Excerpt from a new book about Greenwich (Draft) 21

We were going into the city, as you say in these parts.  “Into town”, as my mother would say, as opposed to “downtown”, which referred to the center of Greenwich.  If one thing made this trip relevant it was the fact that for years, whenever I went into the city it had rarely to do anything other than visit some exhibit at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.  The other was the Museum of American History which featured a temporary exhibit about Lincoln and New York.  The plan was ambitious to say the least, but we wanted to give it a go and see what happened.  Plus, we were going to have a chance to my brother and sister-in-law.

       We had about an hour and half of time to kill before leaving, so instead of hanging around and doing nothing, the girls and I went over to the Cos Cob Library to see what that was like.  It wasn’t quite the marvel of the main library up the road, but a pleasant little place to visit all the same.  The girls could grope and paw at the bookshelves in search of a nice story to pull out and look at while plopped on a beanbag, and I could find a quiet place to nestle and read.  It was a quaint venue for searchers of books and peace. I nosed around the history section and pulled down a couple of volumes about Abraham Lincoln, just to see what was there.  I found a biography and withdrew it from the shelf, holding it firmly in both hands and giving it a shake.  There is something comforting about library books.  You know, those sturdy hardcovers enveloped in plastic. Something about their weight and feel and smell.  The are physical proof of knowledge.

       While drifting through the aisles, I began to draw my attention to the kind of person who went to the library at that early hour.  They were men, for the most part.  Grown men.  Some were senior citizens but many were men about my age or maybe a little bit younger.  This struck me as odd.  What the hell were they doing there?  Were they looking for work?  Were they saying they were looking for work at home, dressing up for the show and coming to logging onto their Facebook account?  Were they telling their loved ones at home they were going to work just to conceal the fact they were out of a job?  That was the impression I got.  People do that.

       I sat down at one of those nice tables with a cozy lamp, the kind you see in those old libraries at law school.  It was a pleasurable few minutes with just me and my Lincoln until an elderly man heavily approached and dumped a couple of newspapers on the other side.   That would not have been a problem had that been the only audible contribution he would make.  But he wasn’t finished.

       You see, the individual made noise.   No, he didn’t just make noise, he made noises.  He manufactured them.  He wheezed, heaved, sighed, panted, whirred, gargled, gurgled, sniffled, oozed, dripped, leaked and produced a dozen other indescribable emissions.  He was a wonder of biological study.  Just how many different noises can a human make?  732, according to one study.  He neared that figure in a record ten minutes.

       Eventually, it just got too much for me to take and I gathered my papers, stuffed them in my pocket, fetched my daughters and we went back to our friends’ place.

Excerpt from New Book 9 (actually a revised version of an earlier draft)

December 26th

If there is one drawback to going over to the States for Christmas and getting there on the 24th, it’s that two days later pretty much everything is done, gone, and over with.

         That’s the problem with the yuletide here.  Most of the festivities take place in the first few weeks of December, and once the big day passes, once the Messiah is born, once the great Redeemer has come to save the world from all sin, back inConnecticut, things return to normal frightfully quick.  Sure the lights are still up and the decorations continue to promote joy and hope for World peace for the time being, but the mood kind of deflates like a dismantled moon-bounce ride at a carnival.

         Some of my fondest memories of Christmas go back to our annual family party, which we would celebrate on a Sunday evening a week or two before December 25th.  Oh, yes, the once famous Murdock Christmas open house.  Back in the seventies, it was one of the highlights of town and it seemed there was a person around who wouldn’t want to be invited.  I remember it starting at around 4:30, when there was barely any light out and surging on for several hours and hours with an energy and mirth that you would expect from these events.  The party was designed in such a way that people could come at any point, stay as long as they wanted and then move on.  There was a continuous rolling population.  The preparations would go on for weeks, even months, and on the day of the event itself the house bustled with activity.  A big healthy fir tree would stand in the corner of the old room.  Holly abounded on the sills and mantle pieces and a thick burly pine garland would be wound down the front stairs banister.  The fireplaces were stuffed with thick oak trunks, crumpled newspapers and splintery kindling wood, and the tables spread with the finest delectables a merrymaker could ever desire:  roast turkeys, sweet hams, smoked turkeys, assortments of breads, butter, mustard, platters of cookies, biscuits, marzipan and bonbons from the old St. Moritz bakery down at the bottom of Greenwich Avenue.  There was a jolly punchbowl full of creamy spiked eggnog, which my parents would place in different rooms from year to year; sometimes the old room, sometimes the dining room, on occasion the living room.  Often, a musician was hired to liven up the air.  A piano player would softly play background melodies on the baby grand piano in the living room or an accordionist would move from room to room cheerfully tapping away and striking spirited Christmas tunes at our request.  Guests would join in from time to time, especially towards the end when they were emboldened by alcohol.  It was an atmosphere even Dickens would have envied.  I think.

         Some years up to 250 people would stop by and enjoy a drink and a bite, say hello, see friends, make friends, belt out a jolly carol and then depart in a whole range of states from stone sober to right-out wasted!  I remember one friend of our family’s, a direct descendent of an early president of this nation, getting lost in the walk-in closet.  Course, back in the 70s, things were more relaxed and people didn’t seem to take wrapping their car around a tree on the way home as seriously as they might today.

         In any event, as I was saying, the open house was the culminating point of the season before the day itself.  It was what Christmas was all about.  That was a fine dosage of nostalgia for you, but the fact was, decades later, none of that existed in my life anymore.  They were mere shadows of the things that had been and the fact that they were what they were could not be blamed on anyone.

