Monthly Archives: August 2014

I’m scared of ghosts that are indifferent to my existence

Sometimes I’ll want a good scare, and so I’ll try to find some cool ghost stories to read on the Internet. But even the good ones aren’t that scary. The ghosts are always trying way too hard. At first you barely notice that they’re there, but then slowly they start moving stuff around the apartment, running right behind you when you’re in the bathroom brushing your teeth, spelling out really creepy sentences on the fridge out of the magnetic word poetry set that you bought at Urban Outfitters. And then after the fun and games are over, they reveal themselves, it turns out to be a really evil ghost, and that’s it.

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The scariest parts of ghost stories are the parts where the ghost isn’t even doing anything yet. The main character moves into a spooky new house, and nothing out of the ordinary has happened at all. But I’m reading a ghost story, and so I know that something scary is about to go down eventually, and so I’m shaking, totally freaked out. And then as soon as that candle knocks itself off the fireplace, I’m like, OK, there it is, that’s the ghost, and everything gets progressively less scary.

So I’m not into scary ghosts, not in fiction, certainly not in real life. And I’m not too fond of happy ghosts either. As a little kid, I always thought that Casper the Friendly Ghost was one of the dumbest shows on TV. It wasn’t scary, and it wasn’t funny. It was just weird, and kind of sad. I remember thinking to myself as a little kid, so wait, if Casper’s a ghost, then he’s dead, right? So why is he dead? Isn’t he just a little kid? Mom, if I die right now, am I going to have to come back as some bald floating cartoon character without any legs?

Scary ghosts, no. Happy ghosts, also no. What really gets me are the ghosts that are totally indifferent to my existence. And since by their nature they’d want nothing to do with me, I can never rule out the possibility that my house might be super haunted right now, like totally overflowing with ghosts that don’t care about me. I just can’t see them, because they don’t find my presence worth haunting. And so they’re sitting around enjoying my couch or whatever it is that ghosts do, and then they hear me coming and, poof, they’re gone.

What the hell, ghosts? Couldn’t you at least do me a solid? If I were a ghost, resigned to take up space in my house for some undetermined amount of time, sure, I can see how I’d maybe feel a little apathy toward whoever takes residence here next. Maybe I wouldn’t want to give them the time of day. If I had the ability to poof myself out of any situation, that’s probably what I’d wind up doing most, if not all of the time.

But do me a favor, just come and say hi. That would be huge for me. I’d finally find out once and for all that an afterlife does exist, that death isn’t the end. Sure, maybe the idea of floating around, disappearing, still trying to avoid weird social interactions with people that I’m not close with, maybe that’s not the idea of heaven that I was expecting. But it’s better than nothing.

Come on, if I were a ghost, I’d leave you alone, but I’d at least give you a little heads up. “Hey,” I’d manifest myself right in between you and the TV. “Look, I’m not going to scare you or anything, and this doesn’t have to be a thing where I’m all up in your business, but I just wanted to let you know that I’m here, and that I’ll be out of your way. When I was alive, I put a lot of thought into this, and I just feel like, at some level anyway, you’d probably want to know.”

Four ways to sneak back into your favorite restaurant after they ban you for life

It’s kind of a weird story, but I actually got the old “lifetime ban” from my favorite restaurant, Mamajuana Café in Woodside, Queens. Sure, I probably drank a little too much of their famous “Jack Punch,” but aside from being a little tipsy, I don’t think that I crossed any lines that I wouldn’t have crossed if I’d been totally sober.

Do I want to get into this? OK, I’ll get into a little bit, just so you have some idea regarding the circumstances of the ban. I had requested a certain song from the house band. The guitarist said, “Sorry man, this is a Latin restaurant, only Latin music.” And I said, “OK, well, can you just play it in like a Latin style?” He said, “Sir, we don’t really know any Foo Fighters, I’m sorry.” Yeah he was sorry, the manager was sorry. Everybody kept saying sorry, sorry, sorry until it was, “Get out of here, and never come back.” “Really? Never?” I asked, unsure of how things escalated so quickly. “That’s right,” Frank, the general manager told me, “never.”

