“Are you looking for something?”

The man in the black pants with the tzitzit strings hanging out could tell that I was getting frantic.

“Is there a yarmulke around here somewhere?” I asked, referring to the religious head covering that every male must don upon entering the synagogue.

My voice came out in a disembodied squeak.  This was not me speaking; this was someone else entirely. At the age of 55, I had become a child back in yeshiva again, about to be punished for my forgetfulness.

For me, the most difficult part of attending an Orthodox Jewish elementary school was wrapping my brain around the cultural gap of Grand Canyon-like proportions between what we were taught during the day and what I went home to at night.  After attending a Chabad Lubavitch synagogue service yesterday, I am forced to conclude that nothing has changed in the past half-century.

Back then, my mother kept the kosher laws, although my father, an atheist, did not.  Neither observed the Sabbath or attended synagogue.  Today, along with my Christian wife and Pastor Mom, this Jew boy lives in the parsonage of a Pentecostal church.  Then as now, I am torn between two worlds.  But here I stand, about to participate in the Shabbat service of an ultra-Orthodox congregation that hearkens back to the days of my childhood.

The man on the patio opened the door and entered the sanctuary, returning momentarily bearing a black skullcap.  I thanked him, but I couldn’t look him in the eye.

I know I have a yarmulke here somewhere.  Before leaving the house, I searched our bedroom to no avail.  In the car, I turned the glove box upside down, pissing off my wife royally in the process.  No yarmulke.  But I knew there was no way on earth that I was going to walk into that synagogue bareheaded.

With my head now covered, I meekly entered the rear of the sanctuary, trying my best not to be noticed.  No such luck.  I looked at the floor, but still couldn’t help but catch multiple pairs of eyes following me, attempting to be nonchalant.  I was a few minutes late, and the service was already in progress.

We had left the house early enough, but the convoluted directions provided by Google Maps left us lost somewhere in a subdivision.  We finally called upon Siri on my wife’s iPhone to set us back on the right path.

My next mission was to find a tallis, the black-and-white prayer shawl that Orthodox men wear during Saturday services.  Most regulars bring their own, but there are always a few around for the benefit of those who are without.  I found two or three talletim folded neatly on a table in the back.  They were the heavy, woolen kind, like the ones my grandpa wore during the winter in New York.  Only this is springtime in California.  As I shook out a tallis, I could already feel the itchiness creeping up my neck.

I wrapped the tallis around me as best I could, even though it was way too long for me.  This must be designed for a six-foot guy, I thought.  I sat in an uncomfortable folding chair in one of the rearmost rows, fortunately finding a siddur (prayer book) abandoned on the seat next to me.  As the reader droned on the p’sukei d’zimrah (opening prayers) in Hebrew, I flipped through the book in hope of recognizing some familiar words that might guide me to the correct page.

There were more than twenty men in the room, twice as many as are needed for the minyan (quorum) that must be present before the Torah scrolls can be removed from the ark.  The folding chairs were lined up four abreast on either side of a center aisle, a long line extending from the patio doors in the back all the way to the reader’s platform at the front.  I looked over to the four chairs across the aisle, which abutted the makhitzah, the tall latticed divider that split the room in half.  Although I couldn’t see them, I knew that the women of the congregation sat on the other side.  A few plants, probably fake ones, trailed over the divider.

To my left were three bookcases pushed together against the outer wall of the building.  Scanning the shelves in an effort to make it less obvious that I didn’t know where we were in the service, I noticed the presence of multiple copies of various versions of the prayer book, khumashim (Bibles) and a number of volumes that I did not recognize.  Tehillim was the title of one.  Wait, I know what that is:  Psalms.  Scanning my brain for translations that hadn’t been called for in a long time, I was able to cobble enough words together to realize that this book was about the laws of the Sabbath, that one was a volume of Talmud.

Eventually, the rabbi called out the page numbers that we had reached in the “red” and the “blue,” references to the colors of the bindings to the two different versions of the prayer book that were on hand.  Of course, I recognized the Shema (“Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is One”) and the Ashrei (Psalm 145), although the latter was read at such lightning speed that I hadn’t gotten through half of it before the reader was on to the next prayer.  Everything was in Hebrew, not at all like the Conservative and Reformed congregations that are more familiar to me, where many of the prayers are read in English.

Then it was time to take out the Torah.  We all stood and the familiar melodies of my childhood brought me back to a warm and comfy place in which I knew all the Hebrew words by heart.  Or perhaps the heat I was feeling was more attributable to the rising temperature of a room full of people, relieved only by the occasional breeze of the rear door opening and closing.  I took out my handkerchief and mopped my brow, happy that my sweat was not because of nerves this time.

The two Torahs, dressed in their finery, were carried up the aisle.  I touched each of them with my prayer book as it went by, then touched the book to my lips.  The ritual of kissing the Torah.  I asked the guy in front of me to reach me a khumash as the reader began the prayers introducing this week’s Torah portion, the final verses of Exodus.  Rather than follow along with the reading, I read the entire portion in the English translation, then went back and began to read it in Hebrew.

Taking a peek at the table of contents, I noticed that my khumash included not only the Pentateuch (the five Books of Moses), but also the five megillot (a Hebrew word meaning “scrolls”).  Now, when I hear the word megillah, I think of Megillat Esther, the Book of Esther that we read on the festival of Purim (coming up in two weeks).  I didn’t know there were four others!  Sure enough, the list included the Song of Songs, Lamentations, Ecclesiastes and the Book of Ruth.  Of course, Ruth!  The book we read on the festival of Shavuot in June!  “Your people shall be my people and your God, my God.”  It was all coming back to me now.

While my nose was in the Bible, a gentleman whom I hadn’t noticed before slid up to me and asked me my name.  I told him.  Noticing the perplexed look on his face, I asked him if he wanted my Hebrew name.  He did, so I supplied it.

Next thing I knew, the guy sitting behind me was trying to get my attention.  “Psst!  You’re being called to the Torah!”

It’s not like there aren’t plenty enough men present whom they could call up to the Torah.  I’ve never been here before and these people don’t know me from Adam.  But I guess I should have figured that this would happen, as there is a tradition (stretching back to Abraham in the Book of Genesis) that the stranger in your midst is to be honored.  As to my efforts to blend into the woodwork:  Fail!

I’d been tugging and tugging on my tallis the entire time I had been sitting there, my best efforts unsuccessful at balancing the huge thing evenly about my shoulders.  If I stood up for a prayer, I would step on it.  When I sat back down, I would sit on it.  I got to my feet and began walking up the aisle to the reader’s stand, having narrowly avoided tripping over the tallis and falling on my face as I got out of my seat.

