So Say the Winos, Part 7

Marcia began grilling the girls in her best professional voice. Where had they come from?  How would they make money?  So on and so forth.  She finally ended with “…and you have to admit, coming to New York City not knowing anyone or having a place to stay is a very bad idea.”

“Thus sayeth the Social Worker!”  Daniel quipped as the bedroom door squeaked tenuously open. What emerged was a lawyer.  Of that fact, Daniel was 99% sure.  Brooks Brothers suit, well-shined shoes, monogrammed shirt, and a smug, superior look on his wishy-washy face.

“This is Bill, a friend from work,” Marcia reported clinically of the man.  “Bill, Daniel is the younger brother of my best friend in high school.  He has a tendency to appear without any warning but he’s harmless.  And these young ladies are in need of a place to crash for the night.  I guess you’d call them, castaways.” th

“Castaways, hey?  Like in Gilligan’s Island, ha!”

His joke fell so flat that not even Marcia attempted a giggle. Across the courtyard the chanting ballooned in intensity as though gallons of orgasmic god juice had been thrown upon the Institute.

“Shit, those Krishnas have gotten loud.” The lawyer continued, “Are they always like that?”

“Only until the moment of a shared cosmic orgasm, which — I’ve been assured in triplicate  — can only be achieved if you chant Hare Krishna and spin in circles for several hours.  After that, they’re quiet.” Daniel replied.

Marcia chuckled as she walked to the kitchenette to make a pot of tea.  Looking for chamomile, Daniel thought as he watched her.  Always chamomile in the evening.

“The noise ordinance specifically prohibits any sound louder than a trumpet at this hour and I’d say they’re getting close.”  Bill the Lawyer reported.

Again no one responded and so he continued to another subject, “So, Daniel, you and Marcia grew up together?  You’ll have to tell me what she was like when she was a little girl.”


My favorite slimy lawyer – Jerry Orbach in Chicago.

Aha! A married lawyer.  A married lawyer, playing around, Daniel assumed.  Did Marcia know?   He clutched the ironing board and, using it as a pulpit, began: “Beware of the leaven of the Pharisees, which is hypocrisy. Nothing is hidden that will not be known.  Whatever you have said in the dark shall be heard in the light, and what you have whispered in the private rooms shall be proclaimed upon the housetops.” 

The lawyer looked to Marcia for explanation. 

“You should have heard him when he was a true believer,” she began.  “My God, all the girls adored him. Once his mother held this overnight retreat for troubled teens and the girls cornered Daniel in the kitchen.  His sister and I had to come save him!  Remember that Daniel?”

Before Daniel could repudiate her story, the lawyer said.  “Well listen, man, I could have never hacked it as a priest either.  All that abstinence BS.”  He stopped to check the time.  “Oh shit!  Is it 8:45 already?”

“Wife and child expecting you?”  Daniel asked.

“No, sorry Daniel.  Not married.” He replied, waving the naked ring-finger of his left hand as he grabbed his overcoat, “Listen, I’ve got to catch the nine o’clock express.  I’ll see you in dependency court, Marcia.  Good luck girls.”  With that, he left.

  “A fellow social worker?” Daniel asked, as he watched the lawyer try to make his way through the throng of Krishna disciples who’d spilled out into the courtyard for air. He stopped to talk to one of them. A mistake. Daniel laughed. “Looks like he’s trying to explain the noise ordinance to the Krishnas.”

He’s a public defender.” She mumbled.

“I knew it. Still going for that house on Long Island. Shall we try to save him from the Krishna’s?”

th-4“No. He can handle them.” Marcia absentmindedly replied and then quickly she changed the subject, “Listen, girls, I have to be at work very early tomorrow morning so, you can crash here on the floor for tonight but tomorrow you have to find another place, okay? I can help you, if you want, but you’ll have to find another place.” Mumbling their thanks, the girls dropped their things to the floor and slumped onto the resulting pile. They looked exhausted but relieved as they removed wet coats and kicked off shoes.

Daniel took a deep breath. His mission was over. “Daniel, are you staying here tonight too?” Marcia asked as she pulled mismatched cups from the cupboard. She was so predictable. Every event ending with a tea ceremony and a heart-to-heart. Something without caffeine, seductive, relaxing and healthy, of course.

“No, I have to go. I have things to do.” He replied, walking to the door.

“What things? Why haven’t I heard from you for over a year?” She snapped, “I was worried you know. What have you been doing?”

“I think this line of questioning falls into the same category as ‘why are you screwing men you hardly know and don’t care about,’ don’t you?” The teakettle began to whistle. Why had he said hurtful words to her? What right did he have to judge anything she did? He walked over to her and muttered an apology “Their throat is an open grave, they use their tongues to deceive. The venom of asps is under their lips, their mouth is full of curses and bitterness. Their feet are swift to shed blood and in their paths are ruin and misery.”

She smiled. “You bastard.”

“Thank you.” “

You really know the Bible.” The Catholic’s daughter needlessly pointed out.

“If I remember correctly, Romans.”

“Why didn’t you become a priest?” He knew she would ask that question. It was always the first thing out of a girl’s mouth when they’d found out he’d been a seminarian. Particularly a Catholic girl. Before he could say something snide, Marcia intervened: “He didn’t want to be Daniel, Beloved of God.”

And she was right.

th-2Dear Readers – I’ll be back on October 20th to introduce Martin, who for reasons you’ll soon see could well have been the Devil. What do you think?  Does the Devil exist or is it all a fantasy developed by the church to keep worshippers in line?  That’s what I used to think.

