Our Last Lecture


As we near spring it is time for our annual writing contest at our high school. This is when students step up and show off the skills they have acquired during the school year.

The assignment is simple: What would you say to your classmates, family, and friends if you knew you were going to die soon?

Sound familiar? It is the premise of “The Last Lecture” popularized by Randy Pausch, Ph.D., ten years ago. Pausch, a professor at Carnegie-Mellon University in Pittsburgh, was asked if he would address the student body and fellow professors on the aforementioned topic. His deadline was in a year’s time. No problem, he said.

As the date drew near, Pausch learned that he had contracted pancreatic cancer and had little time to live. He could have pulled out of the assignment, but instead he saw it as a chance to help others. He delivered the lecture and it became an internet sensation. Soon his talk had more than ten million hits and became a best-selling book.

It is a moving lecture, as were the subsequent interviews he gave to television and radio hosts about facing death, its ramifications, and what he would miss most about life.

But how would high school students react to the same assignment? I found out in 2009, a year after Pausch died.

At first, hearing of the assignment students were baffled. “We’re going to write about death? they’d say. “Why?”

I told them what Socrates said 2,000 years ago: “The unexamined life is not worth living.” If we don’t stop every so often and assess the way we are conducting our lives and make improvements, we are doomed to a dull, fruitless existence.

The students saw the point and spent several days dreaming up penetrating questions to ask themselves.

We’ve held this contest every year since Pausch died, and trophies are awarded by me to the top two in each of my five classes. For years I’ve had a local shop design a trophy that resembles the Hollywood Oscar. It’s a beautiful piece of craftsmanship and the students love the fact that it is personalized. It features their names, the titles of their talks, and the dates they were presented.

When I broach the idea of the writing contest every September, I get the usual responses.

“I’m not doing this,” one kid says.

“Do we have to present in front of the class?” another asks.

By the time we write and rewrite hundreds of pages of essays throughout the year and the students see their improvement, they eventually inquire about the contest date.

But there was something different about this year. While I always model assignments for my students, I don’t for “The Last Lecture.” I figure by then everyone ought to be able to jump right into it and produce. However, a couple of students asked me if I would write one, so they’d have a better feel for the assignment.

I did not commit at first, but the next morning about a half hour before class I decided to punch out a talk. It took twenty minutes and while I know it would have been better had I given it hours of my time over a period of days, I knew I could write something that would help these particular students. So here goes:

Doctors told me yesterday that I have contracted a rare disease that is expected to cut down my life within nine months. And though I don’t want to get into the particulars at this time, I do want to tell all of you how much I have enjoyed teaching you this year and that you have meant so much to me.

You always came to class on time prepared to learn, and whether you realized it or not you taught me a lot as well. I can tell you right now that you will be successes in life, but more importantly you are just good young people.

I am going to miss so much about the life I’ve been blessed with all these years and I’d like to tell you a bit about me and what I’ll miss most.

As soon as I got the medical news I began missing my wife, Kathy, and our sons, Kieran and Patrick, and, of course, our dog, Curtis. All of whom I love.

My wife and I met 35 years ago. I knew she was the one for me the moment I first saw her walk through the door that led to the editorial department of The Daily Journal in Elizabeth, N.J. I wasted little time asking her out and even less time proposing marriage ten weeks later. She said YES – three years later.

We married in 1986 and eventually our sons were born. During the following years Kathy and I spent hours with them in all aspects of their lives: Little League, school, and later attending their live music shows right into their twenties. I am so grateful that I have been able to spend so much time with my family. Not every dad and husband is as lucky.

Twenty-five years of my life was also spent as a sportswriter. While I liked that career, it was no legacy. A legacy is when you leave behind something important for others.

So I took up teaching. I’ve been at it for 18 years now.

As I’ve said, I liked sports writing, but I love teaching.

At first, friends and family thought I was crazy entering the world of education. Not much money, they reminded me.

“And kids today are crazy,” they added.

But I saw teaching as a “calling.” And this powerful pull deep within my gut insisted that I had to help others.

Along the way, I received good advice from the man who hired me at Elizabeth High School in 2001. His name is Richard Long. “Every time you step into a classroom try to be the best teacher a student ever had,” he advised.

Now, I may not clear that particular bar in some students’ opinions, but I try. Who knows? Perhaps one day someone might recall me as a “good” teacher or at least “okay.” That’s actually high praise coming from a teenager.

