Hallowe’ens Past


Hallowe’en in my mind smells like Noxzema. Really.

It occurs to me that now I’m as old as the people who opened their doors to me as a young trick-or-treater in 1960s Brooklyn. For decades I haven’t had to buy eggs for throwing, shaving cream for smearing, or chalk socks for walloping– real commodities that we saved weeks to pay for, ultimately reveling in the outraged shrieks of pain and / or disgust that out investments guaranteed.

Eggs were usually ground into the hair of our enemies, or dropped into jockey shorts and then splattered from without. (Boys only; you never did that to girls because it just wasn’t nice.) Or we’d lob them into open windows, never sticking around long enough to be caught. Shaving cream also went into hair and pants and shoes, or onto store windows and car windshields, and chalk was packed into socks, stomped into a powder, and then wielded as a cudgel against heads, butts, and thighs.

We’d end up at home bruised and sticky, but enervated and exhilarated; I’d usually be in the throes of an asthma attack thanks to all the excitement (and the Noxzema fumes), and would catch hell because it’s practically impossible to wash dried egg out of hair, ears, and jockey shorts.

It’s a fact that we victimized one another, or those second stringers– half-friends who lived on the next block– but you never went after the REALLY scary guys. We had gangs in the neighborhood in those days, packs of characters called the Eighth Avenue Midgets and the Park Rats. These guys you didn’t go near, even if we were friends with their beehived, mascaraed molls. Well, they really weren’t molls– they went to school just like any girls– but they were tough. (After one especially memorable girl named Joanie rid the McKinley playground of undesirable elements from a distant neighborhood, she was dubbed Queen of the Park.)

It wasn’t all mayhem though; we did actually bring stolen A&P paper bags with us on our rounds to people’s houses, and in those days a lot of the candy came unwrapped. Who worried? Not us. All we knew to look out for were apples with razor blades embedded in them, or Milky Ways studded with thumb tacks. I don’t know anyone personally who ever came across a treat like that, but we all knew a friend of somebody’s cousin’s aunt’s sister-in-law who lost her lips thanks to a razor blade apple in 1946. We did get some strange candies once from a strange woman known as the Cat Lady– it looked like she’d dipped feathers and bird seed in chocolate– but we just laughed maniacally like the idiots we were and then threw them in the street after having shaving-creamed her front door.

I remember a few costumes– Mom was very good at transforming me into something the neighbors wouldn’t recognize, lucky for her, and so I usually traipsed the streets as a bum or a ghost: either covered with burnt cork “dirt” or draped in sheets, nobody should know that Vel’s kid was at large looking like THAT. (Not Lois, though; my beautiful, blonde little sister went out as Honey West one year, and all the old ladies smiled and sighed.)

As an adult living in Florida, and obligated to attend Hallowe’en parties because that’s what my people do, I made a nun’s costume out of black broadcloth and worked it for years. The best part was that all my rosaried blackness parted the crowds at the bars, as I was practically escorted to the front of the thirsty lines: “Make way for Sister!” One year I dragged around a Catholic school girl mannequin with me, subjecting her to verbal abuse when it was time to act like the mean nun I was trying to be; I was going for someone very forbidding and medieval, but I’m afraid I came off like Ingrid Bergman in The Bells of St. Mary’s, because a good heart was beating underneath all that heavy material.

My last two forays into the night world of adult costume parties had me portraying Connie Francis one year, and a stewardess the next. Nowadays I don’t have a recording contract, and that airline is in receivership. Go figure.


For God's sake!

We meet at a friend’s house and carve pumpkins, some of us using Martha’s professional templates, the rest of us gamely chopping hacking away chunks of orange and the occasional thumb, and then we line up all our creations and take pictures. (They last about a day in the Florida dampness.)

These days I enjoy seeing little kids dressed in costumes, and it takes me back, even though they’re accompanied by phalanxes of adults wielding flashlights, and I think– what these kids need is a can of shaving cream and some eggs.

Short Stories

Baby Shoes

One of my favorite things to do these days is to wake up early, make coffee, and crawl back into bed with a book of short stories. The overhead lamp makes a circle of light in the dark morning that spotlights me and my book, and, with the bedroom door closed and my ear devices sleeping in their little storage box, I am pleasantly isolated.

A volume of short stories is as close to reading perfection that you’ll ever find. A novel will have one ending that takes days to approach, but a collection of shorts has twenty or thirty endings; on a relaxed morning I can get through a half dozen of them, going from beginning to end and from up to down and up again– a series of endings that take place all before I have actually started my day in the outside world.

I often re-read some favorites, though lately I’m immersed in Amy Hempel. My favorite is Shirley Jackson, who wrote The Lottery. (You first read it in an eighth grade anthology and, if you were paying attention, have not forgotten it to this day.) Shirley is the master of the form; she wrote from the late 1940s through the middle 1960s, almost always in vignettes pointing up the horrible little things we do to one another on a daily basis: we lie, we cheat, we use one another. Sometimes we are victims of things beyond our control: Jackson sends those people on delightfully frightening sorties into the unknown, almost like she’s passing judgement on us in those stories. Her novels got more engrossing over the years, like The Haunting of Hill House and We Have Always Lived In the Castle, but it’s her short stories that wield the daggers.

