Category Archives: Original Stories

Dad Made Me a Small-Time Coke Runner: A Confession

BOGOTA, DuPAGE COUNTY, ILLINOIS—-Every time I tell myself, “This is the last time.”

It has to be. I can’t keep it up any more. I’m losing my grip. The cash transactions. The legal scrutiny. The surveillance. And all of that Coke! I don’t know how my old man can do all of that coke in a single week! That is a lot of stimulant for a man of a certain age. And, yet, if I don’t bring him his next fix, there will be hell to pay. Hell worse than any law can bring down.

“Hey, Man. Soda-Tax-Free Diet Coke.” For four months, my very own father turned me into a Coke runner. The shame, the adventure, the lack of shaving.

You know, I didn’t start this way. I was a clean-cut all-American kid. I got good grades. I only dated nice girls. I was a star college athlete. I earned a master’s degree. I had a 401k. Life was good. Then the economy turned. I stopped working for The Man. My side hustle got real…real fast. And I liked it.

Still, I never looked at running coke as a viable option until the government stepped in and started attacking the little guy, the everyday Joe, who just enjoyed a bit of sugar and caffeine. That’s when my dad made me go underground and become his drug mule.

You see, on August 2, 2017, in an act of extreme irony, the county that almost single-handedly defeated Prohibition in the 1930s, enacted a sin tax or “Sweetened Beverage Tax.” Cook County, Ill., began charging a penny-per-ounce tax on all soda, sports drinks, energy drinks and a lot of other drinks. That is about 68 cents extra per 2-liter bottle of Coca Cola. And Cook County was already collecting around 10% sales tax on that same bottle. So this is 68 cents on top of that. You were paying almost as much in taxes as you were for the actual bottle.

Al Capone was rolling in his grave.

When the tax first passed, the Cook County board president became the Mento to my father’s Diet Coke. (Seriously, look up that combination on YouTube, if you are unfamiliar with the chemistry. Even if you are, this is an awesome video.) My father was a raging Mento bomb. You see, he is more Diet Coke than man at this point. If emergency room staff needs to stick an IV in him, his blood just fizzes out, spraying the whole staff and making a terrible mess.

Cook County needed to plug a $200 Million budget hole, and the sweetened beverage tax was how they were going to get it. At the rate my old man consumes Diet Coke, they were basically asking him to pay them $180 Million of that hole in a single year.

And so, as the dutiful son who lives one county over, it fell on to me to bring in the goods, sans sweetened beverage tax. I began carting 16 illicit liters nearly every week! Woe be unto me for not bringing sufficient tribute. There is no wrath like a caffeine fix scorned.

I am sure DuPage County made out like a bandit on its sales taxes. Every time I filled a cart with Diet Coke, the clerks at the grocery store laughed and said, “Ah, visiting someone in Cook County, I see.” Cook County residents, equally full of classic Boston Tea Party firebrand, raided our grocery stores for soda. It has been a huge boon for our community…even without a soda tax.

On Dec. 1, 2017, the tyranny of soda taxes will come to an end. A lot of vocal Cook County residents forced the county board to kill the tax. And thus my time as a drug mule will end.

Still, I’ll miss my wild, underground life: the greasy pony tail, shaving once every 4 or 5 days, packing heat and pushing stimulants. Yet, I’ll be able to tell the grandkids that I was a rebel once. A renegade flouting the law and sticking it to The Man. Oh, to run Diet Coke across county lines once again.

Especially Thankful

Close friends will tell you that I’ve never been a food guy, but I love taking this day to reflect on the past year and all that I have to be truly thankful for. This year is an exceptionally thankful year.

Part of my silence on the blog recently has been due to several severe and potentially life-threatening illnesses in my family. This whole year has been packed with really bizarre and life-threatening events among those I hold near and dear. This Thanksgiving, I am exceptionally grateful that each of these people is still with us and seemingly on the mend.

The Lafayette, Ind., Speedway gas station where small miracles happen and people are phenomenally friendly. Visit and fuel up with them, just as a matter of principle. I am quite thankful for its employees and friends!

To have just that would be enough to be thankful this year, but I’ve been exceptionally lucky. This was the year I stepped out on my own as an entrepreneur. For the first 9 years of ThePenMarket.com, I worked another job on the side. This year, thanks entirely to each and every one of my wonderful customers, I have been able to work full-time for myself. From online to the pen show circuit, I have been blessed with an abundance of support. Enough that I can continue working for myself…and for you…for the foreseeable future.