Happy October!

So Say the Winos, Part 6

“My God, Daniel. How long has it been?” Marcia’d slipped a flowered house dress hastily over her hair. On any other woman it would look drab and shapeless but not on her. “I thought you’d finally given up on New York City and gone to live on Walden Pond.”andrewwyeth-siri-large

“No. I’ve been here. Well, around.  Here.”

She spotted the girls and turned her questioning eyes on him.

“You remember what it is to be adrift in this city without friends?” he asked. “It hasn’t been that long.”

“My God Daniel. I haven’t seen you in over a year and now you show up with three runaways?”

“A year? No, that’s not possible. It hasn’t been that long, certainly not in meaningful days and you can’t count my useless days – for which I’ve had many – against me. For the angel who talked with me came again, and waked me, like a man that is wakened out of his sleep.”

“Daniel…” She smiled. “Still hiding behind scripture.”

He’d forgotten how petite and fragile she was, especially considering the type of work she did.Venus of the Sewers came to his defense.“Daniel saved our lives! We were completely out of gas —we had no place to go. We would have been killed or worse.”

“He can’t help himself. He’s a Jesuit.”

“Was…was a Jesuit. No longer.”

“That’s right Daniel, I forgot. Now, you’re the Anti-Christ. How old are you girls?”

“I’m eighteen. My name is Bronte and this is Claire and Fiona.” Venus began, referring first to young Eleanor Roosevelt and then to the Catholic’s daughter.

“Bronte? That’s an unusual name. Did you make it up? You don’t look eighteen. Are you runaways?”

“No, we’re not runaways. And I really am eighteen. We’re musicians. Claire and I play the guitars and Fiona sings and she’s got a really good voice, just like Cher. We tried getting jobs in Montreal but the Canadians wouldn’t give us work permits cause there are too many Americans up there trying to avoid the draft. So we came down here.”

“To New York City? Do you know anyone in the city? “

They shook their heads no. “See, even stupider than we were when you came here to save the world and I came here to escape from God.” Daniel perched himself on the extra-wide window casing. In front of him was an ironing board, one that never got put away.

The girls still stood by the door uncertain of whether they’d be asked to stay.

“Escape from God? Is that what you’re calling your mother these days,” Marcia laughed.

th“Heretic!” Daniel returned. Her face, despite years spent in New York City working on hopeless causes, had not changed. It was still springtime and fresh air. Freckles swam across her nose like wandering stars, making her look much younger than she was. Meanwhile his hairline receded, the lens in his glasses thickened each year and the grime of city air had rendered his complexion dull and grey. He remembered the first time he’d met her. She’d come with his family to see him act badly in the annual Passion Play. He loved how happy his sister’d looked. They were Irish twins and as children had been inseparable; able to read each other’s thoughts and feel each other’s pain. When he went away to seminary she suffered. He could feel it. But she’d finally found a friend, a friend who would treat her mother’s direct line to God the same way she did – with a scoff.

But he’d underestimated his mother.


So Say the Winos, Part 5

The shadows came to life as men, women and even children, all ignoring the light rain and oncoming cold as they rattled forearms and ankles overgrown with silver and gold

“This is the International Society for Krishna Consciousness,” Daniel said in answer to their unspoken question. “Marcia lives in a carriage house in the back. Why? You might ask. It’s cheap and soon you’ll find out why. By the way, don’t look the Krishnas in the eye or say anything to them. Just follow me closely.”


“They’ll latch onto you sweet young things and before you know it you’ll be shaving your heads and panhandling at the airport.” They laughed. But he wasn’t kidding. They were just the sort of recruits the Krishnas loved.

They plunged into the crowd, riding wave after wave of humanity until being washed inside the institute where the light momentarily blinded Daniel. The chanters inside were even more intense.  Dozens upon dozens spun mindlessly into each other, so absorbed in the coming rapture that they paid little attention to the four strangers elbowing through their midst like salmon swimming upstream. Men sat on the floor slapping bongo drums and rattling tambourines as the stench of burnt cooking oil and sandalwood incense filled the air. Hare Krishna, Hare Krishna, Krishna Vishnu, Hare, Hare — chanted again and again until eyes glazed over.

Daniel had to herd the bewitched girls out of the front room and down a long hall where the god-stoned bounced around like billiard balls on a pool table, in and out of the candlelit rooms where they slept. “We were lucky,” he said as finally they exited the back door. “They’re having some sort of celebration. Once they get started, they’ll keep going until they all fall over from sheer exhaustion. Then they wake up, get on their street clothes and go to their day jobs.”

“You’re kidding!”

“I’m really not kidding. I’ve seen people leave that place in the morning in business suits, carrying brief cases. Investment bankers on Wall Street during the day. Krishnas at night.” Daniel joked as they followed him across the cobblestone courtyard separating the Institute from a two-story carriage house. Marcia’s place on the second floor was dark which was worrisome. However, the doors to both the stairwell and to the flat were unlocked. That was a good sign.

“Marcia thinks the Krishnas will protect her,” he chuckled, as they entered the flat. “She never locks her door.”

th-8Looking around he also recognized the sparse furnishings: the two beanbag chairs they’d sewed together over popcorn and beer one night and a wooden coffee table left behind by a previous tenant for obvious reasons. The clincher was good ole Che, still hanging on the wall next to the kitchenette. It was a poster of Guevara that she’d had since college, the dead revolutionary, young, handsome, and dangerous. The only light in the room came through a line of curtain-less windows facing the Krishna Institute. In the distance you could see the lights of the city.