Well, I’ve been back. Sure, sometimes I’m more successful than others in skirting my lifetime ban, but they can’t keep me out forever, because I’m creative at figuring out how to get back in. And if you’ve been banned from your favorite spot, here are four ways to sneak back in.

1. Just walk in a pretend that everything’s cool

Don’t make a scene, don’t ask to speak to a manager or even act like you’ve ever been banned in the first place. Just walk up to the hostess, ask for a table, and sit down. It’s my go-to method of fighting the ban. You’d actually be surprised at how often it works. I’d say it’s like fifty-fifty. I guess enforcing a lifetime ban isn’t that easy, especially at a big place like Mamajuana.

Sometimes I get in, sometimes Frank might be at the door, ready to tell me to take a hike. Only one time was I actually in the middle of a meal when someone started hassling me. “Hey, you, what the hell are you doing here?” it wasn’t even Frank, it must have been one of his assistant managers. “Come on,” I said, “I already have apps coming out.” But he wouldn’t hear it, and he started bussing the water and silverware from the table before threatening to call the cops. Come on dude, talk about empty threats, you really want to have to make an argument in front of the police?

2. Grow a moustache and wear sunglasses and a big hat

If only that giant beard wasn’t so itchy, I’d have just kept it, started over at Mamajuana with a completely clean slate. It took a couple of weeks to grow in to the point where it graduated from “scruff” to “beard,” but once I had it, again, coupled with the sunglasses and the beard, I had absolutely zero problems getting in. But yeah, like I said, it was so itchy, and finally my boss came up to me at work and he was like, “Seriously Rob, final warning, shave the beard or you’re out.” And even though I don’t think it’s fair that my boss is in charge of my appearance, I gave in and shaved.

Obviously this trick only works for guys, the beard part anyway. For any ladies reading who happen to find themselves in a similar situation, I urge you to try the sunglasses and hat. But keep going, get even more accessories, make it like a huge disguise. What about a niqab? I mean, you probably shouldn’t wear the niqab and order any pork, that’ll probably send up some red flags that something might be up. But they can’t ask you to show your face just to see if you may or may not be banned for life. Tip: if you’re a guy, don’t try the niqab. I tried it, and not only did it not work, it wound up causing me a whole different set of problems which I can’t get into here.

3. Eat with a whole bunch of cops

Cops are pretty much untouchable at restaurants. You can’t ever tell them to leave because, what are you going to do, call the cops? I figured if only I could walk into Mamajuana with a whole table full of uniformed police officers, not only would Frank not have the stones to kick me out, but maybe he’d rescind my lifetime ban, thinking that I’m somehow connected with law enforcement. Maybe he’d even think I’m an undercover detective.

It took a while, but I wound up chatting up a bunch of officers I met one day at a deli. I made up this whole story about how I worked for a philanthropy and that we wanted to give something back to the local precinct. Would he happen to know six to eight officers that might like to join me for dinner at Mamajuana, in uniform? They said yes, and it totally worked. Frank just eyed me down the whole time, but he was way too afraid to call my bluff. Unfortunately, dinner was really expensive, and even though I said six to eight guys, they came with thirteen. So yeah, I can’t really afford to buy them all another meal for like a year or two.

4. Start dating the manager’s sister

This one’s one of my more questionable methods of beating the lifetime ban, but it hasn’t let me down yet. It involves a lot of detective work. I thought about following Frank home and seeing if he happened to live with any family, a sister perhaps that I might be able to ask out on a date. But I decided to go for the Internet route, searching his name via social media, tracking down his friends and family, waiting outside of the Bed Bath & Beyond where his sister works in the city, and “accidentally” knocking all of the stuff out of her hands while she left the store. “I’m so sorry, let me help you with that,” and then asking her out on a date.