Honestly, this has been a lifelong dream come true. As even a little kid I knew I would only be really happy working for myself. I always assumed I’d become a famous author and would be able to sustain myself through my books. Yet, even after the publication of my first book Little Victories last year, it is clear that royalties won’t do the trick. To find that success in the very instruments I love best for writing has been the single greatest surprise pleasure of my life.

And I owe that all to each and everyone of you. Thank you.

Lastly, but by no means least, I want to thank three strangers in Lafayette, Ind. The drive home through the rain from the Ohio Pen Show was hellacious. Anyone stuck at the airport or trying to drive west on I-70 that Sunday night knows the frightful storm that struck. Hurricane-force wind gusts, rain so heavy it was like being stuck under a giant faucet and plenty of thunder and lightning…in November no less. The radio said to be on the lookout for tornadoes! Water was up to the center of our wheels in some spots on the interstate. Traffic crawled because nobody could see 10 feet in front of their cars. I was at least 2 hours slower getting out of the state than usual.

When I finally made the turn northwest on I-65, it was already late and the ol’ nerves were a little frayed, but the sky had cleared and the interstate had dried. Just a few miles north of Indianapolis, I was making good speed when a highway patrolman lit up my review mirror with his lights flashing. I quickly pulled over and was vastly relieved when he kept flying past me and chased after somebody else. Unfortunately, unbeknownst to me at the time, my rear passenger tire rolled straight over a really long and sharp drywall screw.

About 30 miles up the highway, all of my dashboard lights start going crazy with warning lights and buzzers. After a moment of panic, I read the bad news, my air pressure is getting dangerously low. Only about 20 miles from Lafayette, and with nothing else in site for miles, I decided to see if I could limp it on into town. Once I discover I’m losing a pound of pressure every five miles, I feel confident I’ll make it to Lafayette safely.

Yet, 9 p.m. on a Sunday means there is no business open except for a few service-stationless roadside gas stations. I pulled into a Speedway gas station that had an air hose. Outside of my car it was too cold and windy for the light jacket I brought with me, and I could hear my back tire hissing. I went inside and asked the clerks if there was an emergency garage in town. No. Nothing? Not even a tow service? No. But I’m 2 hours from home and exhausted and just want to sleep in my own bed after a week away…

Solomon, one of the clerks, said he thinks he knows somebody. He tried but can’t get a hold of him. The very nice lady he’s working with said she’s friends with that guy’s wife. She makes a call. They act like he is a mechanic with a shop in town. As long as he isn’t a serial killer, I’ll take what I can get.

Twenty minutes later, this 26-year-old man named Joe arrived. He took one look at my tire and effectively said, “Piece of cake. I’ll have you out of here in a jiffy.” He has all the tools but he doesn’t have the tire repair kit he needs with him, but there’s a Wal-Mart half a block away that is still open. We go. $6 later, we have the all important tire kit.

Before I know it, Joe’s got my car lifted on a jack in the parking lot of the Speedway. He’s got all 5 lugs off, as I help with the little things. I remind him of the scene in “A Christmas Story,” where Ralphie loses the lugs to the tire. He starts laughing, “Fuuuuuudgggggge.”

We get to talking, and I learned that Joe is a father of two little kids and works at the Subaru factory in town. He makes seats for the cars. He has a buddy with a mechanic’s shop, but he only builds seats and knows a little this and that about vehicle maintenance. He doesn’t work with tires for a living, and he doesn’t want any payment for his help.

Here he is, just a good Samaritan coming out into the windy cold night, leaving his warm home and family to help a total stranger. He yanked out the screw, put in a plug, refilled the tire and had it back on my car in no time.

I was floored! Stunned! I felt like I discovered a lost treasure of humanity. I asked, “Why on earth would you come out here to help me out, if you didn’t want anything for it.”

“Well, if I were stuck on the side of the road, I’d want somebody to give me a hand. It just felt like the right thing to do.”

I’m still awestruck. I made it home in two hours flat, but not after insisting I treat his whole family to dinner. He refused my money, and told me to pay it forward in kindness to somebody in the future. I promised him I would, but I’d stay here and stalk him until he accepted my money in the present. He reluctantly did so, and I swear I didn’t think people like him still existed. A small kindness, perhaps, but it also helps restore my hope for the future.