         It was just Saturday, December 26th, the goddamn day after Christmas and there was little more for me to do than greet the day with valor and take a shower.  It’s just the kind of real man I am.

         Satisfying my need for a cleansing was easy in Greenwich, Connecticut.  It was nice to know that, in a world fraught with frightening statistics about surface fresh water comprising only 0.014% of the total amount available in the world, at least in this town, that issue appeared inconsequential if not all but nonexistent.  In fact, 19.4 square miles, or approximately 28% of the area of the town is water, and though I am inclined to believe that much of that comes from Long Island Sound, there is no doubt that water is generally not in want here.  There are countless ponds and lakes all over the place, many of which are hidden deep into the woodlands.  In addition, a generous4 inchesof rain on a monthly average keep things green and healthy.  You would think you could practically drown in this town at any given point.  Many of them are connected and intersected by dozens of rivers and streams and creeks and brooks.

         With that in mind, I felt guiltless about letting the hot water flow copiously into the tub as I tried to adjust the handles until they satisfied my standard of what a good and safe temperature was.  Bridget and Dan still had one of those old two-headed tap systems, a rarity in Greenwich.  In theory, turning the knobs to the correct position required a minute or two to a person’s life, but in this bathroom there was no telling just how long a person would have to fiddle with the handles until it finally settled at a temperature which wouldn’t do permanent damage to the skin.  There was no method behind the madness, no foolproof system.  No perfect point.  It was just pure luck, and once there, you’d better be quick about it because events could turn ugly at any time during your time beneath the water.

         Washed and freshened up, I looked at what lay ahead for the day.  Family planners were plotting to take on the sales at the Stamford mall so I opted to let them be and go and see a couple of old friends for lunch.

         Before my friends came to pick me up, I walked down to the local deli to get a newspaper.  You don’t always get a chance to walk anywhere around these parts because people have long since abandoned their own feet as a mode of travel.   This time I cannot say it’s a problem with Greenwich, but rather one that affects much of theUnited States.  I am not enlightening anyone when I say that, with the exception of a handful of cities like New York, getting around this country without a car is little more than impossible.

        So, the fact that I was able to walk down to the deli made walking down to the deli that much more pleasant.  It was like strolling through a neighborhood designed by Frank Capra, with white picket fences and adorable little porches.  It’s one of those charms that Cos Cob has, in contrast to much of the rest of the town.  This neighborhood happened to be a kind of former Little Italy, and there are still signs of the past visible via the names on the mailboxes, some of the stores, the restaurants, and even places like the St Lawrence Society, which is a club founded in 1923 by Ialian Americans to create mutual support for the community residents and newcomers.

         The only element marring the idyllic panorama was the neighbor’s dog, whose size and weight rivaled a number of economy-sized cars, and whose ferocious eyes made it very clear from the minute we regarded each other that the beast considered me a threat and quite possibly as a meal too.

         I don’t really know what breed it was, but it was one of those muscular fat-headed beasts that clamp onto your arm and don’t let go until a bulldozer beats it off.  It reeked of danger.  Even its owner the neighbor agreed.  They had put a “Beware of Dog” sign up so large it looked like a highway billboard.  You sure don’t see many of them anymore.  I wondered what category we could have entered this monster in for the Greenwich Dog Show.  The Bad-Ass Group, perchance?

          Just like any black-belt karate expert will tell you, the best fighter knows how to avoid combat.  I believed whole-heartedly in that philosophy, but the problem was I had to walk by their property on my way to the deli, so having the pleasure of a canine coming within inches of ripping my neck apart was unavoidable and would become a loathsome inevitable part of my daily routine.  Like shaving.  I had kind of hoped they would keep him inside more often on account of the wintry weather, but to my dismay, he was on the steps and growling low like one of those farting machine guns.  The sound was deep and it echoed.  It could have been heard miles away in a forest at night.  He rose, jogged forward a few yards, shaking the ground as he advanced, and barked a few times as a warning.  I refrained from breaking into a dash, lest that prodded him to turn me into prey.  He held his ground and watched intensely as I passed.

         There was a fence, that was true, but it was flimsy as all get out.  And low too.  That was its least encouraging feature.  Had that pooch ever put his mind to it, and I was grateful he appeared dull in this respect, he could scramble over with it without the slightest difficulty.

         What was keeping him from disfiguring me?  Maybe it was one of those territorial things.  As long as I stayed off his turf, he wouldn’t touch me.  We had a neighbor back at our home on Clapboard Ridge, who owned two German shepherds which had names you normally associated with men who wore SS officer uniforms.  Whenever a ball of any kind would fly errant into their yard, we had to shoot odds-or-evens to decide who would jump over the bushes and fetch the thing without having the backs of their britches and a chunk of their buttocks ripped out.  You see, it was silently agreed upon that if one of those bastards got you, no one was going to go in for the rescue.  You were on your own.  The rest of the baseball game depended on it.

         Ironically, though, these were one of those specially instructed dogs instructed never to make friends with anyone, the way good trained killers are taught to, and if you ever caught one of them snooping around your property, the minute the saw you they would bolt back home.  Just like a bunch of babies.  Go figure.

         Anyhow, I made it to the deli alive.  It constituted one of the 75 convenience stores in town.  There I ordered a coffee and picked up the day’s edition of the Greenwich Time, in addition to a local free periodical known as the Greenwich Citizen.  It was my intention to purchase an issue of the Greenwich Time (wrongly called the Greenwich Times, by some) daily and keep a kind of log of what was going on in town, believing that if the Greenwich Time could not keep me abreast of the latest I don’t know who could.  After all, it was they who had alerted me of the dog show demise in the first place.  I believe I owed them something.