What students have taught me over the years is that you cannot tell them what to do; you need to convince them of taking certain actions.

Case in point: Years ago I spent 90 minutes trying to talk a male student of mine out of having a certain female student beaten up after school. He had gang affiliations and his threat was legitimate. So we talked and talked – and talked.

Eventually the male student said, “I’ll call it off mister if you give me an ‘A’ for the marking period.”

That wasn’t going to fly, I told him. So we kept talking. I think he was impressed that I was so persistent, and in the end he called off his boys. The girl was never bothered again.

Yes, teaching has been a deeply moving experience. During discussions I’ve had with students over the years most often I only listen. Sometimes a young person just needs to be heard.

From those listening sessions, I have learned that many teenagers’ problems are the result of young people not having a father figure in their lives.

Now, if you become a dad or a mom, love your son or daughter, involve yourself in your child’s life, always be a good influence, and be patient.

So here I stand before you at 65 years of age. I am not financially wealthy, but I am wealthy in experience – and that has given me a rich life.

A life I will dearly miss.


How to Dump Trump


There stood Donald J. Trump: towering, seething, intimidating, and above all, sounding ugly at the Republican National Convention. The real-estate magnate from New York City had fulfilled every TV producer’s dream with his outrageous behavior that flew in the face of political decorum.

That’s okay, the Donald would tell us, he doesn’t have time for political correctness.

But such a stance would be dangerous in today’s world. Imagine a President Trump firing a volley of insults at leaders worldwide who might not see things his way.

“Hey, towel head, you thirsty?” he might shout at some Mideast leader who he disagrees with. “Have a glass of sand.”

Eventually when he runs out of his own one-liners he will turn to Sickipedia.

“Hey, Putin, I heard you had an amicable divorce. It must have been. Your wife is still alive.”

To President Xi Jinping of the People’s Republic of China: “If I were a Chinese billionaire they’d call me Cha-Ching.”

We’d probably have every enemy at our doorstep within a week of Trump taking the oath of office.

Yes, certainly, the Donald has touched a nerve among the electorate, but clearly he is not the man to run our country. He’s just an arrogant loudmouth.

If Hillary Clinton wishes to take him down all she has to do is something she should have done a long time ago: Tell the electorate to turn on the Comedy Central Roast of Donald Trump and see why, according to comedian Seth MacFarland, Trump is the second worst tragedy to hit New York City.

MacFarland, who hosted the roast, was in no mood to take prisoners, especially billionaire Trump.

“You’re a grown man and you’ve got hair like Dennis the Menace. What’s going on here?” MacFarland said. “Did you fall head first into a cotton candy machine? What happened? … And Donald, as long as I have you here, it’s pronounced huge not yuge. And here’s another one. It’s pronounced I am delusional, not I am am running for president.”

Say this for Trump, he’s got a sense of humor. But it wouldn’t be long before things went too far as the parade of insult comics marched to the podium and trashed not only Trump but his family members too.

So bring on the insults.

Snoop Dogg: “The Donald says he wants to move into the White House. Why not? It wouldn’t be the first time you pushed a black family out of their home.”

Lisa Lampanelli: “You’ve always gotten beautiful women. You’ve ruined more models’ lives than bulimia … But that’s all behind him now. Donald is very happy with his lovely wife, Insert Name Here.”

Trump thought that joke was a hoot. And it was. But who would allow someone to attack his wife in public? Lampanelli’s crude pokes at Mrs. Trump soon became scatological and a close-up shot of Mrs. Trump revealed a beleaguered woman just trying to to get through the moment as hundreds of audience members laughed at her. Clearly, we have become a nation of barbarians being entertained by vulgarians.

Roastmaster General Jeff Ross next stepped to the podium and asked Trump if he was having a good time. Trump acknowledged that he was and Ross cracked, “Then tell your face.”

Turning to the audience, Ross announced that he and the Donald had a lot in common. “We both live in New York, we both play golf, we both fantasize about his daughter … ” Ivanka Trump could only shake her head from side to side. What kind of father would have his daughter endure these jokes?

Eventually Ross wrapped up his routine by saying that he looked forward to Trump running for president because “I can’t wait for the assassina –, I mean the inauguration.”

