It’s New Year’s Day, 2019 as I begin this post. Of my 25 posts since June of 2015, this one will easily win the award for most depressing. I apologize for that in advance. The fact is, though, I can’t complain at all right now. I’m camped out on one of the comfy couches in our little warm and dry Creek Room, surrounded by contented furry beasts, half-watching the Odd Couple, a show that I first saw sitting on a couch in this house on a Friday night with my mom when I was 9 years old. Unlike many things, it’s still funny, and unlike my mom, I can still see it. My wife, Trisha, who loves me and knows me better than anyone ever has or ever will, knows how much I love shopping malls (like hemorrhoids) or going anywhere on New Year’s Day, and has therefore blessedly volunteered to take Jack, who’s almost 15 (shudder), to the Apple Store to see what the Geniuses can do with his Mac Book battery. I have the first of seven recently-made quarts of homemade spaghetti sauce all ready to go for dinner, one of the many things I’ve recently had time to get around to by virtue of having the last eleven days off from work. I tell you all this so that you may understand that, although I get up disgustingly early and work hard all day for what I have – when I’m not on eleven day vacations – I am above all a stupidly lucky individual, and I have been for a long, long time now. I think that’s important to know.
Because now I’m going to tell you how much everything sucks.
Out our windows on this New Year’s Day, the creek still flows past our little house as it flowed past farms seventy-five years ago and past fisherman from the Rockaway tribe seven hundred and fifty years before that. But last October, the chain-link fences and the Big Machines from the Town of Hempstead finally rolled in on the opposite bank. The $3 Million New York Rising Rehabilitation of Duffy’s Creek – shoreline resiliency to protect against future storms and aesthetic improvements because people like nice things – is underway.
This project was first proposed in 2013, the year after Hurricane Sandy changed everything in this place and the death of my mother and father-in-law changed us. The path and the open space across the creek was a familiar place, the same view out the kitchen window every time you looked, changing only with the seasons and the tides, unaltered since I rode it’s bumps and potholes on my little red Schwinn, looking for bunnies. But it had become a shabby, outdated place, and when we learned about the plan to make it cleaner and more native-friendly, we were optimistic about the change. Then five years went by and nothing happened. And we had a lot of cynical conversations about that.
Then last year, 2018, something happened. Lots. First, at the end of the summer, we discovered a giant crack in the majestic old oak tree that looked over our yard from the yard next door since before they were yards. My neighbor saw the danger immediately and had the tree taken down the following week. And we knew that losing the presence of that tree was going to be as joltingly nasty as someone opening up the blinds in dark, cool room where you’ve been sleeping peacefully for nineteen years, and that it was. Then, in October, in came the Big Machines, and the first thing they did was take down three more majestic old trees that graced our view and took care of our birds.
Then the Big Machines ripped out the Phragmites. They are, of course, an invasive species. More pleasant, well-mannered native plants will be planted to replace them. But my father, who doesn’t remember them now, called them Woozy-Woozies back then, and we picked them and he’d tickle my face with the seed heads and I did the same thing with my own little boy. And two of the first signs of spring on Duffy’s Creek were when the white-throated sparrows, getting ready to fly north, started to peep amongst each other in the phragmites at sunrise, and the rowdy bands of blackbirds gathered there later in the day to chat loudly about the winter vacations.
As the Great Rising progressed, the Big Machines ripped up what was left of the winding blacktop path, removed every last blade of grass and began dumping sandy fill, creating the surface of the moon with moving water that we currently see out our windows. With the trees and the Woozy-Woozies gone, and it being winter and all, it’s a damn depressing site. The birds come around when I fill up the bird feeders, but there are fewer of them. The ducks have all but abandoned us. It’s like the scorched earth left behind after a forest fire. But I’ve read everything that’s been put into words about this project, and seen every artist rendering. I’m optimistic that it will be just wonderful when it’s all finished. In those time-lapse videos of forest regrowth after a fire, everything looks pleasant and green and healthy in seemingly no time at all. You just have to have a little faith and let nature do the rest.
I’m a born optimist and I’ll prove it to you: On November 29th, I turned my left knee the wrong way and it’s pretty much hurt like an open stab wound ever since. X-Rays revealed a sprain in the interior cruciate ligament. I have to see Trisha’s pain management guy, or somebody. It may require some sort of knives or needles or something to put it right, but right now I know nothing except that Mookie’s pissed ‘cause I keep cutting the walks short. However, I am absolutely convinced that I will be loading kayaks on my car and climbing mountains without pain this summer, although I have no physical proof that this will be the case. I just feel like it’s going to work out ok, because it always does. Sometimes, magical thinking works.
Then again, I suppose it’s real easy to be an optimistic when you’ve been as stupidly lucky as I’ve been. But then again again, it’s hard to stay upbeat when you live in America in 2019 and you believe in silly, old-fashioned notions like compassion, accountability, justice and decency.
Out beyond the creek, the systematic destruction of America ordered by Trump’s Russian Master slithers like a snake into its third year. Children in cages, racists empowered, the environment willfully ransacked, the economy a ticking time bomb. Every day brings another tweet or news report with one more nail in the coffin of the physical and moral fabric of this country. Unthinkable shit is gong down before our eyes. Looking at what’s happening right now, I can’t help but conjuring up the metaphor of looking out the kitchen window at our creek in its current state. Everything that had value to us has been attacked, ripped out and smothered with dirt. We can live with the view from our backyard, I suppose, because we know it will evolve into something new and beautiful in its own right, even if it takes a couple of years. But you’d have to be a real touched-in-the-head optimist to believe that any good is coming out of the Russian Occupation of America, now, wouldn’t you?
But for the grace of God, any one of us could be the one trying to get the tear gas out of our eyes, or trying to find out where our child has been taken after seeking asylum and a second chance in what was once a country of promise, the reward for a 2,269 mile journey to escape God knows what. I don’t suppose I’d be particularly optimistic if that were my situation. I don’t suppose I could be much of an optimist right now if my livelihood was put into jeopardy by a fight over a goddamn wall, or if I had to absorb the looks of hate that my hajib or my turban earned me on line at the supermarket, or if I were a scientist studying climate change and told that none of what I do matters.
But last November, people voted. Lots and lots of pissed off people. The only major elections the Republicans won were the ones they blatantly cheated in, and they almost lost those, too. Once the elections were over, those same Republicans, led by the evil bastard himself, doubled-down on the same hate and scare tactics that people had just overwhelmingly rejected at the polls, so we can safely conclude that they didn’t learn a damn thing and will be beaten into near-extinction in elections this year and next. Meanwhile, more and more people are speaking out more and more as they get more and more pissed off. And they’re joining forces against a common enemy. And whether it takes this year or next to get rid of Trump and start cleaning up this damn mess, you can bet both of these things will happen. We’ll get rid of Trump, and we’ll start cleaning up the damn mess, though it will take a long time. My creek view will be back long before we undo the all the damage, but I have full faith that the spirit of America will grow back out of this scorched earth, and be healthier for it. This Age of Darkness will be followed by a true enlightenment, and if we survive the climate upheaval, people will look back on now and say what the fuck.
A bodhisattva – as well as being a kick-ass Steely Dan song – is a Buddhist who has delayed his attainment of Nirvana even though he could get there easily enough if he wanted to. He can’t be truly at peace as long as others are suffering. I’m not a Buddhist (and I don’t even play one on TV) but I get it: I can’t be as completely content as the well-fed, pampered furry beasts who surround me in this room, though I am well-fed and pampered beast myself, so long as there is this level of suffering around me and I feel powerless before it. I’m glad Mookie and the cats don’t have to know about demons pouring the water out of jugs left out in the desert to purposely cause the suffering of migrants, or people brazenly stealing elections. They’re in their own little Dog and Cat Nirvana, and I need their bliss.
Because beyond the manufactured (and apparently, ordered) suffering created by Trump and his enablers, too much suffering hit my circle of people last year, although who can say how much is too much. I personally don’t want to know. All I do know is that people died who were as important to the people they left behind as the two people whom I share this little house with are to me, and they left a lot of scorched earth on the surface of a lot of hearts. And this of course, scares me, as it well should. Every day I wake up is the day my luck could run out. The day of the terrorist attack, the school shooting, the killer storm, the accidental fire, the car accident, the fatal illness. It’s why I pray, though mostly not on my knees, ‘cause one of them hurts.
I know two families who lost young people in 2018. The first was a young man in his early 30’s who died suddenly in March from an accidental overdose, the second a young woman in her 20’s who died in September after a long and ferocious fight against cancer.
The young man’s father is one of my oldest friends. He and his wife had already lost a son at 17 seven years before. He grew up Catholic like myself, but has evolved through Buddhism into something of an agnostic. Despite these tragedies, he goes on. He woke up one day and his son was gone – again- and he couldn’t do anything about it – again – but grieve and move ahead. I know he suffers, but he assigns no reasons or higher meaning to what happened. It just happened, and it sucked like nothing else. But the sun keeps coming up, and he still finds reasons to smile.
The young woman’s mother is a Camp Lavigerie buddy, someone I’ve become friends with through our shared love of a magic place in the Adirondacks. She grew up Catholic like myself and has kept her belief and faith alive like a fire in her heart that glows out of her. She’s a sharer, and has documented her struggle to overcome and find meaning in the loss of her daughter and the effect its had on herself and her family, an excruciating process she watched happen before her eyes in slow motion over years. And from what she’s shared and written, I’ve learned two things: One is the thing that we all need to learn a million times over the course of our whole lives, and that is to cherish now. The other is that despite having the worse thing happen to you that can happen to you, she still finds reasons to smile.
Me, I was indoctrinated from birth with the inner faith in a higher being who will somehow protect my family and spare us from this level of tragedy, or at least will comfort me if they are somehow “chosen”. At the same time, I have 55 and a half years of life experience that has fostered a sense of inner doubt and dread, constantly leading me away from faith and towards the unsettling conclusion that it isn’t anything more than dumb luck.
And you can’t compare these tragedies to each other, much as our brains are geared that way. One young person who should still be alive gets sick, stays sick and doesn’t get better, ultimately passes away. Another young person is alive one day, dead the next day and shouldn’t be. It comes down to pick your poison. I can’t be as devotedly religious or as stoically existential as these friends of mine are. I guess I fall somewhere in between. And I can’t fathom how I would go on if I lost someone that close to me. I can’t even fathom losing my dog or my cats. But these friends of mine, they both go on. And they both find reasons to smile.
But the sadness I felt for the suffering these people and their families have gone through -and the pounding in my head when my thoughts circle around to the needless suffering of Trump’s Nazi America – was with me a lot of the time last year, though I couldn’t really say that any of it was my suffering in any way. But being something of a bodhisattva, I found it hard to enjoy my lack of reason to suffer. Between people dying young and babies in the cages, even apple picking and kayaking sort of lost their pure joy. But we kept trying to be happy. ‘Cause what would you be if you didn’t try?
There was a beautiful Sunday afternoon, October 7th, when we went down to Point Lookout to visit Grandma Jane. A couple of the sisters were there, so Trisha was happy and chirpy sitting down on the beach. I was sneaking Mookie onto the beach for one of his annual off-seasons dips in the ocean. Jack was in the living room talking to Grandma.
There was a rule I learned quickly when I became a McCloskey: You didn’t leave a conversation with Grandma Jane until she was finished with it. And young Jack had learned that rule, too. Mookie and I were heading to the beach, and she and Jack were talking. I asked him if he wanted to join us, and Grandma would’ve accepted that, because going to the beach makes her people happy, But Jack opted to stay in conversation with Grandma. And there they were a half hour later when I came back. Since Jack is not a stay in one place very long kind of guy, I was impressed with his maturity and warmed by the love he had for his Grandma Jane. She brought out the best in him.
Then, on the similarly beautiful Saturday afternoon of October 20th, around the same time the Big Machines started ripping up the path, Grandma Jane died, and it was our turn to suffer. But the two people I love most in the world, I know they’ve suffered more than I have, and there’s not a damn thing I can do about that but keep being me, lucky bastard that I am.
I loved my mother-in-law. She was a garden in the sunshine, a woman literally bursting with hope, faith, love and charity. But when I first became part of Trisha’s family, I drifted towards my father-in-law, Jack, and I found Jane a little over the top. In retrospect, I realize it was hero-worship of Jack on my part. He was a cool guy, and I’ve studied cool guys my whole life to learn their secrets. The over the top lady married him specifically because he was a cool guy, and loved him for a lifetime. He died three months after my mother died in 2012, and in his last weeks he didn’t have the capacity to know that he had just lived through the worst storm that ever hit his home in Point Lookout, the place that he loved. Point Lookout did all right after Hurricane Sandy, but Grandpa Jack was done a month later at 86. My mother had died in August at 82, and for the last week, she had pneumonia, which I learned that year was called “the old person’s friend”, she knew she was dying, and she got to say goodbye to her youngest grandson.
Pick your poison.
After two deaths and a hurricane in that fall and winter of 2012, optimism was in short supply. We were broke and lots of things were broken. We were hurting. The gardens were like the scorched earth of a forest fire, but destroyed by water instead of fire, if that makes any damn sense. What we did have going for us was a humongous monetary gift from Grandma Jane that we knew would help us get back on our feet.
And we did. The new place that emerged over the last six years from the wreckage and mud of the old place has been a perfectly nice place, and Grandma Jane was a big part of what made it so. She was Trisha’s best girlfriend, and she made our son step up his game when he was around her, because you just couldn’t be snotty around Grandma Jane. Her houses in Stewart Manor and Point Lookout were like big comfy blankets, and over 19 years and 9 days, she and I learned to enjoy each other’s company more and more. Of course, all the stupid shit in life prevented us from spending as much time with her as we should have or could have, but seemingly healthy in her 91st year, we had deluded ourselves into believing she would go on forever, until the phone rang on October 20th with the news that she had suffered a fatal heart attack. (In true Grandma Jane fashion, she was in a restaurant in Long Beach with a large group from the Catholic Daughters of America, who sent her on her way to the arms of God by reciting the rosary while the priest who was sitting at the table with her performed Last Rites).
Within an hour of that phone call, we were walking through the doors of the emergency room next to the empty wreck that used to be Long Beach Hospital. We saw Grandma Jane lying there lifeless. It seemed impossible to me. I cried like I don’t think I’ve ever cried in my life. We were dazed, sucker-punched, our hearts out in the cold. Then came the wake, and the funeral and the burial, and the barren landscape that follows. We entered a period of grief and sadness that hasn’t quite ended, but whose has? We had a wonderful Thanksgiving and Christmas, but we miss her terribly, and of course it’s been a lot harder for Trisha. Apparently, though, I’ve been supportive, which is good to know, ‘cause I really don’t have a clue.
Of our parents, only my father now survives, 89 years old and in an advanced state of dementia. He spends most of his time sleeping in a little room in a nursing facility 50 miles from here. It’s wonderful to be in the same room with him when I can clear all the shit out of the way and go see him, which I do once a month. He enjoys Mookie, and vice versa. I enjoy the fact that I can still look at him and he can still smile at me and we have the same shaped eyes, and I can give him a kiss goodbye on his bald spot like I would have done fifty years ago.
But since my mother’s death, and as my father slips further away, my side of the family has drifted further apart. We don’t see each other much and most of our contact revolves around my father’s health. He will likely slip away at some point, and we’ll drift further. There are a million different reasons for it, none of which I really know, and many of which likely have a lot to do with the way I am, but generally speaking, my siblings have never been as close-knit as siblings I’ve seen in other big families, and I’ve pretty much accepted that as a fact of my life. Not a whole lot of optimism there, I know.
My brother Thom, a thinking fellow, has pointed out that a lot of it has to do with what he called the “bandwidth theory”: We have so many other people in our lives, and so many layers of responsibility and things we want to learn and things that need to get done, that it’s like an AM radio at night in the mountains, where each station is just waves and crackles and some of them you go past because you’re not pulling anything in. We don’t dislike each other. We just have a lot going on, and our respective stations keep fading out.
I know the McCloskey Girls will refuse to let that happen on the other side of the family, and they haven’t so far, which is great for Trisha and Jack. They can’t have Grandma Jane back, but they’re making time for each other.
I suck at making time.
But, to remind you, I am a still a stupidly lucky person. And part of being stupidly lucky, I suppose, was being born with a face that most people seem to trust and a manner that most people are comfortable with, or at least unthreatened by. I’ve made lots and lots and lots of friends, and though I draw into myself a lot, and I wish I were more of a pick up the phone, meet ya for a drink, come on over and drop by kind of guy, there are lots and lots of people whose company I enjoy, and who seem to enjoy my company, when I get to see them.
And no man is failure who has friends. And every time a bell rings, and angel gets his wings.
I made a new friend last year, and right on time as it turned out. We met because through accidents of birth, I happen to have a friendly face and a pleasant manner, and so does my dog, even more so. And though I knew this friend for a relatively short time, and probably only spent an hour or two of elapsed time of his 99 years with him, I grieved his passing in 2018.
His name was Sal. He lived about a quarter-mile from here with his daughter in the brick cape with the built-in covered front porch that he’d bought after World War II. His house and his porch are in the last quarter-mile of one of power walk routes that Mookie and I take around South Valley Stream. When the weather turned warm, we’d see him out on the porch, a face weathered with sunshine, twinkling eyes and a wizened smile, always wearing his WWII Veteran’s ball cap. Of course you have to be extra nice to those guys, and it started with a “good morning, sir, how are you today?” as we passed him by. He and Mookie would make eyes at each other, and he’d tell Mookie what a handsome boy he is, which Mookie just can’t get enough of. Mookie would’ve moved up to stopping to sit on the porch with him a lot sooner than I did, and he eagerly awaited an invitation.
In time, that’s just what happened. Mookie started going up to the porch to give Sal a good sniff and a kiss (and check for crumbs), and eventually, when summer came and we had all the time in the world, I started up pulling up a chair and spent a few golden mornings sitting and shooting the breeze with Sal.
When I first introduced myself by name, he shook my hand and said, “good to know you, John,” which struck me as a wonderful, lost expression from his era that sounds so much friendlier than “nice to meet you.” I’ve started working that one in.
He was a cool guy, and I’ve spent my whole life studying cool guys to learn their secrets. He had the slight growl of an old man’s voice, and that special quality that the old-school Italian guys had of making you feel like everything he said was in confidence, just for you. He wasn’t just talking at you; he was having a conversation. There’s a difference, and those guys knew what it was.
He was born in Brooklyn. He was drafted into the Navy during WWII. He swabbed the deck on an aircraft carrier in the Pacific and he made sure he didn’t get killed. He came back home, had a family and moved them out to Valley Stream. He worked as a carpenter, mostly for a Jewish guy. He went hunting with some guys in the Adirondacks once, got lost in the dark and decided he liked Brooklyn a whole lot better. The house across the street from him once belonged to the mayor of Valley Stream, and he liked having that access to the people in charge. We talked about these things, and we talked about dogs, and weather, and the neighborhood and about growing old. We both enjoyed the company, and Mookie would lie at his feet in the shade under his chair as we talked.
As our conversations continued, he started giving me a better sense of the downside of being 99. Most everybody was gone, he said, and, though he always greeted Mookie and I by name, he felt his mind slipping away. He couldn’t remember things anymore, and it frightened him. And he was frustrated that all he had left was sitting on this porch.
I told him about my own father, lost in a haze of dementia for five-plus years now, institutionalized, and spending most of his time asleep. I said, “I know it’s not a consolation, Sal, but hell, at least you got the porch.” Like me, he understood that he’d been stupidly lucky, but nobody skirts through this world untouched by sadness, and nobody gets out alive. The best we can do is enjoy the better moments, and my morning visits with Sal were among my favorite moments of 2018.
Once summer was over and the grind started grinding again, Mookie and I walked down Sal’s block on Saturday mornings hoping he’d find it warm enough to come out to the porch. I even brought Trisha with me once to see if she could meet him, but he wasn’t out. In the back of my mind, I figured we’d have another summer, his 100th, to enjoy each other’s company again.
Then, one cold gray morning in November or December, I saw a bunch of cars in his driveway and outside his house, and I knew it was over, but I hoped it wasn’t. A few weeks later, I saw his next-door neighbor, who told me that he fell and he never got recovered. Pick your poison.
We passed by his house on our Christmas Day walk, after a wonderful morning of opening presents with my wife and my son, happy for a time even though there’d be no Grandma Jane to visit later in the day. I told Mookie out loud that I wished we could wish your friend a Merry Christmas. Mookie heard “your friend” and stared forlornly up to the porch waiting for Sal to be there, and I felt bad for messing with his head.
To myself, I wished that I could wish my own mom a Merry Christmas, and though I’d seen him two days before, I wished I could call Dad up and exchange Christmas greetings with him, and wished that he could remember as well as I do all the Christmas’ that we shared. I wished that my wife could give her mother a hug on Christmas Day one more time, ‘cause I know how it’s been since I haven’t.
As I wrap up this post and send it out into the big wide world wide web, it’s Sunday January 6th, The Feast of the Epiphany, Little Christmas. We sadly take down another Christmas tree and we suck it up for another year, with it’s own fresh hells, but also its fresh heavens if you look for them. I’ve got kayaks coming from Washington State. My knee has been feeling better lately. I think we’re in the endgame with this Trump asshole and I think we’re going to win, and win big. The new path along Duffy’s Creek will look nice from our backyard, and our backyard will look nice from the new path.
But ultimately, five thousand words after I began writing this, I have no epiphanies for you about anything. No wisdom, and no myrrh either. I’m just thinking with a keyboard, but it’s my blog, so I can do whatever I want. Sorry to have wasted your time.
When I was young man, I read just about everything Kurt Vonnegut ever published, and he once told me that things were getting worse and worse and they’d never get better ever again, and sometimes, especially in the story of this country and this world, and even in the stories of our families, that’s exactly how it seems.
But God bless him, the DNA that my dad gave me, that Kurt Vonnegut’s dad apparently didn’t give him, compels me to hope, to be an optimist, to truly believe that everything will be fine. As a matter of fact, if you were to ask Francis J. Duffy right now how he felt, he would say, “fine.”
As far as the malevolent randomness of death and loss, the view of the optimist was best expressed by Dr. Seuss, who said, “don’t cry because it’s over, be happy because it happened.”
I think that if death struck me as closely as it did to friends of mine last year, I’d be inclined to tell Dr. Seuss to go fuck himself. But damn if he isn’t right. Enjoy the time we have and the people we love and the things that make us happy and bring us closer to God when we can, while we can, knowing that nothing is forever, and only God knows why that is. There’s your wisdom, there’s your epiphany, and there’s your myrrh. When my brothers and sisters and I fought as kids, my dad would quote Jesus: “Love one another.” When Dad woke up and came out of his bedroom in the morning on a day off, he’d say, “Thank God for a new day!” Often, I’d wished he’d shut up with that nonsense, and of course I’d love to hear him say that now, but I don’t feel the need to cry because it’s over, because it’s much better to be happy that it happened.
As for Sal and Mookie and me, there will be no 100th birthday visit in 2019. But it was good to know him. And at least we had the porch.
