They really do want me to stay in Valley Stream. As a matter of fact, they’ve spent millions of dollars in infrastructure improvements trying to convince me to stay. And they know I have a soft spot for the old dump.
I can only tell them three things right now:
1) It all looks great.
2) I’m flattered.
3) Can’t promise you anything.
On a related note, hurricanes are way, way up on my list of scary things. Tornadoes, fire, cancer, car accidents, crazy people, snakes, Republicans, lightning. No particular order. There are scary things that enter your consciousness in an instant, and you have no time to think of how scary they could be because, well, there they are. You can only reflect back on how scary they were in retrospect. We’ll put snakes and crazy people in that category. But hurricanes, they creep up on you slowly. They fuck with your head. They scare you silly, then when they leave, they say, “you know, I could have REALLY kicked your ass. Maybe next time, punk. Good luck.”
Anyone who has lived through a hurricane and doesn’t have permanent psychic damage as a result is either very, very stoic or very, very stupid. “Superstorm Sandy” hit Long Island on October 29th, 2012. Why “Superstorm”? Why? Well, I know why. It was October and the hurricane met a cold front. That’s why they called it that. It’s an actual meteorological term. Still. “Hurricane” would have been just fine. “Superstorm” sounds like what a three-year old or a TV news writer would’ve called it. But I digress.
The most ferocious part of the storm hit at night. Trisha and Mookie went up to Jack’s room in the attic to and the cats took the other room in the attic, all to maybe sleep and/or to silently freak out. Jack was eight years old at the time, but he’d already experienced Hurricane Irene a year earlier, and he knew the best thing you could do was cuddle up with your mom and your dog and let Dad do what dads do, which in this case was to stay downstairs to monitor the situation.
Hurricanes fuck with your head. When Craig Allen, the WCBS Newsradio 880 weatherman, told me around 9 p.m. that the storm surge at Battery Park at high tide was 14 feet, I knew that tide, and that storm surge, were coming, through Jamaica Bay and right up Duffy’s Creek. I was pretty confident that it wasn’t going to be 14 feet, but I also didn’t how high would be enough to submerge the first floor of the house, or how fast would be enough to knock it off its foundation. 10 o’clock, 11 o’clock, the water kept on rising higher and moving faster. I could hear it gushing into the cellar. At some point the broken garage door blew open, but at that point, I was too busy listening to the sinister glub glub glub sound emerging from the floorboards, so running around and picking everything I could off the floors became my first priority. At some point in the 11 to 12 hour, I looked out at the backyard to see that the water had completely submerged the three and a half foot high post and rail fence, and was just about up to the height of the windows, and the plastic playground set was careening wildly around the yard like a ship lost in a storm at sea.
It was at this point that I asked my mom for help, as she had just died two months earlier and I was raised Catholic and I really didn’t know what the hell else to do, besides continuing to throw towels down on the kitchen floor. And whether coincidence or divine intervention, I looked out the back window again just a few minutes later and saw the tops of the fence posts.
The aftermath was what Saint Joan herself would’ve called “a goddamn mess.” One smart thing I did was move Dan the Van and Buster the Fit up to higher ground on the hill at the end of the street in the parking lot of Valley Stream South High School (aka “Big Brick”), where I found them blessedly dry the next morning. Our neighbors’ cars were all wrecked. We didn’t have anything stored in the cellar, ‘cause anything down there had already been thrown away after the less-destructive Irene a year earlier (which got into the cellar but not the house). But after ripping up 20% of the wall-to-wall carpet and throwing out 75% of the contents of the garage, after seeing way too many of our shrubs, roses and perennials transformed into corpses, after having to rely on the kindness of relatives (who no longer live on Long Island or are no longer living at all) for heat and electricity for the better part of ten days, after reading about the destruction in every town between us and the ocean and realizing how stupidly lucky we actually were to have no more than three inches of water infiltrate the house, I now have a healthy dread of every little “X” off the coast of Africa that shows up on the NOAA Hurricane Central website, which I check each and every morning from June until November.
About a year and a half after Sandy, I heard about the New York Rising Reconstruction Plan, and about a meeting wherein members of the Mill Brook Civic Association and representatives from a consulting firm called Louis Berger Inc. would explain how they intended to spend South Valley Stream’s share of the State money. $3 million big ones. This is where my complete lack of faith in people comes in. I went to the meeting expecting them to tell me that they wanted to build a big concrete bulkhead all along the creek, piss off all the wildlife and further the degradation of my little paradise into an open sewer. I figured I was the only one who knew there were herons and kingfishers and sandpipers back there, and that nobody really gave a rat about the neglected old pedestrian path, hidden from our view by fifteen-foot tall phragmites, which are actually called woozy-woozys if you’re one of Francis Duffy’s children.
And then I met Niek.
Successful people amaze me. From reading Niek’s Linkedin page, I know the friendly, well-dressed Dutch gentleman I met at that meeting in 2013 is a civil engineer and environmental impact planner, a landscape architect, a transportation and stormwater specialist who helped to rebuild lower Manhattan after Sandy, never mind Duffy’s Creek in South Valley Stream. By contrast, I drove back and forth on the Belt Parkway for 25 years and tried to get teenagers to read and write and think big thoughts, mostly by pretending to follow the orders of people who insisted that they knew how to do it better than I did. A noble profession, of course, but I sort of feel like my kind are a dime a dozen compared to people with Niek’s level of expertise.
The meeting was at Forest Road Elementary school in Mill Brook, which used to be called Green Acres, which is technically not my neighborhood because I’m on the other side of the creek. Everyone who attended got a look, through pamphlets and power points and pictures blown up and hung on easels, of the plans for storm resiliency in South Valley Stream. Color me blown away. No concrete bulkheads. Lots of organic storm protection through a natural shoreline with native plants and green infrastructure. Exactly what I would have proposed if I were as smart as Niek.
The Mill Brook Civic Association was chosen by New York State to represent the area, because there is no other active civic association in Valley Stream. The guy who was president of the association at the time took an instant dislike to me, among other reasons because I was from the wrong side of the creek and I had the temerity to ask pertinent questions and volunteer relevant information. The other people from the Civic Association who I met were wonderful, but this guy didn’t want me around. I later found out that he did that to a lot of people for no particular reason, so I kept showing up at the meetings, mostly because of my vested interest in the project but a little bit just to piss him off.
I think he was particularly pissed off that Niek and I hit it off so well. When I told Niek that I had counted over 100 bird species on and around Duffy’s Creek in the ten years I had been back there (which is the truth), Niek lit up. He told me that he had grown up along a river in the Netherlands and had begun watching and counting bird species as a boy. This put a great image in my head that’s still there. Then he asked me if I had written down all those species, and I told him I sure had. Then he told me that New York State was allocating an extra $3 million big ones (a “race to the top” thing) to communities that could demonstrate that their projects would have a positive impact on the environment, including habitat for native flora and fauna, and could I email him that list, and I said I sure could.
At a few subsequent meetings of the Green Acres Civic Association that I insinuated myself into, Niek’s people were there to represent Louis Berger. The next time I saw Niek himself was about a year later, after New York State announced that South Valley Stream was among the winners of the extra $3 millon big ones and the final plan was being introduced to the public at Forest Road School. Niek recognized me and came over and shook my hand and thanked me. He told me that my bird species list had been extremely helpful, if not critical, in winning that extra money. I was as pleased as punch, as happy as a lark, for the contribution that I had made to my community and my bird friends, and because Niek thought I was cool.
The guy who didn’t like me, his name is at the top of the South Valley Stream New York Rising Community Reconstruction Plan, published in March 2014.
I wrote down the names of birds in a spiral notebook.
This is why my Linkedin page sucks.
But I’m pretty sure my friends over at the Town of Hempstead Department of Engineering were able to use some of that extra $3 million big ones to raise the street I live on six inches higher. So you could say I ultimately took care of number one..
It certainly took a long time for it all to come together. The next time there was a meeting to tell everybody what was going to happen, Niek had moved on to his next adventure, the guy who didn’t like me had moved to Cedarhurst, and the meeting was being conducted by the chief engineer of the Town of Hempstead, who turned out to be the brother-in-law of one of my high school friends. I didn’t recognize him at first, as he was wearing a nice suit and I had only ever seen him wearing a Jets jersey. But that’s one of the perks of living your whole life in the same town. Ask George Bailey. You end up knowing a lot of people and a lot of people know you. And if you behave yourself, you end up with a lot of people on your side.
From my new-found friend of a friend, I found out all the particulars of the creek path reconstruction, how there was going to be lots of native plants and trees, just liked Niek had planned, plus all sorts of engineering tricks aimed at flood-prevention, like a footbridge over a large oval-shaped spillway covered in eelgrass that’s designed to take in tide water and soak it up like a sponge. Plus they worked in an osprey nest, which in my informed opinion is too close to people to ever attract ospreys, and a kayak ramp, though I’ve only seen two other people kayaking in the creek besides myself and Jack. Still, the whole project was like they had sat down and begun planning by saying, “what would Duffy do, if he were smart enough?”
And if that weren’t enough, I found out that Jedwood Place, on my non-Mill Brook side of the creek, was going to be torn up and rebuilt six inches higher, with new gas lines and storm drainage underground topped off by shiny new sidewalks, curbs and asphalt on top.
The reconstruction of the path started with some little red flags in the ground in October of 2018. Six years after Sandy. There was a lot of “well, they’re never actually going to follow through on this stuff” talk at our house during those six years. Mostly from Trisha. But the big machines came in November and they cut down a few giant trees and ripped out all the woozy-woozys, which was tough to watch, but you’ve got to break a few eggs to make real mayonnaise, now don’t you?
Over the winter and into the spring, we watched the plan come into action. They raised the whole path about four feet. They “terraced’ the bank of the creek with big logs of compressed dirt (which I’m sure Niek and the Town Engineer know the technical name for) and they planted all the pretty little shrubs that we planted years ago when we learned about going native: Rosa Rugosa, Red-Twig Dogwood, Inkberry Holly, Sweet Pepperbush aka Summersweet, plus new Maple, Dogwood and Oak trees to replace the ones they killed. They built the footbridge over the spillway, and a platform overlooking the creek where the path bends around towards Forest Road. They lined the whole thing with hunky rocks. They installed brightly illustrated educational signs to teach people about the birds and plants and flowers they’re looking at, and miraculously, no idiot Valley Stream kid has marred any of them with graffiti yet. Although the original plan called for a path surface that soaked up water, they ended up going with asphalt, probably to allow police cars to access it, which considering how many idiot Valley Stream kids there are, was probably a smart trade off.
In the summer of 2019, the construction in the backyard wrapped up as the construction in the front yard started. Without the woozy-woozys, we now had a front row seat in the backyard to people enjoying the brand-new path along Duffy’s Creek. Oddly, because they’re higher in elevation and because we have a lot of flowers in the way, we can see them, but they can’t really see us, which is kind of like watching your neighborhood park on a live webcam. Meanwhile, out front, National Grid came in and replaced all the gas lines under the street, then left it not unlike the surface of the moon.
Then of course, in March of 2020, Trump broke the country, and everything closed down. The big construction work on the street was supposed to start as the school year was wrapping up, but as soon as Big Brick closed its doors for the Pandemic, the New York Rising sign with Andrew Cuomo’s name in 28-point type went up and the guys from Allen Industries of Amityville came in, with bulldozers, front loaders, excavators, backhoes, flatbeds full of concrete and the big pick-up trucks they commuted to work with. As we were all working from home, we got to watch the whole thing. I hardly minded the various inconveniences involved (noise, dust, no driveway, etc.) as I knew it was all for a greater good, and because I was in awe of how hard these guys were working every day, especially since I had it relatively easy.
A side note: There’s a silly You Tube video in which a marmot chipmunk appears to be yelling “Allen!…Allen!…Allen!” over and over again. Maybe you’ve seen it. Trisha started walking around saying “Allen!” in the chipmunk’s English accent every morning when the guys showed up. By day three or four, we were both doing it. One of the secrets to happiness is to marry somebody who’s good at starting inside jokes. Here it is for your enjoyment, until they catch me and take it down:
The head guys, Mr. Allen himself and the rest, became like friendly neighbors with big machines and power tools for the four months they were here. They were guys we saw every day when we stopped seeing all the other people in our lives every day, so there was something weirdly comforting about their presence. And when it came time to tear up our driveway, they had to also tear up part of the curving inlaid slate walkway up to the door. We all had a meeting wearing masks on the on the front lawn where I watched them brainstorm how to take it out and put it back in without damaging it, which they ultimately did flawlessly. Plus we got brand-new sidewalks and most of a brand-new driveway, which was a couple of thousand big ones that we won’t have to spend on curb appeal. They even replaced the grass they ripped up with sod, but it got hot and dry out in June and the homeowner kept disappearing with his dog for a week at a time, so despite a valiant effort by Mr. Allen and the brand-new fire hydrant, the sod all died. Still, it’s the thought that counts, and we’ll always have fond memories of the guys from “Allen!”
And then a day in July came when Mookie and I rolled back into town from Copake Falls, the construction vehicles and the pickup trucks were all gone, and everything was done. A brand-new, six-inch higher asphalt street, sewer grates twice the size of the old ones and beautiful new curbs and sidewalks (albeit lined with dead sod). And out back, people who couldn’t really see me were enjoying a stroll or a jog or bike ride along my creek, where thousands of yellow Black-Eyed Susans were in bloom at the same time all the yellow daisies in my insane patio garden were doing their thing.
Isn’t that nice?
At the end of “The Princess Bride” (if you don’t know, I can’t help you), Inigo Montoya compliments Fezzik the giant for finding four white horses with which the heroes can ride into the sunset together. Inigo says what I said when I looked around at my newly rebuilt neighborhood:
“Fezzick! You did something right!”
Fezzik answers, “I’ll try not to let it go to my head.”
I’d like to think I had a little something to do with helping this whole thing happen, but I’ll try not to let it go to my head, because it probably would have happened exactly as it did if I had just stayed home and kept my bird list to myself. Still I’ll always have that image of a little Dutch boy counting birds as he walks along a river, and I’m proud that I could help out the birds who’ve enhanced my life so much, ’cause God knows they can use every little bit of help they can get.
As far as storm resiliency, the last hurricane that scared the bejesus out of me blew through in just a few hours in August, just after the construction was completed. That was the unpronounceable Isaias, that actually hit Long Island as a tropical storm. We were on the right side of the eye this time, which meant less rain, but it also meant ferocious, relentless winds that fucked with my head for six hours, and has left me with further psychic damage. It remains to be seen how the re-engineered Duffy’s Creek will respond to a major rain event, and if I’m lucky, and I am a lot but not always, I’ll never find out.
Meanwhile, as we were all trapped in our neighborhoods by the Pandemic in 2020, nice weather came around just the same, and the seasons changed and the natural world went on as always, because nature doesn’t really give a fuck what happens to us and would probably prefer that we all die at this point. And as the nice weather came around, so did people in masks desperate to get the hell out of their houses for a while. And the beautiful new “Mill Brook Park” gave them somewhere to take the dog for a walk, teach their kid to ride a bicycle, push a baby stroller, jog resolutely along with very serious faces or just sit on a bench and enjoy the pretty little winding creek along with all the plants and the ducks and the swans and the herons and the egrets and the osprey and the kingfishers. I’m sure more than one visitor to the park never knew how nice it was, and though our one-way mirror of flowers, I was proud to watch my creek get the recognition it deserves.
So to Andrew Cuomo and the Mill Brook Civic Association and Niek Verhaart and his team and the Town of Hempstead Engineering Department and, of course, “Allen!” and every single construction worker who put his or her back into rebuilding my neighborhood: I don’t know how much longer I’ll be hanging around here, but thank you for making South Valley Stream somewhat more tolerable in the interim, and thank you for respecting my creek.
You did something right, and you should all be very proud of that.
Oh, and also, thanks most of all for ratcheting up the property values.
(With acknowledgement to Antoine de St. Exupery for the help).
My father was a Covid-19 statistic. He died at the age of 90 on April 26th, 2020, at the height of the Pandemic in New York. He suffered from advanced dementia, and the fight left in his body was no match for the virus. As he was living in a skilled nursing facility, none of his children or grandchildren (or great-grandchildren) could be with him to say goodbye. The last time I saw him was on February 16th and I could see even before he was stricken that he had taken a general turn for the worse. Of course, if you tell me that his contacting coronavirus was a blessing in disguise I’m gonna come over there and kick your ass.
Neither he nor my mother, who died in 2012, ever saw Copake Falls. If they had been just a couple of years younger and healthier back in the Early Aughts, maybe they could have come up and stayed at a local B & B and hung out with us at Taconic State Park for a day or two. I sure would’ve liked that. As a matter of fact, it’s a recurring dream that I have every once in a while, and I even like the distorted dream version of them visiting.
They were the ones who first took me upstate after all, and they would have loved the Peaceful Roe Jan Valley. They actually kicked the tires on a house way up in Rainbow Lake in the Adirondacks when they retired, but they decided that it was way too much of a hassle to have two houses hundreds of miles apart. They were practical people.
I had a conversation with my father once about moving upstate. We were standing in the backyard on the creek in Valley Stream, the one that used to be theirs and became ours. He had grown up in an apartment in Astoria, Queens, so the 60 x 100 plot was all the room he’d ever hoped to have. He was a city guy.
Of course, since he started me out on the 60 X 100 plot, naturally I wanted something bigger someday. So we were talking in the backyard on the creek that day about how Trisha and I were very happy with buying the house in Valley Stream, but that we always followed the upstate real estate market around the place where we went on vacation every year.
This is how that conversation went:
Me: “… So we keep an eye on the properties for sale. I mean, this is great, but for what you pay on Long Island, you could have a couple of acres of land upstate, and that might be nice someday.”
Dad: (Genuinely perplexed) “What would you do with a couple of acres of land?”
Me: (Slight pause, unprepared for the question) “Stare at it! Walk around on it!”
At which point he responded with his hearty laugh and his million-dollar smile and we moved on.
Around this same time, I started teaching in a school in Ozone Park, Queens where I’d work for the next 16 years. I parked my car outside one morning in September right near where my new assistant principal (who would later become principal) had just gotten out of his parked car. I noticed that he had Vermont license plates. I thought to myself, “well, heck, there’s some pleasant small talk for the walk inside. This guy has a house in Vermont and I’ve been to Vermont. In fact, Copake Falls, where I go every summer, is only about 60 miles from the Vermont border. I’ll ask him about Vermont. Maybe he drives up Route 22 to get there.”
This is how that conversation went:
Me: “Vermont, huh? Beautiful up there. We go to a place near the Berkshires every summer. Copake Falls, New York. Ever hear of it?”
Him (distractedly): “Maybe. I think so… What do you DO there? Do you ski?”
(Narrator: “The Catamount Ski Mountain is one of the big tourist attractions nearby”).
Me: (Again unprepared for the question, and at a complete loss for what to say next) “Not much… Uhhh…We hang out. We watch the birds.”
Him: (long pause). “Hmmm.”
And then we went to work. But (sorry, boss) after I reported this disastrous attempt at friendly conversation to Trisha, it became an inside joke between us. We’d be sitting staring at a campfire or watching the trees swaying in the wind from the front porch of the cabin, and one of us would say to the other, loudly, “What do you DO there?”
Well, now we have a place of our own in Copake Falls. With 1.9 acres of land. And to be honest, when we’re there, we don’t do a damn thing, really. In the words of the great Robert Earl Keen, “I kinda like just doin’ nothin’. It’s somethin’ that I do.”
You might see me taking Mookie Dog for a swim in the brook and a walk on the rail trail in the morning. You might see me and Jack on that same rail trail later on riding the bikes I bought from a guy on Craigslist who I met in the parking lot of the Pittsfield Walmart. You might even see us doing a little tree trimming and minor brush clearing around the yard. You might see me and Trisha watching birds from the front porch. We have campfires. We make dinner. We play ping-pong, pool and darts in the basement. We read and watch stuff. We drive on country roads to re-stock or to look around, then we drive back to the Mountain. Then we stare at it and we walk around on it.
And when weather conditions are favorable, and the Earth’s orbit is aligned correctly, we watch The Show.
The Show, also known as the Trisha’s Mountain Driveway Sunset Festival, is made possible by four elements: The Earth’s rotation around the sun, the topography of the Roe Jan Valley and the surrounding mountains and hills, a road that rises to 800 feet up the side of a 1200-foot rise, and the Shagbark Tree Farm.
It was in 2002 when Trisha and I first stayed in Copake Falls for a full week together. One of my hobbies that week was to learn every road in the area, and how those roads connected to each other. It was so long ago that I did my research with a paper Hagstrom Map of Columbia County that I bought at the AmeriStore gas station. (Today, of course, you could look up our Valley Stream address on Google Earth and see Trisha getting out of her car in the driveway).
Early in this grand pursuit, I found North Mountain Road. The south end of North Mountain starts in the hamlet of Copake Falls off Route 344 and raises you up steadily. The north end takes you for a big twisty up and down ride past some very expensive houses set back on lawns with the square footage of the Pittsfield Walmart. Right in front of these fabulous properties is a small cemetery where the first St. Bridget’s Catholic Church was located. (Upstate New York: Home of the Incongruent Cemetery). The road then twists you sharply downhill and quickly back uphill several times for a roller coaster ride around a dairy farm where they raise Brown Swiss cows (imagine that) before it finally plunges you straight downhill and it spits you out on Route 22 close to the Hillsdale Town Line.
In the middle, when you’re up about as high as you’ll get, there’s a leveling off, and to your west about three or four miles away are hills that are just about equal in elevation to the one you’re on. Between you and those hills is the Roe Jan Valley, which we always refer to as the Peaceful Roe Jan Valley, because in 2002 we saw a guy who called himself the Singing Dentist perform a really campy song by that name in the auditorium of Taconic Hills High School and we laughed and we laughed. “I will spend my days / singin’ songs of praise / in the Peaceful Roe Jan Valley”. It’s catchy, isn’t it?
The Peaceful Roe Jan Valley is dissected by the meandering Roe Jan Kill, which is short for Roeliff Jansen Kill, which was named for a guy who led a party from New Amsterdam that got stuck in the ice on the Hudson River one chilly day in the 1630’s and stumbled across a tributary that runs 56.2 miles through Dutchess and Columbia Counties. And when the sun hits the valley just right, you can see the reflection of the Roe Jan Kill from North Mountain. It looks like silver mercury in a giant crooked thermometer. I already have a favorite creek, but the Roe Jan is my favorite kill.
Meanwhile, back in the Summers of the Early Aughts, Trisha got used to me taking the better part of an hour to come back from a ride to the IGA in Hillsdale five miles from Taconic State Park because I’d always have to check out another road that I found on the map. North Mountain was a no-brainer, as it led directly off 22 and planted me right in Copake Falls, so it was one of my first detours, if not the first.
I was flat-out flabbergasted by my first glimpse of the million-dollar view I’m going to try to describe here in words, and I should point out that among the mental pictures I took on my first journey was that of a yellow house that looked like an oversized mobile home, but had a little piece of that million-dollar view. How much less than a million dollars for that?
At the point where the hills level off along the top ridge of North Mountain, if you’re traveling south from Hillsdale, you pass a couple of gorgeous properties with ponds on the west side of the road. Past there, and continuing for about three-quarters of a mile, the entire long slope in front of you is part of the 800-acre Shagbark Tree Farm, on land that used to be a dairy farm called Orphan Farm. Here you’ll see seemingly infinite rows of happy little Aspens and Birches and Colorado Blue Spruces patiently awaiting their adulthood in backyards and bank parking lots. And if you look into the distance beyond that slope, where the Peaceful Roe Jan Valley below levels off, you’ll see another piece of the tree farm that runs along Farm Road west of Route 22. As the hills on the other side rise up, the biggest piece of the tree farm looks straight back at you from Overlook Road. Behind that is more hill and behind that in the afternoon is the sun.
And to make it even more fabulous, if you turn around and look north or south, the Peaceful Roe Jan Valley ends right below Copake and right above Hillsdale, so it’s nothing but mountain peaks stretching out to the horizon. Squint your eyes and you can see the faint outlines of Catskill Mountains on the other side of the Hudson.
All of this adds up to some motherfucking beautiful sunsets.
I was a big fan of Bill Geist on CBS Sunday Morning. His thing was reporting little offbeat stories, mostly from small-town America. One of his best was about Sundown Days in Hanlontown, Iowa (now called the Sundown Hoedown), where they tried to promote the town with a festival built around the fact that right around the time of the Summer Solstice, the sun sets directly in the middle of the abandoned Union Pacific railroad tracks that run through town. I was totally charmed by the idea, as I am by every goofy idea (as is Bill Geist, God bless him), and luckily, there was a beautiful sunset that in fact lit up the railroad tracks for the CBS cameras.
The people in Hanlontown admitted they came up with this idea because there wasn’t much else to do. But if you’re watching the sunset, you’re doing something, even if it looks like doing nothing.
Our asphalt driveway on North Mountain Road is not quite straight like a railroad track. It is, however, directly in front of the southern boundary of Orphan Farm. Going south down the road from there towards downtown Copake Falls it’s all private property, with lots of big trees that block a full view of the sunset from the road. But from early spring to early fall we have a front row seat to the sun setting behind the hills to the west, above thousands and thousands of happy little baby trees. And for week or two after the sun lights up the rails in Hanlontown, Iowa, it lights up our driveway in Copake Falls.
Being apparently desperate for attention, I’ve shared a lot of pictures of those sunsets on Facebook. I’ve even apologized for it and flat out admitted that I was just showing off. People keep telling me they like the sunset pictures and they don’t mind seeing them at all. But as I turn The Show into more and more a ritual, because I have obsessive-compulsive disorder and it’s what I do, I’m trying to turn it into more of a meditative thing, like a Japanese Tea Ceremony. And if you want to meditate successfully, it’s always a good idea to unplug yourself from that stupid phone and walk away from it.
From the website kcbinternational.com:
In ancient times, Buddhist monks designed the tea ceremony to directly work to affect all five senses, to wake up the person both physically and spiritually. The double nature of the ritual works in such a way that it brings a deep inner peace and tranquility by bringing the mind and body together.
Of course, sometimes I’ll bring the camp chair down to the driveway and the sunset will be so gorgeous I will not be able to fight off the impulse to run back up to the house and get the stupid phone and take a bunch of pictures. I’ve done videos, time-lapse, panorama, crazy photo edits, and portrait mode. I’m weak of will.
In my mind, Buddhist monks shake their heads and softly say to me, “you’re fucking hopeless, dude.”
But I’m trying.
And though I know you’re not supposed to think about anything but the here and the now when you’re trying to achieve enlightenment, down on the driveway watching the sunset, I’ve gained a little self-knowledge (and not-self-knowledge) from thinking about the little prince.
The 2019-2020 school year was already going to be my last as a middle school English teacher. Knowing that I was eligible for a full pension at the end of 25 years, I pretty much decided in September of 2019, while staring forlornly at the long line of red break lights stretching in front of me and Lou the Subaru on the Belt Parkway at 6:08 am, that I was done.
Oh, and by the way: When people tell you about teachers spending all those hours of their own time doing prep work, communicating with parents and grading papers, when they tell you how much of their own money teachers spend on supplies, when they tell you how many obstacles are thrown in the way of doing the job effectively, they’re telling you the truth.
And all that stuff about it being a rewarding career? That’s all true, too. I met more great people and saw more of the good in humanity close-up in 25 years than many people ever will. You’ll have to trust me on that one. That was my reward for a workday that was like being hit in the head repeatedly with a two-by-four. But I got to live deeply as fuck for 25 years. It was exhausting, but I don’t regret it, and I’m glad I took over the family business from my Mom. I might start tutoring at some point, but as for juggling 90 eighth graders for 185 days a year, twenty-five trips around the sun was plenty.
My last day in a school with kids in it was supposed to be June 26th, 2020. Instead it was March 13th. For many of those 106 days, it was my job to keep the kids going with “virtual lessons” on Google Classroom. However, acknowledging that many teachers had to keep their own kids going through remote learning, the periods were shortened from 42 to 25 minutes. There’s really not a whole lot you can accomplish as a teacher in 25 minutes. That’s where pdf’s come in.
We finished the novel we had been reading in class before Trump broke the country, The Wednesday Wars by Gary D. Schmidt, which I loved teaching because through of a funny and charming coming-of-age story set on Long Island, the kids got to learn what a mess everything was in 1968, and why it’s still a mess. That took about three weeks. Then what? Well, for my next trick, I was planning on breaking out Steinbeck’s The Pearl to teach the young ones to avoid greediness and how to spot unrepentant assholes, and lo and behold, there it was in public domain on pdf’s all over the place. Mission accomplished. However, my ingenious plan, breaking the book down into 15-minute bites with questions meant to promote critical thinking, ‘cause that’s how I rolled, gave me three more weeks to fill up after Memorial Day.
What to do, what to do. It was totally on me. And even if it weren’t, who was going to stop me from doing whatever I wanted? It had to be something relatively short and simple, that was old enough to be ripe for stealing from a pdf. file. Ideally, something good. The kids had suffered for the incompetence of their leaders. Some of them never saw the light of day for the three and a half months that I was in contact with them online.
One of them lost his father just like I did, except his father was younger than me, probably a lot younger, and he also lost 45 years with his father that I got with mine, so it wasn’t like I did at all. I was communicating electronically every workday with 13-year-olds in the epicenter of a Pandemic. Just writing that sentence feels surreal. There was misery and anger and confusion and sadness all over the place, and I know Duffy’s Google Classroom was a bright spot for many of them. There was something there to think about, and somebody thanked them for thinking. I had to go out with a bang, even if I was sitting on my couch with a laptop computer. I needed a book that could help them think about sadness and loss, about love and friendship, about hypocrisy and human folly, about seeing with your heart.
There’s only one book in the world like that. And I’m happy to report that it was a smash hit on Google Classroom.
Here’s The Little Prince by Antoine de St. Exupery in short with was too much left out:
A pilot has crashed his plane and is stranded in the desert. He meets a tiny little prince from the Asteroid B-612, who has come to Earth after a long journey through the universe, a journey he took because the love he felt for a single flower was too much for him to bear. The little prince recounts his journey through different planets to the pilot, telling of his conversations with, among others, a king, a man who has nothing but believes he is rich, a drunken fool, a lamplighter, a cartographer, and a train switchman. They each allow him insight into some paradox of human behavior. On Earth, he meets a fox, who teaches him true wisdom, which he then imparts to the pilot. When the little prince leaves the pilot (I’m not telling you how) he promises that pilot will be able to see him in the night sky.
And if you’ve read The Little Prince, you’ve already figured out what this all has to do with sunsets. This is from chapter 6:
Oh, little prince! Bit by bit I came to understand the secrets of your sad little life… For a long time you had found your only entertainment in the quiet pleasure of looking at the sunset. I learned that new detail on the morning of the fourth day, when you said to me:
“I am very fond of sunsets. Come, let us go look at a sunset now.” “But we must wait,” I said.
“Wait? For what?”
“For the sunset. We must wait until it is time.”
At first you seemed to be very much surprised. And then you laughed to yourself. You said to me:
“I am always thinking that I am at home!”
Just so. Everybody knows that when it is noon in the United States the sun is setting over France.
If you could fly to France in one minute, you could go straight into the sunset, right from noon. Unfortunately, France is too far away for that. But on your tiny planet, my little prince, all you need do is move your chair a few steps. You can see the day end and the twilight falling whenever you like…
“One day,” you said to me, “I saw the sunset forty−four times!”
And a little later you added:
“You know−− one loves the sunset, when one is so sad…”
“Were you so sad, then?” I asked, “on the day of the forty−four sunsets?” But the little prince made no reply.
In Chapter 10, on the first stop of his journey, the little prince meets a king who lives alone on a planet with no subjects. The king tells the prince that he has absolute authority over everything. The little prince is intrigued by this notion, and so asks the king if he can command a sunset, since he is feeling homesick and hasn’t seen one since he left Asteroid B-612.
Such power was a thing for the little prince to marvel at. If he had been master of such complete authority, he would have been able to watch the sunset, not forty−four times in one day, but seventy−two, or even a hundred, or even two hundred times, without ever having to move his chair. And because he felt a bit sad as he remembered his little planet which he had forsaken, he plucked up his courage to ask the king a favor:
“I should like to see a sunset… do me that kindness… Order the sun to set…”
“If I ordered a general to fly from one flower to another like a butterfly, or to write a tragic drama, or to change himself into a sea bird, and if the general did not carry out the order that he had received, which one of us would be in the wrong?” the king demanded. “The general, or myself?”
“You,” said the little prince firmly.
“Exactly. One much require from each one the duty which each one can perform,” the king went on. “Accepted authority rests first of all on reason. If you ordered your people to go and throw themselves into the sea, they would rise up in revolution. I have the right to require obedience because my orders are reasonable.”
“Then my sunset?” the little prince reminded him: for he never forgot a question once he had asked it.
“You shall have your sunset. I shall command it. But, according to my science of government, I shall wait until conditions are favorable.”
“When will that be?” inquired the little prince.
“Hum! Hum!” replied the king; and before saying anything else he consulted a bulky almanac. “Hum! Hum! That will be about−− about−− that will be this evening about twenty minutes to eight. And you will see how well I am obeyed.”
Just as the king commands, twenty minutes to eight is about what time The Show starts in Copake Falls, during the weeks when the Trisha’s Mountain Driveway Sunset Festival is in full swing. It’s completely reasonable. We carry the camp chairs down to the end of the driveway and we sit there, like we’re at the Village Green Bandshell in Valley Stream and The Nassau Pops are coming out to perform. Sometimes we shoot the breeze while we watch the show, and sometimes we start getting silly and laughing ‘cause we do that. Sometimes we point phones at it. But other times we sit there and stare, and we think our own thoughts.
And as all sunset fans know, it’s different every time. Sometimes fluffy cumulous clouds glow like they’re being heated on a stove when the sun sets beneath them. Sometimes there’s a little break in a blanket of cloud cover so that the sun suddenly appears right before it sets behind the mountains and throws a ribbon of orange and red straight across the ridge. Sometimes cirrus clouds splash streaks of peach and mustard and cherry red against the darkening blue like brushstrokes from an abstract painter, and sometimes giant stratocumulus dragons and bunnies change colors as they float by. You never know what you’ll see, so it’s always worth watching.
So shortly after the day of my final sign-off on Google Classroom, I was up on The Mountain, sitting in a camp chair next to Trisha in an illuminated asphalt driveway as the clouds and the sun and the tree farm and the hills performed another new, never-seen-before version of The Show and I was thinking about the little prince.
“You know, one loves the sunset – when one is so sad…”
There’s something intrinsically sad about a sunset. It’s the end of another day of one’s life. It’s the last gasp of light before total darkness sets in. So even if one is sitting happy as a clam watching a spectacular sunset, one is bound to feel a little bit of melancholy. I suspect it has something to do with the fact that we’ll all be dead someday.
But besides feeling sad for the state of the world right now, and sad about all the grief in the collective consciousness, and all the unnecessary suffering that has been inflicted by greed and stupidity, and of course sad about the death of my father in the middle of all this, I realized I was also feeling a little sad watching the sunset that evening because there are flowers back on the creek that have tamed us, and Trisha and I are responsible for them.
Our backyard in Valley Stream faces west, and the sunsets there are no slouches. If they were the sunsets we watched for the rest of our lives, we’d die lucky. But nothing compares to the big sky over Copake Falls. It almost feels like we’re cheating on our house. But we’ve allowed ourselves to be tamed by this 1.9-acre plot of land on a hill overlooking a tree farm, and since the day we first stepped foot on it, nothing has been the same. And sometimes it feels like the future is coming at me too quickly.
The little prince loved a rose that grew on Asteroid B-612. Being the only rose there, he thought she was unique in all the world. But his rose was very vain and very demanding, and she was breaking his heart, which is why he decided to tidy up his volcanoes, pull up the weeds to stop the baobab trees from taking over and go out into the universe to find wisdom. Later, while exploring Earth, he comes across a garden of roses, and realizes that his rose is not unique, which makes him cry.
He next meets the fox, who wants the little prince to tame him, but the Little Prince doesn’t understand the concept, so the fox explains:
“It is an act too often neglected,” said the fox,” It means to establish ties.”
“‘To establish ties’?”
“Just that,” said the fox. “To me, you are still nothing more than a little boy who is just like a hundred thousand other little boys. And I have no need of you. And you, on your part, have no need of me. To you, I am nothing more than a fox like a hundred thousand other foxes. But if you tame me, then we shall need each other. To me, you will be unique in all the world. To you, I shall be unique in all the world…”
The fox goes on to explain the process of taming:
It will be as if the sun came to shine on my life. I shall know the sound of a step that will be different from all the others. Other steps send me hurrying back underneath the ground. Yours will call me, like music, out of my burrow. And then look: you see the grain−fields down yonder? I do not eat bread. Wheat is of no use to me. The wheat fields have nothing to say to me. And that is sad. But you have hair that is the colour of gold. Think how wonderful that will be when you have tamed me! The grain, which is also golden, will bring me back to the thought of you. And I shall love to listen to the wind in the wheat…”
So at the fox’s insistence, the little prince tames him. Part of the process is to establish rites. The little prince has to show up at the same hour as he did the day before so the fox can look forward to that hour. Soon, the fox has been tamed. But the little prince, who never wanted to tame the fox in the first place, feels like he has to move on.
“But now you are going to cry!” said the little prince.
“Yes, that is so,” said the fox.
“Then it has done you no good at all!”
“It has done me good,” said the fox, “because of the color of the wheat fields.”
“Go and look again at the roses. You will understand now that yours is unique in all the world. Then come back to say goodbye to me, and I will make you a present of a secret.”
The little prince comes to realize that the rose he left behind on Asteroid B-612 is unique from the other roses because it has tamed him. And he tells the other roses just that:
“But in herself alone she is more important than all the hundreds of you other roses: because it is she that I have watered; because it is she that I have put under the glass globe; because it is she that I have sheltered behind the screen; because it is for her that I have killed the caterpillars (except the two or three that we saved to become butterflies); because it is she that I have listened to, when she grumbled, or boasted, or even sometimes when she said nothing. Because she is my rose.
And he went back to meet the fox.
“Goodbye,” he said.
“Goodbye,” said the fox. “And now here is my secret, a very simple secret: It is only with the heart that one can see rightly; what is essential is invisible to the eye.”
“What is essential is invisible to the eye,” the little prince repeated, so that he would be sure to remember.
“It is the time you have wasted for your rose that makes your rose so important.”
“It is the time I have wasted for my rose−−” said the little prince, so that he would be sure to remember.
“Men have forgotten this truth,” said the fox. “But you must not forget it. You become responsible, forever, for what you have tamed. You are responsible for your rose…”
“I am responsible for my rose,” the little prince repeated, so that he would be sure to remember.
The House on the Creek tamed me as a little boy, then it tamed me all over again when our son was a little boy. I know every single flower and weed that grows on that 60 x 100 plot of land. I have spent thousands and thousands of hours taking care of it.
There’s a wisteria bush that grows in the corner of the yard next to a large and beautifully crooked maple tree that leans out towards the creek. Both of these plants were there before my parents were. If not for our regular intervention, the wisteria vines would have swallowed up the maple tree long ago. Someday we’re not going to be there and there will be nothing we can do about it, but on some level, we’ll still feel responsible for it.
Over almost twenty years on the Creek, Trisha and I have planted over a hundred perennials, roses shrubs and trees. We’ve grown thousands of flowers and fallen in love with every single one of them. We made a place surrounded by too much ugly into something uniquely beautiful. We tamed it and it tamed us. Though the siren call of Copake Falls was always calling, we made a little paradise in Valley Stream.
But the first time we drove up that asphalt driveway on North Mountain Road, we both knew we were going to be tamed all over again. The sweep of grass that slopes upwards to a trail through the woods in the backyard, the solitary mountain standing watch over the cornfield next door, the way the house itself nestles into the hill like a giant stick of butter on a plate, the big old trees that needed a little help from the vines trying to eat them, the leaves of the tall cottonwoods dancing in the breeze along the driveway, and those sunsets over the Peaceful Roe Jan Valley.
The little prince points out that on Earth “Men set out on their way in express trains, but they do not know what they are looking for. Then they rush about, and get excited, and turn round and round...” And not only that, they “raise five thousand roses in the same garden−− and they do not find in it what they are looking for.”
That’s us all right. All the years we spent building a little Eden in Valley Stream surrounded by crowds and noise and litter, we kept looking for our place in Copake Falls, and just like when the little prince and the pilot go in search of a well in the desert, we just kept going until it found us. And when we did, it was as if it had been waiting to be found, waiting to be tamed, and waiting to tame us.
The first time we walked up the hill in the backyard, I said to Trisha that this was a canvas that we could paint something brand new on, something that started with us. She was always more than cool about making a home and a family in a place where I had already been part of one, instead of us building from the ground up together. Now this was her turn. Trisha’s Mountain. But after twenty years and a thousand roses, she’s just as tamed by the creek as I am. To let go of it completely is, to quote one of her favorite expressions, something I can’t get my head around right now.
Monsieur St. Exupery said it best: “One runs the risk of weeping a little, if one lets himself be tamed…”
When it comes time to say goodbye to Valley Stream, to say goodbye to the place where I was a little boy and where we raised a little boy, time to say goodbye to that physical connection to my parents, it just ain’t gonna be easy.
But the fox reminds the little prince that, “it is only with the heart that one can see rightly; what is essential is invisible to the eye.”
So when I’m doing nothing on Trisha’s Mountain, sitting and staring or walking around, I may not be able to meditate like a Buddhist Monk, but I’m trying like hell to stay in the here and the now, to see with my heart, everything essential that happens to be right in front of me, and everything essential that I love that can’t be right in front of me. It’s all there if I see rightly.
When it’s time for little prince to leave the pilot, on the one-year anniversary of his descent to Earth, he comforts the pilot by telling him to look up at the stars.
