I was a student in the Valley Stream Public Schools for 13 years. The single best thing they ever did for me was when they took me off Long Island for a week and showed me an Upstate New York winter.
It was the traditional trip to the Ashokan Center, the one my son didn’t get to take because the tradition ended sometime between my time in the Valley Stream schools and his time 41 years later. I’m gonna go out on a limb here and say the lawyers and insurance consultants got involved. But in February of 1975, way back before they ruined everything, two schools worth of sixth graders were loaded on tour buses and transported to a big camp near the Ashokan Reservoir in Olivebridge, NY, smack in the middle of the Catskill Mountains and smack in the middle of winter.
I was thinking about this trip when I was acclimating to the weather earlier this month up on Trisha’s Mountain. Embracing the cold, as my Buddhist friend likes to say. And Buddha, it was cold. The temperature only got above 30 degrees twice in 11 days, and then only briefly. It snowed on five of the days, and there was already two feet of snow on the ground when we got there. This of course didn’t stop Mookie from dragging me to the top of the backyard hill to sniff up every animal track immediately upon our arrival, which I expected. But he did keep looking back at me as if to ask why I, as God, had made this snow so deep and difficult for his little English Labrador Retriever legs to walk through.
Meanwhile, there were two things I remember from that 6th grade Ashokan trip.
One was the sheer exhilaration of flying through the air on a toboggan down a preposterously steep hill and whipping out across the frozen Esopus Creek, which is, coincidentally, the very same creek I was looking down on from a steep hill when I met Mookie in his breeder’s kitchen in nearby Saugerties 36 years later.
That toboggan ride is one of the single favorite memories of my life, and I always thought it was interesting that Lois Lowery chose sledding down a hill as Jonas’ first transmitted memory of the real life he was missing out on in the novel The Giver, a book I read with a lot of kids that never got to ride a toboggan down a hill and across a frozen creek and likely never would. I fully endorsed the experience, though, if they ever did happen to get the chance.
It was wild. When you hit the bottom of the hill, it was like being in a Hot Wheels car going through the speed booster, except you were propelled straight out across the ice instead of around the loop-de-loop. And don’t think that I don’t think of this image every Christmas Eve when George Bailey has to save his kid brother Harry. I’m gonna go out on a limb again here and say that the lawyers and the insurance consultants used that particular activity as Exhibit A when they finally put the kibosh on the sixth-grade trip.
The other thing I remember was winter.
I wanted to see if I could fill in some blanks about Ashokan, so I cast a net on Facebook and asked people who shared this experience what they remembered, and about 10 of them responded, God bless them.
Apparently I made a broom and a candle holder when I was there, and possibly a fire poker. I would have made a little man out of pewter, but somebody’s husband had broken the machine years earlier. I thought I had put on snowshoes for the first time in my life up on Trisha’s Mountain, but I’m told that my first snowshoe hike was 46 years earlier than that. Who knew.
One friend of mine, who went on to be a star pitcher on the Valley Stream South Falcons varsity baseball team, bravely recalled for us the memory of being such a homesick little wuss for the first two days of the trip that he required a full-scale intervention. As for myself, except for not wanting to poop in a public bathroom for the first two days, I don’t remember being homesick, but I probably missed TV, and Ace the beagle.
Another friend checked in, a guy I’ve known since kindergarten. In the interest of sharing the little details of life’s rich pageant that never cease to amuse and astound, I must tell you that this particular friend of mine happens to be a world-famous strongman who’s in the Guinness Book of World Records for rolling 14 frying pans into burritos with his bare hands in under a minute.
I pulled a couple of muscles in my ribcage opening the garage door last week. At the time, I thought my lung may have collapsed.
Not only did my old friend, a sweet, good-natured family man who is known in strongman competition circles as “The Crusher”, remember that the guys who set the toboggans up were named Kevin and Doug, and that another counselor named Andy challenged all comers to ice skating races, he was also able to pull up all the amazing pictures you see in this post in less time than I could have found last year’s tax returns.
The first pictures he posted were of us and our classmates, which were fun to see. Then he told me he had some other pictures, but they were of scenery rather than people. I asked him to send those pictures, too, and he did. You’d think I would have remembered that there were farm animals at the Ashokan Center, or that one of the counselors looked suspiciously like Richard Manuel of The Band, who had a place near the Ashokan Reservoir at the time.
What I did remember clearly as soon as I saw the pictures was the landscape, and the rickety old buildings dotting the snow and the bare trees stretched out across that landscape. Poking around the Ashokan Center website today, it looks like most of those buildings have been torn down and replaced. My broom and my fire poker are long gone, physically and in my memory, but the images of the countryside in winter that my friend probably took to finish up a roll of Kodak Instamatic film before we got on the bus back home are a direct match of the images in my mind’s eye.
I was eleven years old, and I was instantly charmed by winter in Upstate New York.
Now you can plainly see from the picture at the top of the post that my parents did not cheat when it came to keeping us dressed for the weather. That coat was as warm as a womb. There was an entire sheep sewed into that lining. And only fools go upstate in February without a good wooly hat and gloves. The picture doesn’t show them, but I’m sure I was wearing the sturdiest pair of boys’ brown leather waterproof hiking boots that JC Penney had on display that November. And I’m sure I had on a pair of long johns, which I still wear in the winter, as I’m still what my students in Rockaway amicably described as “one bony-assed motherf@#$er.”
It snows on Long Island, of course. Sometimes a lot. And the wind howls and the temperatures drop. And when it’s just a little too warm for snow, cold rain will come along and prick you with a million little needles. But in winter, it’s always just a smidge or so warmer in Valley Stream than it is in Copake Falls. The cold rain on Long Island is often snow in the Taconic-Berkshires. But the difference in what winter actually feels like in one place as compared to the other seems like more than a smidge, which we can define here as bigger than a tinge but smaller than a whit.
It feels like a different climate entirely.
To see if there were any scientific data to back this up, I learned all about the Koppen Climate Classification System, something I’m positive that I was not taught in school, but I don’t remember making the broom, either.
According to several sources, none of them Wikipedia, Duffy’s Creek is in a Cfa, a warm oceanic climate, also called a humid subtropical climate. Trisha’s Mountain is in a Dfb, a warm summer humid continental climate. Some maps put all of Long Island and the Lower Hudson Valley in a Dfa, which is a hot summer continental climate. I can tell you that summers have been getting progressively hotter for twenty years in Copake Falls, which not only sucks, but would also suggest it’s probably well on its way to being classified as a Dfa climate. But the climate around New York City, which has always mostly sucked, is forever at the mercy of the Atlantic Ocean, so Cfa would be the more accurate classification.
The difference between these climate classifications comes down to the number of days of sustained cold temperatures. It’s slightly colder upstate. There I proved it. Thank you Herr Koppen.
But there’s way more to it than that.
I have no scientific proof of this, and I’m too lazy to find any, but there are more days of stillness in upstate winter, more days when the wind isn’t blowing at all. While we get less snow and less deep cold on Long Island, it seems like the wind rarely takes a day off, and it accompanies every snow and rain event just to add to the misery.
Up in the country, you can catch a stretch of days where even if it’s only 10 to 15 degrees in the afternoon, there’s no wind at all. When you put that together with a light falling snow or some blue sky, some clean, fresh mountain air and a foot or two of snowpack to muffle all the noise except for that satisfying crunch under your boots, you got yourself some magic weather.
On the first morning of our February vacation on the mountain, my rectangle informed me that Mookie and I would be greeted outside by six degrees Fahrenheit with a 10-15 mph wind, making the “real feel” (what your daddy called the wind chill) a robustly negative seven degrees. The sun thermometer on the back porch, which is more form than function, announced a Good Morning Copake Falls temperature of zero degrees. But while it stayed cold, the wind calmed down after the first couple of days, which was a beautiful thing, as Trisha’s Mountain has its own little microclimate, and in the warm months we suddenly get attacked by swirling 20 mph winds for no apparent reason. When it stops, its absence creates a loud silence.
And since Mookie was working so hard to trudge up the hill through the snowpack in the yard and back down the hill through the adjacent cornfield, we did a lot of our walking along on the blessedly level Harlem Valley Rail Trail, where the snow had been already been snowshoed, cross-country skied and otherwise tamped down a bit.
But even with all this evidence of human activity, a lot of time we had the whole thing to ourselves, which was both incredibly peaceful and a little bit frightening. First off, there was a lot of poop along the trail, and I know the good citizens of the Roe Jan Valley overwhelmingly clean up after their dogs, so it could have been anybody’s poop. It occurred to me that a couple of hungry bad ass coyotes or mountain lions could be somewhere up there in the woods, with one saying, “I’ll take the one with the fur, you take the tall duck.”
And if we were a good ways up the trail and one of us suddenly pulled a hamstring or were otherwise unable to walk, the other would be pretty screwed. One scenario would involve a panicking, breathless 130 lb. man carrying a wriggling, confused 102 lb. dog and the other would be an equally confused dog searching frantically for someone with thumbs who can drive an Outback.
Plus of course, severe cold weather can kill you. There’s an extra risk in traveling in winter, as your troubles would be significantly more complex if you found yourself suddenly not traveling. And once you get where you’re going, there are also power outages to consider, which is why in a future chapter we’ll learn all about Generac.
Add in the risk being further away from places you might need to get to in a hurry, hospitals in particular, through potentially pitch-dark, black-iced roads, and you could see why, just out of curiosity, I visited the website of an assisted living community across the border in Lenox, Mass.
This was actually when I was in the kitchen on the mountain, warming up from the second time that day I had swept the snow off the entire driveway. In comparison to some of our fabulously wealthy neighbors with mile-long driveways further up the mountains on Breezy Hill Road, our driveway is nothing fancy. But it’s still over a hundred feet, mostly uphill. One of our neighbors owns a landscaping and plowing business and we’re all very happy that we met each other. But he only plows and sands the driveway if there’s more than three inches of accumulation. Not being a full-fledged country guy yet, I don’t have a snow blower, which meant that the “nuisance snow” (a term I learned from Albany TV News), which fell for four days in a row, had to be either shoveled or swept, then sanded by hand before it turned the driveway into an Olympic ski jump.
To paraphrase Steven Wright, it’s a small world, but I wouldn’t want to sweep it.
When you sign up for upstate, winter owns you for four or five months out of every twelve. My darling wife, raised in a culture where people roasted in the sun on Point Lookout Beach four or five months a year, jokes that she has no idea what she was thinking.
But we both know. For every challenge that upstate winter presents in a place with fewer people and more hills, it more than rewards the survivors by enveloping them in its charms, its peace, its oxygen and its stunning natural beauty. Crunching through the snow along the Rail Trail, my mind was clear and easy enough to float me all the way back to that week in Ashokan, when I first experienced a wide open, heaven-sized country landscape under a quiet falling snow, and a clear and silent 15-degree blue sky morning amid rolling hills lit up with twinkling crystals.
Yes it can be bleak. Lots of cloudy days to get through. One of the first things I noticed at the house on Trisha’s Mountain this month was that, since we haven’t gotten up to putting color on the walls yet, both the inside and outside color palette was an endless loop of brown and white, broken up only by rows of red-twig dogwood on the tree farm and a few big evergreen trees visible from the windows. But winter never lasts forever, and that bleakness is what makes the greens and the yellows truly beautiful when they show up in April.
All the houses in Copake Falls, and all through the Dfb climate, look very serious about their jobs in the winter. And you can see houses that you can’t ordinarily see though the leaf cover. I can’t describe light through leafless trees in winter any better than Warren Zevon did when he said it looked like “crucified thieves”, so I won’t even attempt it.
The houses are working very hard to keep their owners warm. No lace curtains billowing in the windows and no whirligigs spinning on the front lawn. This is crunch time. Sometimes when I see or smell the fires from the chimneys of these hundred-and-fifty-year-old houses, I think of the people who settled places like this, who couldn’t crank the thermostat up, and for whom a fireplace could be the difference between life and death.
But despite the lurking dangers of winter, Mookie and I got to live our best life out there in the sharp and cold, here and now air, crunching through the snow along the Rail Trail. If it’s peace and quiet and a Zen feeling of no time and no self that you’re after, a trail through upstate winter woods is the place to be, particularly if you don’t have to get to a job.
On one of those clear mornings, we literally walked into a flock of bluebirds. At least twenty of them, dancing and singing through the trees on either side of us. This moment now lives alongside others in my life where I witnessed something so beautiful that I said to God, out loud, smiling, “you gotta be kidding me, man!”
Though God has a sense of humor, when it comes to nature’s wonders, he’s dead ass. He arranged for a flock of bluebirds to come along and flitter through the trees that morning because he really thought that Mookie and I should see them, just like he arranged for a sunset to bathe the stalks of last years’ corn and the sweep of snow down the hill in an ethereal orange glow as my son and I snowshoed across the field late that afternoon. All we had to do was dress for it, and there it was.
When people tell you not to waste your life away, they’ll sometimes tell you that we only get so many summers. Make hay while the sun shines and all that. Conversely, we only get so many winters. And because we needed all the oil and the plastic, winters are not what they were in 1975. I’d likely meet the bottom of the Esopus Creek if I took that toboggan ride today, and I’d need the Crusher to pull me out.
So while it is a great time to enjoy the couch, catch up on books or naps or watch a little basketball, you’ve got to get out there and embrace the winter while it’s here, lean into its big shoulders, draw in its icy breath and let it embrace you back.
The day before we rolled down the sandy driveway on Trisha’s Mountain and back down to Duffy’s Creek, we got two inches of fresh snow upstate. But it was one of those occasional storms where Long Island gets a few more inches than Copake Falls. That snow stuck around for a few days, then started melting into patches. When the last patch started melting in the backyard on the creek, Mookie made sure to roll on his side and make a dog angel, and I made sure to crunch through it with my brown waterproof boots.
It’s a long, hot summer, and we just needed a little more of that real feel before winter got away.
When I started writing this “e-book” series of blog posts, in August 2020, I was shooting for what’s called “evergreen content,” meaning that the months and years in which the chapters were written wouldn’t really factor into the subjects of said chapters, which are, to date:
An insider’s guide to New York Route 22
Watching the sun set over the Roe Jan Valley
The path along Duffy’s Creek
The Harlem Valley Rail Trail
Vermin, sprit animals and motherf#$%ing snakes
Christmas trees and mulch
A big rock with a view and a famously deadly waterfall.
Despite these very general and innocuous topics, the damn Pandemic kept sneaking into the narrative.
Yes, the original premise was a guy from Valley Stream, Long Island who had just retired from twenty-five years of teaching and bought a second house in Upstate Copake Falls with his wife because they loved the area, thus becoming human wishbones. But I thought that it wouldn’t matter what particular month or year any of this took place, as long as the setting alternated from one chapter to the next.
But it’s become clear that the Pandemic of 2020-2021 makes “evergreen content” not only impossible right now, but pretty much pointless. This is a time in history that no one alive has seen the likes of, and no matter what (or where) the subject is, it can’t not go through that filter.
So, if you’re an historian who has happened to have come across any of these first nine chapters in the year 2121, you would realize that the guy who wrote them was ultimately just trying to stay alive until the coast was clear.
He drove from Nassau County to Columbia County and back again. He hunted, foraged and gathered at nearby grocery and hardware stores in both places for food and supplies. He walked his dog; he took naps with his cats; he did some writing for Pay Pal peanuts; he read books and magazines, he watched TV, he played some guitar, and he did a lot of crossword puzzles.
As the cold, dark and dreary winter of ’20-21 wore on, he spent most of his time confined to one or the other home and, while the company was always swell, he became increasingly bored and restless as a result. At the same time, he considered himself very, very, very lucky and he tried not to complain.
Nonetheless, person of the future, I have included the following memo, just for you:
To: Mr. or Ms. Historian
Re: The Pandemic of ‘20-21
However, here in February of 2021, despite the disturbing, more contagious and more deadly variants of the Covid-19 virus that keep popping up (how nice), it seems like we’re actually seeing a dim light at the end of this hellish tunnel, though try telling that to a half a million or so dead people, including my father, or the other people who lost family members, or jobs, or homes, or the businesses into which they had thrown their souls.
Still, we can now safely say that the President of the United States is not actively trying to infect and kill its citizenry. Imagine that. Plus, we survived an attack on the Temple of Democracy by ten thousand of most disgusting and ignorant people in the world, stirred into a twisted, violent rage by that same, now ex-President’s Big Lie about the election in which, by the grace of God and Stacey Abrams, he got his ass kicked to the goddamn curb and he knows it.
Their insurrection failed, mostly because once they breached the Capitol, these overwhelmingly deluded and dimwitted organisms were too busy posing for selfies to get around to murdering the Vice President, the Speaker of The House or any democrat they could get their hands on. It was the series finale of the four-year, reality TV nightmare that they inflicted on the rest of us, solely to punish us for electing a black guy twice, and for suggesting that maybe they were the damn problem.
But we survived, and the miserable failed Hitler who tried to kill us all has been as muted as he gets for the time being. Now that we’re back to living in actual reality, we have a real President and a functioning federal government again. Imagine that. More people are being vaccinated than are getting sick, and there are vaccines on the way by July for everybody with the sense to get one.
Plus, we’re past Thanksgiving, Christmas, New Year’s Eve and the Super Bowl, so all the unrepentant assholes who just HAD to get together and spread deadly germs in small spaces don’t have any excuses to cough on each other and thereby kill your grandmother for at least the next couple of months.
So things are looking up.