         While I was paying at the counter, I noticed a flurry of signs and ads eliciting both my attention and money in an attempt to buy one of a handful of lotteries inConnecticut.  I paused and looked at them a little more closely, doing my best to soak in all those lights, bold letters and bright colors, dazzling phrases used to lure me in.  I ended up staring at them with a dumbfounded look on my face, the kind I make when I try to decide which type of bread I should put in my shopping cart.  There were all sorts of games to choose from: you had your lottos, your Play 3, Play 4, Cash 5, Power Balls, Mega Millions, Super Big Mega Billion Million, Extra-Trillion-Mega-Master-Super-Cash-Creative-Ways-To-Suck-More-Money-Out-Of-You-Zillions, and so on.  You know, for all its stiff blue-law conservatism it was famous for, this state sure had a thing for gambling.

         I gazed at the array before me and licked my lips.  I love lottery tickets, I just do.  I indulge in the feeling that, once I have one in my hand, I am just that much closer to becoming a millionaire.  No, a multimillionaire.  And then my life would be set.  Money doesn’t bring happiness?  Bullshit.  I even had it all worked out.  I know who is going to get what and just what I plan to buy, where I am going to live and what I plan to do.  As long as I don’t get hit by a truck on my way to cash it in.

         I knew the odds are crap, but I didn’t care.  I have friends who say they never play because they chances of winning are so low; I tell them I agree, but that my odds improve greatly once I play.

         Of all the varieties dazzling my senses, Powerball attracted me the most for two reasons: one because of its sensational jackpots, and two because Greenwich had become the center of a huge media maelstrom concerning this lottery.  It’s funny when you think about it.  Back then, just a handful of states participated in it.  To the west of this town, New York and New Jersey had eschewed the idea, which always kind of surprised me, because I somehow always thought that gambling was their thing.  Entrance into the Powerball community certainly guaranteed increased revenue for Connecticut.  Authorities in Connecticut must have heard a ghostly voice in hallways of the statehouse whisper: “If you sell them, they will come.”  And come they did.  But it also meant that every person living within a200 milerange (and that included New York City just 28 miles off), just might be tempted to cross the border and pick-up that possible early retirement check.  And their closest destination wasGreenwich, it being the first town across the border, thus earning the longtime moniker as the “Gateway to New England”.  There is nothing new about this kind of interstate activity.  Up until recently, people from Greenwich, restricted by the age-old blue laws of the state, would cross the frontier to buy alcohol after 8:00p.m., and on Sundays.  So while the outsiders flocked into town to hopefully get rich, the rich would use their wealth to slip across the border to get wasted.

In any event, this bit of geographical circumstances, as you can well imagine, led to misfortune for the locals.

In the Wikipedia article on Greenwich, a disturbingly brief section is set aside to the town’s nearly 375 years of history, and it is broken up into 5 tiny paragraphs:

1) The founding of the town and the early years.

2) Events during the American Revolution.  (A sparse three short lines.)

3) The Mianus River Bridge collapse in 1983.  (Yes, two hundreds years of history was skipped to bring us to this point)

4) The Tod’s Point beach access case.  (We’ll get to that later.)

5) And finally, point 5 is devoted to this period of relative turmoil in the town.  In fact, more space is given to this topic than any other.  This does not reflect the importance of the issue in its history, but rather the shortsightedness of the writer of the article.  These events need to be given their proper weight in the greater view of things, and this moment, though certainly newsworthy in a relatively sleepy town like Greenwich, was tipping the town’s historical boat nearly on its side.

But it did garner a great deal of attention in its day and, for reasons I believe interest us, it needs to be looked at.  For a while there, the issue of buying lottery tickets did not attract much attention.  But as the jackpots got bigger, so did the traffic influx that swarmed on the town.  Now, I really wish I had been here for that.  It must have been a riot…in every sense.  Long lines dangling outside the stores and backups on the streets exasperated the residents.  This was not what living in Greenwich was supposed to be about.  And the fact that it was happening here, and that the people were so upset (and rightfully so, in part), led the media to have a field day.  Oh well, since then, nearby Pennsylvania and New York have joined, and that proved to be pressure reliever Greenwich needed.

I had never played Powerball.  This was going to be my first stab at it.  Wouldn’t it be great to hit the jackpot on the first try?  My first purchase would be a bazooka to take on the dog.

Excerpt from a New Book 8

Christmas morning on the way to my brother’s allowed us the first good glimpse of my hometown since my return.  We turned off Valley and onto the woody Cat Rock, a street infamous for its narrowness and hairpin turns.  I remember one young man had been killed a few years before when his car slammed into a tree.  Without knowing all the details I believe it was all high school alcohol related.  The hairpin bend didn’t help either.

      We were entering what was known as the mid-country section of Greenwich. According to the post office, this is still part of Cos Cob, and that may be so, but physically it has the feel of all the back streets of Greenwich.  Cat Rock must be a very old road.  What gives it away are the numerous houses which stand practically on the street’s edge, an unusual feature considering most homes are set back well beyond a healthy front yard or are hidden deep and only are visible when the trees are bare.  The design of the property was totally different and people probably didn’t necessarily think about factors like long driveways and literally pulled out into the road.  I also discovered two very old private graveyards in the area, and that’s a dead give away too.  The years etched in the stone were no longer visible.  That automatically makes them ancient in my book.  The woods were still covered with snow and the brooks were alive with young water from freshly melted snow.

