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Category Archives: Holiday

A Contemplative 4th

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About 20 years ago now, my Irish friend asked me a really interesting question – “what is America?”  What she meant, she explained, was that she was trying to get at some kind of unified-field-theory to sum up America’s identity.

This being a multi-verse of a nation – especially now – that was a impossible question to answer.  But it gave me a great idea for a July 4th observation – every year, I spend part of the day reading books about America’s history and culture and thinking about her question.  I tend towards collections of first-hand source documents, too – anthologies of letters, eye-witness accounts, speeches, and the like – so I always have time for at least something every year, whether it’s just a couple essays read on the subway on the way to a cookout or a couple hours’ worth of reading on a blanket in the park.  I’ve got a big enough library assembled for this, too, that it’s high time I share.

  • History Lessons: How Textbooks from Around The World Portray U.S. History.  This is one of my favorites – it’s an anthology of excerpts from high school history textbooks, but they’re all textbooks from other countries, discussing their perspective on interactions they had with the United States over the years. So you get the what the British textbooks say about the Revolutionary War, for instance, or what the Canadian textbooks say about the War of 1812, or French textbooks’ take on D-Day, etc. It’s a fascinating take on some familiar stories, and a reminder that we are one of many nations in the world.
  • History In The Making:  This is another book by one of the same editors as History Lessons above.  It’s also a collection of excerpts from textbooks; this time, though, the textbooks are all American.  With this book, the editors have selected a handful of incidents from America’s history, and studied how history textbooks from different time periods have reported on the same incident.  So you can watch how a small border skirmish between the United States and Mexico gets an exhaustive report in the years immediately following, to a couple paragraphs 50 years later, to a single sentence today.  You can also see how different eras emphasize different elements of each story.
  • Witness To America: This is one of three different collections of first-hand documents I have – anthologies of letters, court transcripts, interviews, and speeches, running the gamut of the momentous to the mundane.  You have everything from a transcript of Neil Armstrong’s comments during the first moon landing to a kid who rode for the Pony Express talking about what life in the saddle was like.
  • The Cartoon History of the United States: Okay, first let me say that Larry Gonick, the man behind this book, is a phenomenal writer.  This is just one of the many cartoon guides to things he’s published – there are also cartoon guides to Statistics, Ecology, Physics, and Sex in his quiver, as well as an even more ambitious Cartoon History Of The Universe, which is more accurately a 6-volume history of our own planet from the days of the Big Bang up to 2004.  I learned of Gonick through that last series, and was stunned how exhaustive the series is – he covers things that are rarely included in most Western-world published “World History” books, like the history of the Mali Empire to a discussion of the impact of the Black Plague on non-European countries.  His books are so well-researched they’re often assigned as supplementary reading in college classrooms.  This book only covers up through the late 80s and the collapse of the Berlin Wall, but it still covers a lot of ground.
  • America Eats! On The Road With The WPA: The Venn diagram between “foodie” and “fascinated by the history of the Works Progress Administration” is probably very small; nevertheless this book fits that niche.  During the Great Depression, the New Deal had a program designed to give work to writers; one idea they had was to send writers out into their communities to report on the various food traditions where they lived, as well as any public food-related events – an account of a traditional New England clambake, an article about a Baptist church’s ladies’ auxiliary fundraising supper, a piece about hunting in the backwoods of Louisiana, things like that.  The intent was to publish one massive book about “American Food Traditions”, but the project was interrupted by the attack on Pearl Harbor and the manuscript was archived for 50 years.   This is one of a pair of books that was eventually assembled from the archive – author Pat Willard combines passages from the archive with her own writing, chronicling a handful of trips to revisit some of the bigger events from the archive to see how they’ve changed.
  • Travelers’ Tales – America:  Some of the best travel writing is in the Travelers’ Tales anthologies, a series I’ve been diving into for years. Technically this is a travel anthology, but the editors focus more on the writing than on the topics covered, so this isn’t yet another series of anecdotes about family vacations to national parks or the like; instead you have things like an account of life on Skid Row in Los Angeles, to a comedic take on a lackluster bus tour of Cincinnatti to an essay on camping in Yosemite.
  • The Journals of Lewis and Clark: Speaking of travelogues – do yourself a favor and read these. This is the firsthand account of the expedition where Meriwether Lewis and William Clark explored and mapped the Louisiana Purchase, an expedition that at the time was akin to the Apollo 11 mission.  So Lewis and Clark took copious notes about the things they saw and heard along the way, all of the people the expedition met, and countless little incidents and hiccups.  There’s a section chronicling a five-day stretch of bad luck that befell one of their boats that literally had me laughing out loud.

