My mother-in-law has told my two sons, four and six years old, that when people die, they become stars in the night sky so they can watch over the people they love.

When people talk about what super power they’d like to have, pay attention to what they say: Most people don’t want a particular power because it would be more fun or because they could use it to vanquish evil or right wrongs. They want it because it would be practical in more situations. More than anything, the powers people covet are invisibility and flight – because most people are both insecure and frequently late. Super strength would be more useful for fighting crime and saving lives, but who wants super strength? No one, because most people don’t get in fights or stumble into situations where they have to lift cars off of accident victims. People want the power of flight because it would let them sleep an extra twenty minutes on weekdays. They want invisibility because it would let them find out what their friends say about them when they aren’t there.
It’s safe to assume that superheroes get into the crime-fighting business – and supervillains into the crime-doing business – because of their powers. It’s not that Superman is incredibly strong and
extraordinarily virtuous. He’s just a basically decent guy who would be bored doing regular jobs. He could probably be a very productive construction worker, but he could only speed up a few projects, while thousands of others would proceed at a regular pace and continue to rely on backhoes and cranes and the like. And frankly, nothing I’ve read suggests that Superman would be a great architect, or an especially good general contractor. He doesn’t have super bidding powers, and no amount of physical strength can speed up the municipal licensing process. Fighting evil on a global scale is the only job where Superman’s talents are perfectly matched to the challenges he faces every day.
And that is, fundamentally, the thing we find appealing about superheroes – and about most heroes in popular entertainment: they have skill sets that are well-matched to interesting work, so it’s fun to watch them do their jobs. James Bond isn’t so appealing just because he’s a good spy – a lot of good spies, after all, are good because they excel at being boring and blending in. We like Bond because on top of stealing secrets and impersonating dignitaries, he’s handsome, clever, athletic, and seductive. He has a skill set that’s well-suited to every situation.
For most people, finding the match between skills and situation is the essence of defining happiness. We hope to marry and live with a person we like, someone we desire who desires us. We want to spend free time with friends whose company we enjoy and work in a trade at which we excel. Many of us do this fairly well, and we call that success, but it doesn’t make us heroes or superheroes or James Bond. The difference is that ordinary people, in finding what they do well, minimize the likelihood they’ll be forced to do something they’re bad at. Even those who take on challenges routinely tend to do so in a context where they’re more or less prepared to succeed. James Bond simply can’t find a challenge that he can’t overcome with panache. And for one night, when I was 22 years old, I couldn’t either.
Like most boys, I started out wanting to be a superhero. Not a flying, costumed crime-fighter, mind you – that was plainly unrealistic. Instead, I aimed for something more along the lines of a jedi – unexceptional to outward appearances, but under the right circumstances and with the proper training, able to discover and exploit latent talents. When we were about eight, my best friend and I sought to bring out our hidden powers through games that involved trying to intuit the movements of unpredictable things: usually, this took place in a darkened bathroom, where one of us would try to dodge the beam of a flashlight wielded randomly by the other. We also tried catching a glow-in-the-dark super-bouncy ball that we had thrown really hard against the inside of the bathtub. As you can probably imagine, neither of these activities was very successful.
By high school, I accepted the fact that I was unlikely to develop super powers. I also moved from Brooklyn to Portland, Oregon, in eighth grade, so the void left by my hope for supernatural traits was flooded with the certainty that I was cooler than everyone around me. (Try to imagine – teenagers everywhere assume they know more than everyone else; and there I was, a thirteen-year-old citizen of the greatest, most cosmopolitan city in the world, displaced unwillingly to some backwater where everyone waited for the walk sign to change before crossing the street – even if there were no cars coming. I was pretty much intolerably superior.)
On top of that, people in Portland made fun of me for having a New York accent and for gesticulating a lot – which is weird because I don’t, really – and that spurred me to embrace this conception of myself as tough and New Yorky and street smart – which I definitely hadn’t been up to that point. So instead of being a superhero, I started to dream of becoming some sort of suave, underworld fixer – somewhere between James Bond and Easy Rawlins from the Walter Mosley novels. I didn’t want to be a criminal, exactly, but I wanted the connections to criminals that would allow me to move stolen merchandise or obtain some unusual item on short notice, and the detached cool of a movie bad guy. I also desperately wanted – and completely lacked – a vague hint of menace. The only concrete steps I took toward any of this during my high school years were to steal a lot of street signs and drink my coffee black.
My problem, fundamentally, was that I wanted to be good at stuff, but I didn’t have the patience to get good. Everything that briefly held some allure required practice, and many things required getting hurt: kung fu would have been great, or even just the sort of street-fighting skills one develops from regular brawling. But in martial arts training and in fistfights there’s a big getting-punched-by-people component, and I never had the stomach for it. It’s also hard to find the seedy underbelly of a place like Portland – and if you do, you realize it consists mostly of drunk people riding public buses. Also, I hated Portland and wanted desperately to go back to New York.