“Marcia?” He called as he flipped on the light over the kitchenette. In response he heard two sets of voices coming from the bedroom. She wasn’t alone. What made him think she would be? She was attractive, young and smart after all. There’d been a brief moment when he thought if she could get past the fact that he was her best friend’s younger brother and that along with him came his mother, well, then maybe. Maybe, they could be more than friends. But who was he kidding. He couldn’t, wouldn’t inflict his mother on someone he cared about.

“It appears we’ve stumbled into something,” he said to the girls who now stood just inside the door dripping on the worn carpet. The Catholic’s daughter caught his meaning. She was the tallest of the three and model-thin. Black hair hung from a perfect widow’s peak to her waist, her skin was milky and her eyes a vivid shade of blue. Compared to her, Venus looked less goddess-like and more like the sturdy tomboy of the neighborhood. The third girl reminded Daniel of a young Eleanor Roosevelt.

The mumbling from the bedroom continued. “Marcia?” He repeated.

“Is that you Daniel?” Was the response.

“No, it’s Che Guevara.”

So say the Winos, Part 4

Part 4 of my October offering to you. Read from the beginning here.

A creature, once  human as it possessed massive arms and legs and a head to go along, had one of the girls tucked under his arm like a long, lost teddy bear and was dragging her back into the alley.

“. . . in the shape of a man, moves beyond the pale, bigger than any man, an unnatural birth, called Grendel by the country people.” Daniel mumbled under his breath, of which he suddenly had little.


Illustration of Grendel by J.R. Skelton from Stories of Beowulf.

“Oh baby, baby,” the creature moaned, eyes half closed, “Come with Daddy.” He was dressed head to toe in rags, his face too smeared with dirt and soot to tell his race, his bloodshot eyes empty.

Daniel looked around for something to swing at him. There was nothing. They were cut off from the civilized world, up against a man whose senses were lost to reason. Negotiation was futile. He had nothing to offer that would tempt the man from his prey nor was there anything nearby with which to distract him.

“Let me go! “ The girl screamed, swinging a guitar case into the chest of her captor. The blow did nothing. He twisted the case from her hand and threw it to the ground.

“Now come on, honey bunches, be good to your man.”

The girl reached into her coat and withdrew a crucifix. “Holy Mary, Mother of God! Pray for us sinners now and at the moment of our death.” The man’s eyes widened. What was his pet dangling in front of his face? Then recognizing the symbol, he threw his head back and began to roar with laughter.

th-1By now the other two girls had joined in the melee, bombarding the behemoth with guitar cases and bags of clothes, only adding to his merriment. To a man of his size, they were nothing more than a trio of puppies yapping, nipping and spinning in frenzied circles. When they failed to amuse, he knew he could easily smack them against a brick wall or kick them angrily to the gutter but he had time to play with them, or so he thought. The laughter had shaken loose phlegm trapped in his lungs. He began to choke. Then hack. The hacking increased in intensity until he had no choice but to release the girl and lean into a nearby wall for support.

She stood motionless, glaring at the evil her priest had warned her about, a demon up from the pits of Hell who could be dispensed to the nether regions by symbols of Christianity.

“A crucifix isn’t going to save you, Catholic!” Daniel snarled, pulling the girl away, “It just distracted him for a minute.”

“I’m not a Catholic!”

“If you’re not a Catholic then why are you waving a bloody crucifix around?”

“Her mother’s a Catholic.” Venus of the Sewers explained. “She’s what they call a “charismatic” and does the laying on of hands and talking in tongues and all that stuff. ”

“I’m not a Catholic!”

“Okay, okay – you’re not a Catholic. Now kindly get a move on it before Grendel here catches his breath.”

th-2Quickly they grabbed their bundles and shuffled off down the street, glancing back every now and then to make sure they weren’t being followed. Finally they reached a neighborhood that had not been completely abandoned to night creatures. Here and there were pockets of light; storefronts that were only gated for the night and not boarded up forever, apartments appeared to be occupied on the upper floors and every now and then a car rolled past.

As they neared Marcia’s block he heard what sounded like a hundred wind chimes. Well, at least they haven’t moved, he thought. He watched the girl’s faces in amusement as rounding the corner they saw a cloud of light, spilling forth from one of the storefronts into the misty street. Into and out of the cloud, shadows fluttered like moths.

So Say the Winos, Part 3

Dear Readers – this month I’m posting one of my oldest stories in celebration of Halloween (my favorite season and holiday).  It’s a long piece so I’m breaking it up in parts. To recap, three young girls run out of gas in NYC and are taken under the wing of a troubled man named Daniel. You can read from the beginning here.

“I have a friend you can crash with for the night. It’s not too far and it’ll be safe for you.” Daniel said.  The girls stared at him blankly, their eyes like shiny pennies.

“She’s a social worker.” His sock was wet. The next time his mother came to town he decided that he’d show her the hole in his shoe, then she’d insist on buying him at least two pairs of shoes, one of which he would give to the first shoeless street person he met, of course. That would make her happy. She wanted Jesus as a son but a well dressed Jesus, not a scruffy one.

“Look,” he added, “What choice do you have? You can’t sleep in the car. Not in this neighborhood. And the hotels are filled with … well, you don’t want to stay in the hotels.”

“But are you sure she won’t mind a bunch of strange people staying with her?”