Thank you, Joe, Solomon and the woman whose name I never got. You fixed more than my tire that night.

The Road to Hong Kong

Here is the view of Hong Kong from Victoria Peak, after the lights have come on at night. This is on Hong Kong Island looking over Victoria Harbour and Kowloon, the mainland part of Hong Kong.

Here is the view of Hong Kong from Victoria Peak, after the lights have come on at night. This is on Hong Kong Island looking over Victoria Harbour and Kowloon, the mainland part of Hong Kong.

This is the night view of the colorful lights on Hong Kong Island as seen from the deck of the Star Ferry in Victoria Harbour.

This is the night view of the colorful lights on Hong Kong Island as seen from the deck of the Star Ferry in Victoria Harbour.

While riding in one Star Ferry boat, we passed another in Hong Kong's Victoria Harbour.

While riding in one Star Ferry boat, we passed another in Hong Kong’s Victoria Harbour.

Wong Tai Sin Temple prepares for Chinese New Year's celebrations.

Wong Tai Sin Temple prepares for Chinese New Year’s celebrations.

A sliver of moon prepares to call it a night, as dawn begins lighting the sky.

A sliver of moon prepares to call it a night, as dawn begins lighting the sky.




My long-suffering friend Maria and I hit the skyway for Hong Kong, and I feel compelled to show off some of the sites. It is the ego-maniacle photographer in me that periodically must showcase some favorite shots.

In my attempts to process the whole trip, I have failed to come up with a unifying story arc to describe the trip. Instead, I’ll just tell you some of my favorite parts.

LIGHTS! Hong Kong is huge. The lights there out glitz Las Vegas and dwarf New York. Buildings don’t just festoon lights for advertising or showcase who is home or at work via lit windows. Whole skyscrapers are specially lit with colorful external displays. I couldn’t get a good photo of it from across Victoria Harbour, but twin mini skyscrapers (only 30 or 40 stories tall) had billions of LEDs that lit up to recreate a live koi pond. The fish looked lifelike, and the water rippled when they moved. Other buildings had very active and colorful displays.

A cheesy but popular thrill in Hong Kong is the nightly light show. Most of the major buildings on Hong Kong Island’s and Kowloon’s waterfronts synced with music to put on a light show from 8 to 8:15. Each building seemingly dances to the music, and the buildings even get introductions and veritable bows.

Victoria Harbour is beautiful, when you can see across it through the smog. I especially loved crossing it on the famed Star Ferry boats that only cost 65 cents a ride. Hong Kong Island’s Victoria Peak is great, too. Both offer stunning views of the city. The photos from each were among my favorites.

Yet, there are quieter places to go inside the city if you want to get away from the modern and materialistic. We enjoyed a nice trip to Wong Tai Sin Temple, where the Taoists explore their traditions. Chinese New Year was approaching, and the temple was especially festive while we were there.

Travel in Hong Kong is extremely easy. As a former British colony, almost everyone we met spoke English. The public transportation is extremely safe and easy to navigate, which is good as cars drive on the wrong side of the road from an American perspective. Drivers are also very aggressive, not stopping for pedestrians. Cross against the lights at your own risk. We were in the tourist neighborhoods, and it felt extremely safe, even though we didn’t see a single cop until we got into the more local residential neighborhoods. And even here, the cops seemed far more concerned with seeking out prodemocracy protestors than actual crime. (That was a little scary.)(You gotta give a lot of credit to the protestors willing to spend time in a quasi communist Chinese prison to fight for greater political rights and freedoms.)

The only other drawback was the smog. If you are of a belief that man-made pollution isn’t a threat to our health and environment, you really need to spend a week in a major Chinese city. My eyes stung and breath got short quickly. These pictures were taken on good air days. We had one day in which it was 100% sunny and clear, but the smog was so thick that the sky was as grey as any rainy day in Chicago. You could not see the sun on that sunny day. You couldn’t see roughly a mile across the harbor and the buildings hidden in the smog. Many local residents take to wearing surgical masks everywhere they go to filter out the particulates to help prevent from getting sinus and lung infections.