When I did return to New York, I couldn’t pick locks, fence hot stereos, or immobilize a man by pinching his neck just so. But I arrived with the zeal for personal invention that frequently suffuses college freshmen, and a renewed love for my hometown. I was determined to embrace New York more than I had when I was growing up, to discover its secrets and to make it thoroughly my own. This proved to be something I was willing to practice, and before long my knowledge of Brooklyn streets and Manhattan alleys was rather impressive. By sophomore year, I didn’t just know the nameless curry joint where the cabbies went for late night meals – I knew the cook. I could head out on my bicycle at one in the morning and reliably return in a few hours with something surprising and delightful: a dozen roses made of silk ribbon, a life-sized plaster cat, high-end salon products sold to me at bargain basement prices by the junkie who stole them. I had an office job that gave me access to free Tommy Hilfiger samples six months before they hit the street, and I knew a guy who worked at a printing shop in midtown who would buy those samples at a 200% markup.
Naturally, I mostly put all of this knowledge to the service of dating. Having long ago recognized that I was neither the best looking nor the most charming, I cultivated a particular sort of date and image, equal parts romantic comedy and street theater. This would involve piping hot loaves of bread purchased from the unmarked back door of a commercial bakery, wine purchased from a store that did not appear to sell wine, and, depending on the girl to be wooed, weed purchased over the counter from what, to the untrained eye, looked like an ordinary bodega. With provisions thus acquired we would picnic on the Brooklyn Bridge at midnight, or on the Staten Island Ferry at any time, or watch the sun rise on the beach at Coney Island. I was pretty good.
Once, my friend told me that her sister, who would be in town from Chicago for the weekend, was getting over a bad breakup and it would be really helpful if I could seduce her. I had never even seen her sister, but I figured my friend was fairly good-looking, so how bad could her sister be? I promised to do it, and I did, with a night of live jazz in a hole-in-the-wall club, front-row seats to a freestyle rap battle in a subway station, and of course, fresh bread and red wine on the Brooklyn Bridge under a full moon.
By the time I graduated college, I had pretty much let go of the idea that I would parlay street smarts and moxie into some sort of career. I had worked as a bike messenger for a while, which seemed pretty close to the ideal cover job for a modern-day, urban superhero, but it ended up involving a lot of injuries and didn’t pay terribly well. Don’t get me wrong, it was definitely fun, and it was perfect for expanding my network of low-grade black market connections (the office I hung out in between runs was in the same building as a strip club and a firing range). But for all the cachet that such a job had with certain girls, it cramped my style with others: I once had to cancel a much anticipated date because I got hit by a bus, and the blood inside the welt on my forehead was draining down into my eye socket and making me look too weird.
I also met my future wife shortly after college, and while my shtick proved useful in wooing her, it wasn’t so essential for keeping her. Pretty soon, we moved in together, I got a job that allowed me to keep ordinary hours, and life was good. We still drank wine under the moon on the Brooklyn Bridge, and I still had my little connections around town – free curried goat from the roti stand by the World Trade Center, the car service driver in Sunset Park who called me “Capitán” and would take me anywhere in the city for a flat eight bucks – but my childhood dream was doing what childhood dreams do in the best of circumstances: Slipping away without being missed.
And then, an early autumn night: Anna and I were at a bar in Manhattan for our friend’s birthday and it was a madhouse – too many people, the music oppressively loud, smoke everywhere mixing with the smell of sweat and beery breath and maybe even the night’s first hint of vomit. We went to the bar, but the crowd was swelling and pitching like the ocean, and try as we might, we could just not get back to our friend. In the midst of this, we found ourselves beside another friend of his, a woman we had met only once.
We all pantomimed our hellos over the din of the place, and then this woman, whose name I can’t recall, sort of swam closer to me in the crowd, and I leaned down to hear her: “This is a disaster!” she said. “I have another party to go to in Brooklyn. Do you guys want to come?” So I grabbed Anna and we waded out of the place, promising ourselves we would make it up to the birthday boy later. And from that moment forward, all my New York powers came together perfectly, and for one night, I was a superhero.
(First, two other important pieces of background:
(1) When I was a kid, my mom lived in a six-story brick building in the middle of a block full of similar buildings, on Ocean Avenue in Brooklyn. Each building had two fire escapes in the front and one in the back, and a long series of trash-strewn concrete yards ran the length of the block behind the buildings. Some of these yards were connected to one another; some were blocked by fences, and one was patrolled by a belligerent pit bull. The kids who lived on the block – me, Jose, Anthony, and Jared from my building, Eddie and Rashad from one building up, and a few others from here and there – played a complicated game of tag that covered the entire block. The rules were that we could go on the sidewalks in front of the buildings and in the yards behind the buildings, but not in the building lobbies or hallways. That meant that the only ways to get from sidewalk to yard were (a) through the basements, which were frighteningly dark and sometimes inhabited by the super of my building, Jose and Anthony’s alcoholic grandfather, who was always too drunk to tell which kids were in his family and which weren’t and consequently assumed we were all kin and he could beat any child he could catch; and (b) via the roof, which required going up a street-facing fire escape, across the roof, and down a yard-facing fire escape. This was the preferred option, and we did it frighteningly fast, partly because the faster we moved, the less likely we were to be seen by one of our moms, and partly because we were nine years old and too foolish to realize how dangerous it was.
(2) When I was a junior in high school, I spent a year in Argentina on a student exchange program. As a result, I can speak Spanish with a convincing Argentinian accent. Subsequent years in New York have trained me to speak with a passable Puerto Rican accent as well.)
So we came out of the bar and decided we should take a cab to the party in Brooklyn, because it was in Greenpoint, which is a pain to get to. But for whatever reason, all the cabs were full at that particular place and time. So while Anna and our new companion were feeling flummoxed, I did something that was really not that exceptional, unless you didn’t grow up in New York: I flagged down a car service car.