Trump ended the program reveling once more in his arrogance just in case we hadn’t detected it. “What is the difference between a wet raccoon and Donald J. Trump’s hair?” he began. “A wet raccoon doesn’t have seven billion f—— dollars in the bank.” Then he leaned back and bathed in his sycophants’ applause.

To be sure, Donald Trump has hit a nerve regarding several hot-button campaign issues, including Obamacare and illegal immigration, but this nativist is not the man we need sitting in the White House in 2017.

The world is filled with arrogant bullies right now and this arrogant bully apparently has no solutions to the problems that beset America. Push him on solutions and he only becomes the loud, brutish name caller he has always been.

It ought to be interesting when he tangles with Hillary Clinton during their first debate. She will demand that he produce answers to solve our nation’s problems. If he doesn’t, she’ll fire off a litany of her own. That is, if he does not shout her down.

Interesting debates await.



Wild Drug Stories that would have made Dr. Timothy Leary Really Leery


If you ever become a teacher get ready for one question I guarantee you’ll be asked: “Have you ever done drugs?”

“No,” I always reply.

“Aw, c’mon, Mister. You must’ve done weed at least.”


Most students quietly size me up to determine if I’m telling the truth. And when they realize that I am, they ask why I didn’t do drugs.

I tell them I have never in my life followed the crowd about anything that I didn’t agree with. Now, I didn’t avoid drugs years ago because my parents told me not to. I certainly disobeyed them on more than one occasion.

A student then wonders if, perhaps, I didn’t use drugs because they were against the law.

That wasn’t my reason either. After all, I could have bought any drug from my friends and chances were pretty good that I would not have been nabbed by authorities.

At issue was health.

What might have happened if I had indulged in drugs? Would I have liked them? And, if so, would I have gone too far? I also thought about my children years down the line. I wanted to be able to look them in the eyes one day and say I did not do drugs when they inevitably would ask me about the topic.

But a childhood friend hit upon yet another reason I had to consider.

“You didn’t do drugs because you just wanted to drive the rest of us nuts,” he said.

I gave his suggestion some thought and had to admit that was indeed part of my decision-making process.

He laughed and promised, “The day you turn 70, I’m going to get a pound of pot and roll up a massive joint with the Sunday New York Times, and force you to smoke it.”

March 26, 2022 is not that far away.

As the years passed my decision — no matter why I made it — seemed to be the correct one for me. Friends who went off to college stepped up their drug usage, particularly LSD. An acquaintance at the time told me that someone had secretly slipped him a tab of acid shortly before he drove down Route 1 to pick up his girlfriend at Newark Airport.

On the way, the drug began to take effect. He swore that as he looked into his rearview mirror he saw a giant Dunkin’ Donut pursuing him at top speed.

“And it had a bite taken out of it,” he recalled.

His experience got stranger.

Once inside the airport he was gazing out the panoramic glass windows to get a clear view of his girlfriend’s incoming flight. That’s when he saw a 707 explode in flames and topple onto the runaway.

“That’s my girlfriend’s plane,” he shouted hysterically as he pounded the glass.

Security rushed in and convinced him that no such accident had occurred. They told him that he was imagining it.

One time I was visiting George Washington University and staying with a psychology major who fancied LSD. He always spoke about the wonders of the drug. He said that the national drug guru at the time, Timothy Leary, did LSD often. “And he was a Harvard professor,” my friend said, as if that made dropping acid okay.

We fell asleep late that Saturday night, but an hour later my friend was standing at the foot of his bed trying to convince me that a headless sailor was dangling in front of our window and blood was gushing out of his neck. I had all I could do to persuade him that he was seeing things and that he needed to stay away from the window which was six stories above the pavement. When exactly he had ingested LSD that night, I have no idea because I would have stopped him. He probably knew that which is why he did it on the sly.

I really didn’t need anymore convincing about the effects of drugs after that, but then I came across a John Lennon interview. The former Beatle was regaling an interviewer with his countless trips on acid and admitted that he had gone too far because years later he never felt like he had completely come back from those drug excursions. He described the feeling as his soul being just slightly outside his body at all times.

The possibility of my soul being just slightly outside my body every day for the rest of my life — nah, that wasn’t for me.



Every year I get a new batch of students and every class wants to know how I got into writing and eventually sports writing before I became a teacher. I tell them to sit back. This will take a while.