John Cheever is another favorite. His stories portray American life as it was lived from the 1940s through the 1980s, capturing this enormous sea change beautifully– from postwar angst to suburban sterility. His characters are often lost and sad or desperate, but struggling to survive from day-to-day. A lot of them live in New York apartments, and you can smell the leather furniture and the cigars and picture the Venetian blinds at the windows that look out onto the harbor.

Then there’s Ernest Hemingway’s famous short, complete:  “For Sale: Baby shoes, never worn.”

Amy Hempel is new to me. She comes highly recommended by Chuck Palahniuk, and he’s to be commended for his writerly generosity. Hempel’s quiet voice paints pictures of a life lived in wonder or bemusement, and the voice I hear in my head as I read is wry and questioning and often confused– sort of like Louise Lasser doing Mart Hartman. Sometimes she is goofy and does things that any of us would be embarrassed at, so you laugh out loud and almost knock over your coffee cup.

Myself, I like writing them. When I am compelled to write, I remember things from when I was growing up in Brooklyn in the 1960s, and I try to conjure up what it felt like living on the block in those years. Sometimes I write about things that really happened, and sometimes I make up stories using characters who are impossible to forget, almost as if I’m filling in the blanks of what went on behind their closed doors. Sometimes they’re funny, and sometimes they’re disturbing, but mostly we laughed.

I like short stories, but I don’t like that we seem to live our own lives “shortly.” Everything is so fast anymore– I think computers and hand-held devices have created an urgency that we don’t quite know what to do with. People who work full-time jobs seem to be doing more and more in less and less time thanks in large part to staff cuts. And I wonder at the quality of our work– are we doing things just to get them done, or are we actually producing wonderful and lasting results? In any case, is anyone paying attention? We’re all in a hurry sometimes to get to the ending of our personal short stories, only to have to hurry up and turn the page to begin the next. My writer’s ego asks friends, “did you read my blog?” and they say “there were too many words… I didn’t have time” but I take it all personally.

Short stories are good on paper, when they are gathered into a book to be read and tasted and appreciated when we choose to. I wish our lives weren’t short stories, and that we were all able to live the long lives we promised each other.

Airport Security Scanner Scandal– Let’s Get Naked at the Airport !


Photo Copyright TWA

” An x-ray machine that takes ‘naked’ pictures is being tested at an England airport for use as part of a high-tech security system, a story by The Australian News reports. Manchester Airport security officials say the full-body scan eliminates the need for passengers to be patted down and remove their clothing, because it can detect weapons or explosives instantly on fully-clothed passengers, the story said. But some say the scan reveals too much, including piercings, the outline of genitals and breast enlargements, the story said. Airport officials say the photos are not pornographic, and are destroyed immediately, the story said, but passengers have the option of a traditional security check. ” (From Weird Travel News Around the Globe.)

This is the sort of story promoted by the media to whip the vast American public into an outraged frenzy of indignation, shock, and intense curiosity. I mean, how many of you decided to read this post because it had the word “naked” in it? And how quickly I jumped on the story when it was posted this morning online!

We live in an age of danger and suspicion, which came upon us rather quickly. The benign / malignant (take your pick) powers-that-be who we trust to protect us have come up with all sorts of ways to do just that, but this latest technological prying is certain to challenge our Constitution. The Second Amendment guarantees us the right to bare arms, but I don’t think that includes getting naked at the airport.

Still, I’m not going to complain. It’ll just take a little bit more thought when setting out on your next trip. Here are some tips:

1. The underwear. You know what I’m referring to, and your Mother is always right about that. These days, when so many of our young people insist on wearing their underwear outside their real clothes, it is doubly important. If you’re a man and like to shop at Victoria’s Secret for yourself, be ready for the attention you may garner.

2. The piercings. Be careful what you have installed on your body, because there’s a good chance that the tiny platinum Monkey Stix that you’ve attached to your most secret regions are going to cause the metal detectors to go off, not to mention supplying the security staff with stories for the next six weeks.

3. The implants. Considering that implants are used to enhance, you would think that you would want the world to know how hard you’ve worked toward drawing attention to yourself. If you don’t want everybody at the airport to know that you have had breast implants, then stay home.

4. The outline of genitals. I don’t know any men who are ashamed of drawing attention in this way. In fact, this aspect of naked screening might even replace online dating as the newest way for a man to meet someone. For women, I’m not so sure; you never hear how developed a woman is in that area because everyone seems to concentrate up top.

While it is mentioned that passengers will have the option of being scanned in the traditional way, I would have to wonder if that would only add to the boredom of yet another red-eye to Reading. You would think that a little nudity would spice things up, considering that they’ve taken away all the fun things like free decks of cards and plastic wings. And why destroy the photos? I think they’d make great souvenirs, like the pictures they try to sell you at Disney of your entire family vomiting while careening down Thunder Mountain Railway.