The prayer that is uttered before reading each section of Torah was printed on a laminated page on the reader’s desk.  The rabbi pointed to it and I began reciting.  “Wait!” he said.  I had totally forgotten that first I had to help unroll the scroll and touch my tallis to the first word that would be read.

Then it was time, and I sang out the familiar tune in as loud and clear a voice as I could muster.  I followed along as the cantor sang the verses, after which (I learned) it was time for the refuah sh’lemah, the prayer for healing.  This particular congregation has the tradition of offering the prayer individually for each person coming to the Torah — and for his family.  The cantor asked for my Hebrew name again.  I supplied it and then stood there dumbly.  I didn’t realize that they wanted me to name my family members.  After being gently coached by the rabbi, I said “my wife, my mother, my father, my sisters.”  I felt like an idiot, or like a Miss America contestant who was expected to intone “and world peace.”

As I returned to my seat, I heard a few men call out “Yasher koakh!” (congratulations) and I embarrassedly mumbled thanks.

The service continued and I began to feel pain in my lower back from alternating standing with sitting in a hard chair.  I continued to struggle with the recalcitrant tallis, noticing that it was quite stained, whether with tears or with wine I knew not.

After the regular service ended and a psalm was read, a brief discussion among the men ensued in which it was decided that they would proceed to pray the afternoon service immediately rather than returning to do so later.  I’d been too afraid to pull out my phone to check the time (simply not done in an Orthodox synagogue), but I turned around to look for a clock and noticed that it was nearly 1:00 pm.  I made a haphazard attempt at folding the giant tallis, left it on the back table and slipped out the rear door.  I had been there three hours and I knew my wife would be waiting for me in the car.

My wife could have attended the service, of course, but she is not at all comfortable sitting away from me, on the other side of the mekhitzah with the women, a non-Jew among ultra-Orthodox strangers.  I was glad to hear that she had taken a ride and picked up some breakfast.

“They’re not even done yet,” I told her as soon as I entered the car.  “They’re going to do the afternoon service and then first have Kiddush.  I think we should have our Kiddush at Olive Garden.”  My wife smirked and I knew there would be minestrone and salad in my immediate future.  “You stole their yarmulke,” she pointed out.  It was then that I realized that the black skullcap was still on my head.

While we were eating, we suddenly heard the voice of one of the servers boom out from across the room:  “Attention, Olive Garden!  We have a very special birthday in the house!  Please join me in singing to Ruth, who is 94 years old today!”

We looked over to the table at which the server was standing.  Along with the birthday girl were four or five of her friends, all very snazzily dressed, all of whom looked to be over the age of ninety.  My wife and I were both smiling broadly as we sang along and joined in the applause.

Happy birthday, Ruth!


Merry (Jewish) Christmas


So.  Christmas Eve already, huh?

Having grown up Jewish, I harbored mixed feelings about Christmas for many years.  Even now, after fifteen years of marriage to a Christian woman whose mother pastors an evangelical church, Christmas doesn’t come naturally to me.

As a child, my family did its best to ignore Christmas even though it was, of course, happening all around us.  We had candle-lighting and latkes on Hanukkah, but we kept it very low key.  None of this eight nights of gifts stuff that is so popular now.

We lived in a suburb of New York City that had a very large Jewish community.  The public schools remained notably neutral, with holiday decorations almost nonexistent.

Then, in my junior year of high school, my mother took a job in the central Hudson Valley.  We had only moved about fifty miles away, but it was a bit of a culture shock.  Suddenly, I was in a high school that had tinsel draped across the hallways, colored strings of blinking lights, Santas, reindeer and the whole shebang.  I was a little uncomfortable at first, but my heart sang.  This was just so beautiful and it made me smile.

This was a huge high school (it was a quarter of a mile from one end to the other and was populated by well over 2,000 students), and I had heard a rumor that there was one other Jewish student in attendance other than my sister and myself.  I never did meet him.

I kept running into walls that I didn’t know were there.

When a fellow student asked me which was my favorite Christmas carol, my answer was something along the lines of “Um…”  Does Maos Tzur count?

I tried out for and was accepted into the school’s musical theater production.  One day I noticed that everyone seemed to have disappeared before a rehearsal.  As I went around looking for my cohorts, I opened a door and found them all crammed into a room holding a prayer meeting.

I made an effort to explain about being Jewish, but it was too foreign of a concept to resonate with my fellows.  I did my best to fit in, which wasn’t too hard since the holiday season was upon us and I was thoroughly enjoying the Christmas spirit.  I tried to remember not to mention this at home.

When my wife and I were married, we made a conscious decision to “keep things neutral.”  No crosses or Stars of David.  No Christmas or Hanukkah decorations.  This worked out just fine for a number of years.  Then my wife’s niece came to live with us while she was in high school.  My wife felt she had to give her a Christmas and I completely agreed.  We unpacked my wife’s boxes of tinsel.  We found a tiny artificial tree that fit well in our apartment.  And I caught myself smiling again.

I have long believed in the value of multiculturalism.  When I first moved from the east coast of the United States to California, I didn’t know what a tortilla was.  But I learned.  Somewhere along the line, I also learned most of the words to “White Christmas,” “O Holy Night” and a lot of other Christmas songs.  And I don’t think anything of eating tacos with my kugel.

But you know what?  This past Sunday was the second consecutive year that I was present for the annual Christmas service at our humble little church.  And this was the second consecutive year that I represented our extended family by singing songs in Hebrew.  Last year, I stuck to Maos Tzur, but this year I performed an Israeli folk song and a much-beloved melody from our Sabbath synagogue service.  By the comments I received, everyone seemed to enjoy it.

Over Thanksgiving weekend, my wife and I traveled to the Central Valley to spend Hanukkah with my family.  And tonight, family and friends will gather at my sister-in-law’s house (with its beautiful Christmas tree) for popcorn, hot chocolate and Christmas movies.  Don’t be surprised if the board games come out and someone cranks up the karaoke machine.  In the morning, we will open gifts while the Christmas music plays from the docking station in the living room.  Later on, we will have Christmas dinner.

And I know I am going to enjoy every last minute of it.

Peace on earth, good will toward men.

Merry Christmas, everyone!


Daily Prompt: Or is the New I (The Whichness of What)

Today’s Daily Prompt challenges bloggers to go over to a favorite blog and pick out the fourth and fourteenth words to complete the phrase “___ is the new ___.”

I knew right away that I would cast my lot with A Clown on Fire and hope that one of the two critical words wasn’t an embarrassing swear.  (I still love you, Eric, even though you have an insufferable potty mouth.)

Well, didn’t I just draw the booby prize?  Apparently, “or” is the new “I.”