I actually have a new book to crack into this year; will not report on it just yet, I’d like to give it a thorough read first.


The Whirlwind Begins

So. I said I was going to start writing more about other parts of life on this blog more often, and keep it thus when I send the movie stuff out into its own blog (now anticipating a 2019 rollout).  And towards that end…

Alex is now departed for two weeks, and I took advantage of that to start the whole planning-of-Christmas-decor overhaul.  I mentioned that I was going to go for a kind of rustic homespun repurpose-junk-you-have-around-the-house vibe; so towards that end, I just started the day by pulling out everything I owned that could possibly be pressed into service as a decor element.

Y’all, it’s covering half the floor of the living room.

I have about ten jars of various sizes and shapes; three bags of pine cones; about 20 candle containers, about ten pounds of candle wax (some of it already even colored red), wicks, and a pint of “Mountain Lodge” candle scent to make my own candles; about five iron-look metal candle holders, one of which even is shaped like a spray of pine; a cheap ceramic cupcake tier stand; two lanterns; two sprays of fake greenery; a wood dough bowl; about six baskets; an antique souvenir drinking glass from the Christmas railroad my uncle used to manage when I was a kid; cookie tins in about five different sizes; two bark berry baskets; a bark-covered planter just big enough for two candles; an enamelware pot I found in the street (someone had drilled a couple holes in the bottom to use it as a planter, but then got rid of it); an Ikea planter in white metal that I could make look like it’s enamelware just by touching up the edge with a Sharpie pen; an antique Santa doll that is riiiiiight on the edge between “cute” and “creepy”; a teddy bear that’s squarely in the category of “cute” (it’s in a wee little green coat with matching beret); a metal TV tray that I’ve been meaning to fix up with a bit of paint; and about seven or eight other random collectible Christmas themed geegaws.

I even have craft projects – I stumbled upon a couple tutorials for making wee little skis and sleds out of popsicle sticks, and have the popsicle sticks to make them up.  I just need a pack of jewelry findings.  I’m also going to attempt to gussy up some of my umpteen mason jars with ribbon or burlap or something, and am even entertaining picking up some cheap plain white mugs from my local dollar store and stenciling something on them (a pine cone? a moose? something like that).

I also have only 75% of the top floor of a Brooklyn brownstone to decorate (even though Alex said that he has no objection to decoration, he would probably not look kindly upon my festooning his actual bedroom or office in his absence).  I’m seriously considering temporarily relocating some things to the hall closet to make room.

But that will come after the apartment gets a much-needed deep clean and polish. It’s not a mess or anything, but it could be gussied up some, with an emphasis on organizing and decluttering.  And fortunately it looks like the only things I may have to purchase are those dollar store mugs and a bit of burlap and ribbon.  And a couple of new covers for some throw pillows that I needed to get anyway.

….But you are all in luck (if you wanted to see any of this), because I have a new camera!  After that mishap with my old one, I’ve been in a sort of a round-robin conversation with Colin and my parents (Colin recommending new cameras, my parents hinting heavily that this could be my Christmas gift), and right before Thanksgiving my father discovered that one of the cameras Colin suggested was part of a local Black Friday sale.  My parents have never done the Black Friday thing before, so they got really into the idea of doing it just this once, waking up at midnight and driving two towns over to get it.  We met up this Saturday, and they presented it to me, telling me about the crowd like they were anthropologists presenting a set of findings.  ….I’ve yet to open the box, so I don’t have a picture for you now, but sometime after I’ve given the apartment an initial clean I’ll try to get you the “before” before I deck the halls for the “after.”

The Goose Is Getting Fat

I’m way ahead of myself with Christmas this year.  Partly because I did a lot of gift shopping when I was in Paris in July – I was there during the sales, and deliberately hit up a couple shops and bought things in bulk. And then everything got safely stowed in the hall closet – I’d wait until later to wrap them.  Usually I do a lot of wrapping on Christmas Eve – I always end up traveling to my parents’ house to spend the holiday with the family, and I usually have Amazon mail everything to them there so I don’t have to drag it on the train.

Then came….the election.