“She won’t mind. Strange people are her business.” The sewers were backing up. Ah, the smell of Manhattan, Daniel thought, motor oil and garbage rotting, thick, moist human goo. In the country, the first rain cleanses. In New York City, it backs up the sewers and washes pigeon poop off the high rises down onto the pedestrians.

img_2158“Hurry up and make up your mind,” Daniel ordered. He knew what happened after dark in that part of town. The needy and vague-eyed — from drink or drug or mental illness — materialized from crevices of abandoned buildings, crying and moaning and demanding money while in the distance sirens wailed, but always in the distance. A loud crack echoed in the alley across the street, probably just a trashcan being emptied for use as shelter from the rain, but it sounded like gunfire.

“Okay,” they muttered. “But what shall we do with the car?”

“Drive it around back where it might have a chance of surviving the night in tact,” he replied, “but I doubt it.” He followed the car and then helped to remove anything of value. Bags of clothes, guitars, and pillows. One of the girls handed him a terra cotta sculpture of a young man’s head.

“This is Aragorn. He goes everywhere with us.” She explained.

“Aragorn?” Daniel asked. The thing weighed a ton.

“You know, from the Lord of the Rings.”

“Oh yeah?” said Daniel, “Leave him here. No one is going to steal him. I know what. He can be Aragorn, Defender of the Volvo.” Giggling they set the sculpture down on the driver’s seat where in the dim light it looked like a severed head. “That’ll scare the crap out some poor wino just trying to find a place out of the rain.”

They followed him on a zig-zag path down broken sidewalks, passing boarded up storefronts covered in obscenities, always careful not to step on glass or into gutter streams of piss and worse. Every now and then they heard a scream or a car screeching on rain-slicked streets, normal sounds for that part of the city but he could tell from the gasps behind him, they would not last long in the city. Soon they would be begging to leave, to return home to a safe suburb where the lights are out by ten and the police have little more to do than investigate mailbox crime. Some place like his parent’s house on the river, idyllic but sometimes too peaceful for his mother. Periodically she had to suffer for Christ.

Then it dawned on him. Marcia might have moved. He couldn’t remember the last time he’d seen her. One summer had passed, at least. Maybe two. During that time, he’d moved many times. Maybe she had too. Maybe she’d married and moved to the suburbs. Maybe she’d died. No that wasn’t possible. His mother would have told him. Maybe he’d be stuck with the girls and forced to walk them all the way to Father Frank’s. Maybe that was a better plan in the first place. Maybe, maybe, maybe. He couldn’t decide.

They were halfway to Marcia’s when one of the girls screamed “Let me go!” Daniel froze then turned.

So Say the Winos

For some reason, the majority of my stories are set in the fall, many even at Halloween.  Over the years I’ve shared a few.


From Brownie Fright Night, October 2015

This year I don’t have time to write a new one – too much going on. So I’m going to share one of my oldest stories. The original title was Sentimental Halvah because eating halvah always takes me back to the lower west side of Manhattan, circa October1968.  (apologies to my Wattpad friends who may have already read it as Daniel, Beloved of God)

So Say the Winos, Part One

Out trespasser! Leave this body before you’re trapped, he thought, but it was too late.

“Daniel, what are you doing still here?” Someone yelled.

Was he being yelled at? Was that his name – Daniel?

“Quit standing in the rain like a friggin’ turkey and go home!” He looked at the heavy book in his hands. What was he doing? The book, attached solidly to the phone booth by a thick metal chain, was alien to him. Just names and numbers in a meaningless blur. Then he turned toward the service station. It was coming back. The “it” which so inconveniently accompanied waking hours.

th-7The tiny station was crammed uncomfortably between two vacant brick hotels, like everything in that part of town, squeezed in wherever it would fit. The man standing in the dark doorway yelled again: “Go home Daniel, for Christ’s sake, before it gets too dark!” The man was his boss.  He worked at the service station.

A great God has made known to the king what shall be hereafter. The dream is certain, and its interpretation sure!” He shouted in return. The man shook his head mumbling something Daniel could not hear but could guess at. He chuckled. The man thought Daniel was crazy, smart but crazy. Ha!

Now all facts pertaining to his useless, godforsaken life flooded his brain. True, the forgetting had been a reprieve, albeit short. Praise God. But now he’d returned and on his horizon the shutdown had begun. The lights, one after the other, killed. The pumps locked. His boss fleeing for the Bronx.

“Go home! Get a beer,” the man yelled once again as he offed the final light, padlocked the door, and hurried to his Chevy. A home. That’s what Daniel had been looking for. Well, not really a home home but a monk’s cell, cheap and anonymous, somewhere he could ponder the next move in his life of dedicated impermanence.

The rain fell in droplets smudging the ink and wilting the paper. There’s something sacred about a book, especially a book filled with the names of the living and the things that gave their life purpose, a home, a profession, something permanent. To let it be damaged by the elements was clearly immoral so he stepped into the phone booth and closed the folding door, triggering a faint bit of light from overhead. It was not enough to read by, especially through lenses coated with axel grease. He removed his glasses and tried to clean them with his tee shirt. This effort brought his world into clearer focus yet triggered another dilemma. Where in Manhattan would he find a monk’s cell other than at a priory? Perhaps the YMCA? And if so, would it be listed under YMCA or Young Men’s Christian Association? A quick investigation proved it was under neither. He moved on to the Yellow Pages. Would YMCA be under Lodgings or Gyms? Nope. Wrong again.

“I’ll just dial directory assistance,” he said aloud as he sorted through his linty pockets for a dime or quarter with which to call the operator. There was no time to figure out the complexities of the phone book. The ghost ships had already begun their nightly prowl, floating up from the Hudson and down the streets of the slowly dying looking for potential crew members. They (the ships) hid in the mist, only revealing themselves to those about to die, or so claimed the winos. So claimed the winos.images

He found a quarter —Praise God! — and was about to use it when he heard a voice shouting.