I could have laughed at the ridiculousness of this, proceeding to another blog post haste.  But that would be cheating, and what kind of example is that to set for my fellow bloggers?

My predicament is reminiscent of a story my father likes to tell of his elementary school days in New York City during World War II.  All the men were off fighting in the European and Pacific theaters and every teacher was of the female persuasion.  Most of them were “old biddies,” as Dad tells it, doddering meanies who, in better times, would have long since retired.

These were teachers who, turning red in the face when a student misbehaved, would shake the hapless kid by the shoulders and yell at the top of her lungs: “What sort of family do you come from?  What sort of parents do you have?  Were you raised in a barn??!!”

Now, my father reports that he enjoyed playing pranks and showing off his sassy mouth just a bit too much for the teachers’ refined tastes.  For example, when sternly told “Take your seat!,” he would lift the chair off the floor and, with an innocent expression, ask “where should I take it to?”  As you may imagine, his ability to engender mirth and merriment made him rather popular with his classmates.

Of course, there were consequences.  Among the worst of the punishments he experienced was being required to stay after school to write an essay on “the whichness of what.”

I have often wondered how I would attack such a task.  As “whichness” is itself a nonce word, I suppose it could be assigned any meaning desired, à la Lewis Carroll or Edward Lear.  Perhaps influenced by the approach of Halloween, I rather think I would misspell the word as “witchness” and write a good old fashioned ghost story.

But I digress.  More important subjects beg our attention.  After all, or is the new I, you know.

“Or” is the epitome of choice, and choice is what we all want, isn’t it?  Not according to the current Ford Focus commercial, “And is Better.”  And here I was thinking that we resent having things forced on us, that we want to be the ones who get to choose.  Apparently, I am wrong.  We don’t want choice — we want it all!  To hell with “or;” we want “and!”

But what of the “I,” the ego, the self?  If, contrary to Ford’s assertion, or (not and) is the new I, then we have allowed the overwhelmingly desire for choice to completely take over our identity.  Instead of seeing ourselves as a teeming mass of family background, education, hopes, dreams and loves, we have given it all up for the privilege of choice.  Tell me not who you really are, instead tell me what your choices were and which you selected.

Personally, I’ve always seen myself as something of a rebel, at least when it comes to choices.  Forget Choices A, B, C or D.  Just mark me down as “none of the above.”


Daily Prompt: Home Sweet Homeless

home sweet home

My parents retired from their professional careers in 1994.  They took a year to fix up their suburban New York house, sell it and move to California.  This was the house in which I grew up.  We moved out of a fourth floor walkup in the Bronx and into this brand new home in Rockland County when I was six years old.  Except for four years in college and a stint in graduate school, I lived there until I was well past the age of thirty.  For all that time, the downstairs family room had my mother’s framed embroidery displayed proudly on the wall:  “To know how sweet a home may be, just lock the door but keep the key.”

By the mid-nineties, my sisters were both married and had moved west to Silicon Valley with their engineer husbands.  They started having babies and my parents decided they wanted to be a part of the lives of their grandchildren.

When they retired, I happened to be working in the composition room of a publisher of dozens of local real estate magazines.  You know, the ones with all the pictures of houses and the highly abbreviated captions:  4 BR, 2½ BA, EIK, FDR, motivated seller!

I felt a pang in my heart the day I saw a grainy black and white photo of my childhood home in one of our paper bound books that had just come hot off the press.

And that’s when I decided to quit my job and move to California, too.

I camped out on my sister’s couch for about four months until she kicked me out.  Then I moved in with my other sister.  Turned out Silicon Valley was not exactly the Promised Land for those of us without engineering degrees.

My parents had placed all their belongings in storage.  They were living in a hotel while they looked at houses all over the Central Valley.  Should they buy an existing house or have one custom built the way they did thirty years earlier?  “We’re homeless!” they told me.

I hadn’t thought about this story in years, but it came back to me a couple of months ago when I learned that I’d be laid off from my job and that we’d have to relocate.  One of my employees asked me whether my wife and I were going to “move back home.”

Like my parents twenty years ago, my first thought was “We’re homeless!”

But instead I carefully chose my words and said “there really isn’t any place that I could honestly call home.”

We moved to the desert from Fresno more than three years ago, but we certainly weren’t going back there.  In any event, we lived there for only four years, so I wouldn’t consider it home by any means.  Before that we were in Modesto, which is where my wife and I were married.  As a single guy, I moved all around New England and back and forth to New York.

My wife and I had an interesting discussion about this.  “I guess I would call California home,” she told me.  This makes sense, as she was born here in the Golden State and has never lived anywhere else.

Does this mean that I should call New York home? Michelle W’s Daily Prompt post asked “when you’re away from home, what person, thing or place do you miss the most?” Thus, to answer my own question, I would need to decide whether there is any person, thing or place that I miss in New York. I can honestly say that there is not.

I haven’t seen my childhood home in 18 years now, although I can mentally map every inch of it.  But I wouldn’t want to go back there.  A few years ago, I found a picture of it on Google Maps’ Street View.  I didn’t even recognize it.  It had been painted a different color and tall trees had been planted in front.  I had to check twice to make sure it was the same place I had lived in for three decades.

I have no desire to return to that locale, which is a good thing, because my memories no longer jibe with reality.  As they say, you can’t go home again.

Did I say home?  Maybe New York really is my home.  I have few relatives on the east coast and therefore have little incentive to visit.  It’s been so many years since I’ve been back there.  I keep telling myself that one day I will go back, if only to show the old stomping grounds to my wife.  And it is with dread in my heart that I know the day is likely to come when I will have to return for a funeral.

We have a family plot in that colossal cemetery that goes on for miles out by LaGuardia Airport in Queens.  Do those graves mean that this my real home?  I remember the Hebrew and English names carved so carefully into the granite and how we always left little pebbles atop the polished headstones, as if to say “we were here.”

So, at least for today, I would have to say, as my wife does, that California is my home.  It’s where I hang my hat.  It’s what my driver’s license says and where I get my mail.  But in a real sense, I am “in California” but not “of California.”  On the other hand, I hail from New York but have no longer have any current ties there.

I am reminded of the abandoned dog who shows up unwelcomed on a stranger’s front porch.  The owner steps out the front door and claps his hands to chase the dog away.  “Go home!”

And where exactly would that be?


The First Boy Babysitter in Spring Valley, New York – Part Two

Continued from yesterday:  An excerpt from my memoir work-in-progress, Walking to New Jersey.

“The Pop Tart Malfunction” is part 2 of a chapter titled The First Boy Babysitter in Spring Valley, New York.  I hope you enjoy it!  All comments and suggestions welcomed.