“And at night you will look up at the stars. Where I live everything is so small that I cannot show you where my star is to be found. It is better, like that. My star will just be one of the stars, for you. And so you will love to watch all the stars in the heavens… they will all be your friends. And, besides, I am going to make you a present…”
He laughed again.
“Ah, little prince, dear little prince! I love to hear that laughter!”
“That is my present. Just that. It will be as it was when we drank the water…”
“What are you trying to say?”
“All men have the stars,” he answered, “but they are not the same things for different people. For some, who are travelers, the stars are guides. For others they are no more than little lights in the sky. For others, who are scholars, they are problems. For my businessman they were wealth. But all these stars are silent. You−− you alone−− will have the stars as no one else has them−−”
“What are you trying to say?”
“In one of the stars I shall be living. In one of them I shall be laughing. And so it will be as if all the stars were laughing, when you look at the sky at night… you−− only you−− will have stars that can laugh!”
And he laughed again.
“And when your sorrow is comforted (time soothes all sorrows) you will be content that you have known me. You will always be my friend. You will want to laugh with me. And you will sometimes open your window, so, for that pleasure… and your friends will be properly astonished to see you laughing as you look up at the sky! Then you will say to them, ‘Yes, the stars always make me laugh!’ And they will think you are crazy. It will be a very shabby trick that I shall have played on you…”
And he laughed again.
“It will be as if, in place of the stars, I had given you a great number of little bells that knew how to laugh…”
There isn’t much room for the stars in our neighborhood on light-polluted Long Island. There’s no limit to the stars on our hill in Copake Falls. After The Show fades to dark red and then to black, you can move the camp chair to the wide-open hill in the backyard and take them all in. And of course, the longer you look, the more stars you see.
The little prince is up there. You know that. But then there’s all the people whose time in my life has passed like another day’s sunset. Some of those little stars up there are all the thousands of kids and thousands of grown-ups I met in 25 years as Mr. Duffy the schoolteacher. Some of them are people I met before those 25 years even started, people from my neighborhood, people from school, people I met while working at the supermarket, driving a cab, working at a magazine and a newspaper, going to college, going out to bars and clubs, going on an Outward Bound expedition when I was 16, going to Camp Lavigerie in the Adirondacks every summer and every other thing I ever did.
Some of those stars are friends and family who I haven’t seen in too long because of this Pandemic, and I hope every one of them of them can come here and sit down on this hill someday. But in the meantime, they’re out there. So I’ll think of them and hope they’re doing well and I’ll pick each one out a star for the time being.
But the brightest stars up there, some of whom are planets following the path of the sun?
Those are my parents, and Trisha’s parents, finally getting to visit, and to share in all this beauty that has tamed us. Those are the stars that guide our way into the future.
Because someday, when we cross the Whitestone Bridge with nothing left to go back to on the other side, the sun will go on rising and setting, and we’ll have a front row seat to a beautiful sunset every night there is one. Over time our sorrows about leaving Long Island will start to be soothed. And some of those stars on that hill at night will be all the flowers we grew on a little 60 X 100 plot of land along a creek in Valley Stream.
And we can say it’s what we did there. And we can say it was something.
Copyright 2020 by John Duffy
Fair use (hopefully) of excerpts and illustrations from The Little Prince, which was written in 1943 but renewed in 1971, copyrighted by the widow of Antoine de St. Exupery.
If you decided, for some strange and indefensible reason, to drive from the bottom to the top of New York State in a straight south to north direction, starting at Kennedy Airport and ending at the Canadian Border, at two points in the first half of your pointless journey, you would be just a couple of miles from my house. I can’t say for sure whether I’d be home. Or home. But if I am, please stop by. We don’t get many visitors these days.
And if you chose to take the scenic route on this silly excursion (and you may as well), you would also get to know New York State Route 22, which runs 337.26 miles from the Bronx almost to Quebec, and parallels the borders of Connecticut, Massachusetts and Vermont. One stretch of this mostly two-lane road runs about 60 miles, from Brewster to Copake Falls.
That stretch is mine.
Between myself and Trisha, plus one run from a friend with a van (who stopped at Brewster Pastry to buy us a Danish that couldn’t be beat) we did twenty round trips from Valley Stream to Copake Falls in the first six months of owning a second house, logging around 4,000 miles, back and forth, back and forth, hauling, among other things, three air mattress, a four-seat dining room set, a complete set of curtains with bear and deer silhouettes, a 12-Cup Mr. Coffee, eight lamps, six framed pictures, four patio chairs and a matching table, a set of silverware, plates and bowls, a portable firepit, two window fans, a space heater, a TV and the stand to put it on, a microwave oven, two air conditioners, a dresser, two nightstands, five end tables, a set of fireplace tools, two rugs, a shower curtain, a shower head, two strings of party lights, a desk and chair set, seven folding chairs, two toilets, a combination pool table/ ping pong table, a convertible couch, a copper rooster wind vane, a dog crate with two dog beds and a new kitchen sink, so don’t even bother saying it, ‘cause we did.
I knew those miles of Route 22 pretty well before. Now, either way I’m traveling, north or south, it’s the street that goes to my house. So while the other chapters in this book will either be somewhere around my house or somewhere around my other house, in this chapter, I’m going to take you on a ride, and hopefully show you what makes this stretch of road so interesting and so unique. But you have to promise to want to learn things that you really don’t have to know. And I have to hit you over the head with two-thousand words of backstory first.
Now, as anyone who has traveled north to south from Upstate into New York City and Long Island knows, the experience is kind of like sitting home watching this nice show about farms and trees on TV and BANG! Suddenly a bunch of stormtroopers break in and grab you, throw you behind the wheel of your car and force you to drive while they torture you for an hour and a half. (“Faster!” “Trooper!” Slow Down!” “Watch Out!” “Move Right!” “Move Left!” “Stop!” “Now Crawl, Motherfucker!”). They slap you around with psychopaths in monster trucks, people in very old Japanese sedans merging from ten-foot-long entrance ramps for the very first time in their lives and lightening-flash traffic jams on the Hutch, and right before they release you, they threaten to throw you off the Whitestone Bridge.
On the south to north route, you can sort of keep your dignity as you’re being tortured, knowing that no matter what they throw at you, you’re going to make it to that country road that takes you home.
Just watch out you don’t get killed first.
Had I known how much necessary driving I’d be doing now, I might have done less unnecessary driving when I was younger, but that unnecessary driving is how I wound up with a house upstate in the first place.
When I was young and restless, in my mid-twenties and living on the creek with my parents, I used to like to just get in the car and go. I had nobody to go with, the upside being that I could go wherever I wanted. But once off Long Island, I would always go north, or north then east. My family went to the Adirondack Mountains every summer when I was a kid, so that had a lot to do with it. Plus, I’ve always just plain old loved Upstate New York and New England, and the chance to explore the next new route and the next new town. If asked where I was planning to go on these trips, I’d say I was driving to Massachusetts for a cup of coffee.
That’s because the first time I did this, I decided to take Route 7 through Connecticut and Massachusetts up to Bennington, Vermont, then turn around and go home. It was October 1987, and I wanted to look at the leaves in color, because I lacked any real ambition. Plus, I wasn’t smart enough at the time to check the weather forecast, because I picked a cold, rainy, grey day, though I did learn that the fall leaves do have their own special charms and their own special smell on days like that.
I left at six in the morning and decided to stop (in the pouring rain) at the Sunrise Diner in Sheffield, Mass for breakfast around 8:30. The diner occupied a cape-cod house smaller than my house in Valley Stream, and it was packed solid for breakfast. A little digging revealed that the Sunrise Diner operated until around six years ago, and it closed still looking exactly as it did in 1987. It was one of those places you’d find in The Land That Time Forgot.
And I guess they didn’t get a lot of out-of-towners, as the entire place went stone silent when I walked in, like they had been talking about the poor, pathetic single guy driving aimlessly up Route 7 in a Honda Civic and someone said, “Shhh!!! He’s walking in!”
I didn’t want to take up a whole booth for myself, so I sat at the end of the counter and I smiled in polite acknowledgement at the people who weren’t smiling back at me. The man behind the counter, tall as a tree, bushy moustache, glasses, plaid shirt, well-worn jeans with suspenders, he smiled at me for all of them, and he said the magic word:
I love coffee more than just about anything. People on Long Island say, “cawwffee.” Something about the way this gentleman said “caahffee” made it sound somehow like it would be better coffee than cawwffee.
So I said yes, please. And it was excellent caahffee. As good as any cawwffee I’d ever been served on Long Island. I ordered scrambled eggs and sausage with what I thought was a side of hash brown potatoes, but which turned out to be a gigantic side of corned beef hash. With everyone still staring at me, I felt compelled to eat all of it. It was the best corned beef you could possibly ever imagine.
And that was my introduction to Berkshire County, Massachusetts, as well as to hospitality New England style. We’ll serve you up the best breakfast you ever had, but don’t expect a hug. I could totally get with that. And it was the beginning of a day of happy little discoveries along the road that I could file away for future reference.
I drove on through Great Barrington and my first impression was that I could live very happily in a place like this. And this was 32 years before the first legal weed store opened next to the Price Chopper twelve miles from my upstate front door. Stockbridge looked just like the Rockwell picture, even though it wasn’t Christmas. I would’ve stopped at Alice’s Restaurant, but I was still high from the corned beef hash. Even Pittsfield, as apocalyptic as some if it looked back then, had Waconah Park, the oldest professional ballpark in the country, where the Rookie League Mets played back then. And above Pittsfield was Mount Greylock, which I came back to climb, but which you can also drive to the top of and get a hot dog (and a cup of caahffe) when you got there. You can’t beat that.
I did make it to Bennington on that first trip, also a beautiful little town, with a cool 306-foot tall obelisk, The Bennington Battle Monument, that I also came back to climb when it wasn’t raining.
I told as friend of mine about the trip later. He said, “Dude. You really need a girlfriend to do this stuff with.” But more solo trips were in my future before I ever found one. One I could keep, anyway.
Sitting in my parents’ attic that winter, staring at my old Rand McNally Atlas, I planned a route to circumnavigate New York State. It was fun to plan, but the reality set in that this was a journey of close to 1,200 miles, so I scaled back, and decided just to travel up Route 22, which parallels “Big 7” on the New York side, just to look around. It was the Spring of 1988, and I still didn’t have a girlfriend, so off I went.
My first stop on Route 22 was about 60 miles up from Interstate 684. I pulled off on Route 344 to look around Taconic State Park in Copake Falls. I liked waterfalls, and I wanted to see one. I stopped in what appeared to be one of the only two commercial business in town (the other being Bash Bish Bicycles). It was a denim blue building with deep red trim around the windows that looked as if it had been built many, many upstate winters ago. The sign outside indicated that I was about to cross the threshold of the Depot Deli, unknowingly for the first of thousands of times.
I bought something, don’t know what, and I asked the girl about my age behind the counter how to get to “Cop-A-Key Falls.” She was very patient about correcting me, though I was embarrassed just the same. (It’s “Co-payke”). She also explained to me that there was no such thing, and what I was looking for was Bash Bish Falls, which was down that way about two miles.
So I walked out of the Depot Deli having made a complete ass of myself, but it all worked out, as the girl about my age is now my neighbor three mailboxes down North Mountain Road.
The Depot Ddeli as it looked when I found it.
The Depot Deli as it looked when I found it.
Bash Bish Falls is a glorious place, though in the summer you have to beware of the droves. One of the first things I bought for the upstate house was a framed print of a painting of Bash Bish called “Rocky Pool”, painted in 1856 by John Frederick Kensett, who was a Hudson River School guy. We also have a small painting of the falls by an artist friend of ours whom we met while she was painting a mural on the walls of the Depot Deli. So like a lot of people, my love for Bash Bish runs deep. It was early spring the first time we met, and I had it almost to myself. I don’t know how long I sat on a rock and stared that day, but I know it was longer than I can usually sit in one place. I’m sure I was getting all dramatic and philosophical sitting there by myself, maybe musing about where the path my life was on would ultimately end up, not realizing I was soaking in it.
Rocky pool by John Frederick Kensett
My neighborhood waterfall
I filed Copake Falls away that morning and pressed on with my absurd journey up 22. I went as far as Hoosick Falls, where I passed a sign telling me that Grandma Moses was buried nearby moments before I passed a bar in a two-story-porch house with a giant Grateful Dead “Steal Your Face” logo hanging on the railing of the upper porch. I thought I might start looking for work up this way. I hung a left and headed over the mountains and across the river at the Collar City Bridge in Troy, on the way to annoy some friends in Albany before going back down to the torture chamber.
When Trisha and I met, eleven excruciating years later, I soon found out that even though she was more of a beach and ocean gal, she loved the Upstate vibe as much as I did. I don’t know who brought up Copake Falls first, but it was like one of said, “you know Jesus? I know Jesus!” And she had an ace up her sleeve that I didn’t know about. She had booked a cabin in Taconic State Park months before and was planning on going up into the woods to celebrate her birthday by herself three weeks from then. My kinda gal. Then she had to figure out what to do with the new guy, so she said screw it, and she asked me to come along. I thought about it for a millionth of a second.
She drove. Even though riding shotgun brings out every OCD tendency in my sad little brain, she wanted to drive, and I didn’t want to blow this thing. It was after work on a Friday and we had to be at the park by 9 pm in order to check into the cabin. So of course, I had to freaking mansplain to her that driving straight up Route 22 was more direct than taking Interstate 84 eight miles west to the Taconic Parkway, then heading 8 miles back east again. Plus 22 had lots of places to stop and eat, and I was hungry.
So since she didn’t want to blow the whole thing either, we drove up 22, stopped for dinner at Karen’s Diner in Patterson and arrived 15 minutes late at Taconic State Park, before cell phones, where we found Melissa Miller, who stuck around and waited for us because she thought we might have just gotten caught in traffic. Today Melissa is second-in-command at the park, and I will always be indebted to her for the fact that we didn’t have to sleep in a Dodge Daytona that night because I needed a fucking cheeseburger.
The Dodge Daytona had as name. Her name was Chelsea. (And yes, apparently she had a gender as well). All our cars have had names because Trisha insists on naming cars, which I think is just adorable. Over the twenty years of renting cabins in the park, we drove up Route 22 (which she ultimately did admit was the faster route, if you didn’t stop at any diners) behind the wheels of Chelsea, Nameless (the Civic that I was driving when we met, which she named Nameless because it had no name, nor gender), a Honda Accord Sedan passed down from my parents that I named “Whitey” because I had to name it before she did, and Buster, the Honda Fit that ultimately replaced Chelsea, and is currently our son Jack’s learning to drive car.
Now we have two Subarus, ‘cause we’re fucking annoying: Trisha’s Crosstrek is a female named Jessie, and my Blue Outback is a guy named Lou. Lou the Blue Subaru. I’m sorry.
Lou replaced Dan the Van. Dan was a 2001 Ford Minivan that we bought when Jack was a baby because we convinced ourselves that we were going to have a second baby which we never did, and that we needed a vehicle big enough to carry two babies and all their belongings to Copake Falls. Dan was very comfortable, with captain’s chairs, sliding doors on each side and lots of other little bells and whistles, but he was nothing but trouble. Trisha would say that Dan was trying as hard as he could, and it wasn’t his fault he was a Ford.
Among the many things that inexplicably broke on Dan the Van was the windshield wiper motor. Not having a good go-to local mechanic at the time, I took him to a local Ford dealer, who replaced the windshield wiper motor, thanked me for my patronage and sent me on my way.
Fast-forward to our summer week in the cabin at Taconic State Park. Driving up 22, Dan develops a little cough, and is struggling on the hills. I’m a little concerned, but we make it OK. And this time around we’re bringing so much baby stuff for just one baby that Trisha is driving up solo in Chelsea.
And as would happen in some years when we only had a week in the cabin, it rained and it rained. And as it rained, Dan coughed more. I had been planning to take a Sunday Morning drive up a very steep mountain to eat blueberry pancakes with complete strangers at the annual Austerlitz Historical Society Blueberry Festival, because it’s there. But the forecast was running about 40% for drenching Columbia County thunderstorms, and I was afraid that Dan wouldn’t be able to handle it.
On that Saturday afternoon, I was shooting the breeze with the woman who was working the counter at the Depot Deli, one of Copake Falls’ oldest and most esteemed citizens. I told her about my dilemma, and she answered with one of my all-time favorite lines. Interpreting the crux of the problem as one of my not wanting to drive in a storm, this is what she said: “Well, John, that’s not the Country Way!”
I had to admit, it was not.
Of course, the Country Way starts with being able to diagnose and fix problems in your own damn car. That went without saying. And I sure as hell wasn’t going to get stuck in Austerlitz just for a plate of blueberry pancakes (though I had to weigh both sides). At the end of the very rainy week, I gave Trisha custody of the baby, said a prayer and headed down 22 driving a very sick minivan with comfy captain’s chairs, the Suburban Way.
That trip was the first time I looked at every stretch of road between Copake Falls and Brewster in terms of what it would be like to be stuck there for days and days. Believing that your vehicle will die at any moment really gives you a new perspective of place and distance. I have permanent psychic damage from this trip, but it was also the day when I sort of “took ownership” of that sixty-mile stretch of Route 22.
As for Dan, we miraculously made it back to Valley Stream, and the hidden blessing that followed the tragedy of missing the pancakes at the Austerlitz Blueberry Festival was meeting our man Pete, the new mechanic who had just opened shop around the corner. Pete is the kind of guy who seems like he stays up at night worrying about your car. He has bailed Trisha and I out time and time again, the most spectacular example being last July when Lou the Blue Subaru blew his transmission (as Pete warned me he might) while carrying two kayaks, three people and all their stuff and one very confused Labrador on the Adirondack Northway enroute to Saranac Lake, leaving us stranded in Queensbury, New York, 217 miles from Valley Stream.
The good news was that the transmission was under warranty, and there was a Subaru dealer right nearby, the only one for hundreds of miles. The bad news is they were the only Subaru dealer for hundreds of miles, and they suggested that I might be eligible for Social Security before they’d get around to looking at my car. We rented a van (ironically) to get to Saranac Lake and then back to Long Island.
Enter Pete, the man who had years before determined that the mechanic at the Ford Dealer had not installed Dan the Van’s new windshield wiper motor correctly, and that the poor thing was coughing and sputtering from the water gushing into the engine every time in rained. This time, Pete called his brother who owns a fleet of tow trucks, who in turn sent a young fellow with a flatbed on a 435-mile round trip to rescue Lou the Blue Subaru and transport him to the Gregoris Subaru Service Department in Valley Stream, who fixed him in time for the next trip to Copake Falls in August.
And the people at Subaru Corporate were besides themselves with heartfelt regret about the whole business. Knowing full well that they sold me a CVT transmission that would break if I did everything with the car that they said I could (kayaks on the roof rack and all that) they not only paid for the new transmission, they reimbursed me for the rental car, and, inexplicably, sent me one of the those fancy Dyson cordless high-power vacuum cleaners, along with a little note of apology asking if we could still be friends.
So me and Lou, we’re all right now. Pete keeps us on the road, and we’re never more than a week or two away from “doing the drive” between Valley Stream to Copake Falls. The first half of the 117-mile trip is on parkways, the Cross Island over the Whitestone Bridge to the Hutchinson River Parkway to Interstate 684, where I always thank Dwight D. Eisenhower for knocking at least 45 minutes off the trip.
The second half of the trip starts on Route 22 in the Town of Brewster. There has been an ongoing and very entertaining debate over the years about where exactly Upstate New York starts. The official New York State version is that Upstate starts where commuter rail service to New York City ends, which on the Route 22 Corridor would be at the Metro North Station in Wassaic, about 30 miles south of Copake.
Trisha believes that Upstate starts at Exit 8 on 684, which is Hardscrabble Road in Croton Falls, just south of Interstate 84 and on the Westchester- Putnam County Line. Why? Because where else but in Upstate New York would you find a place called Hardscrabble Road in a place called Croton Falls? It’s a likely answer to: Quick! Make up a place that sounds like it’s in Upstate New York!
And the family from whom we bought our Copake Falls house owns and operates a tree farm that stretches along the valley in our front yard, and when the trees grow up, some of them go to the wholesale distribution center, the Hardscrabble Nursery on Hardscrabble Road in North Salem.
So it’s hard to argue with my beautiful wife on this point, as it is on most points because she’s always right. But I’m allowed to think what I want, and I think that Upstate New York starts just a little north on 22, at The Red Rooster Drive-In in the town of Brewster.
Back on Long Island, there’s a place in Massapequa Park called The All-American Burger. If I’m anywhere near it and I have the time, I have no choice but to stop for a Double Double (double burger, double cheese), fries and a milkshake. It is the best fast food on Long Island, quite possibly the world. Like All-American, and myself, the Red Rooster was first established in 1963, and all three of us have a classic, retro look. The Rooster was originally a single A-frame, with red and white stripes leading from a giant ice cream cone on the roof. A year or two ago they added an indoor dining room with a giant cheeseburger on the extension roof. A big happy white rooster with a mescaline smile, wearing a red and white checkered chef hat and matching apron, greets you warmly at the front doors (despite knowing you might get a chicken sandwich), and there is lots of outdoor seating alongside the kiddie playground and the miniature golf course, which features a smaller version of the same Rooster, along with Pinocchio, the requisite miniature golf windmill and an ersatz Porky Pig.
Rooster Burgers are pretty good. Damn tasty, actually. But they’re approximately 70% of the size of an All-American (single), and just not of the same caliber. Plus, you seem to be paying for the Red Rooster Experience as much as for the food, which depending on how hungry you are, is almost worth it. I’ve never seen anyone really unhappy there. You’ll go away fed and the chocolate shake will get you to Copake Falls.
Brewster is sort of the last suburb of New York City going up 22. But in a little section of the green space behind the Rooster, there’s an area set off with rocks with about 15 headstones called the Sherwood-Minor Burial Ground.
If the local burger joint has a 19th Century cemetery behind it, you may be in Upstate New York.
The six-year-old in my soul longs to putt golf balls through the windmill, but Lou and I press on. We’re a little beyond halfway to Copake Falls, Lou is purring along, my blood oxygen level is rising, and we’re about to check on the state of things along old 22.
There’s one more humongous shopping plaza in Brewster, set way off the road up on the top of a hill like a Greek city-state. Then things really start “Upstating.” The area around 22 for the next thirty miles is part of The Great Swamp, which is exactly what it says it is, filtering the water that flows down to the massive reservoirs that supply New York City’s drinking water. So traveling along through Putnam County and into Dutchess County, first we’re in the swamp, then we’re surrounded by more shopping plaza city-states near the village of Patterson, then we’re in the swamp again, then we’re in Pawling, then back to the swamp for a while, and then we’re in Dover.
And here’s something else: The stretch of New York State that straddles the Connecticut border is called The Oblong. When the border was first proposed between New York and Connecticut as twenty miles east of the Hudson River, the people in the towns of Greenwich and Stamford insisted that they had to remain part of Connecticut, whiny little bitches that they are. So Connecticut got a “panhandle” consisting of 761,440 acres. In return, the entire border of New York was moved 1.8 miles west, creating what was officially known as “The Equivalent Lands”, but which came to be known as The Oblong because of its shape.
Lots of people drive my stretch of Route 22 without knowing that they’re passing through The Great Swamp, or that they’re traveling along the western edge of the Oblong. It doesn’t matter to them. They still get from here to there without knowing or caring about the nature or the history around them. Theoretically, we could all spend our short time on this Earth only learning what we think we need to know. None of the information I will share with you about the towns and landmarks that we’ll pass from here on is the least bit necessary to know to get from Putnam to Columbia County, and what I can tell you only scratches the surface of what there is to know. But to me, that’s exactly why it’s worth knowing.
Case in point. Unnecessary Fact #1: In fifty-eight miles, we will pass four Kingdom Halls, in Brewster, Pawling, Dover Plains and Millerton, plus a massive 670-acre headquarters of The Watchtower in Patterson.
This may not be enough to get your attention. But of course, the wonderful thing about living in the age of information is that you dig up completely useless information like this: The Watchtower in Patterson pours oodles of money in the surrounding community to make up for the fact that they have gobbled up a huge swatch of tax-exempt property. They have established the reputation of being very good neighbors. According to an article I came across in the Warwick Observer, the Patterson Town Supervisor sometimes asks the Watchtower folks to put the cows out in the pasture on Friday afternoons “for the tourists”.
So now you know two more things: The Patterson Town Supervisor is a marketing genius, and Jehovah’s Witnesses have cows.
You didn’t need to know this, of course, but see how much more fun it makes the trip?
It gets better: On a hill across from one of the Brewster City-States, you will find a brown building called the Ski Haus (spelled out in Old English-Style letters). They’ve been in business for 57 years, not only selling and renting skiing equipment but also selling kayaks, bicycles and Adirondack outdoor furniture. Apparently, they will even rent you a vacation house in Vermont.
Approximately 12 miles up the road, you will find The Shed Haus, which is actually a log-cabin style house surrounded by an acre of model backyard sheds on display. Hundreds of them, so it seems. Up until three years ago, the Shed Haus was the Shed Kingdom. This sets off layers of curiosity: Was the name “Shed Kingdom” a deliberate attempt to tap into the Jehovah’s Witness market? Were the people who took over and renamed the business “Shed Haus” deliberately trying to cash in on the success of the Ski Haus? Or was it a complete coincidence? Did it occur to the Shed Haus people that once you bought your skiing equipment, bicycles, kayaks and outdoor Adirondack furniture at the Ski Haus, you would need a Shed Haus to store it all in over the winter? And If the Ski Haus and the Shed Haus were both meant to conjure up the pre-colonial Dutch history in the region, why did they use the German word for house and not the Dutch word “huis”? I could understand that a business that wanted to get you excited about skiing would choose a name that sounded like something in the Alps, rather than in Brewster, but what is the connection between Germans and backyard sheds?
Sometimes the questions are more interesting than the answers. But I have to leave it at that, because we’re heading into Pawling.
Full disclosure: I have soft spot for Quakers. For one thing, I have a 96-year-old uncle in California, son of Irish-Catholics Immigrants, who has been a Quaker for 75 years. But while I’m drawn to Quaker ideas about pacifism and human rights, I could never work up that level of commitment, although I had started going to St. John’s in the Wilderness Episcopalian Church in Copake Falls before the Pandemic ruined everything. I hope to come back vaccinated someday. The Episcopalians are sort of the halfway point on the Religion-O-Meter between Catholics and Quakers, and that’s good enough for me.
Pawling Quaker Meeting House
Akin Free Library in Pawling
Among the things I didn’t really need to know about Pawling, New York is that it was first settled by a Quaker who wanted to get the hell off Long Island. Nathan Birdsall was a surveyor from Oyster Bay who had once cut through the woods from Danbury, Connecticut to Pawling, assumedly to have a good story to tell. He later found out that the land in the Oblong was being sold by the State of New York and he sprang into action, gathering up Quakers from Long Island, Connecticut and Rhode Island to purchase several 500-acre plots of Oblong which became Quaker Hill.
The Quakers of Pawling outlawed slavery in their community in 1776, fifty years before the rest of New York State. Plus, they refused to do business with slaveholders, to the point where they used maple syrup instead of buying imported cane sugar. As conscientious objectors, they accepted George Washington and his Continental Army commandeering their meeting house during the Revolutionary War, but they stayed out of his business. (Acknowledgement to David Levine at HV Mag for this information).
The first time I tapped into this history was when I realized that I passed South Quaker Hill Road, Quaker Hill Road and North Quaker Hill Road in the space of four miles, so I looked on Google Maps to find that it goes way, way, way up, makes a big horseshoe, then comes way, way down. Then I looked at the Zillow real estate ads to find that there’s probably not a whole lot of living simply to please God in the $2 million-dollar houses for sale way up there. And there’s also an Old Quaker Hill Road, where you’ll find the original Meeting House and the Akin Free Library, a bizarre stone Georgian-style building with an ornate copper dome which houses a museum of Quaker artifacts, as well as a natural history museum in the basement, which according to the beautiful Atlas Obscura, features “oddities like meticulously scribed 19th-century shop ledgers, a first edition of The Hobbit, utopian Quaker pamphlets, a shrunken head, snake skins, hundreds of taxidermy local birds from 200 years ago, Native honed seashells, a giant moa egg, fetuses in jars, and spoon handles swallowed by a local mental patient.”
So it goes without saying that a visit to Quakerland in Pawling is on my bucket list, along with a visit to Daryl’s House.
Daryl’s House is just up the road past the Appalachian Trail. It used to be called The Town Crier. It’s now a bar/ restaurant/live-music venue owned by Daryl Hall of Hall and Oats. While I wasn’t a huge Hall and Oats fan, Trisha and I became big fans of his “Live from Daryl’s House” TV series, wherein he invites musicians to his actual house somewhere in Amenia or Millerton (or both) and he performs with them along with his kick ass “house band” (a phrase that takes on a whole new meaning in this case). Daryl Hall is truly a gifted singer, something you wouldn’t necessarily know from listening to bubble-gum pop songs like “Private Eyes” and “Maneater” (sorry, Daryl, but really) and he was able to let loose there in his big old restored colonial house, thus proving to skeptics like myself that he is a major talent, has great taste in music and was selling out to make money all those years, successfully so.
At least he got mega rich without hurting anybody, if you don’t count earworm damage. Most of the time as we were watching “Live From Daryl’s House”, we’d be asking each other over and over how the hell this guy can look and sound so good as he closes in on 75 years old. I guess that’s where the money comes in. Still.
During the height of the Covid-19 pandemic, Daryl’s House helped out the surrounding community by stocking and selling groceries and toilet paper. Anybody who loves the Oblong that much is all right with me. So I’d like to visit Daryl’s House to take in some live music one fine day. In the meantime, I always take a quick look in the parking lot as I pass by, just to see if he’s out there unloading his car.
One Kingdom Hall up the road from Daryl’s House, we pass the preposterously impressive campus of the Trinity Pawling School, massive buildings on a perfect hill one side of the road and a pristine athletic field on the other. Trinity-Pawling is an Episcopalian prep school for boys founded in 1907. Having spent 25 years as a public-school teacher and 13 years as a public-school student, I have no idea what’s it’s like to be up on that hill, never mind down on that field, so my mind immediately drifts to the only reference it has, which is the Robin Williams’ movie “Dead Poets Society”. Though I doubt if there’s a guy standing on a desk up there on that hill yelling “Carpe Diem!”, who knows? There might be. One thing I’m pretty sure of is that every one of the 6,000 alumni of Trinity-Pawling School was and is more comfortable wearing a suit and tie than I’ll ever be. Bless their hearts.
Our next stop on the journey north on Route 22 is Wingdale. There are people living happy, fulfilling lives in Wingdale. I have no proof of this, but I have anecdotal evidence. Not only is there a Pleasant Ridge Road (and how bad could that be?), there’s currently a house for sale with its own 10-acre lake created from a quarry from which came the marble used to build the U.S. Capitol. That house will run you $5 million. But if that’s out of your range, there’s a nice little 600 square-foot modular literally right around the corner you can snap up for $85,000. So it goes in the Hudson Valley.
For all the civic pride I’m sure residents have in their hearts for Wingdale, it just doesn’t have a whole lot of curb appeal as you travel along 22. And yet, it’s home to two internationally known businesses. This fact led to a fun little “when worlds collide” moment on my Facebook page last summer. It started when I posted a picture of the interior of the cabin I was staying in at Taconic State Park.
A woman I know through her extensive research about her native Valley Stream, who now lives just east of the Oblong in Kent, Ct, saw this picture and was convinced, “that table came from Hunt County Furniture in Wingdale!” Another friend, who I know from our time working in a supermarket 40 years ago, saw that comment and answered excitedly “Wingdale! Big W’s!”.
To which the woman responded, “What?”
I felt compelled to explain two things to Friend #1: First, The least expensive table at Hunt County Furniture will run you about $1500, and I don’t think that was in the state park budget, though it’s a very nice table, nonetheless. Maybe they made a deal for floor models.
Second, Big W’s is a barbecue restaurant in Wingdale that people travel from near and far to visit. Big W himself was an accomplished chef in New York City who moved upstate, bought himself a food truck, painted a smiling, slightly stoned pig face on it, rented a space on Route 22, installed a smoker and a woodpile under a car shelter and built himself a successful business. He later bought the deli next door to the truck and a made it into a small restaurant, with several smokers now housed in a prefab metal shed outside. He’s gotten rave reviews in The New York Times and Bon Appetit and no one ever has anything bad to say about him on Yelp or Trip Advisor. He was even featured on an episode of “Live From Daryl’s House,” wherein Daryl Hall takes the band down to Wingdale for the Big W’s experience.
Meanwhile, Hunt Country Furniture, handsome though it is, remains completely out of my league.
As you pass the Harlem Valley Metro North Station, things get very ugly very quickly. You are passing the site of what was the Harlem Valley Psychiatric Center, originally Harlem Valley State Hospital. You are face to face with the meanest looking buildings you ever saw, a whole bunch of them, deep-brick three-story Georgian thugs with barred windows, standing along the road with their arms crossed against their chests, sneering menacingly as they look down on you through the eyes of all the ghosts who live there.
It was an insane asylum. From 1924 until 1994. At its peak, it had over 5,000 patients and employed over 5,000 people on 600-plus acres of grounds. It was also a village unto itself with everything from farm production to sewage treatment. If it’s in your town – a bakery, a bowling alley, a swimming pool – it was in Harlem Valley. You can still see the small grandstand and the baseball field from the road, not quite as creepy as the hospital towers, but still it looks like a perfect setting for the weirdest fucking dream you’ll ever have.
Also back there somewhere is a golf course that was considered so good that a developer bought the land to build an entire community called Dover Knolls around it, but he never got it off the ground. He instead sold the lands to Olivet University, a religious school owned by a Korean evangelist named David Yang, who then got in big-time trouble for exposing workers to asbestos as they began to illegally start rehabbing the buildings and had to pay his way out of it with a couple of million dollars he had in the till. But the good news is that Olivet University will let you come in and play golf there if you pay them.
I’m sure some good things happened over the 60 years of Harlem Valley State Hospital. I’m sure some people who really needed compassion were able to find some. It’s especially nice that there was baseball. But all I can think of as I pass through Wingdale on Route 22 are all the people who were forced to go to places like this in the first half of the 20th Century. What a God-awful existence it must have been to be kept at Harlem Valley against your will, with the train going by all the time like at Folsom Prison. (Thank you Virginia Repka-Franco for that awesome bit of imagery and other information I picked up from an article at https://classicnewyorkhistory.com/harlem-valley-psychiatric-center-testament-changing-times/). All the cupcakes and fresh milk in the world wouldn’t have made a damn bit of difference.
The hospital was also at the “cutting-edge” of electro-shock therapy and lobotomy, so if you were one of those people who were sent there based on the 1920 definition of insanity, and you talked back, you likely ended up like Randle McMurphy. My mind does a mash up as I drive by, and I picture a young homosexual in New York City being declared insane by a judge, maybe a judge who graduated from Trinity-Pawling School and was ashamed at his secret feelings for his roommates. The judge commits the young man to Harlem Valley, where the electro-shock therapy accidently kills him. But no bother, they just bury him in the cemetery right there on the grounds, “The Gate of Heaven”, under a stone with a number instead of a name, to protect his family, who could just check the records to find the right gravestone, except that all the records were lost.
Or, they could have just left him the fuck alone, you know?
And of course, it’s not like the people who we trust to be in charge of things aren’t still making spectacularly stupid decisions. Case in point, about two miles up from Wingdale in the Town of Dover, we’ll drive past the 1,100-Megawatt Cricket Valley Energy Center, which recently went online despite New York State environmental laws that would shut it down in twenty years. While Hydraulic Fracking is banned in New York State, this monster was built to generate power from natural gas that is fracked in Pennsylvania and travels through the Iroquois Pipeline (what a disgusting thing to call it) across New York and into Connecticut.
The people who make money from Cricket Valley will tell you it’s clean energy, but it isn’t. It’s clean as compared to gnarly old coal-fired plants, but it still pollutes the air. The people of Dover who protested against it were also told that it would be a boon to their shitty economy.
This is from the Highlands Current:
In 2017, in exchange for not having to pay property taxes of $11.7 million annually, Cricket Valley Energy made a PILOT payment to Dover for $109,521. Under the same agreement, Cricket Valley Energy avoided $59 million in school taxes — its payment to Dover’s district was $552,559. Other taxes given up by the state and Dutchess County will total about $23 million.
Nice deal, eh? New York Governor Cuomo’s position was that it was already approved and in the works before all the new laws designed to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, so, oh well, deal with it. He does that sometimes. Besides, the energy produced by Crickey Valley will power a million homes, so they say. And all those mega-rich non-Quakers back in Pawling need to keep their central air cranking, and look, Dover, we even paved the road for you!
I don’t need clickbait to tell me that I’m one of the people who are moving up to the Hudson Valley “in droves”, and we droves need to charge our cell phones. I’m part of the problem in this respect, but if it’s any consolation, we generate most of our power back in Valley Stream from solar panels on the roof. Of course, up in the Town of Copake, the fight over a 500-acre (!) solar farm that is also being forced down local residents’ throats is being waged as we speak, and as usual, the locals are losing. This whole goddamn civilization thing is pretty much unsustainable at this point, so we might as well keep on burning gasoline and head north while we still can.
Our next stop is Dover Plains. I have met exactly one person from Dover Plains to my knowledge. She is the branch manager of a bank, and in our one encounter, she was professional, helpful, knowledgeable and exquisitely groomed. To comment on the people I see walking up and down Route 22 in Dover Plains as a means of making some sort of statement about a place of which I really know nothing would be catty. If you judged Valley Stream based on the people walking on Merrick Road, we wouldn’t come out looking so great. I try really, really hard not to look down on anyone, because it’s too easy. You can always find someone who you are “better” than, but it proves absolutely nothing. I wish I had been born with this wisdom instead of having to have learned it by catching myself being an asshole too many times when I was younger.
This brings us to Oniontown. Literally on the other side of the tracks in Dover Plains is a road is now identified as Seven Wells Brook Road. It used to be called Oniontown Road. If you look this up on Google Earth, there’s no street view, but from the satellite view, you will see a long road lined with trailers, many with garbage strewn around them. (You’ll also see footpaths that go off into the woods, which is probably the creepiest part of all of this to me). Historically, it was and is an area of extreme Appalachian-style poverty and everything that goes with extreme Appalachian-style poverty. Articles were written in the 1940’s about the noble savages who lived in Oniontown with no electricity and had to defend their honor constantly against the people in Dover Plains who looked down on them. The story was that they were not only insular but had been inbreeding for generations.
When the first generation of suburban droves started creeping further up the Hudson Valley and reached Interstate 84, they gave birth to intolerable children. Some of those intolerable children decided it would be fun to drive down Oniontown Road at night and pretend they were re-enacting the Blair Witch Project by shining flashlights on the trailers and property of the residents, then posting videos on You Tube. Then these young, affluent cretins started getting their windshields and heads bashed in with bricks, which to me and many others was a totally reasonable response on the part of the people on Oniontown Road. Things spiraled out of control, of course, and it was great fun for all the You Tubers when the Dover Police Chief warned them to “stay out of Oniontown.” It was shortly thereafter that they changed the name of the road.
A writer named Aaron Lake Smith wrote a great piece of investigative journalism for Vice Magazine where he was able to get some of the Oniontown Road residents to open up about their experiences, not only with the misguided thrill-seekers driving up from the 84 corridor but with local Dover Plains people, especially their experiences in having to fight their way through school. It seems that while they were once ostracized for being inbred, now they’re targeted for being mixed-bred.
This area of Dutchess County has always been relatively poor, outside of the dude with the marble quarry lake and the post-modern Quakers. And maybe finding somebody to look down on becomes a more attractive strategy the less you have. But the suburban droves and the citiots can’t be bothered learning anything about the places they’re invading, or the people who live honest lives there, because it isn’t something they have to know to get where they’re going. And let me tell you, there’s a little war brewing up across the entire Hudson Valley between the locals and the citiots, and more bricks, at least figurative ones, will probably be thrown before it’s over.
But we need to shake all this ugliness off, don’t we? It’s been nothing but bad news since we left Big W’s Roadhouse. How about I show you some horses?
Just south of Dover Plains, we’ll pass by Lucky Orphans Horse Rescue, established in 2008 to provide shelter and rehabilitation to abused and neglected horses. According to their mission statement, They are also “committed to working side by side with the horses we rescue to help change the lives of people with a diverse range of struggles such as those suffering with addictions, depression, grief and loss, trauma, at-risk youth and improving relationships in families and groups.”
And since I told you about the Lucky Horses, I have to give props to another local organization. In Amenia, you won’t see the horses from the road (not even if you’re a tourist) but you’ll see a sign at the top of a hill for an organization called Godspeed, “a multi species Animal Welfare Service Rescue that provides food, medical, placement, and solutions to animal welfare problems, free of charge, to large domestic animals, farm animals, companion animals and wildlife.” They also facilitate cat spaying and neutering and support local pet food panties.
What wonderful things these people are doing. And this is one of the things about Upstate New York that I find particularly fascinating: A couple of acres of nasty scary ugly in one place is almost always juxtaposed by a couple of acres of unique charming beautiful in another place right nearby.
A long time ago, Trisha and I drove down Sinpatch Road in Wassaic to look at a house we saw on Zillow. I really have no idea what the hell we were thinking at the time, but it had something to do with a Metro North train to the city being right nearby. Of course, the train takes about two and a half hours to get to Grand Central Station, and I guess we hadn’t fully thought that one through. The neighborhood was “hardscrabble” to say the least. We’re pretty sure there was a guy living in a metal shed in the backyard of the house in question. A few people in the area had junk collections in their front yards which they may or may not have been proud to display.
