Early last year, I was doing my Googles to try and plan an out-of-the box birthday get-together in NYC for one of those "man who has everything" types that I wasn't sure how to impress, and I came across the website of a room escape adventure in Midtown. My only previous exposure to them was from some reality TV show as part of a televised couples therapy adventure, and I was intrigued to see one in "real life."
I never ended up organizing the escape party last year, but the idea of trying an escape room stuck with me, and when I heard that a Black woman had just opened one in the historic Graham Court building in my native Harlem, I jumped at the chance to get trapped there. As it turns out, my interest in trying this adventure and telling you how I escaped, or didn't, turned out to be its own sort of adventure, leading me to an unexpected conversation with the owner that was surprisingly inspirational and also motivational.
Owner Michele Ware made a massive career shift from managing finance departments in Corporate America to opening her adventure facility, Hoodwinked Escape. She doesn't see it that way however, saying, "It seems like a big shift, but it isn't." Michele projects a distinct calm as she talks about walking away from over 20 years working in finance, on what could be perceived as a whim. It is the calm of worldly determination and drive matched with spiritual steering, and it is a joy to witness.
In her work as a department manager, Michele liked to find ways that coworkers could get to know each other better and bond, both inside and outside of the office. Corporate environments are largely a mystery to me personally, so when I hear a phrase like "team-building," I get flashes of Ricky Gervais as David Brent singing "Free Love Freeway" on the original version of "The Office." However, it's clear from Michele's passion that under her supervision, team building was a sincere undertaking with valuable results, that, as she says, "led people to respect each other's different work ethics, and you have a new appreciation for the person you're sitting next to every day in your second home, which is what a job is to a lot of people."
In November 2014 Michele was looking for one such group adventure, and she found out about escape rooms. "We went there," she tells me joyfully, "and I remember coming out; I told my manager, 'I want to open one of these. In Harlem.' And she said, 'Go for it, Michele!'"
When Michele had her lightbulb moment in the escape room, she wasn't only moved by the enjoyment of the experience, but her lifelong entrepreneurial spirit and business acumen were tingling at the prospect of a wide-open market. Back in November 2014 there were only a handful of companies doing escape rooms in New York, though the room escape scenarios, having been translated from their video game origins to real world setups, were already booming in Asia, parts of Europe, and also Silicon Valley in the US.
I'm in awe of any woman who creates her own business, particularly a single mother who already has a long list of responsibilities before even considering starting a business from scratch. It's possibly surprising for a CPA, but Michele largely credits meditation with helping her leap over her hurdles.
Michele quit her high-level corporate job three months after she decided she wanted to open an escape room adventure of her own. She describes how her meditative practice of nearly 20 years made that big leap feel smoother to her, saying, "One of the things that helped me get over that hurdle and really bring this to fruition was being at a certain consciousness level where I was able to listen to the voice that you hear sometimes when you're in a meditative state; some people call it the Universe, some people call it God, and I literally remember that conversation: it was profound and very loud."
She continues, "I remember saying 'I'm tired. When am I gonna really make that next move?' and the voice said 'Why not now?' and I said 'Well, because I have a daughter getting ready to go to college, I'm a single mom, how can I possibly afford to quit this very well-paying job...' I didn't have a lot of cash, but I had assets, and I said 'How can I do that?' and he told me how to do it. And I had a lot of 'buts:' I said, 'but—but—but—I have to help my mom out;' and he gave me an answer. And I said 'but I have two mortgages;' and he gave me an answer, and I got every answer. So, when I woke up out of that meditative state, there was no excuse."
"It was the right time for me to take the risk, and I had no fear at all. It surprises me to be in a place where, consciously, I have no fear of failure. It's weird to me; a voice says 'Michele, you need to be scared' and it's like 'NO!' Because of that conversation I had and where it led me, throughout the whole process of opening a business, I held on to that feeling. If I got stuck or had a problem, I sat back and sat still. I took a still moment and said 'What do I do?' and the answers always came to me, and that's even how I came up with the name Hoodwinked. Because I asked."