My problem was that, after she got me into Mamajuana, things started getting weird. Frank predictably got in my face while we was sitting at table six, and I pleaded ignorance, acting like I’d never been there before in my life. I wanted to just sit around and gloat for a little while, but his sister got really aggressive. She stood up and yelled at Frank, screaming at him to stop controlling her life. It was a scene, man. And now she keeps calling me. I don’t know how to break it off, to tell her that I’m not looking for a relationship, that it was just kind a one-time date. Because, and she’s a nice person and all, but I think there’s more than a little something not right in her head. Seriously, she calls me like ten times a day.

Originally published at Thought Catalog.

This guy ruined my sandcastle

I just got home from spending the day at the beach. It was pretty cool, mostly, but I had this really weird run-in with some guy. My wife and I were building a sandcastle, it wasn’t one of those professional ones you see beach artists working on for weeks at a time. But it wasn’t your average kid-with-a-bucket-and-pail sandcastle either. This was like semipro, if there were such a way of classifying sand sculptures.


We’d been working on it for maybe three or four hours, so you could see the general outline of where everything was going to go. There were several towers, a few turrets, all of your standard sandcastle fare. But we were just getting started on the detail work when this guy totally crashed right on top of it.

It was just like out of a movie. He was chasing a Frisbee in the air, it was just out of his reach, and as he dove to catch it, he landed exactly where I told you he landed, on the sandcastle. It was destroyed.

He didn’t notice at first. I mean, he did make his catch, so he was probably a little lost in his sense of accomplishment. There was definitely this five second moment after his body stopped moving, where the three of us were just sitting there, my wife and I not really sure how to react, him sticking his hand out of the sand, I guess to show off that, despite sacrificing himself for the play, he did it, he caught that Frisbee.

And then I got angry, not a rational type of anger, but just like a, “Come on man! What the fuck?” instinctual response. And he must have seen it coming, because he got really apologetic. “Oh, jeez, guys, I am so sorry about this. Holy shit, I can’t believe I just did that. I wasn’t looking where I was running to and … man, I hope you guys don’t think that I did that on purpose. My God, I am really, really sorry. Can I make it up to you?”

And what am I going to do? Get mad at this guy for ruining our sandcastle? Sure, I said it was semipro quality before, and even as I wrote that out, there was a voice inside my head saying, “Really Rob? Semipro quality? Don’t you think that’s a little generous?” But the competing narrative in my head, the voice that wrote semipro in the first place, it shot back, “Why, you’re saying it’s not that good? Get out of here, that castle was great. In fact, if I could have spent a whole weekend on the beach, entirely dedicating myself to sand sculpture, I think I might be able to broach that semipro-pro barrier.”

But now that I’m writing it out, I don’t think it was that good. If I’m being totally honest here, I mean, sure, it was big. But that was it. That was our sandcastle’s defining characteristic, its size. And so as this guy apologized, I wanted to be mad, but I didn’t want to be mad either, because I didn’t want to be that guy that made a huge scene over whatever it was that got destroyed. I started to think, maybe this guy did us a favor. It’s not like my wife was really that interested in sandcastles. It wasn’t something that we planned on, either. I’m wondering if she wasn’t a little annoyed at the whole activity. She just wanted a nice relaxing day at the beach, and it’s like as soon as we had our towels and umbrella set up, I immediately recruited her into this ridiculous, big activity.

“I’ll help fix it,” the guy offered.

To which I said, “Nah, that’s OK, I think we’re about done with building sandcastles.”

“No, come on, don’t say that. It was so big! Just let me help you, I can help you.”

And I looked toward my wife, I knew she probably wouldn’t want to, but maybe. But no, she gave me a look, I could tell she was nonverbally communicating with me that she didn’t feel like starting over, not with this random dude, not at all.

“Nah, that’s OK, I think we’re just going to relax for a little while.”

But this guy wouldn’t take a hint. He just started digging and building. “You’ll see,” he muttered to himself, “I can fix it.” It was like he was possessed. After a few minutes, I looked behind him, to see who had tossed him the Frisbee in the first place, but there was nobody there, nobody looking for him.