And yet, right down the road is a place called The World Peace Sanctuary, which started with a man in Japan named Masahisa Goi who received the message “May Peace Prevail on Earth” after meditating on the devastation wrought on his country after WWII. He became known as a sensei, gained followers and began a movement to put up four-sided “Peace Poles” all over the world, with that message written in different languages on each side of the pole. This led to “Peace Pals International”, which encourages schools and youth groups to create peace poles. Plus, at the Sanctuary itself, they have a peace pole representing every nation in the world (so they say), where people gather to mediate once a month. And apparently, if you want to, you can ask for a mallet to ring the “Peace Gong” at the front entrance and send your energy out into the world.
Why, you ask, is a place that began as a reaction to the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in the middle of nowhere around the corner from Wassiac’s Tobacco Road?
I have two answers for that: 1) I don’t know, and 2) Why not?
Welcome to the mysteries of the Hudson Valley.
We’ve reached the village of Amenia. It’s a nice little place, isn’t it?. The Four Brothers Pizza Restaurant, a chain that actually outnumbers the Kingdom Halls on the Route 22 corridor, opened a little drive-in movie theater a couple of years ago. It’s the kind of thing that lets a little town say to the rest of the world, “we have fun here.” Some beautiful old Hudson Valley architecture surrounds us as we roll through town. Of course, like all of this side of Duchess County, there are also buildings that are in such poor shape that it defies the laws of gravity that they’re still standing. It was while passing by one of those buildings in Amenia that I learned how to say “Please Curb Your Dog” in Spanish (“Por favor frener a tu perro”) from a handwritten bilingual sign taped to a utility pole. It occurred to me that this sign shared the same concept as the Peace Poles. May curbing your dog prevail on Earth.
Nothing much happens between Amenia and Millerton, but at this point, 22 emerges from a series of dark hollows through the Great Swamp and steps out into lush rolling hills and farmland. This is where we’ll find McEnroe’s Organic Farm Market. I’ll be devoting one of the later chapters in this book to all the wonderful places where you can get a fresh turkey sandwich within twenty minutes of Copake Falls, and you’ll learn a little more about McEnroe’s if you can stick around that long. For now, I have to tell you about a little bone I had to pick with them. A figurative one, not a turkey one.
For years and years, McEnroes’s enticed passers-by with a series of small signs on the side of the road with their logo (“McEnroe’s Farm Market” surrounding three happy little tomatoes) with a small rectangular sign titled at a 20-degree angle attached to each of the bigger signs announcing, in big block letters, “LUNCH!”. The last sign, traveling in either direction, had another sign under it that said, “OOPS! YOU MISSED THE FARM!”
On almost every day of my 25-year teaching career, my lunch was a peanut butter and jelly sandwich that I ate in ten minutes. I had completely forgotten that lunch could be a celebration. Why just have lunch if you can have LUNCH!? I was intrigued.
Seeing as it was only twenty minutes from Copake Falls, I finally made it down to McEnroe’s, and LUNCH! did not disappoint. But the very next summer whoever is in charge of those signs disappointed me terribly. In horror, I saw that they had replaced all the signs that said “LUNCH!” with signs that say “EATERY!”
Ok, they sell a lot of stuff there. Anything edible that can be grown organically as a matter of fact. So yeah, it is more than lunch.
You know what this is all about, right? It’s the citiots again. It’s the people who sneer at The Red Rooster and Big W’s Roadhouse Bar-B-Q, or think they’re all hip and in the know because, “Oh, look! I read about that place the Times! How quaint!” The ones who drive their Zip Cars from Manhattan to their ridiculous mansions up in Hillsdale to host fancy dinner parties at long picnic tables where the guys all wear pink polos and khakis and the women wear white dresses and floppy hats. The ones who drive into Hudson for art gallery openings on Saturday afternoon, maybe a tour of the local wineries on Sunday before they head back to the Upper West Side. The kind of people who would drive right by a sign that says “LUNCH!”, but slow down and say, “Honey? Let’s stop at this eatery!”
As one of the droves, I have to suffer for their sins. For one thing, I have to be extra nice and polite to everybody because I have a Long Island accent you could cut with a chain saw. In every encounter I have with a Columbia County native, I have to somehow establish implicitly (mostly through the simple rules of politeness) that I’m not one of them. I like LUNCH! Just like you. And I don’t need to go to no damn eatery to get it.
It’s not enough to keep me away from McEnroe’s. They have everything there. I have no choice but to forgive them for this assault on my sensibilities. I just wish they had left the signs alone.
Then again, up the next hill, at the exact 100-mile mark from my driveway in Valley Stream, there’s a green little restaurant called the Round III (I’m sure there’s a story there) that has been trying to entice me off the road for twenty years with messages like “Breakfast All Day! Apple Cinnamon Pancakes!” This summer, they’re pushing turkey cranberry melt sandwiches on that sign, so maybe I’ll have to step up and choose sides in this culture war over LUNCH!
Moving on, the farms get farmier and the rolling hills get rollier as we approach the Village of Millerton, where the area approaching the village along 22 is known as Irondale. This is one of the many places where iron ore was mined and cooked in giant furnaces in the 19thCentury. The hamlet of Copake Falls started out as Copake Iron Works. That whole story will get its own chapter later on, but in the meantime, I would just like to point out that “Irondale” would be a really cool thing to be able to say when someone asks you where you’re from. They’d sure think twice about messing with somebody who comes from a place called Irondale.
But I digress.
We are at the three-way intersection of 22 and 44 in in the village of Millerton. We’re at the top of the Oblong, right over the border from Lakeview and Salisbury Connecticut, where a lot of the “eatery” crowd can be found. A look to your right and you’ll see stores both hipster and practical lining the street going up to the top of a small hill. Downtown Millerton on 44 seems to have struck a nice balance between eateries and places to eat lunch, between the historic Hudson Valley and The Valley of The Droves.
If you happen to be waiting at a red light at this three-way intersection in warmer months and you look to your left, where the road isn’t, you will see a house on a hill surrounded by stunning perennial flowers. On the day after Tropical Storm Isaias, I “did the drive” from Valley Stream to Copake Falls to see if there was any damage to the house. (I could have bugged a neighbor who did some caretaking for us over the winter, but I figured if there were damage, she’d have her own to clean up, and besides, that’s not the Country Way). At the Millerton light, I noticed a woman outside the house, pulling branches out of the garden. There was no one else at the light and she looked at me and I looked at her, and I called up the hill to her, “I’ve been admiring your garden for twenty years!” And she smiled and thanked me.
On the way back that afternoon, I looked up again to see if she was there, since we’re friends now, but I didn’t see her. But that’s when I noticed the Peace Pole in the corner of her yard.
We’re in the homestretch now. A small hollow leads out of Millerton and the road begins to elevate. Out the window on your side of your car, you can see the Taconic Berkshire range start to rise across the farm fields. Up and over a steep hill and we pass the Willowbrook Farm (watching out for crossing geese). As we pass a sign welcoming us to Columbia County, we go up up up and the mountains have stepped onto the stage like the main act that the Great Swamp was warming up for. Alander, Frissell, Brace, Haystack, Bash Bish, Washburn and their somewhat shorter friends (including Sunset Rock Mountain in our backyard) forming a ridge starting from the corner where New York, Connecticut and Massachusetts converge and running straight up the New York / Massachusetts border to Vermont. When you’re up this way, the mountains are always with you, everywhere you go, friendly old giants sitting on their front porches, keeping an eye on the neighborhood, taking in the valley views while the clouds rolling by paint them a hundred shades of green. We are 110 miles away from Valley Stream, Long Island, and we’re on a different planet. It’s a view that never fails to take my breath away.
And you’ll notice that I’ve slowed way down so you can really enjoy this majestic mountain view, but it’s really because the stretch of 22 in Town of Ancram is one big speed trap.
We’re passing the AmeriStore Gas Station at the corner of 22 and County Route 3, and up ahead is the former Hill-Over-Holstiens Farm where I used to buy fresh milk in bottles in their little store. Sometimes nobody was in the store, and you could just help yourself to the milk and leave your money in the cash box. A lot of places still operate like that, but every year there’s one more story about some citiot who drove away from a farm with the money box. This particular farm, 391 acres, is for sale right now for $6.2 million. As with all the farmland for sale in the area, you can only hope that it is not carved up into more space for the droves.
Fortunately, the Town of Copake has a list of zoning regulations as long as the Appalachian Trail regarding what can and cannot be done in the “Scenic Corridor Overlay Zone.” on Route 22. And it’s remained a beautiful place, pretty much as I first found it in 1988, despite the local unrepentant asshole who has been polluting it for twenty years.
You know you’re coming into Copake when you see two things: Tom Hill, a little 892-foot high mini-me mountain that seems to pop right out of the road directly in front of you, and the billboard for Dad’s “50’s-Style” Copake Diner, which gets its own chapter later on. If you want to go to Dad’s, you jump off at Route 7A, where the little hamlet of Copake lies waiting. I’ll show you around a bit before this book is done. I may always be an outsider, but at least I’ve done my homework, and I defy any of the 3,500 residents of Copake Town to call this Lawn Guylander a citiot, even if I can’t fix my own car.
Right across from Dad’s billboard, back on 22, you’ll see a long red building set back from the road behind a very expensive looking stone wall. You’ll see that the sign on the building says, “Farm Market”. If you look closer, behind huge stacks of firewood, you’ll see that the Farm Market building is empty. This is because it’s a complete sham. If you look closer still, you’ll see bulldozers and payloaders, and a sickly-looking cornfield in the distance.
The guy who owns the 300 acres behind the Phony Farm Market has been dumping construction waste on his property for at least twenty years. His apparent strategy was to throw expensive lawyers at the poor little Town of Copake every time they tried to nail him for fragrantly breaking the law, and to a certain extent, it worked. He even built the Phony Farm Market without obtaining permits, along with building a steel bridge across the environmentally sensitive Noster Kill, which runs through the property.
Every time Copake hauled him into court, he’d pay his way out it, and with a big old jolly fuck you, he’d continue to dump polluted soil on his “farm”. Many good people in Copake spent many hours of their lives fighting this truly unrepentant asshole. All that effort spent on the disorder created by one guy in two square miles, but that’s just how they roll, isn’t it?
To their credit, New York State DOC finally stepped in and hauled the gentleman’s wiseguy ass into jail, where he has spent much of the last few years, but apparently the polluted soil remains, and it’s a safe bet that the dumping is still going on.
But the thing that amazes me most of all about this story is that the guy went to the trouble of building the Illegal Phony Farm Market building, seemingly to make the property look nicer from the road. It’s the only thing that makes sense, as everybody knows what he was really up to. On some level I think he was, like me, afraid of being considered a citiot by the locals.
Right before we take the Route 344 right turn into the hamlet of Copake Falls, we pass Our Lady of Hope Catholic Church. When Trisha and I first began our alternative existence up here, it was called St. Bridget’s. In 2009, St. Bridget’s merged with St. John Vianney in Churchtown to create Our Lady of Hope parish. In turn, St. John Vianney had previously merged with Holy Cross in Taghkanic and Sacred Heart in Philmont in 2005. So as you can see, the Catholics are going to have got to step up their game in the Hudson Valley, as they’re plainly getting their asses kicked by Jehovah’s Witnesses.
They’ve just about lost me to the Episcopalians at this point, and if you stick around, there’s a chapter coming up about a great little church in Copake Falls that Welcomes You.
In the meantime, with a winding climb up North Mountain Road, our 117-mile journey is complete. At Trisha’s Mountain, we’re going to bring the stuff in from the car, make a phone call and drive back down to Church Street Deli and Pizza across from Dad’s. We’re going to bring back some genuine Long Island-Style Pizza (not quite on the level Ancona’s in Valley Stream, but close) and later we’re going to drag some camp chairs down the driveway to watch The Show. You’ll see.
Speaking of The Show, it’s time for the next chapter, but I’ll wrap this one up with something I picked up from a Catholic priest at St. Bridget’s many, many years ago. (When they’re good, they’re very, very good). It’s one of my personal mantras, practical advice for any occasion, whether you’re discovering a new town or you’re driving through towns you’ve driven though fifty times, whether you’re stopping for a good old-fashioned LUNCH!, tending your garden, planting your Peace Pole or just sitting and watching the light dance with the mountains.
When they would get to the readings in the mass, the part where they tell the little stories, this is what the priest said:
“Let us be attentive.”
I’d have to go back and ask my old friend from the Depot Deli to find out for certain, but I’m pretty sure that, along with not letting the rain stop you and fixing things yourself, being aware of the nature and the history that surrounds you is part of the Country Way.
Here’s where it starts: At the very end of 2019, the week between Christmas and New Year’s Day, the week when nobody does much of anything, my wife Trisha and I did something complicated, extravagant and totally unnecessary. We bought a house.
Everyone with whom we shared this news was ecstatically happy for us. Nobody called us stupid. Not to our faces.
I suppose if somebody had a problem with us buying this particular house, the problem would be that we already own a house, and the majority of people on Earth don’t own a house, and many don’t have a home, and now we have two. From that perspective, of course it’s clear that we didn’t have any damn business buying another house.
But we bought it anyway. We had our reasons. We think some of them are almost valid, but I’ll leave that to you. If you’re a capitalist, maybe you’ll say we’re smart people and we know what we’re doing and it’s not a problem at all so go ahead and enjoy it. If you’re a Marxist, you’ll likely call us out for the selfish pigs that we are. Fortunately for us, there are way more capitalists than there are Marxists, at least in our circle.
Trisha and I bought my parents’ house eighteen years ago in Valley Stream, Long Island, New York. It’s a little 1,300 square-foot cape cod-style house on a 60 x 100 plot of land. It’s cute. You’d like it. We grow a lot of flowers. The backyard overlooks a pretty little winding creek, the official name of which is actually “Valley Stream”, but people who don’t know me usually either call it Hook Creek or Mill Brook.
People who do know me call it Duffy’s Creek. Some, anyway. Because I asked them to. My parents bought the house in 1955, and I grew up there, the “baby” in a family of five kids. I never went very far, never changed my mailing address. I got married, came back, entered into a real estate transaction, had a son of my own, and began growing old right on that creek. The tide comes in and out from Jamaica Bay, and by the grace of God, I go right on living. It’s a nice story so far, isn’t it?
But here’s the thing: Three weeks after Trisha and I met on the boardwalk by the ocean in Long Beach, Long Island in 1999, we spent a perfect early-November weekend staying in a cabin in Taconic State Park at Copake Falls, in Columbia County, New York, a place we had both discovered independently, she from going to the annual Falcon Ridge Folk Festival in nearby Hillsdale, me from years when I would periodically get in my car and drive long distances because I didn’t have anybody to go to the Falcon Ridge Folk Festival with. We lit a campfire on a crackling cold and clear Friday night full of stars, and on Saturday morning we hiked to Bash Bish Falls under Indian summer skies full of crazy blue jays hopping through orange and yellow trees yelling, “Stay! Stay! Live Here!” We fell in love with each other and we fell in love with the place. And for the ensuing twenty years, we returned there every summer and a couple of falls, probably logging about six months of elapsed time. Our son Jack has never known a year that didn’t include at least one week in Copake Falls.
“It’s like our second home,” we’d say.
But that wasn’t true. It just sounded nice.
So our home away from home stayed up there on the map and up there in our minds year after year as we continued to grind it out on Long Island. The sound of the blue jays and the turns in the country roads stood behind us, tapping on our shoulders to remind us what we were missing; the ancient mountains, the cleaner air, the bigger trees, the wide open roads, the farm stores and the church barbecues, the people who wave when they drive by, the absence of malls and chain stores (except for the Stewart Shop up in Hillsdale, which is perfect and cannot be criticized). I wasted hours and hours of my precious time here on Earth scrolling though Zillow listings.
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Copake Falls was an alternative reality. And as Valley Stream continued to get louder and louder year after year, summer after summer Copake Falls stayed mellow.
Valley Stream is a lot of things. Many of them are good. But “mellow” is not one of those things. A quick check for “antonyms of mellow” on Merriam Webster reveals “discordant, dissonant, grating, harsh, inharmonious, jarring, strident, unmelodious and unmusical.” I guess it would be harsh, maybe even unmelodious, to describe my hometown in these terms. But still, it sure as hell is not mellow, except in our backyard, and then only when our surrounding neighbors aren’t shooting fireworks or holding dance competitions. And if you want to see jarring and strident, live near a mall on Long Island during those seasons when people get in their cars every half hour to go buy more stuff. If grating and harsh is more what you’re after, listen to a Long Islander who has been inconvenienced.
Robert Frost came up with the line, “I had a lover’s quarrel with the world.” It was such a good line that he requested it as the epitaph on his gravestone. As you might guess, Jean-Paul Sartre doesn’t have an epitaph on his gravestone (cool issues and all), but he sure could have gone with one of his best lines: “Hell is other people.”
People are what make a place more than anything. Or break it. There are rural parts of America and suburban parts of Long Island where I’m not too arrogant to say I wouldn’t be caught dead. People who are proud of where they live, wherever they might be, like to come up with slogans to promote their hometowns as places that other people might like to see, possibly even live in, because people spend money, and that’s what keeps places alive. Valley Stream once sold itself as “The Gateway to Suburbia”. Kind of a Dante’s Inferno thing really, but I suppose it was meant as a compliment at the time. The Town of Copake sells itself to this day as “The Land of Rural Charm.” That’s a good one, huh? I hope whoever thought of that at a meeting got the praise and recognition that they earned. But I could show you lots of uncharming rural places around town if I had to. And tell you about some less than charming rural people.
So In fairness to my fellow Long Islanders (and – whether they like it or not – my now-fellow Copakeans), let’s start with the premise that the vast majority of people everywhere, in every place with a name, are really all right. I truly do believe this. But sadly, as you know, while most people are wonderful, some people just suck. So it follows that if there are more people, more people will just suck. That being established, here are what I believe are the four basic groups of problem humans:
1. The Slightly to Extremely Dangerous: Those who have had hard lives or some sort of trauma and have decided than instead of nobility or faith, they will instead make it a point to project their hurt and anger on convenient targets they find around them. While this group of people have to be treated like walking landmines, as a child of God, one can’t judge them if one is not one of them and hopes not to be. I just try to stay out of their way and not to make things any worse for them.
2. The Insufferably Annoying: Those who have been sadly brainwashed by too much TV into thinking they are the star of their own little reality show, and thereby have developed a need to create drama and tension where none should exist in order to compensate for an otherwise tedious existence. Long Island is saturated with people like this, possibly because of its wealth. If your main problems are not the procurement of food, clothing and shelter, you really have no problems, so if you want some, you have to invent them. Ideally, it would help every one of them to be slapped silly, but violence is never an option.
3. The Head-Scratchingly Frustrating: Those who, for a variety of reasons, from deeply neurological to not getting hugged enough as babies, just can’t grasp the simple rules of getting along. They’re not particularly dangerous or overly dramatic. They just flat out boggle the mind. Ask anyone who’s ever worked in retail. But, as my father would have said, you can’t make their problem your problem. You can suffer fools gladly or ungladly. You’re still going to suffer fools.
Now, If you give people in these three categories the benefit of the doubt, and assume that in their essence they really just can’t help themselves, and they probably have many good qualities as well, that leaves us to grapple with the problems perpetuated and the damage done by Group #4, The Unrepentant Assholes: Those who live to purposefully and gleefully gain negative attention from the rest of us by being as unpleasant, uncooperative and self-centered as they can possibly be.
My personal sampling of the several hundred-thousand people I’ve interacted with in 57 years suggests that groups 1, 2 and 3 represent between 7% and 10% of the overall population. Maybe as much as 15% in higher-end neighborhoods. The Unrepentant Assholes in Group 4 are actually a very, very small percentage of the human population. I asked Trisha, and she said 2%. I was thinking three, but I’ll go with her answer.
There are 284.7 square miles of land in Nassau County, New York, and approximately 1,359,700 people call it home, making for a population density of 4,787 people per square mile, with all the people noise and chaos they generate. Bear in mind that there are large swatches of Nassau County where billionaires have reserved lots of land for themselves and their horses and their golf courses, leaving the rest of us to fight over what’s left. The population density of South Valley Stream is 7,583 people per square mile.
Traveling from Nassau County to Columbia County, you’ll pass Co-Op City in the Bronx, which has a population density of 47,000 per square mile. So really, I should just shut the fuck up. I’m very much aware of this. But we’re born where we’re born, for reasons that are seemingly random and certainly not fair, and we know what we know. I would like to build a little house with a garden for every family in Co-Op City on all the land currently being used for golf courses. I have no beef with horse farms.
Meanwhile, In Columbia County, there are 635 square miles of land, which is home to 59,461 people, which is 93 people per square mile. This includes Hudson, the county seat, which is two square miles and has 6,144 people, 1238 of whom sell antiques. Extrapolate that funky little metropolis, and now we’re down to 84 people per square mile, and 2% of 84 is 1.68.
This all means that in every square mile of land in Nassau County, you will find 94 Unrepentant Assholes (150 in South Valley Stream, most of them driving). Whereas in Columbia County you might find two. Plus you can factor in the variable that being known as having manners and not being a big fat pain in the ass is much more important in Columbia County, because you don’t want everyone else to agree that you’re that one person in their square mile, whereas in Nassau County, every asshole is competing for attention against 93 other assholes within one square mile, and it’s hard to keep track of them all.
There is no cure for any of this. Not in this life, man. More people create more stress. As the Pandemic of 2020 set in, I started seeing clickbait on my rectangle about how people would start moving from the city up into the Hudson Valley “in droves”. Since it’s an issue that affects my life, I was interested to know how many a drove is and how many droves you could multiply that by, but I try not to fall for clickbait. And the proliferation of people in Groups 1, 2 and 3 will only get worse as cell phones get better. And more Group 4’s means more chances of something unpleasant happening to you or around you every time you leave the house.
So the choice for us seems to have become one of either standing in the Gateway to Suburbia as the Barbarians continue to storm through, or goin’ to the country and buildin’ us a home in The Land of Rural Charm, hoping that agricultural zoning regulations will keep the droves at bay for a while.
And that’s why at the end of the twenty-first year of complaining about the miseries that follow the overpopulation of Long Island, and of idealizing the alternative existence of Columbia County, Trisha and I bought a second home two and a half hours away from our first one, a mellow-yellow ranch house on 1.9 acres of land bordering the very state park where we had once walked around all gooey in love under the autumn sun with the blue jays and everything so many years before. Since I had named the creek in back of our house in Valley Stream after myself, because who could stop me, and since the funds that made this real estate transaction possible were bequeathed through my wife’s family, I insisted that we call our new second home, perched on a ridge 840 feet above sea level, “Trisha’s Mountain”.
We had a dream. We had the money. We jumped off the cliff. And then the whole country broke. And then I quit my job.
Not really, but sort of. I actually retired from 25 years as a middle school English teacher. It’s an important job, and somebody has to do it, but it is no longer me. However, the pension I earned is a lot less than if I had stuck around and made more money for a couple of more years, thereby assuring that eventually, if I wanted to live in the style to which I’ve become accustomed, house in the country and all that, I’d have to suck it up and find a part-time job. So, I gave myself four months to decompress, while the Covid-19 Pandemic and the complete collapse of American Society that will likely precede or follow the Presidential Election of 2020 play themselves out.
In the meantime, in between traveling up and down State Route 22, I thought I’d write a book. But I didn’t know what to write about. I had some ideas, but I don’t like it when people are angry at me, so I had to keep thinking of other ones.
The whole “we left the crowd in the city and moved to the country but we didn’t know the cows next door would smell so bad and why are there bees and snakes” thing has been done to death. That’s not what I’m after here. There isn’t a whole lot of Upstate / Downstate culture shock for me to write about because I pretended that I had a house in the country for twenty years before I actually had one. And nobody up there has to explain to us how not to be “citiots.” We get along just fine with everyone. Not much material there. Of course, In order to be considered a local in Copake, your family has to have lived there for two-hundred years, so we know we’ll always be outsiders. We try to counter that by being polite.
So ultimately I decided to write a book of stories and word pictures, twenty of which are set in Columbia County, the other twenty in Nassau County.
My only claim to originality is that I write from the perspective of one whose heart truly lives in two places at the same time, and who knows his time in the one place, the place that created him, is likely winding down.
A Little Side Note: Right now, if you’re reading this book in its competed form, and not in installments on duffyscreek.com, you’ve established that 20 plus 20 equals 40 and not 41. Very astute. Chapter 1, the longest one in the book, is mostly about New York Route 22, the road in between (and how I found it). As we’re making this several years long transition, the road from here to there and back has become sort of my third home.
Valley Stream and Copake Falls, while they are almost united by a common language, and while you can drive from one to the other in two and a half hours, and while by virtue of boundaries drawn up 400 years ago are both in New York State, could not be less alike. But this book is not about comparing and contrasting them. It’s about things that define these places for me. They are both home now. When I’m in one place, I feel the other one trying to pull me back. Neither of them seems to understand that I can’t be in two places at once.
I have become a human wishbone.
I grew up in Valley Stream (and by extension, Long Island) in days when it wasn’t quite as strident and jarring. As another one of my heroes, Mose Allison, said of Tippo, Mississippi, “I am of that place, and the stamp is upon me.” But the little hamlet of Copake Falls has been yanking at the sleeve of my soul for most of my adult life, and now our plan is to go there for good someday.
But not today.
I guess you could say we have a plan. But we don’t, really. Our right-now-16-year-old son has two more years of high school and likes it upstate just as much as we do. So he would be more or less on board if we actually had a plan. Trisha is very successful at her mommy-takes-the-train-to-the-city job, so she’s not in a hurry to leave (as we’d be broke, and she’s in charge of money) but I know Long Island’s obnoxiousness gets to her even more than it gets to me. And as I write this in the summer of 2020, you can’t even go sit on the beach unless you want to risk getting horribly sick (or getting somebody else horribly sick), and Long Island is pretty much pointless without the beach and the ocean. It seems predetermined which way the wishbone will eventually snap, and I guess if there is a plan, that’s the plan.
Abraham Lincoln said that the best thing about the future is that it happens one day at a time. I’ve outlived him by a year, so I’m happy to be here at all.
And as people suffer all over the world, my main purpose in life in August of 2020 is waiting for people to call me to schedule delivery of some comfy furniture.
I never thought it would come to this.
Of course, If we decided to put our house in Valley Stream on the market tomorrow morning, it would take the better part of two years to shovel out of it anyway. So for the foreseeable future, part of me is watching the tide come and go on the creek and part of me is watching the light dance across the mountains. I am a stupidly lucky son of a gun and I have not a thing in this world to complain about, but if you’re nice enough to read on anyway, I’ll try not to be boring.
When a friend at work would complain to me, he’d often say, indignantly, “this is not what I signed up for!” Well, this is exactly what I signed up for that mellow December day last year in the lawyer’s office in Millerton.
I am a human wishbone. I am Gumby, damn it. With one arm and one leg stretched north, the other arm and leg stretched south.
Which would put my center somewhere around the Red Rooster.
Francis James Duffy died early on the grey and rainy morning of Sunday April 26, 2020. He was a great guy to have as a friend, an even greater guy to have as my father.
As of two days ago, he was one of 120,000 people who have died as a result of the Covid-19 Coronavirus in The United States of America, 446,000 on Planet Earth. As you probably know, Long Island suffered unbelievable losses. Over 4,000 people have died from the virus in Nassau and Suffolk Counties alone. I feel like I’ve heard more ambulance sirens this year than in my previous fifty-six combined. For weeks in April into May, every morning brought three or four more pages of people, particularly grandpas and grandmas, ripped from the living, smiling above their names and the sad news of their departures in the Newsday Obituaries.
He was one of them.
Today is Sunday June 21st, 2020. The first full day of summer. Father’s Day. Francis has been gone eight weeks. Born at the start of the Summer of 1929, he would have been 91 years old tomorrow, June the 22nd.
Which means that this morning, in an alternate reality that didn’t include a worldwide pandemic, Trisha, Jack, Mookie Dog and I would have driven an hour and fifteen minutes east from the house my parents bought in 1955 (and sold to us in 2002) to the Jefferson’s Ferry Life Care Community in South Setauket, where they moved 19 years ago.
He would have been asleep in his wheelchair when we got there, and while he would eventually come around to the notion that he had visitors, he wouldn’t know who we were. But he’d like that we’d brought a dog. We would have wheeled him from the Memory Unit, down the long hallway, past the rooms of those he used to call “the inmates”, then out to the patio with the high maples and the oaks and the rock garden with the recirculating waterfall and the upscale outdoor furniture with the oversized umbrellas, the red corduroy chair cushions and the cool summer breeze.
And there we would have sat with him and there we would have tried as we always did to communicate with him through the darkened synapses of his advanced dementia. If we’d been lucky, he might have opened his eyes once or twice, and maybe light them up with his smile, a smile like no other. And more than likely, Mookie would have made that happen.
After his wife of 60 years died in August of 2012. I visited my father once a month. Usually it would be just Mookie and me, back out on the road at the crack of dawn on a Saturday Morning. It was exactly a 50-mile trip. We’d zip out before the Long Island traffic, east on Sunrise Highway, north on the Seaford Oyster Bay Expressway, east again on the Long Island Expressway to exit 62 , up Nichols Road to Northern Boulevard to Shep Jones lane, where we’d park in the Nature Conservancy parking lot for a hike through High Farms and up into Avalon Woods in Stony Brook. Then, fully born again, we’d head back down Nichols Road to 347 to Wireless Road to go see Grandpa. For me it was sort of like going to church and getting to physically kiss Jesus on the top of his head at the end of the mass.
Mookie made lots of friends over the years at Jefferson’s Ferry, and as far as we’re concerned, he was a working therapy dog when he was there. Now I don’t have the heart to tell him we’re never going back. Being a dog, He never stops hoping. And I don’t know about him, because, again, he’s a dog and he can’t tell me, but I assume he also holds those mornings with his grandpa as preciously in his Labrador heart as I hold them in my human one. Being the only one of us (I can only assume) who was aware that every one of those monthly visits might be the last one, I tried to stay in the moment as we three sat together, even as the man whom my dog knew as Grandpa slipped further and further away from us as the months turned into years.
Not counting Mookie, Francis J. Duffy was grandpa to eight people and great grandpa to five. He leaves behind a family of 26 people. And if not for the dedicated and wonderful people who work at Jefferson’s Ferry, he would have died alone, because the pandemic led to the prohibiting of visitors to nursing homes after March 15th.
The last day that Mookie and I made that trip was Saturday February 15th. And I knew it might be the last. I always knew that. Grandpa was getting closer and closer to that dreaded last stage of dementia, the vegetative state.
But never in a million years would I have guessed why it would be our last visit. I guess maybe I shouldn’t have been this naïve, but discouraged and beaten down as I’d been by the last three and a half years of news, I still actually thought that we had at least some scrap of a functioning Federal Government left, some bare system of oversight and protocol, accidentally left over from the Obama Administration, that would have had at minimum some shred of a plan in place to protect its citizenry from a national health emergency.
Instead, it’s 120,000 people dead and counting. And I don’t know who you think gets most of the blame, or who you think should take most of the responsibility.
But I have no doubt.
And so, while this blog post is first and foremost a tribute to my father, a great man in every sense of the word, I know that he would have wanted me to address the sons of bitches who killed him.
My pleasure, Francis. Stick around.
First though, I have to go on one of those long, wonderful tangents that Mom would go on, which as you lovingly pointed out, always started with: “To make a long story short…”
And I also need to explain something to you dear reader from the get-go: More often than not, I refer to my father by his first name, rather than “my father” or “dad”. I jumped back and forth between addressing him either way from the time I was a teenager. He eventually got used to it, and there’s a reason for it.
“Dad” and “Francis” are sort of a Yin and Yang in my mind: In the yin, my father, who taught me structure and self-discipline, optimism and faith; who called out all my bullshit, took care of me, worried about me, helped me out of jams and told me what a goddamn dopey bastard I was being any time it was necessary that I be informed as such. In the yang, Francis, the guy who was an absolute rip to spend time with, the guy who dove right into life whenever he could, and most of all, the guy who taught me the awesome power and potential of thinking for yourself, and the art of expressing those thoughts with style.
Now of course (to go on a further tangent), the name “Francis” often becomes “Frank”, and Francis actually used “Frank” as a sort of professional name, but my mother never called him that, unless she was among the people who knew him professionally. (Sometimes she’d call him “Frankie” with a dash of passive-aggressiveness, which was fun). Francis was his family name, the childhood name by which his Irish immigrant parents called him. “Frank Duffy” was his “stage name”. He had legions of fans as “Frank Duffy”, but more about that guy later.
For now, I don’t mind telling you that in my young and stupid days, my father and I took a long, long ride together on an emotional roller coaster. But emotional roller coasters have highs as well as lows, just like real ones. We had some real good times in there, too. And of course, rides on emotional roller coasters eventually end, just like rides on real ones do. And the first thing you do when it’s over is laugh. So let’s get all of what he would call “the silly shit” out of the way right now.
The fighting was both of our faults, really. It took a long time for both of us to figure the other one out, and I’m not sure if we ever made it all the way there, but we definitely reached a detente. There were things about me, as I began developing into the me that am, that he didn’t particularly like. Exhibit A: My younger propensity for being perfectly happy spending an afternoon strumming on a guitar, quite likely stoned (you dopey bastard) often along with a stereo that was turned up way too loud goddamn it. I suppose if he hadn’t wanted me to pick up on 60’s hippie culture, he shouldn’t have given me four older siblings. But there they were, and I was soaking up everything I saw and heard from them and from their friends. But for Francis, rock and roll, Marlboros and Cannabis, would forever be among things he associated with the rednecks he met in the Merchant Marines.
A side note (I can’t resist irony, even when it breaks the flow of my tangents): My second-greatest loss in the Coronavirus Pandemic (I hope) was the April 7th death of singer-songwriter John Prine. I never tried John’s songs out on Francis, but I bet he would have gotten a kick out of them. (I know he would have known the song “Paradise” from our annual three-week party at Camp Lavigerie it in the Adirondacks. It was practically the national anthem up there). But even if Francis could appreciate a song like “Fish and Whistle” or “It’s a Big Old Goofy World”, Dad would have written off Prine for his drug abuse and for his cavalier, good-timing lifestyle, which was of course, one of the reasons I loved John Prine.
My father didn’t much like anything that was counterculture, I suppose falling right into the whole point of counterculture, which is to piss off your parents. I think the thing he didn’t realize about Monty Python and the Grateful Dead, for example, is that they were actually great art, despite some of their fans. My mother got that, but my dad, not so much. We had to agree to disagree in the end. When Jerry Garcia died in 1995, Francis’ take was: “That’s a shame. Another dopey bastard that didn’t take care of himself.”
He also rightly called me out on a regular basis for emulating working-class kids in Valley Stream (“’you’ze?’ Are you kidding me?”), and it annoyed him that someone with his last name would dumb down to fit in. I know that he and my mother sometimes regretted the decision to send me to the Valley Stream Public Schools instead of Holy Name of Mary School and Maria Regina Catholic High School. We’d get into mighty battles when I was in high school, and he’d point up Jedwood Place to the Big Brick Building on the hill at the end of the street and say, “you got that shit from up there!”
And of course, whatever that shit happened to be on that day, I did, and he nailed it.
But one huge factor at the time was money, as my parents were paying for four college tuitions on civil servant salaries. Education was above everything, though, and my parents were going to give their five children the American Dream if it killed them.
Another factor that I’m sure entered into the equation was that my parents, especially mom, had grown politically more liberal than the church, though they never gave up on it. Ultimately, they saw my unrealized Formal Catholic Education as something could be redlined if they were going to balance the budget.
I’m telling you all this because when the dust started settling on my years’ long fight with my father, he told me once that in a way, I was the one of his five children who was the most like him. I actually couldn’t believe it when he said it. But Francis never lied, and he sure as hell never said things to make you feel better. I still think it’s my brother Thom. Nevertheless, I sort of knew where he was going with this notion. Francis and I did have a lot of personality traits in common. (Among them to this day, the habit of walking around closing all the windows in the house when waking up from a Saturday afternoon nap, purposefully making small talk with strangers, and a long, slow “wooooowww!” when confronted something unexpectedly good or bad).
But if he ever realized what I realized about the two of us as I was writing this, he never told me.
My parents met at and both graduated in 1948 from W.C Bryant High School in Long Island City. Francis joined the Merchant Marines and sailed all over the world straight out of high school while his future wife went on to the College of New Rochelle, run by the Ursuline Sisters. She then got her master’s degree from the Jesuits at Fordham. My two older brothers and two older sisters all had twelve years of Catholic School. All four went to Catholic Colleges at some point. I never went away to college. I chipped away at it for 14 years until I earned myself a master’s degree from CUNY Queens College. Francis got his bachelor’s degree from Pace University when he was 47 years old.
So Francis and I were the only public school kids, and the only night school kids. And maybe that made the two of us quicker on the draw, and a little less filtered.
While a more christian soul you’ll never meet, my father had an explosive temper, and I found myself on the receiving end a lot, but in fairness, only when I had it coming. Because it wasn’t displaced anger in any way. Yeah, he had a lot of pressure as a working father of five, but when he was pissed at me, it wasn’t frustration about money or work or anything. He was just pissed at me. I learned that It’s hard to hide from that, and harder still to defend yourself from somebody who is going to raise you right whether you goddamn liked it or not. As a father, as he always said, he was in business to put himself out of business.
And there were things about my father that pissed me off and frustrated me, and of course, when I was young and assholish I felt compelled to let him know all about these things on a regular basis. I could yell, too. I was like him, remember? But on one of these occasions, when I was way too old to be getting into these pissing matches with him, he said something that landed.
“You know,” he said, in his sidearm delivery, “I’ve made it. I’m a success. I don’t have to prove a goddamn thing to you.”
The gauntlet was thrown. I wanted to be able to say that back.
Which brings me around to why he’s Francis to me as much as Dad.
Dad always had the potential to erupt in that quick-tempered volcano of anger. He got loud, and it got old. If you left a storm door open for more than ten seconds between November and May, he would scream, “The HEAT damn it!” If you opened that same door for more than ten seconds between June and October, he would scream, “The BUGS damn it!” The yelling drove my mom nuts, but she yelled right back. And then he yelled some more. They were Great Depression kids, and they were Irish and they were from Queens and they were yellers. I don’t know about my brothers and sisters, but that was something I had to unlearn. I thought everybody yelled at their families.
But when he wasn’t Angry Dad, yelling about opening the wrong windows or mowing the lawn or getting the inspection done on your car three weeks in advance or stepping on the kitchen floor he just friggin’ waxed two hours ago, he was Francis.
And Francis was as cool as they come.
A guru, a great philosopher, a mind fertile with lightning-fast comebacks and one-liners, clever adages and common-sense wisdom that have stuck to me like barnacles. Francis could put you away in five words and you’d have no choice but to laugh at how fast he shut you up. He once tried to convince my brother Mike to buy a used car rather than a brand new one. (“For Christ’s sake! You’re paying for new!”). Mike told him he needed a car he could rely on. Francis came back smiling and snarling with: “Not me! I want a car that breaks down all the time! It’s exciting!”
Francis was fun to listen to and knew how to carry a conversation. Like my mom, and his mom and dad, and most of the population of Ireland, he told a great story. He had an artist’s eye for detail, especially with a camera in his hands. His game face to the world was that warm, twinkling bug-eyed Irish smile, a firm handshake and a confident laugh. He was a Dale Carnegie disciple who developed a magic ability to connect with people, a skill that made him hundreds and hundreds of friends (some of whom of course called him Frank). And not only that, he had friends of all colors, religions and persuasions. And while he couldn’t resist a wise ass remark about any given person it fell in his lap, he did not discriminate. He was an equal-opportunity ball-buster, but he was also a lot of peoples’ friend, and he took that obligation seriously.
And here’s another thing I can tell you: Francis found every way he could to love the life he lived and live the life he loved. I even saw this as a kid. He enjoyed waking up on a weekend morning and announcing loudly, “THANK GOD FOR A NEW DAY!!!”. And the older he got (until he hit the wall), the more fun he had. In his prime, he kept his deposition sunny, despite yelling about the mud you just tracked into the house. He never let life wear him down.
He loved his family and he loved his religion. He wasn’t a fan of taking shit. When we would get in fights amongst the seven of us in this tiny house, he’d quote Jesus and say “Love One Another!”, but he’d bark it in a loud, sharp staccato, as to suggest that if we didn’t shut up, stop annoying him and start loving one another immediately, it was going to be somebody’s ass.
I don’t think that’s how Jesus said it, but he well may have. No matter.
Francis Duffy was a template in how to live a life in which, as he said, he slept like a baby every night. He was faithful to the same woman for over 60 years. He always put his family first and earned every penny he made. He didn’t smoke, and he let me know I was a horse’s ass for doing so, but beyond that he didn’t preach. However, it was vintage Francis when he decided he had enough of my leaving extinguished cigarette butts on his property, picked them all up one day and left them waiting for me on my pillow.
He was not slimy nor duplicitous. He was exactly who he was, right in front of you. He never had to cover his ass because he never did anything wrong. He never needed a drink, though he’d enjoy one when he felt like it. (I can still taste the quick sip of Rheingold Beer from his German Stein when I was a wee lad). He managed to avoid the word “fuck” 98% of the time. He valued learning and expanding one’s horizons above all else. He especially disliked the “uncouth”.
He was honest, generous, straightforward, responsible and trustworthy. He was a grown up and a gentleman through and through. And all the while (and more and more as he got older) he walked through this world as comfortable in his own skin as in his myriad collection of L.L. Bean flannel shirts.
And this above all: He was not, as he specifically instructed me that I, as a Duffy, could not and would never be, “one of those ‘gloms’.”
I’m pretty sure he made that word up, but goddamn if I don’t know a “glom” when I see one.
You can’t swing a dead cat without hitting a glom these days.