By the time I reached the middle of my sophomore year of high school, I realized that the flame of my old junior high babysitting dream still burned brightly and that the only way to consummate this desire was to get off my ass and go do something about it.  So on a cold Saturday afternoon in January, I pinched a handful of index cards that I knew my mother kept in the big hutch in the dining room and wrote my name and phone number on each, along with BABYSITTER in capital letters.  Then I pulled on my parka, woolen hat and mittens and told my parents I was going to take a walk down the street and back.

I stuck the cards in the pocket of my winter coat and zipped it up so that no one would suspect anything or know what I was up to.

I walked a block or so, passing Stella Drive and entering the “new development,” a place where most of the houses were occupied by families with young kids and where I wouldn’t be likely to run into anyone I knew.  I was more than a little embarrassed regarding what I was about to do and I certainly didn’t want anyone from Ramapo High going around blabbing to their friends about how I must really be a girl.

We hadn’t had snow in several weeks; the sky was clear and an icy breeze blew straight down the new sidewalk as if making an effort to follow me on my rounds.  My heart beat out of my chest each time I walked down a driveway, approached a door and rang the bell to pass out my handwritten card to some wanly smiling mother or father who would really rather have been left alone to the weekend chores.  They humored this fat kid bundled up against the wind, some admiring the spunk of a prospective entrepreneur, others just wishing I’d get lost.

When my index cards were gone and my cheeks and toes felt entirely numb, I hurried home and hoped for the best.  Maybe one of those nice couples would have an event to attend on a Saturday night and their regular babysitter would already have another gig and no grandma or aunt would be available to step into the breach.  I didn’t obsess about it; it was as if I had taken a test and now there was nothing I could do but wait for the grades to come back.  Besides, I wanted to remove myself somewhat from what I had just done.  Perhaps if I pretended that it never happened, no one would know.  Well, my parents and my sisters knew, but as far as I was concerned, no one else needed to know until I started getting calls for jobs.  Then everyone would be proud of me and maybe even a little jealous because I’d be making my own money.  Patience, I knew, was the key.  I figured the black wall phone in the kitchen would have to ring eventually.

Only it didn’t.  Not to be deterred, a few weekends later I made up some more index cards and tried again.  This time I went in the other direction, trudging halfway up Alexander Avenue and then up the big Harmony Road hill before I started ringing doorbells again.

I finally hit pay dirt.  A divorced woman on Trinity Place had two little boys and needed someone to be there when they got off the school bus every afternoon and to watch them until she arrived home from work a couple of hours later.  And she was willing to pay a dollar an hour, which I thought was a small fortune.  From eavesdropping on the girls at the bus stop, I   knew that the older ones were getting 75 cents per hour and the younger ones only 50 cents.  What I didn’t yet know was that I was going to earn every penny.  For the time being, however, I was overcome with joy.  I had done it!  Now I had to prove to the world that boys could be successful babysitters, too.  Why should girls have all the fun and make all the money?

I immediately reread my Baby-Sitter’s Guide — twice.  I had kept it stashed clandestinely under my bed for more than two years.  The author suggested bringing a special babysitter’s bag to each assignment.  The bag, she explained, should contain some toys and games to keep the kids amused in case they get bored or cranky and you start running out of ideas.

My first stop was the broom closet in the kitchen, the place where all the folded-up grocery bags lived beside the broom, the dustpan and the cleaning brushes.  But it wasn’t a paper bag from Waldbaum’s I was looking for this time.  I wanted something a little more classy for my first job.  I pulled all the bags out onto the kitchen floor tiles until I found just what I had been looking for.  Hiding in the back was a plastic shopping bag that my mother had brought back from Florida.  It was green and white with the logo of Britt’s department store emblazoned on both sides.  I raided my own closet as well as the big double closet in Becky and Ruth’s bedroom, harvesting a checker set, an old picture book and some coloring books and crayons.  Little did I know that, before long, the checkerboard would be torn down the middle, several checkers would go missing, the crayons would be broken in pieces and the coloring books would be scribbled on in purple and green.

And these were good kids already.  It’s just that Scott and Jason were four and six years old.  I was fifteen years old, and each of those boys independently had far more energy than I did.  Sharon Sherman’s book notwithstanding, I really had no idea what I was getting into.  I jumped in blindly and figured things out as I went along.

My boys were latchkey children from a very early age.  Jason carried his house key on an elastic cord around his neck, much as my sisters and I did.  After being cooped up in school all day, they tore off the bus at the corner, running as fast they could up the grassy slope of lawn (or the driveway in winter) to unlock the front door.

The first order of business was always a snack.  Scott and Jason were creatures of habit; each day, their mother left three Pop Tarts on the kitchen table, one for each of the boys and one for me.  We’d unwrap, toast and eat.  Dishes went in the sink and the boys were off to watch a half hour of cartoons, lying on the floor in Mom’s bedroom.  Once Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck and Porky Pig had done their thing, the show belonged to me.  At least I thought it did.  It didn’t take too long before I learned that it was entirely their show and that I was little more than a pawn in this operation.

We’d do whatever the boys wanted to for the next hour or so.  This could involve crawling around on all fours to give piggyback rides up and down the hallway, wrestling and roughhousing on the carpet, or on the rare occasion when I was very lucky, playing a board game from their huge stash.

For a little while, my employer had a man named Vince living in her home.  I never figured out whether he was a boarder or a boyfriend.  He was always just — there.  He generally stayed downstairs and did not bother us.

One day, I nearly set the poor woman’s house on fire.  Let’s just say that we experienced a Pop Tart malfunction.  I don’t know whether it was an electrical problem or perhaps the toast crumbs hadn’t been cleaned out in a while.  All I can say is that the toaster became stuck.  And I mean really stuck.  And I couldn’t unstick it.  The Pop Tarts were burning black, smoke was starting to fill the kitchen, and I was unable to force those toaster handles up.  I pulled and yanked at the plug in a desperate attempt to separate it from the outlet before we all went up in flames.  By this time, both boys were yelling “Vince! Vince!” and, horrified, I joined in the chorus.

Just then, that dastardly plug popped out of the wall.  Fortunately, none of the houses in our neighborhood had smoke detectors back then.  Vince finally climbed halfway up the stairs to the landing and poked his head up.  I assured him that everything was okay, we had it under control.

From the time I stepped off my own school bus in the afternoon, I had about 40 minutes before I had to meet the boys up the hill at their house.  After a while, my initial feeling of responsibility waned.  With everything in my Britt’s bag destroyed, I didn’t bother to bring it anymore.  In fact, I didn’t bother arriving at the boys’ home on time after the first couple of months.  I knew they would let themselves in and would be munching their Pop Tarts or watching Bugs and the Road Runner whenever I sauntered in.  I knew I’d get my dollar regardless.