It all began in May 1962. I was in fourth grade and writing an essay for my teacher, Mrs. Coleman, at the kitchen table. That’s when my dad looked over my shoulder and said, “You’re going to be a writer, son.”

“How do you know, Dad?” I replied. “I’ve only written a few sentences.”

“Because I’m a writer; I can just tell.”

While I have always remembered what he had said that evening, I fought off his suggestion for years. I hated writing. Writing was a drag. Too much thinking. Too much organizing. Leave me alone.

High school wasn’t much better. The assignments were awful. Perhaps if someone had taken the time to show me a way to tap my creativity and assign me topics of interest, I might have flourished.

College. Well, at least the books we read were of value and our class discussions are still etched in my memory. But writing, for me, was pure labor. I had better things to do.

Then came college graduation one Saturday in June 1974. Monday followed and my parents told me to get a job.

Get a job? I’m no good at anything. Can’t do math. Forget science.

“Remember when you were in fourth grade,” my father said. “That time when I told you there was a writer in you. Why don’t you pursue that line of work?

“Because I hate it, Dad.”

“But you’ve got to do something. And look, you’re a pretty good storyteller. If you can tell stories, you can write stories.”

He had a point. So I gave it some thought, sent out scores of resumes, and eventually was hired by a newspaper as a copyboy. The first month of employment was uneventful. I proved I was a capable headline and caption writer and pretty good at filing stories and photos. But when the editor told me to write a feature on a 16-year-old pitcher from North Arlington, New Jersey, I almost choked. A feature story! What’s that? How do you write it? I played baseball, but I never tracked a game and wrote about it. I was plenty scared, but I’ve always had a good poker face and I just said, “Yes, sir,” and headed off to do as I was told.

Because my assignment was a feature, I could hand it in the next day.

I was a nervous wreck during the interview with the kid and not much better when charting the game.

Afterward, I headed home and spent the night and part of the next day trying to “craft” a story that the editor would accept. I’ve got to admit I did my best and I thought it was pretty good too.

I dropped the story in the editor’s basket and a few minutes later I saw him reach for it. He read the two-and-a-half-page piece and called me over. Then he walked me to a five-foot high cabinet where he began editing my story with, what was called in the newsroom, a Chinese grease pencil. I watched as he dragged its red, waxy point through line after line of my prose. He crossed out everything I wrote until he got three-quarters of the way down the page and left a sentence untouched.

“Why didn’t you cross that out?” I asked.

“Because it’s a simple declarative sentence. Not like this other horse shit you wrote.”

The editor crossed out the rest of the page, almost all of the entire next page, and when he came to the final half page of copy he saved himself time and drew an “X” across the page.

Then he glared at me. Real hard.

“So, how long do you think you’d like to work for us?” he asked.

“Till I’m 65.”

He held up the three pages and tore them in half.

“No, seriously,” he was saying now, “how long do you think you’ll be working here?”

I already was reading between the lines, but I played along.

“Five years?”


“About a year?”


“If you give me horse shit like this again, you’ll be out of here in twenty minutes.”

And to make his point, he tore the sheets one more time and threw them at me. My story had been reduced to confetti. I was mortified. Did I mention this was done in front of an entire newsroom?

“Pick them up,” he ordered.

“No, you’ve made your point.”

I headed back to my desk and finished the shift.

Neither of us picked up the torn scraps that night, but I made a decision. This would never happen again. The next day I bought copies of The New York Times and the Daily News and I went to the library and took out an anthology of sports stories. I not only read the works of Times sports columnist Red Smith and sports writer Dick Young of the Daily News, I wrote out their articles by hand so I could get into their heads and learn the secrets of sportswriting.

A month later, the editor assigned me to write an advance about the upcoming Princeton-Columbia football game. I couldn’t think of two more desperate teams, but I had a job to do. I spoke with both coaches, interviewed a couple of players on each team, found an angle, and got to work on an old Remington typewriter. I had two hours to write the piece. I handed it in on time, returned to my desk, and waited for the bomb to drop.

The editor read the story, took out his Chinese grease pencil, but hardly used it. Then he put a headline on the story and sent it to the print shop.

I was curious as to what his thoughts were.

“Was the story okay?” I asked timidly.

“Did I rip it up and throw it in your face?”

I nodded, and back to my desk I went.