(Until I moved away, I didn’t realize this, but there are actually places that don’t have the car service/taxi distinction, so let me explain: In New York, yellow cabs must have a special medallion – an actual metal oval about six inches wide with a license number on it, bolted to the hood. These medallions are exceedingly rare and worth many thousands of dollars, and they cause the number of yellow taxis to be limited. Since cab fares are regulated, the margins are tight and there is a strong incentive for taxis to stay in Manhattan, where the concentration of wealthy people is greatest and the trips are generally short. To serve the rest of the city, there are car services: private cars licensed to carry passengers, but not permitted to pick people up without an appointment. You are supposed to call them and they come to you, and the fares are unregulated and subject to negotiation. Every refrigerator in Brooklyn and Queens has at least one magnet with a car service number on it, and most people in those boroughs have a strong opinion about which of the two or three competing services in their neighborhood is better.


What locals know that recent arrivals (and Manhattanites) don’t know, is that you actually can hail a car service car and they will pick you up. You see, there is an unwritten rule that car service cars have to be black, late-model American sedans with huge antennas and tinted windows. So if you see such a car, you can stick your hand out and flag it down. Of course, that’s what I did on my superhero night.)

So the girls settled into the back seat ahead of me and our new friend told the driver that we were going to Greenpoint, to which he said, “Twenty-five,” except that it was more like “twenny-fie,” because he had a thick Spanish accent. So I kept the door open and one foot on the pavement and I said, “Oye –¿qué te pasa, brother? Vamos a Brooklyn nomás. Si vas a ser así, podemos buscar un taxi.” What’s up with that, man? We’re only going to Brooklyn. If you’re going to be like that, we’ll just find a cab. It was sort of a gamble, because saying “brother” in Spanish is very Puerto Rican and this guy could have turned out to be Dominican and just told me to go fuck myself, but I had a hunch and I went with it. He paused for a second, looked over his shoulder at me, and said, “Fourteen.” I said, “Gracias, pa,” and closed the door.
As we headed to Greenpoint, our friend told us that the party was being thrown by a group of artists from Spain whom she met earlier in the week. They were visiting New York because one of them had a gallery show, and they were all staying in the loft of a local artist who was out of town, and had invited all of their Spanish friends for a big party before they flew back to Madrid the following afternoon. They told her that there was no doorbell for the loft, so she must call one of their cell phones so someone would come down and let her in. We called as we were getting out of the car, but no one answered, and we figured maybe we’d shout from the sidewalk or go in when some other tenant was leaving.