         We threaded Cat Rock, managing to head in all four cardinal points at least once, and soon arrived on a side road where my brother lived.  We piled out of the car in Christmas morning fashion and wished each other a Merry Christmas in Christmas merry fashion, and cheered a lot.  The girls equipped themselves to spend the rest of the day playing out in the snow.  They and the cousin did just about everything a person could do too and in the snow.  No verbs were spared.  They rolled it, packed it, sculpted it, tossed it, fell in it, tumbled in it, froze in it…just the way you should when you’re a kid.  We had left the front yard look like a herd of wildebeests had rumbled through, a unsightly scene of unspeakable proportions for Greenwich, but the fact was rain was on the way and predicted to arrive in just a few hours and if they didn’t take advantage of it then, by the next day it would be pretty much all gone.

       Soon my parents and my sister joined us and the festivities began.  Christmas at brother and sister-in-law had done a magnificent job of decking the house so that it looked and smelled and sounded just the way you want it to on that day, especially if it has been a couple of years since you’ve been back.  The day was a lot of fun and lunch was delicious.  It really was.  And it was nice to just hang around with the family for a few hours, look out at the snow-laden backyard and woods and watch the day start to age.  We went for a walk after the meal and spent a lazy afternoon until it got dark and the jet lag lurked and we began to think about getting home.

       Mom and Dad were staying the night in Greenwich.  My brother had booked them a room at the Greenwich Country Club, and since nighttime travel on the treacherous winter roads of backstreet Connecticut can be challenge for anyone, let alone the elderly, I jumped into the car and took them over.

        Country clubs have long been a natural part of Greenwich’s vast landscape.  Where many towns call themselves home to one or maybe two of these private social societies,Greenwich boasts more than ten.  Here’s a list from just off the top of my head:

  • Burning Tree Country Club
  • FairviewCountry Club
  • The Field Club
  • GreenwichCountry Club
  • Innis Arden
  • Milbrook
  • Round Hill Country Club
  • Stanwich Club
  • Tamarack

If water is more your thing, you can always try entry into one of these yacht clubs:

  • Belle Haven Yacht Club
  • Greenwich Boat and Yacht Club
  • Indian Harbor Yacht Club
  • Mianus River Boat & Yacht Club
  • Old Greenwich Yacht Club
  • Riverside Yacht Club

And we can’t forget:

The Greenwich Polo Club (Founded in 1982, by the way.  That was just what the town needed to become what everyone expected of it.)

       A number of these, and I won’t name which, are extremely exclusive, but the one that stands out as a symbol of this town is unquestionably The Greenwich Country Club, also known as GCC, or simply “the Club”.

       Self-billed as the Premier Private Country Club of the Northeast (though I get the sneaking suspicion it’s not an official title of recognition), GCC was founded in 1892 and originally known as the Fairfield County Club.  It was one of the first private golf clubs in the country.  Not long after it would adopt its current name and for decades it lived a quiet existence at a time when people cared little about these places.

        The Country Club I grew up with was not the original building since a fire in 1960 devastated it.

        Back then, the 1970s I mean, the place was nice and all, but far from the top-notch luxury palace someone with a fanciful imagination might come to expect.  My family joined in the 1970s and GCC quickly became one of our homes away from home, especially for me.  I’d say I used it more than anyone else in the family.  My friends and I were a gang of classic club rats; a dangerous breed of kid from a wealthy upbringing with a lot of time on our hands and little to do.  Friday bowling….Saturday golf…and in the summer more golf, some tennis (not too much because it might ruin your swing) and a jump in the pool from time to time.  There was lunch at the mixed grill, lunch at the halfway house, or a snack at the end of the round before calling home to get picked up.  That pretty much summed up my existence.  Pathetic, don’t you think?

        To claim that the Greenwich Country Club is not Snob-Centro at times would be sort of like lying in your face.  It’s very exclusive and pretty snooty too, though not as much as some people would imagine.  There are plenty of very friendly and very generous members.

        A lot of times you just have to put up with a lot of ridiculous rules like not being able to wear denim to the 4th of July picnic but it’s considered too casual and visually unattractive.  Then you go to the picnic and see just what types of outfits are allowed in the name of good taste, and you stop worrying.  They can make a blood vessel pop in you eye.  It should be a crime to treat fabric that way.

          And yet surprisingly, it is not the ominous club you hear about in other parts of the world.  There never was a gatehouse with a guard turning away undesirables.  In fact, it is shockingly easy to access the club.  I like that because it makes me feel that that there is still something unpretentious about the place.

         GCC was never one to preach or practice multicultural diversity, and I doubt it is much better today in that respect, if at all.  Members were white, and from what I can tell, still are.  And they were mostly Christian, and from what I can tell, still are.  In my youth I recall only once seeing a black man who was not a worker there.  I am not kidding.

          To be fair, most clubs in the area went by that policy, so I can’t quite accuse GCC of behaving any differently from the rest.  In fact, barring African-Americans and other minorities from super-exclusive institutions was common practice all over the nation.  Augusta National did not admit its first black member until 1990.

       Speaking of the early 1990s, and of blacks, around that time, the Greenwich Country Club and the town itself took an unexpected hit of poor publicity.  A former Princeton student and lawyer by the name of Lawrence Otis Graham went undercover as a busboy in a private country club to write a report for New York magazine.  He wanted to get an insider’s look at these places and recount his experiences as a black employee there.  Where did he work?  At theGreenwich Country Club, of course.