“Hello? Anyone here?” A shadow stood in the mist near the pumps. Spotting the lit booth, the shadow moved toward it like a moth to a flame. Some poor creature looking for shelter, he thought as he turned his back. The phone booths made such a nifty escape from the rain for street people. The shadow rapped gently against the glass wall.

“Don’t worry. When I’m finished you can have this shelter for the night. I’ll not fight you for it,” he said loudly without turning. It wasn’t that he didn’t care but night after night it was the same. No amount of God Loves You or Let Me Take To Shelter ever worked, despite his mother’s edicts. The streets were safer.

The operator came on the line. “I’m looking for the YMCA closest to the East Village,” he explained. The Chinatown Y on Hudson, he was told. “Do they rent rooms? She didn’t know but offered to patch him through. Brring, brring. He could feel the creature on the other side of the glass burning holes into the back of his head. Turn. See me, it pleaded. “Don’t worry, I’ll be gone soon.”

Ten rings and finally someone answered. Yes, they had rooms. “Praise the Lord,” he muttered as he hung up and turned to face whatever waited.

Next, Daniel’s Dilemma.

Make New Friends

SnoopyAs promised, the end of Brownie Fright Night.

To recap the story thus far, twenty girl scout brownies and their chaperones (mothers) caravan in their mini-vans to an abandoned tubercular asylum for a stormy weekend retreat. After settling around a struggling fire and singing girl scout songs, one of the mothers begins a ghost story set in her native Norway but before she can finish, the lights flicker out.  The mothers decide it’s time to turn in.

th-1Ruthie finally got more wine (once the girls settled down.) By that time, we all really needed a drink. The little darlings had chosen to bunk in the large room at the end of the sanitarium because it had enough cots that they could all be together. The problem was the room also had an exterior door and we had at least four flight risks. After much debate we agreed that one mother would bed down with the girls while the rest of us chickens slept next door.  Sylvana, of course, volunteered.  She just couldn’t get enough of “her girls.”

Once things were quiet, Cate, Marith, Ruthie and I slipped down to the kitchen where we drank wine from metal cups by candlelight. Outside, branches from nearby trees raked the side of the building but at least the rain had abated.

“Do you think the girls will get any sleep?”  Cate asked.

“You haven’t been on too many sleepovers, have you?”  Ruthie chuckled. 

“Well then, maybe one of us should sleep in there with poor Sylvana.”

“She’s the heaviest sleeper I’ve even seen,” I assured them. “As soon as her head hits the pillow, she’s in Snore City.  At the girl scout jamboree she slept through the tent collapsing and all those girls screaming their bloody heads off.”

I thought it was funny but Marith didn’t smile.”It is not normal to have so much energy and then to drop into a sleep like that. Maybe that is why she goes to Dr. Paulson.”

 “You don’t mean Sam Paulson?  Gwen’s husband?” Ruthie asked.

“Yes, she sees him three times a week.  Gwen says she even shows up at their house!  Uninvited!”

“Shit!  You know what Sam’s specialty is, don’t you?” 

We shook our heads no. 

“He’s the shrink who testified at Meryl Ottoman’s trial.”

“Meryl Ottoman?   

“You weren’t here then, Cate. Meryl Ottoman slashed her sister to death a few years ago – with a machete! She claimed her evil twin did it.”

“Don’t girl scout leaders have to take psychiatric tests,”  Cate asked.

I had to laugh.  The only reason I’d signed on to be a girl scout leader was because no one else would and Sylvana made it clear that if no one signed on to assist her, there would be no Brownie troop. “I had to get a TB test and that’s it.  I’m sure Sylvana’s just depressed.  I don’t think things are going well in her marriage.”

She crashed my Christmas brunch last year dressed as a clown! She scared Winston half to death, poor little thing.  He peed all over the carpet.  Maybe we better get back there.” With that Ruthie corked the wine and put it into the cooler.  In the space of a few minutes Sylvana had gone from being the world’s best girl scout leader to a clown-faced axe murderer with an evil twin. 

We returned to a scene of relative calm.  As I’d predicted Sylvana was dead to the world leaving the girls to entertain themselves with the flashlights they had been ordered to turn off.  A lantern in the hall provided just enough light should one of them need to visit the bathroom.

After confiscating the flashlights and responding to their complaints – two girls had upset tummies, one couldn’t find her sleep bear, one demanded to call her mother and the “usual suspects” wanted to take a midnight stroll to find banana slugs – we took to our bunks fully dressed, knowing we probably wouldn’t get much sleep.  

th-4The lantern in the hall provided just enough light to bring splotches of pealing paint on the ceiling to life. I kept thinking that only a few decades before the room in which we were trying to sleep housed patients in various stages of tuberculosis, some even dying. As I tossed and turned within the tight constraints of the sleeping bag, those splotches grew and shift-changed into the former residents of my bed singing their sad stories in my ears, or so I dreamt.

I woke to a grumble and then footsteps as Ruthie made her way down the hall. She has to go to the bathroom, I thought. Better her than me.  Walking the halls of the old sanitarium, with its creaky wooden floors, bleached beyond character, and yellowed walls at night with a flashlight, well, let’s just say, I’d really have to pee. 

After a few minutes Ruthie returned.  “Jan – I thought I heard someone sobbing but I checked on the girls- they’re all okay.” th-2

Cate snapped to a sitting position.  Followed by Marith.  They’d only been pretending to sleep or maybe like me, had been haunted by previous residents.