And after a week of mourning, I bizarrely found myself suddenly thinking of how I would wrap my presents. I ordered special Paris-themed Christmas wrapping paper, and started hunting down boxes.  Dug everything out of the closet again, dug out a big box of ribbon, and started writing out tags. By Thanksgiving I already had a stack of ten presents piled up in a corner of my room and was already eyeing the toys I set out as a little sideboard display – I couldn’t put them out yet, could I?

I did wait until this week for that.  But I still was getting things done much earlier than usual.  And the whole time, a song from Mame was going through my head – “we need a little Christmas right this very minute…”  Yes. Auntie Mame is what we need now – try to hang on to joy as fiercely as we can. Carpe Gaudium.

I’ve also started preparing for a small Christmas party I’m having, in two weeks.  I’ve bookmarked about twenty cookie recipes and even some candy and fudge recipes, and made up the first batch this weekend – a shortbread thing I make every year. They’re  supposed to be decorated with melted chocolate and walnuts to make them look like acorns, but this time I dug into some crunchy caramel candy sprinkle things I got from the shop G. Detou in Paris.  I had a little flash of “no, I want to save this” and I cringed a bit when I put it away after, noticing it was only a third full now – but then I reminded myself that I was already planning to go back to Paris in the spring, and I could get more, remember?

And then I tried one to reinforce that it was a good idea to use the damn things.  ….And oh my it was.

I’ve bookmarked about fifteen more cookie recipes, three candy recipes, and a couple of small appetizer kinds of things to make for a small party I’m having in a couple weeks, and I’ve also already started some of the make-ahead bites. I’m holding back on the tree for another week yet, but there are some candles and garland greens that are going to start showing up over the next week, and I’ve even got special tins to store all the cookies in as I make them.  I’ve also got the packet of vin chaud spices (also from Paris) ready for when I need it.

Because I predict I’m going to be needing a little Christmas a few more times this month – times when I’ll want to huddle by the window with a cup of something hot and minty or spicy and a cookie to nibble – and hopefully friends to join me.


A Moment

And I urge you to please notice when you are happy, and exclaim or murmur or think at some point, ‘If this isn’t nice, I don’t know what is.’ –Kurt Vonnegut

It’s Thanksgiving evening now. I was home here in New York City – every other year, my brother and cousins and some aunts and uncles all spend the holiday with their in-laws, so my parents and one aunt and I say “to hell with it” and have our Thanksgiving at a restaurant on the weekend. This leaves me free to spend Thanksgiving Day proper at home, wearing nothing but jammies and eating exactly what I want. A made a lentil-pumpkin curry stew, and I made us each dishes of baked sliced sweet potatoes, simmering in a glaze of butter, sugar, and the juice of some fresh cranberries. I also cheated and got a turkey tenderloin that had been packaged with its own marinade – and most likely had been swimming in it for a couple days – and roasted that alongside.

Yesterday at work was thick with office politics, the tension of three peoples’ strong wills being amplified by extra uncertainty; I work for an NGO that resettles refugees, and we have all been swinging between heartache and anger since the election. We also have been floored by a Texas judge’s move to overrule the expansion of overtime – an expansion we started preparing for months ago, and now may have to stop all our work in its tracks. Sometime at 2 pm yesterday my boss sent out word to “leave whenever the Lord places it on your heart”, but the last-minute scurrying to wrap up all essential tasks for the week took me another two hours, so it was nearly my usual time to go home anyway.

Elsewhere my friends are sharing their Thanksgivings up and down on Facebook. Three families I know have new babies celebrating their first Thanksgivings – one wee one is brand new, only about three days old. One friend shared portions of the three-page speech his seven-year-old is writing. Another friend is celebrating her first 5-K run, completed this morning. Others are on a ski holiday. My friend Colin is working over the holiday, running the lights for a stage show on board a cruise ship – but still found a chance to post a photo of his “Thanksgiving meal” of baklava and a capuccino on a balcony in Santorini.

I played a little too fast and loose with money the past couple weeks. I’m not poor – I have enough to make rent, feed myself, and take care of expenses if I am careful – but if I’m not careful, I definitely find myself broke. I’ve been in this state before, though, plenty of times -I fall into the trap of taking cabs home from work, or buying my lunch instead of brown-bagging it, and then the money I budget for myself to cover two weeks lasts only one. I was hoping to see Moana this weekend at some point, but money is tight right now to the point that I may need to wait another week.  It’s my own fault, but not being able to simply see a movie when I want is frustrating beyond belief.