It’s been another long, inexcusable break from blogging, but for better or worse, A Creek Runs Through It rises from the ashes today. Today, it’s time to go for a good, long walk. If you’re up for it, Mookie and I would be pleased to take you along on a tour of Valley Stream, Long Island, New York, or at least a nice, big chunk of it.
Of course, we’re wired very differently, and our respective life experiences are very different as well, so no doubt Mookie would at some points be putting things in a more positive light for you than I might. But he doesn’t speak English, and he doesn’t blog. So today I’m your somewhat unreliable narrator.
We are eight summers and seven winters into walking our turf together now, Mookie and I, and we’ve interacted with hundreds of our neighbors along the way. And I’ve learned to appreciate his perspective. As a writer named Edward Hoagland wrote about dog training theory, I’ve learned ”to open up myself the possibility of becoming partly a dog.” We even negotiate over which way we’re heading on our walks, since he knows his way around as well as I do. If he could speak English, and he could blog, he’d just look at you with a big smile and say, “Isn’t this great?” But then again, he would say that about every place he’s been.
Futhermore, my dog believes that every person who opens every house or car door as we’re walking by has arrived in his field of vision purposely to see him and tell him what a beautiful big dog he is. He collects people. We’re just walking by your house and you happen to walk out your front door or get out of your car. Mookie stops dead in his tracks, squares his paws, sucks in his gut and targets his prey (you) with his best Labby smile, as if to say, “Hey! Hey you! Here I am! I love you! Wanna say hi waggy waggy?”
He’s very good at it and he scores a “Hey, Buddy!” or a smile back at the very least almost every time. Subsequently, he’s made me like people a little more in general. They’re actually not so bad, most of them.
Mookie deciding whether to bolt over to someone and tackle them, just to say hi.
Yes, my dog loves it here in Valley Stream. So does my son, whose grandparents moved here from Astoria, Queens in 1955, lived for 46 years on a house on a creek and raised five children in it. My son is already planning to send us away someday and buy this house. For the record, that never occurred to me when I was 14. I’m glad he likes it.
Me, I’m the youngest of those five children and right now the I’m guy who lives with his family of three people, three cats and a dog in that same house on that same creek. Do I love living in ValIey Stream? Well, honestly, a lot of the time I’m pretty much awash in ambivalence. I’ve met a lot of great people here, and a couple of soreheads. Plus I suppose it would be impossible not to feel affection for a place where you’ve spent most of fifty-five years and three months.
On the other hand, most of fifty-five years and three months is a very, very long time to live in the same anywhere. I feel like the place where I live could be a lot better if people in general had different priorities. But that’s true of all of Long Island, where people often have some really ass-backwards ideas about what’s important. And I will say this: What strengths Valley Stream does have put it way ahead of a lot of places not only on Long Island, but also in America in general.
So I’m going to take a cue from Mookie and try to keep it positive when I can. We’re going on a big, circuitous, approximately five-mile walk, but we’re going to take our time, and sometimes go back in time. Mookie will need to read his pee mail on the poles and trees, and I’ll be telling you some stories and acting as your tour guide. The goal is to see a place, a town in America in 2018, close up for what it is, as well as what it was and where it seems to be going. Remember, no matter who we happen to meet along the way, Mookie loves them. As for us, you’d probably agree with me that any day is a good day for a walk, and most people are likable enough. So I’d like to show you around our hometown. At its best, it’s a microcosm of the best things about our country. At its worst, maybe not so much. You wanna go for a walk? Come on! Let’s go for a walk!
Terrapin escaping troubled waters for a bit of sun on a rock
Egrets, we have a few. And I try to look out for them.
The walk starts from the house in which I was conceived and raised, and where I live more or less happily today. The house is on a winding street that follows a winding creek, and it’s called Jedwood Place for no good reason. In that house, on a 60 x 100 plot of land abutting tidal waters flowing in and out from Jamaica Bay (home of many interesting birds and one big-ass airport), I have been a baby, a son, a little brother, a snotty teenager, an occasional host of rowdy parties, a smart kid, a troublemaker, a mostly frustrated , bored but sporadically inspired young adult, a lot of peoples’ friend “Duff” who lives down the block from South High, a college student, a guy who’s been in his parents’ house too long, a guy carrying laundry and Ancona pizza on a visit home, a happy and loyal husband, a pleasant enough neighbor, a not-so-awful father and the guy with the big yellow dog.
Two big, fat side notes before we go walking (you can use this time to stretch, maybe tie your shoes. Mookie Dog will wait patiently on the front lawn and sniff the air) :
Note One: There is no other Jedwood Place on the face of the earth. But after 55 years of using the same mailing address, the name “Jedwood” feels as much a part of my name as my name. Yet there is no logical explanation why Mr. William Gibson, the man whose development company built my neighborhood in the early 1950’s and who built most of the neighborhoods of South Valley Stream thirty years before that, would have named a street “Jedwood Place.” The two most frequent citations of “jedwood” that you’ll find on Google refer to a hunting ground in Scotland and “jedwood justice”, which was a practice rooted in 19th Century Maryland wherein a person suspected of a crime was put to death without trial. Neither of these things have anything to do with Jedwood Place. Hopefully, they never will.
Note Two: Jedwood Place is in it’s own little development, bordered by Duffy’s Creek and dead-ending at Valley Stream South High School. Mr. Gibson called it “West Sunbury” but that name never stuck. The other three street names in this little development are Cluett Road, Sanford Court and Virginia Court. A Google search reveals that the man who developed the process of pre-shrinking fabrics known as “sanforization” was named Sanford Lockwood Cluett. Hmmmm. I have no idea if he was a friend of Mr. Gibson, though they were contemporaries, and captains of industry, sort of. I could find no mention of Sanford Cluett, who was born in upstate Troy, NY, hanging out on Long Island, though if I were from Troy I guess I’d jump at the chance. And oddly enough, Sanford Cluett was married to a woman whose maiden name was Camilla Elizabeth Rising, and the land Jedwood Place was built on was once part of the Riesing Farm, a different spelling but coincidental just the same. I have no idea who Virginia was. All this is interesting to me (if not to you, as you and Mookie wait for your promised walk) because Jedwood feels like part of my name, and it’s only because somebody pulled it out of nowhere in 1950.
Such is the randomness of our existence. Creek Street would have worked just as well.
I wanted you to know all this before we go because I ‘ve spent most of my life walking or driving around in circles, starting from and ending at Jedwood Place, of which there is only one on the face of the earth. And over the last seven years, in partnership with our beautiful, loyal, insanely friendly Labrador Retriever, I’ve taken walking in circles starting from Jedwood Place to a whole new level.
During the twenty-five years in which I was between dogs, I had often wished I had a dog just so I could go for a walk without having a destination in mind (and of course because dogs are generally so, so much better company than people). As we’ve established, Mookie’s mission in life is to say hi to as many people as he can, which in his best-case scenario means you rub his face and he stares deeply into your eyes and tries to kiss you. If you were actually here, you’d know that already, and as you may have guessed, I’m somewhat more reserved. But I enjoy all this about him greatly, and hundreds of people we’ve met on our walks have as well.
And so (surprise), having a friendly, good-looking dog and taking long, rambling walks around town is a great way to observe and often meet people, and when you observe and often meet people, sometimes you get talking to them. And when you get talking to people, you get to know the true character of a place. And I can say without any reservation that I (and to an extent, Mookie) know the character of Valley Stream – at least the south half of it – better than anyone, particularly anyone who works at Money Magazine.
Why Money Magazine? Well, apparently, somebody at Money Magazine really likes Valley Stream, so much so that earlier this year Money Magazine voted it the Best Place To Live in New York State. For heaven’s sake why? Well, this is what they said:
First settled by Scottish immigrants in 1834, Valley Stream is a Nassau County village that attracts residents with a reputation of being “neat, clean and safe”. The location is a big draw—it’s just 35 minutes from Manhattan, near two major highway arteries, and served by the Long Island Railroad. Snapple originated in Valley Stream, which also boasts several historic colonial sites, a diverse population, and a close-knit suburban community.
So, to use a buzz phrase that my boss loves, “let’s unpack that.”
First of all, Snapple. Really? What the hell is Snapple doing in three sentences of copy about Valley Stream being the best place to live in New York State? And I believe we have one colonial site. This is why I mostly avoid magazines.
Second of all, I’m very aware of the “major highway arteries” and the Long Island Railroad, thank you so much, as well as being five miles from JFK Airport. It’s often very noisy around here. It’s not “Manhattan noisy”, or even “Queens noisy”. You can still hear the birds. There still are occasional moments of relative quiet. But if you listen for it, there’s almost always a dull roar of the motor noise of trains, plains, automobiles and leaf blowers emanating from our surroundings, and I’m not entirely sure that this isn’t all slowly driving me insane.
Third of all, neat, clean and safe. These are just about the most relative terms you could string together to describe a place. Your idea and my idea of the threshold for earning those adjectives could be very similar or very different, depending on how much you are affected by Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder.
We’ll get to “clean” and “neat” when we get walking. (“Yawwwnnn!!!,” says Mookie). First, let’s talk about “safe”. “Safe” is ultimately what makes or breaks the reputation of a place. But again, it’s completely relative. Do I feel “safe” walking with Mookie at night through Valley Stream? Well, yeah, ‘cause we’re the scariest looking two guys out there if you’re up to something, so that’s a moot point. Do I feel safe if my 14-year old son or my wife is out after dark? Of course not, because I love them and I worry about them and I want to be with them all the time so I know where they are, but that would be true wherever we lived. That’s got nothing to do with Valley Stream.
Less than a mile to my west is Green Acres Mall, which has grown like an ink stain since it was built in the 1950’s. It has, over the years, fostered a reputation as being a slightly dangerous, crime-ridden place. So much so that the first neighborhood we’re going to visit on our walk changed it’s name from “Green Acres” to “Mill Brook” in the early 1980’s to distinguish itself from the shopping mall, a decision that at the time smacked of racism, because many of the shoppers at the mall are people of color from neighborhoods in Queens and Brooklyn. This is ironic in retrospect since all the ethnic groups that people in Green Acres were afraid of are now raising families and planting flowers in front of the houses they own in Mill Brook.
Within the last three years, Green Acres applied for and received a PILOT (Payment In Lieu Of Taxes, otherwise known as a big fat tax break) from the Town of Hempstead to expand yet again. Part of their strategy for legally cheating on taxes and stealing money from people in Valley Stream was to sell Green Acres as a “tourist attraction”, since more than 50% of the customer base comes from outside Nassau County. The mall is literally right on the New York City border. And so, when people on Valley Stream social media pages want to make snide comments about people from the city, they call them tourists. Isn’t that clever?
Statistically, I don’t know how true the perception of Green Acres Mall being unsafe is or ever was. But I can tell you this: The creek amplifies noise. All creeks do. It’s a property of water. If there’s a particularly egregious crime at the mall (I’d say an average of between 6-10 times a year depending on how hot the summer is and how much the giant flat-screen TV’s are going for on Black Friday) you’ll know about it at Duffy’s Creek. You’ll hear the angry roar of helicopters circling overhead (followed seconds later by the angry roar of people on the Valley Stream News Facebook page reporting helicopters circling overhead), and the apocalyptic sirens from emergency vehicles racing down Sunrise Highway and Mill Road.
At times like these, Green Acres is less a shopping mall than an encroaching monster that wants to eat my quality of life. Of course, it would certainly be LESS safe here if there WERE no circling helicopters and emergency vehicles ready to respond in minutes to intervene in whatever nonsense is going down. We pay some of the highest property taxes in the country for that sort of thing. And Roosevelt Field, the bigger shopping mall to the east bordered by the much more wealthy community of Garden City, makes it into Newsday for spectacularly stupid crimes as much as Green Acres does.
And the other 99% of the time, when there are no egregious crimes being committed, it’s just a shopping mall. And me, I hate shopping malls. They’re gross. I like forests. And lakes. But if you’re OK with shopping malls, go ahead and visit Green Acres Mall sometime. Don’t worry. It’s plenty safe. It’s a tourist attraction. Go there and waste your money.
Meanwhile, now that we’ve established that “safe” is an illusion that means absolutely nothing no matter where you live, let’s get to that walk. As you look across the street from my house, the first thing you will say is “What the…?” And then you will smile your dopiest smile, because you’ve just had your first look at the house of my longtime neighbor and friend John and his wife Amanda who live across the street. John and I disagree vehemently on politics, so we never ever talk about it when we see each other. However, I have great respect for and truly enjoy his execution of the American rights and traditions that allow one to do whatever the hell one wants to one’s house within local zoning regulations. Plus he does our taxes, and we always do pretty well. So I have no problem living across the street from a house that has been remodeled to resemble a giant log cabin.
Thanks to my neighbor John for giving me permission to share this view of his house from my house.
Yeah. That’s right. A giant log cabin. AND, there are two “showcases” in the front of the house. In one of those showcases you’ll see a life-size gorilla statue, along with a life-size guy who looks a little like John himself sitting in a chair in a white suit and a Panama hat, with a parrot on his shoulder, a totem pole and a monkey scaling a tree behind him. In the other showcase you’ll see a bear, several small hippos and a family of prairie dogs. You’ll also notice the two grazing bison attached to the second floor balcony and the almost life-sized plastic representation of a Tennessee Walking Horse mounted on the fence. Completing the look is a stone wall in the corner of the property with a faux blue pond made of concrete, engraved with various animal drawings, “flowing” out to the sidewalk.
I’ve seen a lot of people take pictures of John’s house. Selfies, mostly. I find it extremely amusing. And I know he doesn’t give a flying rat what anyone thinks of his log cabin, which another reason I like him. And since we have Valley Stream South High School up at the top of the dead-end of Jedwood Place, we have lots of pedestrian and vehicle traffic passing by our houses – and lots of very loud teenagers – when school is open. As a matter of fact, you literally can’t get out of our driveway between 7:15 and 7:40 a.m. on school days as the street is one long convoy of cars dropping those same teenagers off at school, most of whom live no more than a mile away. My friends all walked to school here, even the ones who lived two miles away. Most of them are still alive. Just sayin.’
Valley Stream South High School, where we regularly trespass and occasionally get off the leash to go get it. The new football field really pisses us off
As we set out on our five-mile walk (did I mention that?) we have three possible trails: We can walk towards Valley Stream South High School, my alma mater, where we don’t give damn about trespassing on the field because of the school taxes we pay (and Mookie has lots of friends in high places anyway). They’re currently transforming the South football field from natural to artificial turf, which Mookie and I, along with the sandpipers, agree is a really stupid idea, but we had no say in it at all. Walking up that way, we might see my next-door neighbor, originally from the Philippines, who Mookie has loved since he was a puppy, and how could you not? We might see Raffi, who doesn’t like Mookie sniffing at him, but who feeds me really good noodle and pastry stuff after Ramadan so I give him jars of homemade bread and butter pickles on my summer vacation. (All my other friendly neighbors get them. I don’t concern myself with the unfriendly ones, and Mookie knows not to stop in front of their houses).
We might see Bob walking his dog Eli the other way and we might say something about the Mets. One family of Mookie’s best friends moved to Florida last year and we both miss them. But he’s recently worn some other people down at the end of the street who now say hi to him by name. Up at the high school soccer field, Mookie might get to chase a ball off the leash if no one is around, but if it’s Sunday, they’ll be twenty gentleman of various ages, all in way, way better shape than I am, playing The Beautiful Game like their lives depended on it. When school is open, Mookie collects high school students. They’re not so bad, even with the littering. I digress.
If we take trail #2 and walk up Cluett, we’ll see a house that belongs to some wonderful neighbors of ours that is currently being renovated and has been raised way high off the ground to survive the next big hurricane. From what I can see, I like their chances. Mookie will check to see if his very best friend Vacco is relaxing in the hammock that hangs from the walls of his spotless garage, and if so will have to charge at him and wag his tail maniacally for a face rub while Vacco and I talk about our solar panels.
But we’re going to take trail #3 and walk up Jedwood towards Mill Road and around the Creek, into Mill Brook, which I still call Green Acres. There’s a story I want to tell you about the path on the other side. Walking up to the corner, we’ll pass about twenty houses, and Mookie has friends in at eight of them. He’s working on the other twelve.
The Mill Brook community (when it was Green Acres) used to be connected to Jedwood via a pedestrian bridge over Duffy’s Creek (called, not surprisingly, “the Bridge”) but it was deemed unsafe after a kid got stabbed there (long, stupid story) and it was demolished, meaning most kids from Mill Brook now either walk or get a ride down Jedwood to get to school. So once upon a time, you, me and Mookie could’ve walked to the footpath on other side of Duffy’s Creek from the high school without going to Mill Road and passing the stores. And if the bridge were there, I could tell you about all the bottles of cheap beer and other commodities that were consumed over the years by generations of Valley Stream South students. But it isn’t. So I won’t.
Instead we have to make our way past the insane little white dog that occasionally runs out into traffic to chase after us at the corner of Jedwood and Mill, and walk north past the stores.
Here’s the good news about the row of stores at the corner of Jedwood Place and Mill Road. There’s a dry cleaner, a deli, a pizza place which I don’t like but my son does, a Chinese take-out that everybody likes, and deli that’s really a bodega, which is different from a deli but I don’t have the patience to explain to you why that is if you don’t already know. There is a certain convenience in having these things in your neighborhood. I guess that makes them convenience stores.
Here’s the bad news about the row of stores at the corner of Jedwood Place and Mill Road. 1) It has not been updated since 1950. It’s shabby and run-down looking and there is 68 years of gum embedded in the sidewalk. They use the steel doors use that you see in the picture when they’re closed, which makes the neighborhood look worse than it is, but I suppose it’s better than broken plate glass, which would do the same. 2) Nassau County owns a strip of land next to the row of stores that abuts Duffy’s Creek. They have not cleaned this area in my lifetime. It’s a wasteland of weeds, dead trees and garbage, as disgusting as anything you’ll ever see in a place where the median family income is $85,00 a year. It screams, for all the world to hear, that here in Southwest Nassau County, we just don’t give a fuck. The water spilling from the culvert under Mill Road into the creek smells like death, but more about that later, too. 3) There is a very large laundromat between the deli and the pizza place and people double park in front of it all the time. 4) The first store was a dive bar for most of my life – originally called “The Sportsman’s Rendezvous” – but has become a Nail Salon. It is one of approximately 500 nail salons in a five-mile radius. I never hung out in the dive bar, but I’m sure there were a lot less nefarious things going on in the Sportsman’s Rendezvous than there are in the Nail Salon. But that’s just me. 5) The Garbage.
The Path along the Left Bank of Duffy’s Creek, owned by the Town of Hempstead.
The spillway under Mill Road, where the “fresh” water from Hendrickson Lake and Mill Pond meets the salt water from Jamaica Bay at Diuffy’s Creek,
Mill Pond Park, Village Of Valley Stream
Mill Pond Park, Village Of Valley Stream. They tell me they can’t do much about the pond scum, and I’ve met pond scum, so I get that.
The toxic wasteland is owned by Nassau County. If you don’t believe that it is a toxic wasteland, I’d invite you to go take a whiff.
The amount of garbage on the street in and around Jedwood Place, most of it originating from the row of stores, and the very loud teenagers from the high school, whom Mookie loves and who visit those stores regularly, would have cost Valley Stream our Money Magazine “Best Place To Live in New York” designation if Money Magazine had known about it. I regularly feel like the Crying Indian when I walk around and see all the garbage that kids drop on the street (and that people throw out of their car windows after dropping their kids off at the high school. Don’t worry. I see you). There was a big push back in the 70’s to get people to stop littering, because nobody really wanted to make the Indian cry. But somehow, somewhere along the line, this morphed into the idea that people are paid to pick up after you. And who the hell is the Crying Indian? If you litter on Jedwood Place, ultimately, I pick up after you for free, because I get to the point where I can’t look at it anymore. People walk around with a bottle of something and a magic rectangle everywhere they go but somehow carrying a wrapper, or that now empty bottle of something, to the next garbage can is far too great a burden. This is a Valley Stream problem and a Long Island problem in general. We spent a week in Copake, NY and a week in Saranac Lake, NY this summer. There are fewer people in these places, of course, but none of them throw their fucking garbage in the street. So it’s not like a ratio or anything. People on Long Island – though I like many of them, and Mookie loves all of them – are pigs. There, I said it.
But Mookie, of course, doesn’t mind at all. He’s more interested in smells and finding people to say hi to than he is in aesthetics. This is one part of me that refuses to become partly a dog.
So we’re past the stores now, we’ve checked for terrapin turtles sunning themselves on the rocks next to the horrible-smelling spillway (sometimes we see our friend Steve who works at the high school looking for turtles, too). We’re around to the Right Bank of Duffy’s Creek, going down the path that runs behind the backyards in the “new” section of Mill Brook. We could have gone straight and gone through “Old Green Acres” on the streets north of Flower Road, which was the part of the development built in 1939 and features some very nice tudors and brick colonials that help keep the property value up on our little wooden box, but I would rather show you this path. I have my reasons.
My sister Mary Frances on The Path, around 1958
The same spot in 2018
Unlike much of Valley Stream, the path along Duffy’s Creek -which like Jedwood Place is outside the boundaries of the Village of Valley Stream and within the jurisdiction of the Town of Hempstead – looks pretty much the same as it did when I was a kid, but with one big difference: There’s less of it. The creek has been eroding the path for as long as they’ve been matched together. The hard surface of the path is just about gone in most places. Tall Phragmites (what my father referred to as “woozy-woozies” when he had small children and even when he didn’t) block your view of the water through most of it, except where one guy takes it upon himself to cut them all down with one of his many, many power tools so he can see the creek from his deck, which happens to be directly across the water from our house. It’s a reasonably nice place to walk your dog, as Mookie can attest. But it’s supposed to be a lot nicer. And I can prove that with a 123 page pdf file available online from the New York State Office of Storm Recovery, otherwise known as “New York Rising.”
South Valley Stream got whacked pretty well by Hurricane Sandy (or “Superstorm Sandy” if you insist, but please don’t). Being just south of Sunrise Highway, we were on the northern end of the area that got flooded. Towns south of us, East Rockaway, Oceanside and Long Beach in particular, were whacked much, much more devastatingly. (Not sure if anybody at FEMA uses the term, “whacked” to describe what happened, but I’m going with it).
About a year and a half after Hurricane Sandy surrounded our house in four feet of tidal surge on the night of October 29th, 2012, I heard about a meeting, the first in a series of meetings, at the Forest Road School, where the Mill Brook Civic Association would be taking public comments on how to spend the $3 Million in New York Rising Storm Recovery money that was apportioned to South Valley Stream. I just wanted to make sure they weren’t planning to build concrete retaining walls along my creek and declare it as a permanent open sewer, because that would really piss off the egrets. (I have a few). I was pleasantly surprised to see that this was not the plan.
New York State contracted with the Louis Berger Group as consultants to advise individual communities on how to spend the money they were getting through New York Rising. The Louis Berger Group (I saw them at the Peppermint Lounge in ’83) would work with existing community organizations to formulate and document a plan of action. The exiting community organization here was (and is) the Mill Brook Civic Association, even though Mill Brook is only about one-third of South Valley Stream. Gibson used to have a civic association but it doesn’t anymore because the old one died and I haven’t had the time to start the new one, and neither has Sean Lally.
