Neighborliness can be dangerous

The newspaper recently endorsed old-fashioned block parties as a great way to promote neighborhood safety and togetherness.

These informal gatherings, such as the increasingly popular “National Night Out” observance, allow neighbors to get to know each other, share new ideas and strange casserole recipes while presenting a strong, united front against crime, chaos and itinerant religious zealots.

On the surface, this all seems like a genuine example of the much-touted win-win situation – have a good time, make new friends and scare undesirables away with the aforementioned casseroles.

Unfortunately, I can’t quite share my newspaper’s enthusiasm for these neighborhood get-togethers.

For reasons I have yet to fully ascertain, it seems like every block party I’ve ever been foolish enough to attend has evolved into what international peacekeeping forces usually refer to as an “incident.”

(“Incidents,” it should be noted, customarily involve clouds of oily, black smoke, people screaming in Urdu, lots of overturned vehicles and, er, really bad casseroles.)

Whenever somebody mentions throwing a block party, my mind is drawn back to a once quiet street in San Jose where a trio of counterculture commandos known to regional law enforcement agencies as “Those damn King boys!” used to mark the end of each work week with 48 hours of neighborhood trauma.

The three brothers – Larry, Reb and Goose – lived in an old Southern Pacific railroad shack across from the Baptist church on Sunnyside Drive and they believed in sharing the good times whenever they decided to celebrate.

A typical block party weekend would begin about 7 a.m. on Saturday with the brothers’ three German shepherds – Sam, Zeke and Lookey Lou – enthusiastically pursuing a large, unidentified rodent through a half-acre of discarded malt liquor cans left over from Friday night. The barking dogs would eventually awaken the three hungover brothers, who would proceed to wake up the rest of the sleepy suburban neighborhood by repeatedly bellowing “Shaaaaaaddup!” at the frisky canines.

Once the boys were on their feet – about 4 p.m. – a block party liquor store caravan would be organized and, a short time later, the barbecue fires would be lit. The latter activity traditionally involved large quantities of gasoline, a blow torch, lots of cursing and a Hungarian guy named Tibor repeatedly falling out of a tree in the front yard. Sam, Zeke and Lookey Lou would gleefully abscond with whatever had been tossed on the barbecue grill while the King Boys painstakingly orchestrated another liquor store mission.

By 8 p.m., we could count on the beginning of the neighborhood block party argument.

Predictably, the King brothers would return from the liquor store, find the barbecue grill bare and blame Tibor for eating all the food – despite the ribs and drumsticks protruding from the German shepherds’ mouths. Tibor would begin shouting in Hungarian and everyone would wind up throwing punches and rolling around on the steps of the Baptist church.

By midnight, the neighborhood block party would have become the focus of a valuable lesson in community law enforcement from the Police Department and another warm, educational neighborhood get-together would have drawn to a close.

Until, like, Sunday…

Originally published August 26, 2001

Please, just say no to casserole madness

Every now and then the newspaper gleefully publishes some gratuitous piece of helpful advice that’s supposed to make our lives a little easier, our days a little brighter.

Fortunately, this advice – usually written by some wizened, three-fingered scribe who’s lived his entire life in the Jersey Pine Barrens – is usually harmless. Bathing your cat in a bucket of milk won’t really get rid of the frisky feline’s fleas, but it won’t cause your refrigerator to explode, either.

Harmless, however, is the best you can hope for if you insist on living your life around the well-meant advice of newspaper columnists and the occasional reader who writes in about her boiled salamander cure for warts.

Sooner or later – probably sooner – you’re going to blissfully follow some helpful hint from the newspaper and find yourself running down the center divider of the freeway covered in flaming gobs of burning seaweed.

(Hey, it could happen …)

Take the helpful hint we published earlier this month on our Family page. A reader from Atlanta suggested that “One of the best things you can do for a new mom is to organize a casserole shower.”

Yeah, sure. Better to organize a meteor shower, amigos. Bombarding a new mom – or anyone – with a dozen or so yummy casseroles is tantamount to asking them to join you for a brisk round of Russian roulette.

Think about it – they don’t have casserole parties in Pakistan or, for that matter, Holland. That’s because intelligent people live in both of the aforementioned countries and they’ve got sense enough not to engage in really goofy practices without a pretty damned good reason.

There is no good reason to have a casserole party.

Consider, if you will, the things that the average American puts into his or her favorite casserole recipe. Once you’ve ruled out the basic macaroni and cheese combo, casserole ingredients constitute one of the single largest collections of mismatched mealtime components ever assembled anywhere.

Almost every family has a “secret” casserole recipe lovingly handed down from generation to generation.

Why are so many of those old family recipes secret?

A little research will usually reveal that the dish dates back to great-great Aunt Eunice who prepared her first casserole while crossing the plains in 1848, so it contained items like cactus, porcupine, acorns and cabbage baked in a creamy trout-and-cheap-whiskey sauce (hedgehog or skunk can be substituted for porcupine in a pinch).

Nobody in any given family actually eats these secret family recipes. They simply prepare them again and again for somebody else’s potluck dinner, baby shower or wake.

Bon appetit!

Then there’s the “Oh, this can’t be so hard to make” casserole. This is usually prepared by someone who can’t boil water but who has reluctantly agreed to provide a casserole for one of the aforementioned functions.

When the smoke clears, beginners usually wind up holding a slightly charred tuna-and-marshmallow casserole quite suitable for chemical warfare purposes.

Yeah, by all means, let’s have a jolly casserole party …

Originally published October 15, 2000