A turned the stew into a thick soup that we’ll be eating for leftovers. There was also leftover turkey, which I’ll be turning into a bunch of other dishes myself. There are also tons of sweet potatoes, potatoes, and carrots in my fridge, and I have three days to turn them into dishes too – things I can bring to work or have waiting for dinner when I get home, simplifying the evening. A enlisted me for help cleaning the fridge out a little today, and I saw some bits and pieces of other food I can use, things that can be turned into pasta bakes and casseroles and tucked into omlettes to further eat. At this moment, though, I’m full.

We still don’t quite know what’s going to happen next year. Regardless what you think of the outcome of the presidential election, it’s inescapable that it’s prompted a lot of anger on both sides. It’s anger that people are not going to be able to just let go – people have been pushed far past their breaking points. The first mis-step of the new administration and some people may snap. The impact of that snap may be small and local – or it may be national. But there will be an impact. The only question is how big it’s going to be.

Maybe it will just be small.  Maybe I’ll be wrong after all.

A is streaming something in her room – either a movie, or an episode of West Wing, which she’s been working through. I have just finished a small chocolate caramel lava cake, something from a mix that I discovered in the back of my pantry (and am not entirely sure how I got). The peppermint tea I just had to settle my stomach a bit is warm in my belly. We got the boiler fixed last night – it was acting up – and the house is comfortably warm against the BQE outside.  I’ll get to sleep in tomorrow and then two more days after, and I’m well fed. There’s a candle making a soft light in the kitchen and a special documentary about Shakespeare on the radio. For the rest of the night, I don’t really have anything to worry about, or even do, except just be.

Yesterday was chaotic, tomorrow is uncertain. Tonight, there is good.


Working Definition

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About 18 years ago now, my Irish friend came to visit me for the first time.  I’d visited her before, and this was the first time she’d come to see me.  It was also the first time she’d visited the United States.  She spent a lot of the first few days staring at everything with wide-eyed wonder, remarking on actually seeing something in real life that she’d seen on television (there was one point when she was trying to hang out of a subway window so she could take a picture of Queens, because “it looks like like Archie Bunker!”), or just staring in mute, dazed paralysis. A few days into the trip, while we were in the cafe for a museum, she gave me a pensive look.  “So tell me,” she asked. “What…what is America?”

I think I actually stopped mid-chew.  “Well, it’s….it’s a country….”

“No, that’s not what I mean.”  She explained that she had a handle on what constituted the Irish cultural identity.  Other countries, too, had their own definite cultural identities – there was something you could point to and say that “that is typically German” or “that is typically Irish”, or French or Italian or Japanese or what have you.  But the American identity had her confused. So what was it?

I was still sitting there mid-chew, thinking. “…I have no idea,” I finally admitted.  And after 18 years, I still have no idea how to answer that.

But thinking about that question every year has become a major part of how I observe Independence Day.  One year I went to Washington DC and thought about it as I paced my way around the Mall just after dawn, contemplating Lincoln’s and Jefferson’s memorials; another year I was in a small town in the Adirondacks, huddled between a young family and a gang of Hells’ Angels watching the fireworks.  Most years I grab one of my collection of American history books and read, and think.  And I am no closer to having the answer.

This year, though, I realized why I don’t have a single answer – it’s because ever since its founding, the definition of “what is American” has been changing.

At the time of its founding, the United States was a conglomerate of former English colonies who basically just wanted to be left alone to do things their own way.  Culturally, though, we were still pretty close to being English.  But soon the new citizens began to ask themselves “what is America” and went through an identity crisis of sorts – right about the time that a vast frontier opened up for us.  Novelists and painters and playwrights started writing about America’s earlier colonial days, setting the stage for the Honest Plainspoken American as our national standard.  The plainspoken, hardscrabble pioneers moving out to the new lands to the west weren’t people seeking a particular lifestyle, they were Honoring Our American Roots.  The simple homespun ways of the pioneers weren’t because of a dearth of goods, they were because Americans eschewed the trappings of artifice.  Even the huge meals that working farmers had to eat were signs of Real Amerian Appetite.

But almost immediately that definition had to change, because there were a couple towns already in that frontier.  Towns where the founders hadn’t been English – but French. New Orleans, along with Baton Rouge and Natchitoches and all the little Cajun regions scattered along the Mississippi, had to count as  American now too.  And so did St. Louis, and Chicago.  And in time, so did towns founded by Spanish settlers – first in Florida, then in Texas, then some bits as far west as California.

And then it changed again as immigrants from even more countries came to find their fortune. Germans and Scandinavians to the northern Plains, Chinese to California, Irish everywhere.