I was wary of what the folks in the Mill Brook Civic Association were up to, so I kept haunting their meetings. Again, I was pleasantly surprised by the plan, officially published in March of 2014. Through going to the meetings, I got to know a wonderful gentleman who was leading the Louis Berger Group contingent for the project, a Dutch fellow by the name of Niek, or Neiyk. No matter. We got talking about birds. I told him that when I first moved back to my childhood home here, I documented the different bird species we saw.
I had always noticed the variety of birds around here as a kid, but I never got all citizen science about it until I was a homeowner, and they were MY birds. Way back then in 2002 we still had two gigantic maple trees out front and two Bradford pears in the back that were allowed to get out of control before our arrival, and they were all threatening to kill the house, so we eventually had to have them taken down. (We have replaced them, and then some, but trees take time). There were several giant Eastern White Pines in the neighborhood that have since been taken down or blown over in storms. Sadly, a beautiful oak tree on my next door neighbors’ property (once my grandmother’s), a tree that was probably planted along the creek by the Reising Farm owners before the houses were built, had to come down just this summer.
Big trees mean lots of birds, of course. And fewer trees mean fewer birds. And who doesn’t like birds? But sometimes where little wooden boxes are jammed together in 60 x 100 plots, you have to take down big trees, because they might kill you. And when you lose the trees, you lose the birds, who I’m sure don’t understand what the hell anyone would have against a big tree. I used to say that Duffy’s Creek was a great place to be a bird. Sadly, it’s come to the point, especially after losing the oak tree this summer, that if I were a bird, I’d probably blow this hot dog stand and move upstate.
But back when Trisha and I moved in, and we still had lots of big trees, filling up the bird feeders would get you twenty cardinals at sunset on a snowy afternoon. Waves of warblers and other migrant songbirds stopped in our trees in the spring and fall. We still have an impressive variety of waterfowl, especially in fall and winter, but every year the creek is neglected, it gets a little less populated. But in a year or so upon moving back to Jedwood Place in back in 2002, I had identified close to a hundred different species of birds in our yard and on our creek. Most of them I will never see here again because of the whole tree thing, but this little tidbit was still very impressive to Niek, or Neiyk, who had himself grown up in the Netherlands along a river (I knew that without him telling me) and was still something of a bird guy himself. At the meeting where the Louis Berger Group were unveiling the New York Rising plan for South Valley Stream, he told me that I should send him a list of those birds, and so I did.
The plan that Niek, or Nieyk and the Louis Berger Group put together was a beautiful thing. Landscaping and naturalizing the path, planting lots of trees, replacing the sewer pipes with a wetland filtration system (called a “bioswale”) that would clean the water over time. And to top it off, South Valley Stream was awarded another $3 million from New York State in “Race To The Top” money (gag me) for showing that the plan could, among other things, help bring back the birds on the list I sent to Neik, or Nieyk, who gave me some of the credit for the $3 million when nobody else did, which he didn’t have to do because all I did was count birds, but I appreciated it. I met some great people through stalking the Mill Brook Civic Association. They made me feel very optomistic about living here.
Now you may recall, a couple of paragraphs back, that this plan was published in 2014. The Town of Hempstead received the money from the State of New York to implement the plan. They’re sitting on $6 million as far as I know. And as you may have guessed from our walk today, they haven’t done shit yet, besides stick some flags in the ground and mow the grass.
But I’m hopeful. And our walk continues.
We’re around on the other side of the creek now, and in this section, past the path, there are house on both sides of the creek. There’s a style of house here, and on Rosedale Road where we emerge at Hoeffner’s Gas station on the city line (opened when the whole area was still Hoeffner’s Farm) and in the neighborhood on the other side of South High School from Jedwood, which I can only describe as the ”three little window houses”. They’re ranches with attached garages and a room jutting out towards the street with three ridiculously small windows hung in a parallel line at the top of the wall. Having been in those houses, I can tell you they’re nice from the inside. Big open floor plans and all that. They’re just kind of goofy looking from the outside.
I can’t say anything if you won’t let me in to see anything.
Hoeffner’s Gas Station. The New York City Line is less than 500 feet from here.
Temple Hillel, Rosedale Road
The “Lilco Woods”
A Three Little Window House
Which brings us to two “when I was a kid” observations that are true of this neighborhood and the rest of the places we’ll pass on our walk.
Observation #1: Every house on every street used to look like every other house on that street. That’s not quite as true anymore, as people have remodeled, and in some cases created great Taj Mahal-like structures from the little ranches and capes they started out with. This is more true in Mill Brook / Green Acres and the “North Woodmere” section of South Valley Stream. A lot of Mr. Gibson’s streets look structurally as they did 100 years ago. As an architecture fan, I find some of the remodels classy and sharp, and others a violent assault on my senses. But, like John’s Log Cabin, I respect and admire people for making these boxes into their own personal statements to the world. It’s a very American thing to do. We haven’t built a Taj Mahal, but we’ve planted a lot of flowers and trees. That’s a human thing to do.
Observation #2: When I was a lad here, the community of Green Acres, as well as the development along Rosedale Road up into North Woodmere, was a primarily Jewish neighborhood. I personally went to at least five bar and bas mitzvahs. Had a great time, too, as I remember. The majority of Valley Streamers were of Italian, Jewish, German and Irish descent, like my parents, one-generation removed from apartment buildings in Brooklyn and Queens, just like the new folks moving in these days. People of color lived across the City Line (at the time even further, the color line was really Brookville Boulevard in Rosedale, Queens) and that’s the way it was. As a matter of fact, you should read this New York Times story from 1979 and some 2010 census statistics before we go on, so as you continue on our walk up into the heart Valley Stream, you can see how far we’ve come, and why there’s really no such thing here as an anyone’s neighborhood anymore, and that’s a good thing:
VALLEY STREAM, L.I., Aug. 15 – A crude wooden cross was set afire last night on the front lawn of a house that a black family moved into here last week.
The cross was discovered at 10:15 P.M. by Inga Grant, the mother of seven children, who had moved into the two‐story, four‐bedroom colonial house from Rego Park, Queens, according to the Nassau County police.
They said the family had received obscene telephone calls and that windows had been broken while it was moving into the house, at 101 Woodlawn Avenue, in this South Shore village that neighbors said was predominantly white.
A real‐estate agent who had an exclusive listing on the house for several months, but did not sell it to Mrs. Grant, said today that he had been receiving obscene and threatening phone calls since Aug. 1, when the sale, reported at “upward of $70,000,” was closed.
Few of the neighbors gathered near the house today expressed sympathy for the Grants. And some of them said there had been neighborhood speculation that the sale was an attempt at blockbusting that is, inducing homeowners to sell quickly by creating the fear that purchases of homes by members of a minority group will cause a loss in value.
Now here’s the Wiki for the latest demographics of South Valley Stream, not including most of the Village of Valley Stream or North Valley Stream, which for the record are equally or more diverse. The CDP is my little “census designated place”, which is relatively small in area compared to everything that’s called “Valley Stream”. It’s a little confusing, I understand:
As of the census of 2010, there were 5,962 people, 1,969 households, and 1,554 families residing in the CDP. The population density was 6,415.1 per square mile. (Holy crap). There were 2,045 housing units at an average density of 2,326.9/sq mi. The racial makeup of the CDP was 51.90% White, 23.10% African American, 0.07% Native American, 18.10% Asian, 0.00% Pacific Islander, 4.40% from other races, and 2.20% from two or more races. Hispanic or Latino of any race were 9.80% of the population.
As for the “loss of value” that haunted the dreams of Woodlawn Avenue residents 29 years ago (not all of them, of course), you might be interested to know that the average price of a house in my neighborhood today is $462,000 big ones. We just do that to keep the riff-raff out.
And I suspect, based on the unscientific method of walking around with my dog, that the 2020 census will show more even slices of pie among white, African American Hispanic or Latino and Asian. And more and more, there’s an overlap among them all. And, not for nothin’, half of us have college diplomas. So fuck you.
Sorry, I didn’t mean that. We’re just a little defensive here sometimes. It’s because of Rockville Centre and Hewlett.
Statistically speaking, concepts of race and ethnicity could someday disappear altogether in a place like Valley Stream, which is pretty noteworthy considering the attitudes of 1979, when I was in 10th grade at Italian-Jewish-Irish South High School and knew those cross burners personally, or at least their families. And, while it’s easy to say this for a white guy, and I try to be aware of the systemic, institutionalized racism that people darker than myself have to put up with all the time no matter how enlightened their community supposedly is, I believe that in some ways, we’re almost there. As people get to know their neighbors, and share the common spaces, they see each other’s colors less and less. Unless they’re beyond hope, and most of the people who were beyond hope left here years ago. Valley Stream is not perfect in this regard, but it’s become a pretty good place to walk around in whatever color skin you happened to have been born wearing.
Let’s keep walking.
We’re on Rosedale Road, which for no good reason becomes Brookfield Road when it intersects Hungry Harbor Road, which was actually named for people who were hungry. Squatters, I’m told. We’re passing a fenced-off two acres or so of woods that belongs to Long Island American Water. There’s a good story behind this little piece of woods that you should say something if you see something in, even though you can’t go in it, but I’ve already told that story in a previous blog post: https://duffyscreek.com/2016/08/07/taking-a-walk-an-abridged-10000-year-history-of-south-valley-stream and we’re crossing Mill Road again, heading up Dubois Avenue, where Du Boys used to hang out in front of the candy store and the deli at Gibson Station.
Yes, almost forty years ago, I was one of the boys. A scrawny, tag-along boy but a Verified Gibson Rat just the same. Where the Nail Salon is now (one of the five-hundred) was once Jimmy and Ronny Duffy’s “Candy Store”, which as anyone from Long Island would know is a place where you could buy candy, newspapers, magazines, greeting cards, Whiffle Bats and Spalding Balls and odd stuff hanging around like flyswatters, condoms and birthday cake candles. There was also be the obligatory pinball tables, and later video games, in the back of the store, eager to swallow the quarters of local idiots. I got pretty good at Asteroids, but never could handle Defender.
Jimmy was Ronny’s father, and their names weren’t actually Duffy. They were using Jimmy’s wife’s maiden name to avoid something or somebody, but I didn’t care. They treated me and the rest of the knuckleheads who hung around the store like Italian family. Still, in retrospect, I regard every second hanging around Gibson Station as a colossal waste of time. I guess I must have learned something from the experience, but I have no idea what. Maybe how to act more Italian, but I could never pull it off. Oh, well.
Today my favorite thing about Gibson Station (besides the fact that it is frozen in time and could be easily used for the “1979” scenes of my biopic) are the guys who make Mookie and I our bacon and egg breakfast at the Cold Cut Express. Not being invited inside, Mookie stays tied up to a parking meter no one ever feeds (shhh!!!) and usually makes at least one new friend in the time it takes to scramble two eggs. As most people in this line of work now, the guys at the Cod Cut Express are immigrants from somewhere and they work and they work and they work. They are gentleman who treat their often annoying customers with respect and I appreciate them being there, as the only time I see them is when I’m not working.
And one of these days, I have to check out Meli Melo, which is the Cajun-Creole restaurant that opened where Goldie’s, an Italian Restaurant, used to be. (“A Taste of Louisiana and Haiti”) Mookie and I had a nice conversation one morning with a guy who was working on the remodel for a long, long time. (They’d have to put the smiling clown from the Goldie’s sign back up to shoot those 1979 scenes). When Goldie’s was empty, I had a fun little dream about buying a winning lotto ticket at the Cold Cut Express and opening “Duffy’s At The Station”, but I guess now it’s too late, and I wish Meli Melo nothing but success. We’re walking north up Dubois Ave. now, leaving Du Boys at the Cold Cut Express and Du New Boys at Meli Melo to keep chasing their American dreams.
On the left side of the street are some beautiful colonial houses with big front porches that predate Mr. Gibson. Starting on the right side of Dubois and heading south are Mr. Gibson’s 1920’s era, rather unique Pointy Houses.
As I walk through all these neighborhoods, I’m privately amused when I consider that I’ve been inside at least one example of each style of house, even though the people who lived in those houses when I visited are long gone, and the people who live there now have no idea I’ve been in their houses. I still keep in touch with lots of people from high school, and they live all over, and I pass their childhood houses all the time. The kids who lived in this neighborhood either went to William L. Buck or Brooklyn Avenue School. I went to Robert W. Carbonaro, which is on back on Hungry Harbor Road around the corner from Jedwood Place.
Brooklyn Avenue is a beautiful old building from the 1920’s. Buck and Carbonaro are identical buildings, 1960’s Splanch Style, approximately two miles away from each other, at the southwest and northeast polar ends of Mookie’s turf. When our son had some accumulated trouble at Carbonaro in fourth grade, he went in to the BOCES system for a year, and then we insisted that he go back to his home district. This story is, of course, a lot more involved than what I’m telling you.
There was a new principal at Carbonaro at the time. My personal interactions with him were both pleasant and nauseating. Overall, the place seemed a bit on edge. We met some great people there, and some maybe not so much. I myself spent seven wonderfully happy years at Carbonaro from 1968 to 1975. As for our son, the district people didn’t want him to go back to Carbonaro and agreed to enroll him at Buck. That summer, the principal at Buck got in touch with me to invite my son in to look over the building (and teach him all about the new geothermal heating and cooling system that had just been installed for free by New York State) and introduce him to his teacher. They were nothing but kind. The school was a happy place. And our son ended up having his best year in elementary school.
So now every time Mookie and I walk past Carbonaro (pretty much every day) I feel a little twinge of betrayal mixed in with the nostalgia. And every time we walk past Buck, which is different but looks almost exactly the same, I’m reminded to keep an open mind, and have some faith that things have away of working themselves out.
Meanwhile, I could take you through some really drop-dead gorgeous neighborhoods at this point, the nicest streets in South Valley Stream, between Rockaway Avenue and Forest and Brooklyn Avenues, pre-Gibson colonials with big front porches set back from the street on huge plots of land with lots of big trees that don’t want to kill anyone. There are also neighborhoods like this in Central and North Valley Stream – particularly Westwood on the border of Malverne – but we’re not going that far today, because that’s generally outside of our walking turf and I’m looking down the barrel of 8,000 words already.
We’re going straight up Rockaway Avenue, across Sunrise Highway. In short, we’re going to town. You get to see the sights, visit our fine stores and restaurants. And you get to meet David Sabatino.
Mookie’s psyched. He slipped David the tongue once when he kissed him.
First we have to wind our way along the part of Rockaway south of the highway, where you’ll pass Wondarama, where they’ve been fixing flats and replacing batteries for 45 years or so. Across the street is Temple Beth Shalom. There is a small Hasidic community that lives in some of the houses around the temple. They enjoy seeing Mookie and I out walking with them on Saturday mornings. He wags his tail for them.
Right next door to the temple are two warehouse buildings, the second a monstrosity of contemporary glass in your face architecture, which went up in the last three years. A company called International that distributes many, many bottles of booze owns both buildings. And if you say, “well, gosh, those buildings are nice for warehouses and all but they’re totally too big and out of character for the area,” Then I’d agree with you and watch your reaction when we come up on the Sun Valley Apartment Building.
Yes, folks, this is the future of Valley Stream. Five stories, 72 modern squirrel cages with Blink Fitness on the ground floor and a tennis court on the roof where in four years I have yet to see a tennis ball in flight when I happen to look up. It may yet happen.
People want to live here. They like the schools, and the parks. They even like the mall. The population is exploding. Since you’re not getting our little wooden box for under $400,000, housing is a problem. Plus, in another five years or so, the Long Island Rail Road will have burrowed through to Grand Central Station in Manhattan, finally creating direct access from Long Island train stations to the East Side of Manhattan, and as Money Magazine breathlessly told you, we could be on the next train west from Valley Stream and jostling our way through Penn Station in 35 minutes. It’s great, isn’t it? And now you can add in a couple of thousand people who would like to be jostling through Grand Central in 45 minutes, and the end result is apartment buildings, and lots of ‘em.
It’s a tide you just can’t fight. And you can take that from an experienced kayaker and worry wart. To suggest it’s “out of character” for a suburban “bedroom community” to have buildings with 74 apartments on a commercial corner is a shortsighted notion and completely out of touch with reality. This was something I had to learn. When Sun Valley was going up (and up and up) I bitched and moaned to the Deputy Mayor, a wonderful fellow who excels at debate, mostly about what I saw as the horrible aesthetics of the building. A lot of people who were watching this thing go up described it in terms of the Bronx House of Detention.
Deputy Mayor Vincent Grasso said, “Just wait until it’s done.” The Village didn’t sign off on the CO until the development company, which was making it’s first foray into Nassau County after a successfully putting people in cages in Queens and Brooklyn for years, made a series of aesthetic improvements to the building’s exterior. It was pretty amazing to me how just a clean buttress line along the top of the building and two-toned brick made it seem less like a tenement. As giant apartment buildings go, I’ve seen worse. But people still complain about it, as they are complaining about several other apartment buildings either planned or currently rising like steel Godzillas around town.
You want to take these folks at their word, that it’s overcrowding they are most concerned about. But Lynbrook and Rockville Centre, the next two towns down the highway, considered more affluent than Valley Stream, have always had lots of apartment buildings (albeit somewhat lower to the ground) mixed in with the beautiful houses, with more going up as we speak. And the whole damn Island is choked with people and cars already. So unfortunately, I think the overcrowding argument is a just a cover.
There is a mild strain of Trumpanzeeism, “more white, more right” thinking that still pervades, bubbling under the surface of Valley Stream, despite the diversity we’ve achieved here. You see it especially in some of the comments on social media pages and in comment threads attached to articles in the Valley Stream Herald newspaper. Case in point: A contingent of people went absolutely bugfuck last year when the Herald printed an article about a Muslim group petitioning the schools to declare Eid Al-Fatir as a school holiday. It’s an ugly little microcosm of the nativism that rages in some other parts of the country in the Age of Twitler and his MAGAT’s. For the most part, these people quickly reveal themselves for what they are and what they believe to be true about the “kind” of people moving into town. They stand out through their small-mindedness here, and the future is leaving them behind.
Up in the Adirondacks, my family used to stay near the tiny crossroads of Onchiota, NY, where the local General Store owner and Postmaster, Bing Tormey, posted signs around his little main square that became legendary. The best of these was: “You are leaving 97 of the friendlist people in the Adirondacks (plus a couple of soreheads).”
There ya go.
Me, I don’t particularly like apartment buildings. We lived in one – the really old one on Grove Street across from Holy Name of Mary Church – for a year and a half before we came here. Nothing personal against the other people whose lives led them to that same apartment building, but for us personally, the experience was like being under siege all the time. I like mountains. And rivers. We’re really just here for the money, my wife and I. So we can go visit mountains and rivers. This is where our jobs are, and this is my son’s hometown. If we left, it sure wouldn’t be because of anybody who’s moving in.
And yes, every town on Long Island is a property tax rabbit hole and everything costs way too much, but the opportunities exist here to do pretty much anything for a living (except maybe forestry or sheparding) and live a decent middle-class life. We have a lot invested in getting up and going to work in the morning, and we get a pretty good return on that investment. Not great, but pretty good. All things considered, we have very, very little to complain about compared to most of the people on Earth.
And this past weekend, the people who monitor the Valley Stream News Facebook – the first ones to tell you the helicopters are flying over the mall and all hell is breaking loose again – had a get-together at our very neat and clean Hendrickson Park, where people came on down and met their neighbors for a pot-luck meal and some pleasant company on a Saturday afternoon, all happy to be part of the scene in New York State’s best town. I’ll let the picture below stand for itself . Not pictured is John Duffy or his family, as we were upstate in Copake Falls that day (ironically) but otherwise we’d have be there, and I appreciate every effort that people make to make this a better place, knowing full-well that it will never be 1955 ever again, and the whole world is crowded except for Onchiota, NY.
The reality of Valley Stream, Long Island in 2018, is simply not the reality my parents bought into in 1955. With nothing but $400,000 houses, there’s really no place for people get started here. And many of the people who are trying to get started here anyway are from other places in the world, many of them having done their time in those same neighborhoods in Queens and Brooklyn that produced the population of post-war Long Island. And one could take it as a compliment that they think so much of Valley Stream that this is where they want to live and raise their kids. Or one could bemoan the fact that one’s hometown is not what it was. But really, nothing is, so what sense does that make? And for the second and third generations of Valley Streamers like myself, why would you begrudge people who are trying to do for their kids what your parents did for you, no matter where those people came from?
We’re waiting at the light to cross Sunrise Highway right now, and there’s always the chance we might get killed. It’s a busy, angry, stressed-out six-lane highway in a town full of busy, angry, stressed out drivers on roads choked with way too many cars, hence there are generally two or three fatalities a year on Sunrise Highway just in Nassau County alone. The State DOT just finished a big expensive reconstruction that, I have to admit, made me feel better about my chances of not getting killed. Included in that reconstruction was a series of crosswalks where you press the button and a very commanding computer voice tells you very matter-of-factly to “WAIT.” The first time Mookie heard this, he looked back at me to figure out how the hell I did that with my voice. And, of course, he waited, because he’s a good dog. And I laughed and I laughed.
Now we’re walking up Valley Stream’s main drag. The question of “what can we do to make people shop on Rockaway Avenue?” has been bandied about since Green Acres was built. (Here’s an idea: Don’t build Green Acres). Rockaway Avenue has been slightly dysfunctional for most of my life, but like me, it gets by. There used to be a movie theatre, The Rio, which was actually an old vaudeville playhouse. I saw the Grateful Dead Movie there at least five times, and saw the Stray Cats perform on the 4th of July, probably 35 years ago. In many towns east and north of us in Nassau County and out into Suffolk County, people made the investment to save their local one-screen movie houses and turn them into performing arts spaces. Subsequently, if you look around, there are interesting places to see plays and live music and vintage films all over Long Island and Valley Stream isn’t one of them. Oops.
We do have Ancona, which is famous for their true New York pizza, calzones and heroes, and where you are officially in with the Valley Stream in-crowd if George knows you by name. We have Itgen’s, famous for their homemade ice cream, and recently sold with the promise that it will continue. We have Mitchell’s, a nice little restaurant, though I prefer the Valbrook Diner up on Merrick Road, and an Italian Restaurant called Mia’s that’s been on my list of places to try a lot longer than Meli Melo. We used to have Morris’ Variety, which for years was the place to get everything from a screw to a fake Christmas tree. It was taken over a few years back by Raindew. Not quite as quirky as Morris’, but it serves the same purpose. They got me hooked on Yankee Candles. A lot of businesses have disappeared over the years, but there are a surprising number of survivors.
Among the Rockaway Avenue old-timers are the T & F Pork Store, DePalma Florist, Larry’s Bar, Woods Locksmith, Ciccarelli the Tailor (make-a you a nice suit), Brancard’s Deli, Valley Home Care and Surgical Supplies, Valley Stream Pharmacy, Chicken Gyro Delicious and the stalwart Sal and Vin’s Barbershop, established in 1952. Tell Michael you know me.