Yet, there is so much to see and do in Hong Kong, I highly recommend going and seeing it if you can. The people are so friendly, and there are thousands of more things to see and do than simply what I’ve listed. This was a truncated list of all we did, as I don’t want to bore you.

The Year George Saved Christmas

George poses with the stunning debonaire of 007 with a rubberband gun on Christmas.

George poses with the stunning debonaire of 007 with a rubberband gun on Christmas.

It doesn’t matter who you are, if you have lived long enough, you will have had at least one year where everything can and does go wrong in every aspect of one’s life. If you are old enough to find this blog somewhat entertaining, then I venture you’ve lived through more than one catastrophic year.

For me, 2006 was one of those years. Just when I thought things couldn’t get worse, they did. The details don’t really matter. It is important enough to know it was what I consider the worst year of my adulthood.

By the time Christmas rolled around, I was down about as low as I could be. I wasn’t in the mood for Christmas; I just wanted to get it over with, which is highly unlike me. Yet, frustration ran high and patience was short. There was no joy in Mudville.

Then my sister announced she was inviting her boyfriend George to our traditional–closed to the outside world–Cerf Family Christmas Celebration. No interlopers had been let in before, and given what a crappy year it had been, I certainly didn’t want to deal with an outsider ruining tradition.

Now, I had absolutely no reason not to trust and welcome George. He was about the nicest guy I had ever met. Without even really knowing me, he and my sister helped me move from South Dakota back to the Chicagoland area. I owed him at least the benefit of the doubt at Christmas, but I wasn’t in a very charitable mood that year.

Besides, it is written in “The Great & Ancient Codex of the Sacred Brotherhood of Brotherhood” in Chapter 7 “Little Sisters” Rule #1: “Thou shalt not befriend thy little sister’s boyfriends, as thou mightest be called upon to smite him with thy fists one day.”

So it is written. So it has been for millennia. So it shall remain.

For our lawyer friends keeping track, this rule 7:1, as it is more commonly referred to in “The Great & Ancient Codex of the Sacred Brotherhood of Brotherhood,” is indexed under rule 2:13 which states: “Thou may relentlessly torment thy siblings with impunity, so long as ye beateth the face of any bully who shall, ever-so-foolishly, lay a hand upon thy siblings.”

And so, it was with a sense of foreboding and dread that I (and other unnamed actors in this drama) waited for the fateful arrival of Vanessa and George. We agreed to be civil. We bought George presents so that he’d feel welcome and a part of the festivities, but we also secretly anticipated some form of monumental fail. All but Vanessa, of course.

Christmas morning arrived and we began to show up at my parents’ home in our finest holiday attire. Ness and George were the last to arrive, after the presents had been strewn under the tree, the bowls of pistachios and candies laid out, the stockings bulging with the bounty from Santa, Christmas music on the stereo, cats high on catnip, the house fully bedecked with the cheer of the day…no matter how unsunny I felt.

George’s eyes boggled at the splendor of it all. As it turned out, his family Christmases were not quite as festive, and this grown man was overcome by the wide-eyed wonderment of a child. He dove in to Cerf Christmas traditions with wild abandon most of us had seemingly outgrown years before. His joy at being included in our event was undeniable, and this Grinch, whose heart was feeling two sizes too small that year, began to feel his heart swell at the sight of George’s happiness.

George loved his presents and he, wanting to impress his girlfriend’s family…a prospect we all failed to consider…gave far greater bounty. Then it was on to the snacks and stockings. When that was done, Mom was putting the roast in the oven and George seemed to exclaim, “Wait! You mean there is more food?!”

He exuded pure, raw, unadulterated joy. It was gleefully infectious and spread over all of us, revitalizing a Christmas spirit in me that I had thought was long lost to the miseries of that year and cynicism of midlife. My life might have seemed bad that year, but this served as a great reminder how good I truly had it, in spite of the hardships. It was the greatest gift he could possibly give, and it is one of the best I have ever received.

Luckily for all of us, George has been present for every Christmas since. He and my sister were married, and they have given us an even greater Christmas gift since: my nearly 3-year-old nephew Max.

Christmas 2006 remains one of my absolute favorites, and I hope you find that type of wonderment and joy this Christmas, too!

The Tale of the Valentine’s Day Leopard

Happy Valentine's Day. May you be so lucky as to encounter Louis, the Leopard of Love.

Happy Valentine’s Day. May you be so lucky as to encounter Louis, the Leopard of Love.