His digging could only be described as feverish, really, and we kept getting sprayed with sand as he scooped at the giant pile with his bare hands. “Sorry!” he’d call out. I turned to my wife and said, “Do you want to go move spots? Somewhere else?” And she just nodded, yes, I want to move spots.

So I had to roll everything up and walk everything over and reset everything. It took like another half an hour. And then when we left two hours later, we passed by our old spot. It was incredible. In just a couple hours, this guy had managed to build a masterpiece out of the ruins of whatever it was that we were on our way to building over there. He even somehow built a moat with actual water, something that I had originally suggested to my wife, but the idea wasn’t met with too much enthusiasm, and so I backed off.

I was so jealous. A crowd had gathered, people were taking pictures. I’m not saying that I went in on the sandcastle to get attention. You can’t go about life that way. But man, I’d be lying if I said I didn’t have that fantasy running through my head. And now this guy had it. I tried to catch his attention as we walked toward the bus stop, “Hey man, looks like you really turned it around,” hoping that he’d acknowledge me, maybe give me a little shout out. But there was nothing. He looked up, considered me for maybe half a second, and then went back to his work. Damn. Right before we were just out of earshot, I could have sworn I heard the bystanders giving him a light round of mild applause.

When life hands you lemons

When life hands you lemons, take those lemons and return them to the grocery store. “Yeah, I just bought all of these lemons, and I want to return them.” The cashier is totally going to give you a little bit of an attitude, but whatever, just wait for the manager to come over, “You sure? You bought all of these lemons here?” he’s going to ask you. Of course you didn’t. Life handed them to you. And yeah, I know the old saying, when life hands you lemons, make lemonade. But is life handing you sugar? Clean water? I thought the whole point of this cliché is that when life hands you something that you don’t want, you have to turn it into something that you do want. Well what if you don’t have anything else? What if life only hands you lemons? Don’t tell me to just “make lemonade.” You might as well say, when life hands you lemonades, eat a really big steak, or buy a minor league hockey team, or win the lottery.


“I don’t think you bought them here. There aren’t any stickers on them. The lemons we sell have stickers on them. This is just a giant sack of loose lemons, I’m sorry.” That’s the grocery store manager again. But don’t worry, everything’s still going according to plan. Remember, you only have lemons. So if you want lemonade, or anything else, you’ve got to figure out some way to turn at least some of those lemons into something besides lemons. Otherwise it’s just lemons for the foreseeable future, and if you think drinking straight up lemon juice is tough, just wait until you get hungry later on. The only thing worse than drinking lemons is eating them plain.

“Yeah, well, they had stickers on them originally, but I peeled them all off.” That’s what you tell him. And he’ll say something like, “Well, why’d you do that?” And that’s it, you’ve got him. It might not be obvious right away, but you just won. Because what kind of a question is that to ask to a customer? He’s reaching, desperate to try to get the one up on you. But now that you’ve got him backed into a corner, keep inching closer, let him know that you’re not going to give him any space even to breathe, that if he wants to get out of that corner, he’s going to have to do something about all of these lemons.

“I took the stickers off because I was going to cook with them. You can’t peel the zest off of a lemon if there’s a sticker still stuck. You can’t roast a whole fish with lemons in the baking pan if there are little pieces of paper floating around.”

“OK, well, look, these don’t look like any of our lemons. I’m just saying, you can’t just walk in here with a bag of unlabeled produce and demand a refund.”

Of course you can. Now’s when you go for the kill. “I agree, they don’t look anything like the lemons that you usually sell. That’s why I’m returning them. Normally the quality is a lot more consistent. I just assumed that they’d all be the standard, premium lemons that you and I are clearly both used to. So I peeled them, washed them off, and then the first one I cut into, it was gross, way too many seeds. I want a full refund.”