After about four months of babysitting every weekday afternoon, I decided I had had enough.  My excuse for quitting was that I had final exams to study for.  I had already stayed a month longer than I wanted to, but I kept putting off my departure for the sake of those boys.  At the end, I was dragging myself up the hill every day.  On my final day, I felt a little guilty about abdicating my responsibilities, but mostly I just felt liberated.  Free to relax when I got home from school every day!

The dollar bills had piled up.  I would throw them loose in the top drawer of my dresser until I had built up an impressive collection.  The funny thing was that money didn’t mean anything to me in real terms.  There was nothing in particular I was saving for, nothing I dreamed of buying.  I just wanted to have some money of my own in case.  That is, in case I had a hankering for something that my parents didn’t want to buy for me.  What never occurred to me was that:

  1. My parents weren’t going to allow me to purchase anything that they disagreed with, whether the money was mine or not.
  2. When I did ask my parents for something special, they would remind me that I could now buy it with my own money if I wanted it that badly.

This wasn’t working out the way I had planned.  Not at all.


The First Boy Babysitter in Spring Valley, New York – Part One

Fellow bloggers,

I have been working for some time on a book-length memoir of my New York childhood.  Now that I am getting closer to completion of the manuscript, I’d like to offer a two-part sample of Walking to New Jersey for your perusal.  Today: “My Secret Desire,” part 1 of a chapter titled The First Boy Babysitter in Spring Valley, New York.  I hope you enjoy it!  All comments and suggestions welcomed.

Author’s Note:  All names have been changed.

With the Baby Boomers hitting junior high school age, many of our eighth grade classes were quite large.  Mr. Pettigrew’s English class in Room 109 was no exception.  Although this gang wasn’t quite as rowdy as what Miss Donnelly had to contend with the previous year, there were times when it seemed that more socializing than learning was going on.

As for Miss Donnelly, I wondered what had happened to her.  As I was half in love with her, I was disappointed that I didn’t see her around the school.  Room 116, in the alcove across from Mr. Pettigrew’s class, was where Miss Donnelly taught last year.  This year, however, the only teacher I saw going in and out of that classroom was Miss Rosenbaum.  I didn’t know anything about her, but I wanted to be in her class.  You see, she was young and beautiful, with palpitatingly gorgeous flaming red hair that hung straight down past her ass like a horse’s tail.  I would inwardly sigh as her tresses went swish, swish as she walked by.  Not only was I a sucker for redheads at a young age, I thought she could be a model for a modern-day Rapunzel, or just a model, period.

Girls were an enigma to me.  For the most part, I ignored them, treated them as part of the wallpaper.  They were just there, and the less I had to deal with them, the better.  There were female teachers, there was my mother, and of course, I had sisters.  No big deal.  But then, there was the other thing.  It was hard to ignore a pretty face, the Miss Rosenbaums of this world who knocked your eye out with floor-length orangey locks.

To most of my agemates, women were about one thing only, and no two ways about it.  Girls were a deep, dark, tantalizing mystery, an encoded message they were just dying to crack.  In my case, however, my wonder and curiosity were tainted with a heavy dose of Orthodox Jewish guilt.  What saved me from the grip of obsession, to which many of my classmates had given themselves over heart and soul, was the fact that I was inordinately late to develop physically.  Although I appreciated a kind word and long, red hair, I didn’t yet have the benefit of raging hormones to drive me off the deep end.

As much as I enjoyed reading a good book, most of what we covered in Mr. Pettigrew’s class didn’t interest me very much.  We studied Greek and Roman mythology and I put on an extremely lame skit with two of my classmates for which we cut a lightning bolt out of cardboard and played the role of Zeus hurling it.  We read Henry Wadsworth Longfellow and I memorized a stanza of “The Highwayman.”  I found memorization to be quite challenging, so I was flabbergasted when I learned that my father could recite the whole darned poem by heart!

As ho-hum as Mr. Pettigrew’s English class was to me, it wasn’t too far into the school year when I discovered with delight that, however unlikely it might seem, this class was going to help me progress toward my Secret Desire.

I wanted to be a babysitter.

My Secret Desire was not something to which I would readily admit for the simple reason that this activity was securely ensconced in the clubhouse labeled GIRLS ONLY (all others keep out).  For a boy to express an interest in such a thing was simply Not Done.  It would be akin to expressing an interest in makeup or Shaun Cassidy.  I would be laughed right out of junior high.  And, of course, more than anything else I wanted to be taken seriously as an upstanding officer of the Student Council.  So I kept my Secret Desire under wraps, at least for now.

We were a few weeks into the fall term when Mr. Pettigrew passed around book sale order forms.  Students were encouraged to look through the brochure of offerings from Scholastic, pick out some books for leisure reading and bring money from home to pay for them.  Perusing the selection, I didn’t find much to interest me, certainly nothing that captured my attention sufficiently to warrant cajoling my parents for money.  Then I saw it, and it stopped me cold.  Baby-Sitter’s Guide by Sharon Sherman, featuring Tizzy Teen cartoons by Kate Osann.  It was as if someone had read my mind.

Ohhhh, I get it.  Of course!  This wasn’t meant for me; it was for junior high girls who were considering following their older sisters into the entrepreneurial world of suburbia.  Teenage babysitters were an essential commodity in our little corner of the world.  Without girls willing to work on the cheap, how would harried parents ever get a Saturday night out on the town?  So it made perfect sense that there would be a manual that explained to girls exactly the thing that I wanted to know how to do.

I knew what I had to do:  I asked my father for three dollars to order a book through my English class.  I hoped he wouldn’t ask a lot of questions, and he didn’t.  He opened up his wallet and handed me the money.  It was fate, destiny, bashert!

When the books that my classmates had ordered arrived a few weeks later, I snatched mine as quickly as possible, hoping no one would notice the title.  I hid it inside the cover of another book and stashed it in my bookbag.

The timing could not have been more perfect.  It was the day before the school holiday for Yom Kippur, and I smiled thinking of the treasure I had scored.  I had to hold myself back from taking a peek before I got the contraband to the safety of my bedroom.

Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, was a very solemn holiday, and always a trial for kids.  The adults were fasting and irritable, and we had to go sit in boring old synagogue with them for hours on end.  When we’d finally get home, the adults wouldn’t be paying much attention to us and we’d have to amuse ourselves.