While riding in the backseat of our station wagon, my sister (then 6) and I (then 10), asked our parents a deeply philosophical question about St. Valentine’s Day and love.

“If here’s an Easter bunny and reindeer and Santa at Christmas, what animal leaves us gifts on Valentine’s Day?”

Every year we got a couple little chocolate hearts and a book or some other small gift.

“Cupid, I suppose,” Mom quickly answered.

“Flying naked babies with archery sets can’t carry around that much chocolate and presents,” my sister and I reasoned.

Without skipping a beat, Dad exclaimed, “You mean to tell me you’ve never heard of the Valentine’s Leopard?”

My sister and I looked at each other cautiously. “No.”

“What type of cultural vacuum have you been growing up in?” he asked. As my sister and I began grilling him for details…for which he seemed to be stalling for time to deliver…we arrived at our destination. “Oh, look we’re here. I’ll tell you about the leopard later.”

The following was the Valentine we received that year, and it hasn’t been topped, yet. Please note, for future reference, the name Louis is pronounced “Louie.”

The Valentine’s Day Leopard
by Art Cerf
All Rights Reserved

Louis, The Valentine Leopard,
the first to make it real big;
bigger than Waldorf the Valentine Warthog,
or Cleavis, The Valentine Pig.

For rooting around to find love in the ground
is just not romantic, because
Love is a thing that takes cunning and skill
and occasionally, razor-sharp claws.

For love is not dainty and covered in flowers
and baubles and bangles and rings.
It’s covered with nettles and suckers and thorns
and vipers that coil and sting.

To break through that jungle of worry and doubt
is what we all dream of.
And to guide us along, we need help big and strong.
Like Louis, The Leopard of Love.

Now Wellington Wesley Van Williams
(Let’s call him Wally for short.)
did constantly grieve and wear his heart on his sleeve
for Ms. Annibelle Pinkerton Tort.

For Annibelle was quite the beauty,
Yes, Annibelle was quite a catch;
And the thought of actually meeting her,
Made Wally think he would retch.

He had no idea that Annibelle, too,
was attracted to this dear lomax.
But she’d rather die than to look in his eye,
and confess it–they were both flumoxed.

One Valentine Night, when the moon was just right,
they each went out walking alone.
In the still of the air, they heard something rare,
the sound of a wild beast’s moan.

For Louis had not eaten well that week,
Just Cheetos and nachos and beer;
What he needed was meat, when he smelled something sweet
and better than that, it was near!

In no time at all, he saw Annibelle;
Her rare beauty gave him a start;
He sprang for her aorta but missed kinda–sorta
and instead ripped open her heart.

When Wally stepped into the picture,
He froze, knowing not what to do.
Louis let fly with his claws again,
and soon he had Wally’s heart, too.

“Which one should I eat? Which one should I eat?”
Louis pondered and pondered it through.
“Her’s is small, tender and fatty;
His is all muscle and blue.”

As the leopard did ponder, his mind it did wander
as to which one would certainly taste best.
Then out of his mouth, Annibelle’s heart headed south
smack into old Wally’s chest.

The cat’s jaws flew open, apparently hopin’
To regain the now fallen ticker,
And as he looked down, there, too, on the ground
Wally’s heart tumbled out, only quicker.

And wouldn’t you know it, as once said the poet,
It landed in Annibelle’s vest
And their love, once forbidden, was no longer hidden,
‘Though their clothes were a terrible mess.

As each awoke, the words they did choke
“My heart now belongs to you.”
And love, it did flower, as hour after hour,
they sewed up each other, too.

And Louis, though achin’, was certainly shaken
to see what two young hearts could do,
So he left them alone, and walked quickly home
and ordered some pizza and stew.

So all of you Valentine’s lovers,
May your days always be blessed.
And while out for a walk in the moonlight,
always cover your chest.

A “-” Typical Cerf Family Christmas

Among the many great holiday traditions in the Cerf family is a contest to see who can come up with the most ingenius gift for another family member at Christmas.

This is not a greedfest. The most expensive gift rarely wins. Hard-to-find and/or extremely clever often carry the day. The competition is fierce but loving, as we’re all going out of our way to find something the others will truely cherish. Some years are better than others, and there is no shame in average gifts. And in other years, average gifts are presented in such a way that trumps the gift itself.