He yelled at me and threatened me as my father because he felt like he had to. He even said to me once in anger, “I’m not your friend. I don’t want to be your friend. I’m your father,” which was a notion I totally didn’t get and very much resented greatly at the time, especially since my mother always managed to be both my mother and my friend.
My mother loved my father and my father loved my mother, but my mother would get as frustrated as I would with his stubborn intractability, his impossibly high moral standards and his quick judgement on people who didn’t live up to them, me chiefly among them. One day when I was in my twenties we were talking behind his back and I hit on something that made her laugh and laugh, to the point where she had to fill him in on the joke later and we all three got a good laugh about it.
This is what I told her: My father has divided the world into two groups of people: Great guys and dopey bastards.
Ultimately, I became one of the few people, if not the only one, who crossed that bridge.
I don’t think he had to be as hard on me as he was, but in retrospect, there was no way for him to know that. I guess he didn’t realize that I was studying the Art of Being Francis the whole time he wasn’t yelling. And once he didn’t have to be my father as much, and I began recovering from assholism to the extent that he could finally put himself out of business, Francis and I became good friends, the way I’d always wanted it. And as I morphed from what my mother called “an old Irish bachelor” in my early thirties to a husband and father, landed suburban gentry, the guy who bought his house in Valley Stream, my father and I never had a cross word between us again, and we enjoyed each’s other’s company as I wished we’d always been able to. I spent his last twenty years going out east every four or five weeks to spend some time with my old friend Francis Duffy. And there were a few years there, in between Mom’s dying and his dementia swallowing him up completely, where he was able to get a few words in edgewise.
And while I am not him, and quite frankly (pun intended), not worthy to carry his legacy, and while to this day I still enjoy strumming a guitar and playing the stereo too loud, I’ve adopted a lot of his ways, and a lot of his ways of thinking. People say I’m more my mother’s son, but that’s chiefly because of the things I love, which she taught me to love. Vivaldi, Steinbeck, the Impressionists, stuff like that. Francis is more responsible for my game plan, for the way I show up in the world and what I say and do when I get there, not to mention how I talk about the world when it’s not listening.
As a matter of fact, once my wife got to know both of us pretty well, she pointed out to me that I was essentially “Stoned Francis”, an appellation which I wear proudly. Interpret this as you wish. I will say no more, other than to say that, as usual, she got that right.
And though I may be more flexible about who has to stand in which corner, I’ve come to realize that the great guys of this world (and by the way, the female equivalent is “smart woman” and the opposite of “smart” isn’t “dumb”, it’s “silly”), the critical thinkers of this world, the compassionate, the empathetic, the fair-minded, the educated: We are in a constant, never-ending struggle with the dopey bastards who want to take us down, mostly because we seem so much happier, and they hate that.
So in order not to let the dopey bastards win this round, settle back and let me tell you the story of a great guy. It has a sad ending, as we all do, I suppose. Maybe sadder than most though. But it’s a hell of a story.
Francis had a childhood tougher than most, followed by a blessed and wildly successful adulthood, followed by a truly amazing second act that got going once he had begun to “put himself out of business” as a father, followed by a heartbreakingly sad final stretch to the finish line.
He was born the second child of Daniel Duffy and Mary (aka Molly) Duffy (nee Geraghty). They lived in a walk-up apartment at 41-07 28th Avenue in Astoria, Queens. His older brother Daniel is still with us, living in California. His father Daniel Duffy was from Derry, Northern Ireland. His mother was from a little town called Granard in County Longford, right in the center of the Old Country.
So I guess I don’t have to tell you where the Duffy Family stands on immigration issues.
Dan and Molly met here in New York and were married in June of 1923 at the church of St. John the Evangelist on East 55th Street in Manhattan. This was four years after Dan earned his honorable discharge from the U.S. Army, where he fought on the Western Front from September 1918 until Armistice Day ended WWI fourteen months later. Dan volunteered his services to the Army at the age of 25 in order to earn his American Citizenship. His engagements included the Meuse-Argonne Offensive, where 26,000 soldiers died.
But Dan didn’t. And with that old Duffy Luck working in his favor, he found Molly, who had come over with her sister Agnes from small-town Granard, working first as a domestic and later as a cook at Jack Dempsey’s Broadway Restaurant. (Yes, the prize fighter. And Aunt Agnes, who lived into her 90’s and got to tell me lots of stories, was the hat check girl at the Biltmore Hotel, and “oh, Johnny, I got ta meet everyone!”).
During Francis’ grade school years, smack in the middle of the Great Depression, Dan was not well for a long time. I’d tell you why, but when it comes to discussing other people’s problems, I share the mantra of the guys of Dan’s and Francis’ generation: “It’s none of your goddamn business”. Suffice to say, Molly had to keep the family afloat, and it could not have been easy.
In his public school years, Francis was not the most natural student, which is how he met the love of his life. He was just trying to get through 11th grade English at Bryant High School when he caught the eye of the best student in the class, a blonde-haired, blue-eyed knockout from a more “lace curtain Irish” family by the name of Joan Marie Scully. They began dating and got married four years out of high school.
And, because he looked at life through his own little funhouse mirror (and taught me to do the same), in Francis’ world, you had to hum along when you drove over drawbridges (aka “singing bridges”), and the guy who painted the arrows for the twisting road signs upstate was drunk on the job. And thus, he told me when I was very little that he had to get married at 23 because he started losing his hair and it became a race against time before my mother wouldn’t want him anymore. He also told me that the monks who he stayed with in Germany had tattooed the Lord’s Prayer in miniature on his bald spot, but you had to look really close to see it. And when you’d look really close to see it, he’d start tickling you and say “Stop means go!” You’d stay “STOP!”, and he’d keep going until you said “GO!”, then he’d keep going anyway.
During the four years between high school and marriage, Joan earned a bachelor’s degree in English from the College of New Rochelle, making her mark as the editor of the school newspaper. She went on to earn a master’s degree in English and education and began what would be 25-year teaching career with a 16-year maternity leave in the middle of it.
But Francis’ application to the Officers’ Training Program at Maine Maritime Academy was rejected, and he decided that “regular college” was not for him. He joined the merchant marines as a seaman at 18 years old. His dream of going out to sea had been the candle burning inside his brain since he was a boy. And that candle was still burning when he co-authored The New York Harbor Book with his friend Bill Miller half a century later.
So here is Francis J. Duffy himself to tell you all about it, from the introduction to the book, published in 1986, when he was 56, a year younger than I am now:
“It was one of those moments that never faded from my memory, during a walk with my father across the recently opened Triborough Bridge. Looking down from the walkway, 315 feet above the East River and the infamous Hell Gate waters, I watched the ships and boats below and confidently told my father that when I grew up, I wanted to work on ships…The panorama of vessels was endless; tankers, cargo ships, military vessels, tugs, barges and railroad car floats, enough to hold a young boy’s attention for hours on end and encourage him to build dreams of sailing away someday…I did fulfill my dream after high school, sailing in the merchant marine on tankers, liberty ships, troop transports and even refugee carriers. Although the romance of the sea paled after I was married and had children, even after swallowing the anchor and coming ashore to work, my fascination with things maritime has never ended.”
As you can see, Francis was a really smart guy who was frustrated that he didn’t do better in school. In the course of his life, he went on to write two books and hundreds of magazine articles, not to mention his ten years as the editor of Towline, the in-house magazine of the Moran Towing Company, who not only had the flashiest tugboats in NY Harbor but also the best season-ticket box at Shea Stadium.
As a teacher, I saw this a lot over 25 years. Young people with loads of natural intelligence who I knew were going to turn out just fine, but who just were not good at “the school game.” As a matter of fact, when I started a teaching job in 1995 at Rockaway Beach Junior High School, in one of New York’s poorest neighborhoods, Francis tossed me a piece of wisdom that nobody in the Education Department at CUNY Queens ever thought to say, something that guided my whole approach to conquering the job. He said, “Don’t expect those kids down there to have middle class values. If you were them, with what they go through, you wouldn’t give a shit either.”
If you think this advice smacks of racism, you didn’t know Francis. It was his way of warning me that throwing your white privilege around won’t win you friends in the projects of Rockaway. You’d be amazed how many people I worked with who didn’t get that. Then again, no you wouldn’t.
As far as I’m concerned, my parents were on the right side of history on just about every issue: Race, immigration, social services, human rights, worker’s rights, you name it. They were dyed-in-the-wool Liberal Democrats who worshipped FDR and mourned John F. Kennedy, and they weren’t fooled by Nixon or Reagan for a damned second. I try to see things from other people’s political and social points-of-view. I really do. But more often than not, when I run it through my parents’ filter, it comes out horse shit.
As a young man sailing on transport ships as a merchant seaman, Francis got to meet other young men from all over the country, and as a straight-arrow, ultra-Catholic Northeastern Liberal, he took an immediate dislike to the “yahoos” from the South (with their guitars and their cigarettes). Everyone had to share quarters with a bunkmate, and Francis became aware that one of these yahoos was complaining that his bunkmate was black. Francis told him he’d switch bunks with him, as the black guy had to be a better bet than the asshole redneck he had gotten stuck with. And he and a seaman named Charlie Calhoun became good friends and kept in touch throughout their lives. AND, when he found out that Charlie’s son Will was the drummer for the band Living Colour, he also had something cool to tell his son John, who likes that kind of music.
I heard my father make lots of snide comments about people of all races and creeds, mostly for what he saw as the sin of falling into the stereotypes they would have been best to try to avoid. He hated the negative stereotypes of the Irish, but he hated even more the Irish that perpetuated those stereotypes. There was a subset that he called “The Bullshit Stage Irish”, the ones that talked way too loud and drank way too much and gave the rest of us a bad name. He liked Irish music if it had some depth, but he referred to the more commercialized stuff as “that diddley-diddley shit.”
But Francis was ultimately every ethnic group’s rooting squad, in that he’d rip into anybody who would attempt to disparage any group at large, or to suggest that any color or creed was inherently inferior. I learned that one very early on: Only dopey bastards think they’re better than everyone because they’re white.
Francis didn’t like to talk about his childhood much, but he loved to talk about his time in the merchant marines. In case you don’t know, (and I probably wouldn’t have), the simplest way I can explain the merchant marines is that it’s sort of an auxiliary of the Navy, with privately-owned ships that are commissioned by the government to move cargo and troops. It’s sort of quasi-military. They wear uniforms and they have officers, which is what he wanted to be, but his high school grades weren’t good enough. He would work as a merchant seaman six months on and six months off. He did this straight out of high school until his first child came along about five years later.
As I was writing this post in the weeks after Francis’ death, my brother Thom actually did something useful, pulling some strings to get a feature obituary article published in both The New York Times and Newsday. He then sent links to the email addresses that Francis still had in his old-fashioned rolodex. What ensued was a kind of slow-motion virtual wake, with many of his colleagues from the “Frank Duffy, Maritime Writer and Photographer” years checking in with kind words and memories.
In an ironic twist, after not making the cut for officer’s training, years and years later, he was one of the founders of the Maritime Industry Museum of SUNY Maritime College at Fort Schuyler. Jim McNamara, one of the gentleman he worked with on this project, wrote a letter to the directors and friends of the museum informing them of the sad news. The information he included in that letter filled in a few blanks for me regarding Francis’ merchant marine Service.
Because of Mr. McNamara, I know that Francis attended The Seamen’s Church Institute, still in business today at 25 South Street in Manhattan. He earned his seaman’s papers and spent the majority of his tours working for the Army Transport Service aboard a troopship called the Alexander Patch.
His crossed the North Atlantic, the Mediterranean, through the Suez Canal and into The Mideast at the age when I was flunking out of classes at Nassau Community College and posing in bars that blasted Depeche Mode and Haircut 100, not to mention living on his dime.
On one of his tours, he signed up to take care of military dogs who were being transported to Europe, because he’d get to hang out with dogs all day. I loved the image of my father as a young man in uniform surrounded by a bunch of German Shepherds. Mookie could certainly attest to his love of animals.
Many, many years later, my parents ended up taking in a formerly feral cat that, despite being very small, had pumped out more than one litter of kittens in the backyard. At some point during her life in the wild, Runt the Cat had gotten her tail bitten off. But she was an excellent cat, and my parents even took her with them when they moved out east.
It’s a pretty safe bet to judge people by how they treat animals, never mind their children. My oldest sister brought home a kitten that a guy was about to drown in the creek on my second birthday in 1965. Herman the Cat went on to live with us for 18 years. When Herman was an old man, he would jump up next to his buddy Francis at dinner every night. And every night, Francis would greet him by saying, “Hello son!”.
And because I had started bugging my parents for a dog from the time I was five, I have a vivid picture in my head of my father’s one in a million smile when they brought Ace the Dog home to me one August afternoon when I was eight.
Runt The Cat
Herman The Cat
Runt the Cat died in Francis’ lap one night out in Jefferson’s Ferry. In retrospect, it was a turning point, as it seemed like my parents really started to decline after they had nobody left to take care of.
Anyway (as our long story lengthens), we have to make one last Port of Call for the merchant marine years, so I can tell you the story of how Francis ended up in the job that he turned into his “marketable skill”, a phrase with which his children were all very, very familiar. From the 1950’s until the 1980’s, Francis made his living with his stationary engineer’s license. He was a member of Local 891 of the International Union of Operating Engineer’s, and proud of it. As he told it to me, the reason that he chose this particular career path is because he was sailing through the North Atlantic, and it was bone-chilling cold. He happened to go down to the ship’s boiler room for some reason and saw a group of guys sitting at a card table, drinking coffee, all toasty warm. And he said sign me up.
The punchline is that once he started working in the boiler room, all his assignments were sailing into the Middle East, and it was 500 degrees in the boiler room.
So Francis has his around-the-world adventures, finds out he’s going to be a father, resigns from the merchant marines the year the Korean War ends, takes his marketable skill and his engineer’s license and gets a job helping to run the terminal buildings at Idlewild Airport, a decade before it became JFK.
And it’s funny: Had he gotten into Maine Maritime Academy and had he become an officer; he would have been away from his family six months a year. I could not imagine what that would have been like, and I’m sure once he settled into his new role as Dad, he couldn’t have either.
Francis started his Dad Career at the age of 24 and he and Joan bought a house when they were both 25. Valley Stream was an easy commute to Idlewild, but Joan wanted to be near the water. And Francis’ overriding mantra was “Whatever Joan Wants.” So first they looked at houses on the Freeport Canals and I’m glad they didn’t buy one. For them, and later for Trisha and me, finding The House on Duffy’s Creek, which had gone up for sale by the original owners only five years after it was built, was Divine Providence. But the mortgage on $13,500 scared the hell out of them.
By the time I arrived as the Fifth Duffy in 1963 (“The Last of The Mohicans” was one of my Francis Names, along with dopey bastard), my parents had already been in the family-raising business for ten years. And when I was sixth months old, and Francis was 33, his own father died suddenly at 69. Joan had already lost her father in 1955, also in his 60’s. So no Grandpas for me.
As a matter of fact, the three people John Daniel Duffy was named for, including a Grandpa, a Pope and a President, all died the year I was born. My mother told me, lots and lots of times, that one of her nun buddies from the College of New Rochelle remarked that this meant I had “three good friends at the right hand of God,” which I bet is just about the most Irish freaking thing you’ve ever heard.
Needless to say, I’ve always loved the creek that runs in back of our house. It’s been flowing nonstop through every story I’ve told you today, and the ones I haven’t gotten to yet, and to me that’s something worth paying attention to. Francis liked to look out the window at the creek changing with the seasons and the tides and say, “it’s like being on vacation every day.” So for the point at which I enter the story, we may as well start with the creek.
Duffy’s Creek is actually a brackish tidal basin that takes in saltwater from Jamaica Bay and fresh water from a stream system and a small lake running about six miles north. It was commonly known as Watt’s Creek when I was a kid, until I changed it. Francis bought an aluminum rowboat and a 15mph Johnston Outboard Motor to take us for rides. A couple of times we hitched the boat to a trailer and went out from the Woodmere Docks to explore the Bay Houses. At the time, you could get all the way out to the airport and the bay from our backyard, and there was actually a “5 mph speed limit sign” posted on the creek. People would come down in motorboats, wave to us, realize they couldn’t get past the dam on Mill Road, turn around, wave to us again, and go back towards Rosedale.
But an adventure of this sort was not advised, as the tide in Jamaica Bay could mess you up bad if you didn’t know what you were doing. And this gave rise to Francis’ favorite bedtime story, about the boy who didn’t listen to his father and took the boat out without permission, “and he went down past Mr. Campbell’s house, down past Mr. Burnett’s House, down past Mr. O’Neill’s House, down past the high school, under the bridge, out past the airport, into the ocean, and they never saw him again.”
My brother Thom asked me once what I believe is the single biggest gift I got from being raised in The Art of Being Francis. One thing came to mind right away. My father taught me the incomparable feeling of piloting a boat on the water and knowing what you’re doing. I definitely don’t like it as much as he did, though. I went on an Outward Bound trip in Maine when I was 16, where we sailed on the open ocean, and while I’m glad I had the experience, I pretty much hated it. I’m more of a flat water guy. My parents loved to go on cruises, and personally I would rather be trapped in a basement for a week. But about six years ago, I got in touch with my Inner Francis and started kayaking, and to teach my son to love it. And my dad is right there with me any time I’m not on terra firma.
Meanwhile, heading the other way up the creek, my maternal grandmother, Julia Scully, bough the house next door to us a year after my parents moved here, and commenced to drive Francis up the wall for the next thirty years. But he was the one who had originally convinced her to move out to the suburbs when the house went on the market shortly after my grandfather William Scully died. Whatever Joan wants.
While it was nice having a contiguous lawn to play on, I could tell from when I was very young that Grandma Scully was a handful. She paid my parents one dollar every night to deliver (via me) a plate of whatever they were having for dinner that night across the lawn to her kitchen table. Francis pointed out many, many times what a great deal Grandma was getting on the “dollar supper”, which wasn’t adjusted for inflation once in over thirty years.
She also decided that she would help my mother out by having one of us bring freshly dried laundry in baskets over to her attic, where there was an ancient, out of tune piano that I’m sure she must have insisted had to be carried down the stairs of her apartment building in Astoria, into a van and back up the stairs to the unfinished attic of 81 Jedwood Place in Valley Stream. There, next to this never-played piano, she would separate, fold and iron the laundry so one of us could be sent back over to get it later, sometimes followed several hours later by Francis saying, “where the hell is my (shirt / underwear/ pajamas / etc.)?”
And thus was born, in the wonderful mind of Francis J. Duffy, the Legend of The Sock-Eating Piano.
And here’s another legendary family story: My father’s personal mic drop when it came to my maternal grandmother. Grandma Scully took Francis aside on his wedding day to tell him that there was no room for him in the Scully Plot at St. John’s Catholic Cemetery, which they have had since the mid 19th Century. Really. That happened. And If he told the Scully Plot story once, damned if he hadn’t told it five-hundred times. And yet he made sure she was taken care of by moving her out to Valley Stream and making it seem like her idea, when it was his idea.
And today, he is buried in the Scully Plot, but they spelled his name on the headstone with an “e” by mistake.
So I guess it was a draw.
Now, when I was very little I had a thought that I knew I couldn’t express out loud, which was that I wished the fun Grandma lived next door to us instead. My father’s mother was my good buddy until I was eight years old. She would come to visit every few weeks from Astoria, or we would go to see her. I once told her that I liked the little cartoons on the Quaker Instant Oatmeal envelopes. From that day forward, she saved me every single oatmeal envelope that she emptied, carefully torn off at the top. She probably had just saved another one the day she fell on the street and broke her hip, which was when they found out she had advanced bone cancer.
My “Grandma Duffy” and I lit up around each other. I was “her Johnny” and I could listen to her Irish lilt all day. Having a grandparent from the Old Country was like having access to a TV station that no one else got, where they even speak a different kind of English. And I later found out, through reading captions she wrote on old photographs in an album I found in the attic of my house, that she was the real reason why we were all funny. I knew there was a reason I liked her best when I was little, but I couldn’t put my finger on it at the time. That was it. She was funny. And now that I know that her birthplace was established in the year 256, I like to think that being a wiseass is buried deep in the Duffy DNA. You probably had to be pretty good to make people laugh in 256.
When she was dying of cancer in 1971 at St. Rose’s Hospice on the Lower East Side, my father drove me in on a Sunday morning to say goodbye. Of course he did his tour guide narrative on the way, telling me all about the buildings and history around me, as he did whenever we drove into the city. Still, that must have been a rough one for him. I know this because the day I drove my own eight-year old son to Mather Hospital to say goodbye to his Grandma Duffy forty years later was a rough one for me.
Through most of the 60’s and 70’s, my parents didn’t have two dimes to rub together. Yet every summer from 1966 to 1974, we went on a two or three three-week vacation to a paradise in the Adirondack Mountains called Camp Lavigerie. Francis hauled hundreds of pounds of humans and cargo 700 miles round trip in the red VW Bus he bought new in 1964 and sold to some hippies in 1972. (It was white Ford station wagons after that. Then nothing but Honda Accords).
Now, you ask, what would a guy who loved hanging out around New York Harbor and watching the big ships sailing past the Statue of Liberty be doing in the Adirondacks for three weeks every July? Well, the answer to that question is Whatever Joan Wants. My mother was introduced to the North Country by her college roommate and she fell in love. And Francis loved Joan, so he also learned to love mountains and lakes. And so did I. The 15 mph Johnston Outboard Motor was the first thing to go in the bus every summer, ready to be hooked up to a rented aluminum boat, ready to take us to Bing Tormey’s General Store across Lake Kushaqua, where Francis would pick up the New York Times and where I first picked up a mournful taste for Dr. Pepper. And I and my brothers and sisters have been drawn back to Lake Kushaqua like moths over and over as the years pass. Last summer, I had the unique pleasure of kayaking on Kushaqua with my son Jack, my brother Mike and his girlfriend, more than fifty years after that first trip to Tormey’s.
In August of 1972, the year after Molly died, we took another week or so of vacation to circle the coast of Ireland in a rented car, with a trip inland to the village of Granard in County Longford, where she was born before the first dawn of the 20th Century. My parents decided to take just me and my brother Thom, four and a half years older than me. The older three stayed back and threw parties while Grandma Scully was in charge next door. We couldn’t go to Derry in the North to see where Dan was born because of the troubles at the time. Of course, Francis was ready to go anyway, but the car rental company wouldn’t let him.
In Granard, I remember Francis getting out of the car to talk to a local fellow to find out directions to the home of some cousins he thought he might find, and the guy turned out to be his cousin. I can see that moment like it happened yesterday; the stone house, the hedgerows, my dad’s hat and trench coat, the whole thing. I even remember the red rental car. The trip was magical to me: Exploring castle ruins, watching the patchwork of green from the airplane landing at Shannon Airport, meeting other distant relatives who looked and sounded like leprechauns (their name was Ellis and they lived on a farm), following Thom as we snuck out of the hotel room in Dublin to do our own exploring when my parents left us there for a couple of hours, and best of all to a seven year-old, hotels with heated indoor swimming pools.
Years later (and we’ll get there if you stick around), when my father became Frank Duffy, everybody’s go-to maritime writer and aerial photography specialist in New York Harbor, and built his own free-lancing business by, among other adventures, taking pictures of all manner of sailing vessels while hanging out of rented helicopters and scaring the crap out of my mom (whom he reassured by telling her they were all piloted by Vietnam Vets), he named that business Granard Associates. And the genesis of Granard Associates was when he bought his first of many SLR cameras for that trip to Ireland in 1972, probably about five years before he sold his first picture as Frank Duffy.
Ireland, of course, is a really good place to take pictures, provided you follow some simple, established protocols.
Alas, the rules of society were nothing in the face of Francis J. Duffy with a camera. If the shot was there, he was going for it. Trespassing on private property was of trivial concern compared to getting a great picture, which explains why several years after the Ireland trip, he committed several felonies one Summer Sunday afternoon to take a pilot boat out to the then abandoned Ellis Island – the place where both of his parents first met New York City – to break into the buildings and take pictures, taking his two youngest sons along for the history lesson, but fortunately not to witness him being arrested and led into custody. Naturally, he and his buddy the pilot boat captain got away with the whole thing,
Sometime in the early 1990’s, I heard that they were tearing down the vaudeville-era Rio Theater in my hometown of Valley Stream that week.
I happened to mention this to my father on a Saturday afternoon. We were literally inside the theater taking pictures half an hour later. There were guys working on the demo crew who saw him walk in with the big, fancy camera around his neck and just assumed he belonged there.
But he met his match the afternoon when we saw the Tinkers’ trailer parked along the road. Tinkers are the Gypsies of Ireland. The name derives from making a living as tinsmiths. It is politically correct in Ireland to call them the Travelers. Francis called them the Tinkers.
We pulled over to get a look at a Tinker’s trailer. I can see it. Ornate wood designs painted bright reds and blues and oranges, with three steps up to a red door that looked like the door in the tree in fairy tales. He told me to run over and stand in front of it while he drew that SLR Camera from the bag. Dutifully, I stood on the steps. The little second-generation leprechaun.
And the Tinker emerges from that fairytale door, looking quite like a fairytale character himself, and not one of the nice ones. He grabs me by the collar of my windbreaker and suggests to the man with the camera that ya may want to pay me a few pounds fer takin’ pictures of me house, Yank. And the man with the camera quickly came to a financial arrangement with the Tinker, who in turn released me.
And for years and years and years, I could count on Francis to pull out one of his all-time best lines, every few times I wised-off to him, or was otherwise annoying:
“I should have left you with the Goddamn Tinkers.”
Francis was a busy guy in the 1970’s. With four kids in college, his wife went back to work as a New York City high school English teacher when I started first grade. He had left the airport around 1965 for a new, better-paying job as a school custodian engineer for the NYC Board of Education, then by the time he was sporting his 70’s sideburns, he grabbed a position as the supervisor of school custodians. His territory was Greenwich Village down to Chinatown. On school vacations, I had designated “Go to Work with Dad” days. That would mean getting up early to drive to the Queens Courthouse Municipal Parking Lot on the Belt Parkway and the Van Wyck Expressway (the first time I heard him say “fuck”), then taking the E or the F downtown (where I was instructed that people on subways do not make eye contact) to the office that he shared with the other supervisors on 7th Avenue South. I can still see Mr. Strom, the big guy with the round glasses who talked about his place up in the country, and Mr. Lambert, the black guy with the jazzy sportscoat and hat who followed the Mets just like I did.
Francis’ job was to go from school to school and check in with the custodian, take a look around, then sign the book. Interestingly, he and the men he supervised were all in the same union. He referred to them as “The Good Brothers”. Not a dopey bastard among them as far as I know.
On my first Go to Work with Dad Day, we were walking through the cafeteria of an elementary school in Chinatown. Every single child in the room was Chinese except me. So just to screw with me, he said, “you’re gonna eat lunch with the kids here while I go to the office, OK?”, then enjoyed replaying my reaction to one of the Good Brothers, then to everybody in the family when we got home.
Lesson: Being freaked out because you’re in a room where nobody looks like you is just silly. Get over it.
One of the main highlights of Go to Work with Dad day was lunch at the Blue Mill Restaurant, tucked away in a little side street of 7th Ave South. As a man who thought cooking was something his mother, the ship’s cook or his wife did, Francis was a huge fan of restaurants, and had a collection of matchbooks from every restaurant he visited under glass on the top of his dresser, though of course he didn’t smoke. He and the Good Brothers always took their full hour for lunch. I remember Francis greeting the owner of the Blue Mill warmly, even though to me he looked like the guy who used to beat up Charlie Chaplin.
The other highlight of the day was the S.S. John Brown.
The John Brown was a WW II Victory Ship, one of 2,700 built in the blink of an eye when this country could do things. “The Brown” operated as a merchant marine ship before being converted into a New York City Vocational High School in 1946. Until 1983, the “School Ship” trained thousands of guys to be merchant marines. In retrospect, I think Francis took that commute downtown for the better part of twenty years just to get to know restaurateurs and hang out on the John Brown every chance he got.
The Brown was docked on Pier 43 at the end of West 25th Street, where the locals would sunbathe in thongs while rubbing suntan lotion on each other intimately and Francis would walk right by like they weren’t there.
He loved showing his kids around the kind of ship where he had lived his youthful adventures. And I cannot smell diesel fuel to this day without being seven years old with my dad again.
The John Brown also had a small “training vessel” called the “Pisces”, which is the one we stole to go to Ellis Island.( As you see, I was piloting for a bit, out on New York Harbor). It still astounds me what a ballsy thing that was to do.
And there’s two things I can tell you about the S.S. John Brown: One is that it’s still around, one of the only two remaining Liberty Ships, currently operating as a museum in Baltimore, and if you’re near there, you can visit it. The other thing is that it launched the career of the man everyone connected to New York Harbor would come know and love as Frank Duffy.
Francis Duffy lived in Valley Stream, Long Island for 44 years, but you could have found him in Downtown Manhattan, as his alter-ego Frank Duffy, a good chunk of that time. A couple of nights a week in the years when the tuitions were piling up, he taught aspiring stationery engineers at Apex Technical School. He also took several years of night classes at Pace University to get his bachelor’s degree. This of course gave him more time for restaurants in between jobs, but he also started getting involved in various organizations and projects connected to the Harbor.
Then he started writing articles and taking pictures and getting them published. As a guy who needed my mom to get him through 11th grade English, he was over the moon proud to see his byline in publications like Steamboat Bill and The National Fisherman. (My mom was, of course, his editor, and they fought like hell, but they got the job done). And he kept coming up with new ideas for articles. He loved this cartoon he saw in The New Yorker by Frank Booth, where a man is sitting in front of a typewriter on his front porch staring into space, as ten dogs of different breeds sit around him and his wife says from the doorway, “Write about dogs.”
Frank Duffy wrote about ships. And he took lots and lots and lots of pictures. And he met more and more people and got involved in more and more projects. When the Bicentennial rolled around in 1976, with its parade of big sailing ships passing the Statue of Liberty and its humongous fireworks display, we were on the roof of a local NYC School having a big party. When they renovated the Lady of The Harbor for her 100th birthday ten years later, Francis climbed up on the scaffolding to take pictures.
Here’s the proof:
The side gig got bigger and bigger, to the point where he checked out of there civil service the second he hit 25 years in 1985. Over the ensuing 20 years, he was for ten of them the head of Public Relations for the Moran Towing Company (The tugboats with the big “M” on them). He co-authored a book with his friend Bill Miller called The New York Harbor Book, then wrote his own book, Always on Station, the story of the Sandy Hook Pilots who guide gigantic ships and barges into the Harbor.
One thing I definitely picked up studying The Art of Being Francis was his passion for finding out every single thing he could about any subject that grabbed his attention, then having to tell people what he found out. And, of course, he did most of that before there was an Internet.
At some point, he got interested in the story of The General Slocum Disaster, a major incident in NYC history from June 15, 1904 in which an excursion boat with outdated or non-existent safety equipment caught fire on a day trip shortly after leaving the dock at nine o’clock in the morning. The boat had been rented by St. Mark’s Lutheran Church on the Lower East Side for $350, and was carrying mostly German immigrant woman and children. Of 1,358 passengers, 1,021 died, with the unthinkable choice of being burned alive on the boat or jumping off and drowning in the water. The captain, Harry Van Schaick, was later found guilty of criminal negligence.
Yes, stubbornness, stupidity, poor planning and lack of decisive action can lead to a lot of people dying who shouldn’t have. That’s how the man whose passions led to all sorts of people learning about the forgotten tragedy of the General Slocum ended up dying himself.
But because he lived his life as he did, lots of people know the story of the General Slocum who otherwise wouldn’t, and the memorial for the 1.021 dead that was run-down and neglected in Tompkins Square Park in the East Village is now maintained, and a wreath-laying ceremony started by Frank Duffy still takes places on June 15th to this day. He even made friends with two women who survived the fire as infants: Catherine Connelly, who lived to be 109, and Adella Wotherspoon, an infant in 1904 who died at the age of 100 the month my son was born in 2004. If you want to learn a little more (and get away from me for awhile) You can take a look at Francis himself in this History Channel documentary:
Now, you can imagine with all these irons in the fire, and all this recognition and ego-affirming as Frank Duffy, and all these accomplishments piling up (one of his family jokes was if he were criticized him over something trivial, he’d come back with, “how many guys do you know who have readers all over world?”), he didn’t really have the brain space for this snotty youngest kid who kept screwing up in school, who didn’t share his interests, and seemed to be involved in suspicious activities.
But he never gave up on me. And he always tried to find ways to meet me where I was.
I was his son, and that never stopped counting for something.
Case in point: Francis was not a baseball fan. Couldn’t care less about it. But after my first-grade teacher let us watch the ’69 World Series (which the Mets won on October 16, which was my mom’s 40th birthday) following the Mets was one of my own personal “looking out from the Triborough Bridge” little-boy epiphanies.
And every year from when I was seven until I became an intolerable teenager and started taking the train to Shea with my intolerable teenage friends, Francis would hand me the Mets schedule in March and say, “pick two games”.
Fifteen years or so later, he regularly got the best seats in the house, right behind home plate, from his job at Moran Towing. We got the tickets five or six times a year for over ten years, and I know he especially liked that this made him cooler in my eyes. Plus, he started going to more games himself because his wife really enjoyed it. Whatever Joan Wants.
And twenty years or so after that, shortly before his long, slow decline began, he was flipping through the Times at his table in the yellow cottage at the Jefferson’s Ferry Life Care Community and he saw an ad for a framed picture of the Mookie Wilson’s slow ground ball going under Bill Buckner’s legs in the 1986 World Series, signed by both Bill Buckner and Mookie Wilson, and he said, “I bet you John would like that”, and he ordered it for me on the spot. It is one of my most prized possessions.
So you’d think I would’ve been nicer to him when I was younger.
But, Christ I was a dopey bastard.
My mother saw me going to Syracuse University, majoring in communications, being a famous guy who communicates. Through they were not the least bit rich, Francis would often say to me, “you know I’d pay for Harvard if you got in.”
But with my grades in high school, Nassau Community College was where I wound up.
Then I fucked THAT up.
So after several missteps and several incomplete college courses which cost money, I found myself working at the Foodtown Supermarket during the day and taking classes at night, and instead of going away to college and then going away, I crept further into my twenties still living at home, keeping from Francis from going out of business. Then again, while he was hanging out with what my mom called his “ship buddies in the city”, I was back in Valley Stream mowing the lawn, doing the grocery shopping and driving people to and from the airport when necessary. Then he’d come home and we’d fight about something. So, in a nod to The Pink Panther (and because I inherited Francis’ funhouse mirror), I started calling myself Chan the Houseboy.
Francis introduced me to two people during my Chan the Houseboy years who helped point me in the right direction. One was a world-famous doctor and professor, the other was a custodian engineer.
After one of our regularly scheduled battles, Francis didn’t know what the hell else to tell me, so he gave me a book that he had kept for most of his life. It was a 45-page book, a little bigger than a tin of Altoids, published in 1937. Its text was a speech by Dr. William Osler, a Canadian who was one of the four professors who founded Johns Hopkins Medical School, credited with being the first to include residencies in medical school training.
The speech was given to the Yale Graduating Class of 1917, and it was called “A Way of Life.” Francis was trying to give me the secret of how he became Francis, and I said, “yeah, yeah, whatever.” But I read it. And it got me thinking.
Osler’s philosophy was basically, “get up off your ass and do something.” His “Way of Life” was to take each day of your life as a separate entity (a sort of Zen Buddhist “there is no past there is no future” kind of thing). He proposed that this “handle to fit your life tools.” was to suggest that “life is a habit.” Mastery of life comes through repetition, which means being the same guy every day, preferably a good one.
I’ll let the good Dr. Osler take it for a little bit here:
“Now, for the day itself! What first? Be your own daysman!…Get in touch with the finite, and grasp in full enjoyment that sense of capacity of a machine working smoothly. Join the whole creation of animate things in a deep heartfelt joy that you are alive, that you see the sun, that you are in this glorious earth, which nature has made so beautiful, and which is yours to conquer and enjoy.”
Great stuff, but Osler went on to say that I should quit smoking (“Lady Nicotine”) so I’d feel better in the morning, and I found that an unreasonable request. But he also gave me this pearl of wisdom: “Life is straight, plain business, and the way is clear, blazed for you by generations of strong men, into whose labors you enter and whose ideas must be your inspiration.”
Again, I totally got it, and it’s a part of my overall philosophy. But I found guys like Dr. Osler and my father to be a little too tight in their presentation. I guess I needed “A Way of Life Lite.”
And then I met Joe Darcy.
Mr. Darcy was the Custodian Engineer of PS 205 in Oakland Gardens, south of Bayside, Queens. In the summer, I would go on hiatus from Foodtown, where I was beloved but made $6 an hour, and I’d work as a school cleaner for one of the Good Brothers, where I’d make $13 an hour. (I am the only person you know who did his student teaching in the same school where he had once cleaned the bathrooms). Mr. Darcy was one of my summer bosses.
He was from the Old Country, the size of a thatched cottage, so Irish it was practically exploding out of his face from under a shock of grey hair. He was funny as hell and we took an instant liking to each other. To this day, when I ask my wife if she knows the score of the ballgame, I’ll call out in Darcy’s booming brogue, “SO HOW’RE ME METSIES DOIN’?” The crew was only four guys, but he insisted that we observe holidays, which meant a cold case of Budweiser cans around 2 pm on July 3rd.
At around 4:30 pm that day, walking out to our respective cars, Mr. Darcy had some wisdom for me, which he imparted by practically swallowing me up under his arm:
“Let me tell ya somethin’ about yer father, Johnny. Yer father? He’s a PROUD motherfucker! And ya got to do right by him, Johnny! ‘Cause he’s a good man. Now you and me, Johnny, we’re a couple of fuck ups. We’ll always be a couple of fuck ups. But YOU! (poking me in the chest with a gigantic finger at this point) You gotta do right by him! You can’t embarrass him! You hear me, Johnny? He’s a PROUD mother fucker!”
Now I knew from Francis that Darcy was not a fuck up. Not at all. After emigrating to New York from Ireland, he had put himself through school at night while working as a bellhop in a Manhattan hotel and had earned his stationary engineer’s license. He was a husband, a father and a homeowner. But Darcy could see that I was not as tightly wrapped as my father, and I’m sure he had heard stories about me, so he took it upon himself to point me towards an achievable goal: Be who you are, but don’t embarrass that man.
I guess that was the first step towards becoming Stoned Francis. But I can be a proud motherfucker, too.
The Chan The Houseboy Agreement was that I paid for my tuition and expenses and lived rent-free as long as I was chipping away at a degree. Rent on Long Island was and is insane, and many of my friends had gotten around that by getting married. It was not an ideal situation of course, but one upside is that Francis and Joan were gone about six weeks of the year at this point, going on cruises and other trips that Francis was either getting gratis in exchange for his photojournalist services or using as a fat tax write off. The grandchildren started coming around this time and my parents were in their glory. (Chan The Houseboy was also very good at being Uncle John). They had finally put themselves out of business, notwithstanding the young fellow living in their attic.
In the end, I took Chan eight years to get a four-year degree, parlaying an Associate’s credits to a B.A in English degree from CUNY in 1989. I was completely embarrassed by how long it took, and that I was living at home at 26. But Francis insisted that we celebrate the occasion. At the time, he owned a small share of a “party boat” operating near the South Street Seaport called the Mystique. My parents invited a bunch of their friends and insisted that I invite a bunch of my friends, and we sailed around New York Harbor on beautiful summer night and we had a grand old time.
It’s funny to me in retrospect that I normally would try to keep my friends away from Francis, even though he’d always fool me and wind up finding something in common with them, long hair, leather jackets, bloodshot eyes, tattoos and all. That was his Dale Carnegie thing. Years later, my wife said whenever she saw him, he’d ask about her parents and her sisters and brothers, and he’d remember something she said last time, and there’d be no question that he wasn’t just making small talk. He actually wanted to know. And if you’d introduce someone to Francis, he’s often come back at you a month later, and say, “Hey, did ____ get that job?” You could say It was a pretty amazing gift he had, but it wasn’t a gift. It was a habit he had worked at. A Way of Life.
My first post-BA job was in the production department of New York Magazine. Francis was impressed. My first place off Jedwood Place was a house I shared with two Valley Stream buddies 20 miles north, overlooking Hempstead Harbor in Sea Cliff, Long Island. Francis was both impressed and happy to get rid of me. It helped that my share of the rent (for a room the size of a walk-in closet) was $400, because the glamourous city job paid $18,000 a year. After a year in Sea Cliff, the other two guys, who had lived there for five years before me, were completely sick of each other and decided not to renew the lease, and I was back to the attic of my parents’ house at the age of 27.
The starting salary for a NYC teacher at the time was $28,000. After experiencing the kissassitocracy of the New York Publishing world, civil service, the family business, started looking better and better. Despite my mother warning me (and rightly so) that it was a lot harder than it seemed (Francis always thought a marketable skill was a good idea), I went back to CUNY Queens for my Master’s degree and a teaching license, and spent another couple of years as Chan The Houseboy.
But by this time, Francis and I were done fighting. We’d talk politics and current events, we’d watch “Seinfeld”, I’d know what was going on at the Maritime Museum and talk on the phone to the old ladies who survived the General Slocum. It was frustrating as hell to be there, but he didn’t make it intolerable. And I guess we both figured it was a temporary situation and we may as well enjoy each other’s company.
Ultimately, it was a temporary situation, but it ended up lasting way, way longer than it should have. Once I was licensed in the Fall of 1992, my mother had a friend who had friend who was a principal of a high school in the Bronx and I had a job. (It happens to be the building that was built over the Hutchinson River Parkway, and I drive under it and thank it for the four months of service credit I got towards my retirement on my way to our house up in Copake Falls, which is as far from the Bronx as you can get in two hours).
