the reasons why the house was so affordable. Tradeoffs. Herein lies the rub: we didn’t know about half of the tradeoffs we eventually realized we had to make to continue living here.

Tradeoff numero uno: We found ourselves living next to a biker bar. Oh yes. The sleepy little pub within spitting distance of our home would transform into a happening honky tonk every night, with 90 percent of the patrons arriving on very noisy motorcycles. Why didn’t we come around at night before we bought the house? By dusk we were happily home in downtown Manhattan, dreaming our dreams of living in the country while the bar served drinks to raucous lowlife patrons till the wee hours of the morning. We found out about the bar our first night here but I get ahead of the story.

Tradeoff numero dos: The ugly townhouses immediately behind our home, practically in our backyard really, housed a rehab facility for young adults with either substance abuse problems and/or severe behavioral issues. Either way, can anyone ask for better neighbors?

Tradeoff numero tres: No sooner did we drag the cement bench to place perfectly in the yard to frame a lovely view of the reservoir did our next door neighbor Steve decide the view we should have instead was of his decrepit Honda and catamaran, which he hauled into his yard less than a week after our bench was strategically positioned. He was a nice guy; I don’t think it occurred to him that we might actually like to use our yard for something other than storing junk vehicles.

Tradeoff numero quattro: Finally, there is that busy road with the double yellow lines. It wasn’t too bad when first we bought but in the ensuing years, as rapacious developers continually throw up houses, it has become damn near a highway. Unfortunately for me, I make friends with stray cats, chipmunks, skunks, possums, et al. so finding them in pieces on the road is not something I ever get used to, especially when I spend hundreds spaying and neutering the cats, and having them immunized. But those speeding drivers do not care and they are equal opportunity killers; hell, they’ll run over your toddler just as quickly as your Labrador and sometimes they’ll make a beeline straight for the Canada geese or the squirrels desperately gunning for the other side. I swear I’m not lying.

I guess I’m saying that before buying a house, one should complete due diligence to ensure that serious mistakes are not made. I only wish I had read a cautionary tale before I headed to that closing in 1998.


Tribeca, November, 1997

Sharp pellets of frozen rain pelted our faces as we struggled across the two-block esplanade to our car. It was one of those shitty New York City days: grey, dank, windy and depressing. Shoulders hunched against the ferocious wind—a common foe in the concrete and steel canyons of Lower Manhattan—we slowly made our way to the Subaru. My brother-in-law claims that long-term denizens of Tribeca like us will eventually grow hair on our backs from the posture we must assume to head into the winds. There’s a trick to it—you have to put your head down and sort of dive into it.

We were all cranky. My husband, Dean, was pissed off because he was tired of spending yet another weekend making the tedious drive north out of the city to the suburbs of Westchester to go house hunting. Too bad—he was the one who dragged us back from L.A.

Jackson, my three-year-old son, was testy because he was used to the sunny warm clime of L.A., where in 90-degree weather he’d sit by the heating grate in his bedroom hoping for warm air to emerge. He really did not care for NYC in winter—to put it mildly.

Poor Jack, he had a rough time of it—leaving everything and everyone he knew in California, coming back east to a small apartment in rotten cold weather and having to stay home all day since I couldn’t get him into a preschool class in the middle of the school year. Making things still worse was the fact that he was soon to have a little brother and would lose solo-star status in the family. It was all too much for a little guy to bear. One dreary afternoon he came out of our shared bedroom and announced that Cartoon Network was his only friend. Sniff.

Rounding out this happy little trio is me, ornery because I’m four months pregnant with my second child and living in a one-bedroom apartment—albeit large for NYC—with an entire wall devoted to a mountain of moving boxes, unpacked because we totally ran out of space and our loco neighbors with the three-bedroom apartment wouldn’t share the storage room with us. The fact that they were profoundly unstable and had three giant Rottweilers made arguing over it a risky proposition. Time to go.

After three months we’ve seen about twenty houses, none having passed muster. It was now February and we had an appointment to see a house in Garrison, NY, about 60 miles north of Manhattan. When Dean was trying to convince me to leave the city, and L.A., for that matter, he took me on tours of the quaint river towns along the Hudson. There they were, darling little hamlets ripped right out of It’s a Wonderful Life, tricked out in finery of red velvet and evergreen for the holidays. Church steeples rose high out of the snow, rosy and smiling faces hurried home to a warm hearth—wood smoke was in the air— and always prominent was my close friend, the river. I had lived next to the Hudson for so many years that it felt comforting to think of moving to a town away from the city yet still on the banks of the same water. Even though it loses its shimmer in the winter and adopts that forbidding iron hue, the river still beckons to me in some visceral way. Alas, none of the river towns, many so close to Manhattan, worked out for us. High property taxes drove us continually north, farther and farther away from the city and we were now on the outer fringes of “commutable distance.” Still, once the Garrison house came into view, the far remove seemed worth it.

“The house was built circa 1850,” the realtor began, as we pulled up to an old white farmhouse. She was a middle-aged woman (and by middle-aged I mean, you know, considerably older than me), pleasant and unaggressive. I definitely liked this latter quality, having been paired with some rather abrasive agents. “It has 2.8 acres of property and there is a brand new post-and-beam barn where an old garage had once stood.”

