My brother and I grew up in Ridgefield Lakes, a suburban community in Fairfield County, with the pre-requisite 2.5 kids per family. (Of course there was the Hannity family with nine kids, but they were Catholic and he was a dentist). Fathers — who all had the same haircut — wore white shirts and ties to work and had a martini, or three, at business lunches. Mothers made wholesome school lunches and the jelly on our waxed-paper wrapped peanut butter sandwiches came in one flavor: grape. There were neatly stacked boxes of chicken and beef pot pies in every freezer, right next to the cans of frozen orange juice concentrate. A truly daring mother wore a polyester pant suit over newly-invented pantyhose, to her part-time job. On weekends, fathers puttered around in navy blue crew neck sweatshirts as they raked their lawns. Our father, who saw leaves as an evil consequence of living in the country, took raking to an extreme and also raked the woods. If he didn’t have to go to work, he probably would have raked the trees!
Serge Garabosky, a swinging single, moved to Ridgefield Lakes one summer in the late 1960’s. From the outset, Serge was an oddity. He was mod. In a land where people drove predictable Pontiac Bonneville stations wagons; perfect for the kids to play in the back (in the days before seat belts), watched Bonanza, ate fish sticks and had never heard of Chilean sea bass, he zipped around in a British sports car, an MG. It was orange! Sporting bell-bottoms, love beads and hair that actually touched his collar, we had no idea what Serge did for a living, but it was undoubtedly something cool.
We were pre-pubescents when Serge came to town. At a time in our lives when words such as balls, wiener and titmouse made us giggle and snort in a knowing way, and phrases like “screw in the light bulb” led to an eruption of snickers, Serge was the antithesis of 1960’s suburbia. He was our first peek at a bigger exciting world outside of our drab suburban lives. You can “bet your sweet bippy” that until he came to town, the most exciting thing in our lives was getting a color T.V., playing Twister, drawing groovy peace signs and writing ‘Luv’ on notebooks.
By that October, my brother and I and the other four kids on the road, were at the tail end of our trick-or-treating years and no longer required parental accompaniment. To me, the best part of Halloween was coming home and dumping all our candy out on the living room rug to begin the trading process. Invariably, our father got all the black licorice. I was crazy about candy corn, Sugar Daddy’s, Milk Duds, Tootsie Rolls and those homemade paper goodie bags full of assorted treasures that were still acceptable in the pre razor-blades-in-apples days of trick-or-treating. My brother liked Hershey’s Kisses and Raisinettes. Apples and raisins went in the junk pile. They were as bad as Dots, those fake gumdrops that our parents gave out because they were cheap. Like a crafty magician, our father would do this sleight-of-hand move and make kids think he was tossing a handful of Dots boxes, rather than just one, into their candy bags.
Believe me; we had every family on the road pegged and graded: The house that gave out Junior Mints (avoid!) scored a ‘D.’ The losers who only cared about dropping pennies in our orange cardboard UNICEF boxes begrudgingly got a ‘C-.’ The people who pretended they weren’t home obviously were ‘F’s’ and the Blackburn’s who not only gave out full sized candy bars, but also powdered donuts and hot cider, were the ‘A’ family on the road!
Traveling in a small band, our only objective was to garner loot in pillowcases, but my best friend Lizzie and I at least created Halloween costumes. Our brothers did that thing that boys of a certain age do and dressed up as hobos with baggy jeans, ratty flannel shirts and blackened faces. Lizzie and I were inseparable back then so naturally we dressed as a pair of unwieldy dice, arms sticking straight out of cardboard boxes we had snagged behind the super-market, and then painted in our basement.
Serge lived in a tiny cottage, formerly owned by the famous game show producer Mark Goodson (“This has been a Mark Goodson-Bill Todman production.”). Bluma, the ex-wife of Mark Goodson, was the closest we came to a celebrity in our insulated lake community. She owned three, maybe four, houses which she got in the divorce settlement and lived off the rent. Bluma had a thing for hot pink and everything she owned either was pink, or eventually became pink. She threw crazy parties and everyone wanted to go because she was a “celeb.” One time our parents dragged us to one of her shindigs and we were bored while the grown-ups got drunk. Bluma had Bachman pretzels which at the time were shaped like a ‘B’ so we had the clever idea to bite them into the word BLUMA. I think she was a little sloshed as she gushed over the piece of ‘art’ we had created. Right then and there, she spray-painted it hot pink and hung it on the wall. As Manhattans, Whiskey Sours, Old Fashioneds and Vodka Gimlets loosened the tongues of the party guests, they gossiped about the draft dodging hippie who now lived in Bluma’s old house. We overheard their whispers as they speculated on the possibility that he might be smoking marijuana and maybe even having orgies!
Serge’s cottage had a huge picture window overlooking the deck, but no lights were on that Halloween night. The hobos and the dice made their way up the stairs in the dark and assembled on the deck. It was impossible not to look in the window. There was Serge in a Nehru jacket. There was his forest green Pleather (plastic leather) couch. There was a woman in hot pants and white go-go boots. Can you picture fours hobos and two dice all holding pillowcases crammed with candy peering in the window? Serge and the woman were smooching on the Pleather couch and practically bit each others lips off when we knocked. As we watched the entire scene unfold, Serge quickly stashed the woman in the bedroom and came to the door. He muttered something from beneath his Fu Manchu mustache as we whooped, “Trick-or-Treat!” Serge returned in a split second with our goodies: a grapefruit and can of Campbell’s beans. It was the coolest stuff we got all night!
My mother and I recently discussed this story. She said she never really knew Serge, she was just “vaguely aware of some guy who lived down the road.” I guess that sums up our fascination with him. Family life necessitates routine and regularity. In a world of parent-teacher conferences, meatloaf and semi-annual dental checkups, Serge Garabosky was our first taste of the unexpected. We didn’t idolize him. We weren’t envious of him; he was just something different at a time when our world was pretty constant. Today, Serge probably wears Dockers, has a comb-over and drives a Plymouth Voyager minivan. To us, he will always be that cool guy who lived down the road with an A+ Halloween rating.