The school was not good. For the most part, I didn’t like the people I worked with. I was a Nassau / Queens guy and the Bronx was another country. I was having trouble finding the right tone with the kids in the crappy program they gave me. The building itself made my head hurt. The principal was not the nice guy he had sold himself as to me, and I was not the confident, ready-to-go rookie teacher I had sold myself as to him. It was a terrible situation, but I was determined to see it through. On a Friday afternoon in early October, one of my Sea Cliff roommates tipped me off to a studio apartment for rent in his building in Douglaston. I had a blank check in my hand, but somebody had scooped it up by the time I got there.
The next morning my parents took a beautiful October day to go walk around the Old Westbury Gardens, and I went to see Dr. Rivara about something that hadn’t seemed quite right, and that I had been putting off for a couple of months. Dr. Rivara sent me directly to Dr. Stanley Landau, a urologist in Rockville Centre.
And that afternoon, my parents coming home all spiritually refreshed from their golden afternoon at Old Westbury Gardens, I had to sit them down and tell them I had testicular cancer. My mother told me something later about that day that I’ll never forget. She said, “In all the years I’d known your father, that was the saddest I’ve ever seen him.”
Francis let me stay in his house as long as I needed to be there, and I need to be there three and a half more years.
Because it got to the point where I let myself get fired from the high school in the Bronx for too many days absent, and I didn’t care anymore. It was hellish under ordinary circumstances, and I refused to even entertain the notion of working in a hostile environment in between chemotherapy treatments, which turned out to be a very good decision, as those treatments knocked me on my ass completely.
But by that summer, I was cancer-free. Turns out testicular cancer was well-researched, and one of the most curable forms of cancer, I suppose because historically, most doctors had testicles. I got a job teaching ESL Classes to rich Europeans and Asians milking their student visas at a place called Aspect Language School that operated on the CW Post Campus in Old Brookville. I drove a cab in Port Washington and helped a friend in his cleaning business.
Francis loved hearing the details of all these jobs, because they were outside of his experience and he could learn something new. And now that we had stopped fighting with each other (he and mom still yelled at each other all the time), I could just enjoy him for the character that he was. If Joan were making him a sandwich, he would call from the other room, “make sure you use the nice mustard!” Which is to say, the Grey Poupon and not the French’s. To this day, I personify all food based on its temperament. The nice chicken.
And while once again functioning as Chan the Houseboy around my three poorly-paying jobs, I went on lots of job interviews at Long Island schools because I didn’t want to go back to the city no way no how. And I’d get invited in because my resume and cover letter contained no typos, and I’d have wonderful, positive interview, sometimes two, and they’d send me a follow-up letter saying how much they enjoyed meeting me but in the end they decided to hire the business manager’s nephew. They didn’t really say that, but they may as well have.
So Chan the Houseboy was slowly turning into what my mother called, “one of those sad, old Irish bachelors living with his parents.” (Her confidence was in me was inspiring).
This went on until Francis had seen enough. In the fall of 1995, he spread my resume around among the Good Brothers all over Queens, who would then drop them on principals’ desks all over Queens. People were always ready to help out Francis because they knew he’d help them out, or else he already had.
On the week before Columbus Day, staring down the barrel of another year of living in the attic, I got a call from Bob Spata, principal of Rockaway Beach Junior High School 180. He yelled everything, and that afternoon, this is what he yelled into the phone at me: “You come very highly recommended from Harvey Weintraub! And if you’re good enough for Harvey, you’re good enough for me! Come on in Tuesday morning!”
I had no idea who Harvey Weintraub was. But I came in Tuesday Morning and managed to work around it. It turns out that Harvey was a principal of another school who had taken the resume of a guy looking for an English teacher job from his custodian engineer, then remembered talking to Bob Spata about how he needed an English teacher.
So Francis set me up with the job I kept for the next 25 years, nine in Rockaway (which unlike the Bronx was more my kind of crazy), and 16 years in Ozone Park. You can imagine how happy I was to grab him on a Saturday afternoon early the next spring to drive over and look at my new apartment on the second floor of a house on the side of a six-lane highway in Lynbrook. I was still an old Irish bachelor, but at least I wasn’t living with my parents anymore. That was something. The first thing Francis did was buy himself the best self-propelling lawn mower he could find.
And it was a privilege to hang out with him in those years. No Dad Drama, just Francis Fun. He was always up to something. And if you were in with Francis, every once in a while, it would be your turn for a helicopter ride.
It happened to have come around to my turn again the day after Frank Sinatra died, May 15th, 1998. I remember that because when Francis came over to pick me up at my apartment in Lynbrook, I figured that was something I could lead off with. “Hey, did you hear about Sinatra?”
The whole world was buzzing with tributes and hagiography for one of the biggest stars of the century, and Francis says this: “I never liked him much.”
I nodded and I laughed out loud. Of course he didn’t like him much. In Francis’ World, vocal artistry, or any great talent, didn’t get you off the hook for being an asshole. Why should it?
That morning, Francis was dressed in his Frank Duffy, Granard Associates work uniform: The matching khaki pants and safari-style field coat with a hundred giant pockets among them, the brown baseball cap with the oversize brown sunglasses resting on the brim, and locked up tight out in his Honda Accord, the gigantic army green camera bag with several thousand dollars’ worth of equipment at the ready.
We were heading out of Republic Airport to take photos of a barge coming into New York Harbor from under the Verrazano Bridge (guided by the Sandy Hook Pilots). Francis would always remind you that all the pilots he worked with were Vietnam Vets. As if to say whatever happens, they’ve seen worse.
It was a beautiful Long Island morning, but already getting early-summer warm. Usually he flew from the 34th Street Heliport, so it was an extra treat to fly from Farmingdale straight over Nassau County, where we learned there are people making some serious money in the backyard swimming pool business, then out past Rockaway, where we flew right over my school.
Guests rode up front with the pilot, while Francis worked both windows in the back with his telephoto lens. It’s quite possible that one of the pictures he took that day is still framed on somebody’s office wall somewhere. He literally built an international reputation for being the best maritime aerial photographer in New York, and he could also whip you up a nice little press release and get it planted somewhere if you liked. He was 69 years old and having the time of his life. And if you also liked, he could come to your group with a couple of wheels of slides and give you a presentation on everything from the forgotten islands of New York Harbor to the Victory Ships of WWII.
He’d been known to take pictures hanging half out of his buckled seat, and he actually preferred it if there were no door in his way. In a nutshell, he was freaking crazy up there. When Joan expressed her worry (which she did so well), first Francis would do his patented twisted-mouth expression with a hand waving across your words like they were Camp Lavigerie mosquitos, and then he’d say, ‘Ahhh, go on! I’ll be fiiiiine! Besides, if I fall out, you’ll be a rich old lady. What do you care?”
As I told you before, once we didn’t need anything from each other, Francis and I got to be pretty good friends, and one of the best ways to cement a friendship is to get in some trouble together, whether intentionally or not. On the helicopter ride back from the Verrazano Bridge, it became clear that we were racing a wicked thunderstorm, and that we weren’t completely assured of winning.
Storms come across the city from the west into the Long Island suburbs, and apparently this one had popped up earlier than our pilot had anticipated. By the time we were a mile or so out of Republic, the black-clouded thing had caught up to us, complete with lightning flashing on both sides of the helicopter, and enough turbulence to wipe the smiles off the respective faces of both the veteran war pilot and Frank Duffy, veteran Smug Aerial Photographer.
Fortunately, we landed safely, and Francis and I drove home through the drenching rain with a new story to share. (“We probably shouldn’t tell your mother”). He was quick to tell me that in over a hundred flights, that was as scared as he ever got, and while I could’ve lived without it myself, it was a great honor to have been on the flight that actually frightened Frank Duffy.
I think back on that day because you could say it was one of the last times I saw “Frank” in action. Sharp-eyed boatsman that he was, he could see plainly that at 69, the tide was slowly turning, and the river of his life was getting harder to navigate. My parents’ glory days; Columbus Day weekends at the Mohonk Mountain House, cruises on windjammers in Maine, taking their oldest grandchild to Ireland, fancy nights out in the city, spoiling everyone silly at Christmas, started winding down when Joan was diagnosed with Parkinson’s Disease in 1995.
She had wondered what was wrong with her for about a year. She didn’t have the tremors, but she more and more difficulty in moving her arms and legs, and she had developed what I now know as the “Parkie Shuffle.” We realized that Grandma Scully, who left the house for a nursing home in 1983 and died there at 98 six years later, had walked like that for years and had never had a diagnosis. Mom had been working at Hofstra University as an adjunct professor, and loving every minute of it, but now she could barely walk across the campus.
She got the diagnosis right before she and Francis were supposed to hop across the ocean for another adventure. I think it was Italy. Right before she left, she started taking dopamine. And she was practically jogging when she came back. It was miraculous, but it was also temporary. The level of dopamine would have to keep being increased as the disease progressed, and the disease would eventually win.
So around that time, Francis started looking into a new option for old folks called Life Care, which he no doubt learned about one morning while eating an Entenmann’s sticky bun with the New York Times Sunday Real Estate Section spread out across the table and the other sections spread all over the couch behind him. In a Life Care Community, you put a very large sum of money down as a deposit and you chose between living in a cottage (my parents’ choice) or an independent living apartment. Once you can’t handle that, you move to right into assisted living. From there you go to skilled nursing and from there you slide into the back of a Caddy.
There were two Life Care Communities on Long Island, both in Suffolk County: One all the way at the tip of the East End in Orient called Peconic Landing, and one about five miles south of Port Jefferson called (in a stroke of marketing genius) Jefferson’s Ferry. They kicked the tires on Peconic Landing, but ultimately settled on Jefferson’s Ferry.
Meanwhile, a year and a half after safely landing in a helicopter at Republic Airport, the old Irish Bachelor met a not-as-old Irish and Dutch Cat Lady, and True Love happened. And as you know, it doesn’t happen every day.
Trisha and I are both the youngest child in our families, me of five and she of ten. I was 36 and Trisha was 28, so we were both welcomed warmly and with much relief into each other’s new families. Some of our older brothers and sisters had all taken turns disappointing our parents by “living in sin” before marriage. So we knew what we were getting into (not that we cared very much). So to smooth it over, we announced that we were engaged before we announced that we moving into an apartment together across the street from my parents’ church, Holy Name of Mary.
Being a city teacher, Mom was hipper than Francis. She still never got used to the idea of people living together before they got married, but she realized that to question it would be, in one of her favorite expressions, “like shoveling shit against the tide.” I told her about it first, and she was worried about how Francis was going to take it. Twenty years before, when one of my siblings was “living in sin”, Francis asked me out of nowhere what I thought about it. I was 16 and I told him I thought it was pretty cool. He snarled and said, “I’m sickened by it.”
He inherited his religious traditions directly from his immigrant parents and he never saw a need to change them. But now the old dog didn’t have the same bite.
So this is the way the conversation went down in June of 2000:
Me: “Hey, you know that old apartment building on South Grove Street across from the church?”
Francis: “Sure. What about it?”
Me: “Trisha and I are moving into an apartment there next week.”
Francis (after a very long pause): “Where do you park there?”
Me: You can park overnight in the village lot on Hawthorne.”
Francis got to know and love Trisha. He called all his daughters-in-law, “dear.” We had already established that the McCloskey family nursery and florist business in Rego Park, Queens had been getting an annual order for years from a lady named Joan Duffy in Valley Stream who wanted to make sure there was a nice fresh flower arrangement on the Scully Plot at St. John’s Cemetery next door. Jack’s father, Theodore McCloskey, had actually started the business next to the cemetery in the 1920’s to serve all the good grave-decorating Catholics in the surrounding neighborhood. Theodore also built one of the original houses in the beach community of Point Lookout, three houses up the block from the Town Beach. That’s where Trisha was living when we met.
Francis was never a shopkeeper, and he never had a house on the beach, so he asked his “dear” Trisha lots of questions because he liked to learn about people. And when he learned how far back Jack McCloskey went with Point Lookout, he took some aerial pictures of the town and Jack’s house at various altitudes while out on a Granard Associates gig. When Trisha presented those pictures to her dad, Jack was stopped in his tracks. He said, “Wowww! That’s something!” And Francis didn’t need to do it, of course. Just like when he bought me the signed Mookie Wilson / Bill Buckner Picture, he just said to himself, “I bet you Jack McCloskey would like that.”
At our wedding rehearsal dinner at the Point View Inn, my father stood up to make his toast. He wished us all the best, then he looked straight at me. I had long burned the bridge and left the dopey bastard on the other side. In the eyes of my father, and my friend Francis, I was a fully realized great guy.
And this is what he said: “This is my son, with whom I am well pleased.”
For me, it was sort of like when Harry Bailey says, “to my brother George. The richest man in town!” That’s it. Nothing to add to that. The movie’s over. Merry Christmas.
It was actually Christmas Day a year and a half later when Trisha and I took possession of the House on Duffy’s Creek. We had looked at other houses, but none of them had creeks, and none of them had the family discount built into the price. Still, Francis sort of tried to talk us out it. I think he was embarrassed at how much work it needed, that he had let it slide too much in between pursuing his passions, driving my mom everywhere, and grabbing naps. To quote mom: “I’m sorry this place is such a wreck. I was sick and your father couldn’t give a good god damn.”
And when he thought something was not your best idea, he’d always say, “ahhh, you don’t wanna do that!” Which Trisha was the first to point out to me is in itself a very odd thing to say. Once my sister’s boyfriend, in his forties at the time, told Francis that he was thinking about getting a new tattoo. Francis said, “ahhh, Ed, you don’t wanna do that!” And Ed looked at him dumbfounded and said, “I’m 45 years old, Mr. Duffy. I’ll do what I want!”
So, despite, “ahhh, you don’t wanna buy this place!”, we did what we wanted, and he was just as happy not to have to deal with real estate people or hire his own lawyer, as they were already late in getting out of the house and into Jefferson’s Ferry because Joan had been diagnosed with breast cancer earlier that year. She was wearing a chemotherapy wig at our wedding. It’d been a tough year and he had enough on his plate.
So when we met them for breakfast after church at the Golden Reef Diner in Rockville Centre on Christmas Morning 2001, they were staying at a local hotel so they could have dinner at my sister and brother-in-law’s house, and we were living in their house.
Over time, Jefferson’s Ferry became home for them, and Jedwood Place became home for Trisha. I was fine all along.
I love gardening because my mom taught me to love it when I was very young. I had a designated “diggy spot” in the corner of the backyard. One day I sometime in the 1960’s, I was playing in that very diggy spot when my father came along and said to me, “you know, this little plot here, this is your piece of the Earth. Did you ever think of that? The whole planet Earth, but you’ve got this one little piece.”
Fast-forward forty years, and Francis and I standing in the same yard at a family party that my wife and I are hosting for his 75th birthday. I tell them that he told me when I was five that this was my little piece of the Earth. He said, “Wow, you really took that one to heart, didn’t you.” Yeah. I did.
Unless the Coronavirus or something else kills me before I get the chance, I will probably move upstate to Copake Falls permanently at some point and we will sell this house someday. And when that day comes, I know I can speak for Trisha when I say I will cry and cry and cry and cry some more.
Meanwhile, after everyone was settled, Trisha and I brought our gardening skills out to Jefferson’s Ferry. We planted bulbs and annuals and shrubs and hybrid tea roses all around their cottage. It was a very comfy place, and despite mom’s health, my parents were pretty happy there.
But as so many things that end up defining our lives do, the dementia that stole from Francis every memory I’ve shared with you snuck up on him, and it overwhelmed him and us before we knew it.
I don’t know if he was aware. If he was, he wouldn’t have breathed a word of it. One the phone, my mother would inform me (after telling me every single pain she was experiencing that day and asking me if I got Final Jeopardy), “your father is starting to lose his marbles. He’s forgetting things all the time.” And you think to yourself, OK, he’s an old man, old men forget stuff all the time. And he’d get on the phone and you’d ask him how he was doing and he’d say, “I’m fiiiiine!,” because he’d say that if he had blood gushing out of his head.
2004: Francis’ 75th Birthday in the backyard at Duffy’s Creek
2014: Francis’ 85th Birthday at Duffy’s Creek
2014: Francis’ last visit to the house he bought in 1955
And then he started getting lost. I’m not sure if it was a flying around in a helicopter gig, but he went to the city on some sort of Granard Associates job, and it would be his last. He could not remember how to get back from the city. Somehow he eventually did, but it took him hours and hours and scared the living bejesus out of my mother.
So no more driving to the city. He scared himself enough to decide that on his own. But then he got lost again driving from Jefferson’s Ferry to my sister’s house in Lynbrook. This began a several-month negotiation to get the car away from him, which my mom was actually against, because Francis not being able to drive her around anymore meant the end of the last physical freedom she had.
Then he fell and broke his leg. And that was the end of independent living in the cottage. My parents were relocated to a perfectly nice assisted-living apartment.
And then he fell again, and mom had to be moved to skilled nursing, and when he got out of the hospital, they were living separately.
And a month after their 60th wedding anniversary, my mother was taken to the hospital after being found unresponsive. (As soon as I heard “your mother” and “unresponsive” in the same sentence, I knew it was just about over).
On a Sunday morning in August of 2012, I drove Francis to Mather Hospital in Port Jefferson to see his wife. I spoke to the doctor while he sat with her, so I got to be the first to know that she had pneumonia and she had about a week left.
As she slept, I delivered that bad news to him as gracefully as I could. Then I tried again, with slightly different graceful words. The third time through it landed. He looked at her sadly and he said what I now say every time I have to go to a wake and make somebody feel better:
“No matter how much time you get, you always want more.”
We got seven and a half more years of Francis. There’d be good and not-so-good monthly visits. It was always wonderful to see him, but at the same time it was sort of like visiting a museum every month to find someone had stolen another couple of your favorite paintings off the wall. One year, he’d forget that mom was dead and he’d ask when that happened, the next, he’d forget who she was entirely. One year he’d want to know all about the iphone gadget I was using to show him the old family pictures, the next year he’d sleep in the wheelchair and wouldn’t wake up the entire time. One year, he’d be pleasantly surprised to see that I had brought the books he had written, the next year those books may as well have been copies of the Reader’s Digest. One year, he’d remembered where I lived and what I did, the next he looked right through me with no recognition at all.
But one thing remained constant, right until that last visit on February 15th.
Francis’ eyes would light up when he smiled. I mean literally. The same eyes that could throw angry poison darts at you could smile straight into your soul like morning light sparkling on an Adirondack lake. And everybody from the blue-eyed blonde girl in his English class at William Bryant High School to the girls at the nurse’s station at Jefferson’s Ferry loved that smile.
And when he smiled, it reminded me of everything good. Though he pretty much stopped talking in the year before his death, I could usually count on at least one good Francis smile during our visit, usually directed at the dog.
It made it OK, that smile. It stopped time. I could put it in my pocket, drop it into the gas tank of the car and drive home on it.
You know who doesn’t smile? Trump. As a matter of fact, when I thought of this subject-changing pivot in our narrative, I did some research, painful as it was. If you Google Image “Trump Smile”, the first two subheadings are “transparent” and “smug”, only because “shit eating” wouldn’t make it through the algorithm. He smiles like he just got back from a lynching with the boys and nobody has found the body yet. He smiles like he just got off the phone with Vladimir Putin and they’ve figured out a way to shut the electrical grid down on Election Day. He smiles like somebody just told him about a new way to steal from you.
Furthermore, because of Trump, I believe that reincarnation is one possible afterlife scenario. Born fourteen months after Hitler committed suicide? That’s a creepy coincidence if you ask me. Of course, back in 2015, more than one person told me that any comparison to Hitler was a false equivalence that invalidated my argument.
To those people now: Do you like apples?
Actually, if you want to be Catholic about it instead of Hindu, I believe that the motherfucker is the Devil Incarnate.
Actually, I ran all this by my wife and my son. We’re all Copake Falls Episcopalians at heart now, but I was born to doubt. I asked them if they believed that someone could be born evil. Nature vs. Nurture. One of my favorite unanswerable questions. They said no. I said, well then, could any one of this in this room theoretically become as evil as Trump if we had been raised to be so? That is, if we had been raised by nasty, heartless racists who worshipped the God of Money, who provided us with shortcuts and free passes through every one of life’s milestones, who taught us to lie, to steal, to cheat, to bully, to abuse, to hate, to generally just be an unrepentant, unapologetic smirking asshole who enjoys making people suffer?
They said yes. But I still think he’s Hitler. And the Devil. Because why not? So it came to a point in the conversation when my mother would have said, “I just don’t know anymore, honey,” and I went out in the yard for a cigarette.
As for what this has to do with Francis? Well, he read the New York Times cover to cover every day until he couldn’t anymore. (“You’d think I’d be smarter.”). He could have told you that Trump was Satan in a blue fat suit 50 years ago, when Young Twitler and his white-hooded father were caught discriminating against black and Puerto Rican people in their Brooklyn and Queens housing developments. Francis couldn’t take it when Trump inserted himself into everything in New York City in the 80’s and 90’s. He knew the guy was a self-promoting con man, a stupid one at that, more than likely connected to the mob, without question completely full of shit.
In fact, dopey bastard wasn’t good enough to describe this guy. In Francis-speak, Trump was an “goddamn ignoramus.” A guy who shoots his mouth off but couldn’t find his ass with both hands.
Not the guy you want in charge of a nation of 331 million people when worldwide pandemic time rolls around. Well you can’t blame me. I certainly wasn’t one of the dopey bastards who voted for a career criminal.
I wasn’t one of those gloms.
Because here are three simple assertions that I could easily prove: 1. Hillary Clinton was the most qualified person ever to run for the Presidency. 2. She would have been all over Covid-19 like a mother bear. 3. She would have borne responsibility for every death on her watch.
Even George W. Bush, who used to be our worst President, actually read books instead of holding them upside down for cameras after tear gassing innocent civilians, and when Dubya read a book at his ranch about the Spanish Flu Pandemic on one of his month-long summer vacations, he said by golly it’s almost 100 years. I should probably do something.
People questioned the idea of New York Governor Cuomo becoming a hero for doing nothing more than calmly making sense in his daily press conferences. They say he waited too long to shut everything down and made the hospitals send positive patients back to nursing homes, leading to all those dead grandmas and grandpas.
But Governor Cuomo was following federal guidelines, and certainly did not have access to the intelligence that Trump ignored going all the way back to November, while he was watching Fox News and golfing and holding hate rallies (No, no, he’s not Hitler), not to mention throwing hand grenades on Twitter so people say his name all day.
The federal government is supposed to lead in matters of national security. Even Dubya came around for a photo op on top of the remains of the World Trade Center, even though he let it happen. He didn’t tell Governor Pataki to figure it out and get back to him. At the same moment early this year that Hillary would have been shutting the entire country down and telling us how screwed we’d be if we didn’t cooperate, Trump, the fake president installed by Vladimir Putin for the express purpose of destroying the United States, looked America in the eye with that transparent, smug grin and said the virus was a hoax, said it would go away on its own in the summer, said all his pasty, brainwashed evangelical zombies could get their nails done and their beards trimmed for church on Easter, right before a big, sweaty sit-down brunch at Denny’s.
And now that we have “flattened the curve” in New York, any leader who understands the concept of leadership would say, “Hey, look what they did in New York! The whole country could to do that!” Instead the goddamn ignoramus politicizes quarantines and masks and convinces the zombies that he, and they, are smarter than the scientists. And besides, if an evil Democrat like Andrew Cuomo tells you something is a good idea, you would just be a sheep to follow along.
And here on Long Island, as in too many other places, we got to watch Trumpbilly Covidiots on News 12 waving American flags, berating objective reporters who are giving them publicity in the first place only because they’re a sentient accident on the side of the road, bitching and moaning because masks are an inconvenience and besides, they couldn’t get their mani-pedis done by Korean women, or get served their red meat at Applebee’s by minimum wage brown-skinned workers. Especially when compared to the Black Lives Matter protests that began several weeks later (and should continue indefinitely as long as they have to) when millions of people took to the streets to protest something insidious, immoral and deadly, the willful ignorance and gleeful obnoxiousness of these people complaining about having to make small sacrifices for the larger good make me hate the island and the country I love.
You want to know how stupid some people are? There was a woman at one of these protests; track suit, frosted blonde hair helmet, big glasses, screaming “yoo-wa faaake newzzz!” at the News 12 Reporter. I swear I had seen her before and later it hit me. Women dye their hair all the time, and wasn’t she the one who went to visit Benner’s Farm in Setauket, found out that Minnie the Cow would be hamburgers in a couple of weeks, then came back with her friends to protest against a beloved local farmer who invites children onto his family farm to learn things, carrying a sign that said, “Animal Lives Matter!” while wearing a leather jacket, with a matching leather boots and leather handbag?
You can’t swing a dead cat without hitting a glom these days.
And now people are getting sick and dying in record numbers in Florida, in Texas, in Arizona, places where Trumpbilles are a measurable percentage of the population, rather than people who the majority of sensible New Yorkers have learned can usually be stepped around like land mines, except when you tell them they have to wear masks. The emergencies in these places seems like they’re just getting started as I write this, and I’m not the least bit happy that I called this a month ago, or that these dopey bastards are going to kill other peoples’ Francis with their recklessness.
We’ve shown here in New York that relatively simple measures can slow the spread of Covid-19. We’ve also shown how horribly deadly it can be, especially to the elderly. Republican governors refuse to execute those measures, because they are Republicans first, humans second. I wonder how many red hats who lose their parents or grandparents in the next month or two will turn around and call somebody a pussy for wearing a mask at the grocery store? They don’t call ’em deplorables for nothin’.
You could make the case that part of the plan has become to kill people on purpose. Trump (or Hitler, or The Devil) enjoys human suffering, and apparently he’s not alone in this. I could easily prove that assertion, too. (see “babies in cages”). I believe that he does not care how many people die on his watch. It’s almost like a badge of honor to this pig that we have more than a quarter of the world’s Covid-19 deaths. And besides, dead people can’t vote.
So knowing what you know about my father’s underlying health conditions, you know that I cannot state for a fact that this sloppy, chaotic, cynical, repugnantly evil response to a national emergency actually led to his death.
But I can’t not say it, either.
My name is John Duffy. You killed my father. Prepare to get ripped a new one.
For months, when it became clear that the virus was coming this way, Trump did nothing. He had a big assignment to finish and he was going to be graded on it, but he decided he would just fake his way through it ‘cause that’s what his mommy and daddy taught him, along with telling him that everything the blacks do is bad, which is the sole reason why he fired Obama’s pandemic response team. He also had to loot the federal government to give tax breaks to his donors, enablers as bad if not worse than his elected party members. We paid $6000 more in taxes after that. It went straight into the My Pillow Guy’s pocket.
The federal response to the Covid-19 Coronivirus Pandemic of 2020 has been a horrible, horrible shitshow that has led to waves of human suffering that simply did not have to happen. We only get so many years, and of course anyone who hasn’t actually gotten sick or who didn’t see their income disappear overnight this year can’t really complain. But just taking away a year of graduations and baseball games and playgrounds and gym workouts and weddings and birthdays and funerals and visits to grandma and grandpa’s house, just taking away these precious moments of people’s lives, is in itself a tragedy.
Francis’ youngest grandson would have been ready to start his first paying job as a counselor at the Valley Stream community day camp in two weeks. He enjoyed attending the camp for seven years, then volunteered as a junior counselor last summer. If I let myself think about how my son and all those little kids are getting ripped off, I get angrier than a generally happy-go-lucky guy should get. There’s no Camp Barrett because the President of the United States didn’t want to upset the Chinese Government, because he thought they could help him get re-elected. There’s no Camp Barrett because people voted for a fucking game show host to lead the free world.
But you can’t blame it all on one person, even if he is the devil or Hitler reincarnated. The insanity that defines American life right now was, or course, years in the making.
So with the sincerest of apologies to Mr. Rogers, in times of crisis, look for the scumbags.
We could go all the way back to Roger Ailes and Richard Nixon, who perfected the dark art of vilifying your fellow American (not only minorities, but Agnew’s “pointy headed liberal college professors” as well), in order to win votes because they knew that lazy people loved to hate. I could show you where the seeds were first sown of portraying the other party not as “the loyal opposition” but as less than American, and how they co-opted our common flag and turned it into a hate symbol. I could sew Ronald Reagan into this, with his union busting and his welfare queens. And Daddy Bush and Willie Horton. I could weave you through how John McCain let himself get talked into Sarah Palin and inadvertently spawned the Dumb And Racist As Fuck And Proud Of It Movement that swept much of White, Red-State America in 2008, and has now reached feverish levels of scary. But we just don’t have time. I’ve just crossed 20,000 words and you’ve got other stuff to do.
So I’ll stop ranting and just put it as two simple questions : 1) After three and a half chaotic, divisive, exhaustingly cruel years of Trump, how the hell can anybody still support this guy? 2) How could anyone add two and two together and not conclude that the Republican Party is standing on the neck of democracy as they murder your country in broad daylight with the cameras rolling?
As Francis J. Duffy lay dying in the Memory Unit of the Bove Health Center of Jefferson’s ferry in the last week of April, with nothing to be done but to wait for the inevitable, I woke up one morning as I wake up every morning and took a quick look at the apps.
I have friends who like Trump. Not very many, but some. We have enough in common to work around it, I suppose. Still, I cannot fathom why they think what they think. If I asked, they might tell me it has something to do with hating Democrats more. Or they might tell me that they didn’t trust career politicians and they thought a businessman was what we needed in the world’s most powerful political position.
OK, so at the end of this month, I’ll be retired from doing nothing else for the last 25 years but teaching Junior High School English. Since I have some spare time, I’d be happy to intubate you if you need to be placed on a ventilator. I’ve never done it, but look how smart I am.
Or they might tell me that they liked how he speaks his “mind” and “tells it like it is.”
Ok, well, I was a successful and beloved teacher. I regularly told parents that their children were stupid and had no hope. I spoke my mind. I told it like it was. I found that people appreciate that quality in teachers. I also regularly asked parents where they came from and if they were here legally. Because, hey, I pay taxes.
I hope I don’t have to explain that I’m being sarcastic. I know I’m really good at it. I learned it on my father’s knee.
On January 20th, 2017, I made a conscious decision to not to post anything political on Facebook ever again, and I haven’t. Because I can’t get into it with them, because the only purpose would be to change their minds and tragically, I’m not going to.
So I suffer through other people’s posts and I don’t engage. And I showed great restraint that April morning when, as the death toll was closing in on 50,000, as that raging asshole wanted the governors to be nicer to him so he’d be more inclined to help innocent people who were suffocating to death, as I was planning on being on a Zoom call later that day so I could see my dying father’s face, I read a post that said “CAN I GET AN AMEN FOR PRESIDENT TRUMP?”
No. No you can’t.
But this is what I can give you. My father made up a prayer that we’d say every night as kids, right after the Our Father and the Hail Mary. This is how it goes:
God bless us all and keep us well.
God bless all our friends and benefactors.
God help us in our work and play.
God give us a vocation
God give us peace.
I led the participants in the Zoom meeting through the Francis Prayer that morning. My brother had it printed on the back of the mass cards. But there was no wake, no funeral mass. We felt fortunate to have been able to attend the burial at St. John’s eleven days after he the day our father died. A cousin who is an ordained deacon led the service. Around the Scully Plot, we stood in masks, approximately six feet apart from each other, and we said the saddest of goodbyes.
One of the million ways that I am stupid lucky is that I’ve never experienced the helpless feeling of a loved one being the victim of a violent crime. Knock wood and God forbid. I cannot imagine what it would be like to have something like that eat at you every day and I hope and pray that I never do. But I believe that I have a little inkling of what it’s like after this, after dopey bastards created a situation that led to the loss of the greatest of great guys.
Yes, tomorrow would have been my father’s 91st birthday. If you asked him on one of his happier birthdays how it felt to be another year older, he’d say to you, “it beats the alternative.”
We couldn’t go see him today, which really sucks for Mookie, because Mookie hates boats and Jack and I are going to strap the Eddylines to the top of the car, and we’re going to celebrate Father’s Day with a paddle around Stony Brook Harbor, a place where my parents would go to get out of the house when they first moved to Suffolk. It beats the alternative of sitting in the air conditioning, staring at a rectangle and getting angry. We only get so many days. Learning to make the most out of them was Lesson One in The Art of Being Francis.
I talked to the spirit of my father when I was out walking Mookie a couple of evenings ago, along the same creek where my parents would walk the dog they brought home for me fifty years ago because they loved me. I told my old friend that I was writing about him and I asked him what he’d like the world to remember him for most of all.
He told me to tell you that he loved his wife and his children, and that he loved his life, the life that I hope I’ve shown you was a wonderful and beautiful work of art.
Then I asked him what he would say to the people in this broken country.
It’s New Year’s Day, 2019 as I begin this post. Of all my blog posts since June of 2015,this one will easily win the award for most depressing. I apologize for that in advance. The fact is, though, I can’t complain at all right now. I’m camped out on one of the comfy couches in our little warm and dry Creek Room, surrounded by contented furry beasts, half-watching the Odd Couple, a show that I first saw sitting on a couch in this house on a Friday night with my mom when I was 9 years old. Unlike many things, it’s still funny, and unlike my mom, I can still see it. My wife, Trisha, who loves me and knows me better than anyone ever has or ever will, knows how much I love shopping malls (like hemorrhoids) or going anywhere on New Year’s Day, and has therefore blessedly volunteered to take Jack, who’s almost 15 (shudder), to the Apple Store to see what the Geniuses can do with his Mac Book battery. I have the first of seven recently-made quarts of homemade spaghetti sauce all ready to go for dinner, one of the many things I’ve recently had time to get around to by virtue of having the last eleven days off from work. I tell you all this so that you may understand that, although I get up disgustingly early and work hard all day for what I have – when I’m not on eleven day vacations – I am above all a stupidly lucky individual, and I have been for a long, long time now. I think that’s important to know.
Because now I’m going to tell you how much everything sucks.
Out our windows on this New Year’s Day, the creek still flows past our little house as it flowed past farms seventy-five years ago and past fisherman from the Rockaway tribe seven hundred and fifty years before that. But last October, the chain-link fences and the Big Machines from the Town of Hempstead finally rolled in on the opposite bank. The $3 Million New York Rising Rehabilitation of Duffy’s Creek – shoreline resiliency to protect against future storms and aesthetic improvements because people like nice things – is underway.
This project was first proposed in 2013, the year after Hurricane Sandy changed everything in this place and the death of my mother and father-in-law changed us. The path and the open space across the creek was a familiar place, the same view out the kitchen window every time you looked, changing only with the seasons and the tides, unaltered since I rode it’s bumps and potholes on my little red Schwinn, looking for bunnies. But it had become a shabby, outdated place, and when we learned about the plan to make it cleaner and more native-friendly, we were optimistic about the change. Then five years went by and nothing happened. And we had a lot of cynical conversations about that.
Then last year, 2018, something happened. Lots. First, at the end of the summer, we discovered a giant crack in the majestic old oak tree that looked over our yard from the yard next door since before they were yards. My neighbor saw the danger immediately and had the tree taken down the following week. And we knew that losing the presence of that tree was going to be as joltingly nasty as someone opening up the blinds in dark, cool room where you’ve been sleeping peacefully for nineteen years, and that it was. Then, in October, in came the Big Machines, and the first thing they did was take down three more majestic old trees that graced our view and took care of our birds.
Then the Big Machines ripped out the Phragmites. They are, of course, an invasive species. More pleasant, well-mannered native plants will be planted to replace them. But my father, who doesn’t remember them now, called them Woozy-Woozies back then, and we picked them and he’d tickle my face with the seed heads and I did the same thing with my own little boy. And two of the first signs of spring on Duffy’s Creek were when the white-throated sparrows, getting ready to fly north, started to peep amongst each other in the phragmites at sunrise, and the rowdy bands of blackbirds gathered there later in the day to chat loudly about the winter vacations.
As the Great Rising progressed, the Big Machines ripped up what was left of the winding blacktop path, removed every last blade of grass and began dumping sandy fill, creating the surface of the moon with moving water that we currently see out our windows. With the trees and the Woozy-Woozies gone, and it being winter and all, it’s a damn depressing site. The birds come around when I fill up the bird feeders, but there are fewer of them. The ducks have all but abandoned us. It’s like the scorched earth left behind after a forest fire. But I’ve read everything that’s been put into words about this project, and seen every artist rendering. I’m optimistic that it will be just wonderful when it’s all finished. In those time-lapse videos of forest regrowth after a fire, everything looks pleasant and green and healthy in seemingly no time at all. You just have to have a little faith and let nature do the rest.
I’m a born optimist and I’ll prove it to you: On November 29th, I turned my left knee the wrong way and it’s pretty much hurt like an open stab wound ever since. X-Rays revealed a sprain in the interior cruciate ligament. I have to see Trisha’s pain management guy, or somebody. It may require some sort of knives or needles or something to put it right, but right now I know nothing except that Mookie’s pissed ‘cause I keep cutting the walks short. However, I am absolutely convinced that I will be loading kayaks on my car and climbing mountains without pain this summer, although I have no physical proof that this will be the case. I just feel like it’s going to work out ok, because it always does. Sometimes, magical thinking works.
Then again, I suppose it’s real easy to be an optimistic when you’ve been as stupidly lucky as I’ve been. But then again again, it’s hard to stay upbeat when you live in America in 2019 and you believe in silly, old-fashioned notions like compassion, accountability, justice and decency.
Out beyond the creek, the systematic destruction of America ordered by Trump’s Russian Master slithers like a snake into its third year. Children in cages, racists empowered, the environment willfully ransacked, the economy a ticking time bomb. Every day brings another tweet or news report with one more nail in the coffin of the physical and moral fabric of this country. Unthinkable shit is gong down before our eyes. Looking at what’s happening right now, I can’t help but conjuring up the metaphor of looking out the kitchen window at our creek in its current state. Everything that had value to us has been attacked, ripped out and smothered with dirt. We can live with the view from our backyard, I suppose, because we know it will evolve into something new and beautiful in its own right, even if it takes a couple of years. But you’d have to be a real touched-in-the-head optimist to believe that any good is coming out of the Russian Occupation of America, now, wouldn’t you?
But for the grace of God, any one of us could be the one trying to get the tear gas out of our eyes, or trying to find out where our child has been taken after seeking asylum and a second chance in what was once a country of promise, the reward for a 2,269 mile journey to escape God knows what. I don’t suppose I’d be particularly optimistic if that were my situation. I don’t suppose I could be much of an optimist right now if my livelihood was put into jeopardy by a fight over a goddamn wall, or if I had to absorb the looks of hate that my hajib or my turban earned me on line at the supermarket, or if I were a scientist studying climate change and told that none of what I do matters.
But last November, people voted. Lots and lots of pissed off people. The only major elections the Republicans won were the ones they blatantly cheated in, and they almost lost those, too. Once the elections were over, those same Republicans, led by the evil bastard himself, doubled-down on the same hate and scare tactics that people had just overwhelmingly rejected at the polls, so we can safely conclude that they didn’t learn a damn thing and will be beaten into near-extinction in elections this year and next. Meanwhile, more and more people are speaking out more and more as they get more and more pissed off. And they’re joining forces against a common enemy. And whether it takes this year or next to get rid of Trump and start cleaning up this damn mess, you can bet both of these things will happen. We’ll get rid of Trump, and we’ll start cleaning up the damn mess, though it will take a long time. My creek view will be back long before we undo the all the damage, but I have full faith that the spirit of America will grow back out of this scorched earth, and be healthier for it. This Age of Darkness will be followed by a true enlightenment, and if we survive the climate upheaval, people will look back on now and say what the fuck.
A bodhisattva – as well as being a kick-ass Steely Dan song – is a Buddhist who has delayed his attainment of Nirvana even though he could get there easily enough if he wanted to. He can’t be truly at peace as long as others are suffering. I’m not a Buddhist (and I don’t even play one on TV) but I get it: I can’t be as completely content as the well-fed, pampered furry beasts who surround me in this room, though I am well-fed and pampered beast myself, so long as there is this level of suffering around me and I feel powerless before it. I’m glad Mookie and the cats don’t have to know about demons pouring the water out of jugs left out in the desert to purposely cause the suffering of migrants, or people brazenly stealing elections. They’re in their own little Dog and Cat Nirvana, and I need their bliss.
Because beyond the manufactured (and apparently, ordered) suffering created by Trump and his enablers, too much suffering hit my circle of people last year, although who can say how much is too much. I personally don’t want to know. All I do know is that people died who were as important to the people they left behind as the two people whom I share this little house with are to me, and they left a lot of scorched earth on the surface of a lot of hearts. And this of course, scares me, as it well should. Every day I wake up is the day my luck could run out. The day of the terrorist attack, the school shooting, the killer storm, the accidental fire, the car accident, the fatal illness. It’s why I pray, though mostly not on my knees, ‘cause one of them hurts.
I know two families who lost young people in 2018. The first was a young man in his early 30’s who died suddenly in March from an accidental overdose, the second a young woman in her 20’s who died in September after a long and ferocious fight against cancer.
The young man’s father is one of my oldest friends. He and his wife had already lost a son at 17 seven years before. He grew up Catholic like myself, but has evolved through Buddhism into something of an agnostic. Despite these tragedies, he goes on. He woke up one day and his son was gone – again- and he couldn’t do anything about it – again – but grieve and move ahead. I know he suffers, but he assigns no reasons or higher meaning to what happened. It just happened, and it sucked like nothing else. But the sun keeps coming up, and he still finds reasons to smile.
The young woman’s mother is a Camp Lavigerie buddy, someone I’ve become friends with through our shared love of a magic place in the Adirondacks. She grew up Catholic like myself and has kept her belief and faith alive like a fire in her heart that glows out of her. She’s a sharer, and has documented her struggle to overcome and find meaning in the loss of her daughter and the effect its had on herself and her family, an excruciating process she watched happen before her eyes in slow motion over years. And from what she’s shared and written, I’ve learned two things: One is the thing that we all need to learn a million times over the course of our whole lives, and that is to cherish now. The other is that despite having the worse thing happen to you that can happen to you, she still finds reasons to smile.