But it’s still necessary to quarantine as much as possible. And it’s still winter. In fact, this has been as close to a good, old-fashioned, pre-climate-change winter as we’ve had in a lot of years. Lots of cold, lots of snow. And by the grace of God and my immigrant grandparents, I live in New York, so I can find ways to enjoy the cold and the snow then come back inside to a warm house, unlike the millions of people in Texas who suffered miserably in the cold this month because the elected officials who are supposed to protect them let their power grid and their water supply freeze up.
Forgive the digression, but it seems that we can determine from this evidence that the average squirrel has more intelligence, more moral fiber, and certainly more empathy than the people who run Texas. Say what you like about the people who run New York. They know not to get caught unprepared for winter weather. Nobody forgets that shit.
Of course, even if this were in a non-Pandemic winter, there would be fewer things to do and fewer places to go, because, well, it’s winter. But in the alternative reality of a non-Pandemic winter, some of my favorite troubadours might have come to places a short car or train ride away from Valley Stream to sing for me, and I would have been able to accommodate them, even on a weeknight and even on a pension. And there would be museums and diners and libraries and movie theaters for the occasional change of scenery.
The troubadours are all home streaming on Instagram, and while there are theoretically places to go for that change of scenery, I haven’t died from coronavirus yet, and I don’t want to, nor do I want to experience any of the long-term effects that survivors are going through, so I’m not going anywhere I don’t have to go until they get to the 55-65 group and I can make an appointment at the CVS as easily as when I got my flu shot, even if that means five or six more months of semi-hermitage.
For now, everybody who was working at the King Kullen supermarket, the Pets Supplies Plus and the Raindew Variety Store a year ago is still alive and working there today, and we all wear our masks, and nobody hugs anybody. During the Valley Stream weeks, I go to these places, I get what I need, I go home, I stare out the window and I wait for spring.
But I do love winter weather. As a matter of fact, I love all weather. Every season has its unique charms, and to embrace each one of them when they arrive is among the great privileges of being alive. I wouldn’t live anywhere else but the Northeast for that reason. I’ve never been to Florida, have never had any burning desire to go to Florida, and I sure as hell am not going there any time soon. Apologies to my Floridian friends, but to me, living in a place without true seasonal extremes is, how shall I say, wack.
Admittedly, as someone with very little natural insulation, I sure didn’t enjoy waking up at 4:45 am to commute to work in winter weather, though it did get the initial shock of cold over with every day. Now I have to rely on my personal trainer to get me out under the sky and moving every morning. He does this by lying on the floor and staring at me forlornly until I put on my boots and my big coat, which is a really effective strategy if you’re thinking about starting a personal training business, but you’d have to be a Labrador retriever.
We go for walks, we enjoy the weather, then we come back inside so the one of us who isn’t covered in thick fur and blubber can warm up for a while. But as I enjoy my first extended winter vacation since I was four years old, there’s just isn’t much to report on from Long Island. Any “evergreen content” I could come up with involves places I can’t justify going to or people I can’t justify seeing.
So this chapter is about basketball.
And since it all starts with reading the morning Long Island Newsday, it counts as a Valley Stream chapter.
It all started on the morning after Christmas Day on Duffy’s Creek. I was flipping through the paper and Mookie was getting his leg scratched. Upon reaching the sports pages, and since I didn’t have to be anywhere fast, I read an article about the Brooklyn Nets.
Now, I flip through every single page of the newspaper every single day in Valley Stream. When I’m upstate, I substitute the Berkshire Eagle and the Register Star, so if you want to know about the new restaurant in Pittsfield, Mass or what people are upset about in Hudson, I’m your man. This obsessive-compulsive disorder of mine also allows me to always know who’s winning and who’s losing among the New York Sports teams, who they’re big stars are and how much money they’re making.
I’m a baseball guy. I’ve been a baseball guy since Mrs. Milne brought the TV on the cart into our first-grade classroom so we could all watch the Mets play the Orioles in the 1969 World Series. I went home that October afternoon to check if the Mets were on my TV, and sure enough they were, and they’ve been there ever since. Thirty-one years after that, I set my personal record by being at Shea Stadium twenty-five times to root on the 2000 Mets, including three playoff games and the last game of the World Series against the Yankees, which was the last professional baseball game played in the 20th Century.
I’ll take it one step further. I’m one of those nauseatingly sentimental baseball guys. The ones that get all blubbery watching “Field of Dreams” and have the Ken Burns documentary on DVD. At our wedding, Trisha and I gave out autographed baseballs as table gifts, and we had a friend bring along his catcher’s mask and glove so my best man could throw out the first pitch to him.
I named my dog Mookie, then I stood on a line in a sporting goods store to show Mookie Wilson himself a picture of my dog.
So being a baseball snob, I was conditioned to believe that every other sport was inferior. Football, soccer, basketball and hockey were categorized together in my narrow little brain as “the back-and-forth games.” They were faster than baseball, as is your average sloth, but all they essentially did was go back and forth.
I pretended to like football from high school and into my twenties because nearly every single person I hung out with was a football fan. That’s not an exaggeration, and I’m not sure how that happened. I never really had a favorite team, and I don’t watch it anymore. I think it would be better if they just played flag football instead of trying to pulverize each other, but I digress again.
Way back when, I taught English as a Second Language to rich kids from all over the world who were pretending to go to school so they could get visas and hang out in New York. They, and my brother-in-law, who was born in Chile, taught me to appreciate World Cup Soccer, particularly in 1998, when France beat Brazil in the finals. Again, like football, I could sort of see what the fuss was all about, but it didn’t light my soul the way a base hit up the middle with two out in the ninth does.
Then I started teaching in Queens. There were plenty of good baseball fans among the kids, and more and more soccer fans as immigration increased (not to mention cricket). But “ball” in the city is basketball, and to hundreds of the junior high school kids that I crossed paths with, basketball was a serious a matter as the heart attack I would’ve suffered if I’d played them one-on-one.
When sizing me up, shortly after demanding to know my age, hometown, marital and housing status, they’d ask me, “you got game?”. And I, at 5’9’’ and 120lbs. at the time, would smile and reply matter-of-factly, “no, I suck.” Then they might ask me who my favorite NBA team was, and I’d have to tell them delicately that I was a baseball fan and didn’t really follow basketball, and they’d look at me sort of the way you’d look at somebody who says, “I really don’t think Tom Hanks is that good an actor.”
In my first year of teaching in Rockaway, I was asked to referee the faculty-student basketball game. To this day, I have to rely on the refs to tell me when I’ve seen a personal foul on a basketball court. But I was going to do it, because first-year teachers don’t say no. Thankfully, my assistant principal, who like me majored in Mets baseball but unlike me had a minor in NBA studies, took over and bailed me out. If I had refereed that game, knives would have been drawn before halftime.
Nevertheless, for the benefit of having something else to talk about with the kids when it wasn’t baseball season, I always knew what was going on. I knew who all the NBA stars were in the 90’s and the 00’s: Jordan and Pippin on the Bulls, Hakim Olajuwon on the Rockets, Shaq on the Lakers, Patrick Ewing on the Knicks, Charles Barkley, Karl Malone, etc. etc. I’d know who was in the playoffs and occasionally watch the games. And I could always tell the kiddies that I watched the great Knicks teams of my childhood, because I did: Willis Reed, Dave DeBusschere, Earl the Pearl Monroe, Walt Frazier and Phil Jackson. Ask your grandparents, kids. Those guys could have made a basketball fan out of a duck.
Jason Kidd was the biggest star for the New Jersey Nets when I was a young teacher. The Nets had a couple of good seasons around that time, but they were usually overshadowed by the Ewing and the Knicks and their annoying courtside celebrities at the Garden.
But I already had a soft spot for the Nets because I had actually seen them play a couple of times when they were the Long Island ABA team, with Julius Erving (Dr. J.), his cool afro and the red, white and blue ABA basketballs. The first time was at the Island Garden, right next store to the place where we’d get our Christmas trees in West Hempstead. Once in a while, my father, never a sports guy, would get free tickets to see the Nets when they moved to the brand-new Nassau Coliseum, and we’d go so my mom wouldn’t be able to tell him that he never did anything besides yell at me.
New York basketball in the late ‘00’s and early ‘10’s was mostly average if not outright bad, so not even the kids at school weren’t talking about the Knicks or the Nets. By this time of course, they all had iPhones and Xboxes and Play Stations, so most of them spent their free time out in an alternative-reality ether, which I couldn’t even begin to relate to. But I did think it was pretty cool when the New Jersey Nets became the Brooklyn Nets and chose black, white and grey as the team colors. Snazzy-looking uniforms if you ask me.
And in my last couple of years in Ozone Park, a new assistant principal came in and put together a team that no middle school in Queens could beat. One of the best students in my Year 25 classes was the star, well on his way to 7 feet tall, the dean’s list of whatever college he goes to and maybe the NBA draft. You couldn’t help but soak up a little basketball appreciation working at MS 202, and maybe part of the reason I’m watching it now is that I miss that city vibe, painful as it is for me to admit.
Fast forward back to where we were sixteen paragraphs ago: Not going to the city, sitting on the couch, flipping through the Newsday and scratching the dog on the morning after Christmas. From the article about Brooklyn Nets, I found out that Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving, who had both signed with the Nets after winning championships with other teams, were playing together for the first time, and that they had won their first two games of the 20-21 season with neither the Warriors nor the Celtics putting up much of a fight. They had a former great player as a first-year coach (Steve Nash, whom my wife calls “the stern fellow”) and the buzz was that this could be their year.
So being trapped at home by a Pandemic, I decided to watch the next game, on a Sunday night against the Charlotte Hornets. I saw one of the Nets’ best players, Spencer Dimwitty, suffer a nasty season-ending knee injury, then I saw those Nets still standing come roaring back from a 14-point deficit in the fourth quarter, only to lose by two points, 106-104.
Trisha, who justifiably had to break my chops for sitting on the couch watching a back-and-forth game, said, “Wow! This is just like the Mets!”
But it was fun watching another live competition on TV again besides Jeopardy. (It was enough that we’re still grieving Alex Trebeck). So I watched the game after that. And they lost again, in overtime. Nether Durant nor Irving was playing, so I got to know some of the other guys. You can’t help but notice D’Andre Jordan, who is 6’8” with shoulders big enough to tattoo entire verses of scripture on them and a more impressive ponytail than my wife’s. I quickly adopted him as my favorite.
And though I’m already sick of the broadcast team on the Yes Network, they did teach me some of the better nicknames: Joe Harris, who seems to never miss a three-point shot, is “Joey Buckets.” Jeff Green, 34 years old and playing in his 13th season, is “Uncle Jeff.” Timothe Luwawu-Cabarrot is “TLC”, ‘cause how the hell could you say all that when you’re calling basketball play-by-play? I give Ian Eagle, the voice of the Nets, credit for calling TLC’s baskets “French Dips” and “French Connections”, but other than that, the broadcasters all giggle too damn much and between them and the pathetic fake crowd noises I’m muting the TV more and more every game.
As my first weeks of being the accidental basketball fan unfolded, Durant and Irving were back on the floor together for a game against the Washington Wizards in which they both missed shots with seconds to play and lost by one point, 123-122.
Just like the Mets.
But I started to see what makes these guys special. “KD” is 6’10’’ and moves like a man who has oil flowing through his veins instead of blood. “Kai” is 6’2’’, and one of the most gifted natural athletes I’ve ever seen playing anything. He reminds me of the last line of the song, “The Cape” by Guy Clark: “He did not know he could not fly, so he did.”
And because I flip through every page of the newspaper every day, I knew about some things in the first week of January. I knew that there was this player out in Houston, James Harden, who was unhappy with the direction of his team and wanted to be traded to the Nets so he could play with Durant and Irving. But Durant was ineligible to play for a week because he’d been exposed to Covid-19 and Irving was taking some time off, which everyone said was directly related to the Capitol Insurrection.
So I find a happy little pastime to take my mind off all the misery and keep me entertained through the winter, and the misery kicks the door in and trashes the room. But I kept watching anyway, as I had nothing else to do.
Irving never directly said that he didn’t want to play because he was upset about the Insurrection, but that’s what was widely assumed. It didn’t help that he got also caught breaking covid protocols to go to his niece’s birthday party. There were a lot of big mouths on Twitter questioning his commitment to the game and his inner fortitude.
Here are some things I’ve learned about Kyrie Irving: His mother was Sioux, and he supports the Standing Rock Reservation in North Dakota in their fight against the Dakota Pipeline, which has earned him the Sioux name “Little Mountain.” He burns sage before games. When the WNBA players opted not to play last year out of covid concerns, he donated $1.5 million towards covering their salaries. He gave $300,000 to Feeding America and helped launch Share A Meal, a NYC charity that has delivered 250,000 meals during the Pandemic. He’s trying to eat a plant-based diet and he had to apologize for punking the press into believing he was a flat-earther, which is funny as hell.
And I’ll tell you what: If I were an African American professional athlete in this country, I would think that it’s a constant moral dilemma knowing that, at the same time at which I’m serving as a hero and a role model to kids who badly need one, I’m also providing entertainment for rednecks married to karens who pull their kids in close if they see a guy who looks like me coming up the street and yahoos who tried to destroy the country because my people outvoted their people. That wouldn’t be an easy thing for me to reconcile. The same guy who tried to kill a policeman with the pole of an American flag on the steps of the Capitol probably had shit to say about Colin Kaepernick kneeling during the National Anthem. I wouldn’t want these unrepentant assholes rooting for me to throw a ball through a hoop, either.
So I’ll appreciate the joy of watching the joy that Kyrie Irving gets out of playing basketball at a level that few mortals can, and as far as I’m concerned, he can take the day off anytime he needs to.
Meanwhile, in Kyrie’s absence during the first weeks of January, KD was trying to carry the team, but they were treading water. I continued to get to know the other guys, including Landry Shamet, to whom I like to yell, “Dammit, Shamet!” when he misses, and I’m sure I’m not the only one. I also came to appreciate Travis Allen, a young center with afro that would stop Dr J. in his tracks, and Caris LaVert, sort of a Kyrie-Lite, but very talented.
Then I met The Beard.
Brooklyn made a big trade on January 12, giving up Allen and LaVert and all their draft picks for the next hundred years to get James Harden. The only thing I knew about him was that he looked like the guy you want to be around when the party gets going. The bubbleheads on TV and the articles in the Newsday were all speculating as to how an elite, MVP player who led the league in scoring three times would get used to sharing the ball. Harden replied that he just wanted to win a championship, which is the only thing he hadn’t accomplished.
It was an interesting subplot. I kept watching the games.
You might know this already: The man is a magician, a grand imperial wizard of basketball. He passes the ball behind his back and over his shoulder without looking, he passes under other guys’ legs, he passes across court through a crowd of large, sweaty men to put it right into the unguarded hands of Joey Buckets for the three, or up over the basket where DeAndre Jordan brings it home with a pony-tail flyin’, bible-thumpin’ slam dunk. He hits field goals and free throws like my dog marks telephone poles and I pour cups of coffee and he regularly tricks his opponents into fouling him when he drives into the paint.
Watching Harden, Durant and Irving come together, I finally “got” basketball on the same level I’ve always understood baseball. A baseball game is a Beethoven Symphony. There are slow, quiet movements where you’re drawn into a particular instrument, but you know if you follow along, they’ll be great bursts of joyous noise that will lift your soul and set your spirit free, or sometimes make you weep.
Basketball is jazz.
Forgive me for just figuring this out at 57. I was busy learning other stuff.
A quick Google search credits this idea to a joke by Michael Scott on “The Office”, but Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Wynton Marsalis were both on it before that. Marsalis said that both basketball and jazz “reward improvisation and split-second decision making against the pressure of time.”
To say that two basketball teams are just going back and forth is to say that a jazz ensemble is just playing “When The Saints Go Marching In” over and over again. One of the things I love about baseball is the endless possibilities. As the great Mets’ announcer Bob Murphy would say, every time you come to the ballpark, there’s a chance that you’ll see something you’ve never seen before. You could subsequently say that about every time the ball leaves the pitcher’s hands. But I never realized until watching the Brooklyn Nets this year that basketball is also full of endless possibilities, every time the shot clock starts.
My Netsies went on a tear through the Western Conference this month, winning five games straight on the road against some of the best teams in the league. The last game of the road trip was tied with two minutes left and ended with Harden throwing himself into Paul George of the Clippers to force him into an offensive foul, thus taking two points off the board and getting two free throws, of which he hit both, after somehow missing two other free throws just minutes earlier, plus a shot by Irving that would have bounced off the rim if DeAndre Jordan hadn’t reached up like he was touching the hand of God to guide the ball through the hoop.
Nets 112- Clippers 108. A half-game behind Philadelphia for first place with 20 wins and ten losses. If you’re thinking about jumping on the bandwagon, I was the last one on the back, so I’ll help you up.
One of my favorite bands is The Band. There were five guys, each an exceptional player on one or more instruments. There are hardly any solos in The Band’s songs. But each musician is aware of what the others are doing, and they seamlessly create space for all the sounds to come through individually at the same time you that hear them in harmony.
All these years, I had no idea they were playing basketball.
In baseball news, the Mets are loaded with talent and personality this year, and their new owner is a nerdy hedge-fund guy with wads of money who wants desperately for everyone to like him.
In basketball news, there will be 300 masked, socially-distanced fans at the Barclays Center tonight when the Nets play the Sacramento Kings, the first time spectators have been present in a year. When the Pandemic is over, I’ll be a half-hour train ride away, at least part of the time. Maybe a way to get that change of scenery next February.