And depending on how stubborn this guy is, you might have to go back and forth a few more times, but at this point the verdict is all but verbalized. It’s just a matter of how long this guy wants to stand there and pretend like he’s in charge of a situation that he’s not. Eventually he’ll give up, signal to the cashier to give you a refund, and there you go, that’s cash. You can buy whatever you want with that cash.

So next time life gives you lemons, don’t get caught standing around waiting for life to give you a pitcher and ice and a mixing spoon. Turn those lemons into money, and then buy a Coke. Because lemonade sucks. You ever drink two glasses of lemonade in a row? That’s like heartburn central. Do yourself a favor, and stay away from lemonade.

I’m really good at Ecuadorean volleyball

A huge part my Peace Corps experience was learning how go entire weeks at a time with absolutely no expectations of doing anything at all. Before my wife and I got shipped off to Ecuador in 2009, I pictured myself hard at work, building things, educating people, everything you’d imagine when you think of overseas volunteer work. But after two months of orientation with all the other volunteers-in-training, we were each assigned our own town where we’d live and work for the next two years. We had a party to say our goodbyes, and then we they basically told us, OK, go to the bus terminal, get out of here, shoo.


And that’s when reality kind of set in, as we bumbled our way through the city, realizing that it was going to be challenging enough just figuring out how to get where we were supposed to be going. Once we arrived at our site, my wife and I quickly found out that there wasn’t exactly a pressing demand for assistance from a couple of gringos who not only spoke very rudimentary Spanish, at best, but also didn’t know anything at all about everyday life in rural South America. Which isn’t to say that we didn’t get anything done, it just took a really long time to settle in.

We were each assigned an Ecuadorean counterpart, someone who would show us the ropes and help us get to work. And they were really cool. I mean, imagine you’re at work one day and someone drops off a foreigner who can’t speak any English, telling you, “Yeah, you’re going to have to buddy up with this guy for the next two years, get him up to speed.” So I have nothing but gratitude for the kindness and patience given to us by a couple of total strangers.

But yeah, it also meant that my Peace Corps service wasn’t going to be anything like I thought it would be. For the first few months, anyway, on a good day, we’d work for maybe four hours. And when I say work, I mean we followed around our counterparts and tried not to look confused. Smiling helped.

Eventually our Spanish got better, but until then, there was a lot of time to kill every day. Most people in our town came back from their farm work after lunch, and everybody just kind of hung out until it got dark out. And since we didn’t have any Internet or cell phone service or TV, we just hung out too. Groups of people would walk down the street and call us over, we’d go with them, and yeah, that was it, we just absorbed everything, like by osmosis, placed in this alien environment, our brains had to piece together what was going on.

Gender lines are pretty old school where we lived, and so my wife wound up socializing with the women while I gravitated to where the guys hung out. Which, as long as it wasn’t raining, meant the volleyball courts. Yeah, I didn’t expect volleyball to be a big thing in Ecuador, but basically every aspect of social life in our town centered around either drinking, cock fighting, or volleyball.

I’d stand around and try to wrap my head around the peculiarities of this local version of what I knew as volleyball. For one thing, the net was high, like about as high as a basketball hoop. Teams were three on three, and instead of using a volleyball, they used a number five soccer ball, which is much bigger and heavier.

At first I just kind of hung out on the sidelines, but out of pure curiosity, the guys started letting me stand in when the action naturally wound down as the sun set. I’m around six foot four, pretty tall here in the US, but I was by far the tallest guy in the province of Cotopaxi. So people would laugh as I’d wave my limbs around uncontrollably, trying to bounce the ball or set up a teammate for a volley.

It was bad. At first I couldn’t even handle the ball. It was really all I could do to try not to flinch as my soft wrists would bruise almost on contact. But after a while I began to get better. A lot better. Once I got the fundamentals down, I started using my height as an advantage that no other play possessed. Now I could spike the ball, or by sticking my hands straight up, I could block the opposing team’s shots from ever crossing over to our side.

My dominance in ecuavoley (yeah, that’s what it’s called) lasted for about a month until nobody wanted to play with me anymore. The spectacle of the tall American got old, and I found myself once again exiled to the sidelines, hanging out, losing my money at card games that I could never quite figure out how to play.