Well, I did not stay much longer after that. I was pretty thin-skinned at the time. But if I have to cite a turning point in my writing career, it most certainly was the night I turned in my first story about the kid from North Arlington. And while I never would have treated a young writer the way I was treated, I’ve got to admit that sports editor’s teaching method worked. I’ve been writing ever since.

Watch Out for the Apple Watch


Oh, boy, the new Apple Watch is here. It has apps for the weather, tracking our heartbeats, sending Instagrams, telling time, reading news, turning the watch into a canvas and color palette for painting, negotiating the aisles of the nearest Target store, and countless more meaningless activities to assure we no longer think for ourselves and lead a human existence. All with just the flick of the wrist or a light tap. And all for the basic price of $349 for the Apple Watch sports version to upward of $17,000 for the gold premium Apple Watch edition.

Now isn’t the Apple Watch just like the much less expensive iPhone in many ways? And don’t we need to have an iPhone in our pockets for the Apple Watch to work?


Stop right there. Let’s not rant on Apple. It is merely a company of smart people dreaming up smart toys for us to buy, to distract ourselves, and to make them billions of dollars. We’re the dummies.

What I don’t get is why we need to buy the smartwatch because it’s practically the same thing we’ve already got in our pockets. But because it makes us look like Dick Tracy talking on his wrist radio in the 1960 cartoon, some of us must have it.

I know a guy who has ordered the Apple Watch. I asked him why and he ran down the laundry list of apps I’ve already cited. And more.

“It has many of the same features as your iPhone,” I told him.

“You don’t get it, Joe, now I don’t have to take my cellphone out of my pocket.”

“That’s because you have to keep an iPhone in your pocket when you wear the watch?”

“Sure, otherwise the Apple Watch won’t work.”

So, let’s see, an Apple Watch and an iPhone: now you’re paying maybe a minimum of $500 to “stay connected.”

Did this guy ever study simple arithmetic?

So he will now join what I call the 2015 version of the Stepford Wives and stare at his wrist all day and get little to no work done. Then, when he crosses a street, he won’t even hear the peeling of car brakes that are being applied to avoid killing him as he glances at his wrist watch and ignores oncoming traffic. And, of course, he will have less communication with people. Might he even bring the Apple Watch to the bedroom? I can hear the pillow talk now.

“I’m just taking a quick glance at MLB, honey.”

Oddly all this technology is referred to as “the new forms of communication,” but has there been a time in recent history with a greater dearth of human interaction?

Long before the Apple Watch was conceived, I was standing on the corner of 34th Street and Fifth Avenue in Manhattan waiting for the light to change. The woman next to me said, “Good morning. How are you?”

“Fine,” I replied.

“Thanks for last night.”

“Ah, what happened last night?” I said, turning to her.

Then I spotted her Bluetooth, the latest communication rage at the time.

So what might happen if millions of people buy the Apple Watch?

Teachers already have a tough time getting students to put away their cellphones during class. Wait until the children purchase an Apple Watch. Kids will only have to slightly turn their wrists to view whatever information they need. How uneducated will they soon become?  And children are supposed to be our future!

People are already anticipating the next generation of the Apple Watch, and possible apps to change diapers or make peanut butter and jelly sandwiches.

The point: It’s time to become human again, folks.

Now, don’t toss away your Apple Watch if you already ordered one. Just don’t glance at it hundreds of times a day and forego a meaningful conversation. And please, don’t get struck by a car while crossing an intersection because you’re checking out Bruce Jenner’s latest surgery. And stop reading stupid Internet articles with titles like Why Russia and Costa Rica Cannot Co-exist, When Laughter Filled the Ottoman Empire, Salad Oil and Pus: Not a Good Mixture, and Twenty Reasons Why Vincent Van Gogh Did Not Cut Off His Other Ear.

Instead, read something meaningful.

Or just sit and think.

Perhaps contemplate a flower.

Or your navel.

Even better: pay attention to a loved one.

Remember, humanity got this far without excessive gadgetry. Want proof?  Bill Gates and Steve Jobs grew up during a time when the world just used pencils, paper, and pens to communicate. So how did they single-handedly usher in our technological world?

They had time to think.

Wroxton College, Here I Come. Take That, Dad


During the fall of 1969 I, like millions of other high school seniors, was sending out college applications. Most of us just had the colleges send an application and a catalogue and if we liked the photographs of the campus and there was a cute girl or two lurking in the background guys often signed up right then and there.