It appears that I’ve become a basketball fan. People can evolve. While the Boys of Summer are doing their stretches down in spring training, and President Biden is shoveling us out from four years of the toxic, deadly incompetence and corruption that at times felt like a blizzard that would bury us alive, I’m enjoying the happy, swashbuckling exploits of Brooklyn’s Boys of Winter.
Trisha always knows what night there’s a game on. When Jeopardy ends, I walk out to the kitchen to heat up a cup, and on the way, I yell out, “BROOKLANNN!!!”
I also shop, cook and clean, so she’s letting me stay for now.
Of course this means conflicts are bound to occur in my pathetically, disgustingly cushy little existence. What happens when June comes around, I’m still refreshing the CVS website for my vaccine, Jacob DeGrom is throwing a perfect game with only 80 pitches in the sixth and the Nets, who have never won a championship, are up 3-1 in the finals? And what if both of those games are on the West Coast and the next morning promises perfect kayaking conditions on Long Island or a perfect morning for a bike ride on the rail trial in Copake Falls?
Bob Murphy had another great line. Every spring, there’d be six good pitchers for five spots, or five outfielders for three spots, and all the talk would be about how the manager would decide who plays and who sits.
Bob referred to this as a “happy problem.”
I suppose that’s my wish for everyone of good will right now. May we all live to see days when we have happier problems.
The South Taconic Trail chops through miles and miles of deep woods, climbing the peaks of three mountains while rambling north and south through three towns in New York and one town in Massachusetts. Near the point at which those two states and Connecticut all stand on one foot, there’s a side trail along the Mighty South Taconic that scrambles up and down Mt. Frissell and leads to the far Mightier Appalachian Trail, which runs parallel at that point just a few miles to the east. Behind our backyard on Trisha’s Mountain is five and a half miles of unbroken wilderness to the east, stretching to the next cup of caahfee in Sheffield, Mass. This wild and pristine swath of the Earth is one of the Nature Conservancy’s designated Last Great Places, which lends to its no street cred.
And it all smells fantastic.
Along a ridge on Trisha’s Mountain, which is really the southern descent of Sunset Rock Mountain, is a trail that’s only about a mile long, called either the Wood Thrush Trail or the Blue Trail, depending upon whom you ask. The Wood Thrush Trail sounds more like morning in the English countryside and The Blue Trail sounds more like a Cannonball Adderly record, so for these purposes I’m going with Wood Thrush. This humble and fabulous little trail starts at Sunset Rock Road, just off the high point of North Mountain Road, then provides a fine aerobic workout up and down a few hollows before easing down at the end into the camping area of Taconic State Park.
On the official New York State Parks South Taconic Trail Map, available for $6.95 at the park office, the Wood Thrush Trail appears to be within close proximity of the point at which our lawn meets the wilderness. I was very excited at this discovery. So much so that I bought a Fiskars 29-inch machete axe on Amazon for $40 with which I planned to bushwhack my own trail through the woods and up the mountain, thus connecting to the Wood Thrush Trail, which would connect me to Sunset Rock Road, which would connect me to the Sunset Rock Trail, where I could in turn access the South Taconic Trail, along which I could travel south past Bash Bish Falls, up and over Mt. Frissell and on to the Appalachian Trail, from where I would have my choice heading north to Mt. Kahtadin in Maine or south to Springer Mountain in Georgia.
It’s a cool looking axe, as you can see. I showed it to Trisha when Amazon delivered it and she said, in her best Karl Childers from the movie “Slingblade”: “I’d like to be baptized.” That’s why I’m in love, boys.
But ain’t nobody gonna be walking to Georgia from our backyard.
Not that I didn’t try. It was in February of 2020. Six weeks after we bought our house in the country and three weeks before the criminal mismanagement of a coronavirus outbreak became a worldwide pandemic that broke everything and screwed everybody. A Buddhist friend from Long Island was doing us a huge favor (kindness and generosity being two of the five pillars of Buddhism) by following Jack, Mookie, Lou the Subaru and me up Route 22 in his van carrying stuff for the house, including two new toilets, obviously the most valuable of cargo, which would later be installed by a local plumber who plays Santa Claus at the Copake Town Christmas Parade every year and plays the organ at a local church every Sunday morning.
Details like that are what makes life worth living.
Being familiar with the area, my Buddhist friend stopped at Brewster Pastry, located in a grand city-state shopping plaza on a shining hill just south of the official upstate line at the Red Rooster, to procure for us the most delicious danish ring I have ever experienced. Due to family obligations, which evolved in the time that took him to drive the 36 miles of Interstate 684, it turned out that instead of crashing on an air mattress on the mountain, which was the original plan, he only had a few hours before he had to turn around and go back to Long Island.
Patience and compassion are two more pillars of Buddhism. Plus he gets credit for the fifth one, wisdom, for knowing about Brewster Pastry.
After we unloaded the toilets and other somewhat lesser valuables, and after a cup of coffee and a memorable danish, we decided to do a little reconnaissance on the Wood Thrush Trail. It was dry and cold under a powder blue winter sky, a perfect afternoon for a good little hike through the woods.
To save time, we drove the three quarters of a mile uphill to the corner of North Mountain and Sunset Rock Road, which is a narrow dirt road that twists all the way through the wilderness from Copake Falls to Mt. Washington, Mass. The parking lot for the Sunset Rock Trail, which merges with the Mighty South Taconic, is about a mile straight uphill, but there is also a sign warning that the road is not maintained from November until March and I don’t think they’re just saying that.
Having been either cruelly deluded by the South Taconic Trail Map or too stupid to comprehend its scale, I figured that we’d eventually be able to see at least the tops of the houses along North Mountain Road, of which we’d be looking for the seventh one. It seemed promising that the trail actually started within a stone’s throw of the road.
As trails are hiked by humans, of course, they get a little wider and a little less wild over time, until they eventually become the Cross Island Parkway. It was clear that the Wood Thrush Trail, despite its frequent blue trail markers, was not as heavily traversed as the other local trails. It also became clear that, after one big dip, we were steadily gaining elevation, to the point where we could see the sky angling through the top of the mountain to our left. This meant that the houses that were down there somewhere to our right were hidden from view because of the extreme slope, except for the chimney and the very top of the great center hall colonial colossus next door to us. It was hard to judge the distance between us and the house, and it was of course, straight downhill. I had already figured out from the $6.95 trail map that there was a 400-foot elevation gain between the yard and the trail, which didn’t seem like a lot until one looked down.
Meanwhile, not only did my Buddhist friend have a tight schedule that winter afternoon, but I also had an appointment to have a propane tank delivered and connected to the stove sometime after 2 p.m. by the good folks at Herrington’s. It was and is my first ever propane tank, so it was obviously a special moment for me. Before we headed back to the house, we took a look at our surroundings on the Wood Thrush Trail. The plan was to take a mental snapshot of sorts of the spot on the trail that seemed to be directly in back of the yard, then walk up from the yard, back into the woods and back up to the trail, which despite the brush would be a mostly possible in February but completely impossible in April without a machete axe and a pair of loppers at the very least, and would also more than likely end in a prolonged bout of Lyme disease.
A quick stop for more danish and coffee and we were climbing the hill behind the house and stepping into the domain of the bears and the owls. I had already ventured into the woods one other time, the day we closed on the house. According to Zillow property line maps, which are almost uniformly useless, Trisha and I own some of these woods. The rest belongs to the People of the State of New York, so technically we own that, too. I had also seen on my trail map that a small stream ran through the woods not far from the edge of the yard. Some careful stepping and a few whacks with the machete got me to this stream, which, on that day at least, was not much more than a trickle of muddy water cutting through the rocky ground, easily bridged if one were blazing a trail to Maine.
My Buddhist friend understands that life is suffering, but the fact was he only had one pair of shoes with him and he was looking at another three-hour drive. So while I pulled myself up the hill with a big walking stick, he took his time to avoid any serious mud.
A few pertinent facts regarding the almost 58-year-old body to which my soul is tethered:
It has spent the majority of its life on the South Shore of Long Island, where there are far more escalators than hills, and no matter how much time it’s spent upstate, it has never truly gotten used to climbing.
It picked up a 24-piece case of Redpack 28 oz. Whole Tomatoes in Aisle 3 of the North Woodmere Foodtown in October of 1981 without bending its knees first, walked a mile back home looking a human jackknife, and has had a pain in its lumbar region ever since.
It was sideswiped and thrown to the ground by a large golden retriever in March of 1989, in a case of tragic miscommunication, resulting in several broken ribs on its right side.
It fell from a chair that flipped from under it sometime in late summer of 2013 while it was stapling bulletin board paper over a white board in Room 111 of Middle School 202, banging its left leg off a desk on the way down, resulting in a cramping pain every time it tries to accelerate or walk uphill.
But in my magical thinking world, I’m just as capable of blazing a trail up a mountain through the woods as anybody. All I have to do is switch into Little Engine That Could Mode and play through the pain.
Remind me of that when this body has 68 years on it. Maybe I’ll still have a sense of humor about it, but you may find me a grave man. (Joke credit: William Shakespeare).
I took the four-hundred-foot incline one step and one breath at a time, stopping every so often to avoid dropping dead of a heart attack. I kept calling down to my Buddhist friend that I was pretty sure I could see the path from where I was, but this was magical thinking as well. At the point where it became impossible to move forward without grabbing hold of the nearest small tree, I got the call on my rectangle from my soon to be new friend Paul from Herrington’s, who is just about everything you’d hope for in the guy that services your furnace and makes sure you don’t blow yourself up with propane. It was time to put this adventure to rest, and I still have no idea how close I got to the Wood Thrush Trail.
I took the Wood Thrush Trail again for a spectacularly good little hike in early May. I got past the point reached three months before with my Buddhist friend and I found a spot where a dry culvert ran straight down the mountain. Across that culvert, a mighty oak had fallen. So like the insects and fungi and other parasites that also took advantage of this tragedy, I found a great new place to sit down in the woods for a while and get some thinking done.
This accomplished, I turned around and headed back to Sunset Rock Road. While the sign marking the trailhead there clearly states “Campground 1 Mile”, and I have no idea how close I got to the campground, which I really didn’t want to get to anyway because it would mean a whole lot of uphill on the way back, it sure felt like I had walked over a mile.
One evening in August, Trisha and I were sitting in camp chairs on the front lawn, doing our Zen sunset thing, and a couple of guys came walking down the road from the direction of Sunset Rock. Figuring out that we were sitting out there just to watch the sunset, one of them asked if we do this every night. We told them every night we can. Then he told us that they were walking back to the campground after walking up the Blue Trail, believing it would be an easy mile, and that they could then walk from there up to the trail that goes to the rock, which, in the ultimate of ironies, closes at sunset.
They didn’t make it to Sunset Rock, and they were now racing daylight to get down North Mountain and back to their campsite. But they stopped to chat from ten feet away. One of the guys said that the trail seemed a lot longer than a mile. I said that’s what I thought.
So I checked it on Google Earth.
It’s a mile.
Maybe he also picked up a case of tomatoes when he was younger, or he got run over by a dog or decided to stand on a chair to staple bulletin board paper. Or maybe a mile through the woods is so full of sensory stimuli that it seems longer than it is.
Or maybe it’s just that trail.
The Sunset Rock Trail, which is a little over a mile round trip, does not seem as long when you’re hiking it. It could be because it changes so drastically in such a short time, or it could be because after not much effort at all you get to sit on a rock and look down over the Peaceful Roe Jan Valley and out into the Catskills, infinity and beyond while you eat your peanut butter and jelly sandwich.
I would have expected that a trail that leads to a rock with a million-dollar view would be a tough uphill climb, but most of the uphill is in the car on the seasonal dirt road to the parking lot. I sure enough feel the burn where my leg hit the desk on the one steep ascent, but my walking stick does most of the work.
Once you level off on the Sunset Rock Trail, you’ve reached a new climate with a little dash of alpine. Here you enter a clearing where there are smaller trees and bushes. There are big clumps of mountain laurel blooming in June and July. The air seems to improve suddenly. You’re at the turnoff where the Mighty South Taconic moves on north to its terminus at Catamount Ski Resort, and if you go that way by mistake, you’ll be back in the deep woods and you’ll miss the rock and your peanut butter and jelly sandwich. So don’t do that. Walk to the right.
If you go the right way, you pass through a wild place that looks like it was personally landscaped by God. It’s a tunnel created by high hardwoods on either side leading you through a path of ferns. One does have to be aware of mother#$%ing snakes up here, as they like to move towards the light when it starts to warm, and they like big sunny rocks as much as people do. And those particular Taconic-Berkshire mother#$%ing snakes just happen to be deadly rattlesnakes.
I’ve never run into one, thank Jesus, but I keep them in the back of my mind, like my own impending death. But so far, I’ve evaded both. I’m told that rattlesnake encounters are relatively rare. Besides which, this one little stretch of trail seems so removed from civilization that you might just as likely run into gnomes and fairies, which, while they can enchant you, will not attack you with venomous poison.
Still, I never let my guard down.
The view from Sunset Rock just goes on and on and on, and under ideal conditions, it will make all your worries disappear and you will be born again. But there’s always the chance that a few of the droves have broken loose from the Bash Bish Trail and have wandered up to the rock, waiting to annoy you upon your arrival. A friend of mine who hiked the Mighty South Taconic all the way up from the campground to the rock one day ended up having to share the view with a group of people who just wouldn’t shut up, a situation he described perfectly as, “kind of a buzzkill, John Daniel.”
Not to take anything away from the Bash Bish Trail. It is the Kingdom of the Droves and it always has been, but it’s a beautiful, beautiful place that, ultimately, people can’t ruin, although they have tried very, very hard.
First Insider Tip on the Bash Bish Trail: Take a Monday or a Tuesday off from work. Or be prepared to share it with lots and lots of people on a Saturday or Sunday. Second Insider Tip: All Massachusetts State Parks are alcohol-free, by decree of Governor Michael Dukakis forty years ago. So if you happen to be working on a forty in a brown paper bag as you swagger along the trail, because that’s how you roll, you’re going to have to either finish it or pour it out on the state line.
Third Insider Tip: When you get to the falls, don’t even think about climbing up to the top and diving 200 feet down into the inviting pool of water below, because if you make it you’ll likely get arrested by the Mass Park Police, and if you’re anything like twenty-five reckless or inattentive people in the last century or the mythical Native American woman named Bash Bish with a lot of emotional baggage who didn’t make it, it will be the last thing you do.
Trisha would call this an “unchristian” thought, but it is kind of cool to live near one of the most dangerous tourist attractions in the world. More no street cred. And the thing I love about the falls most of all is, no matter where I am or what I’m doing, It’s always up there Bashin’ and Bishin’, twenty-four-seven, waiting for me to come back and stare at it. It’s Bashin’ and Bishin’ right now. People like me who have been hiking up to the falls for years feel a sense of ownership, like they’re on their way to the home of an old friend who’s always up for a visit. People who have visited once never forget it, and they usually plan to get back there someday.
The trail from the parking lot to the falls is the epitome of a good little hike. Which is to say, that, among good little hikes, there is no better good little hike. Especially if you’re Mookie. Three-quarters of a mile through a state and a commonwealth, deep woods full of interesting scents rising to your left, the trail wide enough to ensure social distancing for people and dogs passing the other way, although Mookie doesn’t really know what those words mean. All he knows is there are people and dogs of all sizes everywhere and the freshest swimming water in two counties. It’s a festival of external stimuli.
The instant that my nine-and-a-half-year-old labby gets out of the car at the Bash Bish parking lot, he’s a puppy again. The first stop is to check the trail kiosks for the latest pee mail. Then he knows the path slopes down gradually until the place where he goes swimming, so he takes me for a walk, and I let him lead.
On one good little hike, when we he was around two years old, Mookie and I were playing in the Bash Bish Brook when we met some nice Massachusetts hippie girls – paisley bandana kerchiefs, nose rings and everything – who had a baby girl with them. The baby was six weeks old, but the hippie girls thought it would be cool for the baby to meet Mookie, and Mookie thinks it would be cool to meet everybody on Earth. And there I was, standing in cold water under warm summer skies, watching an animal for whom I was legally responsible and whose teeth were designed to rip through flesh and bone leaning in to sniff the face of a six-week-old baby. It was one of those moments early on when I realized I was walking around with God’s Most Perfect Dog.
And by the way. That water? Go ahead and drink it. Fill up a bottle with it. Yeah, I know, dogs and barefoot droves. Still. It’s holy water. It cures everything. @ me.
Everybody loves this stretch of the Bash Bish trail. On hot days, people stake out a spot on the brook and just sit there in for hours. There’s lots of big boulders in the middle of the brook to play on or take your narcissistic selfies on. Please be advised though, that if you decide to build a little balancing stone statue on one of the boulders, which seems to have been a thing for a while now, the manager of Taconic State Park, normally the most affable of gentleman, will come along at some point and angrily kick them over. God put the stones where he needed them. As much fun as stone balancing is, God know what he’s doing. Leave the damn stones alone.
Things got out of control in the summer of 2020 during the Pandemic. Droves invaded from every direction. They parked all over Copake Falls and dragged barbecue equipment and other bad ideas into the park and down the trail to the falls. On the weekends of these Drove Invasion Days, Mookie and I went up to the Roe Jan Park that the droves don’t know about – yet- to get in our swim and our good little hikes.