Ruthie lit another camp lantern.  “I’m not sitting here in the dark. I don’t care if we don’t have enough fuel…”

She was cut off by a low rumble.  Earthquake, I thought but nothing moved. Mudslide? Rivers of mud run under and destroy the foundations of many structures on the mossy side of Mt. Tam.  Was the sanitarium about to be washed away?

Then we heard the howl of a lone wolf.  Followed by another and another as their pack assembled somewhere not far away. 

I tried my best to make light of our situation. “Well thank goodness we’re not in tents! The wolves probably just killed a deer and are inviting other wolves to… ” 

“Shush!”  Ruthie ordered.  “Do you hear that?” We sat around the lantern listening to what sounded like a pack of wolves sniffing and scratching just outside the undraped windows.  “Go see what it is.”

“Me?” I asked. 

Before any of us could move, there was a racket at the back door, shortly followed by the screaming of brownies.   A pack of wild dogs now snarled and tore at the flimsy door. The usual suspects viewed the whole event with great glee and somewhat perverse scientific interest while the others ran into our room. 

The “usual suspects” view our plight with delight!

“The kitchen!” Ruthie cried. I’m not really sure why it made sense but we gathered the girls and off we ran down the halls with hearts racing.  Once there I realized why it made sense.  The kitchen windows were small and far above the floor and the exterior door, for reasons I can’t fathom, was metal.  Quickly we did a head count – yup all twenty girls were present and accounted for. 

“Where’s my mommie?”  Sylvana’s daughter cried.

“My god – she couldn’t have slept through all that!” Ruthie said. “Shouldn’t we…”

But there was no reason to worry about Sylvana.  A howl just outside the kitchen door, quickly followed by the scurrying of the rest of the pack informed us that the dogs had followed us to the kitchen.  

Don’t scream girls,” Marith pled, as they began to shriek. “This metal door is strong.  If you scream it gives the dogs what they want.  Let’s sing a song. I’m sure Mrs. C knows a good song.”

I had only one thing on my mind at that moment and it wasn’t a Brownie song. “Ah, ah..  let’s see.

th-7“We should call for help,” Cate said.

“Who’s going to volunteer to fight their way through mad dogs to the phone booth?”

The usual suspects stepped forward, one of them pointing out that she had a yellow belt in karate as she kicked imaginary dogs with her fluffy pink slippers.

“If we sing the dogs will know we are not afraid and they will leave.” Marith explained.  “That is what we do Norway.”

“How about Make New Friends?” One of the girls suggested.

We survived that night by soothing mad dogs with girl scout songs but left in the daylight as soon as the coast was clear. Our first stop being the coffee shop.  Sylvana, who’d slept through the whole thing and awoke bright and perky, risked her life by suggesting we at least take one short walk in the nearby woods before leaving.

Thank you so much for reading!  If you want to read the whole story without breaks – click here.
Happy Halloween!


Day is Done, Gone the Sun (and the power)

Part 3 of Brownie Fright Night 

IMG_0946To recap the previous two episodes,  twenty brownies and their chaperones (mothers) set out on a rainy evening for a weekend campout in Marin County California.  On their way the troop gets lost and pulls into a service station for directions where they learn that the place they’re headed to is an abandoned sanitarium.  When they finally get there, it is dark. The only phone is in a booth across a now flooded parking lot.  They settle in, fix the girls dinner and then assemble for ghost stories.

And now. . . Part 3:

When Marith volunteered to tell the first ghost story I stifled a ho-hum. I’m afraid I’d formed yet another woefully misguided first impression of someone, this time based on a stereotype which my Norwegian grandmother encapsulated so brilliantly: the frigid, humorless, unimaginative Scandinavian. I was in for quite a surprise.

We’d all gathered around a stone hearth in the common area as the girl scout leader, Sylvana, led the girls in song while Ruthie and I managed to coax a reasonable fire using Sterno logs and old newspapers.  Sylvana had tried to convince us to retrieve real wood from the woodshed but we said “not on your life.” Beyond the dim light cast from the asylum the world had fallen into an inky black pool.

“Shall we sing another round of Kookaburra or listen to Mrs. Hansen’s story?  Sylvana asked.

“Story, story!!” 

Poor Sylvana.  If it were up to her, Kookaburra would have stayed in the old gum tree all night long. However she set her guitar against the wall and prepared to relinquish her audience to the stoic Norwegian now walking toward the hearth from the back of the room. Marith sat down on the stone with her back to the flames as the girls moved closer to her on the floor.

“I come from a farm in Norway which is very far away, girls  I have come here when I was a young woman …”

“Why?” One of the girls asked.

“Oh, it is for adventure. Then it is for marriage.”

“Do you ever go back?”

I’m certain Marith had been asked that question many times but for some reason she paused, stared across the room blankly and then said, “Sometimes there is nothing to go back to.” 

One of the most haunted places in Norway – Nes Church Ruins where “unknown forces” will shove you to the ground. (From Haunted Norway)

For just a second the room quieted of babbling girl noises.  Then an errant wind whistled down the chimney, scattering bits of burning paper over the brownies.  We grabbed the iron fire grate and put it in place as the girls stomped to death the fire sprites.

“Let’s let Mrs. H. finish her story and not interrupt her with questions.”  Sylvana ordered as the scene of frenzy calmed. 

“I could use that wine now,” Ruthie whispered in my ear, as we moved to the back of the room to assume Marith’s abandoned guard position. The usual suspects had already escaped once and, let me tell you, banshees couldn’t shriek as loud as those two.

