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.