I desperately wanted to live away at school. I felt it would give me a greater sense of responsibility and I’d grow up faster. So I applied to Loyola University in Los Angeles, St. Bonaventure in Alleghany, N.Y., Duquesne University in Pittsburgh, and the University of Toronto in Canada. I was accepted to all of them.

When I told my dad, he nodded in the affirmative and then pointed out the kitchen window. “That’s where you’re going,” he said. He was pointing to the northeast but not Boston College or Harvard. He had someplace else in mind.

A quarter mile away was the campus of Fairleigh Dickinson University in Madison, N.J.

“I didn’t even apply there,” I told him.

“Well, you’d better,” he said. “Time’s running out.”

“But I want to go away, Dad.”

“I’m not spending $2,500 a year to send you to college.”

“You just spent $2,000 a year to send me to high school.”

“Yeah, but you didn’t work to your potential.”

All I could think of was what high school kid works to his potential? Sure, I had a horrible freshman year — eleven failures. Now keep in mind that my high school sent out report cards every month. You could amass a pile of “Fs” as I did, but I only had to go to summer school for one subject: Algebra I. I turned things around in sophomore, junior, and senior years and raised my G.P.A. to respectability and college admission officers saw that I had matured academically. But my dad did not see it that way.

So I went to Fairleigh Dickinson. I enjoyed the place, had some fine professors — Dr. Walter Cummins and Dr. Neil Salzman come to mind. But one day in sophomore year we were on a class trip to the Frick Gallery in Manhattan and on the way home we got stuck in the Lincoln Tunnel. That’s when I heard professor Cummins talking about Wroxton College just outside Banbury, England. His conversation was intriguing and I knew this was the place for me.

I asked Dr. Cummins if I could go there and he said sure, that I had the grades, it was just a matter of filling out the necessary applications, sitting for an interview, and putting my application up against other candidates from around the country. Wroxton only took 68 students but he felt certain I had the credentials to get in. So I applied.

Meanwhile, I started saving my money from a full-time maintenance job at the College of St. Elizabeth in Convent Station, N.J., made certain my grades were tops, and wrote a solid application essay. Now I never told my father any of this. My mom knew, but she was all Irish and she knew how to keep secrets. In fact, she thought it was a hoot.

So on the night of August 30, 1972, after I came home from a John Lennon concert at Madison Square Garden, I told my dad he needed to give me a ride to Kennedy Airport the next day.

“Kennedy Airport?” he said.

“Yeah, Dad, I’ve got a flight to England tomorrow. I’m going to school at a place called Wroxton College.”

“What? Why?”

“Well, you wouldn’t send me away to college two years ago, so I thought I’d send myself away. Don’t worry, I paid for everything: tuition, airline ticket, spending money. You won’t pay a thing.”

His head spun for a while. He even asked my mother if she had sent Fairleigh Dickinson University a check for that semester. She told him no because she knew about my plans all along. He was stunned, but he came to accept it rather quickly and admitted the next day that he was proud of what I’d done. That felt good to hear.

And so I spent junior year at Wroxton Abbey with its 56 acres of woodlands, lakes, and gardens. It was a scene out of Masterpiece Theatre. There was the Great Hall replete with Steinway piano, oil paintings of Queen Elizabeth, Lord North, and knights’ armor. And every morning students took a break from their lectures to convene in the Great Hall for tea time. That’s when we guzzled dozens of bakery-fresh cookies and washed them down with countless cups of tea and coffee.

Weekends were spent traveling through the United Kingdom and every three weeks it was off to the Royal Shakespeare Theatre in Stradford-Upon-Avon to catch productions of Macbeth, Titus Andronicus and Hamlet. Afterward, students met with the Shakespearean actors to discuss their roles and how they went about interpreting their characters.

The next night on campus we’d meet on the grand lawn behind the abbey and have a cookout that featured pig on the spit, roast beef, Yorkshire pudding, and myriad desserts. I had arrived at Wroxton weighing 170 pounds; I departed at 185. It was a great learning experience that not one of us from the Wroxton Class of ’72 has ever forgotten. And to his dying day my father always liked to boast to his friends about how his son had studied in England and how it didn’t cost my dad a shilling.



Every neighborhood has at least one wild neighbor. Ask Seth Rogan or Justin Bieber. Rogan makes films about nutty neighbors and Bieber is the nutty neighbor.