But this year was special for me, for two reasons.  For one thing, this was the last Yom Kippur before my bar mitzvah.  This meant that this was the last Yom Kippur for the rest of my days on this earth that I would not be obligated to abstain from eating and drinking for 27 hours or so. With my bar mitzvah a mere four months away, however, I was eager to show that I was ready for my new adult responsibilities.  When I refused to eat any breakfast just like the adults, my mother humored me.  We walked to shul, where we spent about five hours while the hazan chanted and droned his way through the Morning and Additional Services.  Then my mother walked the mile or so home with the three of us.  I can’t remember any year when we returned for the Afternoon Service.  However, my mother expected my father to walk back to synagogue for Ne’ilah, the Concluding Service and then to walk home again after hearing the blowing of the Shofar that announced that we could break our fast.  By this time, however, my father had started refusing to go.  As a nonbeliever, he simply had no interest and was tired of going just because my mother wanted him to.

My mother usually prepared food in advance for the three of us so that we could eat lunch and she could lie down and continue her fast until the sun dipped below the horizon and three stars were visible.  My father would usually be sitting on the porch when we got home, and he’d go take a nap with my mother.  This year, I refused to eat anything.  My mother became mildly upset and urged me to eat several times.  When I staunchly refused, however, she didn’t push the issue.  I, too, went off to bed, but not to sleep.

And this was the other reason that this Yom Kippur was important to me:  I pulled my secret out of my bookbag, crawled under the covers and began to read.  I knew I wasn’t supposed to read anything but the holy books on Yom Kippur, and perhaps indulging myself in this pleasure was proof that I had a way to go before reaching adulthood, but this was an opportunity I was not about to forgo.  I knew that no one was going to bother me to go anywhere or do anything for at least four hours and my agenda was set. I read through the entire book and stashed it under my bed for further reference, as if it were a girlie magazine I was trying to hide from prying eyes.

I haven’t seen this book in more than forty years, yet I still remember the author’s advice on dealing with fights between children:  Avoid descending to their level.  Don’t yield to the temptation to throw a few punches of your own!  I read Sharon Sherman’s book cover to cover many times and to this day remember the ending.  If you ever catch yourself chanting “rain, rain, go away, come back another day,” perhaps you have not yet lost the magic carpet of childhood from under your feet.  I was mesmerized by that statement.  Yes, yes!  She was talking about me!  Here I was on the cusp, still a child of twelve but about to be bar mitzvahed and assume the mantle of religious adulthood.  I had one leg planted on either side of the border and I was ready to spring forward into the unknown.  I knew I had what it takes to bust out, to break the mold.

I would be the first boy babysitter in Spring Valley, New York.


Tomorrow:  Part Two – The Pop Tart Malfunction


Grandpa’s Jokes

A week ago my calendar reminded me of a holiday called “Grandparents’ Day.”  It’s not that I don’t believe my trusty calendar, but I can’t recall any such holiday in my childhood days.  I was crazy about my grandparents, and as far as I was concerned, every day was Grandparents’ Day.  Despite my suspicions that the day is being marked as a means of generating revenue for Hallmark and other tchotchke mongers, I will mark the occasion by sharing some of my standout memories of my years with my maternal grandfather.

I was always closer to my mother’s parents than to my father’s parents, both emotionally and geographically.  When I was really young, we all lived in the same apartment building, us on the fourth floor, my mom’s folks on the ground floor.  I barely remember my grandmother; she died just before I turned six.  My grandfather remarried and moved to another building about a block away.  We moved to the suburbs the same year, but even then, we were only about 30 minutes away from Grandpa R.  As for my paternal grandparents, they lived two hours away in Connecticut until they moved to Florida when I was ten.

To my cousin, he was always Grandpa Gus, but I don’t think he’d mind me calling him Grandpa R.  After all, he did wear a belt buckle with a big R on it.  In his younger days, I am told, he enjoyed singing, playing the mandolin and harmonica, and telling jokes.  He was a big fan of Jack Benny and Jackie Gleason.  The telling jokes part stayed with him into his later years.

Several months might go by without us seeing each other, but this did nothing to diminish our special bond.  Even after he stopped driving, if there were a family event in the offing, I knew he’d be there.  We’d make arrangements to trek down to the Bronx and pick him up.  He traveled to upstate New York with us to attend my high school graduation and my college graduation.  My Florida grandparents lived too far away to attend.

Grandpa R came over on the boat from Poland in the 1920s.  Fifty years later, his speech still bore a distinct Eastern European accent and was peppered with Yiddishisms. This made his jokes funnier, particularly when he punctuated the punch line with a spirited “woo-hoo!”

Many of Grandpa’s jokes were more along the lines of witty observations than what you might expect to hear from a comedian.  For example, he enjoyed drinking seltzer (a habit I continue), which he always referred to in Yiddish as greps-wasser (“belch water”).  To this day, I can’t pour a glass of club soda without thinking of that.

Unwrapping a fresh loaf of rye bread from the corner bakery, he’d feign a serious look and tell me “if you eat bread for a hundred years, you’ll live a long time.”  Groaners like these were his stock in trade.  I thought they were horribly corny, but even as I rolled my eyes, I couldn’t help but crack a smile.

I can no longer remember all the details of an extended shaggy dog story he would tell me about a man who came over from the Old Country with extremely limited English language skills. Even though the man ate out in restaurants most days, he was sick of being served the same meal every evening, regardless of which restaurant he visited.  It turns out that he thought the English phrase for “food” was “epple pie und coffee.”

Grandpa had a small scar on his forehead in the shape of a circle.  As a kid, I would ask him how he got that hole in his head.  He’d say he didn’t know what I was talking about.  “The scar,” I’d clarify, thinking he didn’t understand what I was asking.  “A scar?” he’d ask, feigning shock, “I need a scar like a hole in the head!”

“How do you know when it’s time to go to the dentist?” he asked.  “I don’t know,” I’d reply, more than a little annoyed.  “Tooth hurty!” he’d shout with glee.  He could see by my face that I was clueless.  “Tooth hurty!” he’d repeat.  Blank stare from me.  Then, real slowly, he’d say “Twooooo thirty!”  Oh geez, I’d think, I should have known.  That’s Grandpa for you.

Grandpa R has been gone for 33 years now, but I don’t need a special holiday to remember him by.  His birthday was September 7, and I never fail to think of him and relive our wonderful times together every time that date rolls around, year after year.

Happy birthday, Grandpa.  Yom hu’ledet sameakh.


The Joys of Adulthood


I really enjoy being an adult.

It seems that everyone else wants to be a kid again.  Sorry, but I don’t.

Adulthood gets a bad rap, undeservedly in my opinion.  I haven’t figured it out yet, but I suspect this has something to do with American worship of youth culture. 

Back in the sixteenth century, Ponce de León searched the tropics for the mythical Fountain of Youth.  We’re still searching.

I’ve noticed that the Dylan song “Forever Young” (usually the Rod Stewart remake) keeps popping up on TV sitcoms and commercials.  The mall features a shop named Forever 21.  Anti-aging treatments and wrinkle creams make fortunes for the cosmetics industry.