Rockaway Avenue is also the go-to place if you like Latin American and South American cuisine. The Chicken Coop does Colombian chicken. There’s a couple of Spanish delis plus the Juanito Bakery and Café, and my favorite, the San Antonio Bakery, that will make you a hot dog they call a “compleato” – with avocado and a bun they made at 6am – that’ll knock you on your ass. If you want to go Mediterranean, there’s Sam’s Halal Steak and Grill where a Not-Halal Steak and Grill called P.J Harper’s used to be, and the Nightcap Café used to be before that. Haven’t tried it but I hear good things.
And yet, with this all going for it, Rockaway Avenue looks kind of shabby compared to other main drags on the Island. Beyond the stores I mentioned are your usual nail and hair salons, dollar stores, second-hand merchandise stores, empty storefronts and (of course) a T-Mobile. Taken as a whole, living organism, it doesn’t seem cohesive. It has a “patched together” quality about it. Many of the surrounding downtowns have invested more in visual appeal, fancy sidewalks and facades and uniform signage and the like. It’s also a heavily trafficked street so it’s somewhat noisy and dirty in general. The Village recently reclaimed an old building across from Ancona and renovated it into the Village Court in an effort to bring in more pedestrian traffic around Rockaway businesses and restaurants, so it’s not like they’re not trying.
But here’s the thing: Ultimately, how important is aesthetics if I can get a haircut, a new welcome mat, a compleato or a meatball parm hero and even get my wife’s shoes fixed by an old-timey shoe repair guy? How badly do I need bricked sidewalks and signs that all in the same typeface? I’d like the stores and the open space up the block from me to be less of a toxic wasteland, but to what end? So it suits my fussy sensibilities?
Sometimes you just have to get over it. Money Magazine thinks we’re “neat and clean”, and I’ll tell you what: As we’re walking through residential neighborhoods in Valley Stream that are now almost 100 years old, 95% of the front yards that we pass are pretty as a picture. The houses themselves, if not renovated, are well-maintained. People are house proud here, and it shows. This is all we have. We take care of it. We make lemonade.
But sometimes you have every right to be pissed. The surface of the roads, a juristictional spider web of responsibility divided among the Village, the Town of Hempstead and Nassau County, are for the most part terrible. While the parks are nice enough, too many public spaces are tired eyesores. The LIRR and the Utility Companies bear a lot of responsibility for that. Above our heads is a jungle of wires that may or may not stay up there if there’s a thunderstorm this afternoon, or a hurricane. The train trestles are rusting away.
Roads and public spaces are among the basic services that we pay property taxes for, and from what I see, they are not given priority. Somebody decided it was more important to give tax breaks to Green Acres Mall.
That’s right. Screw your roads. This is Long Island. We shop. Commerce is King here. If there are enough band-aids and rolls of duct tape holding together the infrastructure to get you to the next strip mall and back, then what the hell are you complaining about? Your neighbors in Valley Stream plant pretty flowers, and they smile at your dog. It’s the Best Place To Live in New York State. Just keep buying shit and we’ll all be fine.
Todd Pratt was a backup catcher for the New York Mets in the late 90’s / early 2000’s, when Hall of Famer Mike Piazza was the starting catcher. He was a good guy to have on your team. At this time, Shea Stadium, which was a perfectly wonderful place to go watch a baseball game, was already facing its demise. The plan, ultimately implemented in 2006, was to knock old Shea down – deemed a poorly designed relic of another time with ever-more disgusting bathrooms and concessions and 30 years of gum embedded in the concrete – and replace it with a “retro” stadium with all sorts of cool angles and seats closer and better angled towards the field, not to mention lots more expensive places to eat and cushy seats for the one-percenters.
Back in the 90’s, when the Mets flew into LaGuardia Airport after a road trip and Shea Stadium came into view from the plane, Todd Pratt would (I’ve read) stand up and make this announcement:
“Well, there it is boys. It’s kind of a dump. But it’s OUR dump.”
I get it. I never have really taken to Citi Field.
David Sabatino would get it, too, but unlike me, he wouldn’t accept it as the truth of his hometown. To David’s way of thinking, it would be blasphemous to call Valley Stream a dump, even to convey a sense of familiarity, or in my case, resignation. David, who loves Valley Stream like Mookie loves me, is the co-owner of Sip This, a coffee shop and cool hangout place that’s been on Rockaway, right across from where the movie theatre isn’t, for seven years. (It was named after Slipped Disc, the iconic hipster record store that once occupied the space. Get it? Slipped Disc? Sip This? Clever, huh? ). David also has a degree in urban planning ( I’m pretty sure) and he is a natural-born organizer. But more importantly, David is a good guy, and an optimist. And Valley Stream is lucky to have a guy like him around. So now he works for the Village as well, and very well may be the mayor someday whether he likes it or not.
He’s probably a good twenty-five years younger than me, but I didn’t have his level of energy and hope for the future when I was five, never mind thirty. It was Mookie, really who introduced me to David. In 2010, when Mookie was just a gleam in his father’s eye, I was researching dog parks to take the puppy I was getting in 2011. I came across a website for an organization called “Envision Valley Stream”, the brainchild of my friend Mr. Sabatino, which was, among other things, petitioning the Village of Valley Stream government to build and maintain a dog park.
We have a neat and clean and picturesque village park called Hendrickson Park a mile and half due north of Duffy’s Creek, which gets it fresh water and anti-freeze runoff from Mill Pond – which we’ll pass on the way back – and from Hendrickson Lake via pipes that go under Merrick Road and through the Village Green. Hendrickson Lake features a fine walking and biking path that leads up to Valley Stream State Park, and there’s an equally fine community pool complex in the park that we pay lots of money to swim in every summer. But no dogs are allowed on the path, and they can only swim in the kiddie pool on the day after Labor Day because everybody at Village Hall likes Mike Powers, who first had the idea. And how could you not?
So back in 2010, David starts planning a dog park, and I start going to his Envision Valley Stream meetings, and we strike up a friendship and all of a sudden I’m involved in the community. I start getting to know Mayor Fare (yeah, I know. It’s like it’s made up) and Deputy Mayor and Renaissance Man Vinny Grasso and other people who I liked right away because I recognized them instantly as real Valley Stream as an adjective (smart; personable; outspoken; funny; genuine).
The road to building the dog park, now located in the Village Green next to the Village Hall and the Library, had a couple of rough patches along the way. I got discouraged and frustrated, but other people who had taken David’s idea and run with it, including the aforementioned Mr. Powers, did not, because they’re better people than I am. Eventually you would have to say it was a success. So much so that the Town of Hempstead, Nassau County and other village municipalities started building more dog parks, so our dog park doesn’t get quite the crowd that it used to. Still, over the years, it’s been a great place to kill a half hour and shoot the breeze while Mookie watches dogs that are way too fast for him to keep up with. (It’s really the people park with dogs in it for Mookie).
David Sabatino, force of nature that he is, moved on to other things, including starting a family and buying a house in Westwood. Right now he’s planning a Community Garden and – get this – a “Winter Festival” centered around the ice hockey rink next to the train station. And getting involved with Sabatino’s vision gets you involved with all sorts of other people, which is indirectly how I wound up agreeing to do a presentation about the history of Valley Stream through the history of my parents for the local Historical Society. I’ll be at the Community Center on Wednesday September 12th of this year (2018). Unless of course they read this post and tell me to stuff it.
Rockawy Avenue was busy with so many people at the Valley Stream Community Feast.
Anyway, there’s one more important thing I have to tell you about Sabatino. His greatest civic accomplishment by far has been the establishment of the annual Valley Stream Community Fest on the fourth Saturday of September. For one day, Rockaway Avenue becomes a laid back pedestrian street fair, Hundreds of people turn out to stroll up and down the avenue. Every sports, civic, religious and cultural organization in town is represented, seated at folding tables with brochures and big smiles, ready to tell you all about what they do. The businesses on Rockaway get to promote themselves. Plus there’s lots of arts and crafts and junk food for sale, rides for the kids, demonstrations, people dancing around in brightly colored clothing, an antique car show and enough ethnic and religious diversity to make your average Trumpanzees want to crawl back into their caves, or possibly realize what assholes they’ve been all this time. But I doubt it.
And don’t think that Mookie doesn’t get in on all this. For three of the last four years, he’s worked a three-hour shift at the “Doggie Kissing Booth”, raising money to support the Friends of Valley Stream Dogs. On Fest Day, he’s in Mookie Heaven, wagging people over to him as they walk by (“Ohhhhh!!! Look how cute!!!) and convincing them to hand Mike a dollar so they can lean down and get a big, sloppy wet dog smooch. Once Mookie is sufficiently overwhelmed, Bella the Chocolate Lab takes over, and that’s usually when we grab a compleato from San Antonio and head on home to the backyard. The creek is too icky for Mookie to swim in, so he has a kiddie pool to jump in to cool down after his walk. I can offer you a cold Dr. Pepper.
We’ll head home along South Franklin Avenue. We’ll pass the post office, the Burrito Monster (not a fan) and the Railroad Inn next to the train station, a bar now owned by a guy I went to kindergarten with, which is next to another bar called Buckley’s that’s been an old man’s bar since before the owner of the Railroad Inn and I were in kindergarten. The Dog Park and the Village Green are over on the other side of the tracks, but we’ve put about four and half miles on the Fitbit already, and we’re a half mile from home, and Mookie and I ain’t so young anymore, so the Dog Park will have to wait for later. We’ll pass Papandrew Jewelers, where the owner, who’s the son of the original owner, once took out an armed robber. We’ll cross Sunrise (“WAIT.”) and be glad we don’t need anything from Staples today.
We could cut across Mill Pond Park, which still has some nice, big trees, but instead we’ll walk through the almost 100-year old original Gibson neighborhood anchored by Roosevelt Avenue, because Mookie has a lot of friends down that way. Passing by the Sunoco with the sign that says :”COOFFEE 99 CENTS!” (you can also get free air for your tires if you press the “botton”) we’ll make the turn at the Greek Pie Factory (they’re really tasty) and the hair salon with the sign lit up in 100-point type (“HAIR SALON!”), both on the ground floor of a very old two-story building that someone would like to knock down to build another high-rise apartment, and probably will.
We could go up to Cochran Place, which would lead us back to Gibson Station, but we’re going to cut west back towards Jedwood Place. Once on a summer Sunday afternoon we saw a group of people in a tiny back yard on Cochran who had a dance floor set up where they were all watching one couple dancing a tango. My, I was glad I saw that. This same family has some sort of parrots that used to squawk at my son and I from the windows when we rode on our bikes to the summer camp he loved going to at Barrett Park. There’s another guy along Ridge who walks his parrot on his shoulder, which makes Mookie think to himself, “My, I’m glad I saw that.”
We could walk straight down Roosevelt to Fairfield where some old guys might be leaning on a chain link fence shooting the breeze, and Mookie will growl at the dog behind that fence because they’re supposed to be his old guys. A little further on he might see his friend the 99-year old WWII veteran sitting on his porch, and he’ll stop and do his waggy waggy routine until the his old friend invites him up on the porch for a face rub.
Crossing Mill, we might see the happiest guy in the world, one of my new neighbors from somewhere far away who always greets us warmly, who is out almost every evening when the sun is shining, happily tidying up the gardens around his little house at the corner of Mill and Jedwood, where the traffic is hideous and where I wouldn’t live if you gave me $400,000 but he seems to love it. It just goes to show you. Everything is relative. And his relatives seem to enjoy it, too.
We’ll arrive home in Mookie’s backyard, and he’ll cool down in his pool. But before you go, I’ll leave you with a scene I saw on that neglected path that you see directly across the creek. Mookie and I were walking along that path one morning when we came upon a young Filipino couple getting their three little kids out of the house for a while. Two of the kids were on bikes and the youngest was walking. The kids on the bikes stopped riding, as they were very excited to meet Mookie, and he them. The father and the mother caught up to them and the father asked me about his breed and I told him and he said, “he’s a big boy.” And I said, “he sure is!” and Mookie wagged his tail.
I was thinking to myself that these people are my parents in 1958, with three little kids who need to get out of the house and a nice path along a creek (somewhat nicer then) to go for a walk right near their house.
Livin’ the Dream in Valley Stream.
And just as I was thinking this, I saw the smallest kid, who was on foot, catching up to the others and zooming in on Mookie. Then I noticed his t-shirt. It said, “YOU CAN’T STOP THIS!”
And I thought to myself: Why would I want to? Why would anyone?
Kid, let me tell you something about Valley Stream, since you’ll be growing up here just like I did. I’ve been around here a long time, and to tell you the truth I’m at the point where other places, with bigger trees and fewer cars, are calling to me. (I suppose you’ve never heard of Zillow, kid, but don’t worry about it).
For the foreseeable future, though, I suppose Mookie and I will be part of the scenery as you grow up here. And the fact is, we could both do a lot worse. I don’t know about the Best Place to Live in New York State, but your parents still picked a good place for you to live, just like my parents did. Remember that.
And kid, if and when Mookie and I do move on, please do us both a favor and take care of what’s left of the natural world around here. It’s probably going to get more and more crowded and noisy, but help out the birds any way you can. And keep your antenna up, ’cause you never know what kind of shit your local politicians will pull, or what they will neglect. Better yet, get to know them, and let them know what you think.
And this is important, kid. Don’t let anyone ever, ever make you believe that you don’t belong here. That’s up to you to decide. Until then, you belong here as much as I do.
And one more thing:
Valley Stream? The Town of Hempstead? Nassau County? Long Island? New York? America? The Planet Earth?
People throw their garbage in the street here, but people also organize street fairs. People build humongous apartment buildings here, but they also build dog parks, and maybe they’ll fix this path. People drive like psychopaths here, but they light up at red lights when they see a big happy dog smiling at them from the sidewalk. People who can get away with it steal money here to build more stores to steal more money, but the teacher or principal that you remember forever at Forest Ave. School or South High will be worth every penny your parents pay in school taxes. People make a mess of things here, and people keep it from becoming a complete mess.
George Bailey, the regular-guy hero of Bedford Falls, New York, as portrayed by James Stewart in Frank Capra’s 1946 movie, “It’s A Wonderful Life.” is one of my role models. I know I’m not alone in this. While I never saved my little brother from drowning (I don’t have one) and I’ve never been known for distributing cash among my neighbors (but I would if I could), I’ve always admired how George was able to balance the big dreams of what he thought his life should have been with the reality of what it was. And how, by his actions, he intuitively made his little world, the one he privately complained of being “stuck” in, a better place for himself and for everybody around him. It would be ridiculous of me to suggest that I’ve had anywhere close to the same effect on my little world as George had on his, but I’ll tell you what: I’ve done no harm, and like George, I’ve been blessed in having made a lot of friends around town, though I hope I never have to ask them for $8000, ’cause that would be awkward.
And of course, everyone knows that George never leaves Bedford Falls. And me, I have found myself as an AARP-eligible adult landed on a comfy couch right here on the same 60 x 100 plot of land in Valley Stream, Long Island that I started out on 54 and a half years ago. I have a beautiful, funny, successfully employed wife and a smart, good-looking son with who is finding his way through adolescence pretty well despite a school system and social system totally unsuited to his particular genius (which is fixing every single mechanical thing on the planet that has broken). I have a good job, a nice little house, more toys and diversions that I ever have time to get around to (like this blog). I have a big happy yellow lab who is my personal ambassador to the human race and three cats for entertainment and interesting conversation.
Just like George Bailey, I could have done a whole lot worse. I’ve really had a wonderful life and I have no intention of throwing it all away. But I also have no intention of letting it be taken away from me piece by piece by the Forces of Pottersville, at least not without a fight. This is me fighting.
I first saw, “It’s a Wonderful Life” when I was about 14 in 1977, around the time the 1946 movie became public domain and Channel 11 in New York would show it over and over before Christmas. I started telling everyone in my family and anyone who would listen that they had to see this movie. I dare say I was in on the ground floor of the revival that made it Everybody’s Favorite Christmas Movie. And I dare say I do a dead-on Jimmy Stewart impersonation, which I promise I’ll do for you when I branch out into podcasting. I was immediately charmed by the story, the town of Bedford Falls and George Bailey’s character. And I guess the lesson that George learns from his nightmare in Pottersville became part of the unshakable truths that I’ve built my value system on: Success has nothing to do with money or career status and everything to do with the cumulative effects of being a good person and trying to do the right thing. I don’t know if George had anything to do with me never moving more than twenty miles away from where I was born, but that’s entirely possible.
George had his chances to get out of Bedford falls (‘and see the world!”), but he realized early on that the big dreams he had a young man were not as important as being a good guy, which is the most important thing of all. He didn’t necessarily want to be where he was, but until Uncle Billy handed Mr. Potter an envelope with $8000 in it, he didn’t take that dissatisfaction and frustration out on anybody around him. He treated people the way you should treat people. Despite his desire to “shake the dust of this crummy little town off my feet,” George took comfort in people and places and protocols that had remained the same in Bedford Falls throughout his life. He knew where he stood with everybody and everybody knew where they stood with him. Me, too.
George could’ve done something more with his life than holding together the Bailey Building and Loan. (It’s always presented with a pejorative: “Broken down”, “measly”, “penny-ante”). I probably could have been something “more” than a junior high school English teacher if I had applied myself a little more as a younger guy. Before I started phoning it in and getting crappy grades in high school (just like my beloved Dude does now, bless his heart), I was supposed to write great things or be a famous something or other. By the time I was going to Queens College at night to cobble together the credits for an English BA, those dreams of writing novels, or sitcoms in Hollywood, or being a famous FM disc jockey were all pretty much dead, and after two years in the production department at New York Magazine, finding out how unpleasant life could potentially be in the editorial department, I got my master’s and went into teaching ’cause I knew I’d be good at it and I could finally get out of my parent’s house. Those aren’t noble reasons to enter my profession, I’ll admit. But you know what? I followed in my mother’s footsteps, and I’ve helped thousands of kids learn to read, write and think a little better and a little deeper in my “shabby little office” for over 23 years.
So George and I find ourselves with something else in common: Our professional lives are a tribute to a parent that instilled a sense of values and beliefs in us that neither one of us could ultimately escape from, simply because it made so much sense. George keeps the Bailey Building and Loan going so people have someplace to go without crawling to Potter. I ultimately decided teaching was a better use of my life than helping to produce a magazine that would be thrown away when the next one came out (though it’s a mostly insane existence from September to June every year, which my archives will tell you doesn’t leave a whole lot of time for blogging).
Plus, I couldn’t help noticing that some of the people who wrote this magazine were terribly impressed with themselves and their Manhattan lifestyles. I spent Sundays waxing floors with a friend of mine from Valley Stream because I wasn’t making enough money. That friend was smarter, funnier and more original than anyone at New York Magazine, but they would never understand why. They wouldn’t get him. In the end, I needed to be with real people. To “fritter my life away playing nursemaid to a bunch of garlic eaters.” as Mr. Potter puts it to George. It was good enough for my mother, and it’s been good enough for me. And I love garlic.
And of course, when not at work, when it’s safe to speak my mind, I continue another one of my mother’s traditions (besides an addiction to Jeopardy, which she actually got from me, and blasting WQXR Classical in the kitchen while cooking dinner, which my Bose Soundtouch has taken to a whole other level, thank you Trisha): The tradition of Good Old-Fashioned Democratic, Bleeding-Heart Liberal Politics.
Growing up, I soaked up both of my parents complaints about that Crook Nixon in the 70’s and that Buffoon Cowboy Reagan in the 80’s. I saw the damage they did, (and later felt that damage more acutely as an adult while W. wrecked the country in the 2000’s). By virtue of working in the New York City high schools, my parents were immersed in diversity before it was even close to a thing. They believed that without labor unions, “the bastards” would rob you blind. They took their children to the Adirondacks and grew flowers and vegetables in the backyard and studied the comings and goings of the ducks on the creek and thus turned us all into environmentalists, around the time it was becoming a thing. My parents always rooted for the underdog and they despised guns and the abuse of power. They were devout, religious catholics who practiced their faith in their lives and knew Billy Graham and the evangelists were full of shit.
Mom was more vocal about all this, as she was about everything. My dad was more of a “do as I do” guy. But I’ll tell you what: If my mother, Joan Marie Duffy, were alive today, she’d be screaming bloody murder about what’s going on in this country. She’d be a voice of Resistance on Twitter, probably with a couple of thousand followers, probably using the expletive “fuck” in all it’s forms to comment on the disgusting developments of the past year. She can’t so I do. They’ll vote with Potter otherwise.
Because as we all know now, this is what happened: The GOP knew Trump was disgusting, and they pretended to complain about him at the start of the primaries but they knew that their primary voting base was equally disgusting, and the more primaries he won, the less they complained (and the more free air time he got on cable news for the Hitler rallies). And the more disgusting things he said, the more the people in this country who had already been thrown into their own Pottersville Of The Mind loved him for it.
A lot has been said and written about the people and the vibe in the Nightmare Pottersville of “It’s a Wonderful Life.” (For example, the friend who I used to wax floors with thought it seemed like a lot more fun). One has to admit, Capra’s vision of dystopia is a bit over the top, from the amphetamine-driven boogie-woogie piano player in Nick’s Bar to the over-capacity dance halls on Main Street to Burt the cop opening fire into a crowd. I personally always found it amusing that there even was a Pottersville Public Library, never mind the fact that Mary Hatch was an old maid who was just about to close it down. I think it’s more likely that the town council, all in Mr. Potter’s back pocket, probably would have closed it as part of an austerity budget designed to line their own pockets.
But I think that the point Capra was trying to illustrate with all this silliness was simply this: The rich assholes pit everyone against each other. People lose trust. They turn on their neighbors. They come to believe that not giving a shit is much easier, which it is, and why make the effort to make your town or your country better if those rich assholes are pulling all the strings? Fuck ’em all. Nothing matters. Just lay down a few bucks for some mindless entertainment, get shitfaced and forget about how much better your life could actually be if you got educated and exercised your First Amendment rights, ’cause it ain’t never gonna happen, bub. You’re just too lazy, and they’ve got you by the balls.
Nick the Bartender showed compassion for George Bailey as he breaks down on the bar stool. Nick the Boss is the twisted dictator of his own little band of small-time assholes, a big fish in a toxic pond of deplorables who gets off on spraying Mr. Gower in the face with a seltzer bottle, ostensibly because Mr. Gower deserved it, even though he’s obviously paid his debt to society and is a threat to no one in his current condition. He has no patience for Clarence the Angel, even after George suggests he has a mental disability. If you’re different in Pottersville, you get thrown out on your ass in the snow.
And Mary Hatch? Why is she an old maid? Capra is suggesting that it’s because there weren’t enough decent people left in Pottersville. She couldn’t find George not because George didn’t exist but because people who, in a fair, compassionate society, may have been more like George were instead being reprogrammed into mean, suspicious, wounded and dangerous animals like Violet Bick, Ernie the Cab Driver and George’s own mother have become in George’s Pottersville nightmare.