Me, I was indoctrinated from birth with the inner faith in a higher being who will somehow protect my family and spare us from this level of tragedy, or at least will comfort me if they are somehow “chosen”. At the same time, I have 55 and a half years of life experience that has fostered a sense of inner doubt and dread, constantly leading me away from faith and towards the unsettling conclusion that it isn’t anything more than dumb luck.
And you can’t compare these tragedies to each other, much as our brains are geared that way. One young person who should still be alive gets sick, stays sick and doesn’t get better, ultimately passes away. Another young person is alive one day, dead the next day and shouldn’t be. It comes down to pick your poison. I can’t be as devotedly religious or as stoically existential as these friends of mine are. I guess I fall somewhere in between. And I can’t fathom how I would go on if I lost someone that close to me. I can’t even fathom losing my dog or my cats. But these friends of mine, they both go on. And they both find reasons to smile.
But the sadness I felt for the suffering these people and their families have gone through -and the pounding in my head when my thoughts circle around to the needless suffering of Trump’s Nazi America – was with me a lot of the time last year, though I couldn’t really say that any of it was my suffering in any way. But being something of a bodhisattva, I found it hard to enjoy my lack of reason to suffer. Between people dying young and babies in the cages, even apple picking and kayaking sort of lost their pure joy. But we kept trying to be happy. ‘Cause what would you be if you didn’t try?
There was a beautiful Sunday afternoon, October 7th, when we went down to Point Lookout to visit Grandma Jane. A couple of the sisters were there, so Trisha was happy and chirpy sitting down on the beach. I was sneaking Mookie onto the beach for one of his annual off-seasons dips in the ocean. Jack was in the living room talking to Grandma.
There was a rule I learned quickly when I became a McCloskey: You didn’t leave a conversation with Grandma Jane until she was finished with it. And young Jack had learned that rule, too. Mookie and I were heading to the beach, and she and Jack were talking. I asked him if he wanted to join us, and Grandma would’ve accepted that, because going to the beach makes her people happy, But Jack opted to stay in conversation with Grandma. And there they were a half hour later when I came back. Since Jack is not a stay in one place very long kind of guy, I was impressed with his maturity and warmed by the love he had for his Grandma Jane. She brought out the best in him.
Then, on the similarly beautiful Saturday afternoon of October 20th, around the same time the Big Machines started ripping up the path, Grandma Jane died, and it was our turn to suffer. But the two people I love most in the world, I know they’ve suffered more than I have, and there’s not a damn thing I can do about that but keep being me, lucky bastard that I am.
I loved my mother-in-law. She was a garden in the sunshine, a woman literally bursting with hope, faith, love and charity. But when I first became part of Trisha’s family, I drifted towards my father-in-law, Jack, and I found Jane a little over the top. In retrospect, I realize it was hero-worship of Jack on my part. He was a cool guy, and I’ve studied cool guys my whole life to learn their secrets. The over the top lady married him specifically because he was a cool guy, and loved him for a lifetime. He died three months after my mother died in 2012, and in his last weeks he didn’t have the capacity to know that he had just lived through the worst storm that ever hit his home in Point Lookout, the place that he loved. Point Lookout did all right after Hurricane Sandy, but Grandpa Jack was done a month later at 86. My mother had died in August at 82, and for the last week, she had pneumonia, which I learned that year was called “the old person’s friend”, she knew she was dying, and she got to say goodbye to her youngest grandson.
Pick your poison.
After two deaths and a hurricane in that fall and winter of 2012, optimism was in short supply. We were broke and lots of things were broken. We were hurting. The gardens were like the scorched earth of a forest fire, but destroyed by water instead of fire, if that makes any damn sense. What we did have going for us was a humongous monetary gift from Grandma Jane that we knew would help us get back on our feet.
And we did. The new place that emerged over the last six years from the wreckage and mud of the old place has been a perfectly nice place, and Grandma Jane was a big part of what made it so. She was Trisha’s best girlfriend, and she made our son step up his game when he was around her, because you just couldn’t be snotty around Grandma Jane. Her houses in Stewart Manor and Point Lookout were like big comfy blankets, and over 19 years and 9 days, she and I learned to enjoy each other’s company more and more. Of course, all the stupid shit in life prevented us from spending as much time with her as we should have or could have, but seemingly healthy in her 91st year, we had deluded ourselves into believing she would go on forever, until the phone rang on October 20th with the news that she had suffered a fatal heart attack. (In true Grandma Jane fashion, she was in a restaurant in Long Beach with a large group from the Catholic Daughters of America, who sent her on her way to the arms of God by reciting the rosary while the priest who was sitting at the table with her performed Last Rites).
Within an hour of that phone call, we were walking through the doors of the emergency room next to the empty wreck that used to be Long Beach Hospital. We saw Grandma Jane lying there lifeless. It seemed impossible to me. I cried like I don’t think I’ve ever cried in my life. We were dazed, sucker-punched, our hearts out in the cold. Then came the wake, and the funeral and the burial, and the barren landscape that follows. We entered a period of grief and sadness that hasn’t quite ended, but whose has? We had a wonderful Thanksgiving and Christmas, but we miss her terribly, and of course it’s been a lot harder for Trisha. Apparently, though, I’ve been supportive, which is good to know, ‘cause I really don’t have a clue.
Of our parents, only my father now survives, 89 years old and in an advanced state of dementia. He spends most of his time sleeping in a little room in a nursing facility 50 miles from here. It’s wonderful to be in the same room with him when I can clear all the shit out of the way and go see him, which I do once a month. He enjoys Mookie, and vice versa. I enjoy the fact that I can still look at him and he can still smile at me and we have the same shaped eyes, and I can give him a kiss goodbye on his bald spot like I would have done fifty years ago.
But since my mother’s death, and as my father slips further away, my side of the family has drifted further apart. We don’t see each other much and most of our contact revolves around my father’s health. He will likely slip away at some point, and we’ll drift further. There are a million different reasons for it, none of which I really know, and many of which likely have a lot to do with the way I am, but generally speaking, my siblings have never been as close-knit as siblings I’ve seen in other big families, and I’ve pretty much accepted that as a fact of my life. Not a whole lot of optimism there, I know.
My brother Thom, a thinking fellow, has pointed out that a lot of it has to do with what he called the “bandwidth theory”: We have so many other people in our lives, and so many layers of responsibility and things we want to learn and things that need to get done, that it’s like an AM radio at night in the mountains, where each station is just waves and crackles and some of them you go past because you’re not pulling anything in. We don’t dislike each other. We just have a lot going on, and our respective stations keep fading out.
I know the McCloskey Girls will refuse to let that happen on the other side of the family, and they haven’t so far, which is great for Trisha and Jack. They can’t have Grandma Jane back, but they’re making time for each other.
I suck at making time.
But, to remind you, I am a still a stupidly lucky person. And part of being stupidly lucky, I suppose, was being born with a face that most people seem to trust and a manner that most people are comfortable with, or at least unthreatened by. I’ve made lots and lots and lots of friends, and though I draw into myself a lot, and I wish I were more of a pick up the phone, meet ya for a drink, come on over and drop by kind of guy, there are lots and lots of people whose company I enjoy, and who seem to enjoy my company, when I get to see them.
And no man is failure who has friends. And every time a bell rings, and angel gets his wings.
I made a new friend last year, and right on time as it turned out. We met because through accidents of birth, I happen to have a friendly face and a pleasant manner, and so does my dog, even more so. And though I knew this friend for a relatively short time, and probably only spent an hour or two of elapsed time of his 99 years with him, I grieved his passing in 2018.
His name was Sal. He lived about a quarter-mile from here with his daughter in the brick cape with the built-in covered front porch that he’d bought after World War II. His house and his porch are in the last quarter-mile of one of power walk routes that Mookie and I take around South Valley Stream. When the weather turned warm, we’d see him out on the porch, a face weathered with sunshine, twinkling eyes and a wizened smile, always wearing his WWII Veteran’s ball cap. Of course you have to be extra nice to those guys, and it started with a “good morning, sir, how are you today?” as we passed him by. He and Mookie would make eyes at each other, and he’d tell Mookie what a handsome boy he is, which Mookie just can’t get enough of. Mookie would’ve moved up to stopping to sit on the porch with him a lot sooner than I did, and he eagerly awaited an invitation.
In time, that’s just what happened. Mookie started going up to the porch to give Sal a good sniff and a kiss (and check for crumbs), and eventually, when summer came and we had all the time in the world, I started up pulling up a chair and spent a few golden mornings sitting and shooting the breeze with Sal.
When I first introduced myself by name, he shook my hand and said, “good to know you, John,” which struck me as a wonderful, lost expression from his era that sounds so much friendlier than “nice to meet you.” I’ve started working that one in.
He was a cool guy, and I’ve spent my whole life studying cool guys to learn their secrets. He had the slight growl of an old man’s voice, and that special quality that the old-school Italian guys had of making you feel like everything he said was in confidence, just for you. He wasn’t just talking at you; he was having a conversation. There’s a difference, and those guys knew what it was.
He was born in Brooklyn. He was drafted into the Navy during WWII. He swabbed the deck on an aircraft carrier in the Pacific and he made sure he didn’t get killed. He came back home, had a family and moved them out to Valley Stream. He worked as a carpenter, mostly for a Jewish guy. He went hunting with some guys in the Adirondacks once, got lost in the dark and decided he liked Brooklyn a whole lot better. The house across the street from him once belonged to the mayor of Valley Stream, and he liked having that access to the people in charge. We talked about these things, and we talked about dogs, and weather, and the neighborhood and about growing old. We both enjoyed the company, and Mookie would lie at his feet in the shade under his chair as we talked.
As our conversations continued, he started giving me a better sense of the downside of being 99. Most everybody was gone, he said, and, though he always greeted Mookie and I by name, he felt his mind slipping away. He couldn’t remember things anymore, and it frightened him. And he was frustrated that all he had left was sitting on this porch.
I told him about my own father, lost in a haze of dementia for five-plus years now, institutionalized, and spending most of his time asleep. I said, “I know it’s not a consolation, Sal, but hell, at least you got the porch.” Like me, he understood that he’d been stupidly lucky, but nobody skirts through this world untouched by sadness, and nobody gets out alive. The best we can do is enjoy the better moments, and my morning visits with Sal were among my favorite moments of 2018.
Once summer was over and the grind started grinding again, Mookie and I walked down Sal’s block on Saturday mornings hoping he’d find it warm enough to come out to the porch. I even brought Trisha with me once to see if she could meet him, but he wasn’t out. In the back of my mind, I figured we’d have another summer, his 100th, to enjoy each other’s company again.
Then, one cold gray morning in November or December, I saw a bunch of cars in his driveway and outside his house, and I knew it was over, but I hoped it wasn’t. A few weeks later, I saw his next-door neighbor, who told me that he fell and he never got recovered. Pick your poison.
We passed by his house on our Christmas Day walk, after a wonderful morning of opening presents with my wife and my son, happy for a time even though there’d be no Grandma Jane to visit later in the day. I told Mookie out loud that I wished we could wish your friend a Merry Christmas. Mookie heard “your friend” and stared forlornly up to the porch waiting for Sal to be there, and I felt bad for messing with his head.
To myself, I wished that I could wish my own mom a Merry Christmas, and though I’d seen him two days before, I wished I could call Dad up and exchange Christmas greetings with him, and wished that he could remember as well as I do all the Christmas’ that we shared. I wished that my wife could give her mother a hug on Christmas Day one more time, ‘cause I know how it’s been since I haven’t.
As I wrap up this post and send it out into the big wide world wide web, it’s Sunday January 6th, The Feast of the Epiphany, Little Christmas. We sadly take down another Christmas tree and we suck it up for another year, with it’s own fresh hells, but also its fresh heavens if you look for them. I’ve got kayaks coming from Washington State. My knee has been feeling better lately. I think we’re in the endgame with this Trump asshole and I think we’re going to win, and win big. The new path along Duffy’s Creek will look nice from our backyard, and our backyard will look nice from the new path.
But ultimately, five thousand words after I began writing this, I have no epiphanies for you about anything. No wisdom, and no myrrh either. I’m just thinking with a keyboard, but it’s my blog, so I can do whatever I want. Sorry to have wasted your time.
When I was young man, I read just about everything Kurt Vonnegut ever published, and he once told me that things were getting worse and worse and they’d never get better ever again, and sometimes, especially in the story of this country and this world, and even in the stories of our families, that’s exactly how it seems.
But God bless him, the DNA that my dad gave me, that Kurt Vonnegut’s dad apparently didn’t give him, compels me to hope, to be an optimist, to truly believe that everything will be fine. As a matter of fact, if you were to ask Francis J. Duffy right now how he felt, he would say, “fine.”
As far as the malevolent randomness of death and loss, the view of the optimist was best expressed by Dr. Seuss, who said, “don’t cry because it’s over, be happy because it happened.”
I think that if death struck me as closely as it did to friends of mine last year, I’d be inclined to tell Dr. Seuss to go fuck himself. But damn if he isn’t right. Enjoy the time we have and the people we love and the things that make us happy and bring us closer to God when we can, while we can, knowing that nothing is forever, and only God knows why that is. There’s your wisdom, there’s your epiphany, and there’s your myrrh. When my brothers and sisters and I fought as kids, my dad would quote Jesus: “Love one another.” When Dad woke up and came out of his bedroom in the morning on a day off, he’d say, “Thank God for a new day!” Often, I’d wished he’d shut up with that nonsense, and of course I’d love to hear him say that now, but I don’t feel the need to cry because it’s over, because it’s much better to be happy that it happened.
As for Sal and Mookie and me, there will be no 100th birthday visit in 2019. But it was good to know him. And at least we had the porch.
It’s been another long, inexcusable break from blogging, but for better or worse, A Creek Runs Through It rises from the ashes today. Today, it’s time to go for a good, long walk. If you’re up for it, Mookie and I would be pleased to take you along on a tour of Valley Stream, Long Island, New York, or at least a nice, big chunk of it.
Of course, we’re wired very differently, and our respective life experiences are very different as well, so no doubt Mookie would at some points be putting things in a more positive light for you than I might. But he doesn’t speak English, and he doesn’t blog. So today I’m your somewhat unreliable narrator.
We are eight summers and seven winters into walking our turf together now, Mookie and I, and we’ve interacted with hundreds of our neighbors along the way. And I’ve learned to appreciate his perspective. As a writer named Edward Hoagland wrote about dog training theory, I’ve learned ”to open up myself the possibility of becoming partly a dog.” We even negotiate over which way we’re heading on our walks, since he knows his way around as well as I do. If he could speak English, and he could blog, he’d just look at you with a big smile and say, “Isn’t this great?” But then again, he would say that about every place he’s been.
Futhermore, my dog believes that every person who opens every house or car door as we’re walking by has arrived in his field of vision purposely to see him and tell him what a beautiful big dog he is. He collects people. We’re just walking by your house and you happen to walk out your front door or get out of your car. Mookie stops dead in his tracks, squares his paws, sucks in his gut and targets his prey (you) with his best Labby smile, as if to say, “Hey! Hey you! Here I am! I love you! Wanna say hi waggy waggy?”
He’s very good at it and he scores a “Hey, Buddy!” or a smile back at the very least almost every time. Subsequently, he’s made me like people a little more in general. They’re actually not so bad, most of them.
Mookie deciding whether to bolt over to someone and tackle them, just to say hi.
Yes, my dog loves it here in Valley Stream. So does my son, whose grandparents moved here from Astoria, Queens in 1955, lived for 46 years on a house on a creek and raised five children in it. My son is already planning to send us away someday and buy this house. For the record, that never occurred to me when I was 14. I’m glad he likes it.
Me, I’m the youngest of those five children and right now the I’m guy who lives with his family of three people, three cats and a dog in that same house on that same creek. Do I love living in ValIey Stream? Well, honestly, a lot of the time I’m pretty much awash in ambivalence. I’ve met a lot of great people here, and a couple of soreheads. Plus I suppose it would be impossible not to feel affection for a place where you’ve spent most of fifty-five years and three months.
On the other hand, most of fifty-five years and three months is a very, very long time to live in the same anywhere. I feel like the place where I live could be a lot better if people in general had different priorities. But that’s true of all of Long Island, where people often have some really ass-backwards ideas about what’s important. And I will say this: What strengths Valley Stream does have put it way ahead of a lot of places not only on Long Island, but also in America in general.
So I’m going to take a cue from Mookie and try to keep it positive when I can. We’re going on a big, circuitous, approximately five-mile walk, but we’re going to take our time, and sometimes go back in time. Mookie will need to read his pee mail on the poles and trees, and I’ll be telling you some stories and acting as your tour guide. The goal is to see a place, a town in America in 2018, close up for what it is, as well as what it was and where it seems to be going. Remember, no matter who we happen to meet along the way, Mookie loves them. As for us, you’d probably agree with me that any day is a good day for a walk, and most people are likable enough. So I’d like to show you around our hometown. At its best, it’s a microcosm of the best things about our country. At its worst, maybe not so much. You wanna go for a walk? Come on! Let’s go for a walk!
Terrapin escaping troubled waters for a bit of sun on a rock
Egrets, we have a few. And I try to look out for them.
The walk starts from the house in which I was conceived and raised, and where I live more or less happily today. The house is on a winding street that follows a winding creek, and it’s called Jedwood Place for no good reason. In that house, on a 60 x 100 plot of land abutting tidal waters flowing in and out from Jamaica Bay (home of many interesting birds and one big-ass airport), I have been a baby, a son, a little brother, a snotty teenager, an occasional host of rowdy parties, a smart kid, a troublemaker, a mostly frustrated , bored but sporadically inspired young adult, a lot of peoples’ friend “Duff” who lives down the block from South High, a college student, a guy who’s been in his parents’ house too long, a guy carrying laundry and Ancona pizza on a visit home, a happy and loyal husband, a pleasant enough neighbor, a not-so-awful father and the guy with the big yellow dog.
Two big, fat side notes before we go walking (you can use this time to stretch, maybe tie your shoes. Mookie Dog will wait patiently on the front lawn and sniff the air) :
Note One: There is no other Jedwood Place on the face of the earth. But after 55 years of using the same mailing address, the name “Jedwood” feels as much a part of my name as my name. Yet there is no logical explanation why Mr. William Gibson, the man whose development company built my neighborhood in the early 1950’s and who built most of the neighborhoods of South Valley Stream thirty years before that, would have named a street “Jedwood Place.” The two most frequent citations of “jedwood” that you’ll find on Google refer to a hunting ground in Scotland and “jedwood justice”, which was a practice rooted in 19th Century Maryland wherein a person suspected of a crime was put to death without trial. Neither of these things have anything to do with Jedwood Place. Hopefully, they never will.
Note Two: Jedwood Place is in it’s own little development, bordered by Duffy’s Creek and dead-ending at Valley Stream South High School. Mr. Gibson called it “West Sunbury” but that name never stuck. The other three street names in this little development are Cluett Road, Sanford Court and Virginia Court. A Google search reveals that the man who developed the process of pre-shrinking fabrics known as “sanforization” was named Sanford Lockwood Cluett. Hmmmm. I have no idea if he was a friend of Mr. Gibson, though they were contemporaries, and captains of industry, sort of. I could find no mention of Sanford Cluett, who was born in upstate Troy, NY, hanging out on Long Island, though if I were from Troy I guess I’d jump at the chance. And oddly enough, Sanford Cluett was married to a woman whose maiden name was Camilla Elizabeth Rising, and the land Jedwood Place was built on was once part of the Riesing Farm, a different spelling but coincidental just the same. I have no idea who Virginia was. All this is interesting to me (if not to you, as you and Mookie wait for your promised walk) because Jedwood feels like part of my name, and it’s only because somebody pulled it out of nowhere in 1950.
Such is the randomness of our existence. Creek Street would have worked just as well.
I wanted you to know all this before we go because I ‘ve spent most of my life walking or driving around in circles, starting from and ending at Jedwood Place, of which there is only one on the face of the earth. And over the last seven years, in partnership with our beautiful, loyal, insanely friendly Labrador Retriever, I’ve taken walking in circles starting from Jedwood Place to a whole new level.
During the twenty-five years in which I was between dogs, I had often wished I had a dog just so I could go for a walk without having a destination in mind (and of course because dogs are generally so, so much better company than people). As we’ve established, Mookie’s mission in life is to say hi to as many people as he can, which in his best-case scenario means you rub his face and he stares deeply into your eyes and tries to kiss you. If you were actually here, you’d know that already, and as you may have guessed, I’m somewhat more reserved. But I enjoy all this about him greatly, and hundreds of people we’ve met on our walks have as well.
And so (surprise), having a friendly, good-looking dog and taking long, rambling walks around town is a great way to observe and often meet people, and when you observe and often meet people, sometimes you get talking to them. And when you get talking to people, you get to know the true character of a place. And I can say without any reservation that I (and to an extent, Mookie) know the character of Valley Stream – at least the south half of it – better than anyone, particularly anyone who works at Money Magazine.
Why Money Magazine? Well, apparently, somebody at Money Magazine really likes Valley Stream, so much so that earlier this year Money Magazine voted it the Best Place To Live in New York State. For heaven’s sake why? Well, this is what they said:
First settled by Scottish immigrants in 1834, Valley Stream is a Nassau County village that attracts residents with a reputation of being “neat, clean and safe”. The location is a big draw—it’s just 35 minutes from Manhattan, near two major highway arteries, and served by the Long Island Railroad. Snapple originated in Valley Stream, which also boasts several historic colonial sites, a diverse population, and a close-knit suburban community.
So, to use a buzz phrase that my boss loves, “let’s unpack that.”
First of all, Snapple. Really? What the hell is Snapple doing in three sentences of copy about Valley Stream being the best place to live in New York State? And I believe we have one colonial site. This is why I mostly avoid magazines.
Second of all, I’m very aware of the “major highway arteries” and the Long Island Railroad, thank you so much, as well as being five miles from JFK Airport. It’s often very noisy around here. It’s not “Manhattan noisy”, or even “Queens noisy”. You can still hear the birds. There still are occasional moments of relative quiet. But if you listen for it, there’s almost always a dull roar of the motor noise of trains, plains, automobiles and leaf blowers emanating from our surroundings, and I’m not entirely sure that this isn’t all slowly driving me insane.
Third of all, neat, clean and safe. These are just about the most relative terms you could string together to describe a place. Your idea and my idea of the threshold for earning those adjectives could be very similar or very different, depending on how much you are affected by Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder.
We’ll get to “clean” and “neat” when we get walking. (“Yawwwnnn!!!,” says Mookie). First, let’s talk about “safe”. “Safe” is ultimately what makes or breaks the reputation of a place. But again, it’s completely relative. Do I feel “safe” walking with Mookie at night through Valley Stream? Well, yeah, ‘cause we’re the scariest looking two guys out there if you’re up to something, so that’s a moot point. Do I feel safe if my 14-year old son or my wife is out after dark? Of course not, because I love them and I worry about them and I want to be with them all the time so I know where they are, but that would be true wherever we lived. That’s got nothing to do with Valley Stream.
Less than a mile to my west is Green Acres Mall, which has grown like an ink stain since it was built in the 1950’s. It has, over the years, fostered a reputation as being a slightly dangerous, crime-ridden place. So much so that the first neighborhood we’re going to visit on our walk changed it’s name from “Green Acres” to “Mill Brook” in the early 1980’s to distinguish itself from the shopping mall, a decision that at the time smacked of racism, because many of the shoppers at the mall are people of color from neighborhoods in Queens and Brooklyn. This is ironic in retrospect since all the ethnic groups that people in Green Acres were afraid of are now raising families and planting flowers in front of the houses they own in Mill Brook.
Within the last three years, Green Acres applied for and received a PILOT (Payment In Lieu Of Taxes, otherwise known as a big fat tax break) from the Town of Hempstead to expand yet again. Part of their strategy for legally cheating on taxes and stealing money from people in Valley Stream was to sell Green Acres as a “tourist attraction”, since more than 50% of the customer base comes from outside Nassau County. The mall is literally right on the New York City border. And so, when people on Valley Stream social media pages want to make snide comments about people from the city, they call them tourists. Isn’t that clever?
Statistically, I don’t know how true the perception of Green Acres Mall being unsafe is or ever was. But I can tell you this: The creek amplifies noise. All creeks do. It’s a property of water. If there’s a particularly egregious crime at the mall (I’d say an average of between 6-10 times a year depending on how hot the summer is and how much the giant flat-screen TV’s are going for on Black Friday) you’ll know about it at Duffy’s Creek. You’ll hear the angry roar of helicopters circling overhead (followed seconds later by the angry roar of people on the Valley Stream News Facebook page reporting helicopters circling overhead), and the apocalyptic sirens from emergency vehicles racing down Sunrise Highway and Mill Road.
At times like these, Green Acres is less a shopping mall than an encroaching monster that wants to eat my quality of life. Of course, it would certainly be LESS safe here if there WERE no circling helicopters and emergency vehicles ready to respond in minutes to intervene in whatever nonsense is going down. We pay some of the highest property taxes in the country for that sort of thing. And Roosevelt Field, the bigger shopping mall to the east bordered by the much more wealthy community of Garden City, makes it into Newsday for spectacularly stupid crimes as much as Green Acres does.
And the other 99% of the time, when there are no egregious crimes being committed, it’s just a shopping mall. And me, I hate shopping malls. They’re gross. I like forests. And lakes. But if you’re OK with shopping malls, go ahead and visit Green Acres Mall sometime. Don’t worry. It’s plenty safe. It’s a tourist attraction. Go there and waste your money.
Meanwhile, now that we’ve established that “safe” is an illusion that means absolutely nothing no matter where you live, let’s get to that walk. As you look across the street from my house, the first thing you will say is “What the…?” And then you will smile your dopiest smile, because you’ve just had your first look at the house of my longtime neighbor and friend John and his wife Amanda who live across the street. John and I disagree vehemently on politics, so we never ever talk about it when we see each other. However, I have great respect for and truly enjoy his execution of the American rights and traditions that allow one to do whatever the hell one wants to one’s house within local zoning regulations. Plus he does our taxes, and we always do pretty well. So I have no problem living across the street from a house that has been remodeled to resemble a giant log cabin.
Thanks to my neighbor John for giving me permission to share this view of his house from my house.
Yeah. That’s right. A giant log cabin. AND, there are two “showcases” in the front of the house. In one of those showcases you’ll see a life-size gorilla statue, along with a life-size guy who looks a little like John himself sitting in a chair in a white suit and a Panama hat, with a parrot on his shoulder, a totem pole and a monkey scaling a tree behind him. In the other showcase you’ll see a bear, several small hippos and a family of prairie dogs. You’ll also notice the two grazing bison attached to the second floor balcony and the almost life-sized plastic representation of a Tennessee Walking Horse mounted on the fence. Completing the look is a stone wall in the corner of the property with a faux blue pond made of concrete, engraved with various animal drawings, “flowing” out to the sidewalk.
I’ve seen a lot of people take pictures of John’s house. Selfies, mostly. I find it extremely amusing. And I know he doesn’t give a flying rat what anyone thinks of his log cabin, which another reason I like him. And since we have Valley Stream South High School up at the top of the dead-end of Jedwood Place, we have lots of pedestrian and vehicle traffic passing by our houses – and lots of very loud teenagers – when school is open. As a matter of fact, you literally can’t get out of our driveway between 7:15 and 7:40 a.m. on school days as the street is one long convoy of cars dropping those same teenagers off at school, most of whom live no more than a mile away. My friends all walked to school here, even the ones who lived two miles away. Most of them are still alive. Just sayin.’
Valley Stream South High School, where we regularly trespass and occasionally get off the leash to go get it. The new football field really pisses us off
As we set out on our five-mile walk (did I mention that?) we have three possible trails: We can walk towards Valley Stream South High School, my alma mater, where we don’t give damn about trespassing on the field because of the school taxes we pay (and Mookie has lots of friends in high places anyway). They’re currently transforming the South football field from natural to artificial turf, which Mookie and I, along with the sandpipers, agree is a really stupid idea, but we had no say in it at all. Walking up that way, we might see my next-door neighbor, originally from the Philippines, who Mookie has loved since he was a puppy, and how could you not? We might see Raffi, who doesn’t like Mookie sniffing at him, but who feeds me really good noodle and pastry stuff after Ramadan so I give him jars of homemade bread and butter pickles on my summer vacation. (All my other friendly neighbors get them. I don’t concern myself with the unfriendly ones, and Mookie knows not to stop in front of their houses).
We might see Bob walking his dog Eli the other way and we might say something about the Mets. One family of Mookie’s best friends moved to Florida last year and we both miss them. But he’s recently worn some other people down at the end of the street who now say hi to him by name. Up at the high school soccer field, Mookie might get to chase a ball off the leash if no one is around, but if it’s Sunday, they’ll be twenty gentleman of various ages, all in way, way better shape than I am, playing The Beautiful Game like their lives depended on it. When school is open, Mookie collects high school students. They’re not so bad, even with the littering. I digress.
If we take trail #2 and walk up Cluett, we’ll see a house that belongs to some wonderful neighbors of ours that is currently being renovated and has been raised way high off the ground to survive the next big hurricane. From what I can see, I like their chances. Mookie will check to see if his very best friend Vacco is relaxing in the hammock that hangs from the walls of his spotless garage, and if so will have to charge at him and wag his tail maniacally for a face rub while Vacco and I talk about our solar panels.
But we’re going to take trail #3 and walk up Jedwood towards Mill Road and around the Creek, into Mill Brook, which I still call Green Acres. There’s a story I want to tell you about the path on the other side. Walking up to the corner, we’ll pass about twenty houses, and Mookie has friends in at eight of them. He’s working on the other twelve.
The Mill Brook community (when it was Green Acres) used to be connected to Jedwood via a pedestrian bridge over Duffy’s Creek (called, not surprisingly, “the Bridge”) but it was deemed unsafe after a kid got stabbed there (long, stupid story) and it was demolished, meaning most kids from Mill Brook now either walk or get a ride down Jedwood to get to school. So once upon a time, you, me and Mookie could’ve walked to the footpath on other side of Duffy’s Creek from the high school without going to Mill Road and passing the stores. And if the bridge were there, I could tell you about all the bottles of cheap beer and other commodities that were consumed over the years by generations of Valley Stream South students. But it isn’t. So I won’t.
Instead we have to make our way past the insane little white dog that occasionally runs out into traffic to chase after us at the corner of Jedwood and Mill, and walk north past the stores.
Here’s the good news about the row of stores at the corner of Jedwood Place and Mill Road. There’s a dry cleaner, a deli, a pizza place which I don’t like but my son does, a Chinese take-out that everybody likes, and deli that’s really a bodega, which is different from a deli but I don’t have the patience to explain to you why that is if you don’t already know. There is a certain convenience in having these things in your neighborhood. I guess that makes them convenience stores.
Here’s the bad news about the row of stores at the corner of Jedwood Place and Mill Road. 1) It has not been updated since 1950. It’s shabby and run-down looking and there is 68 years of gum embedded in the sidewalk. They use the steel doors use that you see in the picture when they’re closed, which makes the neighborhood look worse than it is, but I suppose it’s better than broken plate glass, which would do the same. 2) Nassau County owns a strip of land next to the row of stores that abuts Duffy’s Creek. They have not cleaned this area in my lifetime. It’s a wasteland of weeds, dead trees and garbage, as disgusting as anything you’ll ever see in a place where the median family income is $85,00 a year. It screams, for all the world to hear, that here in Southwest Nassau County, we just don’t give a fuck. The water spilling from the culvert under Mill Road into the creek smells like death, but more about that later, too. 3) There is a very large laundromat between the deli and the pizza place and people double park in front of it all the time. 4) The first store was a dive bar for most of my life – originally called “The Sportsman’s Rendezvous” – but has become a Nail Salon. It is one of approximately 500 nail salons in a five-mile radius. I never hung out in the dive bar, but I’m sure there were a lot less nefarious things going on in the Sportsman’s Rendezvous than there are in the Nail Salon. But that’s just me. 5) The Garbage.
The Path along the Left Bank of Duffy’s Creek, owned by the Town of Hempstead.
The spillway under Mill Road, where the “fresh” water from Hendrickson Lake and Mill Pond meets the salt water from Jamaica Bay at Diuffy’s Creek,
Mill Pond Park, Village Of Valley Stream
Mill Pond Park, Village Of Valley Stream. They tell me they can’t do much about the pond scum, and I’ve met pond scum, so I get that.
The toxic wasteland is owned by Nassau County. If you don’t believe that it is a toxic wasteland, I’d invite you to go take a whiff.
The amount of garbage on the street in and around Jedwood Place, most of it originating from the row of stores, and the very loud teenagers from the high school, whom Mookie loves and who visit those stores regularly, would have cost Valley Stream our Money Magazine “Best Place To Live in New York” designation if Money Magazine had known about it. I regularly feel like the Crying Indian when I walk around and see all the garbage that kids drop on the street (and that people throw out of their car windows after dropping their kids off at the high school. Don’t worry. I see you). There was a big push back in the 70’s to get people to stop littering, because nobody really wanted to make the Indian cry. But somehow, somewhere along the line, this morphed into the idea that people are paid to pick up after you. And who the hell is the Crying Indian? If you litter on Jedwood Place, ultimately, I pick up after you for free, because I get to the point where I can’t look at it anymore. People walk around with a bottle of something and a magic rectangle everywhere they go but somehow carrying a wrapper, or that now empty bottle of something, to the next garbage can is far too great a burden. This is a Valley Stream problem and a Long Island problem in general. We spent a week in Copake, NY and a week in Saranac Lake, NY this summer. There are fewer people in these places, of course, but none of them throw their fucking garbage in the street. So it’s not like a ratio or anything. People on Long Island – though I like many of them, and Mookie loves all of them – are pigs. There, I said it.
But Mookie, of course, doesn’t mind at all. He’s more interested in smells and finding people to say hi to than he is in aesthetics. This is one part of me that refuses to become partly a dog.
So we’re past the stores now, we’ve checked for terrapin turtles sunning themselves on the rocks next to the horrible-smelling spillway (sometimes we see our friend Steve who works at the high school looking for turtles, too). We’re around to the Right Bank of Duffy’s Creek, going down the path that runs behind the backyards in the “new” section of Mill Brook. We could have gone straight and gone through “Old Green Acres” on the streets north of Flower Road, which was the part of the development built in 1939 and features some very nice tudors and brick colonials that help keep the property value up on our little wooden box, but I would rather show you this path. I have my reasons.
My sister Mary Frances on The Path, around 1958
The same spot in 2018
Unlike much of Valley Stream, the path along Duffy’s Creek -which like Jedwood Place is outside the boundaries of the Village of Valley Stream and within the jurisdiction of the Town of Hempstead – looks pretty much the same as it did when I was a kid, but with one big difference: There’s less of it. The creek has been eroding the path for as long as they’ve been matched together. The hard surface of the path is just about gone in most places. Tall Phragmites (what my father referred to as “woozy-woozies” when he had small children and even when he didn’t) block your view of the water through most of it, except where one guy takes it upon himself to cut them all down with one of his many, many power tools so he can see the creek from his deck, which happens to be directly across the water from our house. It’s a reasonably nice place to walk your dog, as Mookie can attest. But it’s supposed to be a lot nicer. And I can prove that with a 123 page pdf file available online from the New York State Office of Storm Recovery, otherwise known as “New York Rising.”
South Valley Stream got whacked pretty well by Hurricane Sandy (or “Superstorm Sandy” if you insist, but please don’t). Being just south of Sunrise Highway, we were on the northern end of the area that got flooded. Towns south of us, East Rockaway, Oceanside and Long Beach in particular, were whacked much, much more devastatingly. (Not sure if anybody at FEMA uses the term, “whacked” to describe what happened, but I’m going with it).
About a year and a half after Hurricane Sandy surrounded our house in four feet of tidal surge on the night of October 29th, 2012, I heard about a meeting, the first in a series of meetings, at the Forest Road School, where the Mill Brook Civic Association would be taking public comments on how to spend the $3 Million in New York Rising Storm Recovery money that was apportioned to South Valley Stream. I just wanted to make sure they weren’t planning to build concrete retaining walls along my creek and declare it as a permanent open sewer, because that would really piss off the egrets. (I have a few). I was pleasantly surprised to see that this was not the plan.
New York State contracted with the Louis Berger Group as consultants to advise individual communities on how to spend the money they were getting through New York Rising. The Louis Berger Group (I saw them at the Peppermint Lounge in ’83) would work with existing community organizations to formulate and document a plan of action. The exiting community organization here was (and is) the Mill Brook Civic Association, even though Mill Brook is only about one-third of South Valley Stream. Gibson used to have a civic association but it doesn’t anymore because the old one died and I haven’t had the time to start the new one, and neither has Sean Lally.
I was wary of what the folks in the Mill Brook Civic Association were up to, so I kept haunting their meetings. Again, I was pleasantly surprised by the plan, officially published in March of 2014. Through going to the meetings, I got to know a wonderful gentleman who was leading the Louis Berger Group contingent for the project, a Dutch fellow by the name of Niek, or Neiyk. No matter. We got talking about birds. I told him that when I first moved back to my childhood home here, I documented the different bird species we saw.
I had always noticed the variety of birds around here as a kid, but I never got all citizen science about it until I was a homeowner, and they were MY birds. Way back then in 2002 we still had two gigantic maple trees out front and two Bradford pears in the back that were allowed to get out of control before our arrival, and they were all threatening to kill the house, so we eventually had to have them taken down. (We have replaced them, and then some, but trees take time). There were several giant Eastern White Pines in the neighborhood that have since been taken down or blown over in storms. Sadly, a beautiful oak tree on my next door neighbors’ property (once my grandmother’s), a tree that was probably planted along the creek by the Reising Farm owners before the houses were built, had to come down just this summer.
Big trees mean lots of birds, of course. And fewer trees mean fewer birds. And who doesn’t like birds? But sometimes where little wooden boxes are jammed together in 60 x 100 plots, you have to take down big trees, because they might kill you. And when you lose the trees, you lose the birds, who I’m sure don’t understand what the hell anyone would have against a big tree. I used to say that Duffy’s Creek was a great place to be a bird. Sadly, it’s come to the point, especially after losing the oak tree this summer, that if I were a bird, I’d probably blow this hot dog stand and move upstate.
But back when Trisha and I moved in, and we still had lots of big trees, filling up the bird feeders would get you twenty cardinals at sunset on a snowy afternoon. Waves of warblers and other migrant songbirds stopped in our trees in the spring and fall. We still have an impressive variety of waterfowl, especially in fall and winter, but every year the creek is neglected, it gets a little less populated. But in a year or so upon moving back to Jedwood Place in back in 2002, I had identified close to a hundred different species of birds in our yard and on our creek. Most of them I will never see here again because of the whole tree thing, but this little tidbit was still very impressive to Niek, or Neiyk, who had himself grown up in the Netherlands along a river (I knew that without him telling me) and was still something of a bird guy himself. At the meeting where the Louis Berger Group were unveiling the New York Rising plan for South Valley Stream, he told me that I should send him a list of those birds, and so I did.
The plan that Niek, or Nieyk and the Louis Berger Group put together was a beautiful thing. Landscaping and naturalizing the path, planting lots of trees, replacing the sewer pipes with a wetland filtration system (called a “bioswale”) that would clean the water over time. And to top it off, South Valley Stream was awarded another $3 million from New York State in “Race To The Top” money (gag me) for showing that the plan could, among other things, help bring back the birds on the list I sent to Neik, or Nieyk, who gave me some of the credit for the $3 million when nobody else did, which he didn’t have to do because all I did was count birds, but I appreciated it. I met some great people through stalking the Mill Brook Civic Association. They made me feel very optomistic about living here.
Now you may recall, a couple of paragraphs back, that this plan was published in 2014. The Town of Hempstead received the money from the State of New York to implement the plan. They’re sitting on $6 million as far as I know. And as you may have guessed from our walk today, they haven’t done shit yet, besides stick some flags in the ground and mow the grass.
But I’m hopeful. And our walk continues.
We’re around on the other side of the creek now, and in this section, past the path, there are house on both sides of the creek. There’s a style of house here, and on Rosedale Road where we emerge at Hoeffner’s Gas station on the city line (opened when the whole area was still Hoeffner’s Farm) and in the neighborhood on the other side of South High School from Jedwood, which I can only describe as the ”three little window houses”. They’re ranches with attached garages and a room jutting out towards the street with three ridiculously small windows hung in a parallel line at the top of the wall. Having been in those houses, I can tell you they’re nice from the inside. Big open floor plans and all that. They’re just kind of goofy looking from the outside.
The “Lilco Woods”
Temple Hillel, Rosedale Road
I can’t say anything if you won’t let me in to see anything.
Hoeffner’s Gas Station. The New York City Line is less than 500 feet from here.
A Three Little Window House
Which brings us to two “when I was a kid” observations that are true of this neighborhood and the rest of the places we’ll pass on our walk.
Observation #1: Every house on every street used to look like every other house on that street. That’s not quite as true anymore, as people have remodeled, and in some cases created great Taj Mahal-like structures from the little ranches and capes they started out with. This is more true in Mill Brook / Green Acres and the “North Woodmere” section of South Valley Stream. A lot of Mr. Gibson’s streets look structurally as they did 100 years ago. As an architecture fan, I find some of the remodels classy and sharp, and others a violent assault on my senses. But, like John’s Log Cabin, I respect and admire people for making these boxes into their own personal statements to the world. It’s a very American thing to do. We haven’t built a Taj Mahal, but we’ve planted a lot of flowers and trees. That’s a human thing to do.