By the third week of July, there were police roadblocks at the two entrances to Copake Falls off Route 22. To go get take-out from Dad’s Diner or the Church Street Deli, I’d have to get waved on to make the left out of the hamlet, then fifteen minutes later, smile, roll down the window and say, goofily, “Hi! Just goin’ back to my house with lunch!” to armed law enforcement officers. Fact is, all my ID says I’m from Long Island, so I had to rely on their kind nature to gain entry to Route 344.
This insanity reached its zenith when people began lining up in their cars in a staging area for hours on Saturdays and Sundays just to get the chance to get in a good little hike to Bash Bish Falls. Mookie and I stuck to the Rail Trail, the Roe Jan Park and our secret little spot under the bridge.
You can’t blame the droves. Not all of them were unrepentant assholes from Long Island. Some of them were good, nature-respecting folks who were just trying to get out of the house. Of course, I didn’t have to clean up after the unrepentant assholes, so my sympathy comes easy. But these have been miserable times, and I’ve been using a good little hike through the woods to Bash Bish Falls for years to inject my spirit with some instant happy. Why would I, a nauseatingly lucky son of a bitch, deny that to anybody else, especially now?
Mookie and I went back to the Bash Bish Trail on the last day of September. It was a Wednesday. To the untrained, non-park-employee eye, the area showed no signs of the human invasion it had experienced over the summer, but the friendly Mass Park Policeman on duty that day to make sure nobody jumps off the falls told me stories that would bend your bones. The air was crisp, the trees were in color, and the brook was not too cold yet. So Mookie got in his swimming, then we walked along and said hi to people in masks as we climbed the big hill past the Mass border and up into the trees, where you’re at eye level with the birds. Our old friend was waiting for us up at the end of the trail, Bashin’ and Bishin’ away, and we sat on a rock, and we stared for a while.
We were there again for the First Day Hike on New Year’s Day of 2021, when everyone was guilty of a little magical thinking, but that’s how it should be. The First Day Hike was led by the affable park manager and his beautiful Newfoundland dog Mahi Bear, whom Mookie resents because Mahi gets more attention. There were only about ten or twelve people with us on the hike, but there were lots and lots of other visitors on the trail. The weather had suddenly improved and a few hundred people had the same idea at the same time: 2020 was such catastrophe of sadness that they were damned if they weren’t going to start 2021 by heading up to Bash Bish Falls for an injection of happiness. We greeted every single one of them, and they greeted us back. A few of them told Mookie how beautiful he was, and he wagged to say he knew that, but thank you for saying it.
Mookie and I love the Bash Bish Trail, and the Harlem Valley Rail Trail, which is great for broken down old guys from Long Island. Neither one of us needs to walk to Maine, or even the three mountains of the Mighty South Taconic Trail. But it is nice to know they’re up there. In his good dog life, he has gotten little licks of peanut butter while looking down from Sunset Rock over the Peaceful Roe Jan Valley. And if I want to go get lost in the woods for a while, my giant oak tree bench on the Wood Thrush Trail is there waiting for me. If it’s time for a little excitement and some holy water, we’re off on another good little hike to check on our old friend, always up there Bashin’ and Bishin’, and always up for a visit.
And if it ever seems like I’m taking any of this for granted, please don’t hesitate to pick up a couple of stones from the brook and aim them at my head.
We knew we’d be going back to see The Dee’s again before Thanksgiving. We just weren’t sure if we’d be going back to see Joey or Tommy.
We hadn’t been inside the gigantic, glass-walled store at Dee’s Nursery after the first frost since the last time we visited Santa Claus as part of our annual Christmas tree hunting and gathering tradition. The inside store is Joey’s domain, although his dad, Tom Sr., the Dee’s patriarch, still hangs out by the registers while we watch the damage we’ve done to ourselves in slow motion. Usually we won’t visit until April, when it’s time to load up Lou the Subaru with bags of tall fescue grass seed, with the topsoil and the peat moss to throw on top of it. Whether it’s Grass Seed Day, or a month later when we start loading up on annuals, veggies and compost, Trisha and I always get a hearty greeting from Joey. Long ago we maxed out on planting trees and shrubs and hybrid tea roses and perennials on our little 60 X 100 plot, so we usually don’t get out to the yard much anymore to see Joey’s older brother Tommy until the Christmas trees show up. But Tommy is always good for a hearty greeting, too. If you were Joey or Tommy, you’d be glad to see us, too.
The Dee’s Nursery is a second-generation family business in Oceanside, Long Island, started in 1958. It was one of my mom’s favorite places to visit in the springtime. Our Christmas Tree hunting and gathering tradition when I was a kid was to go to Garden World in Franklin Square, where they had reindeer you could feed, which is horrible in retrospect, but I suppose my parents and everyone else involved meant well at the time. But Mom loved going to see The Dee’s in the springtime, and taught me to love it, too. For a local, independent business, they have a huge operation, and their selection, quality and service in all things gardening just can’t be beat. Tommy told us one year that he drives a crew up to the family’s own Christmas Tree farm in Franklin, Maine every November. He was very happy and very proud of that, as well as being proud of their annual donation of thousands of Christmas trees shipped to troops serving overseas. And we are always happy and proud to buying one of those trees from this family year after year, comin’ to us straight from Maine.
Every business transaction should be as pleasant.
Unfortunately, we’re in America, so while the The Dee’s are all about service, selection and quality, their prices can be beat quite easily in any season, specifically by the likes of the Home Depot, the presence of which in Rego Park, Queens convinced my late father-in-law to close down his own second-generation nursery business, McCloskey’s Florist, shortly after I joined his family. That was tough to watch.
So we’re willing to pay The Dee’s a couple of extra bucks to support a local business and stay out of the Dante’s Inferno which is the Valley Stream Home Depot parking lot. And in addition to helping support The Dee Boys and their families, we have two other local guys: Ray, whose dad started Alma’s Garden Center on Sunrise Highway in Lynbrook around the time I was born, and Dave, who owns Di Setta Nursery down in Woodmere. A conservative estimate of $50,000 big ones over the course of eighteen years have been split among these three businesses by two slightly touched people who consider growing flowers in the yard to be an unnegotiable necessity.
In years when money was tight, we bought our flowers and our dirt on credit cards, which is quite stupid when considered objectively and I wouldn’t recommend it. But we had to have them. In our defense, we’ve never spent money on lavish vacations and fancy restaurants. So it goes that I may die without seeing Yosemite or the Grand Canyon, but damn you should have seen our gardens in June.
I was away from the gardens a lot this year. More so than in any year since we began building them up from nothing in 2002. I spent about eight weeks of elapsed time in 2020 up in the Peaceful Roe Jan Valley, among the Taconic-Berkshire Mountains that nature built from nothing a couple of million years ago. There are lots of wildflowers and flowering shrubs around Trisha’s Mountain, but nothing we’ve planted, which I suppose could change in time, but as I pointed out in Chapter 5, it would take some intense negotiations with the deer and the bunnies and the groundhogs to get it off the ground.
We never took it for granted for a second this year. It was our incredibly good fortune to have a property up in the country with lots of oxygen, especially in the midst of all the Pandemic misery this year – when just down the road there were people sitting on line in their cars for hours outside Taconic State Park waiting for a chance to just take a walk to Bash Bish Falls, and less fortunate people than those people were dying on hospital beds. We’re only a year into our second home owning adventure as I write this, so the novelty has not even come close to wearing off yet. We’re still just walking around feeling stupid lucky. Knock freaking wood.
So I wasn’t giving the gardens a lot of thought during those eight weeks when I wasn’t in them. They were being watered or rained on and the weeds would wait ‘till I got back. I suppose in my mind I was beginning to move on from them. But that’s how it happens, isn’t it. You think about something until something else comes along that requires bandwidth in your brain, and the thing you were thinking about starts getting crowded out. Sometimes when you look back, you realize that’s kind of a scary process. The more time I spent up n the country this year, getting to know our upstate home, the less I was thinking about the downstate one. Not only can you not be in two places at once, it’s hard to even think of two places at once.
But after all these years, most of the landscaped space on Duffy’s Creek is on autopilot anyway. Most of the trial and error has been done. The losers don’t grow here anymore, and the winners come back stronger every year.
The Big Plan is, of course, to phase out Duffy’s Creek and live full-time on Trisha’s Mountain. When that actually happens remains a question. Back in the Aughts, I noticed on a sign that Copake Town was founded in 1824, so I was thinking I could be up here full time by the time the Copake Bicentennial comes around, maybe even walk down Main Street on stilts dressed as Uncle Sam. I have big dreams.
But that would mean only three more growing season’s on Duffy’s Creek. And that would also mean eventually selling the house, perhaps to someone who rips out all the gardens and replaces them with heavily fertilized grass, or worse, just lets them go to hell, which wouldn’t take long at all.
Once I landed back on Long Island in mid-November of 2020, following my nineteenth trip up and down Route 22 for the year, this time to take delivery of a new industrial-grade humidifier for the basement, I decided to get off the road for a while. I’d been back and forth eight times in thirteen weeks, and the plan (in progress as I write this) was to stay on the creek for six weeks, through Thanksgiving and Christmas. Mookie in particular was exhausted from all the traveling. We needed a break.
But unlike Mookie, I’m not good at doing nothing, no matter how hard or how often I try. I enjoy doing nothing, but after a while I have to do something. I admire people who can keep doing nothing going. I decided that not only was I going to clean up the gardens down to the last fallen leaf, but that this year, since I had the time, I was going to give them all a damn good mulching. And not only that, I was going to power wash the patio so it would already be clean in the spring. I have big dreams.
And I love mulch. I love topsoil and compost, too: The look, the smell, the feel, everything. I suppose I could live without the weight. But still. There’s no more agreeable afternoon activity to me than getting down and dirty in the gardens.
We have seven of them. They all have names. In the front are two semicircle raised beds built with river stone. One is my creation, which starts out as a well-mannered and proper bed of tulips and daffodils in the spring and devolves into an insane tangle of sunflowers and zinnias by July. I call that the Crazy Summer Garden. The opposite semicircle is Trisha’s statelier “Cottage Garden”, highlighted by a giant purple beautyberry bush, chiefly the domain of our resident mockingbird no matter how hard Lyle the Cat stares through the window at him. There’s mock orange and flowering quince around the front, coneflower and bee balm in the middle and creeping purple phlox cascading over the stones. Unlike my garden, somebody had a plan.
On the side of the garage was the tomato and vegetable garden. This year I phased that out and threw in a couple of dahlias which I mostly neglected despite their beauty. I couldn’t keep the damn squirrels away from the tomatoes, and I didn’t want to grow lettuce and broccoli that I wasn’t home to eat or give away. But I still grew cucumbers in another little patch next to the shed this year, way more than I could use, which was good news for a neighbor on the creek who loves cucumber sandwiches. Meanwhile, my 2020 bread and butter pickles were another raging success.
Between our backyard fence and the creek is my Wetland Garden. In one section, I’ve been naturalizing purple and pink native asters for ten years now, and let me tell you, come September, my aster is the most spectacular aster you’ve ever seen. In another section are shrubs that don’t mind drinking crappy brackish water; red twig dogwood, rosa rugosa and winterberry holly, plus a red cedar tree that my brother and I saved from being uprooted after Hurricane Sandy, which is now known as the Leaning Cedar. Most of these plants were, of course, bought from Tommy Dee, many on credit cards. The whole thing is held back from the creek with a bulkhead of logs, wire fencing and dirt that I carted in after ripping out forty years of thug brush eighteen years ago. I had the time of my life.
Along a wooden fence are Trisha’s hybrid tea roses. The roses also stretch into a spot between two houses that we call the Secret Garden. All the roses have cultivar names and stories which she’s told me lots of times because I asked, and she planted many of them in memory of people. Apparently, their preferred pronoun is “she”, as in, “she needs to be cut back.” I can’t keep much of this straight, but I do try really hard. And Trisha works very hard at keeping the hybrid tea roses sprayed with the stuff that keeps them from getting eaten up by little parasites every year. You can get high off the aroma of Trisha’s rose garden in June, and often we do. But one season of neglect and they’d be nothing but angry, thorny green sticks.
Out the back door is my Patio Garden. My parents had a deck when we bought the house. They had it built in the 1970’s, when you were required to build a deck in your suburban backyard under penalty of law. The deck had seen better days by the time we bought it, so we were already planning to rip it out and replace it with a patio when we visited the Berkshire Botanical Garden in Stockbridge, Mass. It was there that I encountered the Herb Associates, a group of volunteers that maintained an herb garden with a patio right outside a kitchen in one of the buildings on the grounds.
I have to admit, my biggest takeaway from this experience was the sheer joy of knowing that there was a group of old ladies from Stockbridge who called themselves the Herb Associates, but I also liked the idea. Eventually, the garden out the back door on Duffy’s Creek became a combination of herbs, perennials and annuals surrounding a loose-laid brick patio that looks like the mason who built it was actually an English teacher on summer vacation.
Around the patio, I have planters where I put the same annuals every year because I know they’ll behave themselves and look great doing it: Geraniums and lantana, both in red, white mandevilla, some years white jasmine if I want to splurge, plus some basil and oregano that I didn’t get around to harvesting this year. Plus I have three highbush blueberries in planters on the patio and four more on the side of the garage, which I’ve used to make some sublime pies over the years, and which us make us very popular with robins.
Since we’ve done all the heavy planting (and transplanting), and the gardens are what they are, most of the work now is adding compost in spring and keeping everything weeded and watered. Invariably, since you only have to get dirty once, I’ll do all the weeding in one shot once every two or three weeks. I can tell which days were weeding days just by looking at my Fitbit history. Any days when I walked 25,000 steps and saw some serious cardio orange and red on my heartbeat chart, those were the days I was out playing in the dirt.
After all these years of pulling weeds, I know every one of them personally, many by name. I can tell you, for instance, that every year I have to pull out deadly nightshade. And every year, deadly nightshade says, “Yeah, OK. Whatever, dude. I’ll be back.” Late in the season, I have to pull out white snakeroot, which can poison milk if cows eat it, and reportedly killed Abraham Lincoln’s mother. Weeding is serious business.
The fall cleanup is actually the biggest job in the gardens now. First is deadheading all the perennials and pulling out the dried-up ghosts of hundreds of zinnias and marigolds and other annuals. Then comes raking out all the leaves and cultivating the soil, then chopping out the last of this year’s weeds. It takes hours and hours and hours. Which is great if, like me, you enjoy this sort of thing, and you happen to have hours and hours and hours.
Any teacher who rides the rhythms of the school year knows that the fall semester is insanely busy. So for all the years I was on that ride, I’d check the Weather Channel app constantly to see what Saturdays and what Sundays would be suitably benign enough to get out and clean up the yard. And knowing how long each section took, I could plan out what I could get done in the time I had. My ultimate goal was to get a bed of cedar mulch down on every garden surface once all the leaves were raked up and the annuals were pulled out and the perennials were cut back and the deadly nightshade and the white snakeroot and all their outlaw buddies were on the brush pile.
I very rarely got anywhere close to that goal. Some years were better than others. Some years I’d still be cleaning out last years’ dead stuff in April. But a couple of years, I got all the mulch down, and it somehow made going to work easier knowing that I did it. This year, with a stretch of freakishly warm weather and a freakish amount of time on my hands, I realized that the attaining the ultimate goal of a damn good full mulching, topped off by a power washing, would somehow make standing around inside the house and looking out the windows all winter a lot easier. I cleaned the gardens until they screamed for mercy and gave them a long overdue mulching.
I usually go for the dyed red cedar mulch, but this year, Dave Di Setta, who keeps his mulch right at the front gate for easy access, only had fifteen bags of red left, and seeing as it takes thirty bags total (and three round trips for Lou the Subaru) I went half red and half plain brown this year.
it’s a beautiful sight and a warm, fuzzy feeling for this OCD sufferer. Not only is it a nice warm blankie for all the plants and enrichment for the soil, it’s also much easier to track what plants are breaking the soil next spring, meaning it’s also harder for the weeds to hide. So in the words of Cosmo Kramer, you’ve got to mulch. You’ve got to.
In the midst of this herculean effort, completed in three-or-four-hour blocks of time over the course of eight nice-weather days, I also put up the Christmas lights, which look delightful and which I absolutely hate doing, and which nobody will actually come to the house to see for themselves. I think I do it for my parents, most of all, and for the memories it conjures up. I have no control over whether any future owners of the property will celebrate Christmas.
Which brings us to the tree. Last December, which was two-thousand years ago, was very exciting for us. We were closing on a house in Copake Falls, a dream we had dreamed for twenty years. The closing was set for the 20th of December, the day the boiler stopped working in the house on what was not yet Trisha’s Mountain, and the closing had to be postponed. Someone flipped the reset switch on the boiler the next day and it’s been working since (knock wood again), and the closing was finally a done deal a week later, on the 27th. We reserved one of our old cabins at Taconic State Park to stay over both times, to avoid nighttime winter driving, which can kill you.
Fortunately, we had the World’s Most Responsible Teenager on the block to take care of the cats on both nights, but this time, she had the added pressure of watering the live Christmas tree next to the radiator in the living room. Leaving a live Christmas tree unattended, even overnight, gave us the willies. I guess I’ve seen one too many videos of blazing Christmas trees infernos. In practical terms, there was very little chance of the Christmas tree burning down the house. They don’t spontaneously combust like the drummers in Spinal Tap. As Bruce Springsteen sang in the worst song he ever wrote, you can’t start a fire without a spark. But if the tree had burned the house down, Lyle the Cat would surely have had something to do with it.