And then the definition had to change again, to accomodate a swell of newly-fledged citizens who’d formerly been enslaved.  They looked different, they thought different, the circumstances of their coming had been very different indeed. It took longer in this instance, but the African-American experience got woven into the definition of America.

And then it expanded again, to include women. Not that we weren’t here all along – but our roles had become limited. More limited, in a way, than they’d been when we were colonists, when shutting out 50% of the minds and strength of the population would have been foolish.  Over time, the definition of American evovled to exclude us – but then it evolved yet again, to include us once again. There is still a ways to go here, too, but at least we are inclued in the count.

And we also had to rewrite the definition again to put back the faces and voices we had tried to erase – in our rush to colonize the new land, we didn’t always consider whether it really was new, or available for colonization.

In time we also had to expand our definition to include other faiths as well – we’d always said we valued religious freedom, but it still took time for the country to accept a Catholic president.  Or a patriotic song by a Jewish musician. Or a Muslim athlete.

And just recently, we had to expand the definition yet again to include a wider variety of sexual preference. Within one single year we went from finally allowing same-sex marriage to establishing Stonewall as a national monument.

With every shift in definition, though, there are those who want to stop it. The shooting in Orlando came just one week before Stonewall’s inclusion on the national registry.  The KKK still rail against Jews and African-Americans; for many, “feminist” is still a dirty word. Trump still talks of excluding Syrians and Mexicans from our country, despite being the grandson of a man who was kicked out of Germany for being a draft dodger.  But even this is par for the course – the Know Nothings were fighting German immigration at about the time Trump’s grandfather was moving over from Germany in the first place.

Fighting to stop change is the wrong idea. This country is too big, too varied, too chaotic for there to be only one definition of “America”, and the Founding Fathers most likely knew that would be the case. The country was painted in broad strokes, with a working definition hastily pencilled in, to give us today the leave to shift and morph and adapt the country into whatever we needed it to be, given the current state of the world. When the world needed scientific innovators, we could be that. When the world needs artists, we gave them that. The world may not have needed more imperialists, but we became that too.  We have been drivers of scientific progress, influencers of geopolitics, crusaders, buffoons, beacons of hope, dictators; a sign of all that is wrong with the world, and a sign of lots of things that are right.

As I write this, one of the best-selling musicals on Broadway is the story of one of the Founding Fathers.  Two hundred and forty years ago, those men – along with most “Americans” – were white.  Today, though, the cast of Hamilton is deliberately mostly non-white – to reflect the faces of the country as it is today. And the music isn’t the classical minuets and English folk songs of Hamilton’s day – it’s hip-hop.  And it wouldn’t have happened if the definition of America hadn’t expanded to include everything that’s come along within the intervening 240 years.

The answer to “what is America” is never going to be set.  It is always going to be a working draft, as pieces get written out, added back, expanded, rewritten, rethought, refined, redrafted, reworked. America is an experiment and we don’t know what it’s about yet.

And so  our best work and most patriotic act would be to keep looking for how to expand the country, who to include. Rather than writing someone out for being the wrong race or color or creed or gender, rather than turning away those who vote Red State or Blue, we need to write them into the definition of who we are, and keep moving forward into the next change. 


Neighborhoods New York Hometurf Holiday Special: Clinton Hill

Alien and Astronaut, 2015

So my neighborhood goes kind of big for Halloween.

The weekend before (or after, depending) there is a whole Halloween parade/fun day for kids in Fort Greene Park, complete with hay rides, a pumpkin patch, and a costume parade.  There’s also a dog costume contest at the north end of the park. And then at night, three blocks close to car traffic and three houses all stage competing stage shows – there’s the family-friendly option and the B-movie-lovers’ option, and then there’s the jazz band that jams on the sidewalk in monster costumes.   Combine that with every kid in the neighborhood running around hopped up on sugar, three ice cream trucks and someone selling glow-in-the-dark toys out of a street cart, and it’s quite the spectacle.

This year was the first time I’d tried to catch the dog show – and I foolishly thought I could just wander over a few minutes after they started.  Surely there’d still be a seat, right?

Ha.  There were over 150 contestants, all crowded on the steps leading down to the stage, with a tuxedoe’d MC and a woman in a kitty costume keeping some kind of order while scores of dogs in various states of dress waddled about.  The MC was already introducing contestant number 28 when I turned up, and I had to walk the long way around the crowd, stopping only to take the occasional picture before finally sitting on top of a wall next to a very friendly boxer, and in front of a French Bulldog with a strange little froggy bark.