        Later he included it in a book called A Member of the Club, which is a collection of articles about polarized racialAmerica.

       It was a big deal when word of the article came out, I tell you.  Oh, yeah.  It was the talk of town.  Most people were indignant about the slyness of the reporting and critical of his nitpicky complaints.  The little part about racial discrimination seemed less scandalous.

        If something can be said in the Country Club’s favor, it was that at least they hired him.  The writer had interviewed at three other clubs in the area and not one even offered him a job.  He had actually applied for a position as a waiter but the post was switched to a backroom busboy the minute the managers saw the color of his skin; at least that was what was suggested in the story.  Even if it meant sticking the man in the kitchen and out of sight, they gave him the work.

       The rest of the article exposed little surprising coming from a place like that in a time like that.  If anything, it portrayed that world as a sad and almost desolate place.  Regardless of the controversy, it was still a good reminder that in the days, when people tried to pretend that racism had all but disappeared in the U.S., the writer made it clear that such a belief was a crock and that you didn’t have to watch Out of Africa to find clubs where white males were still the kings.  And he knew just where he could prove his point.  He choseGreenwich.  That’s part of its reputation.  That’s not what makes it special; it’s what makes it an especially prime target.  And I should know because I was about as preppy a child as you could get.  I spent summers and summers at the club just playing golf, and that’s about it.

In the past couple of years, Greenwich Country Club has made a concerted effort to modernize and adapt on many levels, from the physical to the social to the moral.  It has undergone several upgrades and been submitted to a facelift or two.  The facilities have improved enormously.  They have even made some concessions towards integration.  The once untouchable Men’s Grill has been opened up to women, while the Family Grill (once the Mixed Grill) is where everyone can be.  Hispanics still fill up the bulk of the menial jobs, but on the front line there is a new breed of worker.  The young European.

        This is disconcerting because in a deliberate decision, though no one may be willing to admit it.  There is nothing more satisfactory to the preppy American ear than the sound of service in the form of a British accent.  It’s dreadful.  Not the accent, mind you, but the notion.  It sounds more professional, even if the guy has just peed in your Coke before serving it to you.  You’ll say “Thank you!” and he’ll say, “Not at all” In the most gracious manner you’ve ever heard.

         Well, I couldn’t have picked a drearier more desolate evening to stop by.  Except for the cheery but solitary illumination of the Christmas lights clinging for their lives on the bushes and trees and a lamp casting a beam of lonely light on the underpass at the front door, absolutely everything else lacked even the remotest suggestion that life dwelled within.  The place reeked of a bloody and uncomfortable death.  I had to admit I was feeling somewhat irresponsible and uneasy about leaving them off to fend for themselves.  I think even my mother muttered something about Jack Nicholson and an axe as we pulled up.  But there we were.  That familiar white building with those horrible columns.  They have got to be the ugliest and least majestic I’ve ever seen.  They look like lanky legs, totally unfit for such a noble social club.  We went up the flagstone steps and inside.  The reception was as quiet and forlorn as a person could endure.  Sitting low behind a dimly lit desk, a night watchman courteously tended to our questions.  I saw them upstairs and then left, adding before I went, that they were to call me should they see the word “Redrum” scrawled on their bathroom mirror.

         I went back to my brother’s place, picked up the family and returned back to our friends’ to retire for the evening, which was an easy task for us because we had been up since the crack of dawn and earlier.  It had begun to rain and the snow started to deform and droop and turn just plain sad.  It became pock-marked and dirty.  The air warmed and the night grew balmy and melencholy.  It was time to turn in.  It was certainly time to check into the Unconscious Hotel and forget about things for a while.

        Either that or I needed an extra long episode of the Yule Log.




Excerpt from New Book 6

The next stage was customs, which for the most part has never posed any serious problems because I usually leave my firearms and heavy drugs at home.  I’m joking naturally but I am respectful of those rules, no matter how absurd they are.  For example, as a non-resident citizen I am entitled to bringing in up to $100 worth of merchandise which I expect to keep in theUnited States, including my children.  That is the duty-free exemption cap.  $100.  How generous.  With a gift or two for my family, I hit the limit.  Thank God there were four of us and I could literally spread the wealth, and that was what saved us.  Why was I so forthright, you might ask? Well, because the only time I kind of bent the truth a little, I was nabbed.  That happened some years back.  It was Christmastime too.  We were going over for a nice family visit and one of our gifts was a splendid piece of cured Iberian pork loin.  It is a true delicacy, you can bank on that, and a pricey one too.  The high quality sausage was packaged and sealed in an airtight plastic wrapping and kept in an attractive metal canister which was also sealed at the top.  I can assure you that there wasn’t a way in hell any vermin could burst out and plague the country.

     You used to be able to introduce airtight food in small quantities into the country without the slightest worry.  Even food that wasn’t sealed.  I once recall telling them that I had a small hunk of cheese for my family, wrapped in little more than a strip of loose wax paper and they gave me an approving nod, as if to say, “You shouldn’t, but what the heck.  Just make sure you eat it at home.”

         But those were different times.  By the post 9/11 Era, there was no screwing around. The thing is, I didn’t know that.  I was on a plane and was running through the customs declaration sheet, when I came to the question about food.  The question was something like: do you have any food with you (like meat, fruit, vegetables)?  We did.  But we still said no.  Clearly we were concealing the truth, but we also had reason to believe we did not need to divulge such information because, as I mentioned before, our “food” was airtight and that was always allowed, so why should we bring this to the authorities’ attention.  I will tell you why:  that little white sheet in front of you is a sworn declaration of the belongings you have on you as you enter the country.