The loft was in an old factory building, a long four-story brick number with a boarded up loading dock next to the front door. We looked up at the dark facade, then peered into the dingy lobby to see if anyone was around. There was no one. There weren’t even any buzzers at all by the door. We called again, and again no one answered.


The building was next to an empty lot, blocked from the sidewalk by a tall chain link fence topped with razor wire. There was an old fire escape covering the side of the building facing the lot and extending over the sidewalk, past the razor wire, with the bottom rung of its iron ladder about fifteen feet above the ground. Walking over by the lot, we could see the side of the building, and there in the back, on the second floor, we saw the party. They had the door open onto the fire escape and music was blaring, and we could see people milling around inside with drinks in their hands – they looked Spanish, and artsy. We shouted to them and shook the fence, but they were too far from the street and their music was too loud. We called again, and again there was no answer – probably because the music was too loud for anyone to hear the phone.


Anna and our new friend slumped against the fence and cursed quietly, pondering how to salvage the evening now that we had bailed on the birthday party to stand on a sidewalk in Greenpoint. And then, without a word, I sprung into action: I leapt onto the fence and climbed to just below the razor wire, so my back was to the sidewalk and the bottom of the fire escape ladder was behind me, about three feet back and two feet up. And just as Anna said, “You’re going to get arrested,” I launched myself backward off the fence and up, and caught the fire escape with one hand, my feet swinging out toward the street. It was probably the most graceful and athletic thing I’ve done in my life, and I can’t even really describe it except to say that it was fucking incredible.


I grabbed on with my other hand and muscled my way up, one rung at a time. The muscles in my arms were burning and the rusty rungs of the ladder were pressing uncomfortably into my palms in a way I could recall from when I was a kid. For a second, I though I wouldn’t make it, but I held on, and pulled until I could get one foot on the ladder, and then the other foot, and then I was up! I swung around from one side of the ladder to the other the way I had done a hundred times high above Ocean Avenue, brushed myself off, and sauntered into the party as if I owned the place. I knew these Spaniards would be amused and surprised by an Argentinian accent, so I turned mine on full bore: “Look, boludos” I said in the sing-song, quasi-Italian, lilt, using the best known Argentinian insult, “We’ve been out there hollering for fifteen minutes and calling on the phone, and you guys are too busy to let us in!” Then, after a pause, “And could somebody get me a drink?”


The reaction was just as I’d hoped. Someone looked out onto the fire escape, looked at the razor wire and the weedy lot, and said, “Where did you come from?” and then, “Who are you?” Someone else handed me a beer. I looked at the next person I saw and said, “Come on, let’s go downstairs and let everyone in,” and fortuitously, I started walking in the right direction to get to the front door of the loft, reinforcing the impression that I knew everything there was to know about the place and all the people in it. 

And that was it, the childhood dream come true: Just as I stood on the precipice of adulthood, a year from marriage, four years from parenthood, seven years from buying a house; just as I was beginning the time-honored process of narrowing my circumstances to fit my strengths, I got one evening to be effortlessly good at everything, and stylishly so. When I opened the building’s front door, a drink in my hand and a Spaniard by my side, I was a suave, unflappable, Brooklyn James Bond. I looked at Anna and our new friend and said, “Are you two coming in, or what?”

Sometime in the 1970s before my father became a voluntary mute, before my mother started going to the nude beach and growing marijuana, before my sister, Becca, was anorexic and before my brother, Josh, created a second home for himself on a platform three-stories high up a eucalyptus tree, we were a contained, orderly little family. I was six, quiet, and afraid of chaos and loud noises when Becca became friends with Alice Richter who lived in what was then the wildest house in the neighborhood.