When roughly 15 years ago my sister, dad and I all wanted the video tape of “L.A. Confidential,” instead of buying three copies, Mom gave us one copy held in a trust known as a tontine. The contract of her tontine was hilarious and not one of us can claim ownership of the movie until the other 2 are dead. (All three of us still have a working VCR. I told you the competition is fierce in my family.)

To be a true Cerf, you must have a thick skin and dark sense of humor.

When Christmas rolled around last year, I was at a total loss as to what to get my father for the holiday. Mostly, we had spent the better part of the six months leading up to it arguing about movies and movie stars.

Here's the "Life of Pi" box cover. My dad couldn't wait to see it, while I was more resistant.

Here’s the “Life of Pi” box cover. My dad couldn’t wait to see it, while I was more resistant.

The biggest battle was over the merits of going to see the film “Life of Pi.”

Me: That looks like it’ll be the most boring movie ever made.

Dad: Are you kidding?! It has a guy, and he’s trapped on a boat with a tiger. A tiger!

Me: Clearly, as a feature-length film, the tiger isn’t going to eat the guy. So you’re going to spend 90 minutes staring at a guy on a boat with a tiger doing nothing. It isn’t even a real tiger.

Dad: But it has a tiger in it! Guy, boat, TIGER. What don’t you get? It is going to be amazing.

Me: If you want to watch tigers so badly why don’t watch Animal Planet. They have tons of tiger specials. And they are real tigers.

Dad: But this is a movie…with a tiger in it.

This conversation could drag on for hours. So let me inter splice a different differing conversation.

Me: I just watched the world’s longest, most boring movie called “Far From the Madding Crowd.”

My dad absolutely adores Julie Christie. Her soulful gaze in the 1960s continues melting his weary heart.

My dad absolutely adores Julie Christie. Her soulful gaze in the 1960s continues melting his weary heart.

Dad: With Julie Cristie?

Me: Yeah, some bland blonde chick? It was made in the 1960s. It is 3 hours of nobody doing anything in some small farming village in England.

Dad: Bland?! Julie Christie was the most beautiful woman ever filmed.

Me: It isn’t like she got naked or anything. And even if she did, it wouldn’t have improved the 3 hours of my life that were wasted.

Dad: Who cares if she got naked. She’s beautiful.

Me: She didn’t do anything for 3 hours, except pine away for some lying, cheating lover.

Dad: But it is Julie Christie. She was also in “Dr. Zhivago.”

Me: She was Lara, right?

Dad: Yeah, and she was stunning.

Me: She was boring in that, too. She was only vaguely interested in Omar Shariff who ends up divorcing his arguably more beautiful, and certainly more lively and engaging, wife played by Geraldine Chaplin. I’d run off with Chaplin’s character in a heartbeat. Julie Christie was just kinda blah. Pretty for a one-night stand, maybe. But she’s got no anima.

Dad: What?! How can you say that? You’re not my son. She’s Julie Christie.

Me: This coming from a man who just wants sit in a theater staring at a CGI tiger for 90 minutes

Dad: [Gives a strangled scream of exasperated frustration]

***

And now you ask: You guys argued over that for 6 months?

To which my dad and I proudly reply: You’re not a Cerf.

Nevertheless, I was wracking my brains trying to figure out what to get Dad last year when inspiration struck. It required the help of my graphic designer friend Paul Szymczak, but it was the best gift I had given my old man in a good 20 years.

My friend Paul S created this sequel movie poster to the "Life of Pi." My dad looked at it confused for all of one second when I said, "It's a girl. In a car. With a tiger!" One year later he is still laughing at it.

My friend Paul Szymczak created this sequel movie poster to the “Life of Pi.” My dad looked at it confused for all of one second when I said, “It’s a girl. In a car. With a tiger!” One year later he is still laughing at it.




I simply gave him a movie poster.

I had it framed. When my dad unwrapped his gift he looked at it with puzzlement for one whole second when I shouted out: “It’s a girl! In a car! With a tiger!”

Then he laughed and laughed. The poster now hangs in the hallway of my parents’ house, and my dad is still laughing at it.

May you find such joy in all of your gift giving this year

Happy Hanukkah and Merry Christmas

P.S. I finally watched “Life of Pi” with my dad, and it was way better than a Julie Christie movie.