     I wasn’t lying, I just half-heartedly misinterpreting the question in my favor.  But they were not asking for any interpretation on my part, they just wanted to know the facts.  The interpreting part was up to them.

     And so, there we were in the American Airlines terminal at JFK waiting for our luggage to come out when a woman the size of a linebacker emerged from the customs office and moseyed around the place to chat with a few of the passengers.  I had never seen this done, not before or since.   My heart started to beat like the guy’s on Midnight Express.  The woman approached us, stopped to say hello and asked me for the customs card, which I handed to her without hesitation.  She held a marker in her hand and used to slash a large “A” on the paper.   A nice fat Hawthornian “A”.   Enigmatic to say the very least.  It could have stood for “All right”, “A-OK”, “Awesome travelers”, which was my hope though unlikely, but chances were it stood for something like “Absolutely nailed”.

       All doubts came to light minutes later when we reached the control point and were immediately asked about the contents of our suitcases.  They placed us in front of a machine so big and imposing it looked like it was originally designed to split atoms, but its true purpose in fact was to reveal the insides of any piece of luggage right down to the ingredients of the toothpaste, and in passing, emotionally bring any amateur smugglers like us to our knees.  It worked.

       With this gigantic device to serve as a backdrop, they casually walked up and asked us quite loudly so that everyone in the blessed baggage claim room could hear, “Do you have any food with you?  Liars.”  I could have sworn I heard them say that, but maybe that was conscious betraying me.  This was their way of saying, “OK, we know you are lying through your teeth, but we just thought we would be a bunch of nice guys and give you another chance to reconsider your original position on this issue, because you had your chance back on the airplane and now you are screwed.  Given you have just intentionally misinformed the government of theUnited   States of America, we suggest to meditate your next answer very carefully, because if not, we gonna stick that luggage through Big Bertha there behind us and we gonna know just about everything there is to know about you and more!”

         This brings me to my second reason for telling the truth: they somehow know when you aren’t, and it’s unnerving.

         So I said the old, “oh you mean food, food?  Well, if that’s what you’re trying to say, of course, but we have food here!”

         “What kind of food?”  The woman asked suspiciously.


         Boy, you should have seen the reaction.  Red lights flashed in circles, sirens blared, ropes dropped from the ceiling and masked reinforcements descended to the floor to secure the room.  There is nothing like pork products to throw customs into a dizzy.  They imagine have the pig population and a third of the human one to be lying dead on the streets within a week from just the mere entrance a slice of salami whose processing has gone unsupervised by American authorities.

         I was thinking of gulping and saying “sorry” on TV to the entire nation for putting the nation’s future at risk, but instead I opted to save face.  “What’s wrong with that?  It’s allowed.  It’s airtight.”  And I raised my eyebrows a couple of times as if to say, “I know you know what I mean.”

         “What’s that supposed to mean?”  I guess they didn’t then.  I explained.

     “Oh,” they replied.  “And you think that’s supposed to make everything OK?”  Her rhetorical tone made replying a little unnecessary.  “Don’t you know, it’s not the packaging but the processing that counts!”

         If every there was a recipe for life that Forrest Gump would have approved of, that certainly was a good candidate.  We got off lightly, not even a fine.  Just a general show of disapproval, a slap on the wrist, some personal embarrassment for subjecting my family to that kind of experience, and a retreat with our tails well between our legs.

       Since then I aaaalways put a yes in the food box, even if I’m carrying a roll of Mentos.

        We had decided not to smuggle in any smoked meats this time, so the visit to the baggage claim was uneventful as we got our luggage within minutes, another milestone.  I think the guy even smiled at us and everything, which could have meant anything from, “Yep, you know better than to try to pull a stunt like you did that time,” to a genuine greeting.

Once that was over with, we got into a car that was waiting for us, which took us to Greenwich.  I almost always get a car service for that trip because it makes me feel rich and important, and coming to Greenwich means making the right kind of impression from the very beginning.  It also meant no one in my family had to go to JFK to pick us up, and they were willing to pay a large sum to avoid the treacherous traffic of the Van Wyck Expressway (a generous name for that highway if you want my opinion).  This is no complaint, mind you.  I completely understand.  It’s a real pain in the ass.

     What the Van Wyck is really used for is to give the traveler a chance to get a good look at Queens, just in case you wanted to, and even if you didn’t.  In order to obtain this offer, stop-and-go traffic is a permanent fixture of this road. I liken it to that storm on Jupiter, the one that looks like a red eye.  It has been roaring for God knows how long and it doesn’t as if it will ever go away.

      Then we sailed over the Whitestone Bridge, bumping along over those potholes and their familiar muffled sounds.  They make you feel the hubcaps are going to come rolling off at any minute.   We looked left to see the skyline ofManhattan, went Ohhh, and cruised down I-95 towardsConnecticut.  Once you got down there, traffic normally improved and we darted by the towns like a countdown. The list was always the same: New Rochelle, Larchmont, Mamaroneck, Harrison, Rye, Port Chester and over the river whose name I never knew until recently and into Greenwich.

     The first exit is “Delavan Avenue”, in Byram, a relatively modest section of town which has come to life again over the past few years.  Then “Arch Street” toRailroad Avenue, which leads to downtownGreenwich.  After that, it was over to Cos Cob.