Lots of people went with some variant of either cars or food; there was a matched set, a taco and a taco truck.

Taco and Taco Truck (Fort Green Pup Costume Parade, 2015)

There were no less than three Robin Hoods, four mermaids and a handful of dinosaurs.

T-Rex (Fort Greene Pup Costume Parade, 2015)

A lot of people also dressed up along with their dogs; like this “Lion, Witch, and Wardrobe”.

The Lion, The Witch, And The Wardrobe (2015 Pup Costume Contest)

The grand prize winners were a trio dressed as “Animal Control,” with the handlers dressed as squirrels being chased by a pug in a civic uniform with a net.  The Player Piano came in second.

Animal Control (First Prize, Fort Greene Pup Costume Parade, 2015)Player Piano (Fort Greene Pup Costume Parade, 2015)

Things ended soon enough for me to try to get a healthy dinner before heading back outside; as I walked home, I passed small knots of kids already trick-or-treating in the various businesses along Myrtle Avenue, watching for shops with signs declaring “We Have Candy!”  The fishmarket had a hastily-scrawled message on a whiteboard – “All Out Of Candy, Sorry!”

I’d come up with a way to dress up as an angel – a hastily-pinned together thing with bedsheets, a sash, and a store-bought set of wings, with a royal blue sari draped around myself.  It was voluminous enough that I could put on layers underneath and not freeze outside.  My roommate – who is from Belgium, and said this was her first Halloween – declined my offer of a couple of my last years’ costumes, and said she would just observe.  We were on our way down the stairs when we ran into four kids – two from our neighbors on the second floor, and two other friends – who all turned when they saw us, and shouted, “Trick or treat!”

“Oh!”  We hadn’t counted on this.  “Oh dear…well, we angels don’t have pockets,” I said, “So… my angel helper can run up and get something.”  My roommate took the cue and ran back upstairs.  I stalled with some angelic-sounding patter, complimenting all the kids on their costumes; one girl was a phoenix, with elaborate makeup and a huge pair of gold wings, which she unfurled for me to show off.  “And you are?” I turned to a little boy, all wrapped up in green swaddling and green facepaint. Just as I was preparing to guess whether he was Leonardo or Michaelangelo Ninja turtle, he announced, “I’m a Green Mummy!

“Oh!  I’ve…never met a green mummy before, I didn’t know you….could be that color.”  Fortunately my Angel Helper came back with four Kind Bars she grabbed from the house stash and dropped them in each of the kids’ bags, and then we swanned out past them, me telling them to have a blessed Halloween.

 Most of the action was on the show blocks, but the whole way there we still passed clusters of kids with parents hurrying there; some of whom seem to have already gotten into the sugar.  One tiny Green Lantern was engaged in a swordfight with an Iron Man, until their cat-eared mother scolded them to “Knock it off and keep up!”  My roommate had offered to carry my things (angels don’t have pockets), but I asked her for my camera when I saw a kid dressed as an entire red British phone booth, complete with a fake take-a-number flyer advertising a used camera or something.  It even lit up inside.  Unfortunately, when I finally got my camera from her he turned his back to me, and I waited a couple fruitless minutes for him to turn back around to face me before giving up.  Meanwhile my roommate was trying to get a shot of the whole family of mom, dad, and three girls who’d all donned roller skates and light-up LED tubes to go as “Starlight Express.”

"Malice in Underland", Halloween 313 show, 2015

We’d showed up midway through one show, which was a strange mix of Alice in Wonderland with Fantastic Voyage – I think the premise was that Alice had been shrunk down to atomic size and she and her rag doll were now in Cheshire Cat’s body, trying to find their way to his brain.  An interesting idea, but maybe too high-concept in execution.  Right about the time that a bunch of kids in white body suits were trying to crowd the stage and Alice was saying “oh, no, Rags!  Cheshire’s leukocytes are trying to attack us!” my roommate turned to me and said “I don’t know if I get this.”

“Me either,” I admitted.  We went over to the next block, where Pam Fleming’s band was just wrapping up with “Monster Mash” before segueing into a slow blues jam about Satan coming for you and your woman.  It was near time for the second show to start, and I studied the set.

Set for Waverly Place Halloween Show, 2015

In years past, this show just used two side-by-side garages, one of which had a remote-control door opener; this year was their last show, so they went all out and made it bi-level, complete with full sound, neon lights in two separate languages and a video screen.