Observation #2: When I was a lad here, the community of Green Acres, as well as the development along Rosedale Road up into North Woodmere, was a primarily Jewish neighborhood. I personally went to at least five bar and bas mitzvahs. Had a great time, too, as I remember. The majority of Valley Streamers were of Italian, Jewish, German and Irish descent, like my parents, one-generation removed from apartment buildings in Brooklyn and Queens, just like the new folks moving in these days. People of color lived across the City Line (at the time even further, the color line was really Brookville Boulevard in Rosedale, Queens) and that’s the way it was. As a matter of fact, you should read this New York Times story from 1979 and some 2010 census statistics before we go on, so as you continue on our walk up into the heart Valley Stream, you can see how far we’ve come, and why there’s really no such thing here as an anyone’s neighborhood anymore, and that’s a good thing:
VALLEY STREAM, L.I., Aug. 15 – A crude wooden cross was set afire last night on the front lawn of a house that a black family moved into here last week.
The cross was discovered at 10:15 P.M. by Inga Grant, the mother of seven children, who had moved into the two‐story, four‐bedroom colonial house from Rego Park, Queens, according to the Nassau County police.
They said the family had received obscene telephone calls and that windows had been broken while it was moving into the house, at 101 Woodlawn Avenue, in this South Shore village that neighbors said was predominantly white.
A real‐estate agent who had an exclusive listing on the house for several months, but did not sell it to Mrs. Grant, said today that he had been receiving obscene and threatening phone calls since Aug. 1, when the sale, reported at “upward of $70,000,” was closed.
Few of the neighbors gathered near the house today expressed sympathy for the Grants. And some of them said there had been neighborhood speculation that the sale was an attempt at blockbusting that is, inducing homeowners to sell quickly by creating the fear that purchases of homes by members of a minority group will cause a loss in value.
Now here’s the Wiki for the latest demographics of South Valley Stream, not including most of the Village of Valley Stream or North Valley Stream, which for the record are equally or more diverse. The CDP is my little “census designated place”, which is relatively small in area compared to everything that’s called “Valley Stream”. It’s a little confusing, I understand:
As of the census of 2010, there were 5,962 people, 1,969 households, and 1,554 families residing in the CDP. The population density was 6,415.1 per square mile. (Holy crap). There were 2,045 housing units at an average density of 2,326.9/sq mi. The racial makeup of the CDP was 51.90% White, 23.10% African American, 0.07% Native American, 18.10% Asian, 0.00% Pacific Islander, 4.40% from other races, and 2.20% from two or more races. Hispanic or Latino of any race were 9.80% of the population.
As for the “loss of value” that haunted the dreams of Woodlawn Avenue residents 29 years ago (not all of them, of course), you might be interested to know that the average price of a house in my neighborhood today is $462,000 big ones. We just do that to keep the riff-raff out.
And I suspect, based on the unscientific method of walking around with my dog, that the 2020 census will show more even slices of pie among white, African American Hispanic or Latino and Asian. And more and more, there’s an overlap among them all. And, not for nothin’, half of us have college diplomas. So fuck you.
Sorry, I didn’t mean that. We’re just a little defensive here sometimes. It’s because of Rockville Centre and Hewlett.
Statistically speaking, concepts of race and ethnicity could someday disappear altogether in a place like Valley Stream, which is pretty noteworthy considering the attitudes of 1979, when I was in 10th grade at Italian-Jewish-Irish South High School and knew those cross burners personally, or at least their families. And, while it’s easy to say this for a white guy, and I try to be aware of the systemic, institutionalized racism that people darker than myself have to put up with all the time no matter how enlightened their community supposedly is, I believe that in some ways, we’re almost there. As people get to know their neighbors, and share the common spaces, they see each other’s colors less and less. Unless they’re beyond hope, and most of the people who were beyond hope left here years ago. Valley Stream is not perfect in this regard, but it’s become a pretty good place to walk around in whatever color skin you happened to have been born wearing.
Let’s keep walking.
We’re on Rosedale Road, which for no good reason becomes Brookfield Road when it intersects Hungry Harbor Road, which was actually named for people who were hungry. Squatters, I’m told. We’re passing a fenced-off two acres or so of woods that belongs to Long Island American Water. There’s a good story behind this little piece of woods that you should say something if you see something in, even though you can’t go in it, but I’ve already told that story in a previous blog post: https://duffyscreek.com/2016/08/07/taking-a-walk-an-abridged-10000-year-history-of-south-valley-stream and we’re crossing Mill Road again, heading up Dubois Avenue, where Du Boys used to hang out in front of the candy store and the deli at Gibson Station.
Yes, almost forty years ago, I was one of the boys. A scrawny, tag-along boy but a Verified Gibson Rat just the same. Where the Nail Salon is now (one of the five-hundred) was once Jimmy and Ronny Duffy’s “Candy Store”, which as anyone from Long Island would know is a place where you could buy candy, newspapers, magazines, greeting cards, Whiffle Bats and Spalding Balls and odd stuff hanging around like flyswatters, condoms and birthday cake candles. There was also be the obligatory pinball tables, and later video games, in the back of the store, eager to swallow the quarters of local idiots. I got pretty good at Asteroids, but never could handle Defender.
Jimmy was Ronny’s father, and their names weren’t actually Duffy. They were using Jimmy’s wife’s maiden name to avoid something or somebody, but I didn’t care. They treated me and the rest of the knuckleheads who hung around the store like Italian family. Still, in retrospect, I regard every second hanging around Gibson Station as a colossal waste of time. I guess I must have learned something from the experience, but I have no idea what. Maybe how to act more Italian, but I could never pull it off. Oh, well.
Today my favorite thing about Gibson Station (besides the fact that it is frozen in time and could be easily used for the “1979” scenes of my biopic) are the guys who make Mookie and I our bacon and egg breakfast at the Cold Cut Express. Not being invited inside, Mookie stays tied up to a parking meter no one ever feeds (shhh!!!) and usually makes at least one new friend in the time it takes to scramble two eggs. As most people in this line of work now, the guys at the Cod Cut Express are immigrants from somewhere and they work and they work and they work. They are gentleman who treat their often annoying customers with respect and I appreciate them being there, as the only time I see them is when I’m not working.
And one of these days, I have to check out Meli Melo, which is the Cajun-Creole restaurant that opened where Goldie’s, an Italian Restaurant, used to be. (“A Taste of Louisiana and Haiti”) Mookie and I had a nice conversation one morning with a guy who was working on the remodel for a long, long time. (They’d have to put the smiling clown from the Goldie’s sign back up to shoot those 1979 scenes). When Goldie’s was empty, I had a fun little dream about buying a winning lotto ticket at the Cold Cut Express and opening “Duffy’s At The Station”, but I guess now it’s too late, and I wish Meli Melo nothing but success. We’re walking north up Dubois Ave. now, leaving Du Boys at the Cold Cut Express and Du New Boys at Meli Melo to keep chasing their American dreams.
On the left side of the street are some beautiful colonial houses with big front porches that predate Mr. Gibson. Starting on the right side of Dubois and heading south are Mr. Gibson’s 1920’s era, rather unique Pointy Houses.
As I walk through all these neighborhoods, I’m privately amused when I consider that I’ve been inside at least one example of each style of house, even though the people who lived in those houses when I visited are long gone, and the people who live there now have no idea I’ve been in their houses. I still keep in touch with lots of people from high school, and they live all over, and I pass their childhood houses all the time. The kids who lived in this neighborhood either went to William L. Buck or Brooklyn Avenue School. I went to Robert W. Carbonaro, which is on back on Hungry Harbor Road around the corner from Jedwood Place.
Brooklyn Avenue is a beautiful old building from the 1920’s. Buck and Carbonaro are identical buildings, 1960’s Splanch Style, approximately two miles away from each other, at the southwest and northeast polar ends of Mookie’s turf. When our son had some accumulated trouble at Carbonaro in fourth grade, he went in to the BOCES system for a year, and then we insisted that he go back to his home district. This story is, of course, a lot more involved than what I’m telling you.
There was a new principal at Carbonaro at the time. My personal interactions with him were both pleasant and nauseating. Overall, the place seemed a bit on edge. We met some great people there, and some maybe not so much. I myself spent seven wonderfully happy years at Carbonaro from 1968 to 1975. As for our son, the district people didn’t want him to go back to Carbonaro and agreed to enroll him at Buck. That summer, the principal at Buck got in touch with me to invite my son in to look over the building (and teach him all about the new geothermal heating and cooling system that had just been installed for free by New York State) and introduce him to his teacher. They were nothing but kind. The school was a happy place. And our son ended up having his best year in elementary school.
So now every time Mookie and I walk past Carbonaro (pretty much every day) I feel a little twinge of betrayal mixed in with the nostalgia. And every time we walk past Buck, which is different but looks almost exactly the same, I’m reminded to keep an open mind, and have some faith that things have away of working themselves out.
Meanwhile, I could take you through some really drop-dead gorgeous neighborhoods at this point, the nicest streets in South Valley Stream, between Rockaway Avenue and Forest and Brooklyn Avenues, pre-Gibson colonials with big front porches set back from the street on huge plots of land with lots of big trees that don’t want to kill anyone. There are also neighborhoods like this in Central and North Valley Stream – particularly Westwood on the border of Malverne – but we’re not going that far today, because that’s generally outside of our walking turf and I’m looking down the barrel of 8,000 words already.
We’re going straight up Rockaway Avenue, across Sunrise Highway. In short, we’re going to town. You get to see the sights, visit our fine stores and restaurants. And you get to meet David Sabatino.
Mookie’s psyched. He slipped David the tongue once when he kissed him.
First we have to wind our way along the part of Rockaway south of the highway, where you’ll pass Wondarama, where they’ve been fixing flats and replacing batteries for 45 years or so. Across the street is Temple Beth Shalom. There is a small Hasidic community that lives in some of the houses around the temple. They enjoy seeing Mookie and I out walking with them on Saturday mornings. He wags his tail for them.
Right next door to the temple are two warehouse buildings, the second a monstrosity of contemporary glass in your face architecture, which went up in the last three years. A company called International that distributes many, many bottles of booze owns both buildings. And if you say, “well, gosh, those buildings are nice for warehouses and all but they’re totally too big and out of character for the area,” Then I’d agree with you and watch your reaction when we come up on the Sun Valley Apartment Building.
Yes, folks, this is the future of Valley Stream. Five stories, 72 modern squirrel cages with Blink Fitness on the ground floor and a tennis court on the roof where in four years I have yet to see a tennis ball in flight when I happen to look up. It may yet happen.
People want to live here. They like the schools, and the parks. They even like the mall. The population is exploding. Since you’re not getting our little wooden box for under $400,000, housing is a problem. Plus, in another five years or so, the Long Island Rail Road will have burrowed through to Grand Central Station in Manhattan, finally creating direct access from Long Island train stations to the East Side of Manhattan, and as Money Magazine breathlessly told you, we could be on the next train west from Valley Stream and jostling our way through Penn Station in 35 minutes. It’s great, isn’t it? And now you can add in a couple of thousand people who would like to be jostling through Grand Central in 45 minutes, and the end result is apartment buildings, and lots of ‘em.
It’s a tide you just can’t fight. And you can take that from an experienced kayaker and worry wart. To suggest it’s “out of character” for a suburban “bedroom community” to have buildings with 74 apartments on a commercial corner is a shortsighted notion and completely out of touch with reality. This was something I had to learn. When Sun Valley was going up (and up and up) I bitched and moaned to the Deputy Mayor, a wonderful fellow who excels at debate, mostly about what I saw as the horrible aesthetics of the building. A lot of people who were watching this thing go up described it in terms of the Bronx House of Detention.
Deputy Mayor Vincent Grasso said, “Just wait until it’s done.” The Village didn’t sign off on the CO until the development company, which was making it’s first foray into Nassau County after a successfully putting people in cages in Queens and Brooklyn for years, made a series of aesthetic improvements to the building’s exterior. It was pretty amazing to me how just a clean buttress line along the top of the building and two-toned brick made it seem less like a tenement. As giant apartment buildings go, I’ve seen worse. But people still complain about it, as they are complaining about several other apartment buildings either planned or currently rising like steel Godzillas around town.
You want to take these folks at their word, that it’s overcrowding they are most concerned about. But Lynbrook and Rockville Centre, the next two towns down the highway, considered more affluent than Valley Stream, have always had lots of apartment buildings (albeit somewhat lower to the ground) mixed in with the beautiful houses, with more going up as we speak. And the whole damn Island is choked with people and cars already. So unfortunately, I think the overcrowding argument is a just a cover.
There is a mild strain of Trumpanzeeism, “more white, more right” thinking that still pervades, bubbling under the surface of Valley Stream, despite the diversity we’ve achieved here. You see it especially in some of the comments on social media pages and in comment threads attached to articles in the Valley Stream Herald newspaper. Case in point: A contingent of people went absolutely bugfuck last year when the Herald printed an article about a Muslim group petitioning the schools to declare Eid Al-Fatir as a school holiday. It’s an ugly little microcosm of the nativism that rages in some other parts of the country in the Age of Twitler and his MAGAT’s. For the most part, these people quickly reveal themselves for what they are and what they believe to be true about the “kind” of people moving into town. They stand out through their small-mindedness here, and the future is leaving them behind.
Up in the Adirondacks, my family used to stay near the tiny crossroads of Onchiota, NY, where the local General Store owner and Postmaster, Bing Tormey, posted signs around his little main square that became legendary. The best of these was: “You are leaving 97 of the friendlist people in the Adirondacks (plus a couple of soreheads).”
There ya go.
Me, I don’t particularly like apartment buildings. We lived in one – the really old one on Grove Street across from Holy Name of Mary Church – for a year and a half before we came here. Nothing personal against the other people whose lives led them to that same apartment building, but for us personally, the experience was like being under siege all the time. I like mountains. And rivers. We’re really just here for the money, my wife and I. So we can go visit mountains and rivers. This is where our jobs are, and this is my son’s hometown. If we left, it sure wouldn’t be because of anybody who’s moving in.
And yes, every town on Long Island is a property tax rabbit hole and everything costs way too much, but the opportunities exist here to do pretty much anything for a living (except maybe forestry or sheparding) and live a decent middle-class life. We have a lot invested in getting up and going to work in the morning, and we get a pretty good return on that investment. Not great, but pretty good. All things considered, we have very, very little to complain about compared to most of the people on Earth.
And this past weekend, the people who monitor the Valley Stream News Facebook – the first ones to tell you the helicopters are flying over the mall and all hell is breaking loose again – had a get-together at our very neat and clean Hendrickson Park, where people came on down and met their neighbors for a pot-luck meal and some pleasant company on a Saturday afternoon, all happy to be part of the scene in New York State’s best town. I’ll let the picture below stand for itself . Not pictured is John Duffy or his family, as we were upstate in Copake Falls that day (ironically) but otherwise we’d have be there, and I appreciate every effort that people make to make this a better place, knowing full-well that it will never be 1955 ever again, and the whole world is crowded except for Onchiota, NY.
The reality of Valley Stream, Long Island in 2018, is simply not the reality my parents bought into in 1955. With nothing but $400,000 houses, there’s really no place for people get started here. And many of the people who are trying to get started here anyway are from other places in the world, many of them having done their time in those same neighborhoods in Queens and Brooklyn that produced the population of post-war Long Island. And one could take it as a compliment that they think so much of Valley Stream that this is where they want to live and raise their kids. Or one could bemoan the fact that one’s hometown is not what it was. But really, nothing is, so what sense does that make? And for the second and third generations of Valley Streamers like myself, why would you begrudge people who are trying to do for their kids what your parents did for you, no matter where those people came from?
We’re waiting at the light to cross Sunrise Highway right now, and there’s always the chance we might get killed. It’s a busy, angry, stressed-out six-lane highway in a town full of busy, angry, stressed out drivers on roads choked with way too many cars, hence there are generally two or three fatalities a year on Sunrise Highway just in Nassau County alone. The State DOT just finished a big expensive reconstruction that, I have to admit, made me feel better about my chances of not getting killed. Included in that reconstruction was a series of crosswalks where you press the button and a very commanding computer voice tells you very matter-of-factly to “WAIT.” The first time Mookie heard this, he looked back at me to figure out how the hell I did that with my voice. And, of course, he waited, because he’s a good dog. And I laughed and I laughed.
Now we’re walking up Valley Stream’s main drag. The question of “what can we do to make people shop on Rockaway Avenue?” has been bandied about since Green Acres was built. (Here’s an idea: Don’t build Green Acres). Rockaway Avenue has been slightly dysfunctional for most of my life, but like me, it gets by. There used to be a movie theatre, The Rio, which was actually an old vaudeville playhouse. I saw the Grateful Dead Movie there at least five times, and saw the Stray Cats perform on the 4th of July, probably 35 years ago. In many towns east and north of us in Nassau County and out into Suffolk County, people made the investment to save their local one-screen movie houses and turn them into performing arts spaces. Subsequently, if you look around, there are interesting places to see plays and live music and vintage films all over Long Island and Valley Stream isn’t one of them. Oops.
We do have Ancona, which is famous for their true New York pizza, calzones and heroes, and where you are officially in with the Valley Stream in-crowd if George knows you by name. We have Itgen’s, famous for their homemade ice cream, and recently sold with the promise that it will continue. We have Mitchell’s, a nice little restaurant, though I prefer the Valbrook Diner up on Merrick Road, and an Italian Restaurant called Mia’s that’s been on my list of places to try a lot longer than Meli Melo. We used to have Morris’ Variety, which for years was the place to get everything from a screw to a fake Christmas tree. It was taken over a few years back by Raindew. Not quite as quirky as Morris’, but it serves the same purpose. They got me hooked on Yankee Candles. A lot of businesses have disappeared over the years, but there are a surprising number of survivors.
Among the Rockaway Avenue old-timers are the T & F Pork Store, DePalma Florist, Larry’s Bar, Woods Locksmith, Ciccarelli the Tailor (make-a you a nice suit), Brancard’s Deli, Valley Home Care and Surgical Supplies, Valley Stream Pharmacy, Chicken Gyro Delicious and the stalwart Sal and Vin’s Barbershop, established in 1952. Tell Michael you know me.
Rockaway Avenue is also the go-to place if you like Latin American and South American cuisine. The Chicken Coop does Colombian chicken. There’s a couple of Spanish delis plus the Juanito Bakery and Café, and my favorite, the San Antonio Bakery, that will make you a hot dog they call a “compleato” – with avocado and a bun they made at 6am – that’ll knock you on your ass. If you want to go Mediterranean, there’s Sam’s Halal Steak and Grill where a Not-Halal Steak and Grill called P.J Harper’s used to be, and the Nightcap Café used to be before that. Haven’t tried it but I hear good things.
And yet, with this all going for it, Rockaway Avenue looks kind of shabby compared to other main drags on the Island. Beyond the stores I mentioned are your usual nail and hair salons, dollar stores, second-hand merchandise stores, empty storefronts and (of course) a T-Mobile. Taken as a whole, living organism, it doesn’t seem cohesive. It has a “patched together” quality about it. Many of the surrounding downtowns have invested more in visual appeal, fancy sidewalks and facades and uniform signage and the like. It’s also a heavily trafficked street so it’s somewhat noisy and dirty in general. The Village recently reclaimed an old building across from Ancona and renovated it into the Village Court in an effort to bring in more pedestrian traffic around Rockaway businesses and restaurants, so it’s not like they’re not trying.
But here’s the thing: Ultimately, how important is aesthetics if I can get a haircut, a new welcome mat, a compleato or a meatball parm hero and even get my wife’s shoes fixed by an old-timey shoe repair guy? How badly do I need bricked sidewalks and signs that all in the same typeface? I’d like the stores and the open space up the block from me to be less of a toxic wasteland, but to what end? So it suits my fussy sensibilities?
Sometimes you just have to get over it. Money Magazine thinks we’re “neat and clean”, and I’ll tell you what: As we’re walking through residential neighborhoods in Valley Stream that are now almost 100 years old, 95% of the front yards that we pass are pretty as a picture. The houses themselves, if not renovated, are well-maintained. People are house proud here, and it shows. This is all we have. We take care of it. We make lemonade.
But sometimes you have every right to be pissed. The surface of the roads, a juristictional spider web of responsibility divided among the Village, the Town of Hempstead and Nassau County, are for the most part terrible. While the parks are nice enough, too many public spaces are tired eyesores. The LIRR and the Utility Companies bear a lot of responsibility for that. Above our heads is a jungle of wires that may or may not stay up there if there’s a thunderstorm this afternoon, or a hurricane. The train trestles are rusting away.
Roads and public spaces are among the basic services that we pay property taxes for, and from what I see, they are not given priority. Somebody decided it was more important to give tax breaks to Green Acres Mall.
That’s right. Screw your roads. This is Long Island. We shop. Commerce is King here. If there are enough band-aids and rolls of duct tape holding together the infrastructure to get you to the next strip mall and back, then what the hell are you complaining about? Your neighbors in Valley Stream plant pretty flowers, and they smile at your dog. It’s the Best Place To Live in New York State. Just keep buying shit and we’ll all be fine.
Todd Pratt was a backup catcher for the New York Mets in the late 90’s / early 2000’s, when Hall of Famer Mike Piazza was the starting catcher. He was a good guy to have on your team. At this time, Shea Stadium, which was a perfectly wonderful place to go watch a baseball game, was already facing its demise. The plan, ultimately implemented in 2006, was to knock old Shea down – deemed a poorly designed relic of another time with ever-more disgusting bathrooms and concessions and 30 years of gum embedded in the concrete – and replace it with a “retro” stadium with all sorts of cool angles and seats closer and better angled towards the field, not to mention lots more expensive places to eat and cushy seats for the one-percenters.
Back in the 90’s, when the Mets flew into LaGuardia Airport after a road trip and Shea Stadium came into view from the plane, Todd Pratt would (I’ve read) stand up and make this announcement:
“Well, there it is boys. It’s kind of a dump. But it’s OUR dump.”
I get it. I never have really taken to Citi Field.
David Sabatino would get it, too, but unlike me, he wouldn’t accept it as the truth of his hometown. To David’s way of thinking, it would be blasphemous to call Valley Stream a dump, even to convey a sense of familiarity, or in my case, resignation. David, who loves Valley Stream like Mookie loves me, is the co-owner of Sip This, a coffee shop and cool hangout place that’s been on Rockaway, right across from where the movie theatre isn’t, for seven years. (It was named after Slipped Disc, the iconic hipster record store that once occupied the space. Get it? Slipped Disc? Sip This? Clever, huh? ). David also has a degree in urban planning ( I’m pretty sure) and he is a natural-born organizer. But more importantly, David is a good guy, and an optimist. And Valley Stream is lucky to have a guy like him around. So now he works for the Village as well, and very well may be the mayor someday whether he likes it or not.
He’s probably a good twenty-five years younger than me, but I didn’t have his level of energy and hope for the future when I was five, never mind thirty. It was Mookie, really who introduced me to David. In 2010, when Mookie was just a gleam in his father’s eye, I was researching dog parks to take the puppy I was getting in 2011. I came across a website for an organization called “Envision Valley Stream”, the brainchild of my friend Mr. Sabatino, which was, among other things, petitioning the Village of Valley Stream government to build and maintain a dog park.
We have a neat and clean and picturesque village park called Hendrickson Park a mile and half due north of Duffy’s Creek, which gets it fresh water and anti-freeze runoff from Mill Pond – which we’ll pass on the way back – and from Hendrickson Lake via pipes that go under Merrick Road and through the Village Green. Hendrickson Lake features a fine walking and biking path that leads up to Valley Stream State Park, and there’s an equally fine community pool complex in the park that we pay lots of money to swim in every summer. But no dogs are allowed on the path, and they can only swim in the kiddie pool on the day after Labor Day because everybody at Village Hall likes Mike Powers, who first had the idea. And how could you not?
So back in 2010, David starts planning a dog park, and I start going to his Envision Valley Stream meetings, and we strike up a friendship and all of a sudden I’m involved in the community. I start getting to know Mayor Fare (yeah, I know. It’s like it’s made up) and Deputy Mayor and Renaissance Man Vinny Grasso and other people who I liked right away because I recognized them instantly as real Valley Stream as an adjective (smart; personable; outspoken; funny; genuine).
The road to building the dog park, now located in the Village Green next to the Village Hall and the Library, had a couple of rough patches along the way. I got discouraged and frustrated, but other people who had taken David’s idea and run with it, including the aforementioned Mr. Powers, did not, because they’re better people than I am. Eventually you would have to say it was a success. So much so that the Town of Hempstead, Nassau County and other village municipalities started building more dog parks, so our dog park doesn’t get quite the crowd that it used to. Still, over the years, it’s been a great place to kill a half hour and shoot the breeze while Mookie watches dogs that are way too fast for him to keep up with. (It’s really the people park with dogs in it for Mookie).
David Sabatino, force of nature that he is, moved on to other things, including starting a family and buying a house in Westwood. Right now he’s planning a Community Garden and – get this – a “Winter Festival” centered around the ice hockey rink next to the train station. And getting involved with Sabatino’s vision gets you involved with all sorts of other people, which is indirectly how I wound up agreeing to do a presentation about the history of Valley Stream through the history of my parents for the local Historical Society. I’ll be at the Community Center on Wednesday September 12th of this year (2018). Unless of course they read this post and tell me to stuff it.
Rockawy Avenue was busy with so many people at the Valley Stream Community Feast.
Anyway, there’s one more important thing I have to tell you about Sabatino. His greatest civic accomplishment by far has been the establishment of the annual Valley Stream Community Fest on the fourth Saturday of September. For one day, Rockaway Avenue becomes a laid back pedestrian street fair, Hundreds of people turn out to stroll up and down the avenue. Every sports, civic, religious and cultural organization in town is represented, seated at folding tables with brochures and big smiles, ready to tell you all about what they do. The businesses on Rockaway get to promote themselves. Plus there’s lots of arts and crafts and junk food for sale, rides for the kids, demonstrations, people dancing around in brightly colored clothing, an antique car show and enough ethnic and religious diversity to make your average Trumpanzees want to crawl back into their caves, or possibly realize what assholes they’ve been all this time. But I doubt it.
And don’t think that Mookie doesn’t get in on all this. For three of the last four years, he’s worked a three-hour shift at the “Doggie Kissing Booth”, raising money to support the Friends of Valley Stream Dogs. On Fest Day, he’s in Mookie Heaven, wagging people over to him as they walk by (“Ohhhhh!!! Look how cute!!!) and convincing them to hand Mike a dollar so they can lean down and get a big, sloppy wet dog smooch. Once Mookie is sufficiently overwhelmed, Bella the Chocolate Lab takes over, and that’s usually when we grab a compleato from San Antonio and head on home to the backyard. The creek is too icky for Mookie to swim in, so he has a kiddie pool to jump in to cool down after his walk. I can offer you a cold Dr. Pepper.
We’ll head home along South Franklin Avenue. We’ll pass the post office, the Burrito Monster (not a fan) and the Railroad Inn next to the train station, a bar now owned by a guy I went to kindergarten with, which is next to another bar called Buckley’s that’s been an old man’s bar since before the owner of the Railroad Inn and I were in kindergarten. The Dog Park and the Village Green are over on the other side of the tracks, but we’ve put about four and half miles on the Fitbit already, and we’re a half mile from home, and Mookie and I ain’t so young anymore, so the Dog Park will have to wait for later. We’ll pass Papandrew Jewelers, where the owner, who’s the son of the original owner, once took out an armed robber. We’ll cross Sunrise (“WAIT.”) and be glad we don’t need anything from Staples today.
We could cut across Mill Pond Park, which still has some nice, big trees, but instead we’ll walk through the almost 100-year old original Gibson neighborhood anchored by Roosevelt Avenue, because Mookie has a lot of friends down that way. Passing by the Sunoco with the sign that says :”COOFFEE 99 CENTS!” (you can also get free air for your tires if you press the “botton”) we’ll make the turn at the Greek Pie Factory (they’re really tasty) and the hair salon with the sign lit up in 100-point type (“HAIR SALON!”), both on the ground floor of a very old two-story building that someone would like to knock down to build another high-rise apartment, and probably will.
We could go up to Cochran Place, which would lead us back to Gibson Station, but we’re going to cut west back towards Jedwood Place. Once on a summer Sunday afternoon we saw a group of people in a tiny back yard on Cochran who had a dance floor set up where they were all watching one couple dancing a tango. My, I was glad I saw that. This same family has some sort of parrots that used to squawk at my son and I from the windows when we rode on our bikes to the summer camp he loved going to at Barrett Park. There’s another guy along Ridge who walks his parrot on his shoulder, which makes Mookie think to himself, “My, I’m glad I saw that.”
We could walk straight down Roosevelt to Fairfield where some old guys might be leaning on a chain link fence shooting the breeze, and Mookie will growl at the dog behind that fence because they’re supposed to be his old guys. A little further on he might see his friend the 99-year old WWII veteran sitting on his porch, and he’ll stop and do his waggy waggy routine until the his old friend invites him up on the porch for a face rub.
Crossing Mill, we might see the happiest guy in the world, one of my new neighbors from somewhere far away who always greets us warmly, who is out almost every evening when the sun is shining, happily tidying up the gardens around his little house at the corner of Mill and Jedwood, where the traffic is hideous and where I wouldn’t live if you gave me $400,000 but he seems to love it. It just goes to show you. Everything is relative. And his relatives seem to enjoy it, too.
We’ll arrive home in Mookie’s backyard, and he’ll cool down in his pool. But before you go, I’ll leave you with a scene I saw on that neglected path that you see directly across the creek. Mookie and I were walking along that path one morning when we came upon a young Filipino couple getting their three little kids out of the house for a while. Two of the kids were on bikes and the youngest was walking. The kids on the bikes stopped riding, as they were very excited to meet Mookie, and he them. The father and the mother caught up to them and the father asked me about his breed and I told him and he said, “he’s a big boy.” And I said, “he sure is!” and Mookie wagged his tail.
I was thinking to myself that these people are my parents in 1958, with three little kids who need to get out of the house and a nice path along a creek (somewhat nicer then) to go for a walk right near their house.
Livin’ the Dream in Valley Stream.
And just as I was thinking this, I saw the smallest kid, who was on foot, catching up to the others and zooming in on Mookie. Then I noticed his t-shirt. It said, “YOU CAN’T STOP THIS!”
And I thought to myself: Why would I want to? Why would anyone?
Kid, let me tell you something about Valley Stream, since you’ll be growing up here just like I did. I’ve been around here a long time, and to tell you the truth I’m at the point where other places, with bigger trees and fewer cars, are calling to me. (I suppose you’ve never heard of Zillow, kid, but don’t worry about it).
For the foreseeable future, though, I suppose Mookie and I will be part of the scenery as you grow up here. And the fact is, we could both do a lot worse. I don’t know about the Best Place to Live in New York State, but your parents still picked a good place for you to live, just like my parents did. Remember that.
And kid, if and when Mookie and I do move on, please do us both a favor and take care of what’s left of the natural world around here. It’s probably going to get more and more crowded and noisy, but help out the birds any way you can. And keep your antenna up, ’cause you never know what kind of shit your local politicians will pull, or what they will neglect. Better yet, get to know them, and let them know what you think.
And this is important, kid. Don’t let anyone ever, ever make you believe that you don’t belong here. That’s up to you to decide. Until then, you belong here as much as I do.
And one more thing:
Valley Stream? The Town of Hempstead? Nassau County? Long Island? New York? America? The Planet Earth?
People throw their garbage in the street here, but people also organize street fairs. People build humongous apartment buildings here, but they also build dog parks, and maybe they’ll fix this path. People drive like psychopaths here, but they light up at red lights when they see a big happy dog smiling at them from the sidewalk. People who can get away with it steal money here to build more stores to steal more money, but the teacher or principal that you remember forever at Forest Ave. School or South High will be worth every penny your parents pay in school taxes. People make a mess of things here, and people keep it from becoming a complete mess.
George Bailey, the regular-guy hero of Bedford Falls, New York, as portrayed by James Stewart in Frank Capra’s 1946 movie, “It’s A Wonderful Life.” is one of my role models. I know I’m not alone in this. While I never saved my little brother from drowning (I don’t have one) and I’ve never been known for distributing cash among my neighbors (but I would if I could), I’ve always admired how George was able to balance the big dreams of what he thought his life should have been with the reality of what it was. And how, by his actions, he intuitively made his little world, the one he privately complained of being “stuck” in, a better place for himself and for everybody around him. It would be ridiculous of me to suggest that I’ve had anywhere close to the same effect on my little world as George had on his, but I’ll tell you what: I’ve done no harm, and like George, I’ve been blessed in having made a lot of friends around town, though I hope I never have to ask them for $8000, ’cause that would be awkward.
And of course, everyone knows that George never leaves Bedford Falls. And me, I have found myself as an AARP-eligible adult landed on a comfy couch right here on the same 60 x 100 plot of land in Valley Stream, Long Island that I started out on 54 and a half years ago. I have a beautiful, funny, successfully employed wife and a smart, good-looking son with who is finding his way through adolescence pretty well despite a school system and social system totally unsuited to his particular genius (which is fixing every single mechanical thing on the planet that has broken). I have a good job, a nice little house, more toys and diversions that I ever have time to get around to (like this blog). I have a big happy yellow lab who is my personal ambassador to the human race and three cats for entertainment and interesting conversation.
Just like George Bailey, I could have done a whole lot worse. I’ve really had a wonderful life and I have no intention of throwing it all away. But I also have no intention of letting it be taken away from me piece by piece by the Forces of Pottersville, at least not without a fight. This is me fighting.
I first saw, “It’s a Wonderful Life” when I was about 14 in 1977, around the time the 1946 movie became public domain and Channel 11 in New York would show it over and over before Christmas. I started telling everyone in my family and anyone who would listen that they had to see this movie. I dare say I was in on the ground floor of the revival that made it Everybody’s Favorite Christmas Movie. And I dare say I do a dead-on Jimmy Stewart impersonation, which I promise I’ll do for you when I branch out into podcasting. I was immediately charmed by the story, the town of Bedford Falls and George Bailey’s character. And I guess the lesson that George learns from his nightmare in Pottersville became part of the unshakable truths that I’ve built my value system on: Success has nothing to do with money or career status and everything to do with the cumulative effects of being a good person and trying to do the right thing. I don’t know if George had anything to do with me never moving more than twenty miles away from where I was born, but that’s entirely possible.
George had his chances to get out of Bedford falls (‘and see the world!”), but he realized early on that the big dreams he had a young man were not as important as being a good guy, which is the most important thing of all. He didn’t necessarily want to be where he was, but until Uncle Billy handed Mr. Potter an envelope with $8000 in it, he didn’t take that dissatisfaction and frustration out on anybody around him. He treated people the way you should treat people. Despite his desire to “shake the dust of this crummy little town off my feet,” George took comfort in people and places and protocols that had remained the same in Bedford Falls throughout his life. He knew where he stood with everybody and everybody knew where they stood with him. Me, too.
George could’ve done something more with his life than holding together the Bailey Building and Loan. (It’s always presented with a pejorative: “Broken down”, “measly”, “penny-ante”). I probably could have been something “more” than a junior high school English teacher if I had applied myself a little more as a younger guy. Before I started phoning it in and getting crappy grades in high school (just like my beloved Dude does now, bless his heart), I was supposed to write great things or be a famous something or other. By the time I was going to Queens College at night to cobble together the credits for an English BA, those dreams of writing novels, or sitcoms in Hollywood, or being a famous FM disc jockey were all pretty much dead, and after two years in the production department at New York Magazine, finding out how unpleasant life could potentially be in the editorial department, I got my master’s and went into teaching ’cause I knew I’d be good at it and I could finally get out of my parent’s house. Those aren’t noble reasons to enter my profession, I’ll admit. But you know what? I followed in my mother’s footsteps, and I’ve helped thousands of kids learn to read, write and think a little better and a little deeper in my “shabby little office” for over 23 years.
So George and I find ourselves with something else in common: Our professional lives are a tribute to a parent that instilled a sense of values and beliefs in us that neither one of us could ultimately escape from, simply because it made so much sense. George keeps the Bailey Building and Loan going so people have someplace to go without crawling to Potter. I ultimately decided teaching was a better use of my life than helping to produce a magazine that would be thrown away when the next one came out (though it’s a mostly insane existence from September to June every year, which my archives will tell you doesn’t leave a whole lot of time for blogging).
Plus, I couldn’t help noticing that some of the people who wrote this magazine were terribly impressed with themselves and their Manhattan lifestyles. I spent Sundays waxing floors with a friend of mine from Valley Stream because I wasn’t making enough money. That friend was smarter, funnier and more original than anyone at New York Magazine, but they would never understand why. They wouldn’t get him. In the end, I needed to be with real people. To “fritter my life away playing nursemaid to a bunch of garlic eaters.” as Mr. Potter puts it to George. It was good enough for my mother, and it’s been good enough for me. And I love garlic.
And of course, when not at work, when it’s safe to speak my mind, I continue another one of my mother’s traditions (besides an addiction to Jeopardy, which she actually got from me, and blasting WQXR Classical in the kitchen while cooking dinner, which my Bose Soundtouch has taken to a whole other level, thank you Trisha): The tradition of Good Old-Fashioned Democratic, Bleeding-Heart Liberal Politics.
Growing up, I soaked up both of my parents complaints about that Crook Nixon in the 70’s and that Buffoon Cowboy Reagan in the 80’s. I saw the damage they did, (and later felt that damage more acutely as an adult while W. wrecked the country in the 2000’s). By virtue of working in the New York City high schools, my parents were immersed in diversity before it was even close to a thing. They believed that without labor unions, “the bastards” would rob you blind. They took their children to the Adirondacks and grew flowers and vegetables in the backyard and studied the comings and goings of the ducks on the creek and thus turned us all into environmentalists, around the time it was becoming a thing. My parents always rooted for the underdog and they despised guns and the abuse of power. They were devout, religious catholics who practiced their faith in their lives and knew Billy Graham and the evangelists were full of shit.
Mom was more vocal about all this, as she was about everything. My dad was more of a “do as I do” guy. But I’ll tell you what: If my mother, Joan Marie Duffy, were alive today, she’d be screaming bloody murder about what’s going on in this country. She’d be a voice of Resistance on Twitter, probably with a couple of thousand followers, probably using the expletive “fuck” in all it’s forms to comment on the disgusting developments of the past year. She can’t so I do. They’ll vote with Potter otherwise.
Because as we all know now, this is what happened: The GOP knew Trump was disgusting, and they pretended to complain about him at the start of the primaries but they knew that their primary voting base was equally disgusting, and the more primaries he won, the less they complained (and the more free air time he got on cable news for the Hitler rallies). And the more disgusting things he said, the more the people in this country who had already been thrown into their own Pottersville Of The Mind loved him for it.
A lot has been said and written about the people and the vibe in the Nightmare Pottersville of “It’s a Wonderful Life.” (For example, the friend who I used to wax floors with thought it seemed like a lot more fun). One has to admit, Capra’s vision of dystopia is a bit over the top, from the amphetamine-driven boogie-woogie piano player in Nick’s Bar to the over-capacity dance halls on Main Street to Burt the cop opening fire into a crowd. I personally always found it amusing that there even was a Pottersville Public Library, never mind the fact that Mary Hatch was an old maid who was just about to close it down. I think it’s more likely that the town council, all in Mr. Potter’s back pocket, probably would have closed it as part of an austerity budget designed to line their own pockets.
But I think that the point Capra was trying to illustrate with all this silliness was simply this: The rich assholes pit everyone against each other. People lose trust. They turn on their neighbors. They come to believe that not giving a shit is much easier, which it is, and why make the effort to make your town or your country better if those rich assholes are pulling all the strings? Fuck ’em all. Nothing matters. Just lay down a few bucks for some mindless entertainment, get shitfaced and forget about how much better your life could actually be if you got educated and exercised your First Amendment rights, ’cause it ain’t never gonna happen, bub. You’re just too lazy, and they’ve got you by the balls.
Nick the Bartender showed compassion for George Bailey as he breaks down on the bar stool. Nick the Boss is the twisted dictator of his own little band of small-time assholes, a big fish in a toxic pond of deplorables who gets off on spraying Mr. Gower in the face with a seltzer bottle, ostensibly because Mr. Gower deserved it, even though he’s obviously paid his debt to society and is a threat to no one in his current condition. He has no patience for Clarence the Angel, even after George suggests he has a mental disability. If you’re different in Pottersville, you get thrown out on your ass in the snow.
And Mary Hatch? Why is she an old maid? Capra is suggesting that it’s because there weren’t enough decent people left in Pottersville. She couldn’t find George not because George didn’t exist but because people who, in a fair, compassionate society, may have been more like George were instead being reprogrammed into mean, suspicious, wounded and dangerous animals like Violet Bick, Ernie the Cab Driver and George’s own mother have become in George’s Pottersville nightmare.
As the media narrative goes, in the Rust Belt states where Trump won the electoral college; Pennsylvania, Ohio, Wisconsin, and Michigan, the people were fed up with the status quo and didn’t trust Hillary Clinton. Some of that may be true, but here’s how I and many other people have come to see it: Some of those people are exactly what Hillary said they were, the famous “Basket of Deplorables”. They’re pissed off because they have come to believe that people of color and immigrants are treated better than they are by society at large, ignoring the small fact that those people of color and immigrants happened to have spent the previous ten years working their asses off to get educated, learn trades and build up businesses instead of watching “The Apprentice” in their double-wides and smoking crystal meth in the Wal Mart parking lot. The Deplorables are bitter, nasty, poorly-dressed, poorly-educated, poorly-spoken people who resent everyone, blame everyone but themselves for their troubles and saw Trump as a way to take all us liberal coastal elite smart asses down into the Pottersville Pit of Despair right along with them.
But these people had been like this for years, as anyone who ever watched “Here Comes Honey Boo Boo!” or “Duck Dynasty” for five minutes can attest. And Fox News stoked the fire against The Black Guy for eight years, convincing the most hardcore stupid among them that Obama wouldn’t say Merry Christmas because he was a Muslim, even if he was saying it on every other news channel.