     I like entering Greenwich, not because it’s Greenwich but because it’s where I grew up.  Because I know its streets.  Because they are familiar to me.  We all need a place like that in our lives.  We all have one.  It’s ours and no one else’s.  It’s where my childhood memories haunt.  In that sense, Greenwich is just like anyplace else in the world.  We got off the highway on exit 4, and took some back routes to my friend’s house.  On the way, we had to stop to let Ana throw up.   The drive had been a little swervy.  It was nearly evening by then.  The snow from the week before had made everything look that much more Christmaslike, the way you never see it in Madrid.  From the highway it wasn’t as noticeable, but once at street level, the extent of the recent storm became more evident, and since the girls had seen little more than a dozen snow flakes in their lives, the sight thrilled them. Greenwich looked pretty much the same.  No meteor had destroyed it; Donald Trump hadn’t planted a 30-storey monstrosity on the Avenue; the golf courses seemed unfazed by the passing of time.  For the most part, that is because Cos Cob looked pretty much the same.  The gas stations haven’t moved; the car wash was still there; the Cos Cob Liquor managed to be surviving; the fire house and the library behind it hadn’t aged a bit; and there was tiny Chicken Joe’s perched on the edge of the gentle Mill Pond shopping center.  There were new shops, no questions about that, but the feel to it was the same.   Precisely the way you like to see things in your hometown on Christmas Eve, because, as you know, nothing is supposed to change ever on that day.

     My friends’ house was just off Valley Road, a classic Cos Cob street that runs along the Mianus River as it fattens up into a lake.  It leads to Palmer Hill, which, in turn, cuts north and heads into the heart of the next door city of Stamford.  It’s an old route and clearly was the original way to cross the river.

     We arrived at their house but there was little time to break.  We had a lot to do in those next few hours before dinner.  The evening had arrived, it was dark, but we still had to buy a few more items before the stores closed for the day and the next day.  The girls stayed and played with their son while my friends went to the shops to get a few last minute stocking goodies.  CVS Pharmacy is where the old Food Mart used to be.  There used to be an even older Food Mart, but that fell victim to an incredible blaze to which I was witness…out of pure chance, that is.  There was word that the fire was intentional, so that they could gut out the old structure and throw up a whole new building with the help of the insurance claim.  That was back in 1984.  One of the biggest in the recent town history.  It took the joint effort of all the fire departments 12 hours to put it out.  The entire block was decimated.

     CVS was there now and doing just fine.  People always need drugs…and two-liter bottles of Coke.  We picked up a couple of more stockings for the fireplace and some gift cards.  Done and taken care of.

     That night we had a wonderful honey-gazed ham and potatoes.  Then I fielded a flurry of phone calls from different members of my family working hard to settle all our plans for the next two weeks in twenty minutes.  The normal first-day excitement.  I hung up knowing less than when I began.

     Then it was early to bed.  Jetlag had set in.  The girls collapsed at around eight.   I tried to make it till nine and pretty much did.  I love falling asleep after this full day of traveling.  The night was slow.  The night was silent.  That was the snow’s doing.  Yes, the snow.  The snow all over Connecticut.  The snow had covered the lakes and ponds, the backyards, the churches and buildings.

Excerpt from a New Book 5 (I tried to be brief)

DEC 24th

To get to Greenwich from Madrid in a reasonable period of time, first you have to cross the Atlantic Ocean in an airplane and hope you don’t die in the process.  We all know that air travel is safe, but we all sense the end coming near when we board one.  You find yourself feverishly leafing through “1000 Things to Do Before You Die” and checking just how many you can cross out.  I never used to be frightened of mode transport, and I still enjoy immensely for the most part, but I have to admit as the big moment itself drew near, as those engines start gunning at the beginning of takeoff, as the heavy wheels begin to roll ahead, I feed myself dreadful thoughts about being burned to a crisp or hurled through ten kilometers of freefalling terror.  It’s a godawful thought which I did my best to suppress via a sudoku or two.

       I spent what I thought was my last night on this planet on the couch by the warm glow of our Christmas tree and half-watched the TVE 24-hour news channel into the early hours of the morning hoping it would help me nod off to sleep.  Most of the reports were benign items of news that would soon be forgotten, but the part about the weather did grab my attention in an unsettling way.  Nasty weather.  Rain had been called for earlier that week, but it was supposed to have moved on by the day of our departure.  Instead, the storm had decided to linger a little longer and was proving an ever increasing menace but not because of some torrential downpour.  In fact, TVE was announcing a severe weather alert for much of Spain.   There was a large mustard yellow blot in the middle of the screen indicating where winds would blow as high as 70-100kph, enough to drive our aircraft into the ground with a mushroomed lavalike burst of flames.   And from what I could tell, our runway was right square in the center underneath it all.  “You know,” I said to myself whimsically.  “I couldn’t think of a better day to try and get a Boeing airborne,” and then got up to make some coffee and wrap up the packing.