As the media narrative goes, in the Rust Belt states where Trump won the electoral college; Pennsylvania, Ohio, Wisconsin, and Michigan, the people were fed up with the status quo and didn’t trust Hillary Clinton. Some of that may be true, but here’s how I and many other people have come to see it: Some of those people are exactly what Hillary said they were, the famous “Basket of Deplorables”. They’re pissed off because they have come to believe that people of color and immigrants are treated better than they are by society at large, ignoring the small fact that those people of color and immigrants happened to have spent the previous ten years working their asses off to get educated, learn trades and build up businesses instead of watching “The Apprentice” in their double-wides and smoking crystal meth in the Wal Mart parking lot. The Deplorables are bitter, nasty, poorly-dressed, poorly-educated, poorly-spoken people who resent everyone, blame everyone but themselves for their troubles and saw Trump as a way to take all us liberal coastal elite smart asses down into the Pottersville Pit of Despair right along with them.
But these people had been like this for years, as anyone who ever watched “Here Comes Honey Boo Boo!” or “Duck Dynasty” for five minutes can attest. And Fox News stoked the fire against The Black Guy for eight years, convincing the most hardcore stupid among them that Obama wouldn’t say Merry Christmas because he was a Muslim, even if he was saying it on every other news channel.
And if these people really had that much power in the electorate, how did Obama get elected – and win those states – twice? Those elections, in 2008 and 2012, were won with voter turnout, and with the votes of intelligent, compassionate residents of Bedford Falls America who saw right through The Republican Lie that bankrupted the country at least three times in the last 100 years. There’s way more of us than there are of them and that remains true right now. But especially after Obama’s re-election over the guy with the dog strapped to the roof of his car (who honestly doesn’t look nearly as bad in retrospect), we thought we’d finally turned the corner. The new, diverse, young optimistic America was ready to drive policy and public opinion away from your crazy ass, obnoxious bigoted old uncle who blames everything on minorities and immigrants and suggests that maybe Hitler had the right idea.
The Republican Party was well on its deserved way to being irrelevant on the morning of November 8th, 2016. And then, it happened: Your crazy ass, obnoxious bigoted old uncle who blames everything on minorities and immigrants and suggests that maybe Hitler had the right idea was declared the winner of the Presidential Election.
My take on why: There were people on the fence about Hillary. I could understand that to a certain extent. I supported Bernie in the primaries because I’m a socialist. I know Hillary wouldn’t take that personally. I had no problem with her prospective Presidency. I figured she’d still have to deal with Republican control of the House at the very least and probably would be limited, like Obama was after 2010, in what she could actually get done, but that I’d agree with 90% of what she wanted to do. I’m sure lots of people felt the same way about her.
But the bastards saw their opening: Besides their usual voter suppression tricks, they leaked the emails that made Hillary look like the politician that anybody with a brain already knew she was. They pushed the server story over and over, despite the fact that it wasn’t really a story at all. And of course, with Putin’s help, they planted lie after lie on people’s Facebook pages and bot after bot on their Twitter feeds.
And those people who were on the fence about Hillary, but at the same time thought that Trump was a disaster, they figured no sweat, there’s no way the same America that voted for Obama twice is ever going to turn 180 degrees and elect a racist, ignorant buffoon. They stayed home and didn’t vote at all because the Forces of Pottersville had sown their doubts about the intentions of the Big Clinton Machine.
As for those that did vote, contaminated by those Putin-inspired doubts, I suppose they found themselves walking into the voting booth like Uncle Billy walking into the bank. They got distracted by the drama of the moment and handed Trump and the Republican Party the United States of America stuck inside a folded up newspaper. The majority of the country woke up the next morning rifling through the garbage can incredulously, with a sense of panic growing by the second, while they smirked at us from behind the door, knowing that they had us where they always wanted us.
And here we are, a year later. The evidence in the public domain that Trump stole the election with the help of the Russians is overwhelming, so one could only imagine what’s in Robert Mueller’s filing cabinets right now. I can’t begin to imagine how that whole thing is going to play out. (But most people realize it would be hard to have a Civil War with no Mason-Dixon Line to stand behind). And, just in time for Christmas, the rich assholes who paid for their Republican candidates, from Trump on down – they got what they wanted: Their big, fat, immoral corporate tax cut. My parents always warned me: The bastards will rob you blind if you let them.
Our accountant is a decent fellow. I’ve known him for many years. We both love dogs. But he is a Trump supporter and a Hillary hater. And I know if I asked him, he’d tell me (passionately) that we’re going to do great on this GOP tax cut, although I don’t see how that could possibly be. (My usual reaction when I hear a Republican say anything). Statistically, It turns out that my wife and I, by virtue of getting up really every working morning, keeping our mouths shut, and being really, really lucky, are rich; a notion that’s “rich” in itself as we’re always broke. We may not be part of the doomsday scenarios of what this tax plan will actually do to the middle class, because again statistically, we’re not in it. Despite losing the deduction of the $9,000 we pay in school and property taxes, not to mention losing the deduction for state income tax here in the Incredibly Expensive Empire State, our very successful accountant will probably tell us that we’re going to come out ahead, or at least even. We’ll wait and see.
The problem for me is that the, “I’ll be fine so screw everybody else” mentality is exactly why America has been allowed to turn into Pottersville. It’s very nice if we pay less federal income tax. It would be even nicer if I could be assured that people less fortunate than us will be able to stay in their houses, never mind heat them. It would be really nice if people in Puerto Rico could put food in refrigerators and turn a light on when they use the bathroom right now. It’s what my mother would have been screaming about right now, but no one making decisions in the federal government seems terribly concerned.
And it It would be especially very nice to know that this mass redistribution of wealth upwards will not be followed as it always is by municipal budget cuts, reduction of school aid, home foreclosures, small business layoffs and personal bankruptcies. We’ve seen this movie before. We know where they’re going with this. Cities and towns all over America cutting back transpotation service, library service, after-school and elderly programs, public assistance for the poor, drug and alcohol treatment. Then they start telling you that you’re getting too much in Social Security and we just can’t afford to support all these people on Medicaid and Medicare. But look! The stock market is doing great! Corporation are making record profits! There’s never been more choices of shit to watch on TV!
Fucking Pottersville. All over again.
So what do you do if you go to sleep in Bedford Falls and you wake up in Pottersville? What do you do when your beautiful, compassionate country has turned more mean and more ugly in a year than you thought possible? What do you do when America is starting to feel like Nick’s Bar and you just want to sit quietly with a friend, sipping at your flaming rum punch, heavy on the cinnamon, light on the cloves, but the motherfuckers are harassing you at every turn and it’s looking more and more like you’ll get thrown into the snow with everyone else who doesn’t fit their Nazi, Deplorable prototype? If they don’t get me because of my political views, maybe they’ll just smirk at me from behind a cracked-open door when the next big hurricane wipes away everything I have, despite paying FEMA $2000 something a year to protect against that. Or maybe flat out kill me with radiation poisoning, in which case, I suppose they win. That’d be just like something they’d do.
Well, for one thing, you take Barack Obama’s advice: “Don’t boo. Vote.” While I regularly employ my First Amendment rights and Internet access to tell Speakers McConnell and Ryan and the Liar-in-Chief to go fuck themselves, I realize they aren’t bothered particularly by my provocations. Though it would be fun to get into a shouting match with Paul Ryan and watch him get all flustered and hysterical.
I do hope all the people who are screaming outrage and hashtagging themselves with #The Resistance are people who voted in the last Presidential Election, but statistically, I know many of them did not. They did put a nice dent into the Republican Lie this past November, which was nice to see. (And especially nice to see Alabama rise up to stop Roy Moore just this past month). Even here on Long Island, voters booted out Republican administrations in Nassau County and the Town of Hempstead that were as hard to get rid of as cockroaches.
And in the year that starts tomorrow, every seat in The House of Representatives that has stood by and done nothing as Trump has wrecked the country by executive order, enriched himself and his family at taxpayer expense, and proven himself to be batshit crazy – every seat in that political body is up for grabs, gerrymandering and voter suppression notwithstanding. Alabama has shown that anything is possible and maybe people aren’t quite so stupid after all. So if you read this and you agree with me, vote. And if you read this and yout think I’m a naive hippe liberal that has no idea how the world really works, vote. Because it’s your right. I’m going to bet the odds that more people think like me, and would much rather live in a place like Bedford Falls. And that the criminal tragedy of the 2016 Election and all bullshit that’s been thrown at us will still be very fresh in people’s minds come this fall.
In the meantime, consider Zuzu’s petals, the metaphor. When George finds Zuzu’s petals (in that cool little pocket sewed into his suit pants for which I couldn’t imagine another purpose) he knows he’s home. He knows everything is going to be OK, even though he’s still missing $8000. (“Isn’t it great? I’m goin’ to jail!”) As long as he has his family, and the people and the life he loves in Bedford Falls, it will all work itself out.
Zuzu’s petals represent home. Here in our home, we don’t watch 24-Hour Cable News. We get our daily Trump Disasters on a need-to-know basis from Twitter and respond in kind, often using a form of the expletive “fuck”, just like Mom would have. We watch Stephen Colbert mock the Fat Dotard, the Turtle and the Smirker, reminding us that they might have the power to poison our air and water, and possibly deport our neighbors, but they can’t kill our spirit, the American Spirit. It runs way too deep, and goes back way too far to ever die. We’ll be back in the fight tomrrow, no matter what happens.
The people who brought you Trump and that Tax Nonsense, they weren’t listening to Martin Luther King when he said, “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.” They thought they didn’t have to listen to him because he was black.
But we were listening, and we believe it.
Zuzu’s petals are the birds and ducks living around Duffy’s Creek, and the garden of colors we let loose in the summertime. Zuzu’s petals are driving down to the Long Beach Boardwalk on a warm day or going out to sit awhile with my elderly father at the nursing home then going for a hike up in Stony Brook. Zuzu’s petals are watching my nephews become husbands and fathers and knowing Joan and Francis Duffy’s family will live well past my own expiration date. Zuzu’s petals are stopping in to our favorite businesses around Valley Stream, where they know us and we know them, just like in Bedford Falls. Zuzu’s petals are in the food we cook, the music we play, the one-liners we trade, the neighbors we wave to, the church we go to, the roof over our heads and the hot water coming out of our faucet. Everything that is good in our lives, that still stayed good this year, despite all attempts by the Forces of Pottersville to turn us into a bitter, selfish assholes just like them.
So I wish you a Happy New Year and offer some unsolicited advice of how to survive a difficult time that may get more difficult before it gets less difficult:
Keep Zuzu’s petals in your pocket. Any pocket will do. You will have hope for a better future, and hope for a better future is really all you need to get out of bed in the morning.
And treat the place where you live like your own little Bedford Falls, even if the sign says Pottersville. Being a good person is the ultimate measure of success. As I regularly tell my son, please don’t be an asshole.
Your reward for being good? You’ll be at the front of the crowd, your heart filled with joy, together with all your good American neighbors, and together in spirit with all the people who made you who you are and imbibed you with that spirit, when we all rise up to tear that fucking sign down for good.
Forgive me WordPress for I have sinned. It’s been 202 days since my last blog post. Six months and 20 days. Unacceptable, Dude, he said to himself for a change instead of to his son. I really should not have let all this time go without one single, measly little post. Especially with all the happy positivity I’ve gotten back from other humans with computers since I started “A Creek Runs Through It” two years and two months ago. Never mind the OCD that claws at me when I see all the missing months in the archives. You’d think I would have wanted to keep that momentum going, to discipline myself to finish what I start, and to have found the time to pick away at it a little every day.
But noooo. I booted it. And there is absolutely no excuse.
So here’s my excuse: I have been overwhelmed by resistance. I’ve had all sorts of good ideas for blog posts that I just haven’t put together, that have gotten swept aside in days spent fighting the resistance that comes at me from all fronts every single day. It pops up like I’ve entered Dante’s Whack-A-Mole. I’m a simple, kind and well-meaning electrical current that keeps running into things that scramble me up and send me in different directions. I’m fighting against the resistance. It takes way, way too much of my time, and it’s exhausting.
Wu-wu-wait, you say. You might have clicked on this from Twitter. Or you clicked a Facebook post to see what Duffy was up to now, because didn’t he make an announcement through his cat back in January that he wasn’t going to post political stuff on Facebook? (And he hasn’t). Or I might have showed in up in you inbox because you followed me. (Thank you). Maybe you know me from real life, or at least what’s left of it.
However you got here (and thank you again) you almost certainly know where I stand on the political spectrum, for better or worse. So you’re thinking whatchoo mean, FIGHTING the resistance? That’s sorta backass, isn’t it? I know you. You’re a lefty, an aging- hippie-schoolteacher-type, a borderline-socialist bleeding heart liberal. Just like your mom, except she was a little less of a hippie. You’re outraged by the State Of The Nation. You’re in there every day exercising your First Amendment Right to tell the President of The United States that he’s an evil, crooked, creepy, demented monster and by the way go fuck yourself. You’re PART of #TheResistance. You follow all the power hitters. You’re up to 2,000 followers yourself now, and at least 500 of them aren’t trying to sell you something, and seem to have some interest in what you have to say.
Well, a tweeted link that I read early in my “resistance career”, which started five days after my last blog post (one wherein I naively attempted to toss an olive branch into the basket of deplorables) sums up my thesis today perfectly. I can’t find the original so I can’t give it to you verbatim, but here’s a paraphrase, with apologies to whoever the original thinker was. I’m pretty sure it was a link and not something the writer pulled off in 140 characters (A great art form until you realize that’s all the writing you did all day). Here’s kind of what he or she said:
“You’re asking me why I’m on Twitter harassing the President? Listen. I was just living my life and minding my own business. He started screwing with my neighbors, my environment, my child’s education, my safety, my country’s future and my sense of decency. Hell, I’m not harassing the President. That motherfucker’s harassing ME.”
And so I’ve come to realize that the people who identify themselves with #TheResistance are really the people who are fighting resistance. The resistance is coming at them from the circumstances of the times. People who value intelligence and fairness and honesty, people who were traveling along through their lives on a nice, sensible electrical current, who never thought they’d see the vulgar stupidity and hypocrisy that is unfolding before our eyes, who were suddenly jolted with an unexpected surge, a sudden resistance that threw them off course.
The people whose thoughts I’ve read and shared on Twitter over the last 202 days (when I really should’ve been writing about my dog) are intelligent, sane folks who figured all but a couple of soreheads around them shared their basic human values, and that The American Experiment was working because the willfully ignorant, backward assholes among us were in the minority, and would never be strong enough to force their will on the country at large.
We suspect now that we underestimated these “deplorables”, not to mention the Fox News I.V. drip they’ve been hooked up to for ten years. (And there’s just no better word to describe them, though Hillary probably should’ve edited that one out. I guess she just couldn’t help it. They are fucking deplorable). We who call ourselves pound sign The Resistance also suspect that the whole damn thing – including the wacky-ass Flag-Wavin, Gun-Totin’ Jesus-Saved MAGA ‘Muricans who were suddenly all over the place with their cult-like worship of the most vile human who’s ever lived – all of it is part of a criminal enterprise without equal in the history of the world.
Well, I was out walking Mookie, and I was thinking about the word: Resistance. And my mind traveled to the little pins with the color-coded pegs in the middle that represent ohms of resistance. That’s right, ohms. You bend the resistors of various ohms so one pin goes in B9 and the other one goes in E7 on the motherboard. And I know a little something about electrical circuits because God blessed my wife and I with a child, who is now 13 and knows EVERYTHING about electrical circuits. And he has since he was about four (no shit), around the time he told the guy at Ace Hardware matter-of-factly that he already was an electrician, he just didn’t have his license yet.
So I have a basic, English Major’s / Involved Dad’s idea of the functions of all the little components that The Dude solders into circuits that ultimately combine to light up little LED lights, or start the coffee maker. This is what I know (with my apologies in advance to my electrical engineer nephew who will read this and say, “uh, close there, John. Not quite”). An electrical circuit only needs a power source, a load, connectors and a switch. Why that’s simple enough. But along that circuit, you can add (integrate) components that will alter that circuit in different ways, usually in order to regulate the flow of electricity, or to store it and disperse it in other directions. These include resistors, inductors and capacitors, which are called passive components. They don’t introduce energy into the circuit, but rather control, retain or redirect the energy already in the circuit. The active components, like transistors, can take the energy supplied to them and amplify it, enough so with help from Russia they can win Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania.
So in terms of the political history of this country, I guess liberals and conservatives, progressives and obstructionists, Democrats and Republicans have taken turns being the active and passive components in the circuit. We’re either amplifying or resisting what comes at us, depending on who’s holding the cards. And of course, I’m very aware that #The Resistance is a direct reference to the French Resistance during the Nazi Occupation, so my whole nonsense about comparing it to electrical circuits is just that, but I like to think about words. And knowing that we are all following in the footsteps of the French Resistance against the Nazis, at least when I’m tweeting snarky comments I can sort of feel like Victor Lazlo or Captain Renault in Casablanca, or hell, even Bogie. And their side ultimately won, and would have even if they had called themselves the Capacitors.
So through my online persona, Up A Creek (with it’s avatar of Woody Guthrie’s guitar, on which he wrote “This Machine Kills Fascists”), I am a proud and permanent part of hashtag The Resistance against the awful people who have overtaken over our beautiful country. It eats my time, but I feel like I have to keep up on it. I’ve always felt a need to bear witness to the parade of events in my lifetime, but now I feel like I have to throw myself in the road to slow it down, or at least hold up a sign to let the record show I did not go along with any of this. For historical value, the week I wrote this was the week we went from inappropriate comments to the Boy Scouts and the Suffolk County Police Department to insulting the Statue of Liberty and The White House, to suggesting that the entire State of New Hampshire is a drug-infested wasteland to #LocalMilkPeople to hey guess what asshole, Mueller’s impaneled a grand jury. The White Nationalist Occupation Of America will not last, but it will cause some significant damage, and it will take a lot of time and political will to repair that damage. The only thing that saves us right now as a country is our most sacred freedom: The First Amendment freedom to call bullshit what it is. Hitler didn’t have Twitter, but if he did, his amplifier would have soon enough been short-circuited by the roar of the The Resistance. Tiny-Handed Orange Hitler doesn’t stand a chance.
But meanwhile, while all this insanity plays out in Washington D.C. and on my magic rectangle, I got my own fish to fry back here on the creek. The Resistance doesn’t end when I put the damn phone down. Sometimes, it’s just getting started.
If you have children, and they’re already older than 13, and you’ve survived and conquered triskaidekaphobia, then when I tell you (which I already have) that we have a 13 year old living here, even if he or she were the very, very best 13 year old in the whole wide world, you would roll your eyes and say, “Oh God!” in a very folksy way. I know this because I’ve spent my entire adult life teaching 13 year olds, and even when they are very, very good kids (and the overwhelming majority are, so relax about the future and worry about the present), when I meet their parents, we all sit around and roll our eyes and say, “Oh God” in a very folksy way.
That is the nature of the beast. 13 year olds are annoying. I don’t know what yours does (though I could guess), but mine regularly snaps angrily at us, takes forever to do the simplest thing, forgets what you tell him from one millisecond to the next, leaves stuff lying around everywhere and blames us when stuff gets lost, gets caught in poorly-executed lies, slams and stomps, talks and talks and talks over you, belabors every point, gets pissy and yells “I KNOW!” when you tell him school work has to get done, then winds up in summer school anyway, even though he knew.
One thing that’s actual kind of fascinating about teaching (and any teacher will tell you this) is how you can see the adult hiding inside the child. Once you get to know a kid, you can sort of extrapolate -for better or worse – what they’re going to be like when they’re forty. And this I also know from experience: Some kids are not good at being kids. The hidden adult is, on an intellectual level, ready to bust out and get things going, but is emotionally and developmentally trapped by lack of experience and the need to learn through trial and lots and lots of error. So sometimes the kid is the little adult that will emerge easily and naturally in the course of time, and sometimes the adult is there already, has been all along, trapped, doing time in the body of a kid.
The Dude has some trouble with life right now. It’s hard for him to smile. And of course, when you’re 13 and life gives you trouble, you respond by giving life some trouble. It’s not all the time, but enough so that it seriously effects his self-esteem, which should be higher because he’s so smart and so damn good looking if I do say so myself. Social cues are a bitch. Understanding and/or anticipating what the other person may be thinking in a given situation, seeing the big picture. He has trouble seeing himself outside himself. He gets stuck in his own head. And because (maddeningly) has not taken up the habits of reading for pleasure or following a game or losing himself in a song, he can’t get out. It can be painful to watch and infuriating to deal with. Because he worries and overthinks so damn much, he’s not real good at being a kid sometimes.
Interestingly enough, when he’s moving, mostly on his bike or swimming, he’s at his most kid-like. Movement sets him free from worry. But a lot of time he’s angry or miserable or twisted in knots, and he’s convinced that there’s nothing we can do to help. Because he knows that the advice will give him will involve change from within, and emotionally and developmentally he’s just not ready to come to terms with that.
But in the meantime, between the storms, he can take an entire washing machine apart, switch out the motherboard and replace the broken lid switch. He can tell you the model of an air conditioner sticking out of a window as you pass it doing 40 m.p.h. He’s trying to internalize the map of Valley Stream so he can get further and further away from me on his bicycle. But then again, he’ll have a catch with me now and enjoy it. And something I especially appreciate, he’s developing the ability to have a rapport as opposed to a one-way, monologue conversation. (Two great examples from just yesterday: Upon seeing a guy walking into an intersection unaware that he was walking into the path of an ambulance, Me: “Savage”. Dude: “Thug Life”. Upon seeing a woman walking a little dog on the Long Beach Boardwalk, Me: “If I brought Mookie up here, they’d throw me out in two seconds. They’re dogists. That’s what they are.” Dude: “They’re breedists, actually”).
Every adult outside of school (and most adults in school, right before before they say “but”) has told us how smart and well-spoken The Dude can be, and how he’ll eventually be fine. We know this. He makes progress on an excruciatingly long trajectory, and there’s still lots of drama and lots of damage control to be suffered through. And of course, the curse of junior high is trying to fit in. Unfortunately, right now The Dude is trying to fit in by pretending he’s not as articulate as he is and turning his mechanical passions into a hidden secret life because he thinks if he gets found out it will stick him with the geeks. Bringing up this subject, or any subject remotely connected to school, is opening up a big can of verbal whoop-ass, which is ironic because he loves being a part of the school on an emotional level, and even became a Valley Stream South Falcon this year by joining the track team. He just avoids the work as much as he possibly can because he’s not perfect at it and it pisses him off, which of course leads him into a hornet’s nest of resistance. On and on the vicious cycle goes.
Obviously, there isn’t much you can do about somebody going through these kinds of storms at 13 but to just keep working like hell at it. And so I’ll have one of these verbal pissing matches with him, walk away, go out to the patio, open up the magic rectangle and see the latest insult or degradation to civilized life that’s trending on Twitter, then realize we’re out of cat food and take a leisurely twenty-minute fucking drive to the King Kullen a fucking mile away because Long Island is bursting at the seams with people and cars. Usually you get stuck for a good five of those minutes at the light at Merrick and Central Avenue. There’s a Walgreens on the corner. I’ve dubbed it The Corner Of Sick And Miserable.