But then one day some of the guys had an idea. There was a volleyball tournament coming up in a town a couple of hours away. They didn’t really tell me any of the specifics, but for the next two weeks, I was back on the court, all of the men making sure that I’d be in good shape for the big day.

We all hopped into the back of a pickup truck and headed off down the winding mountainous dirt roads. An hour or so later, we merged onto a paved highway, and two hours after that, we were in some other small town. Any time we had to visit a neighboring community, it was like peeking into a parallel universe. Everything looked more or less the same, the town square, the simple houses, but of course it was a completely different place. Also, where I lived, I had the luxury of everybody knowing who I was. Sure, I was still an outsider, but the novelty of my presence had worn off. All of that went out the window when I left. Now my sense of being a foreigner was amplified.

We pulled up to the town jail, which I thought was kind of weird, but nobody else acted as if this wasn’t normal, and so I did what I always tried to do when I was so far out of my element that I didn’t know how to react, I pretended like I knew what I was doing, that this was no big deal for me either.

But as we pulled around to the backside of the prison, I’m sure my composure had to have been more than a little rattled. There were like hundreds of men standing around a single volleyball court, screaming, waving money in the air, drinking and fighting. I wasn’t prepared for this. It was like as soon as I got off of the pickup truck, everybody got a little quieter and started asking each other loudly, “Who the hell is this tall gringo?”

While we waited for our turn to play, random men would come by and offer me a shot of booze. I’d learned a trick to getting out of situations involving alcohol where I didn’t feel like drinking, I gave them four or five conflicting answers simultaneously, before walking away and smiling. First, I’d politely decline, then I’d say yes, but “After I’m done playing!” before rubbing my belly and acting like I was sick, and then making it look like someone else was calling me from across the court.

Finally it was our turn to play. The guy who drove the pickup truck walked over to the ref and counted out something like five hundred bucks. “What the hell?” I asked one of my teammates. “I didn’t know this was a high-stakes game. Who’s paying for this?”

“Don’t worry about it,” he reassured me without answering any of my questions, adding, “Just make sure that we win.”

I had a moment of pure panic. Either way this wound up playing out, someone was going to be out half a grand, and I was almost positive that I’d be held responsible for the outcome.

The ref blew the whistle. For the next half an hour or so, I operated on sheer adrenaline. The first time that I spiked the ball directly in front of the net, the crowd went silent. As I jumped and pounced again and again and again, they started cheering, roaring for me as I swatted the ball down, our opponents diving futilely face-first into the dirt floor, trying to at least lay a hand on the ball that sailed always a few inches outside their reach.

At one point about halfway through, I stopped for a minute to really just take stock of my surroundings. Here I was, a guy from New York playing a sport that I’d never heard of before behind a prison in a tiny town in South America. I’d just spiked the ball, and the people were going nuts, clapping, waving their money in the air to amend their wagers, shaking bottles of beer to spray me with foam in between volleys. I looked over to the side, and even the prisoners were in on the action, shouting, sticking their heads out of the bars of the windows, the cops every once in a while would wave their batons in the air threateningly, as if to maintain the illusion that there was any sort of order in place. We won. They collected the money, and we hopped on the back of that pickup immediately after and hightailed it out of town.

Let me assure you, I’m not very good at sports. I never made any of the teams in high school, and when I play basketball or soccer with my friends and family, it’s not totally unlikely that I might accidentally score on my own net.

But for some bizarro reason, I was really good at ecuavoley. So good that, after that tournament anyway, nobody would play with me ever again, because I was too good. Doesn’t that sound insane? Like I’m totally making it up? Sometimes I wonder if it wasn’t all an elaborate dream, because I’m telling you, I have like really subpar hand-eye coordination, the motor reflexes of a poorly trained chimp. But I swear, for a little while anyway, I was huge in Ecuador. I was the best Ecuavolley player in something like a five-town radius.