Alice Richter, one of five kids, was Becca’s age, nine, but about a foot taller with white hair, eyebrows and lashes. She had hipbones that jutted out like boomerangs from below her flat belly. Her mother reminded me of Lucille Ball with her curly “done” hair and a voice that sounded like it had been born off the tip of a cigarette, which it had in fact. However, unlike my mother who suckled her cigarettes with a cup of coffee, Mrs. Richter puffed her two packs while sipping from a plaid, wool-lined canteen that hung on a shoulder strap, and which she carried with her continuously. Like the other women in the neighborhood, Mrs. Richter stayed home, cleaned her house and did laundry. So the “mess” in the Richter house was psychological—like a perfectly polished labyrinth set up for an anxious mouse.

When it was time for my sister to come home for dinner, it was up to me to summon her. The Richter phone was always busy when I called. I would hang up the yellow wall receiver, pick it up once more and redial over and over again while sitting on a stool at the counter in the family room looking into the kitchen at my mother cooking dinner. Eventually my mother would tire of my efforts and insist that I run down to their house, saying something like, “For crissakes! They’re not going to kill you! You’ll survive, go get her!”

I’d hop off the stool and often pick up Josh, if he was playing nearby on the family room floor. He liked to grasp onto me face-forward as I carried him toward the front door with all intentions of bringing him with me—a turtle shell against my vulnerable belly. But more often than not, Josh squirmed out of my arms and ran off before I could get him outside.

There were Five Stages of Terror at the Richter house. Stage One was the garage where the oldest son, Roger, hung out with his friends. Roger worked at an auto body shop painting mod designs on hot rod cars: sunsets, unicorns, blond ladies in red bathing suits. The garage door was always open, a car or two parked inside. Roger and his friends, who were the height of my father, or larger, huddled near the coffin-sized freezer in the back of the garage, drinking beer and smoking what I, at six-years old, could identify as marijuana (my mother’s pot habit, which at the time was only occasional, had been clearly explained to me so I that I would know to keep it a secret).

“Who you looking for little girl?” someone would invariably shout, and whatever I answered (“my sister” or “Becca”) they pretended not to hear for someone would walk out of the garage to interrogate me, asking questions like, “You looking for beer? You want a smoke?”

Once I’d made it past the garage, I’d knock on the front door that no one opened. (Honestly, there never was a day when I knocked and the door was opened.) I could hear top-forty radio playing inside, I could hear Mrs. Richter whistling so perfectly and purely that she could have done the opening tune for The Andy Griffith Show. I could hear the fluffy, dust ball-looking dog, Frank, yipping. And there, on the porch, I was faced with the Second Stage of Terror: the decision of how to proceed. Should I just open the door and go in, or go back to the garage and ask Roger if I could go in through the garage door? On the odd occasion that the front door was locked, I had to face the boys in the garage again. But usually the front door was unlocked, so I would eventually open it, stick my head in, and then step inside.

The yapping dog’s noise would build to a frantic crescendo. I was not afraid of dogs, but this one made enough racket that I didn’t bend down to pet it or do anything else that might calm his hysteria. I just waited for someone to come see what all the ruckus was about and find me.

If it was the youngest of the three brothers, Thad, who found me, he would look at me, say nothing, then walk away. If it was the middle of the three brothers, Marcus, or if it was Marcus and Thad together, the Third Stage of Terror, The Taunt, would begin.

The Taunt was something I had never encountered before and it was something that was, during my childhood in California, unique to the Richter household. Marcus Richter was, I believe, the composer of the taunt and the one who seemed to take the most joy in doing it. With a clear, high-pitched voice, a blond shaved head that looked like velvet, and sharp blue eyes, Marcus would lean in toward me, his shoulders weaving like a boxer’s, as he screeched, “Hee hee Jessica. Heeeee Heeee Jessica. Heeeeeee Heeeee. . . .” The Hee part of the taunt would grow louder and more maniacal the longer Marcus went on. He’d circle me, his lean, snaky body bending and twisting as he chanted, “Heeeeeee heeee Jessica . . . .” Eventually the taunt would grow to a rhythmical “Hee hee, ho ho, hi hi, hee hee, ho ho hi hi . . . .” And if that went on long enough it merged into a song that was shouted in my face and went like this, “Viva la viva la viva la WAH, viva la viva la WO, viva la viva la viva la WAH, viva la viva la WO . . . .” The coda was the most musical part of The Taunt. Marcus often got down on his knees and looked up at me as if he were pleading while he sang, “Cry for you, I’m going to cry cry cry for you, I’m going to cry for you . . . . ” When Thad joined in he was just another voice, as he never became fully immersed in the choreography the way Marcus did. According to Becca, this chanting taunt went on all day long, indiscriminately, to anyone who entered the house and it didn’t bother her in the least. (I must point out here that Marcus Richter grew up to be a Hari Krishna. Yes, a chanting Hari Krishna.)