Because our daughters were friends Ruthie was the only chaperone I really knew. Cate had recently moved to California from New Jersey and Marith worked and thus was rarely seen. “I could use a drink too.”

Marith settled back on the stone.  “I once had seven brothers and three sisters and we all sleep in the attic.  Even my parents in the winter when the snow is high.  Sometimes we just open the window and ski to school from our bedroom.  Can you imagine?” 

Norwegian children sharing a bed (Lisbeth Zwerger)

Many “wows” broke out in bubbles in the room.  Skiing out your window, how cool is that! 

“Between the farm and the town are thick forests like the one we are in now. They are filled with trolls and other wild animals. Do you think there are trolls in Marin County?”


“Do you believe in trolls?”

“Nooooo!” Scattered giggles.

“Norwegian children believe in trolls.  That is why we do not go into the forests.  We may be eaten.”

“They eat children?”

“That is the thought of many people who live on farms or in small towns.  Legend is that trolls were once like humans but after living under rocks and in the mountains for hundreds of years, they changed – some growing quite large while others stayed short.”

“Have you ever seen a troll?”

“Oh yes.  Many times. You do not believe me?  It is true. Here is my story and we see if you believe or not!  Many many years ago, before the time of my great grandmother (whose story this is), a young boy arrived dirty and half-naked on the steps of a church in Akerhus, which is now part of Oslo but was then small.  The priest, who was a kind man, took him in, fed him and gave him clothing. But when the townspeople heard, they were not happy.  They thought he was a th-3changeling: A human baby who had been kidnapped by trolls.  Rumors spread that he had been sent to lure their children into the woods to be captured and eaten. Which is how the trolls used changelings.  Their panic grew when they learned the little boy did not like to go out during the day.  Then strange rocks began to appear in the town square.  (If a troll is hit by a beam of light he turns into a large rock.)  So the townspeople thought the trolls had come into the town because they wanted the boy back. They went to the priest and demanded that he return the child to the woods but the priest couldn’t.  Instead he took the boy to a farm owned by a older couple whose children had all died. There the boy grew and grew – until he was over ten feet tall! He was ugly and lazy and soon refused to help out around the farm. One day the priest noticed that the older couple hadn’t come to church for a while and he went out to check on them.  It was a dark and rainy day like today.  As he neared the farmhouse he saw the boy, now a man, watching him from the forest, his eyes growing red and he knew what had happened to the older couple.” 

“Great!”  Ruthie groaned as the lights flickered. “A slasher story.”  After a second more serious flicker, Sylvana sprang to her feet. “Ladies, let’s assemble all the flashlights and lanterns in case we lose power,” she said, meaning the chaperones. “Girls, I’m afraid it’s time for revelry. We’ve got to hit the hay in order to conserve our batteries – we have one more night to live through, ha, ha!” Then, to the moans and groans of disappointed girls (it was only ten o’clock), she began singing: “Day is done, gone the sun.”

“Gone the sun and the power,” Ruthie mumbled as the room went black.


Next Friday:  The End.

Two by Two

Part 2 of Brownie Fright Night 

“Two by two they must enter and take their seats by my side. Only then can the witching hour begin.” Sylvana informed her troops as they stood in flannel jammies and slippers outside the great room.  She sat on the stone fireplace in flowing robes of purple and orange like some high priestess at a druid orgy.  What lighting there was in the old sanitarium was dim and dusty.  The old wood floors and high ceilings echoed every sound.  Luckily the kitchen at least had a working stove and running water which was all we needed for our scrumptious supper of Hamburger Helper. 

“Is this some kind of strange girl scout thing?”  Ruthie whispered in my ear.  Like me, she’d only gone so far in scouting.  Sylvana, on the other hand, lived and breathed scouts, even wearing her badge-filled sash proudly at Brownie events. But her energy and cheerfulness exceeded all reasonable boundaries, making her the perfect scout leader no matter how odd her behavior both in and out of uniform.

“I don’t know,” I replied.

“I don’t like it. It’s like some kind of Satanic worship thing.”

I laughed. “I think she’s just trying to spook them.”

Only picture of Arequipa I could find (from the Girl Scout's website)
Only picture of Arequipa Girl Scout Retreat that I could find (from the Girl Scout’s website)

“Great!  She drags us to this – this godawful place – and then decides they need to be spooked!”  Ruthie had smuggled a couple of bottles of wine in with our supplies which was a big scouting no-no.  No alcohol on scout events. Then, after being scolded like a child by Sylvana, Ruthie blew a fuse. After getting lost not once, but several times, in the rain and the dark, she intended to have a drink.  The other mothers agreed.  Two bottles of wine split between five ladies was hardly anything to get worried about.

It was the second time that evening we’d rebelled against Sylvana.   Our first act of rebellion was to stop for a real map at the tiny gas station in Fairfax. Unfortunately the gas station didn’t have any maps but the lad at the cash register claimed to know the area well.  “Arequipa? I’ve never heard of it.” Then after more thinking he said, “You must mean Hill Farm? The old nuthouse.”

“What? It’s a girl scout retreat!”  Ruthie cried. She’d just spent hours in a carful of silly girls with the promise that this place (when we found it) would be well worth the effort. 

“It was a tubercular asylum!”  Sylvana laughed, “not a nuthouse. And yes, it was once called Hill Farm.”

 The gas station guy continued: “If you say so. I dunno. But to find it just keep on going down this road.  About a mile and a half down, just past Grossman’s Pond, you’ll see a sign.  I’m not sure what it says but you can’t miss the pond so just turn after you see the water. I ain’t never been up there but my daddy used to deliver milk and he says the driveway is pretty crazy and it’s not paved so mind yourselves in this rain.  Water runs off Tam like crazy.”