When she was stumped for a distinctive name and getting advice from mortal companions, Michele retreated to stillness and her meditative voice told her to look toward Sherlock Holmes lore, which inspired the name and many of the specific Hoodwinked touches.
Working with a gaming consultant flown in from Europe, Michele designed four distinct rooms for Hoodwinked Escape: Asylum, the Hangover Room, Military Mission, and Spirit of Harlem, which is the room I visited. On top of being a great Escape, Hoodwinked also represents something else that I love: a reaction to and a step toward stifling the evils of gentrification.
It's a shiny new Harlem business owned by a Black woman who specifically wanted to build her business there and honor the community. Michele clearly loves her New York roots, and she makes it a family affair with her mother helping out at the front desk, and her daughter working at Hoodwinked Escape during breaks from school.
That's me in the Spirit of Harlem room, image cropped to avoid giving away any juicy clues. The room pays homage to the history and heritage of Harlem, beautifully decorated with portraits of local heroes, and featuring a full wall of exquisite poetry from Harlem Renaissance legends like Langston Hughes.
Our group's host dropped us off in the room, gave one of us a walkie-talkie with which we were allowed to communicate and ask for clues, told us we were being monitored by camera for our safety, and showed us the panic button to immediately exit if need be. She then chirped out a riddle/poem/clue, set the timer for 60 minutes, and left.
I wish I could say we escaped. We didn't. But the puzzles, locks, clues, and gadgets were fantastic and engaging and we came very close. I should state that everyone I was in the room with joined in dorky solidarity to NOT ask for any clues, which might have helped us along.
Cell phone use is forbidden in the rooms, and Hoodwinked Escape is even considerate enough to provide lockers to secure your belongings. I brought my purse in, however, and in a stunning moment of assholery I took out my phone just to quickly check it because I saw it lighting up repeatedly from where I had stashed my bag in the room. Lo and behold, a voice came over the loudspeaker reminding me to put down my phone, a feature I would be interested in paying for to accompany me in everyday life.
That's when it struck me what a tactile and non-electronic experience the room escape was, and how joyful that makes me. One of the things about Michele drawing inspiration from Sherlock Holmes stories is that Sir Arthur Conan Doyle didn't have smartphones, the internet, or CGI when he wrote the books; hence, the riddles, puzzles, combination locks, and optical illusions in the room I visited are all computer tech-free things that still provided real challenges, intrigue, and excitement.
I should also stop saying "the room I visited;" room escape is a group activity by design. Just as I imagine some people who have endured crappy ones might shudder at the thought of enforced co-worker bonding experiences, I was a bit wary when my guest canceled on me and I was added to a group of four strangers. That dissipated the moment the door locked behind our host and the clock started ticking.
We wanted out of that room, and there's really no way I could imagine doing it alone. Moreover, it's not a team effort in the sense of needing brute strength in numbers all lifting or pushing a heavy load, but rather one where everyone's unique skills and talents are truly called on, because there's no way to know what the next step will be.
In my escape experience, I can honestly say that we each brought something to the table that got us to a new level at some point. I think it's fascinating to learn more about ourselves and our fellow humans: Are you the type who jumps in and dismantles an entire piece of furniture immediately, searching for a clue of any kind? Or do you stand back and observe the entire room, taking in as much as you can until something jumps out at you?
The more we know this kind of stuff about ourselves and those we interact with, the better we can apply our strong suits and work on our not so strong ones, or just say "hey, I'm not great with [X] but when it's time to do [Y] I'm your gal and I'm ready to jump in."
That's the kind of self-awareness that I find invaluable, so that when we're facing adversity or we feel trapped, we can figure a way out. And even if an individual situation doesn't end in 100% "escape," we can get as close as possible, learning more about ourselves in the process.