So this year, knowing that we could get up to the Mountain between Christmas and New Year’s, we took a ride to Dee’s to see Joey’s artificial Christmas trees for ourselves inside the store. Our tradition is to put up our tree in the first weekend in December, then take it down the first weekend after New Year’s, by which time some of them over the years have grown a trifle crispy. But neither Trisha nor I, and by extension our offspring and animals, has ever experienced a Christmas without a real Christmas tree. As a kid, I felt pity for people with artificial trees, people who were happy to spend the season looking at a sad, scrawny green plastic scarecrow, usually with boring all-white lights, that looked as much like a tree as a White Castle looks like Versailles, or as a Taco Bell looks like a hacienda. I don’t care what you got for Christmas, or how much fun you had. That’s not really living.
As with many things in my lifetime, though, artificial Christmas tree research and development has grown by leaps and bounds. The ones they make now look very much like trees. They’re pre-lit. You can find one in perfect symmetry to your available space and the initial investment pays for itself in three years of not buying a tree from Tommy’s yard. And you can leave them up as long as you like. John Prine left his up all year long, but he had a bigger house. And there would be no chance of fire by stupidity if we left the tree up on the Creek and drove up to the Mountain, despite Lyle the Cat.
Joey Dee took us through a couple of handsome artificial trees that looked promising and told us he had plenty in stock and more coming in. Nobody was coming to our house over Christmas, so we’d be the only ones who would see it. We’d likely end up getting a fake tree when we move upstate permanently because you really couldn’t put a living tree anywhere near the fireplace, so why not just get used to having a fake tree now? There was only one overriding downside, only one good reason why we didn’t pull the trigger.
We didn’t want to.
I started reading about Zen Buddhism when I was in college. Alan Watts, D.T. Suzuki. Those guys. I liked everything about it. In Zen philosophy, the past and the future are illusions. Any wisdom you’ve gained along your path is meant to applied to right now, not to some future day. What’s more, our house and gardens and creek and your house and all your stuff are events, not things, because everything is in a constant, slow-motion state of flux, and nothing is permanent. And since they’re events, not things, they should be celebrated like events, with as much enthusiasm as you work up, because they’re going to end, and we’re going to end, and since that will be the end of that, this right here and this right now are all we’ve got.
But as hard as I’ve tried, I’ve just never been able master the art of living in the Here and Now. I don’t know what’s in anyone else’s brain beyond what they’ve told me, so maybe I’m better at it than I think I am. All I know is that even after years and years of piling up great memories, there are still stupid little moments that I wish I had handled differently rattling around in my head like loose change in a coffee can. And Lord knows I’ve scattered baskets of brain cells across my years worrying about things that theoretically might have happened but never did.
And even when I’ve been as close as I could get to living fully and completely in the Here and Now, and there have been lots and lots of those times, I never went too long without checking my watch. It’s how I’m wired, and that’s just sad, but it’s no excuse. Very often, I enjoyed the hell out of the job I did for 25 years, but I could always tell you exactly how long I had to keep doing it until I didn’t have to.
But if anything could get me to finally shake off all this mental illness, finding myself floating along through the days, collecting my monthly Cash For Life payments from the New York State Teacher’s Retirement System while waiting for a Pandemic to end (and a psychopath to go away) may have been the ticket. I’ve cut off a big chunk of my past and I have no more than a vague plan for the future. Whenever I check my watch, I’m right smack in the middle of the Here and Now.
Self-awareness is one of the benefits of getting old, unless you’re hopeless. It becomes easier to catch yourself when you’re up to your same old lame tricks. Too often this year I’ve found myself sitting on my poorly constructed patio on the creek, thinking about what it would be like to leave Valley Stream and move up to Copake Falls permanently, how I’d feel about letting it all go. Then I’d be up on the Mountain thinking about what it would be like to be there with no back to go to. None of this is anything that I really had to think about at that moment, and any second I that I was, I knew I was only cheating myself out of good time.
And I’ve come to realize that the only reason I’m giving any unthinkworthy thoughts any space in my head at all, instead of enjoying the passage of time, which is of course the secret of life, is because I’m not thinking about my lesson plans for Monday morning, or what to do about that one kid. So all this extra room opens up in my brain, and something has to fill the vacuum. At times in 2020, to my credit, I happily feasted on whatever was in front of my eyes in the Here and Now.
But sometimes I pigged out on boxes of worry cookies and bags of regret chips.
We’re all works in progress. If you’re doing it right.
A moment of personal enlightenment came as it often does, after cleaning. In this case, on the first Sunday of December, when the temperature on Long Island was a sickeningly sweet 70 degrees. I had finished all the mulching and power washed the patio bricks, which takes just as long as cleaning them on your hands and knees with a pencil eraser, then topped off the weekend by cleaning out the garage. The property on Duffy’s Creek looked as good as it ever had on the first Sunday in December.
I was sitting in the yard with my nine-year-old dog, enjoying the fruits of my labor and watching the walkers on the creek path. Looking at how beautiful and how happy he looked, my mind had to find a way to try and ruin it by wandering up an unpleasant stream, as it does too often, to the day when I’d have to let Mookie go.
Then I remembered an excellent cartoon I came across called “Why Dogs Are Better Than People”. The artist drew a man and his dog walking. The man’s think bubble is crowded with dollar signs and buildings and cars and angry looking people and piles of paper. The dog’s think bubble is he and the man walking. I told myself to just stop it already. We’re Here. It’s Now. Nothing matters until it does.
And that was how the Christmas Tree Decision ultimately led us to the Fraiser Firs comin’ to ya straight from Maine via Tommy’s yard. Because we’re Here and it’s Now, and there’s no reason to get a fake tree this year just because we might get one in some distant future Christmas. We made one change in the tradition, and it I think it’ll work out just swell. Instead of waiting until the first weekend in December, we went to Dee’s on the day before Thanksgiving. There was only one other customer in the yard, and most of the trees hadn’t even been unwrapped, but we found this year’s winner within five minutes.
So we’re going to keep Christmas as well as we possible can, and we’re going to try to create a little joy in this miserable time. Then we’re going to take down that perfect Christmas tree the week after Christmas, and we’re going to head up to Copake Falls. Just for good measure when we get there, we’ll put up the little prelit tabletop Christmas tree that was in my father’s room at the nursing home when he woke up to his last Christmas. We’ll have a fire in the fireplace on New Year’s Eve and we won’t burn down either house.
And as another New Year rolls in, I won’t have to see the pictures of people in Taconic State Park enjoying a bonfire after their First Day Hike to Bash Bish Falls and say boy that looks like fun I’d like to get in on that some year because I’ll be there, soaking it in, unconcerned about any other day, past or present.
And by that same logic, I’ll still be pulling deadly nightshade and white snakeroot out of the gardens at Duffy’s Creek until the day we hand somebody else the keys. And if that day happens to be in December, I may just treat them to a damn good mulching before I move on, and before the next event starts.
I was not there for the corn snake. When I heard about it, the first person I thought of was Samuel L. Jackson. Motherf#%&ing snakes crawling around in this motherf#%&ing country house. Great.
The corn snake was, as reported by reputable sources related to me by blood, well in excess of 3 feet long. He was not crawling up the wall from behind the oil tank in the basement machine room in order freak anyone out. This was purely incidental on the snake’s part, as I assume it is with any snake. Snakes don’t intend to freak people out, and I would think they’re annoyed and distracted when it happens. I guess they have to look at it as the cost of doing snake business sometimes. Goddamned people.
Corn snakes are not venomous, but rattlesnakes are, and there are many, many rattlesnakes in Columbia County. Trisha and Jack did not know the corn snake was not a rattlesnake. A rattlesnake in the machine room of the basement would have been enough for any of us to say, “OK. Tried living Upstate. Didn’t like it. Let’s make a profit on this deal and get the hell out of here.”
But it wasn’t a rattlesnake. It was a corn snake, which are similarly fat, spotted and creepy. And the corn snake was there in the basement machine room to eat the mice.
And the mice were there because up until this year, they lived there.
The House on Trisha’s Mountain was more or less vacant for two years before we bought it, although it was being minimally maintained. So there was plenty of quiet time with no people around for the mice to workshop ways of getting in, but since there was no food or water once they did, they were most likely taking up residence to escape from the coyotes and other predators who couldn’t follow behind them, or else just to get warm, since the boiler was running for no one to keep the pipes from freezing, as it is right now.
Somewhere in the midst of this year of Pandemic, social unrest and civil war, in a small rural town in Upstate New York, a man and a woman removed more mouse shit from habitable space than they had ever before or will ever again. Cleaning the garage alone should have killed us via hantavirus, but here we are, still standing.
The very first time I stood outside of the garage on the Mountain, on a hot and murky September afternoon in 2019, when it was a vacant house full of mice and snakes, there was also a shed full of wasps to my right, and one of those wasps rightly saw me as a potential enemy and stung me on my right arm, which screamed silently in pain for the rest of the afternoon as we assessed the potential investment in a house full of mice and snakes surrounded by angry wasps. But neither the wasp that stung me nor the squirrel I accidently ran over on the way up the hill that afternoon was enough to make me think there was any sort of bad mojo embedded in this whole buying a second house plan. Though I still feel bad about the squirrel and I always will.
One key difference between my wife Trisha and I is that I’ll always try the stupid idea first and work my way up to the practical one. After I tried to drive the wasps away with noxious gas in a can from the Herrington’s Hardware store, Trisha called Meerkat. After vacuuming out two years of mouse shit from the kitchen drawers, I bought some of those plug-in things that are supposed to emit a deafening noise torturous to mice and drive them away, or something like that, and stuck them in various electrical outlets around the house.
Trisha called Meerkat. This was shortly after a hot day in July when Jack and I came back from a peaceful, positive morning bike ride on the Rail Trail from Millerton to Coleman Station and I cooked four slices of leftover pizza and a mouse in the oven.
The first thing I can tell you is that a mouse cooked in an oven at 400 degrees on a hot July afternoon, even for a just few minutes, is just about the most horrific thing I’ve ever smelled. And I consider myself lucky in that regard.
The second thing I can tell you is that Meerkat is a company well on their way to building a rodent and insect control empire in Upstate New York, in part you can be sure through contracts with people who have come from Long Island and other more barren places to find a countryside teeming with critters they have never had to deal with in any sort of large numbers before. Lyle Cat had effectively (and proudly) taken care of the comparatively few mice that have made their way into the House on Duffy’s Creek, but it was way too problematic to temporarily export a cat, and the problem was bigger than Lyle, as big as he thinks he is.
Of course, The Country Way would be to get rid of those critters oneself: Trap all the mice, and the motherf#$&ing snake if necessary. Blast those wasps out of the yard and seize their nest while they slept. Painstakingly seal up all the crevices between out there and in here which would be big enough to accommodate a stone-cold outlaw mouse with nothing to lose.
Around the same time I cooked the mouse, I discovered an angry nest of yellow jackets living under the front porch, directly beneath the front door. I discovered them because they all swarmed up and attacked me the moment I arrived on the Mountain. Another trip to the Herrington’s Hardware store procured some more noxious gas in a can designed to take them out, and that was my stupid plan. But the electrician who was working at the house advised me on one of his trips out to the truck that the Country Way, as it were, would be to just get in there and take the nest out. He grabbed a plastic bag, wrapped it around his hand, and proceeded to crawl under the porch and grab the yellow jacket nest with one hand, wrapping it into the bag in one motion. After that we hit it with the noxious gas. Problem solved.
He told me, “they sense fear.”
The Suburban-Pretending-To-Be-Country-Way is to write checks. The Meercat Guys who had rid us of angry wasps in the springtime were more than happy to return to Trisha’s Mountain to rid us of mice and the snakes who love them. This was not their first circus. In regard to the very large corn snake (who was probably the descendant of a long-ago escaped pet, as they are not native to the area), as well as some smaller garter snakes that Trisha and Jack had also met in the basement, one Meerkat Guy suggested that the snakes would find their way out once there were no more mice, which would be after they did their Meerkat thing, baiting and trapping the mice inside the house and sealing up the entry points for adventurous and/or desperate mice outside the house. He also suggested that we might find a few dead mice here and about upon our arrival after this process was completed, and that was certainly the case.
When asked how the snake would find its way out if they were sealing up the house, he suggested the disengaged dryer vent where no dryer was at the time. I’m hoping the corn snake overheard him.
The other Meerkat Guy pointed out to Trisha that the unfinished attic space under the roof was full of snake shit, which he noticed was part of the general potpourri of the house when it was closed up for a while. Having no idea what snake shit actually smells like, I could only accept this information at face value, and I have no reason to go into the attic. The Meerkat Guys cleaned the attic, and the house smells just fine to me. I burn a lot of Yankee Candles when I’m there.
Apropos of nothing, every deer is Bambi to Trisha Duffy. And if there are more than one, it’s not “Look! Bambi and her family!”, it’s simply the plural: “Bambies!” Which really makes no sense. This has been going on for twenty-one years, but I’m not tired of it.
The House on the Mountain is bordered on one side by a cornfield (more about that in a future chapter) and in the back by Taconic State Park woodland. There’s a large crabapple tree at the top of the hill in the backyard, which is convenient if you’re a deer on your way from the cornfield to the woods and you decide to stop for lunch. It’s a swell place to be a deer, Trisha’s Mountain is, although it’s tough being everybody’s favorite large prey.
We’d like to have a garden on the Mountain someday. The deer of course, would like everything about that idea, as would the bunnies and the chipmunks and the groundhogs. So without a significant investment in infrastructure; fencing, raised beds, fake owls, air horns and the like, there’s a lot of stuff we just couldn’t grow. Food, for instance. And it would certainly be the end of the road for the bread and butter pickles I’ve been making from creek-grown cucumbers and passing around to people for the last few years. Anyone who’s tried one could tell you that would be a tragedy.
The bunnies and the groundhogs live in the brush bordering both sides of the property, along with the chipmunks and the little brown squirrels who seem smarter than the grey ones who run in front of moving vehicles. They have all given Mookie Dog new purpose. Long ago on Long Island, he decided that squirrels were not worth his time or attention, but he knows the scent of every outdoor cat within 3 square miles of Duffy’s Creek and they should all consider themselves under surveillance. We haven’t run across one outdoor cat on Trisha’s Mountain to date, but we’ve got bunnies in every bush, and Mookie knows it. He knows them as small but highly entertaining pretend prey, slightly bigger than Lyle the Cat but with similar markings. He’s chased a couple of bunnies back into the bushes and he knows damn well when a groundhog or a chipmunk is watching him from under the back porch. He enjoys picking up their tracks, which had done wonders for his self-esteem. I’m glad I was able to give him that experience.
But there are some tough fellows in the neighborhood, and you never know when you might run across one. If you happen to be large or small prey, it might prove a fatal encounter. If you’re an old man and an old dog from Long Island, you just have to keep your guard up and try not to make eye contact and you should be all right.
Fortunately, I have not come across a bobcat, a coyote or a black bear while hanging out with Mookie. The only bobcat I’ve come across at all ran across Route 22 directly in front of my car at night in the middle of a nasty summer thunderstorm. I considered it a close call, but I’m sure the bobcat knew he had it all along. If Mookie were to come face to face with a coyote or a black bear, he’d likely growl and be a jerk about it, because he grew up on Long Island and he thinks he’s hot shit, and this would likely make a tense situation worse. He would even make a fool out of himself trying to stand up to any passing deer, and the local wild turkeys probably smell vaguely like dog food. So if we’re chilling up at the top of the hill in the backyard, with several hundred square miles of New York and Massachusetts wilderness directly behind us, I have his leash where I can grab it and I listen for rustling, ready at any moment to save my stubborn friend from himself.
Because Trisha and I have, in fact, seen both a coyote and a black bear on the Mountain, and both relatively up close. Oddly, they were both traveling the same path, though I would think they’d stay out of each other’s way generally speaking. The path starts at our mailbox on the opposite side of the road from the driveway and travels straight downhill between our neighbor’s heavily wooded property and the southern edge of tree farm, ending at the Orphan Farm Road parking lot for the Harlem Valley Rail Trail.
I took an unauthorized walk down there one day, without Mookie, then Trisha told me about the coyote she saw coming out from the path and heading up the road and I took no more walks down there. A month or two later, I happened to look out the front door just at the right moment to see a black bear circling the mailbox. I managed to get a loch ness type picture and video of him. I thought about running outside to follow him once he started back down the path, picture-taking rectangle in hand, but then I remembered that he could kill me.
As a matter of fact, when were in the process of buying a house where the wild things are, I conjured up a scenario wherein if I were ever diagnosed with a terminal illness, and was told that I would suffer and die in a short time, I would simply eat four or five “infused” chocolate bars from Theory Wellness in Great Barrington, cover myself in peanut butter and go to sleep in my hammock up where the yard meets the woods. Trisha noted that this would definitely make the local news, and that I could go out as “Copake Falls Man.” When I decided for whatever reason to share this little joke at the conference table where we all met for the house closing, our lawyer suggested honey would work better than peanut butter, which is the difference between a teaching degree and a law degree, never mind a Long Islander and a Copakean.
For now I am alive and well and staying away from doctors. And when the moon rises over Trisha’s mountain, the coyotes howl and my friends the barred owls hoot, I feel like the luckiest bipedal son of bitch in the world to be in their presence.
As I finish up this chapter, the House on Trisha’s Mountain is quiet, but the boiler is running for nobody to keep the pipes from freezing. I can only hope that the mice and the snakes who love them are no longer able to gain access. I can’t help but imagine coyotes and black bears sitting around on the La-Z–Boy furniture watching Spectrum News, burning Yankee Candles, maybe inviting the bobcats in for Scrabble around the kitchen table. But this is only because I watched a lot of cartoons as a child.