I’d love to get off Long Island, and not because Twitler called it a blood-soaked killing field when he was out in Suffolk telling the police to rough up presumed innocent suspects and scaring the Trumpbillies watching Fox News in West Virginia with an unfortunate local gang issue being dealt with in Brentwood. And not simply because my fight-or-flight adrenaline suddenly disappears as soon as I reach Rockland County. I’d love to get off Long Island because there’s just too many people on Long Island. They create resistance. They don’t mean to. They’re just here. Like I’m here. But getting anywhere to do anything takes a ridiculous amount of time and effort and the whole thing wears you down. And once you get there, everything costs more than it should. A lot more. Trisha lives at the mercy of the Long Island Railroad every working day. She pays them $261 a month for the privilege of being a sardine in a can that may or may not get to Penn Station or back on time, plus another $100 to our fair village for the right to park her car. Enough said.
I had a cool psychology professor in a summer class at Nassau Community College. I took Intro to Psychology because I had to take something to finish enough credits to get a Liberal Arts degree. I also took Intro to Philosophy. And the professor was just as cool. I learned more in five weeks in those two classes that I learned over years of taking silly English Lit and Education courses for my Master’s. Those people were just stealing money. But I digress.
The cool psychology professor, large and unkept and not the slightest bit bothered by either, sitting in a turned-around backwards student chair and chain-smoking cigarettes that he extinguished on the floor, taught us one night about Sensory Adaptation, the idea that after you are immersed in something long enough, you respond automatically to it without really sensing it. It’s the reason why nothing feels as good the second time and the reason why I can find my way to the King Kullen on Merrick Road. The professor suggested that it’s sort of tragic that we can’t live without it, because while I can grab the cat food out of aisle six without thinking about it, I can’t appreciate that I have this nice big, well-lit store full of food and household products and friendly people a mile from my house. It’s not fun anymore. It’s just a given. I don’t see it. It’s just there.
And I’m not going to lie to you. I had to look up the term that my psychology professor was talking about when he laid out that painful paradox for me thirty-something years ago. And when I checked back on Sensory Adaptation, I also ran across Habituation. This is where an organism, like me or you, will no longer respond to a stimulus because it has no relevance. the organisms psychological and emotional response is diminished because the stimulus is no longer “biologically relevant.” Right now, if I listen, I can hear the constant drone of Kennedy Airport six miles away, plus the big highway and the train track a mile north of the creek. But I can also tune it out. The problem, I guess, is that by virtue of living 48 of my 54 years in the same house, I block out too much of the good stuff, too, ’cause I’m just trying to get through the day while the so-called president I hate screams at me about fake news and the child I love screams at me about losing the 5/8 ratchet that he left on the garage floor.
Sometimes I can’t see how beautiful the gardens we’ve grown around this house truly are because it’s freaking hot out and and I have to pull weeds to keep it beautiful. Sometimes I forget how cozy our house is because the clutter has piled up and the floors are disgusting and I’d just really rather crank up the air conditioner and take a nap with the dog.
Speaking of beautiful, Trisha nailed this phenomenon recently, in her way, which is a way that damn near ruptured my spleen from laughing. We were looking at a red and orange and purple sunset stretching across the northwest sky, reflected in the high tide flowing out along Duffy’s Creek. She said, “You know what it is? You see this sunset, and you think to yourself, “Wow. That is so beautiful!” And then when it’s over, you think to yourself. “Wow. Back to dead inside.”
And don’t think for a second that I don’t know that, as far as the Dude is concerned, I’m part of the problem. He loves Valley Stream, and everywhere we go on Long Island. As hard as his life can be, he loves his home. It’s all still relatively new to him. He’s just trying to find his way through growing up, and this motherfucker’s harassing HIM. He might get out and see the world someday, but something tells me, looking at the adult inside the child, that he’ll be another George Bailey who never leaves Bedford Falls. And of course, between that and the whole going to work thing, we’re not going anywhere. And sometimes that simple fact – you sir, are stuck – a wedged bear in a great tightness -leads to resistance that I’m really just creating for myself, messing up my own circuits by not trying to be content with what I have and stay easy with the world. I could be catching up on Richard Russo’s latest novel sitting next to me on the coffee table. I could pick up the guitar, work on the mandolin, open the piano nobody has touched in months and teach myself something, work on that big extended blog project about all the walks I take with Mookie ,who has the ability to make you lose all sense of Habituation even when you take the same walks over and over, because he keeps looking at you and saying, “Isn’t this great?”.
In other words I could be enjoying my life more. Like Mookie does. I suppose if the Mets were playing better, it would help, but you can never count on that. Too often, instead of playing that guitar or reading that book or writing that blog, I spend down time looking up Columbia County and Saranac Lake house porn on Zillow and checking in with Twitter every half hour because the fucking world is going nuts and I feel a responsibility to voice my displeasure through blasting out a couple of ohms of resistance.
Turns out I’m not the most fun guy to live with if you’re a 13 years old. He throws me a lot of resistance, but I need to be a stronger conductor.
And like Jimmy Cliff in the song, I don’t know where any of this is leading, but I know where I have been. And I guess I’ve been a lucky son-of-a-gun, because I still look to the future with an overwhelming sense of optimism that usually has no basis in empirical data. My experiences have led me to believe that one may as well. Our son is going to grow up just fine, the criminals who’ve taken over the country will be served justice and I’ll wake up tomorrow and see the beauty in every flower.
This is how the song goes, by the way:
“Sitting here in limbo / waiting for the dice to roll / Sitting here in limbo / waiting for the tide to flow / Meanwhile they’re putting up resistance / But I know that my faith will lead me on.”
This one’s about politics; The State of The Nation Address from Duffy’s Creek. I’m going to try not to go off on too many tangents, and I’m going to try really hard to NOT offend or enrage anyone who happens to read it, no matter where you are and who you voted for. Everyone who read this blog the last time I got into politics (“I’m John Duffy and I Approved This Message: Now I’ll Shut Up” – August 2015) could rightly wish me good luck with all that. And since I’m “boost-posting” this one on Facebook (for which I pay $40 bucks and change) and tagging it with “Trump”, among other words I find unpleasant, I’m going to tell you right now, if you’ve read this far, that I’m way, way left on the political spectrum. Like two steps to the left of Nancy Pelosi, holding hands with Bernie Sanders. So there’s a pretty good chance you’re going to disagree with some of the things I have to say here. But If you stick around, I promise you that I’m just trying to open an intelligent dialogue about this whole mess of a Divided States of America, and I pinky promise three times that I won’t call you a Racist or a Nazi or a Brainwashed Cult Follower if you promise not to leave comments calling me a Libtard and a Snowflake. I have too much respect for you as a fellow human being to go there, whoever you are, and whatever you think. I hope I can earn yours in 15 minutes of reading time.
Because you know what? If you were to read my other 19 posts that aren’t about politics, you’ll find that I’m house-proud and neighborhood-proud and town-proud, and a bit of a character, just like you. I love my wife and my son and my garden and my vacation places, just like you. I have a big beautiful, friendly yellow lab named Mookie and I’ve followed the same baseball team for fifty seasons. I listen to Dylan and The Band and Van Morrison and Creedence and The Dead and still read “Blondie” and “Pickles” and “Peanuts” and “Zits” on the comics page of a newspaper that I hold in my hand while a cat that I rescued sits on my lap, the newspaper that a guy delivers to my driveway before I wake up for work at 4:45 in the goddamn morning, just like you. Yes, I live less than 25 miles from Manhattan, and yes I drive a Subuaru Outback and I have a Master’s Degree. I’m afraid I don’t much like guns or football or violent video games and I proudly voted for Bernie Sanders in the New York Primary as a registered Democrat. But I love plopping down on the couch with a couple of Oreo cookies and watching “This Old House” or “How It’s Made” on a snowy Saturday, and I have a weakness for Sausage Egg McMuffins. And maybe you do, too. Maybe we have almost everything in common except for one thing:
I never saw “The Apprentice.” I would have sooner pulled out one of my fingernails. My opinion of the man who will lie through a solemn oath with his right hand on a bible this coming Friday was formed in the 1980’s, when those newspapers I held in my hand loved to tell me about this weasely clown with a bad spray tan and fake hair who was becoming famous for cheating on his wife and ripping people off on deals and being loud and saying lots of jerky things. And the only reason he was famous was because his Daddy was stinking rich (and his Daddy first made the newspapers a decade before for fighting a federal lawsuit that outed his practice of excluding people of color from renting his apartments). When I was a kid, my father saw me laughing at a comedian named Foster Brooks, whose whole act was getting laughs by pretending he was smashed drunk. He and Dean Martin would act really drunk and the laugh track would laugh, and so would I. My father told me point-blank, with an angry tone, that I had no idea how unfunny it was, that these guys were making fun of a mental illness. By that same logic, a lot of people were first introduced to Trump by his apparently getting, if not laughs, then appreciation, for being the biggest, loudest asshole in the room and yelling “you’re fired!” at people and insulting them and pitting them against each other. That stuff is just not funny to me. Narcissism is not normal to me. It’s deeply fucked up. It’s among the human characteristics that are the most disgusting to me, right up there with greed, intolerance, willful ignorance, misogyny, combativeness, dishonesty, recklessness and duplicity.
So possibly the only thing that we don’t have in common, my house-proud, town-proud, dog owning, family-loving, newspaper-reading fellow American grandchild of immigrants, is that I have no idea how you could have possibly voted for Trump and you have no idea how I possibly could have voted for Hillary Clinton.
Last February, I thought it was all over. It was The Dude’s 12th birthday and I was enjoying a visit to the Creek from my 89 year-old mother-in-law, whom I love with all my heart. Besides being as strong as a pillar of steel, she is a deeply religious woman of unfailing and unmatched moral integrity. She is the mirror I hold myself up to when I want to see if I’m doing the right thing, and most often I’m not. The primaries were just getting cranking. The American Consciousness had already been through eight months of Mexican Rapists and Build The Wall and Ban The Muslims and Bleeding From Her Whatever and we still had WikiLeaks and Pussy Grabbing and Lock Her Up to look forward to. Aware that my mother-in-law was a lifelong Republican (we stayed at her house after ours was damaged in Hurricane Sandy, and I drove her in a snowstorm to vote for Mitt Romney on Election Day in 2012, and late that night she sat quietly and smiled while Trisha and I celebrated the re-election of President Obama), I asked her who she was going to vote for. I meant in the Republican primaries. This is what she said. She said, “I’ll probably end up voting for Hillary.”
I was flabbergasted. The first time she had voted for President was in 1948. She voted for Thomas Dewey over Harry Truman. Then she voted for Eisenhower twice, then Nixon, then Goldwater, then Nixon again, then Gerald Ford, then Ronald Reagan, George Bush, Bob Dole, George W. Bush, John McCain and Mitt Romney. (I was there for that one). This is what she said on that day last February: “I couldn’t possibly vote for that man.” I bragged about it for weeks. It was my main talking point. And I let the whole ugly, national embarrassment that was the General Election come and go without writing about it on this blog because I didn’t think there was any chance that he was going to win, and probably neither did you.
Plus, an interesting phenomenon was developing as I started using Facebook to promote the blog, and it made the idea of writing about my political beliefs, or raging about the people who I see as Part of The Problem, suddenly become a difficult proposition for a Man of Peace like myself who does not enjoy confrontations and likes to be liked.
First I should say that the reason I pay Facebook to promote the blog is simply because I think that whole point of writing things is so people can read things you write, and if what you write is honest and positive, then maybe it will bring the world a little closer together as more people read what you wrote, because now you know me a little better and maybe I’ve helped you know you a little better by telling you about me. And so I’ve written stories about my little life that I live here with my pretty wife on Duffy’s Creek, and I’ve sent those stories out into the world to make people I don’t know laugh and think and nod yes, I get it; stories about our son and our dog and our hometown and my mom and my personal history and our backyard, where a creek runs through it. And many, many of the people who have kindly clicked and liked “A Creek Runs Through It” are from what the people on TV who get paid to do nothing but talk shit have been calling “Red States” for years and years.
My last blog post was about trying to eat better food, and this great company called Our Harvest that delivers farm-fresh food right down here to the suburbs. The last three people who liked it were a white guy from Down South who liked to hunt, a Mexican guy from LA who liked modifying cars and a black guy from Baltimore who was into hip-hop fashion. I had become a teeny-tiny unifying force in a bitterly divided country. So how could I then show up on people’s Facebook pages a month later and tell them that they’re all a bunch of redneck racists if they vote for Trump? I don’t know their reasons, and I don’t know their hearts. It’s not nice. I could no more do that than insult my own mother-in-law.
She voted for Trump.
And he won. Sort of. But I’m afraid I won’t be watching any of it on Friday. He’s not my President and he never will be. Not on Friday, not ever. If it were Hillary Clinton taking the oath of office as the first female President of The United States, I’d be in on it, and happy about it. I would have been comfortable with her (and Bill) being in charge of things again. But she wasn’t my first choice, and I could totally understand why she would make people uncomfortable about her intentions and her character, even before the Russians hacked the election and Comey tripped her and made her fall flat on her face on her victory lap. It didn’t take a lot of convincing for people to believe fake news about Hillary, because Hillary had always seemed pretty slippery. The idea that she was one person in public and another person in private was something that shocked no one in America.
But there was a fuse of pure hatred for the woman running through many segments of the population, and that fuse was lit years ago by the disgusting insinuations of her political enemies and the (sorry) outright lies reported on Fox News and the fringes of the Alt-Right Media. WikiLeaks and Putin and Comey’s Big Lie wouldn’t have set that bomb off and destroyed her candidacy if that fuse hadn’t already sown the seeds of doubt about her intentions in the minds of so many Americans. People had whispered “Crooked Hillary” in their ears for years before Trump started screaming it in airplane hangers. And as one “deplorable” that I read on Twitter pointed out rightly, if there was nothing in those emails, if she had nothing to hide, she would’ve won despite all those years of suspicion. So there. Point taken.
Nevertheless, I supported Hillary and I voted for her in the General Election, despite the fact that she and her Merry Band of Emailers cheated Bernie Sanders in the primaries, because I believed that no matter how sneaky and duplicitous she is, the Public Hillary represented my traditional Democrat beliefs.
And I suspect this is why my mother-in-law and so many other traditional Republicans voted for a guy who mocked a disabled man in public and bragged about grabbing women by the genitals. If I did either of those things at my mother-in-law’s house, I’d be banned for life. But I have to assume that she could not vote against party lines when the stakes were so high, what with the Supreme Court and all that.
And neither could I. I would never even consider it.
But if Hillary had said some of the things her opponent said, and shown herself temperamentally and intellectually completely unfit for the job, I would’ve written in Willie Nelson.
Many people stay with their parties purely for social issues. Me? I don’t care if you get an abortion. I’d prefer if you didn’t, but it’s none of my goddamn business. I don’t care who you sleep with or who you want to marry or what drugs you want to take. I don’t care what color skin my next door neighbor has, or what country he was born in, as long as he doesn’t make a lot of noise and he keeps his yard tidy. Apparently, lots of Republicans do care about these things. And in the opinion of Snowflake Northern Libtards like myself, this is how they’ve been able to get people to vote against their own economic self-interests for years and years, all the way back to Nixon’s Law and Order Crusade to crack down on the Hippies and the War Protesters and the Uppity Black People in 1968. Be the party that holds up “Father Knows Best” Values as a bright shiny object while they’re picking your pocket and smacking you in the back of the head. That’s what I believe they do, while you might believe my Democrat Party wants to take all the money you’ve ever earned and give it to abortion-getting, dope-smoking brown immigrants who you believe that I hold in higher regard than you because you didn’t go to college and I did, nyah, nyah, nyah.
So let’s take a deep breath. And I’ll tell you what I just can’t understand. And I’ll try to tell you why.
Above all else, I can’t understand the level of hatred that was leveled at President Obama. I just picked off the three images above in exactly one minute of google image searching. I had no idea that people held this level of racism in their hearts, or would possibly think this stuff is funny, but that’s because I’ve been not living in a bubble for too long. But I grew up living in a bubble, so I shouldn’t have been surprised.
From the time of its founding in the 19th Century until about 100 years later, Valley Stream, Long Island, New York, where I grew up and still live, was as white as a sparkling clean bathtub. By the time I started interacting with other kids in school, everyone was Irish, Italian, Jewish or German. (All descendants of immigrants, but we’ll get to that). Being right on the border of the NYC Borough of Queens, Valley Stream found itself in the 1970’s and 1980’s surrounded by a giant horseshoe of predominantly black neighborhoods: Rosedale, Springfield Gardens, Laurelton, St. Albans, Queens Village, Jamaica, Elmont. People were deathly afraid of Valley Stream “turning black” (which it coudn’t do unless they left), deathly afraid that some politician or judge was going to force school integration through busing. Many of those people had left those neighborhoods themselves to go to Valley Stream where they’d feel more “safe.”
So I grew up listening to my parents on the one hand, who had black friends and supported the Equal Rights Movement and revered Martin Luther King. Then I went to school and heard unimaginably racist ideas from my friends. Needless to say, I didn’t know quite what to think. The sparkling clean white bathtub was filled with toxic water. The further I went in the world, the more people I interacted with, the more I realized how toxic it was, but I had still been sitting in it for so long that it still warped my thinking at times.
In 1995, when I was 32, I took a job as a junior high school teacher in a school in Rockaway Beach, Queens, a mostly black school that served the surrounding housing projects. I can tell you that some of the kids I met there over the next nine years were often already sadly beyond hope at 12 and 13 years old, but most of them weren’t. And they quickly recognized that my heart was in the right place, and that I got a kick out of their ways and their expressions. We had a good time, and we learned from each other. But my neighbors (in Lynbook at this point, one town over) were all still white, and I still kind of thought that this was the way it was supposed to be.
Then one day, Valley Stream began to integrate. The same town where a volunteer fireman got arrested for burning a cross on a black family’s front lawn in the 1970’s now had a measurable black population, as well a growing presence of Central American immigrants, by the end of the 199o’s. Around the same time, I fell in love and got married, and my parents had begun planning a move to a lifecare facility 50 miles east in Suffolk County. My brothers and sisters were already homeowners. We had the opportunity to buy a nice little cape cod house with a 60 x 100 plot on a creek in Valley Stream for below market value. Trisha had also grown up in lily-white towns but had no reservations about the future of our neighborhood.
But I sorta did. I talked to one of my best friends, who had also come into a second-generation Valley Stream house six years or so earlier. This guy’s dad used to channel Archie Bunker a lot, great guy though he was, so I know my friend had heard different messages about race than I heard at home. But you know what he said to me? This is what he said: “People are people, Duff.” We bought the house.
And we’ve been proud homeowners in this integrated town since 2002. My son is growing up in a better Valley Stream, because it’s not a bubble. It has its problems, but trust me, it always did. And I know without question that all the toxic water in that squeaky white bathtub would have caused permanent brain damage to me if I’d stayed in it. So when a guy who has been a second-generation public racist his whole life immediately disrespects the first black President by questioning his citizenship and demanding his birth certificate, all I hear is the ignorant fools I grew up with making up all sorts of creatively demeaning names for the people on the other side of Hook Creek Boulevard. When that same guy can’t accept legitimate criticism (and the rightful questioning of his own legitimacy) from Rep. John Lewis, and instead suggests that Lewis’ district in Atlanta is a ghetto, all I can think of is all the people I know, through my job and through my neighborhood, who have more class in their brown pinkies than the President-Elect will ever have, and how he doesn’t really know a damn thing about how ordinary Americans actually live.
And, back in 2004, Mitch McConnell said they would block everything Obama tried to do and make him a one-term President. And off went Fox News and the sinister Alt-Right and their insinuations and lies. And suddenly, it’s perfectly acceptable for a fringe of the population to treat a man of color with disgusting contempt, even if he happens to be doing a pretty good job as President of The United States. And they’re easy targets for the hate-mongerers, these people, because they live in segregated bubbles, and they already didn’t like the idea of taking orders from a black guy. And I’m not necessarily talking about “Red State” people. We have plenty of them here on Long Island and right here in Valley Stream, where some of the hard-core bigots, who I assume spend a lot of time in dark rooms in their houses, like to tell you that the place ain’t what it used to be. They have no idea what the fuck they’re talking about.
A couple of months back, the Valley Stream Herald ran a story on their Facebook feed about Muslim parents and their students petitioning to have school closed on their religious high holy days, just like the Catholics and the Jews on Long Island and NYC have always had. The City has already done that. In the comments attached to the post, the first guy said, “Trump says, “Merry Christmas.” The second guy said he was sick of accommodating immigrants. Not being able to help myself getting pulled down the toilet on this one, I pointed out to the guy what the poem at the base of the Statue of Liberty says:
Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame,
With conquering limbs astride from land to land;
Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand
A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame
Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name
Mother of Exiles. From her beacon-hand
Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command
The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.
“Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!” cries she
With silent lips. “Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”
He said something along the lines of “I don’t know what you got out of that paragraph but all I see is u have to work hard I don’t see anything about accommodating people.”
And this is why the text abbreviation “SMFH” was invented.
Because here’s the thing. People are people. And racism is learned, and can be unlearned. I’m living proof. But if the leaders and the news sources are telling people who follow them that Barack Obama is a Kenyan-born Muslim who wants to establish Sharia Law, and their people believe it, they tend to see themselves as people, and everyone else as less than people. And Trump was, in the words of Charles Blow, the Grand Wizard of the campaign to turn people’s racial suspicions into votes and cold hard cash.
In 2004, the year our son was born, I was transferred to a school in Ozone Park, Queens. The reason I was transferred is because the school I worked in was shut down. The reason the school I worked in was shut down was because the white people on the West End of The Rockaway Peninsula didn’t want their kids in school with the black kids from the projects, so they used their political influence to close my school down and replace it with a “magnet school” that could pick and choose its students. The grand tradition of Christopher Columbus continues. White people just take what they want.
In Ozone Park, where I’ve been for 13 years and survive to this day, I received a whole new education. This was a school that had become a true melting pot of colors, nationalities, religions and cultures. (One of my biggest challenges was copying everyone’s name spelled right into my grade book). Some of my best students over the years have been Muslims. Now they’re some of my best neighbors, too. I love the spirit of the Hispanic and Latino kids as well. (I could tell you the difference between these two terms if you’re not sure). You want good Spanish food from all over the Central and South American world? Come visit us in Valley Stream.
And there I am, riding in the car with my son on a day in June of 2015, in downtown Valley Stream, driving past the San Antonio Chilean Bakery and the Colombian Chicken Restaurant, listening to WCBS 880. And that guy who I wrote off as a complete asshole thirty years before, who just won’t go away, is announcing his run for President by calling Mexicans rapists and murderers, and all I can think of is that they’re some of the nicest people I know. And I turn off the radio because it’s almost like exposing my son to some sort of sick verbal pornography. Then this same guy, people actually start voting for him, and gets people going at the rallies by saying he’s going to ban Muslims from entering the country, and all I’m thinking is how much the Muslim people who have sent their kids to my school and moved onto my block have improved the communities I live and work in, and how this guy has never improved a fucking thing in his life and has basically been pretty much nothing but an impediment to human progress for 70 years.