Set, 2015 Waverly Place Costume Parade

This block’s show always would go for the over-the-top gore and the B-movie monsters – lots of fake blood, fart jokes, and jump-scares.  For their final outing, they decided to go all-out, with a subplot about a roving reporter who’d devoted the past ten years to studying the “strange Halloween events of the past decade all fortelling a 2015 apocalypse”.  After a pre-taped review of all nine previous shows, he retreated to his “hotel room” at the top of the set, and the show then hit us with four classic movie monsters – Frankenstein, his Bride, Godzilla, and Wolfman, all rampaging through the set and fighting each other.  As soon as they showed up, about five parents towards the front who’d had kids perched on their shoulders started edging their way back away from the stage, all their kids in full-throated scream-cry mode.  The rest of the kids were a little baffled, and stayed so when Godzilla rampaged through a cardboard set of Brooklyn, squirting something out of a tank through the rear end of his costume.  “He’s pooping!” I heard one father in the crowd explain to his child.

Dracula, 2015 Waverly Place Halloween show

Dracula also showed up, as did a little girl in an Exorcist homage complete with bleeding walls and puked-up pea soup.  The show even sent our hero to hell, where he competed in a parody game show against past shows’ heros for a chance to be restored to life – but then he, and the world at large, was saved by Ultraman.

Ultraman, 2015 Waverly Place costume show

Only as soon as he got back to Earth, the Wolfman ate him, in a fantastic spray of fake blood.  The end.

Pam Fleming was starting up again as the cast took their last bows, but my roommate and I turned for home.

Neighborhoods New York: Fort Totten Halloween Special

I really should come back and do Fort Totten properly another time.  But this was too goofy to miss.

Fort Totten is one of the loads of forts scattered along New York’s harbor – built during one war or another, rendered obsolete, and consigned to a landmark or park status.  Fort Totten was built during the Civil War, and the original design for the battlements was far grander than what stands there today; but halfway through construction, it was becoming apparent that the Confederate Army probably wasn’t going to come quite so far north after all, so they scaled back a bit, and the “fort” ruins now occupy a small part of the shore overlooking Little Neck, on the northeast shore of Queens.

But that’s just the fort proper.  The area around it was a military base for a good while as well, complete with officers’ houses, a chapel, rec buildings, a workshop, an infirmary, an armory, and an officers’ club that ironically was designed by Robert E. Lee.  Most of it is now a city park, with some of the buildings used as training centers for city police, and a couple museums in some of the old buildings.  Rangers give tours of the fortification and battery itself.

But the weekend before Halloween, the rangers have a little fun and throw a different kind of tour.

The ads I’d seen said that the tour ran from 6:30 to 8:30; I thought I was doing well getting there just before 7.  But the line for the tour was already long and loud and boisterous, about fifty people huddled on the path down to the battery’s gate.  Four rangers kept order, waving us all into line and counting us off into groups, warning us not to use flashlights inside, and working the crowd.  One ranger was actually dressed in a full werewolf costume, and was asking kids in the line if they wanted him as a guardian.

I was in line a good 15 minutes, admiring the view of Bronx across the harbor as the line gradually shuffled down to the gate.  The rangers were all taking turns leading groups of about 20 of us through at a time, and our guide reminded us all one last time to not use flashlights, to stick together, and when a couple of kids said they’d been there before, he asked them not to spoil any surprises for the rest of us.  After winding us all up a bit, he led us in, giving us a potted history of the battlement during the five-minute walk to the fort itself.  He also wove in stories of a construction accident while they were building the fort, “and so that’s why we always see spooky things every year about this time…”  We all paused at a second gate.  “Okay!  Everyone ready to go in?”  All the kids shouted “yeah,” the adults laughed, and in we went.

To be honest, it was your typical “haunted house”, with lots of fake cobwebbing and spooky lights and costumed people jumping out and shouting “boo”.  But the path lead us through the creepy ruins of the granite fort, complete with iron-barred windows and dark winding passages and dim alcoves, which gave everything a genuinely creepy feel.  Midway through the tour I realized that I was outpacing everyone else in the group by about five feet, and turned around to see they were all cowering.  “What, you’re sending me out to die alone??” I teased them.

Except then a guy dressed as a zombie jumped out beside me and I screeched and hid behind the ranger.