P.P.S. Just this past weekend Dad asks, “Do you want to go see ‘All is Lost’ with me. It stars Robert Redford.”

Me: Not this again.

Dad: What?

Me: Its a guy. On a boat. No tiger.

Haunting at 715 S. Phillips Ave.

When I lived at 715 S. Phillips Avenue in Sioux Falls, S.D., there were all kinds of things that went bump in the night...and day. I'm not saying I believe in ghosts, but I'm at a loss for what to call what I experience...and I wasn't the only one.

When I lived at 715 S. Phillips Avenue in Sioux Falls, S.D., there were all kinds of things that went bump in the night…and day. I’m not saying I believe in ghosts, but I’m at a loss for what to call what I experience…and I wasn’t the only one.

The desire to preface this story is strong. I am not the type of guy who believes the Virgin Mary is trying to make a connection by appearing in a grilled cheese sandwich. Jesus isn’t hiding in a Cheez-It cracker. I don’t even believe in ghosts…but I did experience some things that I do not understand.

While living in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, I rented a beautiful apartment in a converted mansion on a lushly tree-lined street. Just a block south of downtown and walking distance from work, it was across the street from a large park. The colonial mansion had been built in 1922, and it was converted into three apartments—two boxcar long apartments on the ground floor and a huge residence on the top floor.

My apartment was the ground floor one on the right side of the photo. The spacious front room got morning sunlight. My library was connected to the front living room. Halfway down the long narrow hall on the right was my bedroom, to the left a tiny bathroom with a remarkable claw-foot bathtub the size of an Olympic pool. There was a utility closet at the end of the hall on the left and the kitchen and dining room were in the far west end of the unit. Summer sunlight peeked through the dappled shadows of the leaves in the evenings.

The apartment was always warm and inviting. The doors and trim were rich, darkly stained wood. The floors were recently sanded and refinished maple. Oh, how you could slide down the hall in socks!

The only thing remotely foreboding about the place was an old dumbwaiter shaft that had been converted into a skylight. It was in the center of the hall. Frosted glass windows kept the neighbors from looking in, and we used the empty space to store boxes and such. An even creepier double-doored cabinet was beneath the dumbwaiter shaft. No doubt this was where its engine used to be. It was ripe for a good hidden passage or secret storage compartment perfect for hiding bodies or treasure. I explored it several times in daylight with a flashlight. There wasn’t a trick floorboard or any passage or bones. Disappointing as hell, but that doesn’t mean it didn’t give me the willies from time to time.

No one will tell you I lack an overactive imagination. However, I never even thought about that space in the apartment 99% of the time, and I lived there for 3 ½ years. Every now and again it just gave me the heebie jeebies.

I settled in quickly during the late spring of 2003. I worked until 1 a.m. at a newspaper and didn’t usually wind down for bed until 4 a.m.

Then one hot, humid summer morning around 10 a.m. I heard a gentle knocking at my front door. The only person this could have been was a delivery man, so I got up at my equivalent of 5 a.m. to answer.

No one was there. The knocking had only stopped when I was within feet of the door. I checked the hall, the stairs, the basement, the front porch, the sidewalk out front. Nothing. Nobody could have gotten away that quickly and silently.

Befuddled, I went back into my apartment and went back to bed. Just as I was falling back to sleep there was a violent pounding on my front door. A commanding voice called out “NATHANIEL.” The pounding continued until I reached the front door.

It didn’t take my adrenaline-fueled body 10 seconds to get from my bed to the pounding door.

No one was there. I searched high and low for this person. Nothing.

I wasn’t scared. I was confused and angry. Who was pounding on my door and calling my name? I am dead certain I didn’t imagine or dream it. All of my neighbors were at work. I had no idea who it could be, especially since I didn’t know anybody in town outside of work.

I went back to bed. As soon as I got under the covers, it got cold—really cold. I got back up and turned off the air conditioner. I was still really cold in bed. I don’t know if I heard something, but I suddenly had the feeling I was no longer alone in the apartment. Whoever it was was in the doorway of my bedroom watching me. I thought it was a burglar who just realized he had picked the wrong house.

My back was turned to the door, and I could’t see who it was. My inner 5-year-old wanted to just pull the blankets over my head and hope whoever it was went away. My adult self said, “Screw this. If someone is about to kill you, you might as well go down fighting.”