The message is unmistakable:  Older is bad, younger is good.  And teenage is best of all.

Even the very word “adult” has taken on negative connotations.  If you patronize “adult bookstores,” then you are a perv.  If you partake of “adult beverages,” then you are a lush.  And if you are a fornicator who cheats on your spouse, then you have committed “adultery.”

Although it has been more than three decades since I joined the ranks of adults, I began thinking about our antipathy toward adulthood recently when my wife and I were cleaning out a closet.  As we made piles of junk to sell, donate and recycle, I ran across an old issue of an employee newsletter from a job I worked many years ago.  The front page featured an article under the byline of one of the executives, titled “I Want to Be Six Again.”

The piece began with the author’s declaration that she is resigning from adulthood to accept the position of a six year old.  She then proceeded to go on and on about the virtues of being age six, from preferring M&Ms to money because the former can be eaten, to watching television for pure enjoyment rather than to procrastinate from tasks she should be doing, to assuming our loved ones will be with us forever because we have not yet learned the concept of death.

Well, call me a rebel, but I must emphatically state that I do not wish to be a six year old again.  Honestly, it wasn’t so great the first time around.

What do I remember about the age of six?  Let’s see, I turned six in the middle of the first grade, at which time I attended what I would characterize as a fundamentalist religious school.  To summarize the philosophy taught there:  If you enjoy doing it, it’s a sin.  I learned about the methods of capital punishment used in the Old Testament (stoning, strangling, burning at the stake, etc.) and I came home threatening to try them out on my sisters.  My father allowed me to take a sip of his coffee (which I liked) and his beer (which I didn’t).  I became a TV addict, watching the boob tube every minute I could get away with.  I memorized the commercials and begged my parents for Lincoln’s “two true flu-fighting flavors.”  We lived on the fourth floor of a hundred year old New York City walkup that was infested with millions of cockroaches.

Then we moved.  My parents bought a house in the suburbs, but only after we spent every weekend for months on end driving out there to look at one new subdivision after another.  I was bored out of mind.  The move put me in an even stricter religious school.  I began chastising my parents for being unholy sinners who thumbed their noses at everything the Bible commanded.

No, I do not wish to be six again.

When I was six, I did not know what tortoni was, or tofu, tiramisu, Tolkien or Tolstoy.  I had never heard of Bach, Beethoven, Balzac, brie, burritos or baklava.  I had never tasted pita bread, Portobello mushrooms or papaya.  I hadn’t yet played a game of tennis, used a computer, earned a paycheck or attended a wedding.  What I did do regularly was pee the bed and cry over every little thing.

I suppose it must have been nice to never be left alone, but I didn’t appreciate being watched every second and being told exactly what I could and could not do.  I did not enjoy being spanked when I became persnickety and would not cooperate with the agendas of the grown-ups.  I prayed a lot because I was told to, although I didn’t really understand what for and, frankly, all that praying was starting to bug the heck out of me.  I definitely preferred playing to praying.

When I was six, I did not get to jump in the car and drive to the beach on the spur of the moment just because I felt like smelling the salt air.  I did not get to hold meetings, write memos and tell my employees what to do.  No one asked my advice, no one cared what I thought, and I had to be in bed by eight o’clock every night.

When I was six, my little sisters and I had to share a bedroom.  I did not get to share a bed with my loving wife, nor to whisper to her my innermost secrets and talk over future plans for hours.  I did not get to pick out the furniture, choose the house in which I would live or even decide what to have for dinner.

No, thank you, I refuse to go back to being six years old.  I enjoy being an adult, even with all its responsibilities, uncertainties, hospitals and funerals.

So if you want to be six years old again, have a good time.  As for me, I refuse to resign from adulthood.  I may not earn a perfect progress review every year, but here I will stay until the Lord sends me a pink slip.




You don’t know me.

You may think you do, but you don’t.  You say you want to get to know me?  Fine.  Here are some things you need to do for starters:

  • Be six years old.  Fall in love with Hershey bars, ice cream sandwiches, orange soda.  Anything containing sugar.
  • Be much slower than your little sisters due to weighing three times as much as they do.  Have your father instruct them to run circles around you then knock you down and sit on you.  Have him film this and play the Super 8 movie back for years to come.  Later, tell him that he was mean.  Have him respond that he wanted a funny home movie instead of just boring kid pictures.
  • Be eight years old.  Have parents who force you to step on the bathroom scale.  Watch the look of horror on their faces when they see that you weigh twice as much as you should.  Listen to the vile phrases that come out of their mouths.  Learn to hate your body.
  • Be ten years old.  Overhear your grandparents having a fight with your parents.  Understand that the argument is about you and why you are not “under a doctor’s care” and taking weight reduction drugs.
  • Participate in a school poetry contest on the theme of not wasting food.  Ask your father for help and have him suggest the phrase “get fat like a barrel and roll down the street.”  The next year, have him help you write a poem titled “I Love to Eat, Obviously.”  Be sure his nickname for you is “fat, fat, the water rat.”
  • Wince when your mother yells “I’m gonna put you on a starvation diet!”  Hide cookies under your bed.  Sneak into the kitchen in the middle of the night to steal ice cream, donuts, cupcakes.
  • Have kids make fun of your weight on the school bus.  Make sure they come up with clever rhymes for your first name.  Have them ask you whether you will pop if they stick a pin in you.  Cry to your father and listen to him tell you that “sticks and stones will break your bones but names will never harm you.”
  • As a teenager, have a grandfather who asks you why you can’t do somersaults and hang upside down from the swing set like your sisters.  Ask him for a double chocolate ice cream cone from Friendly’s.
  • Have your mother hiss at you about embarrassed she is that you are a boy with “titties.”
  • Go clothes shopping with your father.  Find nothing in your size.  Have him tell you that you need to visit Omar the Tent Maker for a custom made outfit.

Once you have done these things, you may begin to know me a little better.  To really understand me, however, you will also need to struggle with your weight and an obsession with food all your life, then develop diabetes, high blood pressure and heart problems in middle age.  Force yourself to ride a stationary bike.  Hate every minute of it.  Have fights with your mother about this, as if you are eight years old again.  Apply for jobs, then watch the disgust register in the employer’s eyes when you show up for the interview.  Don’t get hired.  Notice that your peers don’t sing cruel songs about you on the school bus anymore, they just whisper about you behind your back now.  Pretend you don’t hear them.

And if you truly want to know what it is like to be me, you will boycott Southwest Airlines, Samoa Air and Abercrombie and Fitch.