Black Bears and Coyotes are excellent spirit animals. Owls, too. The bear totem is quiet strength, a grounding force of peaceful confidence and courage in the face of adversity. I also learned that the bear “medicine” is healing through quiet solitude and rest, which was pretty cool since the day after I met my bear I headed out on a trip to the Adirondacks with Mookie after 25 years of being yelled at under fluorescent lighting. I don’t know about him, but I needed that bear medicine real bad, never mind the chocolate bars from Theory Wellness.
The Coyote Spirit (according to spiritanimal.info) is one who imparts his wisdom indirectly through “jokes or trickery. The spirit of the coyote may remind you to not take things too seriously and bring more balance between wisdom and playfulness.” Part of its magic is to reveal the truth behind illusion and chaos.” Lord knows there was plenty of that to sort through this year.
The Owl Spirit announces change. The death of one thing and the start of another, and the wisdom to accept it and live with it. I’ll look to him for comfort when the time comes that I have to drag myself kicking and screaming from my little creek in Valley Stream.
For now, I’m blessed to live even part of the time in a place where all this animal magic abounds. Even snakes, of course, whose likeness is rarely printed on country décor lampshades and curtains, have their own magic and their own wisdom. “The snake as a spirit animal can be to provide guidance about life changes and transitions, whether they are happening at the physical, emotional or spiritual level. “
I don’t know how exactly they transmit their magic, the spirit animals, but the folks up at the Six Nations Indian Museum in Onchiota, New York convinced me as a small child that this stuff was as real as anything the Catholics taught at Sunday Mass, and I’ve never had reason to doubt any of it.
Still, whenever I get up to the Mountain, the first thing I do when I go down to the basement is grab the broom at the bottom of the stairs. Spirits notwithstanding, I am so tired of these motherf#$&ing snakes in this motherf#%&ing country house.
We’re not sure where we’re putting the litter box on Trisha’s Mountain. We’re also not sure when we’re going to leave Valley Stream for good, so where to eventually put the theoretical litter box on the Mountain is sort of a pointless thing to worry about. But that’s what I do.
In addition to being fortunate enough to live in the divine presence of God’s Most Perfect Dog, we have three cats. The oldest, Sunny, is a silky black and white girl with eyes the color of a forest at twilight. She is God’s Most Perfect Cat. We consider her one of the adults here. The other two I’ll tell you about, brother and sister brown tabbies named Lyle and Allie, are excellent cats in their own right, but there can only be one God’s Most Perfect Cat.
We’re also fortunate to have God’s Most Perfect 17-Year-Old Neighbor on Duffy’s Creek, who conscientiously looks after those cats, AND waters the gardens if necessary while we go traipsing off to sit on a mountain. Plus we have another neighbor who can provide backup when the first one’s not available. Really. How lucky are we? When I was a teenager, I occasionally took care of a neighbor’s dog named Pugsley, whom I never particularly bonded with, but I kept him alive for several weeks at a time, so I know it’s a relatively easy gig. But still, it helps that Maya really likes the cats and the cats really like Maya, and the other neighbor is a cat person, too.
And yet, we still feel super guilty every time we ditch the cats and head north again. And you know that it’s just impossible to explain to them 1) exactly where we’re going 2) how long we’ll be gone this time and 3) why it’s in their best interests that they don’t come along with us until they absolutely have to. I’m sure even Mookie has to tried to explain it to them, and he couldn’t either. So they’re just as confused as hell. But all things considered, our cats have it pretty good. If they complain, which they occasionally do, we remind them of how they got here: “We rescued you.”
These cats are our second group of three cats. They came to live on Duffy’s Creek almost ten years ago, on Jack’s 7th birthday in February of 2011, five months before the heralded arrival of the Labrador Retriever puppy who would quickly grow into the great, lumbering beast that is Mookie Dog.
Trisha had three cats when we met. Two of them were seven years old and the other was six. And apparently, I told my future wife on one of our first dates that I planned to have a dog someday and name him after Mookie Wilson (my all-time favorite New York Met) though I have no memory of actually saying this out loud. I guess that’s how you know you’ve met your soul mate. So seeing as I had every intention of keeping Trisha, I had every intention of adopting her three cats as my cats, too, even before I met them. It was all good as far as I was concerned. I’d always been a cat guy as well as a dog guy, and I could wait on the dog if I absolutely had to. Just not forever.
Those cats, Jenny, Jezebel and Jasper, were with us for most of our first ten years together. Two of them got to meet the dog and neither was impressed.
Rewinding a little more: About six years before I met Trisha’s “girls”, at a point in time when I was taking refuge with my parents, they and I started feeding a couple of sweet stray cats that were hanging around the creek. Naturally, this situation spiraled into my poor father having to chase kittens around the backyard to take them to a shelter several months later. But we managed to get the main mamma cat fixed. Mom gave her the unfortunate name “Runt” and she ended up living around 15 years. She moved out to the retirement home with the old folks when they left the creek. At the point when Runt was becoming domesticated, I also tried to save a friendly little black cat that hung around with Runt who I named Mose Allison, but he got hit by a car, and I had to scrape his body off the street for a proper burial. It’s a cat jungle out there.
We had a big, tough cat named Herman when I was growing up. My oldest sister saved him when she happened across a guy who was drowning kittens in the creek by throwing them off the bridge. Yeah, I know. This was on May 2, 1965, which happened to be my second birthday. My sister, who was 12 at the time, insisted that the guy give her one of the kittens, before he cruelly murdered the others, and Herman (named after Herman’s Hermits) lived with us for 18 years. He was an indoor / outdoor cat, and every once in a while he’d come home bloodied and battle-scarred from popping off to the wrong cat in the middle of the night, but knowing Herman, we knew the other cat likely got it worse.
Still, it didn’t take too much convincing for Trisha to make me see that letting a cat come and go outside as he or she pleases was in general a pretty bad idea for everyone involved. After meeting Jenny, Jasper and Jezebel, none of whom had a speck of outside dust on them, I tried to preach this gospel to my parents, advising them that if they were going to keep Runt as a pet, they were better off keeping her inside, and pretty soon she’d give up trying to fight them on it. She had already had her tail bitten off as a kitten (I found her and a few of her cat friends playing cat hockey with it on the deck one morning) and I knew they had a lot of emotional investment tied up in this little mottled tabby.
Well, they always called me a know-it-all, but I came by that honestly, so Runt the Cat had an acre or two of woods to patrol out at the Jefferson’s Ferry Lifecare Community. But being an indoor / outdoor cat, she’d occasionally go on special assignment and disappear for a few days, thus scaring the crap out of my parents. She ultimately died right in my father’s lap when she was about 16 years old. And you know what? My parents’ health and well-being went straight downhill after that, not so much out of grief of losing the cat, but more out of not having anyone else to take care of anymore. I think that thought a lot.
Meanwhile, I had embarked on the journey of being a stepfather to Jenny, Jezebel and Jasper for the back nine of their lives. Jenny and Jezebel were both part Maine Coon, and since my recent frame of reference had been a cat that could fit inside a Costco coffee can, they seemed monstrously gigantic in comparison the first time I saw them. Jasper was a little black female cat with a long, long tail and seemingly hidden opposable thumbs that could open any door or drawer, who Trisha had named already when she found out she was actually female and not male, so she decided it was actually short for Jasperella and left it at that.
Before Trisha and I moved in together, I didn’t see too much of Jenny, Jezebel and Jasper. She and the cats were living at her parents’ house in Point Lookout, and even though her parents weren’t actually there, there would be no boys at the sleepover and that was that. So we spent lots of time at my little apartment on the highway in Lynbrook and the cats spent a lot of time waiting for Trisha to come home. If they had made that connection, they probably would have been less friendly to me than they were when I occasionally did see them, which wasn’t friendly at all.
So you could imagine how pissed they must have been to find themselves scooped up from a big airy house by the ocean in Point Lookout and transported to a third-floor apartment in a tenement in downtown Valley Stream. And what was worse, I was there.
Over the years we’ve tried, unsuccessfully, to block out most of the year and a half that we spent in that third-floor apartment, especially any part that isn’t funny in retrospect. All told, it wasn’t a particularly pleasant place to live. But they allowed cats. And smokers. So you get what you get and you don’t get upset. And once they established that I was home earlier in the day and more often, and that I had the requisite thumbs needed to open cans and clean litter boxes, Jenny, Jezebel and Jasper started coming around.
Jenny and I bonded through our shared love of naps. Being part Maine Coon, she had a fur coat like the ones Sinatra and the Brat Pack probably bought for their girlfriends, and a purr like the sound of an outboard motor on a mountain lake. Trisha told me early on that Jenny was actually a doctor, and I’ll tell you what: You show me the best treatment or medication that science has developed to lower human blood pressure, and for ten years I could’ve countered with Jenny Cat. After we finished the move to the creek over Christmas Vacation in 2001, Jenny and I took a three-and-a-half-hour nap one cold and cloudy Sunday afternoon in January that I have never replicated.
Jezebel, whose name morphed into “Bella” was the original “Heat-Seeking Kitty”. That’s Trisha’s line. She’s been cracking me up for the entire 21st Century with stuff like that. As soon as Bella saw me sitting down in my comfy chair she’d be on it immediately. Furthermore, it became an especially vital mission to secure the lap if a blanket were tossed over it. Then she could sink her claws in and enjoy whatever was on TV, Mets Baseball and Sir David Attenborough documentaries being her favorites. Of course, being a cat, if you walked up to Bella when she was trying to sleep on a pile of towels and tried to pet her, she’d likely claw your hand up before you knew what happened.
Bella and I also bonded over butter. In fact, her other nickname was “Butter Cat”, which wasn’t a Pearl Jam song. One morning in the tenement, she was at my feet staring at me as I ate an English muffin. As you probably know, nobody can stare at you like a cat can stare at you. And while she was staring at me, she was telepathically instructing me to scoop a little butter off the English muffin with my index finger and hold it where she could get to it, a message which I telepathically received and responded to in kind. And thus was born a morning ritual that would last ten years.
Jasper’s favorite ritual, besides hunting for crinkly paper, was making one of us follow her around. She wasn’t too crazy about sharing naps or laps. She liked attention on her terms, and she knew she couldn’t compete with two Maine Coons. Nobody could. So once or twice a day one of us had to follow her around through the house until she decided on a good place for rubbies and scratchies, and if we didn’t follow as instructed, she would yell at us. For almost ten years, the last thing I did before leaving for work in the morning was to pet a little black cat with a long, long tail at the top of the stairs.
We all have snapshots in our heads of the most perfect moments of our lives, and if you’re like me, you don’t call them up on the screen behind your eyes as often as you should, because you spend too much time staring at the physical screen in front of your eyes and getting pissed off, or worse, dredging up all the bad stuff for no good reason. I’m working on all that. But I digress. One of my all-time favorite mental snapshots is the picture of my three step-cats at sunrise on Christmas Morning of 2001, the day after we fought a violent and bloody battle to get them into crates and move them out of the tenement and into their new house on Duffy’s Creek. We set up one of the sheet-metal radiator covers we had to buy for the tenement in front of the picture window looking out on the backyard and the creek as a “Cat TV” perch, and there they were at dawn, lined up at the window whisker to whisker, awestruck by the birds fluttering around the feeders.
I knew they could all grow old here and they’d never have to leave. I couldn’t necessarily say the same for myself, and still can’t, but for that moment I was content because they were content. Animals make your house a home, for sure.
So we all settled in and made ourselves at home in the House on Duffy’s Creek, and Jenny and I took naps, and Bella and I ate butter and watched The Mets and PBS, and Jasper and I walked around the house together, and we all enjoyed the occasional game of string and Trisha had a baby. I have lots of favorite mental snapshots from that experience. One of them is when we brought said baby home from the hospital on a sunny winter’s morning and laid him down on the bed to take him out of his warm flannelly yellow baby traveling clothes.
Jenny Cat immediately jumped up on the bed to see what we had there. And we both had two immediate thoughts in split-second progression: “Get the fuck away from my baby,” followed by, “chill. She knows what she’s doing.”
So we checked ourselves and let Jenny come in for a sniff, through a permanent scar across our only child’s face would’ve been hard to explain. And Jenny sniffed the baby and the baby gave Jenny a wide-eyed baby look and Jenny decided as we already had that nothing smells better than a new baby, and she was now Jack’s cat, too. Bella and Jasper liked him well enough, but he moved too unpredictably, and besides, Jenny found him first.
So we can at least say that our only child has never been without an animal brother or sister. As the baby started standing and toddling, he enjoyed going on trips around the house in pursuit of “Bap-per” and watching Bella hunt string and lick butter off Dad’s finger, but Jenny was always available for a warm, furry purr.
Babies grow up. Pets grow old. Take lots of pictures.
I’m an admirer of Teddy Roosevelt, despite our respective political affiliations and despite all the dead animals hanging in his living room in Oyster Bay, Long Island, which I’ve visited several times. He only lived 60 and a half years, which would give me only three more, though I reckon I’ve eaten less read meat, and probably smoked less, so I’m hopeful. The man lived like a man on fire. He was passionate about learning and exploring and was always looking for ways to change things for the better, and I’m sure he would’ve stuck to digital photography if he were taking those African safaris today. I tell you all this because I carry one of Teddy’s best pieces of practical wisdom as a personal mantra, every day:
“Do what you can, with what you have, where you are.”
That’s a good one, huh?
We can’t stop the babies from growing up. We can’t stop the animals, or ourselves for that matter, from growing old and dying. We can’t hold on to the good times, but we can keep trying to conjure up new good times until all our time is up. Maybe not the same, but just as good in their own right. Where we are, with what we have.
Jenny went first, on the last day of September, 2010. She had found a spot next to the piano, and she stayed there most of the time for months, waiting to die. At this point, Trisha had acquiesced to getting a family dog, and we had first dibs on a Labrador puppy to be born at a breeder’s house in Saugerties the following spring. Bella and “Bap-per” were holding on, but we knew they were both nearing the end of their run.
Jack was never going to get a brother or sister, but he was never going to experience a family without animals either, so that was something.
But I did feel a little guilty about getting a purebred dog through a breeder when there were dogs who needed to be rescued. Among my selfish reasons were that Trisha had never lived with a dog and we needed a relatively calm dog who could provide some therapy, because that’s what we all that’s needed.
But since we were where we were, and had what we had, I felt like we needed to keep the good times rolling, before the calm dog was even born, so I decided we needed to go rescue a cat.
I found God’s Most Perfect Cat the same way I found God’s Most Perfect Wife. On the Internet. Albeit at a different website. I saw Trisha’s picture on match.com in 1999 and said, “gosh, she’s sure pretty!” and the rest is history. I saw Sunny Cat’s picture on petfinders.com in 2010 and showed it to Trisha and she said, “gosh! She’s sure pretty!” And we rescued her.
On the day of his birthday, we dropped our seven-year old boy at his aunt and uncle’s house and said we had to take care of something, but it was a surprise, which we surprisingly got away with. We drove to an animal shelter in Glen Cove, still planning to meet the pretty black and white cat.
I wanted to get new cats before the new dog showed up, because I thought that cats should have the territory well-established before the dog moved in and started hassling them. They would need to train the dog. And notice I said “cats”. Ideally, I wanted to adopt more than one cat, but I have no good reason why. Keep in mind that we still had two elderly cats, who at this point were keeping mostly to themselves. We knew they wouldn’t put up any sort of fight no matter what sort of animals we brought on to their turf.
But a call ahead to the folks at the shelter suggested that Sunny Cat might not work out. She was almost two and she had been at the shelter since being brought in with her siblings from a golf course as a kitten. Somehow, all her siblings had been adopted and no one had fallen for her, and she was well into a career as a shelter cat. They didn’t think she’d do so great sharing space with a young child, never mind old cats and a dog. She lived in a cage, but she was allowed to wander around and make conversation with various dogs and cats in the shelter. We met her briefly, already having sort of talked ourselves out of her, pretty as she was, and they let her out of the cage to go make the rounds.
In the cage next door were two three-month-old brown tabbies that had not been listed on petfinder.com yet, stalking each other and play fighting and having a grand old time of it all. I’ve always liked brown tabbies. They’re cool-looking cats. And what seven-year-old boy wouldn’t love two kittens to play with?
But there was a rub. One of the kittens was male, and Trisha didn’t want a male cat because they tend to destroy everything in their path and make pests of themselves. On the other hand, we didn’t want to separate them, as they seemed to be having so much damn fun together.
So we took a walk around the shelter, including a room where they kept the older “lifers”, which was sort of like the Island of Misfit Cats. We found ten or fifteen we were ready to take home before we pulled each other the hell out of there. Trisha decided we could adopt the two brown tabbies, and she couldn’t have been more right about the male cat, but we’ll come to that later.
We walked back up front where the people behind the desk and the brown tabby kittens in the cage were. (They had really stupid names which we’ve both since forgotten. The kittens, not the people). At the moment we were telling the kittens that they were going home with us, Sunny Cat came bounding up to us, onto a box where she could meet us at eye level, looked us both straight in the eye and said, resolutely, “Meee-owwww!!!”, which was cat for, “you came here to rescue me!!!”
We had no choice. The animal shelter folks told us they would waive the adoption fee on Sunny (so named because she liked sleeping in sunny spots, and still very much does) if we took all three cats. We dumped the two kittens in one of the two crates we brought with us, and a young fellow at the shelter put on thick leather gloves to grab Sunny and throw her in the other one.