I spun and sprang out of bed, landing on my feet, squaring off to fight.

No one was there. I ran into my living room. It was icebox cold, but no one was there. The library, bathroom, dining room, kitchen and closets were empty.

The apartment went back to normal temperatures.

There was no going back to sleep, and it was a sunny beautiful morning. It wasn’t until I got done searching the place that I began thinking it was a ghost. Yet, the one thing I couldn’t fathom was, “Who ever heard of a daytime haunting?”

All summer I began noticing little things going awry. I saw movement out of the corner of my eye. I’d hear a voice in an empty room.

There were no angry poltergeists seeking revenge. There were no lethal traps. No spirit ill will. I usually dismissed these odd occurrences.

For example, I never thought twice about a knee-level cabinet door in my kitchen opening on its own. It was an 80-year-old house. If the cabinets were a little off from their heyday, I didn’t care. I just kept closing it every time I found it open. No biggie.

Well, one night off from work around 8 or 9 p.m., I made dinner and was about to sit down to watch a movie on T.V. When I had carried my dinner into the living room from the kitchen, the cabinet door had re-opened. I closed it, and went to go eat.

Just as I was settling into the couch, that cabinet door starts opening and slamming itself shut about half a dozen times. Then my hall light flickered.

Now I was scared.

My mind raced, trying to figure out how I should react, especially if something materialized before me. Having seen “The Sixth Sense,” I figured I’d try to talk to it.

“All right, Ghost. You’ve got my attention. What do you want?”

No response. Then it occurred to me. My ghost was simply a practical joker ghost. He or she just liked causing mischief to get a rise out of me. I started laughing.

“All right, Ghost. Very funny. You got me.”

I marched right down the hallway, showing no fear, and discovered the cabinet door was open once again. I looked inside for any messages or clues from the spirit world. Nada. No fishing line or any other devices, either. Just my kitchen stuff. I slammed the cabinet shut, and went back to eat and watch my movie.

I saw and heard less and less from my prankster ghost over the coming months and years. Every now and again, I’d see or hear something, but I’d just talk to it. “Feelin’ bored or lonely, eh?”

I never got a response other than fewer visitations.

Then one day a new group of college grads moved into the unit overhead. They threw a raucous party one night that was still raging after I got home from work. I went upstairs to tell them to shut it down for the night, when they invited me in for a beer.

Who was I to turn down a beer and a party with a lot of hot girls?

I worked my way out to the balcony with my beer, and one of the guys asked, “You ever see anything around here?”

He seemed sincere, but I didn’t want to be the kook who started spouting off about ghost stories.

“What do you mean? See what?”

“Oh,” he nervously dismissed me. “Nothing. It’s a stupid question. You’ll think I’m a nut job.”

I wryly smiled. “You mean the ghost?”

His face filled with wide-eyed wonderment, like a child’s.

“You’ve seen it,” he said. “Who is it?”

“No, unfortunately, I haven’t seen it. Have you?”

“Sorta,” he said. “But if you haven’t seen it, how do you know about it.”

When I got done telling him my stories, he was noticeably paler.

“Relax,” I said. “This ghost won’t harm you. It just gets a kick out of messin’ with you. So you actually saw it.”

“Just part of it,” he said. “There are 3 other guys living here, and a couple nights ago, they all went out drinking, but I stayed home because I had to get up early the next day for a meeting.

“It was really only around 11 o’clock when I went to bed. My bedroom door was open, and as I’m lying there still awake, I hear the front door to the apartment open. I shout out something like, ‘Hey, which one of you losers decided to call it a night early?’ But nobody answered.

“I hear footsteps coming down the hall, so I look out my door and only see a foot as they walked passed. They keep walkin’ down the hall, and I’m like, ‘Hey, didn’t you hear me.’ Still no answer. So I get out of bed, and now there’s no one in the hall. I went into every guy’s bedroom, the bathrooms and out on the balcony. Nobody was here but me.”

“Cool,” I said. “What did the foot look like?”

“That was even stranger,” he said. “It was barefooted. I mean, we’re not that far from the bars, but far enough you aren’t gonna leave your shoes some place. I was totally freaked out.”

Work brought me to Chicago not too long after that, and I never heard any more ghost stories from my neighbors, but I always loved my encounters with the unexplained at 715 S. Phillips Ave. in Sioux Falls, South Dakota.