Woods on Mt Tam

I could tell what Ruthie was thinking because I was thinking the same thing.  If we were smart, we’d get into our cars and return home but that would mean dealing with eight irate girls in lousy traffic for another couple of hours so we climbed back in our cars and resumed the caravan. 

Luckily gas station guy knew what he was talking about and soon we found ourselves slip-sliding up a muddy road until finally reaching a dark circle of wooden structures. Sylvana stopped  in front of the largest building and ran up the stairs to the door, flashlight in hand.  

A few minutes later she yelled back at us “The door’s locked! We’ll have to find an open window and break in!” 

should point out that we’re not talking about a Brownie troop whose mothers have vast experience breaking and entering.  Marith, an accountant from Norway,  frowned upon cursing, Cate never left the house with a hair out of place, and Ruthie hosted Christmas brunches every year during which the highlight was the appearance of her toy poodle dressed in a Santa suit. They watched Sylvana jostling with the windows as the girls began shouting gleefully, “Mrs. Robinson’s gonna break in!”

Troop 93’s mascot – the Banana Slug


After managing to break in, Sylvana turned on the lights and blew the whistle that always hung around her neck for such occasions .  “Troop 93 – help unload the cars!’

th-4Many sleeping bags and boxes full of groceries later we were finally able to take a breath and look around. Besides the great room and rudimentary kitchen there were two sleeping wards with bunks the sort you’d find in a military barracks. Though moldy-smelling, they seemed clean enough.

Tubercular Sanitarium in the 1930s. Fresh air and sunshine were considered key to recovery thus they often had floor to ceiling screened windows.

“I thought you told us that this place had phones.”  Ruthie said as we concluded our tour. 

“It does!  The pay phone!” 

“And where would that be because I didn’t see it and if I don’t call Bruce to let him know we’re okay, he’ll bust a gut.”

“Oh, it’s over near the pool.  Don’t worry. I brought lots of quarters!  Isn’t this fun girls?  I tell you what.  After dinner, let’s start a fire and tell ghost stories.”

“Oh Lord,” Ruthie said.  She was looking out the window towards an unlit phone booth which stood in the now pouring rain approximately 500 feet from the hospital.

Next:  Part 3, Are there trolls in Marin County?  You bet!

Brownie Fright Night

Hello!  Did you miss me?  This has been a very busy October for me and shows no sign of letting up soon.  So I’ve decided in honor of the season, to repost a Halloween story from a few years back.  This story was inspired by a trip we made to Roosevelt Island in October 2015.

Over 13,000 men, women and children died between 1856 and 1875 at this place now known as Renwick Ruin.  For a vast majority of the dead, this would be their only home in America, having been quarantined there for small pox just after their arrival in New York City.  What a welcome. 


View from Roosevelt Island, which has been known through the years as Blackwell’s Island and Welfare Island.

The island Renwick Ruin sits upon once belonged to the Blackwells, a prominent NYC family in the 1800s. Apparently they fell on hard times and had to sell the land to the state which then proceeded to build, in this order, a prison, a lunatic asylum and Renwick Small Pox Hospital. They built the hospital using convicts and lunatics for manual labor and, legend has it, later employed these same convicts and lunatics to watch after the small pox patients. In 1875 it became a “maternity and charity training” hospital and the island became known as Welfare Island. Click here for more information about this ghostly island. 


Renwick Small Pox Hospital, named for the architect, James Renwick.

Today a four acre memorial to Franklin Delano Roosevelt sits just beyond Renwick Ruin which seems oddly appropriate.  He was probably the one president who would have understood their suffering.


Four Freedoms Park – memorial to FDR from the air. You can see Renwick Ruin on the far lower left.

Although the Ruin and nearby lunatic asylum (the Octagon) are said to be amongst the most haunted places in the world, many young professionals are anxious to make the island their home.


Heading towards Roosevelt island on the gondola from Lexington Street.  Not a bad commute!

Can you imagine taking a group of overly imaginative Brownies to an abandoned asylum  for a weekend retreat?  Especially in late October?   Well, in my younger and dumber days, that’s exactly what I did.  Below is my story. 


Another shot of Renwick Ruin.


Part One

One dark and stormy night long ago I was behind the wheel of my husband’s brand new Saab turbo with three giddy girls fidgeting in the back and one in the front when the song “Sympathy for the Devil” came on the radio.  Quickly I turned the damn thing off. 

“Quiet girls!  I’ve got to concentrate.  Christy, is that your mom’s car? ”  All I could see ahead were brake lights through a fogged up window. Unfortunately we’d gotten a late start which, considering none of us had been to this particular girl scout retreat, was an bad plan indeed.   We only had the sketchiest of directions. (Folks, this was in the olden days before GPS and cell phones.)    


Last known picture of Brownie Troop 93!

The plan had been to leave right after school when it was still light but one little girl had piano lessons and another forgot crucial-to-her-survival allergy medicine and since both were the daughters of women who signed up to chaperone, the Brownie Leader and I (her assistant) were forced to grin and bear it.  As you all probably know,  getting parents to sign up for a weekend camping trip with their girls requires an act of God.  Especially for us.  Our campouts were known disasters. 

Episode Two, Two by Two

Episode Three, Day is Done, Gone the Sun (and the power)

Episode Four, Make New Friends 

Many thanks to the for their fascinating behind the scenes stories about NYC and its environs.