But the patting down I could do without, as it always makes me giggle. Besides, if they want to check the outline of anything, they can look at my x-rays. But in reality, I’d prefer to have my parts touched a bit rather than strewn all over the Atlantic!

PhotoBike Tour 4: Winter and Thornton Parks

Well, you’d think after a Saturday that involved a drive to Cocoa Beach for lunch, a walk along the edge of the ocean (you can see France from there), a Netflix session, and a supper of vegetarian faux meat, that I’d be beat and want to lay comatose all day Sunday, right? You’d think! Something compelled me to get back onto the bicycle, and I think I know what it is: my waistline.  While not rapidly expanding, it nonetheless has stabilized, but still insists on speaking to me. It’s its own entity, separate from my whole being, with a mind of its own. It wants cheese– but I want it to be 32 inches.  We argue, back and forth; and I win because the rest of me is bigger and what I say goes.

So we went on my bike again, this time to the West (just like Mother Cabrini). Once I cross Semoran Boulevard, which is a stupidly-designed major throughway slicing its way through living neighborhoods, I can thread my way through the Winter Woods subdivision and, in just a few minutes, I’m in the rarefied atmosphere of Winter Park. This is a view from Kraft Azalea Gardens. The Winter Park Boat Tour travels through this lake, part of a chain, and the guides love to dispenses juicy little tidbits about the houses and residents. It’s basically a social tour of Winter Park, at least when I took it in the eighties, and I hope it hasn’t changed.


Riddled with lakes, Winter Park prides itself on its many large estate homes, many of which are too large to fit nicely onto their lots. Standard properties, nicely treed and almost pastoral, in many cases have been scraped clean of flora so that a two-story mansion can be set there, surrounded by fussy, trucked-in landscaping.  It’s like the original lot was designed to feature Melanie Wilkes but, instead, Belle Watling moved in. You’ve got your giant front doors; fat columns; balustrades; complex cornices; mullioned windows; and towers– and that’s just the garage. No matter. They’re fun to look at but I think I’d prefer a smaller steamship deco model. But here’s a house that works; I love this house and could easily live here, having coffee on the upstairs balcony every morning as I yell at the maids:

Bike 2

You know how when you’re biking that little voice in your head keeps saying “just one more yard… one more block… one more mile?” Okay, so maybe the little voice in YOUR head is transmitting directives from Venus, as mine usually does, but this day it cooperated and steered me towards the downtown Orlando neighborhoods.

I love Colonialtown North, those leafy blocks that skirt Ferncreek and Hampton Avenues. The houses are, for the most part, preserved and sit very naturally and comfortably on their lots. It’s a comfortable, soothing neighborhood to explore. Some years ago a realty company advertised it as “Orlando’s Key West,” and I got mad and wrote a column about that. My rant focused on the fact that Orlando should advertise itself as something uniquely Orlando, not just a copy of somewhere else. Besides, Orlando could never be Key West because there aren’t flocks of chickens running around.

Here’s one of my favorite houses in Colonialtown North; its color is perfect– I call it Flamingo– and it rambles and speaks to passersby in a friendly drawl:

Bike 3

Here’s another favorite– the proportions of that glassed, columned room are perfect, though I wish they’d remove the bush from the column at the left:. When I took the picture, two large dogs began barking at me from inside (you can see them) and it seemed like the owner was about to appear. Though my natural innocence still gets me through any situation, I am still careful. I mean, dogs are dogs; they don’t stop to ask questions as they decide whether or not to rip your throat out.

Bike 5

And here’s a rather ancient vernacular cottage which I would have no problem living in:

Bike 4

I got down as far as the bookstore in Thornton Park, had a soda and a chat, and then wended my way back towards home. It was nice to bike the streets near where I work, because there were lots of little streets I always wanted to explore. I’m amazed at how the neighborhood has changed, as so many of those perfectly-proportioned little houses have been beautifully restored, with much more consideration that, say, twenty years ago. In the eighties, a lot of these dignified little houses were gimcracked into embarrassment, festooned with non-period touches and furbelows. I wrote an opinion piece for The Orlando Sentinel about that, and generated many letters from people who yelled and yelled at me to stay out of the neighborhood. The life of a journalist is one fraught with drama!

In the neighborhood south of Lake Sue, back in Winter Park, I noticed this sign:

Bike 6

The Conch Republic is a popular name for Key West, which symbolically closed its borders and seceded from the nation due to time-consuming and pointless vehicle searches by police on U.S. Highway 1. A flag was designed, and everybody drank to the occasion. They’re still drinking, and still conching. It was odd to see this sign in Winter Park– doesn’t it belong in Colonialtown North?

Here is Spring Lane on Winter Park Road as you bike north of Corinne towards Glenwood:

Bike 7

It’s filled with little houses buried in the trees, but when you come to the end and turn right, you are confronted with blocks of parapets and balustrades and portcullises and battlements. “A man’s home is his castle” has been taken and applied literally.

There’s nothing like a bicycle for prying into people’s yards, both front and back. Where will Mother Cabrini take me next?