And if these people really had that much power in the electorate, how did Obama get elected – and win those states – twice? Those elections, in 2008 and 2012, were won with voter turnout, and with the votes of intelligent, compassionate residents of Bedford Falls America who saw right through The Republican Lie that bankrupted the country at least three times in the last 100 years. There’s way more of us than there are of them and that remains true right now. But especially after Obama’s re-election over the guy with the dog strapped to the roof of his car (who honestly doesn’t look nearly as bad in retrospect), we thought we’d finally turned the corner. The new, diverse, young optimistic America was ready to drive policy and public opinion away from your crazy ass, obnoxious bigoted old uncle who blames everything on minorities and immigrants and suggests that maybe Hitler had the right idea.
The Republican Party was well on its deserved way to being irrelevant on the morning of November 8th, 2016. And then, it happened: Your crazy ass, obnoxious bigoted old uncle who blames everything on minorities and immigrants and suggests that maybe Hitler had the right idea was declared the winner of the Presidential Election.
My take on why: There were people on the fence about Hillary. I could understand that to a certain extent. I supported Bernie in the primaries because I’m a socialist. I know Hillary wouldn’t take that personally. I had no problem with her prospective Presidency. I figured she’d still have to deal with Republican control of the House at the very least and probably would be limited, like Obama was after 2010, in what she could actually get done, but that I’d agree with 90% of what she wanted to do. I’m sure lots of people felt the same way about her.
But the bastards saw their opening: Besides their usual voter suppression tricks, they leaked the emails that made Hillary look like the politician that anybody with a brain already knew she was. They pushed the server story over and over, despite the fact that it wasn’t really a story at all. And of course, with Putin’s help, they planted lie after lie on people’s Facebook pages and bot after bot on their Twitter feeds.
And those people who were on the fence about Hillary, but at the same time thought that Trump was a disaster, they figured no sweat, there’s no way the same America that voted for Obama twice is ever going to turn 180 degrees and elect a racist, ignorant buffoon. They stayed home and didn’t vote at all because the Forces of Pottersville had sown their doubts about the intentions of the Big Clinton Machine.
As for those that did vote, contaminated by those Putin-inspired doubts, I suppose they found themselves walking into the voting booth like Uncle Billy walking into the bank. They got distracted by the drama of the moment and handed Trump and the Republican Party the United States of America stuck inside a folded up newspaper. The majority of the country woke up the next morning rifling through the garbage can incredulously, with a sense of panic growing by the second, while they smirked at us from behind the door, knowing that they had us where they always wanted us.
And here we are, a year later. The evidence in the public domain that Trump stole the election with the help of the Russians is overwhelming, so one could only imagine what’s in Robert Mueller’s filing cabinets right now. I can’t begin to imagine how that whole thing is going to play out. (But most people realize it would be hard to have a Civil War with no Mason-Dixon Line to stand behind). And, just in time for Christmas, the rich assholes who paid for their Republican candidates, from Trump on down – they got what they wanted: Their big, fat, immoral corporate tax cut. My parents always warned me: The bastards will rob you blind if you let them.
Our accountant is a decent fellow. I’ve known him for many years. We both love dogs. But he is a Trump supporter and a Hillary hater. And I know if I asked him, he’d tell me (passionately) that we’re going to do great on this GOP tax cut, although I don’t see how that could possibly be. (My usual reaction when I hear a Republican say anything). Statistically, It turns out that my wife and I, by virtue of getting up really every working morning, keeping our mouths shut, and being really, really lucky, are rich; a notion that’s “rich” in itself as we’re always broke. We may not be part of the doomsday scenarios of what this tax plan will actually do to the middle class, because again statistically, we’re not in it. Despite losing the deduction of the $9,000 we pay in school and property taxes, not to mention losing the deduction for state income tax here in the Incredibly Expensive Empire State, our very successful accountant will probably tell us that we’re going to come out ahead, or at least even. We’ll wait and see.
The problem for me is that the, “I’ll be fine so screw everybody else” mentality is exactly why America has been allowed to turn into Pottersville. It’s very nice if we pay less federal income tax. It would be even nicer if I could be assured that people less fortunate than us will be able to stay in their houses, never mind heat them. It would be really nice if people in Puerto Rico could put food in refrigerators and turn a light on when they use the bathroom right now. It’s what my mother would have been screaming about right now, but no one making decisions in the federal government seems terribly concerned.
And it It would be especially very nice to know that this mass redistribution of wealth upwards will not be followed as it always is by municipal budget cuts, reduction of school aid, home foreclosures, small business layoffs and personal bankruptcies. We’ve seen this movie before. We know where they’re going with this. Cities and towns all over America cutting back transpotation service, library service, after-school and elderly programs, public assistance for the poor, drug and alcohol treatment. Then they start telling you that you’re getting too much in Social Security and we just can’t afford to support all these people on Medicaid and Medicare. But look! The stock market is doing great! Corporation are making record profits! There’s never been more choices of shit to watch on TV!
Fucking Pottersville. All over again.
So what do you do if you go to sleep in Bedford Falls and you wake up in Pottersville? What do you do when your beautiful, compassionate country has turned more mean and more ugly in a year than you thought possible? What do you do when America is starting to feel like Nick’s Bar and you just want to sit quietly with a friend, sipping at your flaming rum punch, heavy on the cinnamon, light on the cloves, but the motherfuckers are harassing you at every turn and it’s looking more and more like you’ll get thrown into the snow with everyone else who doesn’t fit their Nazi, Deplorable prototype? If they don’t get me because of my political views, maybe they’ll just smirk at me from behind a cracked-open door when the next big hurricane wipes away everything I have, despite paying FEMA $2000 something a year to protect against that. Or maybe flat out kill me with radiation poisoning, in which case, I suppose they win. That’d be just like something they’d do.
Well, for one thing, you take Barack Obama’s advice: “Don’t boo. Vote.” While I regularly employ my First Amendment rights and Internet access to tell Speakers McConnell and Ryan and the Liar-in-Chief to go fuck themselves, I realize they aren’t bothered particularly by my provocations. Though it would be fun to get into a shouting match with Paul Ryan and watch him get all flustered and hysterical.
I do hope all the people who are screaming outrage and hashtagging themselves with #The Resistance are people who voted in the last Presidential Election, but statistically, I know many of them did not. They did put a nice dent into the Republican Lie this past November, which was nice to see. (And especially nice to see Alabama rise up to stop Roy Moore just this past month). Even here on Long Island, voters booted out Republican administrations in Nassau County and the Town of Hempstead that were as hard to get rid of as cockroaches.
And in the year that starts tomorrow, every seat in The House of Representatives that has stood by and done nothing as Trump has wrecked the country by executive order, enriched himself and his family at taxpayer expense, and proven himself to be batshit crazy – every seat in that political body is up for grabs, gerrymandering and voter suppression notwithstanding. Alabama has shown that anything is possible and maybe people aren’t quite so stupid after all. So if you read this and you agree with me, vote. And if you read this and yout think I’m a naive hippe liberal that has no idea how the world really works, vote. Because it’s your right. I’m going to bet the odds that more people think like me, and would much rather live in a place like Bedford Falls. And that the criminal tragedy of the 2016 Election and all bullshit that’s been thrown at us will still be very fresh in people’s minds come this fall.
In the meantime, consider Zuzu’s petals, the metaphor. When George finds Zuzu’s petals (in that cool little pocket sewed into his suit pants for which I couldn’t imagine another purpose) he knows he’s home. He knows everything is going to be OK, even though he’s still missing $8000. (“Isn’t it great? I’m goin’ to jail!”) As long as he has his family, and the people and the life he loves in Bedford Falls, it will all work itself out.
Zuzu’s petals represent home. Here in our home, we don’t watch 24-Hour Cable News. We get our daily Trump Disasters on a need-to-know basis from Twitter and respond in kind, often using a form of the expletive “fuck”, just like Mom would have. We watch Stephen Colbert mock the Fat Dotard, the Turtle and the Smirker, reminding us that they might have the power to poison our air and water, and possibly deport our neighbors, but they can’t kill our spirit, the American Spirit. It runs way too deep, and goes back way too far to ever die. We’ll be back in the fight tomrrow, no matter what happens.
The people who brought you Trump and that Tax Nonsense, they weren’t listening to Martin Luther King when he said, “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.” They thought they didn’t have to listen to him because he was black.
But we were listening, and we believe it.
Zuzu’s petals are the birds and ducks living around Duffy’s Creek, and the garden of colors we let loose in the summertime. Zuzu’s petals are driving down to the Long Beach Boardwalk on a warm day or going out to sit awhile with my elderly father at the nursing home then going for a hike up in Stony Brook. Zuzu’s petals are watching my nephews become husbands and fathers and knowing Joan and Francis Duffy’s family will live well past my own expiration date. Zuzu’s petals are stopping in to our favorite businesses around Valley Stream, where they know us and we know them, just like in Bedford Falls. Zuzu’s petals are in the food we cook, the music we play, the one-liners we trade, the neighbors we wave to, the church we go to, the roof over our heads and the hot water coming out of our faucet. Everything that is good in our lives, that still stayed good this year, despite all attempts by the Forces of Pottersville to turn us into a bitter, selfish assholes just like them.
So I wish you a Happy New Year and offer some unsolicited advice of how to survive a difficult time that may get more difficult before it gets less difficult:
Keep Zuzu’s petals in your pocket. Any pocket will do. You will have hope for a better future, and hope for a better future is really all you need to get out of bed in the morning.
And treat the place where you live like your own little Bedford Falls, even if the sign says Pottersville. Being a good person is the ultimate measure of success. As I regularly tell my son, please don’t be an asshole.
Your reward for being good? You’ll be at the front of the crowd, your heart filled with joy, together with all your good American neighbors, and together in spirit with all the people who made you who you are and imbibed you with that spirit, when we all rise up to tear that fucking sign down for good.
I’ve eaten a lot of crap over 53 and a half years. I’m guessing you’ve eaten your share, too. I’ve eaten storage rooms and barrels full of common poisons, ingested by way of Sour Cream Pringles, Double Stuff Oreos, Rold Gold Pretzels, Three Musketeer Bars, Double-Cheese and Bacon Burgers, Taco Supremes , Hot Dogs from Questionable Sources and the Rubbery Swanson’s Object that they refer to as Fried Chicken, among other common people swill. Despite this (and despite the personal campfire that I light around my head at regular intervals – not to mention the bottomless cup of coffee that’s always nearby) I’m not dead. Actually, I feel pretty good. I think it might be the long walks. And the farm fresh food. So does Mookie.
When I was a kid, I had an iron stomach. Some of the things I found edible astound me now. And there was no barrier on my access to poor food choices. As the youngest child of five, I was my mother’s or father’s co-pilot on their weekly trips to the supermarket. (It remains one of my primary household responsibilities to this day, and oddly enough, I love supermarkets so much I worked as a stock clerk off and on for many happy years, without having to think about what I was doing once. Anyway…). When I’d go to the supermarket with my mother especially, she’d let me buy just about anything that looked like it might be something. It’s possible that she was a little distracted. Nevertheless, I have happy childhood memories of eating entire boxes of Bugles while watching afternoon game shows and sitcoms on a portable black and white TV after school, of making myself a Friday Night Elio’s Frozen Pizza to go with Sanford and Son or The Odd Couple, or doing up an entire box of pigs in a blanket for a late Saturday afternoon Mets game from the West Coast. If you stacked the slices of Oscar Meyer Bologna that I consumed between 1970 and 1990, and stood three of their nasty hot dogs between each slice, it would be approximately the height of the famous Jones Beach Water Tower, and far and away the greater engineering marvel. They’re very thick slices, but still.
Some of my childhood favorites make me flat out nauseous in retrospect. I would crack open a tin of vienna sausages and munch on them, or make Underwood Chicken Spread or Deviled Ham on Wonder Bread and, Good Lord, actually have it for lunch. I’ve eaten Spam with a Hershey’s Chocolate Milk chaser . And speaking of chocolate, there were Yodels. And Ring Dings. And Devil Dogs. They all go great with a cold Dr. Pepper. Did I mention I had all my teeth extracted seven years ago?
Moving on. As I mentioned, I’m the youngest of five children. There’s four years between the four of them and four and a half years between me and everybody else. By the time I was in fourth grade, my parents were already paying three college tuitions. My mom was working full-time as a NYC high school English teacher and my dad was working two nights a week at Apex Technical School in Manhattan teaching HVAC classes in addition to his day job. During the school year, my mom still felt strongly about getting anyone to the table who happened to be home at exactly 6 pm for dinner, but in order to plan that dinner, she had to relegate it to auto-pilot. She’d get a delivery from Pat’s Prime Meats in Malverne on Saturday (they’re still around), and off we went on another trip on the merry-go-round: Lamb Chops with mashed potatoes and frozen cut green beans on Monday, Turkey Roll or Howard Johnson’s Chicken Croquettes from the A&P on Tuesday, chicken cutlets with white rice and frozen mixed vegetables on Wednesday, Meatloaf with baked potato and carrots on Thursday, frozen pizza or whatever was left over on Friday. Everything prepared as quickly and with as little complication as possible, out of the necessity of eating at exactly 6pm.
My mom was actually a very good cook. On the weekends we might have a broiled steak, or something like veal parmesan, which my mom called veal scallopini. That was always my birthday dinner request. She also made her own spaghetti sauce with meat that rivaled that of any Italian mother. But the busier she got, and the fewer people who were around to eat, the more the weekly rotation, all of which got pretty old after a while anyway, started falling apart. There were a lot more Chinese food and Ancona Pizza nights, which suited me just fine, and a lot more frozen food.
Nobody knew any better. What could be more convenient than a TV Dinner? : Swanson’s Salisbury Steak, or the iconic and evil Fried Chicken Dinner, or the meatloaf, which was to meat what particle board is to wood, with the chocolate brownie that would be unsalvageable if you left it in at 350 degrees for a second longer than 30 minutes. There was the Stouffer’s Chicken A La King that you boiled in two bags, one for the so-called chicken and sauce-like substance and one for the rice. Hard to screw up rice. And there were Hungry Man Chicken and Turkey Pot Pies. We had ’em all. Like many children of the 70’s, the generation when moms went back to work again, TV Dinners were perfectly acceptable alternatives to home cooked meals. They taste pretty good, too.
Except really, they aren’t, and they don’t.
As I got into working more and more (at Mel Weitz’ Foodtown, as well as other Mcjobs) and going to college at night, I subsided almost exclusively on fast food, junk, the Queens College cafeteria, friendly delis, the 7-11 and the ubiquitous stalwart TV Dinners. I’ve always had a metabolism not unlike a coal furnace. I’ve weighed somewhere between 120 and 125 pounds my whole adult life, and yes, at 5’9”, I am a human scarecrow, and maybe a little sensitive about that, but I’ve accepted that I am as God made me. (I’m always amused that people are allowed to say, “you’re so skinny!” but not allowed to say, “Christ, look how fat you are!” It’s a bit of a double standard. And I wrote that line at least 35 years ago). Nonetheless, I have to constantly feed the furnace to maintain my weight and keep from falling off the face of the earth, or slipping into a crack in the sidewalk.
One of my favorite go-to meals when I went to school at night was to come home to a big breakfast at 9:30 pm. Some french toast, maybe fried eggs on an english muffin, maybe a couple of nuked sausage links on the side. My parents thought I was fucking crazy but they loved me anyway. My mother would always tell me there was a leftover lamb chop, but I’d be more likely to have a bowl of Apple Cinnamon Cheerios.
Once out in the working world, if you had a good pizza place I could get in and out of in less than twenty minutes, or a diner where the grease soaked into the bun of the cheeseburger as you ate it, you and I became the best of friends, and you got 15% of my weekly income. When I worked in the production department at New York Magazine in the late 80’s (as much fun and as little fun as it sounds) there was a tradition that when a staffer left they would receive a mock magazine cover as a parting gift. When I left after two years and two months, one of my favorite co-workers (I remember you, Franny!) included an inset picture of the pizza place across 2nd Avenue on my cover with the headline “Sal In Shock! Sales Plunge!” I was also famous for using my weekly food allowance for staying late to “close the book” on Tuesday nights to pig out on KFC. A lot of people who worked there were very into fancy-schmancy restaurants, which more often than not frightened me. They would all walk into our end the office and become immediately enraptured, then quickly repulsed, by the smell of mass-produced fried chicken. I didn’t really care. I was just shoveling coal into the furnace.
After a while I settled into this job where you’re lucky to get ten minutes to eat lunch and they don’t buy your KFC, or your copy paper. I’ve been on “continuous service” in this particular job for 21 years and three months. I needed something to eat fast that I wouldn’t necessarily get the chance to fully and properly digest (and expel) until two or three hours later. Thus began the legend of the peanut butter and jelly sandwich.
People are amazed at the fact that I’ve eaten a peanut butter and jelly sandwich nearly every working day for over twenty years. I’m amused that they’re amazed. Especially when I sneak it in during meetings and somebody says, “Hey! That looks good!”, like they just now realized you could put these particular ingredients together. Why wouldn’t you eat peanut butter and jelly? It’s perfect!
And let me be precise here. (This is a very big part of my OCD, so it’s a subject very dear to me). It’s actually peanut butter and jam, and I do randomly switch between grape and strawberry jam.(Sometimes obsessive-compulsives will surprise you). But it has to be Smuckers Jam. And Jif Creamy Peanut Butter. Liberally spread together on Pepperidge Farm Honey Wheat Bread, then wrapped in foil, then put in a Ziploc bag (with a zipper) for maximum freshness. I make tomorrow’s peanut butter and jelly within a half hour of getting home from work. It has to be well-refrigerated. It goes in the bottom drawer of the fridge, where everything I pack in my working day lunch bag goes: A bottle filled with water, a bottle filled with Tropicana Orange juice, a plastic bottle of Dr. Pepper or Coca-Cola for the ride home on the God Damned Belt Parkway, some apple slices in a Ziploc bag, an individually-wrapped Entemann’s crumb cake, and my magic potion: A La Yogurt Mixed Berry and a bag containing about fifteen blueberries.
Yogurt was one of my big turning points on my food journey. It’s about as far away as you can get from Bugles, for starters. In fact, I could make the case that yogurt is the axis on which this entire silly narrative tilts upward towards it’s title: Better Food.
When you become a parent, it’s not about feeding yourself anymore. Fifteen years ago, I married a lovely girl named Trisha who had been a vegetarian for seventeen years when I met her. She couldn’t believe some of the stuff I ate, and the stuff she ate didn’t seem at all filling to me. And yet we loved each other then as now. She was especially repulsed by one of my g0-to dinners, the Dread Birdseye Garlic Chicken Voila. Available in your frozen food section, but if you’re smart, you’ll just keep on walking. Quote the funniest woman I know: “The chicken is kind of suspect, but it’s the voila that’ll get you.”
Nonetheless, for the first couple of years, we figured it out. A lot of pasta, a lot of take out. If you’re ever in Valley Stream, Ancona Pizza on Rockaway Avenue could theoretically feed you for the rest of your life. Start with the meatball parm hero. Tell them John sent you.
And because Trisha’s mother told her it was her responsibility to feed me, which it isn’t, she would make really good cheese lasagnas, and even made me Shake and Bake Chicken and cutlets like my mom made, even though she wasn’t eating any of it. Once when she made me a roasted chicken, I caught her making it dance on the sink as she cleaned it. I love that woman like you wouldn’t believe. But she herself stayed a vegetarian until one July day in 2003, when she was pregnant and she smelled really good.
We were sitting in Dad’s Copake Diner, which is one of my favorite ways to start a sentence. Usually, she’d have to go through five minutes of making faces at the menu to find the best vegetarian thing they had. Suddenly she just said fuck it. She didn’t really say that because she curses much less than I do. What she did say is: “I’m going to have a chicken cesear wrap.”
And just like that, Trisha wasn’t a vegetarian anymore. And I started barbecuing more steaks. And we had a baby. And we bought baby food. And the baby ate the baby food, and we ate what we ate. And the baby got a little older, and we started expanding his menu. Trisha bought some Axlerod Yogurt.
Yogurt grossed me out from the mid-1960’s up until 2006 or so. And one day I tried one again. And I eat it every working day, and many non-working days at that, and have been eating it religiously for ten years now. It not only tastes great, it’s like a fresh coat of paint on the walls of your digestive tract every morning. Once I got hooked, I suggested that Axlerod’s motto ought to be: “It’s so Mother Fucking Good!” But ah, so you ask, why’d you put a picture of La Yogurt in here? Well, first I’m glad you’re still paying attention, and secondly, there was a distribution problem at my King Kullen with Axlerod. They often didn’t have my favorite flavors. And I haven’t changed my mind about greek yogurt, or the cottage cheese my mother used to eat for lunch with a half a melon when she was on some weird diet. That shit is vile. But out of necessity, I tried La Yogurt and found it just as mother fucking good as Axlerod. Again, people with obsessive-compulsive disorder will surprise you sometimes.
The blueberries got added to the morning yogurt when I decided to start growing blueberries in giant pots around the yard. I started about ten years ago and I now have ten blueberry bushes. I love blueberries. I love everything connected to blueberries. The plants themselves are beautiful. It’s fascinating to watch the flowers slowly become berries, and the fall foliage is a deep crimson red that’s like a bonfire in the sunshine. So many things are better with blueberries. I’d buy blueberry scented toilet paper if they made it. (I actually wrote that joke about cinnamon a long, long time ago. But I think it’s pretty good, so I recycled it). And after a few summers, I realized that one of my truly favorite things about growing blueberries (specifically, highbush blue jay, blue crop and one or two other cultivars I can’t remember right now) is that they come into season just about the same time that I get some time away from the Belt Parkway for a while and can actually enjoy a summer morning. I was walking around the house smoking a cigarette (Gasp!) and picking at the blueberries at the same time. (The robins, mockingbirds and catbirds, who don’t smoke, also get their share) when it suddenly occurred to me that I was ingesting carcinogens and antioxidants at the same time And let me tell you, it felt great. So every morning I pack every spoonful of La Yogurt with as many blueberries as I can, and I become as indestructible as I possibly can be until peanut butter and jelly sandwich time approximately four hours later.
Meanwhile, back in fatherhood, our young lad, known on A Creek Runs Through It as “The Dude”, started to have (well-documented) sensory issues, and among those was disliking the texture and taste of certain foods. By the time he was 8 or 9, milk was out. Eggs were never in. You could get away with things made with milk and eggs sometimes, as long as they were cutlets or lasagna. But then he started to have a problem with cutlets and lasagna. we couldn’t win. Shake and Bake Chicken was one of the first ones to go, which made me very sad. I mean, how the hell…? Never mind.
Suffice to say, it was getting harder and harder to feed him without disappointment and what my mom used to call “whammy faces” at the dinner table, and I was getting more and more frustrated, since by this time I had put myself in charge of cooking because Trisha doesn’t get home from work until after six. And I was really starting to enjoy cooking. I always liked it, but I was digging up more recipes and learning more about the magic ingredients and spices that really good cooks put together. Mrs. Duffy is my witness: I have gone from Chicken Garlic Voila in a frying pan to restaurant quality presentations. As a matter of fact, when they closed down a long, long established restaurant called Goldie’s at Gibson Station, which is one one of my favorite walking routes with Mookie Dog, I conjured up a Powerball Dream of opening “Duffy’s At The Station” and hiring lots of people I know to create the best family restaurant in Valley Stream (which already has Mitchell’s). It’s a nice dream, but it’d be way too much work. If I did hit Powerball, I’d probably just take more naps.
So you could imagine, becoming really good at cooking, great even, and starting to really feel strongly about family dinners just like Mom used to, and having very little time to put them together, just like Mom used to, and then having the guy you’re cooking for constantly whining that he can’t eat what you cook. It was getting frustrating to say the least. And then, like manna from heaven two summers ago, Our Harvest entered my life.
This is a picture of Mike Winik and Scott D. Reich, undoubtedly the smartest guys in their lunchroom when they went to school, blissfully unaware that I am using their picture without permission and that they are tagged in this post. They are the co-founders of Our Harvest. Let me tell you the amazing idea that these two young fellers came up with and how it’s changed my life.
This is what they do: They buy fresh meat, poultry, dairy products, vegetables, fruit and other stuff from farms in the Hudson Valley upstate, New Jersey and out east on Long Island and local organic foodies, they sell it to me through their website at ourharvest.com and I pick it up on Saturday mornings, where a nice college kid waits in the parking lot of Blessed Sacrament Church, a mile north of here, with bags and coolers of fresh food. And not only that, for every $25 you spend with Our Harvest, they donate one meal to a family in need on Long Island, and I assume it’s not a TV dinner. They have pick up points all over Long Island and the Five Boroughs. It’s a wonderful thing when your business model ensures that everyone wins. I was in on the ground floor of this, and actually met Scott or Mike, or both, one of the first times I picked up my order. I complimented them on their cool t-shirts (It has their logo on the front and the slogan “Eat Better Together” on the back) and they had a free t-shirt waiting for me with my next order. They had me at the chicken, but the t-shirt was a nice touch.
And this is what I can tell you: It’s all so mother fucking good. Perdue chicken and King Kullen steaks are like Swanson TV Dinners compared to eating chicken and steak that was enjoying the sunshine just a couple of weeks ago. Once you have eaten farm fresh meat and poultry, it’s impossible to go back. There’s a Turkey London Broil I get that’s from the DiPaolo Turkey farm in New Jersey, and I found a outrageously delicious recipe for an orange honey glaze for said turkey – complete with herbes de provence (which is fun to say) – from thecozyapron.com, the domain of a nice lady named Ingrid who my wife thinks I have a little thing for. And the carrots taste like carrots. Everything is fresh and full of the food flavors that are slowly disappearing from just about everything you buy at the supermarket. And Sunday I cook things to last all week. I’m a regular visitor to an app called The Big Oven, which you have to say in a silly Fat Albert voice when you refer to it. And since we all eat enough chicken to start growing feathers, I have an arsenal of six or seven chicken recipes that The Dude is guaranteed to eat every time. We still have wars at dinner time here and there, mostly because The Dude didn’t fall far from the tree, and The Tree still keeps a supply of Oreo cookies, donuts, Pringles and spice drops in the house at all times, and The Dude often snacks too much before dinner. But for the most part, food has been solved on Duffy’s Creek
And oddly enough, The Dude has developed a Temple Grandin-ish interest in the humane treatment of farm animals and the importance of organic food. Taking advantage of this, Trisha brought home some organic milk last year and suddenly The Dude’s five-year milk boycott ended, and he drinks it with his Our Harvest-laced dinner pretty much every night. And then I tried the organic milk. And I never went back. It tastes like the the milk my parents got in glass bottles from the Dairy Barn. It makes store brand milk taste like milk-flavored water. It costs a lot more, as does all the Our Harvest food, but I couldn’t care less. What should you spend money on that’s more important? For one thing, my son eats. And he’s a human scarecrow, too, so he needs every bit of protein he can get.
And for another thing, a funny thing has happened to me over the last couple of years with long walks with Mookie Dog , more farm fresh and organic food and slightly fewer Oreo cookies. I feel better. A Lot better. I feel like I very well may have expelled a lot of chemicals from my system and not replaced them with more chemicals.
Thanks to Our Harvest, we’re eating better food all the time. Thanks to the miracle and inspiration of childbirth, the guy who ate ten-thousand baloney sandwiches is one of the best cooks you know. Yes, I still have a bag of Oreo cookies in the pantry. And yes, there is nothing Mookie and I love more than an individually-wrapped Entemenn’s Crumb Cake. But when it comes to dinner, I don’t mess around. I wish I could invite you all over to prove it. I’d make you some Sesame Chicken Thighs that would make your knees quiver. Maybe some Baked Yukon Gold Potatoes and fresh steamed broccoli on the side.
And fresh salad. Always fresh salad, and always organically grown. I haven’t touched a pre-made bagged Dole salad in years and years.
There have been Duffy’s on Duffy’s Creek since March 9, 1955. There have been people on Duffy’s Creek since about 4600 B.C. So the existence of people has a long and colorful history here, though the existence of too damn many people is a relatively recent phenomenon, out of which I was born in 1963, the youngest of five children, an unwitting part of the problem.
On summer nights, Trisha and I sit out in the backyard, and we talk some, while alternately staring at our little light-up magic rectangles and staring through the flowers towards the sunset over the creek. I like to imagine a Rockaway Indian couple sitting right in this spot in summer twilight a thousand years ago, without the stupid iphones and kindles, maybe listening to the “crawwwk!” of night herons, or watching swallows and bats circling the orange sky, or just watching the flow of the creek, the same tide and the same current, and maybe some of the same water molecules as we look at today, but maybe without so much spam in them.
But I don’t have to imagine being a little kid a hundred years ago, before the sprawl, walking into a deep, majestic forest at the end of Westwood Road in Woodmere, walking less than three miles to emerge from that forest into a farm field that overlooked this creek. I don’t have to imagine it at all because about ten years ago I discovered a book titled The Lord’s Woods: The Passing of an American Woodland written in 1971by a noted birder and naturalist named Robert Arbib. And Mr. Arbib told me all about it; what this place was like for thousands of years before cape cods and split levels ate it alive. And we’ve become friends, though he died twenty years ago, because I love learning about the history of places, and I’ve spent a whole lot of time hanging around this one. And so did he. I like him and I think he would’ve liked me.
A little disclaimer before I go on: I know a lot of people who are passionate about digging up the history of Valley Stream and the surrounding area, and some of them will read this post and want to point out possible discrepancies. (Gleefully). Please just relax. This is but a jumble of the stuff I know from reading Mr. Arbib’s book and a whole lot of other stuff, including stuff from the Hewlett-Woodmere Library website and the Valley Stream Historical Society Facebook page , called “Valley Stream of Yesteryear.” (You’re all wonderful people, and thank you for uncredited pictures, but you didn’t credit them either). I also know some history from my mother, who wrote the Valley Stream Historical Society newsletter for ten years or so, and my father-in-law, Jack McCloskey, who visited this neighborhood in the 1930’s for watercress and garden lime. But this is definitely not meant to be the definitive history of anything. (And by the way, it would be much easier to refer to Robert Arbib as “Bob” from here on in. “Mr. Arbib” sounds like I’m trying to be the New York Times, and I happen to know that his friends called him Bob. Anyway). What I am trying to do here is to put words and context to the pictures that I can I see in my mind sometimes when Mookie and I go walking.
Everybody knows us, Mookie and me. We’re local characters, and we’re proud of that. One sunny day in the middle of last winter, a woman called out to me from a car on Wood Lane as Mookie was reading his pee mail. She said, “you two really get around, don’t you! I see you everywhere!” I said, “Yes, yes we do.” And Mookie looked up and wagged his tail.
I knew at that moment that I had achieved my ultimate purpose in life: Being a local character. I’m the slightly crazy looking thin man with the very large happy yellow lab who you see walking around South Valley Stream all the time. But Mookie, of course, is superior to me in so many ways, particularly in his full-minded commitment to The Here And The Now. He’s living in the present when we’re out walking because he’s a dog, and that’s what dogs do, which is why they’re so much better than us. I try to stay in The Here And The Now, but I’m just not Mookie and I never will be. Often I’m living in the future as we’re walking, figuring out what things I can turn into things I’ve already done in the hours and the days ahead. But sometimes I’m living in the past, imagining what this place was like before the cars and the trucks and the poles and the lights and the wires and the fences and the signs and the asphalt and the whole rest of it. And it makes me wistful for a place I never knew, even though I’m walking through the middle of where it was; a place that, had it not been altered forever in the decades before I was born, actually would have made me as I know me impossible.
Bob’s story starts in 1920, as a nine year old boy exploring the woods that actually stretched from Lawrence to South Valley Stream, which he learned were called The Lord’s Woods after the very rich, successful lawyer who had owned the land at one time. (There’s a Lord Avenue way down in Lawrence in the area behind Rock Hall, where nobody ever goes unless you’ve got business there or you’re lost. It’s quite a beautiful area). The woods that Bob and his friend begin to explore stretched from about three miles southwest of here just about to my backyard. The entire Lord Estate stretched back through Cedarhurst and Lawrence all the way to Far Rockaway. My son is twelve and we can’t yet in good conscience let him cross the four lane road (Mill Road) that separates us from the rest of the world. Once upon a time, Mill Road was where the woods thinned out and the farms started. Bob and his friend walked through the woods, teeming with hundreds of different bird species and happy little animals. They discovered cool stuff like an Indian marker tree that was bent on purpose to indicate a trail, and a rope swing along a brook in the middle of nowhere. They crossed streams and marshland and followed along a dirt road until the realized they were following a gigantic water pipe, half-buried in the ground. The pipe led them to the “waterworks”, the Long Island Water Property, where the last little postage stamp of woods remain to this day.
They realized that the Water Company actually owned all the land that they were walking on. and that the land was kept undeveloped because they needed to pump water from under it. (One of the main reasons they ultimately sold it off to development and bulldozed it was that the technology was developed to dig deeper wells, thereby needing less land to protect the aquifers). But people had been trespassing on and enjoying these woods forever, and Bob and his friend soon found like-minded young nerdy fellows who liked identifying birds.
I like identifying birds. When Trisha and I first took over at Duffy’s Creek, we started keeping track of how many different bird species we could attract, including the waterfowl, who just hung around with us because we have a creek. Over the course of three or four years of keeping neat little notebooks (before we became parents and chaos ensued), I counted somewhere around 105 different species. Many of them just showed up once or twice, inexplicably, like a Brown Thrasher or a Tri-Colored Heron. But in The Lord’s Woods, apparently all these birds were as common as pigeons. And this is how Bob became a famous orthinologist, and how I helped get Andrew Cuomo to promise South Valley Stream $3 million dollars to help rehabilitate the Left Bank of Duffy’s Creek, money which he may or may not be still holding on to, because they haven’t spent it yet. I suppose because he’s not up for re-election. But that’s a story for another post.
In the first half of The Lord’s Woods, Bob tells the story of his youth through his seasons exploring own local primitive wilderness. As a guy who likes birds and plants and stuff, I just ate it up. There’s also a particularly gut-wrenching storyline about showing his first girlfriend all the secrets of The Lord’s Woods, then losing her to a car accident several years later when she was away at college, which was absolutely heart-breaking to read. Nonetheless, It’s all beautifully written, and topped off by a really cool map (pictured below) that helped me follow exactly where he was (and what is there now) as he describes his discoveries. I live along what is called Mott’s Creek or Foster’s Brook on the map. When I was growing up, my father told me it was called Watt’s Creek. On USGS maps (United States Geological Survey) it’s called “Valley Stream”. About fifteen years ago, when I had some time on my hands, I wrote to the USGS and tried to get it changed to Duffy’s Creek. The nice man from the USGS patiently explained to me that: 1) The don’t use apostrophes, which was a total buzzkill, and 2) I would have to die. I know that Foster, Mott and Watt were also local characters who just started calling the creek by their own names, so until I die and someone does the paperwork, that’s my plan.
In the middle of the book, as Bob is still grieving for his lost love, first the Hurricane of 1938 and then a giant fire decimate the woods. (I’ve seen more than once what a big hurricane can do to big trees). And the omens begin to rise around this same time: Giant electrical transmission towers go up, and surveyor marks plot out Peninsula Boulevard (which you can see on Bob’s map cuts right through the heart of what he called The Big Woods).
A wilderness would eventually recover over time from a natural disaster, but it didn’t stand a chance against the the post-WWII boom, and it is this point in the story where the book rises from beautiful to powerful and unforgettable. In the chapter entitled “Boom”, Bob begins:
“It was not fire that destroyed the Lord’s Woods. Fire and storm, blizzard and drought, even hurricane and flood were all natural events in the woods’ long history, often experienced and somehow survived, their wounds slowly self-healing and finally obliterated in forgiving beauty. Before the final act could be staged and the curtain rung down on the last of the drama that had been unfolding here for thousands of years, there had to appear on stage the villian of the piece – modern man – and there had to be a motive. It was not fire or storm that came to destroy our woods. It was greed and duplicity, avarice and ignorance and apathy.”
The “Boom” chapter, and the following chapter, called “The Threat” take you through a truly American story: How people saw what was happening to the woods and tried to stop it, and other people laughed and said “Fuck you. We’re doing it anyway.” As more and more of the woods were being bulldozed for development, people began to realize that “what remained was the only remnant of wet woodland left” in Southwest Nassau County, “the only place where one cold lose himself from the frenetic world and be an Indian brave or a Thoreau, a Daniel Boone or a John James Audubon, or just oneself, a child learning about the world around him.”
Here’s the short version: In 1955, the year my parents bought a house on a creek in a five-year old development of cape cods, the Lord’s Woods had been reduced to a box bordered approximately by, from what I can tell, Gibson Boulevard, Peninsula Boulevard, Woodmere Middle School, Hungry Harbor Road, Rosedale Road and Duffy’s Creek. The entire neighborhood of North Woodmere came after West Sunbury, so the ancient woods probably met the Hoeffner Farm all the way down Rosedale Road and went along Doxy Brook and blended into marshland as it got closer to Jamaica Bay. And in the other direction, I know for sure that there was a scout camp on the land where Peninsula Shopping Center sits now. You would need a lot of trees for a proper scout camp, so that was likely part of the woods as well. The neighborhood of North Woodmere on the opposite side of Rosedale Road from ours has bigger trees, because it was a woods and this was a farm. (I figured this one out all on my own).
The community got wind of a deal between the water company and a developer to buy up and bulldoze what was left of the Lord’s Woods. Bob tells of a woman named Helen Bergh and a man named Ben Berliner who were the leading forces in trying to save the woods, working with the Audubon Society to develop ways that the area could be used as a sanctuary and interpretive nature center. As the last acres of what was by that time called the Woodmere Woods were being eaten up, Helen Bergh (what a great name) led the Woodmere Woods Conservation Committee. They tried everything. New York didn’t want it for a state park. Nassau County didn’t want it. Officials from the Town of Hempstead suggested they would consider a park if Bergh, Berliner and their committee could show a public consensus for saving the last virgin woodlands in Southwestern Nassau County. But as Bob points out, “to prove that all people, everywhere wanted an esoteric amenity like a public wildlife preserve in 1956 was no easy task.” Some people wanted a park with lots of ballfields and tennis courts and swimming pools, which they eventually did get in North Woodmere Park. Other people, newer arrivals to the area, “would let the developers proceed; homes and gardens were more desirable neighbors than thickets of poison ivy and rat-infested woodlands where rapists can hide.” There wasn’t much you could do to convince people who had such disregard for the concept of open space that it would be in their interest to have a large undeveloped area around them. They’d no doubt never go in it anyway. Mosquitoes. Rapists. Very unsafe. Best to stay in the air conditioning.
By 1957, Helen Bergh had joined forces with a neighbor and friend who had also grown up enjoying the woods. His name was Edward S. Bentley. Together, they wrote a bill to present to the New York State legislature giving the Town of Hempstead authority to create a park district out of the Woodmere Woods. Before they could find sponsorship for the bill, the Water Company sold the land. Bob describes a race between the bulldozers, chain saws and graders, moving “like an invading army into the Lords’ Woods. One by one, the century-old oaks, maples, tulips, hickories, ashes and sweet gums crashed to the frozen ground.”
Sudddenly, as the woods came crashing down, people started paying attention to the destruction of the woods. Newsday was an up and coming newspaper at that time, according to Bob, and they took up the cause, but “while the editorial pages endorsed the principles of conservation and preservation, the business section, real estate section and its general news rang with announcement after proud announcement of the latest shopping center, housing development, industrial park, power station, highway expansion, population growth, property values and prosperity…No one was talking about the intangible cost of smog and summer heat, and the deprivation of natural beauty and an oasis of solitude and silence. Quality of life was of little concern to most people in 1957.” I’m sure if my parents knew about this story, and I’m sure they did, they were too busy to even think about joining a fight to save some woods.
Needless to say, the park proposal was shot down. Bob points out several bad guys in the tale, including lawyers and elected officials who were working both sides of the fence, pretending to help Mrs. Bergh’s cause for the public support it would bring them and working with the developers to destroy the woods at the same time. By the end of 1958, five years before I was born, the Lord’s Woods were completely gone. There is a little postage stamp of woodland around the waterworks, and some land that creeps up behind backyards up Doxy Brook to the reservoir on Hungry Harbor Road. When I was a kid, we’d sneak into those woods sometimes. My older brother and his friends used to catch turtles, bring them back to the house, paint their initials on the shells and set them free again. Today, most of it has barbed wire around it. And apparently, If I see something, I should say something. I assume it would be about what I saw, but I can only see though the fence, and there’s not much to see.
When I was younger than my son is now, I would go off in the summertime on my bike searching for rabbits in the parkland built behind the backyards in the Green Acres neighborhood, which is across Duffy’s Creek from our own neighborhood, which was called West Sunbury when Mr. William Gibson’s company built it in 1950. When I was a little older, I would take the aluminum rowboat from our backyard and row it down to Rosedale Road, pretending I was an Indian paddling along the creek. You could “park” the boat and climb the bulkhead into Brook Road Park in Green Acres. About twenty years ago, maybe more, they changed the name of the neighborhood to Mill Brook, because the residents did not want to be associated with the gargantuan shopping mall that sits right next to it (The same developer, Channan Corporation, built the houses and the shopping mall on land that once once divided between the Hoeffner Farm and Curtis Field, a famous airfield in the 1920’s that was visited by Ameliah Earheart and Charles Lindbergh. There’s a plaque in the middle of the Home Depot parking lot you could go look at if you don’t believe me). The shopping mall is still called Green Acres, and it’s about thirty times the size it was when I was a kid. I may be exaggerating there a little bit. All I can tell you is that there aren’t any kids looking for rabbits or pretending to be Indians around here anymore. Lately they’ve been looking for Pokemon.