And the General Election comes around, and I start following the trends on Twitter, and I discover, as many of you may have, the depths of twisted thinking that you’re sharing your country with. You read what they say and you think to yourself , Good Lord, are there really people who are that angry, that uneducated, that nasty? You know from the whole Russian Hacking thing that many of them are robots. But to me, the most terrifying thing is the notion that they’re both; semi-sentient beings who have been turned into hate-manufacturing robots by the forces of hate who inform them. Nobody is born racist. No baby ever refused to interact with a baby of a different color. This shit has been learned, preached as Gospel by cynical politicians and media who have been using it as a way of enriching themselves for my entire adult life, and in the process have destroyed the middle class in much of the country through their economic Hunger Games. And as of Friday, they have the keys to the car.
And if you’re reading this, and you truly believe that I’m a typical Libtard Snowflake, and you truly believe that your way of life, or your quality of life, is in danger because of the rise in status of minority and immigrant groups around you, and you’re not a robot planted by Russian intelligence (and we do get them on WordPress) I have only two words for you, and I hope you won’t find them offensive:
But it is advantageous to your chosen government representatives and news sources that you think it is.
You should tell them to go fuck themselves, but that’s just my opinion.
Which brings me to the moment that inspired this post. The trending topic on Twitter was L.L. Bean. I love L.L. Bean. I love them so much I probably buy about $300 worth of stuff from them every year. But thanks to Twitter, I now know that a portion of that money goes from the head of the company’s ruling family direct to Donald Trump. So I tell you what: I sort of give a shit but not really. It’s not like they’re exploiting their workers. I figure most of the money I spend goes to billionaires at this point, and what billionaire doesn’t like laws that benefit billionaires? That’s the corner we’re backed into now.
So, again, whatever. It’s not going to make me love my Portuguese Cotton Flannel Shirts and Wicked Good Slippers any less.
And I totally understood why a bunch of prissy liberals whining how they’re going to boycott L.L. Bean now would be a source of amusement for country folk. One guy tweeted that the Liberals would destroy their L.L. Bean Fishing Boots if they could figure out how to.
But then there was this one guy. I know things about him that I’m not going to tell you, ’cause when you see a mental patient coming towards you on the street, it’s best not to hand him an axe. I’ll give you this much: First of all, he looks like a 19th Century dispossessed American-Indian child’s crayon drawing of a White Devil. Second of all, he has some sort of Internet Radio / Podcast thing where he helps American Become Great Again somewhere south of the Mason-Dixon Line.
This is what he tweeted: “I didn’t know L.L. Bean accepted food stamps.”
And this is what I thought: You dick. First of all, it’s common knowledge that there are more people in rural areas on public assistance than in “Blue State” cities. Second of all, why even go there? It’s just mean. Why throw people who are struggling to have enough to eat, no matter where they live and what they believe, into this particular argument at all? I suppose the only answer is to be clever, to be cute. And remember what I said earlier about people on TV and Radio who are paid for no other purpose than to talk shit? Who couldn’t survive in a real job for five minutes if the whole Shit-Talking Industry came crashing down tomorrow? This guy was exhibit A.
And here’s the punchline. His little radio show has a link to a “go fund me” site, where he recently bilked people out of $24,000 so he could continue to have a platform in which to talk shit. And he did not strike me as an uneducated man, but rather as one who has something to gain by misinforming others who may not be as well-educated. What does he have to gain? At least $24,000, plus whatever they get from the “donate” button on their website.
So here’s what it all comes down to: These people are going to keep talking. Trump and the Republican Congress are going to do what they do. You and me, we might agree, we might disagree, but I can’t stand the thought of living in a country where I distrust so many of my fellow citizens, and I bet you can’t either. I will be part of the Resistance against President Trump, the safety-pin wearin’ snowflake libtards, but my beef is with him and the people he represents, not necessarily the people who voted for him, including one of my favorite people in the world, my own mother-in-law.
I’m going to give her, and you, the benefit of the doubt, Trump voter. But not him. As I said earlier, I totally understand why people would not vote for Hillary Clinton, and I know the Democratic Party has written off large segments of the population, and I dislike very much that they’ve done that. Once upon a time, a large part of the Democratic coalition was working-class whites who belonged to labor unions. As the labor unions were eaten alive by the corporations their members worked for, those members were left out to dry and often forced into lower-paying jobs, and the Democrats seemingly did nothing to protect them. That’s one of the great shames of my party. They have others, but promoting equality, in my opinion, ain’t one of them.
If you voted for Trump, I have more than made my point of why I don’t agree with you. It’s hard for me to put any faith in a man with a trail of destruction and hate as long as his, and assuming the most powerful position on Earth with not a minute of government experience to boot.
But the fact that you have faith and I don’t is not reason for us to try to destroy, demean or demonize each other. We don’t have to be mean. We don’t have to assholes about it. We have a lot in common, from yellow labradors to L.L. Bean flannels to summer vegetable gardens to stopping everything for the World Series. We’re having roasted chicken tonight, and we watched “Barn Builders” on the DIY Network this afternoon. And remember, I’m from “Lawn Guyland.” And I’d love to move upstate when I retire, where there are a lot more Republicans. Got no problem with that.
My experience with living in a segregated world that became diverse has taught me, in the words of an Irish singin’ feller named Mike Scott, to “look twice at you, until I see the Christ in you.” Nothing has shown me that the President-Elect does this, but I’m betting you do.
And since you’ve read this far, I can now explain the quote from a great personal hero of mine, the writer Kurt Vonnegut, that I used to title this post. In his novel, “God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater,” Kurt tells the story of a billionaire named Eliot Rosewater, from Rosewater County, Indiana. Mr. Rosewater becomes a hero to the local poor people of his town when he decides to give the entire Rosewater fortune away through a little office on Main Street before other members of his extended family find him legally unfit and take the fortune away from him. People come to him and he gives them hugs and advice and free money. He becomes a local hero, and is asked to be the godfather of his neighbors’ twin babies, and is asked to say a few words at the baptism ceremony.
This is what he said:
“Hello, babies. Welcome to Earth. It’s hot in the summer and cold in the winter. It’s round and wet and crowded. At the outside, babies, you’ve got about a hundred years here. There’s only one rule that I know of, babies—God damn it, you’ve got to be kind.”
So I’m just going to shake my head at whatever goes down in this country in the next couple of years, if it goes down like I think it will, and try to keep taking the high road as I make my displeasure known. But there was something in President Obama’s Farewell Address that resonated with me, as a school teacher for the last twenty-two years and a parent for the last thirteen. If you want to be optimistic about the future of America, look at the young kids in their twenties. They don’t have the racial baggage that we grew up with. They organize. They speak up for what they believe in. They have very highly developed bullshit detectors. They love their country. They work it out.
Actually, Obama didn’t say that all that, I did. But no matter. I’ve met thousands of Americans in my lifetime, from Editors-In-Chiefs of Big City Magazines to Aspiring Little Gangsters from the NYC Projects and everyone in between. And most of them are good, no matter what the people on your news feed tell you. You know that, too. Most of the people you meet instinctively know a simple rule of life that, I’m sorry, the man you may or may not have elected President has never learned. But I have a feeling that he soon will. The bible quote, from Corinthians, generally goes, “As you sow, so shall you reap.” But Robert Hunter, the lyricist for The Grateful Dead, had a slightly different take on it, one that gives me and you hope, and should be a warning to those who continue to divide us:
“Whichever way your pleasure tends / If you plant ice, you’re gonna harvest wind.”
I’ve eaten a lot of crap over 53 and a half years. I’m guessing you’ve eaten your share, too. I’ve eaten storage rooms and barrels full of common poisons, ingested by way of Sour Cream Pringles, Double Stuff Oreos, Rold Gold Pretzels, Three Musketeer Bars, Double-Cheese and Bacon Burgers, Taco Supremes , Hot Dogs from Questionable Sources and the Rubbery Swanson’s Object that they refer to as Fried Chicken, among other common people swill. Despite this (and despite the personal campfire that I light around my head at regular intervals – not to mention the bottomless cup of coffee that’s always nearby) I’m not dead. Actually, I feel pretty good. I think it might be the long walks. And the farm fresh food. So does Mookie.
When I was a kid, I had an iron stomach. Some of the things I found edible astound me now. And there was no barrier on my access to poor food choices. As the youngest child of five, I was my mother’s or father’s co-pilot on their weekly trips to the supermarket. (It remains one of my primary household responsibilities to this day, and oddly enough, I love supermarkets so much I worked as a stock clerk off and on for many happy years, without having to think about what I was doing once. Anyway…). When I’d go to the supermarket with my mother especially, she’d let me buy just about anything that looked like it might be something. It’s possible that she was a little distracted. Nevertheless, I have happy childhood memories of eating entire boxes of Bugles while watching afternoon game shows and sitcoms on a portable black and white TV after school, of making myself a Friday Night Elio’s Frozen Pizza to go with Sanford and Son or The Odd Couple, or doing up an entire box of pigs in a blanket for a late Saturday afternoon Mets game from the West Coast. If you stacked the slices of Oscar Meyer Bologna that I consumed between 1970 and 1990, and stood three of their nasty hot dogs between each slice, it would be approximately the height of the famous Jones Beach Water Tower, and far and away the greater engineering marvel. They’re very thick slices, but still.
Some of my childhood favorites make me flat out nauseous in retrospect. I would crack open a tin of vienna sausages and munch on them, or make Underwood Chicken Spread or Deviled Ham on Wonder Bread and, Good Lord, actually have it for lunch. I’ve eaten Spam with a Hershey’s Chocolate Milk chaser . And speaking of chocolate, there were Yodels. And Ring Dings. And Devil Dogs. They all go great with a cold Dr. Pepper. Did I mention I had all my teeth extracted seven years ago?
Moving on. As I mentioned, I’m the youngest of five children. There’s four years between the four of them and four and a half years between me and everybody else. By the time I was in fourth grade, my parents were already paying three college tuitions. My mom was working full-time as a NYC high school English teacher and my dad was working two nights a week at Apex Technical School in Manhattan teaching HVAC classes in addition to his day job. During the school year, my mom still felt strongly about getting anyone to the table who happened to be home at exactly 6 pm for dinner, but in order to plan that dinner, she had to relegate it to auto-pilot. She’d get a delivery from Pat’s Prime Meats in Malverne on Saturday (they’re still around), and off we went on another trip on the merry-go-round: Lamb Chops with mashed potatoes and frozen cut green beans on Monday, Turkey Roll or Howard Johnson’s Chicken Croquettes from the A&P on Tuesday, chicken cutlets with white rice and frozen mixed vegetables on Wednesday, Meatloaf with baked potato and carrots on Thursday, frozen pizza or whatever was left over on Friday. Everything prepared as quickly and with as little complication as possible, out of the necessity of eating at exactly 6pm.
My mom was actually a very good cook. On the weekends we might have a broiled steak, or something like veal parmesan, which my mom called veal scallopini. That was always my birthday dinner request. She also made her own spaghetti sauce with meat that rivaled that of any Italian mother. But the busier she got, and the fewer people who were around to eat, the more the weekly rotation, all of which got pretty old after a while anyway, started falling apart. There were a lot more Chinese food and Ancona Pizza nights, which suited me just fine, and a lot more frozen food.
Nobody knew any better. What could be more convenient than a TV Dinner? : Swanson’s Salisbury Steak, or the iconic and evil Fried Chicken Dinner, or the meatloaf, which was to meat what particle board is to wood, with the chocolate brownie that would be unsalvageable if you left it in at 350 degrees for a second longer than 30 minutes. There was the Stouffer’s Chicken A La King that you boiled in two bags, one for the so-called chicken and sauce-like substance and one for the rice. Hard to screw up rice. And there were Hungry Man Chicken and Turkey Pot Pies. We had ’em all. Like many children of the 70’s, the generation when moms went back to work again, TV Dinners were perfectly acceptable alternatives to home cooked meals. They taste pretty good, too.
Except really, they aren’t, and they don’t.
As I got into working more and more (at Mel Weitz’ Foodtown, as well as other Mcjobs) and going to college at night, I subsided almost exclusively on fast food, junk, the Queens College cafeteria, friendly delis, the 7-11 and the ubiquitous stalwart TV Dinners. I’ve always had a metabolism not unlike a coal furnace. I’ve weighed somewhere between 120 and 125 pounds my whole adult life, and yes, at 5’9”, I am a human scarecrow, and maybe a little sensitive about that, but I’ve accepted that I am as God made me. (I’m always amused that people are allowed to say, “you’re so skinny!” but not allowed to say, “Christ, look how fat you are!” It’s a bit of a double standard. And I wrote that line at least 35 years ago). Nonetheless, I have to constantly feed the furnace to maintain my weight and keep from falling off the face of the earth, or slipping into a crack in the sidewalk.
One of my favorite go-to meals when I went to school at night was to come home to a big breakfast at 9:30 pm. Some french toast, maybe fried eggs on an english muffin, maybe a couple of nuked sausage links on the side. My parents thought I was fucking crazy but they loved me anyway. My mother would always tell me there was a leftover lamb chop, but I’d be more likely to have a bowl of Apple Cinnamon Cheerios.
Once out in the working world, if you had a good pizza place I could get in and out of in less than twenty minutes, or a diner where the grease soaked into the bun of the cheeseburger as you ate it, you and I became the best of friends, and you got 15% of my weekly income. When I worked in the production department at New York Magazine in the late 80’s (as much fun and as little fun as it sounds) there was a tradition that when a staffer left they would receive a mock magazine cover as a parting gift. When I left after two years and two months, one of my favorite co-workers (I remember you, Franny!) included an inset picture of the pizza place across 2nd Avenue on my cover with the headline “Sal In Shock! Sales Plunge!” I was also famous for using my weekly food allowance for staying late to “close the book” on Tuesday nights to pig out on KFC. A lot of people who worked there were very into fancy-schmancy restaurants, which more often than not frightened me. They would all walk into our end the office and become immediately enraptured, then quickly repulsed, by the smell of mass-produced fried chicken. I didn’t really care. I was just shoveling coal into the furnace.
After a while I settled into this job where you’re lucky to get ten minutes to eat lunch and they don’t buy your KFC, or your copy paper. I’ve been on “continuous service” in this particular job for 21 years and three months. I needed something to eat fast that I wouldn’t necessarily get the chance to fully and properly digest (and expel) until two or three hours later. Thus began the legend of the peanut butter and jelly sandwich.
People are amazed at the fact that I’ve eaten a peanut butter and jelly sandwich nearly every working day for over twenty years. I’m amused that they’re amazed. Especially when I sneak it in during meetings and somebody says, “Hey! That looks good!”, like they just now realized you could put these particular ingredients together. Why wouldn’t you eat peanut butter and jelly? It’s perfect!
And let me be precise here. (This is a very big part of my OCD, so it’s a subject very dear to me). It’s actually peanut butter and jam, and I do randomly switch between grape and strawberry jam.(Sometimes obsessive-compulsives will surprise you). But it has to be Smuckers Jam. And Jif Creamy Peanut Butter. Liberally spread together on Pepperidge Farm Honey Wheat Bread, then wrapped in foil, then put in a Ziploc bag (with a zipper) for maximum freshness. I make tomorrow’s peanut butter and jelly within a half hour of getting home from work. It has to be well-refrigerated. It goes in the bottom drawer of the fridge, where everything I pack in my working day lunch bag goes: A bottle filled with water, a bottle filled with Tropicana Orange juice, a plastic bottle of Dr. Pepper or Coca-Cola for the ride home on the God Damned Belt Parkway, some apple slices in a Ziploc bag, an individually-wrapped Entemann’s crumb cake, and my magic potion: A La Yogurt Mixed Berry and a bag containing about fifteen blueberries.
Yogurt was one of my big turning points on my food journey. It’s about as far away as you can get from Bugles, for starters. In fact, I could make the case that yogurt is the axis on which this entire silly narrative tilts upward towards it’s title: Better Food.
When you become a parent, it’s not about feeding yourself anymore. Fifteen years ago, I married a lovely girl named Trisha who had been a vegetarian for seventeen years when I met her. She couldn’t believe some of the stuff I ate, and the stuff she ate didn’t seem at all filling to me. And yet we loved each other then as now. She was especially repulsed by one of my g0-to dinners, the Dread Birdseye Garlic Chicken Voila. Available in your frozen food section, but if you’re smart, you’ll just keep on walking. Quote the funniest woman I know: “The chicken is kind of suspect, but it’s the voila that’ll get you.”
Nonetheless, for the first couple of years, we figured it out. A lot of pasta, a lot of take out. If you’re ever in Valley Stream, Ancona Pizza on Rockaway Avenue could theoretically feed you for the rest of your life. Start with the meatball parm hero. Tell them John sent you.
And because Trisha’s mother told her it was her responsibility to feed me, which it isn’t, she would make really good cheese lasagnas, and even made me Shake and Bake Chicken and cutlets like my mom made, even though she wasn’t eating any of it. Once when she made me a roasted chicken, I caught her making it dance on the sink as she cleaned it. I love that woman like you wouldn’t believe. But she herself stayed a vegetarian until one July day in 2003, when she was pregnant and she smelled really good.
We were sitting in Dad’s Copake Diner, which is one of my favorite ways to start a sentence. Usually, she’d have to go through five minutes of making faces at the menu to find the best vegetarian thing they had. Suddenly she just said fuck it. She didn’t really say that because she curses much less than I do. What she did say is: “I’m going to have a chicken cesear wrap.”
And just like that, Trisha wasn’t a vegetarian anymore. And I started barbecuing more steaks. And we had a baby. And we bought baby food. And the baby ate the baby food, and we ate what we ate. And the baby got a little older, and we started expanding his menu. Trisha bought some Axlerod Yogurt.
Yogurt grossed me out from the mid-1960’s up until 2006 or so. And one day I tried one again. And I eat it every working day, and many non-working days at that, and have been eating it religiously for ten years now. It not only tastes great, it’s like a fresh coat of paint on the walls of your digestive tract every morning. Once I got hooked, I suggested that Axlerod’s motto ought to be: “It’s so Mother Fucking Good!” But ah, so you ask, why’d you put a picture of La Yogurt in here? Well, first I’m glad you’re still paying attention, and secondly, there was a distribution problem at my King Kullen with Axlerod. They often didn’t have my favorite flavors. And I haven’t changed my mind about greek yogurt, or the cottage cheese my mother used to eat for lunch with a half a melon when she was on some weird diet. That shit is vile. But out of necessity, I tried La Yogurt and found it just as mother fucking good as Axlerod. Again, people with obsessive-compulsive disorder will surprise you sometimes.
The blueberries got added to the morning yogurt when I decided to start growing blueberries in giant pots around the yard. I started about ten years ago and I now have ten blueberry bushes. I love blueberries. I love everything connected to blueberries. The plants themselves are beautiful. It’s fascinating to watch the flowers slowly become berries, and the fall foliage is a deep crimson red that’s like a bonfire in the sunshine. So many things are better with blueberries. I’d buy blueberry scented toilet paper if they made it. (I actually wrote that joke about cinnamon a long, long time ago. But I think it’s pretty good, so I recycled it). And after a few summers, I realized that one of my truly favorite things about growing blueberries (specifically, highbush blue jay, blue crop and one or two other cultivars I can’t remember right now) is that they come into season just about the same time that I get some time away from the Belt Parkway for a while and can actually enjoy a summer morning. I was walking around the house smoking a cigarette (Gasp!) and picking at the blueberries at the same time. (The robins, mockingbirds and catbirds, who don’t smoke, also get their share) when it suddenly occurred to me that I was ingesting carcinogens and antioxidants at the same time And let me tell you, it felt great. So every morning I pack every spoonful of La Yogurt with as many blueberries as I can, and I become as indestructible as I possibly can be until peanut butter and jelly sandwich time approximately four hours later.
Meanwhile, back in fatherhood, our young lad, known on A Creek Runs Through It as “The Dude”, started to have (well-documented) sensory issues, and among those was disliking the texture and taste of certain foods. By the time he was 8 or 9, milk was out. Eggs were never in. You could get away with things made with milk and eggs sometimes, as long as they were cutlets or lasagna. But then he started to have a problem with cutlets and lasagna. we couldn’t win. Shake and Bake Chicken was one of the first ones to go, which made me very sad. I mean, how the hell…? Never mind.
Suffice to say, it was getting harder and harder to feed him without disappointment and what my mom used to call “whammy faces” at the dinner table, and I was getting more and more frustrated, since by this time I had put myself in charge of cooking because Trisha doesn’t get home from work until after six. And I was really starting to enjoy cooking. I always liked it, but I was digging up more recipes and learning more about the magic ingredients and spices that really good cooks put together. Mrs. Duffy is my witness: I have gone from Chicken Garlic Voila in a frying pan to restaurant quality presentations. As a matter of fact, when they closed down a long, long established restaurant called Goldie’s at Gibson Station, which is one one of my favorite walking routes with Mookie Dog, I conjured up a Powerball Dream of opening “Duffy’s At The Station” and hiring lots of people I know to create the best family restaurant in Valley Stream (which already has Mitchell’s). It’s a nice dream, but it’d be way too much work. If I did hit Powerball, I’d probably just take more naps.
So you could imagine, becoming really good at cooking, great even, and starting to really feel strongly about family dinners just like Mom used to, and having very little time to put them together, just like Mom used to, and then having the guy you’re cooking for constantly whining that he can’t eat what you cook. It was getting frustrating to say the least. And then, like manna from heaven two summers ago, Our Harvest entered my life.
This is a picture of Mike Winik and Scott D. Reich, undoubtedly the smartest guys in their lunchroom when they went to school, blissfully unaware that I am using their picture without permission and that they are tagged in this post. They are the co-founders of Our Harvest. Let me tell you the amazing idea that these two young fellers came up with and how it’s changed my life.
This is what they do: They buy fresh meat, poultry, dairy products, vegetables, fruit and other stuff from farms in the Hudson Valley upstate, New Jersey and out east on Long Island and local organic foodies, they sell it to me through their website at ourharvest.com and I pick it up on Saturday mornings, where a nice college kid waits in the parking lot of Blessed Sacrament Church, a mile north of here, with bags and coolers of fresh food. And not only that, for every $25 you spend with Our Harvest, they donate one meal to a family in need on Long Island, and I assume it’s not a TV dinner. They have pick up points all over Long Island and the Five Boroughs. It’s a wonderful thing when your business model ensures that everyone wins. I was in on the ground floor of this, and actually met Scott or Mike, or both, one of the first times I picked up my order. I complimented them on their cool t-shirts (It has their logo on the front and the slogan “Eat Better Together” on the back) and they had a free t-shirt waiting for me with my next order. They had me at the chicken, but the t-shirt was a nice touch.