The whole tour was more of a startle-then-laugh thing, though.  The rangers were clearly into it, hamming it up for all they were worth; a few other rangers scattered throughout were dressed as Ghostbusters and were there to keep order and calm down any genuinely-scared kids, and the path was strewn with loads more people dressed as mad scientists and witches and zombies and ghouls cavorting through the fort and jumping towards us and grabbing us and making spooky noises and generally having immense fun.  Our trip through the fort was short, but it was goofy.

There was one sincerely creepy moment, though – at the very end of the tour, we had to walk through a long tunnel, which they had pitch black except for a small pin light every ten feet or so.  “Just follow me through,” our ranger told us all, “just follow the sound of my voice!  There will be a light at the end of this tunnel, I promise, and then we’ll be safe!”  I was more worried about stumbling in the near-darkness, and was moving slowly, trying to feel for a handhold along the wall.  And soon I did see a light – or, at least, a lightish patch of something in the tunnel.   And then it got closer and I saw it was a glowing face, hovering in the air and coming towards us.   Once it got close enough I could see it was a glow-in-the-dark mask, slung against someone’s chest; still, it was spooky enough that I edged away from it, and a couple people behind me also squealed at the sight.

But then a teenage voice scoffed out of the dark just above the face.  “Really?” it said.  “Really?  People, I’m on my break.”

 The tunnel opened up beside the fort’s visitor’s center – closed for the night – and the ranger lead us all up the driveway and out, shouting out quick directions to where to catch the city bus home.  “Thanks for coming, and have a happy Halloween!” he chirped.   I asked him a couple questions before I left myself; was this an annual event?  “Oh, yeah, I think they do this every year, always the weekend before Halloween.  I wouldn’t know for sure, though, I’m from a Manhattan park – they just needed extra help this year!”  He told me that usually they saw about 400 people a night – but so far this year, they’d had a turnout nearly three times as high.

“You look like you’re having a blast, though,” I said.

“Oh, yeah.  They always get people to come help – from Manhattan like me, or Staten Island…even the people inside, those are mostly local kids who volunteered with our nature program.  Well,” he laughed, “we couldn’t get them too interested in nature for these past couple weeks, though.”

I was actually halfway to the main gate and on my way off the grounds when someone stopped me to ask where the “haunted castle” was.  “You mean the fort? I think it’s back that way…”

“No, I did that,” they said.  “I’m talking about the castle thing. You know, the mansion?”

I had no idea what they meant, but another passerby did, and gave them directions; I followed them a few paces behind.  We ended up at the old officers’ club, current home to the Bayside Historical Society, which was running its own haunted house.  Except this one was charging admission.  “Five dollars, please,” he woman by the door asked me.

“Oh….I only have two.”  The woman just eyed me.  “Um…you don’t take a check, do you?”

“No, afraid not.”

“oh….”  I turned to go; I hadn’t planned on visiting anyway.  “Well, thanks anyway.”

But a young couple behind me stopped me. “You don’t have cash?” the guy said.  “Don’t worry, we got ya.”  He handed money to the woman, saying “party of three.”  Grateful, I tagged along with them.

It was a similar case of costumed-people-jumping-out, but the museum’s rooms let them set up a few tableaus as well – a “funeral” room where a woman in a mantilla urged us closer to a coffin, so a guy in a zombie mask could sit up and roar at us, or a closed-off “autopsy room” we could peer at through a window only to see the “cadaver” was alive and begging our help.  A team of kids were the costumed zombies chasing us on the porch, but as soon as we were safely through the door they all dropped the act and went back to being kids just hanging out.  Still, it was all too much for some of the little kids;  we were going through the house just behind a young family, with a kid of about seven; when they got to the funeral room, I saw the kid take one look at the woman in the mantilla and beeline right over to the next door, passing by the whole room completely.  “Come see the dead guy!” she implored to his back, as he totally ignored her.

The house tour ended in a hall where witch-hatted women sold snacks and small toys like glow-sticks and light-up rings, and encouraged people to “take a selfie with the zombie” – a mannequin dressed in raggedy tuxedo and a zombie mask.  My new friends were heading over to the zombie, but I stopped them – “I got just enough for two candy bars,” I said.  “Can I get you guys some?”

“Really?” the guy gushed.

“Dude, you got my admission,” I said, fishing my money out.  In the end they only got one Hershey bar , and all three of us helped ourselves to a free “Halloween treat bag,” a plastic bag festooned with a toy skeleton keychain.  After taking turns taking each others’ pictures with the zombie, we bade each other goodnight and I wandered out to find my way back to the bus home.