Why these three?  Because they don’t want the business of fat people.  They are already so successful that they can take a discriminatory stand against us and pass up our money.  To them, we are lepers, untouchables, with whom they do not wish to be associated.

Southwest Airlines, well known for its cheap flights, is also known for requiring fat people to purchase two seats, and more recently, for having kicked a member of the fat community off one of its flights and for claiming that the obese are “too fat to fly.”  Southwest even has a name for us.  We are “customers of size.”  I hate flying, but when I do next buy a plane ticket, I will gladly pay extra to shun Southwest in favor of another airline that is less hateful to the overweight.

As for Samoa Air, their fares vary greatly from passenger to passenger these days.  You see, they have a “pay as you weigh” or “pay by the kilogram” policy.

And then we come to Abercrombie and Fitch.  They have announced that they are taking a stand against obesity by refusing to carry clothes larger than size ten.  Like Southwest Airlines, they apparently don’t need our money.  Plus size women just aren’t cool enough for them.

Fortunately, something is being done about Abercrombie and Fitch’s despicable weight discrimination.  Watch this video to learn about the movement to donate Abercrombie clothes to some of the most needy among us, thus making Abercrombie and Fitch the premier clothier of the homeless.  Not only is this a good cause, but it might make the company think about which would be the most detrimental association, plus size women with money or the inhabitants of Los Angeles’ Skid Row.

And if you’ve really gotten to know me now, you’ll tell Abercrombie to go fitch themselves.


My Crazy, Addicted Scrabble Tournament Life

Let's Play

My parents owned a Scrabble set since the 1950s, but I cannot recall ever seeing them play the game.  The three of us knew that it was stored in the big bottom drawer of the hutch in the dining room, with the cancelled checks, newspaper clippings and the pieces of my mother’s old Monopoly set.

Occasionally, my sisters and I would ask permission to pull out the Scrabble box.  We had some fairly imaginative ideas of what could be done with it.  We didn’t play Scrabble; we played with the Scrabble set.

We’d display one of the racks on the living room carpet, lay a candle in its cradle and refer to it as Candlewood Lake (a place I had seen on a map).  We would set out the tiles in curving lines to represent a path, not unlike the slate path just outside the front door of our house.  We’d set the mauve board in an upside down V to represent a roof or a house or a tent.  We would make up fanciful stories to go with our Scrabble props.  This was a lot more fun than spelling dumb old words!

During my college days, I played many dozens of games of Monopoly and backgammon, but never Scrabble.  I had forgotten about the game.

In fact, twenty years went by before I rediscovered Scrabble.  After Donna and I, two certified Internet addicts, were married, we began playing Upwords and Tangleword online.  We bought another computer and a few games on CD.  Among them was Hasbro’s Scrabble for Windows.  After that, there was no turning back.

For our first Christmas, one of the gifts I bought for Donna was a tiny ring box that looked like a folded Scrabble board, colored squares and all.  Inside was a tiny Scrabble rack holding itty bitty tiles.

Not too long after that, Hasbro updated its electronic Scrabble game, much for the worse in our opinion.  The formerly snazzy board now sported an ugly dark border and the speed of the game slowed down to a snail’s pace.  When I complained to Hasbro, they indicated that we could return the CD with its jewel case to the place of purchase for a full refund.  We did so.

That’s when Donna discovered the Internet Scrabble Club (, then as now the best place to play realtime Scrabble online.  I was instantly hooked.  I was able to choose my level of competition — not too easy, not too hard.  And I was able to play with opponents from all over the world.  Once we offered up $20 for a paid membership, I was even able to play against “the bots,” ISC’s artificial intelligence that guaranteed that I would have a worthy opponent any time of the day or night.  When I worked the swing shift and returned home well after midnight, I knew I could still get in a couple of games.

I kept hearing online that there were people who got together IRL to play Scrabble.  I kept signing up for a theoretical local Scrabble group on a site called Meet Up.  Only problem was that the meets always were canceled due to lack of sufficient interest.

Many of my coworkers were book nerds like myself, and I frequently asked what they were reading.  One night, I saw one of them had a book with an unusual cover; square cut-outs revealed Scrabble tiles beneath.  The book was Stefan Fatsis’ Word Freak, and I immediately ordered a copy.

This fascinating book introduced me to the world of Scrabble clubs and tournaments.  I just wished I lived in area where such things were available.  Before long, I switched jobs, we moved, and I found myself in a city with a weekly Scrabble club that met at a local pizza joint.  After joining this group, its members regaled me with stories of distant Scrabble tournaments they had attended.  Just like in the book!  I knew this was something I had to do.

I started by attending a Sunday afternoon Scrabble tournament in California’s Bay Area, about a five-hour round trip.  Several of us from the club would pack into a car and cruise down the highway studying Scrabble words densely printed on index cards.  The idea was to identify the “bingo,” the seven-letter, rack-clearing word that netted players a 50-point bonus.

“AEINSTZ!” the reader in the front passenger seat would call out.

“ZANIEST, ZEATINS!” would come the response from the back seat.

I was amazed at how on earth they managed to accomplish this feat of mental gymnastics.  Soon, I learned the secret.  It was a matter of studying, I was told.

Studying what?  Studying endless, lengthy lists of words.  It turns out there are particular letter combinations that occur over and over, are likely to be drawn out of the tile bag, and hence are worthy of the time to memorize.

I bought a study book and started with the most basic combination, TISANE.  These six letters combine with nearly every letter of the alphabet to create multiple bingos.  Initially, the list seemed mind-boggling, but in a few months, I was able to recite “TISANE + A: ENTASIA, TAENIAS.  TISANE + B: BANTIES, BASINET.  TISANE + C: ACETINS, CINEAST.  TISANE + D:  DESTAIN, DETAINS, INSTEAD, NIDATES, SAINTED, STAINED.

It took me about six months to memorize just the first word list (and there are hundreds of them), but I learned that, with enough repetition, I could do it!  More than that, I found that I had become “one of them.”

I had turned into one of those crazy Scrabble addicts that Stefan Fatsis had written about.  I was still losing most of my games, but I also won a few.  I realized it wasn’t about winning or losing, however.  It was about the love of the game.

As a bookish nerd, it didn’t take much for me to fit right into the Scrabble culture.  And a culture it is.  Spending hundreds of dollars and driving hundreds of miles to reach one Scrabble tournament, I could hardly wait for the next one.  And at every tournament, we, the far-flung competitors, greeted each other as the best of friends before competing fiercely against one another across the board.

We might be in Reno or Phoenix or Portland or San José.  We might be in a hotel ballroom below the crystal chandeliers or in a pizzeria, picking pepperoni off the board.  The location didn’t really matter, however, as we were together doing the thing we loved.

We were home.