         As I slurped my java I checked Madrid airport’s (Barajas) website and saw that flights were leaving on time, so my guess was that things weren’t all as ugly as the guys on TV were making them out to be.  Then I looked out the window and all but confirmed that impression even though there was a little dampness out there.  The air was still and just ripe for sending my body up30,000 feet.  We made our final preparations and got ready to leave.  Just before walking downstairs I had the following paperwork under my arm:

  • One copy of my electronic ticket
  • One copy of each of our boarding passes
  • One copy of the embassy security pass
  • One copy of a list with our e-ticket data
  • One copy with a list of our seating assignments
  • Three American passports and a copy of each
  • Three Spanish passports and a copy of each
  • One old passport which we used to buy Ana ticket with.
  • An extra 2 pairs of underwear

Call me excessively cautious or call me an experienced traveler, I prefer the latter because it sounds better. I have run into problems on trips for the absolutely stupidest reasons, and so, I take along everything just in case some numbskull with “authority” stitched on his uniform decides to shove his weight around and tell me that we don’t have seats or that there’s a problem with our passports, I can pull out that one document he’s asking for and say, “Hey, that’s not true!  Read and weep.”

         By nine o’clock we were out the door and getting into the car.  One of the biggest perks about living where we live inMadridis that I can literally get to the old international terminal in the time it takes for me to walk to school, that is, 12 minutes.  It is a blessing in many ways.  It also makes me look great, because dropping off and picking up people at the airport is really a rather effortless endeavor for me, and yet it looks like I am giving the person the grand treatment.

           So, time wasn’t the issue.  The problem was there were new developments in the weather as we turned the corner and drove outside the city.  A development that was developing into an ever greater problem.  It was pouring.  I mean really pouring.  No wind, but the precipitation had turned into something resembling a healthy monsoon.  I tried to make light of the inclement weather by saying aloud that “the real problem would have been the wind, and thank God it was only a little rain.” I uttered this as the car’s windshield wipers fought off the pounding downpour and while an American Airlines had overshot a runway inJamaicawhile trying to land in an intense storm.  It basically skidded off the runway.  I kept this information from public domain.

         The check-in process was easy.  Terminal1 in Madrid is generally a far more pleasant place to be ever sinceIberiamoved out and took with it the immense majority of the human traffic.  Just as we were boarding, one of those Christmas miracles occurred:  the skies opened up and great swaths of sunlight brightened the outdoors of the airport.  With the recent rainfall, the tarmac glistened and the air was clear and crisp.  I say miracle because I later learned that not long after takeoff the weather turned foul again and it would not let up for say the next six days.  In no time we were rumbling down the runway, gathering speed, momentum and adrenaline.  The plane rocked here and there and I was fairly confident that Delta’s flight crew knew just how to get the plane off the ground.

         The flight couldn’t have gone more smoothly though it was long, long trip.  In reality, it took less time than expected, but it was lengthy all the same.  It always is.   No matter how well things go, thatEurope-to-U.S.flight is just so unbelievably boring, it’s like listening to a six-hour talk on microbe mutations.  On top of that, the state of my health suffered too.  I was coming down with a cold and thinking to myself “Am I the lucky guy bringing a virus into American territory?”  Would I be helping it to propagate throughout Greenwich?  Now would that have been something to insert into my list of lifelong feats.  Thank God the swine flu scare was waning or else it all it would have taken was one good sneeze and blob or two of snot freely sailing around the passport control gate for me to be locked up and stored away for forty days like a filthy unwanted cactus plant.

        I figured I would be all right, but just in case though, I popped another Ibuprofen pill before entering American air space for good measure.  The final minutes on the plane were also treated to an impromptu concert performed by two gospel choruses which happened to be returning to New Yorkon the very same flight.  They sang Joy to the World and Oh, Happy Day!   It was a joyous moment in the flight as we approached JFK.  Naturall, the following thought came to mind:  “Now, wouldn’t that suck if we plummeted to our death right here and now!”

I am never comfortable with entering my own country.  Never. This saddens me, but it’s true.  The customs and border patrol officers (Orwellianly known as Homeland Security) have an incredible knack for making you feel as if you are a perfect criminal even when in the presence of your own children.  In fact, it’s the very fact you are with your family that coverts you into a prime suspect of some heinous crime you have allegedly committed.  They’ve seen it all before.  The simplest question like can induce confessions of the most humiliating kind.

           “How long do you plan to stay?” can easily be responded to with a “Yes, I admit it.  I am bringing in six kilos of heroin.  And I’m going to sell them to a bunch of preschoolers.”

          But I’ve gotten used to it and now I just let them go about their business, trying to keep contact with them down to a minimum.  My policy is: Whatever makes them happy.

         That day the whole process was short and sweet.  The guy at the passport control was the usual unfriendly dweeb, but that was par for the course.  He taciturnly went through his tough guy routine.  No smiles.  A grunted greeting.  A stupid question here and there.  “So, you’re here for…”

        “Two weeks.”  You already know that dipwad I wanted to add.  I’ve always wanted to say something like that to law officer.  Most people do, and I think we should be allowed to because they deserve to hear it more often.  Just one freebee in your life.

         “And you’re staying…”  At this point the classic “It’s none of your fucking business” surges to the tip of my tongue, because it really isn’t his business, because, I am a law-abiding citizen and don’t have explain to the INS officer where the hell I will be spending my holidays, and he knows that.  Oh, yes, I had a mighty desire to let my remark fly.  But I suppressed the urge to say that but instead finished his question for him with a benign reply.  “In Cos Cob.”

       “Cos Cob, Connecticut,” he remarked. Yeah, he already knew that too.

      Then he punched his stamp of approval on the card and added, “Welcome back, Mr. Murdock” as if I’m at the Business Class desk cashing in my frequent flyer airline points.  Yeah, minutes before the guy was making me feel like I was planning on blowing up several orphanages and now he was greeting me as if I had just deboarded the Apollo XI space capsule.  Thanks for nothing.  What an idiot!

      We were through, though, and that was all that counted.