I could see Dean’s eyes light up as we walked over to the barn and peered in. He is a painter and has been pining for a decent studio for years. His expression told me he may have found it. “The house has been on the market for some time, and has actually received an offer recently, but the seller wants us to keep showing it,” she continued. Dean and I shared a quick glance, realizing that this house would normally be out of our price range, considering the size of the property, the area in which it’s located, and the fact that it is an antique farmhouse, a type of home in high demand.

“Why hasn’t it sold more quickly?” I asked the agent.

She shrugged. “I’m not sure. Some people don’t like the aluminum siding. Some don’t like the low ceilings—which aren’t dropped, they were built that way. If you’re really tall, this wouldn’t be a comfortable house for you.”

Not an issue for us diminutive folks. Could my long-hated petite status finally be paying off? And the aluminum siding is not a deterrent either, as I planned to tear it off the first chance I got, even if I had to use my teeth. Dean walked the land and returned with a glint in his eye. “This is the type of place that will spark our children’s imagination,” he said to me softly. “I want it.” I nodded. We both recognized that it was a great deal, even before stepping foot inside the house. The asking price had been reduced by twenty thousand to $219,000. (STOP LAUGHING: remember that this was early 1998, before the world went crazy. I mean, I could have bought a detached house in Park Slope for around that price, too. Seriously.)

We entered through the rear door. One of the owners, an older woman, was at home, sitting in the large living room. Jackson was misbehaving and I feared this may prove to be a mark against us. Since hearing Dean say those words, I wanted desperately to acquire this place. Briefly, I considered grabbing her gnarled hand and begging her, on bended knee, to sell us the house at a good price. I dismissed the notion, though. She’d think I’m a lunatic, and besides, I was really too pregnant to grovel at this point. Last month would have been better. I tightened my death grip on my errant child’s chubby hand encouraging him to understand that I just might break a few digits if he kept up the rotten behavior, as we proceeded upstairs to see the rest of the house.

Although the house needed a lot of cosmetic work, the potential was obvious. There was room to grow, for one thing. One of the bedrooms had an attached sitting room—a perfect playroom for Jack! The attic could be easily converted into living space. The master bedroom had a Juliet balcony that could be enhanced with a French door. My mind raced with all the possibilities. A few minutes later, we thanked the owner, as we took our leave. Outside, I turned to the agent. “I’ll be contacting you later today with an offer. We’re very interested in this property.”

“Oh great,” she said, her dull tone belying her words. “I’ll be at the office until around four.” It was now noon and we parted company. My little family piled into the car and I climbed in last, my ever-widening girth making it tough going. I told Dean to drive around the neighborhood so I can look at the area. What I saw pleased me enormously. Beautiful old houses dotted the landscape, their owners appreciating the architecture rather than trying to obliterate it with modern flourishes. The neighborhood appeared to be perfect and I already knew, from my Internet research, that the schools were good. Everything pointed to an ideal match. My one and only concern was how far it was from the city, where Dean worked and where our lives were centered.

Immediately upon arriving home, we called the agent and made an offer. She told us she would contact the owner and phone us with his reply. While we were waiting, my husband told our giant dog, Egg, how he was about to deliver on a promise he made to him eight years before, when they shared a big, raw Tribeca loft together, just the two of them. (Ah, those were the days when you could still find a real working loft in Tribeca.) He’s going to give him his own backyard! And a magnificent yard at that. Then the phone rang.

“Hi Lisa.” It was the agent. “I have a counter offer for you,” she said, and told me the amount. At $190,000, it’s ten thousand more than we had offered. “The owner said it’s his final offer.” Bummer.

We had agreed beforehand to go only five thousand dollars higher than our initial offer of $180,000. We felt that we were stretching ourselves too thin to go beyond that. I gave the agent my final offer and again we waited. After tense moments the call finally came. The owner had turned it down.

Crestfallen. I knew in my gut that we should go for the higher amount—you’re all screaming right now that it’s a paltry five thousand that stood between us and the great farmhouse—but we were running scared. Dean was working for a start-up magazine and its future was dicey—the parent company was not enthusiastic about it. I was extremely pregnant, so not likely to be able to work anytime soon. The credit card debt was obscene after all of our moves around the country, despite the fact that employers paid for most of the moves. Go figure. And there was another mortgage to pay: a log home in Pennsylvania that we co-owned with my sister—an idea that sounded good ten years before when I was single, permanently ensconced in the city and in desperate need of a weekend retreat. With heavy hearts we decided to let the house go. It was a decision we would thoroughly rue for years to come—one of those gut-twisting, why-can’t-I-set-the-clock-back stupid, idiotic decisions.

So dejected are we to lose this house, we ceased our house hunting for two months. We spent our weekends doing city things: shopping for baby items in the East Village, trying out new restaurants, browsing bookstores, haunting farmer’s and flea markets. Then the apartment walls started closing in again as baby paraphernalia started its sprawl, and we resumed our search halfheartedly. It was April and my baby was due in early May.