We looked at each other as if we were completely insane. Trisha said, out loud so she could hear herself say it, “this gives us five cats.” One of the rescue people said, “I have twelve!”. We loaded the crates in the back of Dan the Van and headed home.
Trisha and I have a favorite movie. We’ve watched it more than 50 times and quote lines from it 20 times a day. That movie is David Lynch’s “The Strait Story,” starring Richard Farnsworth and Sissy Spacek. It’s based on the true story of a 73-year-old man who drove a riding mower from Iowa to Wisconsin to see his ailing brother. Farnsworth plays the old man, Alvin Strait, and Harry Dean Stanton is his brother Lyle. We had just watched the movie for the 35th time the night before. We’re also big fans of Lyle Lovett. The brown tabbies who had terrible and forgettable names became Lyle Cat and Allie Cat by the time we reached the Long Island Expressway. In retrospect, Chaos and Mayhem would have worked as well.
We tried kicking around some new names for Sunny Cat, which at first we thought was kind of a silly name. We tried being clever with names related to pianos and other black and white things. But we realized that she was already a year and a half old and she deserved to keep her name, so by the time we reached the Southern State Parkway, we were ready introduce Jack to his new furry siblings, Lyle, Allie and Sunny.
The old girls, Bella and Jasper, were with us for the first six months or so of the madness that followed. They did what they could to pass on their wisdom to the young’uns. We made sure they were getting their share of the cat food and the attention until they didn’t want it anymore.
It was tough to see them go, which is one of the reasons that my sensible wife did not want to adopt new cats and go through the pain all over again someday. I could definitely see her point, but we all know that the joy that animals bring to our lives is worth the pieces that they gorge out of our hearts when they die.
We had planned and executed this daring cat rescue for the beginning of the week in February when Jack and I were on school vacation, which we would give me some time to acclimate everyone. We all have great mental snapshots of that week, starting with this one: There are two rooms upstairs at Duffy’s Creek. One of those rooms, Jack’s bedroom, has a separate door. The other room is accessed through the door at the top of the stairs. We let Sunny have that room and took the kittens behind the door into Jack’s bedroom to let them out of the crate.
Immediately upon being freed, they both crawled under the approximately two-inch space under Jack’s dresser because that’s what cats do, particularly scared ones. I don’t know why we couldn’t have foreseen that.
I reached my arm as far as I could and managed to grab hold of a kitten, but I didn’t know which one. Trisha reached way back and pulled out the other one. The one I pulled out turned out to be Lyle, and from that moment, Lyle imprinted on me and decided I was his mother, and he was my dog.
Lyle is actually several animals. As well as being a cat with freakishly long back legs and a Machiavellian complex, he is also, at the very least, a small dog, a meercat, a sloth, a vulture, a howler monkey and a cockroach. I’m pretty certain that Lyle was the runt of his litter, as he is expert at making his presence known and at manipulating me, his mother.
It started with coming to nurse every night when I went to sleep. I missed Jenny coming in to put me to sleep every night, so I was glad to have a new cat napping partner. But Lyle has to circle around and stalk back and forth for several minutes before finding the right spot to do a full-body flop as close to me as he can get. Then he’s got to dig his claws into me (which Trisha calls, “making’ biscuits.”) and purr ridiculously while he pretends to nurse. He usually sticks around for about fifteen minutes then goes off to stare intently at the spot under the stove where he has caught several mice, then comes back and settles in on my legs.
And once he realized that the potential existed for me to wake up in the middle of the night to pee, forget it. He trained me to put out plates of cat food for everybody at 2 am while the dog waited in the crate. If I didn’t wake up, he’d crawl on top of me and try to pry my eyelids open by scratching at them. And Lyle has the most deranged, intense stare of any cat I’ve known, so throwing him off the bed like some demonic sentient pillow only works so many times. He just pops back and stares at me vulture-like, ready to give my eyelids a fresh scratch if that’s what it takes. He’s at this moment working on his masterpiece of scratching, the ottoman in front of the couch. Lyle does nothing halfway He’s a sick bastard.
And yet he’s a sweet, essentially well-meaning little guy who walks around me and in front of me, like the cockroach in WALLE, always managing to just avoid being stepped on and/or kicked. Mookie has come to associate the words “idiot” and “asshole” with Lyle getting in the way or causing trouble. Right now, the large dog is lying on the floor, slightly jealous that the small cat dog is sharing the chair and a half with me, upside down with his back paws attached to me arm as I type. All I would have to do is say, “IDIOT!”, as I do when Lyle gets in the way, and they would immediately begin arguing, using sharp words like “grrrrrr!” and “hisssss!”. Fun as it is, I’ll let them be.
Mookie is much more patient with Lyle’s rotund and shy sister, Allie Cat. First of all, having struggled with a life-long battle to maintain his figure, he can relate to Allie Cat, whose short, stocky over-furry physique makes Lyle look like a Tabby Cowboy. Allie’s legs are as freakishly short as Lyle’s are long, so when she runs she has to double the amount of steps, which makes her look like a cartoon cat. But I wouldn’t tell her that because she’s very sensitive and suffers from low self-esteem. Allie went upstairs when Mookie came home and stayed up there most of the time for around three years. She only came back down and rejoined the family after Sunny assured her that he had the dog completely trained.
While Mookie, Sunny and Lyle shadow me pretty much all the time, more so as we get closer to the times when the cans open, Allie stays in a little cat bed behind the loveseat until lunch, then goes back for a quick four-hour nap, at this time of year under the Christmas Tree skirt, whereupon she joins me up on the couch for “Jeopardy” after dinner, making sure she gets her daily minimum requirement of pets and scratchies. Mookie defers to her and doesn’t try to get in between us, and if Lyle tries to move in, Mookie tells him to stop being a needy little pain in the neck all the time by stomping his front paws back and forth and saying “grrrr.”
Allie imprinted on Jack the most as a kitten. He’s good friends with everyone on four legs here, but you can tell when he gives Allie some attention that it means a lot to her. It’s hard to get that attention when your dog brother is enormous, you cat brother is batshit crazy and everybody thinks that your older cat sister is perfect.
Sunny, God’s Most Perfect Cat, is at this moment sitting inside a cardboard box – in a sunny spot on the floor- because it’s there. And no doubt thinking deep thoughts which she will never share. But her default location is wherever Trisha is. While I’ve pointed out to Sunny many times that I was the one who had the idea to rescue her, and that Trisha didn’t want any more cats at first, and that I was the one who sat with her upstairs more often for the first couple of weeks so we could bond, Sunny wisely figured out from the start that one of the three humans in this house was softer, calmer, more nurturing and better smelling than the other two, and that’s the wagon to which she hitched her star. If Trisha is in a comfy chair, Sunny is often curled up next to her.
Which is not to say that Sunny and I don’t get in some quality time together, because we do. (As far as me and Trisha, God knows we try). Sunny enjoys the fact that I’ll be the last person on Earth who gets a physical, printed newspaper delivered to his house. There’s a guy I’ve never met who has been dropping an expertly wrapped addition of Long Island’s Newsday in the same spot on my front lawn at around 4 a.m. every morning for 18 years, and he did it for my parents for years before that. Insanely expensive as it’s gotten, I’m still not ready to give it up. So every non-working morning (which right now is all of them) begins with twenty minutes of sitting on the couch scratching the dog and flipping through the Newsday.
This twenty-minute block often stretches into a half hour when Sunny decides to come up and visit, first rubbing her head on Mookie’s ear, then walking back and forth across the newspaper on my lap while I pet her, for as long a time as she deems appropriate or necessary. If she decides to sit down on the newspaper, I am to wait until she gets up before I continue reading, and that is that. After a couple of months of this I figured out that she liked newspaper because that was the floor of her cage for 21 months. I’m a little slow sometimes. But Sunny is an excellent human trainer as well as an excellent dog trainer.
She’s a beautiful cat. Jet, silky black with deep-set eyes that only open as much as they have to (giving her a bit of a stoned cat look), white whiskers and a white patch that starts under her chin and stretches down her chest, with another patch of white on her belly and back legs and front paws that look as though they were dipped in white paint.
I don’t know if it helped that she was good looking, but Sunny was the cat who trained Mookie to appreciate and respect cats. In his puppy year, he spent the majority of his time in one room in the back of the house, which we separated from the kitchen with a gate. When our five cats came into the kitchen to eat, you could imagine the excitement and frustration of a Labrador puppy who can only stick his head through the cat door of the gate and watch as other carnivores devoured a meat like substance, and who has been instructed by God not to bark. It was Sunny who first came over and gave him a little sniff, to which he gave her a large sloppy sniff, which she seemed to enjoy. She would always stay back and they’d gaze into each other’s eyes, like Bowie’s heroes at the Brandenburg Gate.
Once the old girls had left us and gone over the Rainbow Bridge and Mookie got the run of the first floor, we moved the Brandenburg Gate up to the top of the stairs, with the cat door open so they could have a place to escape when they had to, in spite of the fact that they tell you not to install those gates at the top of the stairs because somebody could get killed. Lyle had already perfected the art of finding places higher than Mookie could get to, and of giving him a good whack in the snout if he stuck said snout where it didn’t belong. But then Mookie can scare Lyle by just reminding him of how tremendously big he is, and how tremendously small Lyle is in comparison.
Being an idiot, Lyle has been drinking out of the dog’s bowl his entire life, trying to grow big and strong like Mookie, but it hasn’t worked. They’ve had a nine and a half year codependency, gargantuan size vs. claws, speed and attitude, with each one vying to be the alpha dog, but both acutely aware that this ongoing battle gives them something else to do when they’re not watching me eat chicken.
But Sunny didn’t need her claws to train Mookie. One day (I was there when it happened) she left East Berlin and met him at the bottom of the stairs, and before he could start bouncing up and down and doing his big, floppy Labrador routine, she looked him dead in the eye and declared, “Yoooouuuuu Staaayyyy!!!” And he did as he was told. She understands positive dog training, because she routinely tells him, in her cat language (which, like English, he understands but does not speak), “that’s my good doooogggg!” After a while, she let Allie know the coast was clear and they both left the attic for good. Allie finally had a dog friend, and God’s Most Perfect Dog was able to add “very well-behaved around cats” to his already impressive resume.
As I wrap up this chapter, we’re well into the ninth month of Pandemic of 2020, soon to be the Pandemic of 2020-2021, as all indications point towards things getting worse before they get better. My current responsibilities include driving up and down New York State Route 22 when necessary and staying out of the way of my wife and son as they do real work remotely when I’m here on the Creek. By virtue of first working remotely for four months and then not working at all for five and counting, I’ve spent more time in the house I grew up in than I have since before kindergarten, and at the same time I’ve been off Long Island more than in any year of my life. I’m on the Creek or on the Mountain, and that’s pretty much it.
In normal times, I’d be in heaven with all this time on my hands, as both Long Island and the Berkshires always have something interesting going on somewhere, if you don’t mind traffic and people. In these times, I leave to walk the dog along the creek or on the rail trail, I go out for groceries and other essentials, I come back to whichever home I’m in and I wait for this misery to end, always being aware that I could get sick and suffocate to death in a hospital no matter how careful I am so I don’t dare complain. Under these circumstances, It’s nice to be able to pet a cat when you can.
There are a couple of silver linings in all this, as painful as it is to admit. As a result of our rebooted lifestyle, which include long morning walks for the dog and bigger lunches for me, I’ve gained ten pounds, and Mookie has lost ten pounds. Really. As anyone who knows either one of us could tell you, these are both epic accomplishments. I also get more than enough sleep, which I also haven’t done since before kindergarten. Lyle still tortures me at 2 am when he can get to me, but Sunny has in turn tortured Lyle by taking over the bed during the day, available for a good purr if I can work a cat nap into my busy schedule.
I’ve seen some “funny cat stuff” in my rectangle scrolling these past nine months about cats being pissed off about their routines suddenly being disrupted by virtue of their people being home all day, every day. Not our cats. We like them, and they like us. Their goofiness entertains us, and their affection comforts us. And while they may not like being left alone when the Song of The Mountain calls, they don’t hold grudges when we come back to the Creek. But you can be damn sure they insist on extra rubbies and scratchies for the first few days. Especially Lyle.
And it’s funny, as comfortable as we’ve made the House on Trisha’s Mountain, the absence of our furry furniture keeps it from truly feeling like home. It’s the thing that’s missing. Of course, given the opportunity, they’d no doubt scratch the beautiful new furniture and they’d trail cat litter all over the house no matter where we put the box, but they’d love the view. And they’d continue to love us, and we’d love their company.
Meanwhile, for as long as this thing goes on, nobody in our family is going out to the movies. But at least if there’s a movie playing on TV on Duffy’s Creek, everybody gets a cat to curl up with. Even Mookie.
Sunny will be 12 years old next year. Lyle and Allie will be 11. I don’t know if we can make the same promise that we made to the old girls when they moved here at the dawn of this Century and we told them they’d never have to move again. I can tell you that if these three cats have to move, they won’t like it one damn bit, and I’m sorry in advance for a day that comes when we have to put them through it. I’ve seen what it’s like to be an old cat, and it ain’t for sissies. I suppose we compensate for the guilt by spoiling the hell out of them now.
But you what? They deserve it. Yeah, they lie around and sleep most of the day. But they appreciate us, and we appreciate them. They count on us to take care of their physical needs and we count on them to help us out with our psychological needs, which sometimes means having something else to think about besides how screwed up everything is. Hey, look! Allie’s getting high on catnip again! Lyle and Mookie are having a staring contest! Sunny is keeping her svelte figure in shape by doing zooms back and forth through the house! While it’s important to stay on top of current events, watching your cats living their best lives is ultimately a much better use of brain space than wondering about who may have just tweeted a bunch of dangerous lies, or how many people were packed into wedding in Brooklyn, or why going bowling might kill you.
The day is going to come when we can start crawling out from under this weight on top of us, when the world will be open and safe again. But for now we’re in survival mode. And with a little help from our feline friends, our unsung furry heroes of Duffy’s Creek, we’re doing what we can where we are with what we have.
Mookie Dog knows he’s got it good up in the country. In his Labrador heart, though, I think he’d always rather be in Valley Stream. For one thing, he has deep and soulful connections with all three of his cats, and it’s difficult for all of them to be separated. But that’s a story for Chapter 5. I feel bad for him because his puppy brain struggles to make sense of things these days. You can explain the what, the where, the who and sort of the when to dogs, but they’ll never fully understand the why. We do too many things that just make no canine sense.
For the first eight and a half years of Mookie’s life, we took one or two long trips in the car in July and/or August. He stayed at his friend Gina’s K9 Bed and Breakfast a mile away because he wasn’t supposed to be in the cabin, and I’d come by to take him out to play for the day, then bring him back, and then after a couple of days we’d take another long car ride and everything went back to normal. For the rest of the year, including all the cold months, we were in the home he first arrived in as a nine-week old puppy. So you can certainly imagine his confusion as he finds himself, at the equivalent of 63 years old, suddenly going on two and a half-hour car trips every couple of weeks.
But if I told him right now that we were going for a ride in the car, he would immediately begin wagging and hopping up and down and panting, because it would mean that we would possibly be going somewhere where things smell differently and there might be water for swimming or at the very least people who rub his face and say hi. We’d get there, wherever there might be, have our fun, and as soon as that fun was over and he came back to wherever we started, he’d have a short nap, then return to staring at me and moping, like he’s doing right now. He’s a fun junkie, my dog is.
And even though he willingly and joyfully gets in the car every time I suggest the idea, he plainly dislikes the sensation of the wheels moving under him. Though a purebred labby, he’s just not a head sticking out the window dog, which is something I’ve accepted about him. I don’t shoot ducks out of the sky and he loves me just the same. As any long car ride evolves, If he’s not lying down across the back seat in defensive sleep, he sits up and stairs down at the seat with an expression I can only describe as existential dread, and I say, “everything’s OK! Everything’s fine! Lie down, Puppy!” until he lies down again and tries to sleep. He especially dislikes exit ramps. They mess with his large center of gravity.
But while long car drives are stressful, staying home while I disappear for a couple of days is far more so. There were a few trips when I needed the whole car for transporting stuff and I left him home, safely with the others in the pack who have access to the dog food, but still this was not acceptable. So when he sees the duffle bag and the cooler come out, he never lets me out of his sight. And the cycle continues.
This place where we go these days, which I realize will never truly be home to him until his cats are there, only recently got comfy couches, a dog crate and a big comfy queen bed. For the first eight months, he had a dog bed on the floor and an air mattress that made him nervous. But while he enjoys these amenities we’ve provided, and he loves his big upstate backyard that smells like bunnies, he misses his neighborhood around Duffy’s Creek. He’s spent most of his life marking every tree and pole within two square miles of his house, and that’s not an accomplishment that’s easy to just walk away from.
In Valley Stream, we’ve gotten to the point where he takes me for walks, and ideally, to him, those walks are circular in nature, or at least Q-shaped. He has pre-determined routes where he has to check and respond to his pee-mail at specific poles and trees. My job is to follow along with plastic bags and keep him out of trouble.
And while he certainly enjoys the variety of scents that one can encounter in and around Copake Falls, it’s taken him some adjustment to accept that the majority of our walks in the country are linear. We go somewhere and then we go back the way we came. It’s the Road to Nowhere. Picture a man and his dog on two ends of a taut leash, debating about which of two opposite directions is the way they have to go now. It looks as ridiculous as it seems.