If Marcus or Thad were not the ones to find me on the entrance hall landing, then it was usually Mrs. Richter. She spoke so rapidly, I never quite understood what she said and was always unsure if she was even speaking to me. She’d touch my elbow at some point and direct me to sit on the blue wing chair besides Mr. Richter in his blue wing chair while someone fetched Becca. Mr. Richter read the newspaper without speaking or looking at me, thus creating Terror Number Four as I uncomfortably tried to figure out where to look, or how to sit, while I waited for my sister to appear. And since Mrs. Richter usually sent Marcus or Thad Richter upstairs to get Becca and they never seemed to follow her orders, if often seemed as if I had to endure the Fourth Stage of Terror for as long as twenty minutes until Mrs. Richter entered the room again to refill Mr. Richter’s glass and was reminded that I was there waiting. Of course it always occurred to me during this waiting period that terrors two through four could be avoided if Mr. Richter, whose chair faced the front door, simply got up, opened the door when I knocked, then walked upstairs and retrieved my sister, or bellowed from the bottom of the stairs (the way my own father would) for her to come down immediately.

The Fifth Stage of Terror occurred when I had had enough of either waiting in the blue wing chair, or when I had gathered up the courage to walk away from Marcus in the middle of The Taunt (in which case the Fifth Stage of Terror would be the Fourth as we’d skip the other Fourth Stage of Terror: sitting in the living room with Mr. Richter) and took the unnerving walk upstairs to find Becca on my own.

Alice Richter’s bedroom was the last room down a long a hallway of Richter children bedrooms. Just before her room was her sister Mary Jane’s room. Mary Jane was a year younger than I and had the energy and spastic movements of the Richter boys. She was as skinny as a rope, as blond as the sun, with big gaping teeth that were too big for her face. If she spotted me, she would run and leap on top of me like a crazed tree frog, her stringy arms and legs all over my body. Once, she even bit me on the shoulder to try and convince me to stay and play with her. She was feral in a way that Josh wasn’t as there didn’t seem to be even a glint of prudence behind her wild blue eyes. (By the time we were teenagers Mary Jane was freakishly beautiful with her sun-browned skin and silky white hair. But people found her disturbing as she seemed to have an old person’s aphasia and could never find the words for what she wanted to say, often grunting and using hand signals for a simple sentence like, “I burned my arm on the iron.” By this time I had a great affection for her and would often speak for her at parties and dances at school.)

Once I had fended Mary Jane off my back I would run to Alice Richter’s room where the suspender-wearing James Taylor poster covered the door. I’d knock and then open the door it if it wasn’t opened for me within seconds.

“Becca,” I’d say, my voice in line with my pumping heart, “Mom said you have to come home for dinner NOW.” I’d turn and rush down the hall, past Mary Jane leapfrogging off the end of her bed, down the stairs, past Mr. Richter in his chair, past the sounds of Mrs. Richter in the kitchen and the rumbling sounds of Thad and Marcus riding a bare mattress down the rumpus room steps, out the door, and past the men-sized boys drinking beer and smoking pot in the garage and up the street to our cul de sac where everything seemed peaceful, calm, orderly.

When I entered our house with my mother quietly cooking dinner, a camel cigarette bobbing around her mouth, the sunlight streaming in and highlighting the mown-grass pattern in the green shag family room carpet, the sliding glass door looking out to the perfectly patterned, precisely geometric lemon orchard, I felt so happy that this was my family, this was my life. I was not a Richter child.

Of course I had no idea how quickly things would soon change in my own house.