But right now I’m thinking about a real doozy I once knew. Twenty-two years ago when my son, Kieran, and his friend, Greg, decided it would be a great idea to cover my new car with dirt, I chased them away, cranked up the hose, and started to wash my Toyota Corolla. What resulted was a two-inch wide stream of chocolate-colored water trickling down our newly-paved road.

My neighbor spotted this miscue of mine and came huffing and puffing up the street. She hurled insults at me like former New York Yankees relief pitcher Ryne Duren hurled fastballs — all over the place. I stayed calm. After all, I couldn’t understand why she was so upset.

That same month–July 1993–the Mississippi River had flooded the entire Midwest. People in several states had lost their lives, their homes, even entire towns were swept into extinction. But my neighbor was far more concerned about a narrow stream of dirty water that was ruining the apparent pristine look of our street.

“What do you have to say for yourself, you idiot?” she shouted at me with her gravelly voice.

“Just this, lady,” I replied in a most Christian mannner. “Get off my property and don’t come back.”

Her eyes widened and she turned to leave, never to be seen again.

Perhaps my most interesting neighbor, though, was the one who lived by our family home in Morristown when I was 13. Two days after we moved into the house, she approached my mother and father and said that her cat had been kidnapped and that I had driven it to Livingston, New Jersey, some ten miles away. Now remember: I was 13. In New Jersey, one needs to be 17 to drive.

My father dismissed her ramblings with a laugh, but my mother was not cracking a smile.

Two months later our phone rang at night and this woman was on the other end.

“Joey,” she said to me, “I can see you in your pajamas with my binoculars.”

She laughed hysterically and hung up.

“I told you about her,” my mother said to my father.

To give you an idea where our neighbor was coming from, she also enjoyed hosting barbecues in the fall and often invited the entire neighborhood. Those who did not live near her to witness her antics year-round attended, but after two or three invitations they knew better than to return.

This woman used to pile up the grill with unlit charcoal, toss several hamburgers onto the metal tray, then grab a can of gasoline from the garage. She then laced the burgers and charcoal with gasoline simultaneously and struck a match.

Those burgers sure cooked up fast. She was dishing out a dozen or so within ten minutes. Talk about flame broiled!

One time I was walking through her yard during one of her cookouts and I surreptitiously hung a sign by her grill that read: HIGH-OCTANE BURGERS: 33-9/10 cents. (Such was the price of gas in 1967).

Eventually I decided to get back at her big time. Year after year whenever she’d come out of her house carrying a massive plate of food to her barbecue, I’d dial her house phone. She’d drop everything, go in the house, walk up the steep stairs to her living room and answer the call. Of course, just as she picked up the receiver, I’d hang up. Then she walked downstairs and outside again, and as she took a few steps away from the house, I’d ring the phone again. Up the stairs she went to the living room. And, like always, I’d hang up.

I did this dozens of times and never once felt a twinge of guilt. The expression “Payback is a bitch” did not exist at the time, but it was payback and for her it was a bitch.

Our family also lived near another curious family. One day I was sitting by their driveway and I was doused with a wet substance that came from a bedroom window. No sooner did I realize that I had just been soaked with gasoline than one of the boys living there came charging out the front door brandishing a lighter. I took off and he never got near me. But he’s changed his ways since then. He has become the fire chief of his current home town.

Years earlier we lived in Middlesex County near two notorious brothers, Carl and Frank. Clearly they had issues when it came to associating with people of the Earth. One time they took on the sons of a law enforcement agent and beat them to a pulp. Pulp may be too mild a word because the cop’s kids walked away from the fight having their faces bashed against rocks.

Twenty years later, one of the bully brothers actually was decapitated in a car accident. The remaining brother lived at home with his mother who died one August. Oddly, the son did not report the incident and instead let her body rot on the sofa. It wasn’t until a neighbor “sniffed something funny in the air” that police were called to the home. She had died of natural causes, but her son was too petrified to call the police.

That incident prompted my mother to instruct my father to find us a another house in another town within two weeks because she was pulling up stakes.

My father, a former newsman who knew all about deadlines, did better than two weeks. Six days later he was signing papers for a new home at Kimball-Coleman Realtors in Chatham, N.J. My mother could not have been happier. That is until two days later when she met her new neighbor. You know, the woman who said that my mother’s 13-year-old son — me — had kidnapped her cat and driven it ten miles away.