But he ultimately recognizes and accepts my position as the Alpha Dog. Actually, it’s bigger than that. He thinks I’m God. And of course, God doesn’t always give you what you want. Sometimes you can’t go lick the baby in the stroller and sometimes you can’t try to jump in the hammock that your favorite neighbor set up in his garage and that’s the way it is. God is all-knowing, and Mookie accepts this because he has faith. Every walk with God is essentially a good walk, circular or linear. Just like my own relationship to my own God, he’s a stubborn mule and his God loves him anyway. Besides, only a loving and benevolent God would know about a place like the Harlem Valley Rail Trial.
My relationship with the Rail Trail predates my relationship with my dog, never mind my human child. It goes back to the year 2000, the first year that Trisha and I took a full week of vacation in Columbia County. It was three days of camping with the hippies on Long Hill at the Falcon Ridge Folk Festival in Hillsdale (what a scene, man) then four days in cabin GH1 at Taconic State Park. Back then, everything was new to us and everything was the greatest thing ever. (“Hey! The Methodist Church is having a chicken barbecue!” “There’s a school near here where kids learn about organic farming!” “Did you know Copake had a lake? It’s huge!” “Look at the price on this house! Two acres!”). And since (blessedly in retrospect) we didn’t have any magic rectangles with Internet connections while we were there, the first two days back home on Long Island would be filled with wasted hours looking up every single thing I’d come across in Columbia County the week before. (“Hey honey! Those cows we saw last week on North Mountain Road? Brown Swiss!”).
I walked up to the Depot Deli the morning after we checked into cabin GH1, and there it was, something to do, forever: A paved path that hadn’t been there before with a sign explaining that I was entering the Harlem Valley Rail, which “derives its name from The New York and Harlem Railroad, chartered in 1831 and opened in lower Manhattan in 1832 with horse-drawn cars. In 1842, the line crossed the Harlem River, and in 1973 joined the New York Central Railroad, becoming known as the Harlem Division. By 1852, it extended north to the village of Chatham. In all, the line stretched 131 miles of track. What you see today while hiking and biking on this recreationway is a glimpse of Columbia and Dutchess Counties as thousands of paying customers saw the countryside until a little more than two decades ago, when passenger service was discontinued between Dover Plains and Chatham in 1972.”
Post-vacation research uncovered that this had all been developing under my radar for years. The first segment of the Harlem Valley Rail Trail opened in 1996, eventually connecting Wassaic, the last stop on Metro-North, and hence the southern end of the Rail Trail, to Amenia, which is a nice, little place. A connection from Amenia to Millerton, an equally nice, somewhat bigger little place than Armenia, came later, but I wasn’t hip to any of it at the time, as these were just the towns I passed through on the drive north and I wasn’t going to be in them again until my drive south. I also learned that there are a whole lot of people who have volunteered a whole lot of time and energy to building and maintaining this trail, and the guilt I feel at not being one of them is manifested annually to this day in the form of a charitable contribution to the Harlem Valley Rail Trail Association the week after Christmas.
The Copake Falls to Valley View Road to Undermountain Road in Ancram section of the trail opened in 2000, just in time for me to stumble on to it that morning. The first thing I thought to myself as I began ambling along is I gotta bring my bike up here next year, though it was plain as the years passed and the Rail Trail Culture evolved that I’d be no match for serious fellows in black speedos and wicking shirts with bright yellow and orange patterns and calf muscles like beer kegs who’d often pass me by. No matter, I like my calf muscles as God made them, and for me the bike would be just a way to get to the places where the cool birds are.
Birdwatching has always been one of my things, growing up on a creek and all. I had to know that those little ducks with the black and white heads who showed up in the winter were hooded mergansers, and not just those little ducks with the black and white heads, and I had to know that they bred in wooded lakes, ponds in rivers in Canada and migrated to tidal creeks and estuaries all over the U.S., including mine. When I meet birds, I want to know their names and I want to know their stories.
That morning, I walked the first section of the trail, a little over a mile to Valley View Road and back again (while my fiancée, who was told only that I was walking to the Depot Deli for newspapers, waited back at the cabin, in days before I would’ve thought to take my cell phone just to walk to the Depot Deli). I walked over the bridge the spans the Bash Bish Brook, little knowing at the time that the swimming hole directly under that bridge would be my dog’s favorite spot someday, or that I’d be pushing a stroller across that bridge not four years later, or that I’d be following behind a red Radio Flyer tricycle on that bridge a couple of years after that, or that twenty years later I’d be riding across that bridge on one of the two bicycles that I bought on Craiglist from a guy who I’d exchange $350 with in the parking lot of the Pittsfield, Mass. Wal Mart so I wouldn’t have to keep lugging two bikes back and forth from Long Island, which I’m embarrassingly aware was a First World Problem.
A little ways past the bridge, the west side of the trail opens up into a view of farmland sweeping up a gently rolling hill. Later, when I hit the trail at sunset, I found out why they had decided to put a bench there, as the sun sets directly behind that hill all summer. And I’ve got a thing for sunsets. On the east side is more farmland, but on a steeper climb, leading to the houses on the top of Valley View Road that are built into the side of Washburn Mountain, a point at which, if you can get a bike up the ridiculously steep hill that starts where the Rail Trail meets the road, whether by walking it up or with your overly-developed calf muscles, you can do a 30 mph coast about three quarters of a mile straight downhill and around a big turn right back to the Taconic State Park cabins. Just watch out you don’t get killed.
The morning I discovered the Rail Trail was a sweet, summer stunner and it was a Tuesday, so I pretty much had this whole thing to myself, and I knew Trisha wouldn’t be mad at me for wandering off once I told her what I’d found. While the spectacular views emerge in front of you, the trail is still lined with trees and bushes, and the birds were bursting at the seams. A line of thick brush along a farm or an open field or a meadow is what the good people at the Cornell Ornithological Society would tell you is “edge habitat.”
I met some of my usual friends walking along the edge habitat that morning; cardinals, robins, sparrows, chickadees. My favorite bird, the grey catbird, was following me all down the trail, greeting me by name as he always does. “Johhhhnnnn!” I started to get the feeling that I’d be spending a lot of time here.
At the point where the Rail Trail meets Valley View Road, the paved trail ends, and one has to follow a mostly uphill dirt road for about a half mile before reaching the next paved section that takes you south to Undermountain Road in Ancram. There are several properties along this dirt road. I may not have this story straight, but as I understand it, there’s a property owner who not only owns the road in front of his or her house but also the small meadow that looks out over the Peaceful Roe Jan Valley (hence “Valley View”) on the other side of the road. Apparently, this property owner refused to allow the road to be paved. There are also benches set up to take in the Valley View, adorned with angry “POSTED!” signs on poles surrounding them in case you even thought about sitting on one of them.
When the Harlem Valley Rail Trail is complete, it will run 46 miles from Wassaic to Chatham, and that half mile might be the only part that isn’t paved. The HVRTA has purchased 14 of the privately held miles from Copake Falls to Chatham, and NYS State Parks, who run the Rail Trail, are “in negotiation” for the other 22 miles. Knowing the way people are, they’re bound to run into a few more selfish types before they can connect the whole thing. Some of our neighbors on the bottom of North Mountain Road have the trail right in their backyards, and down in Millerton, there are houses you could jump into from it, and I don’t think anyone is being terrorized by gangs of thuggish nature enthusiasts.
I can tell you two things: One, I have passed the property in question on Valley View Road probably fifty times over twenty years. It’s built into a hill and has lots of windows. Every shade in every window has been pulled down every time I’ve gone past. Two, while riding past that in that meadow, I saw the biggest male deer I’ve ever met in person, and he didn’t give a rat’s ass that he was on private property.
I didn’t continue on to the Undermountain Road section on my first visit to the trail that morning, again because I’d wondered off without telling Trisha, which I can attribute to less than a year of having to tell someone where I was going after going wherever I wanted whenever I felt like it for most of my adult life to that point. On the way back along the dirt road, in a heavily wooded area at the point where the rail trail to Downtown Copake Falls goes to the left and Valley View Road goes straight up in the air, I saw a wood thrush low in the bushes after following his call; a deep, rich “bood-dood-a-weeeeee!” with bass in the “bood-dood” and treble in the “weeeeee!”. It’s a Morning in Copake Falls Sound, and like the nighttime sounds of bats chatting in the trees and coyotes howling at the full moon, I get homesick for it when I’m on Long Island.
On the way back to Copake Falls, at the point where the sun goes down behind the hill, I saw a meadowlark singing his heart out from the top of an evergreen tree. I said screw the bike, I gotta come back here with a pair of binoculars. And Trisha.
I don’t know if it was that year, or two years later in ’02, when we walked the trail from Copake Falls to Undermountain Road to get in some intensive birding, early in the morning, heavily caffeinated and armed with binoculars and the Peterson Guide. I know it wasn’t ’01 because we were a little preoccupied with getting married that summer, and though we managed to squeeze in a couple of nights of camping out on the hill with the hippies at Falcon Ridge, we didn’t make it down to the park. We haven’t missed a year since then, and now we never miss a month, but I digress.
The best birding turned out to be in a stretch with big trees adjacent to farmland most of the way, but with enough high trees along the trail itself for some kick-ass edge habitat. The catbird followed us along and called me by name. The wood thrush played their stereophonic flutes in the deep brush. All the cool songbirds were there: Little warblers and vireos that are only pass through Long Island in spring and fall all darting around here like they owned the place, swallows and flycatchers swooping over the fields while vultures and hawks hovered in circles above like guys cruising their hot rods around town. We found a whole family of cedar waxwings, Trisha’s favorite bird, with their new wave haircuts and their squeaky metallic “zeeet” call that sounds like feedback from tiny guitar amps.
We took a lot of walks specifically to watch the birds back then. We followed people with very expensive spotting scopes around the pond at Jamaica Bay picking up pointers. I dragged the poor woman around the dunes on the West End of Jones Beach when she was six months pregnant, but we did see a saw-whet owl sleeping in a fir tree. We spent my fortieth birthday circumnavigating Camusett Park and Target Rock Wildlife Refuge on the north shore of Long Island. We saw lots and lots of birds that day, but the highlight was spotting a bluebird flying across a field.
When I think back on that first walk to Undermountain Road with my gal, that will always be the day of the indigo bunting.
Indigo Buntings are bluer than bluebirds. They’re as blue as blue gets before it starts turning black. They’re the blue of the denim jacket you got for your 13th birthday. And they chirp a little song like an overly friendly storekeeper who’s had too much coffee. “Helloo! It’s a beautiful day! Nice to see you! Thanks for coming! Isn’t this great! Please! Look around!”. He sat on top of a bush in plain sight, no binoculars needed, and sang to us and showed off his magnificent blueness for as long as we wanted to look at him, and we looked at him for a long, long time.
Once we got into the baby business, we had to curtail the birding adventures a bit, but by that time we’d built a wildlife refuge on the creek in the backyard, and there were still lots of high trees around that have since been cut down, so we put out lots of seed and let the birds come to us. One snowy January night in the Early Aughts we had twenty-one cardinals visit the feeders at dusk, something that will never happen again, as their homes were all cut up with chain saws over the ensuing ten years. But up in Copake Falls, where time stands more still and the trees are still tall, there was no better place to push a stroller than up and down the Rail Trail. And when it was time for the guy in the stroller to start powering his own wheels, that was the place to do it.
And since you can’t rightly stare at trees with binoculars at the same time you’re making sure your five-year old doesn’t ride his bike into a ditch, we started to really appreciate the stunning variety of wildflowers just as much as the birds on the trail. Summer is a hippie festival of color and fragrance up and down the trail, and you can eat the wild blackberries and raspberries you come across and I promise that you won’t get sick and die.
My son loves the Rail Trail. It’s never not been part of his life. He went from three wheels to four wheels to two wheels in the blink of five summers. Then of course Dad had to teach him about the Valley View Road Downhill Challenge, just to scare the crap out of Mom. I loved sitting on our front porch at GH7 waiting for him to come whipping around that corner as he coasted in. We regularly biked the Copake Falls to Undermountain Road and back again route together as part of our week in the park.
Speaking of Undermountain Road, it’s under mountains, the biggest ones in the part of the Taconic Range that overlooks the Peaceful Roe Jan Valley. When you get to this section of the Rail Trail, you’re literally under Alander Mountain. The trailhead is just down the road. There’s another big boy called Brace Mountain that is easily accessed from Copake Falls. These mountains are not much taller than Baker Mountain in Saranac Lake, which I climbed twice in the last three years. When I was a whole lot younger, I climbed Mt. Marcy, the highest point in New York State and a mile up in the air, at least five times. I have a brother who is four and a half years older than me who still climbs mountains whenever he gets the chance and is working on being an Adirondack 46’er. I’ve also got a pack of Marlboro 27’s on the patio table.
My excuse for not climbing any Taconic Mountains to this point is that I didn’t have a day when I happened to be up that way and the weather conditions would make it worth the effort. Now that I’m a part-time resident, that excuse is trickling away. I know I could always ask one of the people I know in Copake Falls who are in their 80’s, and don’t have a pack of Marlboro 27’s on their patio table, to serve as a guide. They climb the local mountains all the time. There’s something in the water up there and I sure as hell hope it works for me.
Less intimidating is the challenge of a bike ride from Copake Falls to Millerton on the Rail Trail, which should be possible by 2021, when the newest eight-mile section is completed. That would be 12 miles of mostly level or slightly downhill rolling, with a sandwich and a ride back from Trisha waiting at the Millerton parking lot. Hell, we could even make it to Wassaic, 22 miles away, as long as I get that sandwich and that ride. Dream big, that’s what I say.
I could point out to anyone who might actually be using this document as a guide to the Harlem Valley Rail Trail that you could stop wasting your time with me right now and got to hvrt.org, but I could also tell you that the two and a half miles of trail south of Millerton to Coleman Station (I haven’t made it to Armenia or Wassaic) is just about the nicest walk or ride you’d ever want to take. Right after you pass through the pretty little town, and right before the trail opens up to some beautiful scenery, you go through a section that was originally created by blasting through solid rock, and the solid rock they didn’t blast remains on both sides of you, so it’s always about fifteen degrees cooler on this part of the trail than it is everywhere else, which was a blessing on the hot day that Jack and I finally got around to riding this trail last summer, which was the same day I inadvertently cooked a mouse in the oven, which is a story for Chapter 6.
In 2010, ten years after the Copake Falls to Undermountain Road section opened up, the trail was extended north to Orphan Farm Road, which now borders the Shagbark Tree Farm. This is the stretch where you’ll find Mookie and I most often these days. It’s a nice mile and a half jaunt with what is probably the most spectacular scenery that the paying customers on Harlem Valley Line saw from the trains, although I can’t state that for a fact. There is also a small section across Route 22 from Black Grocery Road (the etymology of which I want nothing to do with) to the Herrington’s Hardware store parking lot in Hillsdale. Eventually, the plan is to build a pedestrian bridge over 22, connecting Orphan Farm Road to Black Grocery Road, thereby connecting everything from Wassaic to Hillsdale, which would give the trail 26.6 of its eventual 46.1 miles to Chatham. The motto of the Harlem Valley Rail Trail Association is “Chatham or Bust!”, and I take them at their word.
Meanwhile, the end of the Orphan Farm trail is where Mookie questions the need for walks to be linear rather than circular in Nature. His nose tells him that his second home in the country is right up there at the top of a very steep and narrow path that runs between the hill full of Happy Little Trees and a heavily wooded patch of the Rail Trail right-of-way leading into my neighbor’s backyards. This shortcut back to Trisha’s Mountain is easily accessible from the Orphan Farm parking lot. He’s sniffed it and seen and it for himself while sitting on his front porch up on the hill. As a matter of fact, we could make this a completely circular walk by traveling down North Mountain Road to the rail trail, then climbing back up this path right back to our mailbox. What he doesn’t know is that 1) It’s private property, which he wouldn’t care about anyway, and 2) Trisha has already seen a coyote and I’ve already seen a black bear emerge from that path in broad daylight, not at the same time of course (that’d probably be newsworthy, even in Columbia County), and if my stubborn dog thinks he can talk shit to animals that live in mountains like he does to dogs and cats and squirrels that live in Valley Stream he would be tragically mistaken. God watches after fools, little children and their dogs.
And since Mookie can’t think figuratively, which is really one of the best things about him, I wouldn’t be able to explain to him that these one-way walks are sort of metaphoric. While I hope we’re walking together for a couple of more years, mortality will eventually come between us. He’s a 9-and-a-half-year-old dog and I’m a 57-and-a-half-year-old human doing his best to stay alive in the midst of a pandemic. The road we’re on is not a circle, and one of these days, we’ll have gone as far as we can go.
But the good news is that neither one of us I really have anything left to prove to anybody. We’ve both been good boys, and now we’re just trying to live in the moment, both happy to be walking relatively pain-free. Our journey is our destination. We’re on the road to nowhere, but baby, it’s all right. Despite all of our shared internal conflict about leaving behind everything we’ve loved and marked back in Valley Stream, when we’re out on the Harlem Valley Rail Trail, and the sun is shining and the birds are chirping and the breeze is blowing and the wildflowers are blooming, there’s just nowhere else we’d rather be.
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) I 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 mess 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 mess 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 messed 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 care less 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 motherf#%&ing 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 freaking 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 heck 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 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, Mother#%&er!”). 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 in 1987, had Waconah Park, the oldest professional ballpark in the country, where the Rookie League Mets played back then. And above Pittsfield (which looks a whole lot better now) 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 mansplain 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 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 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 a 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.
OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA
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 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 the 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.