And this is what I can tell you: It’s all so mother fucking good. Perdue chicken and King Kullen steaks are like Swanson TV Dinners compared to eating chicken and steak that was enjoying the sunshine just a couple of weeks ago. Once you have eaten farm fresh meat and poultry, it’s impossible to go back. There’s a Turkey London Broil I get that’s from the DiPaolo Turkey farm in New Jersey, and I found a outrageously delicious recipe for an orange honey glaze for said turkey – complete with herbes de provence (which is fun to say) – from thecozyapron.com, the domain of a nice lady named Ingrid who my wife thinks I have a little thing for. And the carrots taste like carrots. Everything is fresh and full of the food flavors that are slowly disappearing from just about everything you buy at the supermarket. And Sunday I cook things to last all week. I’m a regular visitor to an app called The Big Oven, which you have to say in a silly Fat Albert voice when you refer to it. And since we all eat enough chicken to start growing feathers, I have an arsenal of six or seven chicken recipes that The Dude is guaranteed to eat every time. We still have wars at dinner time here and there, mostly because The Dude didn’t fall far from the tree, and The Tree still keeps a supply of Oreo cookies, donuts, Pringles and spice drops in the house at all times, and The Dude often snacks too much before dinner. But for the most part, food has been solved on Duffy’s Creek
And oddly enough, The Dude has developed a Temple Grandin-ish interest in the humane treatment of farm animals and the importance of organic food. Taking advantage of this, Trisha brought home some organic milk last year and suddenly The Dude’s five-year milk boycott ended, and he drinks it with his Our Harvest-laced dinner pretty much every night. And then I tried the organic milk. And I never went back. It tastes like the the milk my parents got in glass bottles from the Dairy Barn. It makes store brand milk taste like milk-flavored water. It costs a lot more, as does all the Our Harvest food, but I couldn’t care less. What should you spend money on that’s more important? For one thing, my son eats. And he’s a human scarecrow, too, so he needs every bit of protein he can get.
And for another thing, a funny thing has happened to me over the last couple of years with long walks with Mookie Dog , more farm fresh and organic food and slightly fewer Oreo cookies. I feel better. A Lot better. I feel like I very well may have expelled a lot of chemicals from my system and not replaced them with more chemicals.
Thanks to Our Harvest, we’re eating better food all the time. Thanks to the miracle and inspiration of childbirth, the guy who ate ten-thousand baloney sandwiches is one of the best cooks you know. Yes, I still have a bag of Oreo cookies in the pantry. And yes, there is nothing Mookie and I love more than an individually-wrapped Entemenn’s Crumb Cake. But when it comes to dinner, I don’t mess around. I wish I could invite you all over to prove it. I’d make you some Sesame Chicken Thighs that would make your knees quiver. Maybe some Baked Yukon Gold Potatoes and fresh steamed broccoli on the side.
And fresh salad. Always fresh salad, and always organically grown. I haven’t touched a pre-made bagged Dole salad in years and years.
This post is both a sequel and not a sequel. It’s about Saranac Lake but it’s not about Camp Lavigerie, although in a way it can’t not be. It’s not about bowling either, for that matter. Well, maybe it’s a little bit about bowling. My son might someday read this post and be pissed at me for writing it. He’ll say I was trying to embarrass him. But I’m writing it anyway, and someday he’ll understand that it was to show the world how proud I am of him.
Let me explain. No, there is no time, let me sum up.
Last August, I was completely humbled by the feedback I received after posting A Saranac Lake Guy: The Story of Camp Lavigerie. I tried to tell two stories at the same time (which is fun to do): First and foremost, I told the story of my family’s mystical connection to a place which is long, long gone, a place called Camp Lavigerie in Onchiota, NY, which was located 14.3 miles from the funky and wonderful village of Saranac Lake, NY, the “Capital of the Adirondacks”, which is doing just fine thank you and remains a close, personal friend of mine. And while “flashbacking” on the magic of spending summers at Camp Lavigerie and growing to love Saranac Lake as I grew older, I also told the story of the successes and failures my wife and experienced in trying to weather our son’s psychic and emotional storms on last year’s trip to the Adirondacks; an attempt to once again reconnect with my past and pass some of that North Country Magic on to him, and an attempt to understand why he’d be so grumpy in a place I consider paradise, where I can think of nothing else to do but smile.
I’m telling you all this because I don’t want to disappoint anyone. Over 550 people have clicked on that post from last August, and it still gets “hits” every day, and mostly not from robots. It turns out that a lot of people who experienced Camp Lavigerie themselves formed a visceral, raw emotional connection to it that never let go of them, that was just below the surface waiting for some goofball with a blog to prick it with a pin. But if the people who enjoyed that story click on this one, they will find very little about Camp Lavigerie. And I hate to disappoint people. I really do. But if it’s any consolation, since you’re here, you might learn a little about the fascinating history and local color of Saranac Lake and a whole lot about The Dude, who’s fascinating in his own right, and who might very well do something extraordinary someday if he continues learning to fight against the parts of his brain that will trick him into exploding over gutter balls.
I believe in the power of positive visualization, despite believing at the same time that it’s all a goddamn crapshoot. One may as well imagine oneself surviving the hurricane intact, not smashing the car up, not getting caught in the thunder and lightning in the middle of the lake, and ultimately, nodding off in a chair with a smile one day, not hooked up to beeping machines with a death stare on one’s face. If nature or fate want to take any of us out at any time, they will. If, along the way, some things work out badly, that’s the way it goes. But to my way of thinking, I can’t blame fate or nature, or God forbid, even God, if I didn’t plan or positively visualize that which is I do believe is in my control. I try live experience to experience, create the “keepers” when I can, and learn from the fuck ups.
Positive visualization, as I’ve explained it to The Dude, means I try to picture the best possible outcome of any given situation or experience before I live it; a day at work, a walk with the dog, a lasagna, a 330-mile trip to stay in a house I’ve researched but never stayed in, a paddle on a lake or a rainy day afternoon at the bowling alley. I try to have a realistic but totally positive expectation of how things will work out, and I try to stay content and evenly keeled as possible while things unfold as they will. Sometimes, the outcome of the situation exceeds the positive visualization I had in my head. Those are always nice surprises to me, and some of the best moments of my life.
But the Devil is in the adjustments. And this is the part The Dude has the most trouble with. When things start going bad, and those things are NOT in your control (or you THINK they’re not in your control, because your senses have overloaded) you have to revise your positive visualization, avoid feelings of disappointment, remember to breathe, and try to guide the situation towards working out as well as it possibly can, instead of sabotaging yourself into a tailspin once things go a little bit wrong.
7th Grade starts next week, in a school where The Dude will hopefully spend the next six years. I think he’s in denial about how difficult it will be for him, but I don’t want to tell him that. (“Uh, Dude? It’s going to overwhelm you. No, really. You’re fucked. You’re going to be as frustrated as hell and you’ll probably blow your shit and get suspended within six weeks”). That would not be a positive visualization, now would it. I know it might happen that way, but as the love of my life likes to say, “why borrow trouble?” Instead, I have to sneak in little analogies to try to teach him ways to cope. One analogy that he totally understands is what I like to call the Paddling Principle.
This summer I did something smart. Sometimes I do. Living on a creek and all, not to mention on a big island, and taking annual vacations in places with big lakes and rivers, I’d been kicking around the idea of buying something to float on and paddle around with for a couple of years. At first I had my eye on an Old Town Canoe (The “Saranac” model, naturally). I looked at it so many times online that Dick’s Sporting Goods actually moved a canoe to a store closer to my house, then built a new store less than a mile away, then brought Mookie Wilson to the store for the Grand Opening to get me to come in. But by that time I’d already bought a inflatable Sea Eagle Kayak from Amazon. Nice try, though, Dick. Really. And it was great to meet Mookie. He was a real gentleman. Thank you.
I would’ve bought a respectable hard shell kayak, so people in the Adirondacks wouldn’t snicker at me, but I couldn’t fit all the stuff we take upstate on top of the car and have room left over for the kayak. So I bought the Sea Eagle 370, and named it Levon, after Levon Helm. ‘Cause up on Duffy’s Creek, it sends me, and if it springs a leak, I’ll mend it.
Buying Levon the Boat was a good idea because it made hanging out with Dad cool for possibly a couple of more years. The Dude has natural musical talent but no desire to sit down and pick off songs on the piano, despite three years of lessons, so it’s looking less likely that we’ll spend time jamming together, although he does know all my Pandora songs and he had a great time seeing Colin Hay live in Poughkeepsie earlier this summer. So maybe he’ll be up for going out to catch a band someday. But he’s not at all into sports, and the most successful experience we’ve had with projectiles is tennis, but even that gets frustrating for him. He’ll watch the Mets with me and sort of get it, but he doesn’t have the passion for the game or a desire to learn its history. And you can only get so psyched about going to the dog park with Mookie once you’ve done it a hundred times or so. We spend a lot of time in the summer hanging around pools and beaches. He can swim like hell, but I can’t see him having the drive to to it competitively. He’s just not wired that way. We get in our share of bike rides on the Long Beach Boardwalk, which we both love. But that doesn’t necessarily involve working as a team. Paddling on Levon the Boat has become our go-to Father and Son thing to do. As long as I let him be the Captain. And I don’t annoy him by singing.
And we’ve gotten pretty good at navigating Levon. And for a guy who can sit on the couch for hours staring at a screen, the effort that The Dude puts into paddling is nice to see. And not only is it a great memory-maker, it’s a great analogy for learning how to make adjustments, stay positive and do what’s in your control when things go wrong. I’m trying to make him see how you can apply the Paddling Principle to guiding himself through his own currents, tides and winds. You work towards a fixed object ahead of you. You only move the parts of your body that will propel the boat forward (what I like to call “having a quiet ass”). If the current or the wind takes you left, you paddle right. If you’re fighting the tide, give it a couple of good “oomphs”. You may be working up a sweat, it may be difficult, but then just turn around and look how far you’ve traveled. And when the wind dies down and the current and the tide are carrying you, let them. Stop every once in awhile and look around. You’re exactly where you want to be.
Of course, if you’re paddling in tandem, you’ve also got to work with your partner, and since our paddling sojourns are relatively low-risk, I let The Dude be in charge for the most part when we’re out on the boat. Generally speaking, he likes being in charge and he has no idea how much trouble that gets him into. When he gets frustrated because things aren’t working out, he shuts everyone around him off, and refuses help. An he’ll get really, really nasty if you press him, or if you explain that you, in fact, can’t back off and leave him alone right now.
And of course, the biggest problem with his particular life strategy can be summed up in one word: Teachers. The Dude knows the drill: They have to try to teach you something whether you want to learn it or not, and they have to keep trying to get through to you even when you’ve shut down. You’re not the boss. They are. And when you rage, they look bad, but it’s your fault. To apply the Paddling Principle, all the course correction in the world won’t help you if you’re fixed on a different landmark than the other person on the boat, who is paddling on the opposite side because they feel just as strongly about their goal as you do about yours. You just go around in circles. Or you might throw a violent meltdown in a happy little bowling alley on a rainy Tuesday afternoon in Saranac Lake.
Last year, I wrote something very poignant and probably overly dramatic at the end of my long, long blog post. I was in the zone. It would’ve made my mom cry, but then again, so did John Denver. This is what I wrote:
The next morning, as we left to go home, The Dude was quiet, but apologetic. As we drove out through Saranac one last time, I told him that this place has a lot to do with the person that I am, and that I studied the ways of North Country people when I was “growing up” here in the summers. I told him that people who lived here, and the people who knew it well, were people who rolled with the punches, who didn’t let little things get to them, who treated friends and strangers alike with kindness and respect no matter what their circumstances; who kept their sense of humor and their connection to nature intact as much as possible and who knew what was important and what was not. I told him that I didn’t know when we’d be coming back, because he didn’t seem to really appreciate it. And that was just a plain old mean thing to say, but I said it anyway.
As we made our way down 73 to The Northway, The Dude told me he was sorry again. And I apologized for overreacting. And then he said something that will stay with me forever. This is what he said: “I’d like to come back here again and learn how to be a Saranac Lake Guy.”
And so we will. And we’ll find a nice cabin on a lake so we don’t have to live in a motel, and Mookie can go swimming whenever he feels like it, and Trisha will be able to walk, and we’ll leave the damn computer and all the electronic junk at home and keep working on teaching our son to love the North Country for the beautiful, magical place that it is.
And at some point, I’ll take a ride by myself and go down to Children’s Beach and sit and stare at White Cross Mountain and remember for awhile. I’m sure Mom wouldn’t mind the company.
So that was the positive visualization from a year ago. And here are the adjustments:
First of all, learn from your mistakes. Correct your course. I was totally not being a “Saranac Lake Guy” myself for denying The Dude a Donnelly’s Ice Cream Cone on our last night in town in August of 2015, even if he did curse at me and kick the driver’s chair in a violent rage while I was driving because he didn’t like dinner. I made him wait in the car as punishment. Only a monster would do that. The big, friendly (mostly bearded) guys who stopped to rub Mookie’s face on our walks up and down Broadway in Saranac Lake, they’re not monsters. They would never deny their own son a Donnelly’s ice cream come, and they survive -30 degree winters. So I’ve got my own battles. If I could spend more time actually in Saranac Lake, I think it would do me wonders. I know seven days went a long way.
We drove up on a day when a flash flood warning was issued for the area, and we drove the last stretch of the trip through the single most ferocious downpour I have ever experienced. (Are you out there Subaru? “A Creek Runs Through It” is available for sponsorship). It was raining so hard that I passed my usual gas station in Keene Valley because I had a little less than a quarter of a tank and I figured It’d stop raining by Placid and we could get gas there. But I made the left for the shortcut by John Brown’s Grave and thought I didn’t, because it was raining so hard I couldn’t real see a thing. And Placid never showed up, and the rain got harder and harder. I had about an eighth of a tank when the rain eased up just a bit and I pulled into the Ray Brook Sunoco, thanking God for his strength and that coffee over there.
And this was all after we got stuck cold still on the Northway outside of Saratoga for a solid hour behind an accident.
But you know what? The most positive visualization I had for the drive upstate was that it would really, really suck and we’d get there in one piece. Expectations met. Handled it like a Saranac Lake Guy would. Stayed on course and said “fuck that was scary” to my wife at least ten times when things settled down later on.
Then there was the house. Expectations exceeded, and then some.
I searched high and low all winter for the right place; Trip Advisor, ADK by Owner, Home Away, local real estate agents. Let me tell you, for such an unpretentious place, you pay dearly to rent a house in the summer in Saranac Lake. The original visualization last year was a place on the water, where theoretically Mookie could go swimming any time he wanted, really not considering what wet dogs can do to other people’s furniture. It didn’t really matter because I just couldn’t find anything on the water that wasn’t a king’s ransom or slightly horror movie. Then we found what I will only identify as the House on The Hill, because I don’t want you to steal it from me next summer.
The house is actually built into a hill overlooking the village, but you couldn’t really see the village because of all the big shady trees, though you knew it was down there. It was sort of like the most luxurious tree house you could imagine, complete with all the Adirondack furniture and knick-knacks you could ever be afraid of hoping nobody breaks. The Adirondack Scenic Railroad was right at the bottom of the hill, so you could hear old-time train whistles several times a day. How cool is that? (Of course, New York State is planning on shutting the Scenic Railroad down and ripping up the tracks for a rail trail because somebody gave Andrew Cuomo a lot of money. Sickening. But I digress). We even had our own cat, George. George actually lived next door but someone had obviously fed him while renting the house, and he was very friendly, so he came by to check on us regularly, which helped The Dude feel a little more at home, since he had his dog but not his cats.
We very happily settled into the House on the Hill and shook off the harrowing drive. The next day The Dude began a pattern of sleeping until at least 9 o’clock, which is intolerably late by my standards, and sometimes 10, which is disgusting by my standards. He also had his own room in the basement far away from us, and yes, we did take along his phone and his computer (more about that later). Though my biggest regret of the week was not getting his ass out of bed at least one day to go climb one of the “Saranac 6’er” mountains and show him the view of the whole village, it’s hard to deny a long, lazy sleep in mountain air to a 12 year-old whose mind works like a supercollider from the second he wakes up. So climbing a mountain will be something to do next year that we haven’t done yet.
I think it’s obvious at this point that Saranac Lake is my favorite place in the world. And within that favorite place is actually a favorite street, and that street is Church Street from the top of the hill at Bloomingdale Ave, down past the Topps Supermarket near the bridge over the Saranac River, right before Woodruff Ave. On the 4th of July in 1980, when I was 17, I took a Trailways Bus by myself to Glens Falls, walked out to The Northway and stuck my thumb out, just to say I did. I have a brother who hitchhiked across the country when he was 17 or 18, and I wanted to experience a little of that thrill. Of course you can’t do that anymore, which is sad and probably for the best.
After a very long time on a very hot day, and very close to giving up, I got a ride from a very 70’s guy with a big white-guy afro driving a White Corvette convertible who was on his way to his wedding in Plattsburgh. My friends back in Valley Stream thought they were all so much cooler than me and they had no idea. I took the rest of the Northway, 73 and 86 in style. He drove me right to the corner of 86 and 3, Church Street and Bloomingdale Ave. I was supposed to meet some of the older guys from Camp Lavigerie who were going to camp out on Lake Kushaqua. As it turned out, I got there (after hitching a ride from a guy who was going to Onchiota and knew a lot of Duffy’s) and they weren’t there. And as it turned out they were at Buck Pond and I never found them. We didn’t have cell phones, and a smart guy would’ve thought to check the Buck Pond Campground. No matter. I camped out by myself on the beach behind the Chapel, woke up on Lake Kushaqua the next morning alone and not at all unhappy, hitched back to Saranac and took a Trailways back to New York City, a completely different person for the experience.
Because on that day, July 4th, 1980, after parting ways with the guy in the White Corvette convertible (who I hope has had a wonderful 36-year marriage) and before hitching the rest of the way to Onchiota, I hung around for a few hours in Saranac Lake and just looked around, and pretended I lived there.
I was 17 and completely alone. And I was not the least bit afraid. I at was home in the world. I leaned on the bridge across the street from what was the Grand Union and watched the river flow. I walked though the parking lots over to the funky and slightly intimidating part of Broadway up by the Rusty Nail, then down past the Dew Drop Inn and the Saranac Hotel. It was all beautiful to me, and this time it was all mine. No parents, no brothers or sisters, no Camp Lavigerie school bus waiting to take me back after the movie. Nobody from Valley Stream South High School defining who I was and where I fit in. In that moment, I was content with myself. I liked where I was, and I liked who I was, which hadn’t really happened often during my teenage years. And through all the drama and manipulation that people put me through in the ensuing 19 years on Long Island – until I met my wife and I stopped giving a rat’s ass about anyone else’s opinion – that little moment of happiness was always something I could reach back for. A picture of myself that was perfect to me. You think you know who I am, but you really don’t. At heart, I’m not from Long Island. I don’t even understand Long Island. I’m a Saranac Lake Guy. And people there are so much cooler than you. And up here, I’m already gone.
But there’s just no way my son can have the same connection to this place. These are very different times, and his life experiences have been radically different from mine. He’s not me, but that’s OK. How could he be? And really, why would he want to be? I was five years older than he is now when I took on that adventure, and my parents didn’t seem to have a problem with it (or weren’t really listening when I proposed it), as they had seen four older children take lesser risks and not die from them. The Dude is still not at the point where we’d let him cross the four lane road that separates us from the rest of the world, mostly because of the rest of the world. We had a horrible story in Valley Stream a few years back of a twelve year-old boy who was killed by a truck on Merrick Road after convincing his mom he was old enough to walk to school by himself. Going to Saranac Lake by myself at 17 was pretty calculated risk. But it obviously reaped great rewards to me on the 4th of July in 1980. But now letting my son ride his bike to the Valley Stream Pool, right past the flowers and stuffed animals wrapped on the pole on Merrick Road, would be considered outrageously irresponsible. All I can tell you is, like many people my age, I’m glad I grew up then and not now.
Back in the House on The Hill, our first morning was a cloudy, slightly rainy Sunday. Mookie and I went for a good long walk while Trisha hung out enjoying the house and The Dude slept. We walked down Church, across Main, down Broadway to River Street. We stopped in at the Blue Line Sport Shop on the way to see if they sold pedometers because I’m OCD and I thought I had left mine at home. A guy with a big thick beard rubbed Mookie’s face. We got ourselves a bacon and egg on a roll from the Lakeview Deli and ate it on a bench looking out at the big houses across the lake on Kiwassa Road. Though I don’t have the $264,000 to buy the one I have my eye on, nevertheless I was in heaven.
Later that day, after driving around, doing a little shopping and enjoying the hell out of the House on The Hill,, we all took a walk down Church Street. It had become a hot, steamy afternoon and the Dude started getting snitty and punky on us, just like he got snitty and punky on us last year. I was thinking, and I know Trisha knows I was thinking, Christ, you’re going to ruin this place for me, too? Is nothing sacred with you? I suggested calmly that maybe we should just turn around and go home. I thought he might call my bluff, but he didn’t. And then I kept walking towards Broadway. I paddled left.
Because I remembered that he’s not me. To him, this place is only the place we take a long drive to that Dad used to hang out in a million years ago. It’s nice and all that, but I grew up going to the beach at Grandma’s house in Point Lookout and having the little town of Copake Falls in the summer, where everybody knows me and I know everybody. And I love Valley Stream. I wouldn’t live anywhere else and I’m never leaving. This isn’t my scene, Dad, and unfamiliar sensory processing is not my strong suit. And really, why should I give a crap about your little rickety mountain town?.
I made adjustments to my positive visualization. We walked over to Broadway. Trisha and I sat down on the bench in front of the office of the Adirondack Daily Enterprise (established in 1895) and Mookie sat down in a puddle of his own dribbled water on the sidewalk (established five seconds earlier). I handed The Dude my phone and asked him to go across the street to the steps of the post office and take our picture. Suddenly, he had a purpose besides just tagging along. And he was astounded that when he stepped into the crosswalk, the cars stopped. And he took some nice pictures. And we went home and had a nice dinner. It was vanilla twisted with chocolate night at Donnelly’s. (The rest of the week went as follows: Nut Surprise, Chocolate Again, Blueberry, Strawberry. with one rain out in the middle. It’s important to know what tonight’s flavor at Donnelly’s is if you live in Saranac Lake. And no one was denied ice cream in any way for any reason). On the way back to the House on the Hill, we made a plan to take Levon the Boat out on Lake Colby later in the week.
The day ended on a good note, but I warned Trisha, who in turn warned The Dude, that if he tried to ruin the next day, which included Dad’s positive visualization of a trip with Levon the Boat out to Lake Kushaqua, I would be very put out.
In the car on the ride to Onchiota, he started getting snitty and punky again, and we enjoyed the scenery. He announced that he “wasn’t really into going out in the boat anymore”. I ignored him and turned up the radio. We got down to Family Beach at Kushaqua and ran right into our old friend (and yours if you read “A Saranac Lake Guy”), Pat Haltigan. Pat was down at the lake with his 9 year-old son, who is always looking for someone to throw a football around with. They were waiting for Pat’s daughter and her boyfriend, who were camping on the lake, while his sister Mary Grace’s family were renting Road’s End, one of the two remaining Camp Lavigerie cottages. The Dude was happy enough to see Pat and his son, although he has never, ever once in his life looked for anyone to throw anything back and forth with.
I blew up Levon the Boat and headed off by myself to visit Children’s Beach, around the cove from where we were, which at Camp Lavigerie was called Family Beach. It was a promise I made to myself last year. My positive visualization was that I could pull ashore and look at White Cross Mountain from the same perspective as my mother had when she used to go to Children’s Beach to get the hell away from her children. Then I made adjustments.
There’s not much of a clearing left where Children’s Beach was. I got about twenty feet offshore of it, stopped and took it in, decided I probably shouldn’t be out of sight for too long and headed back to the my family on Family Beach, where I found Trisha trying to stop Mookie from frantically swimming out to save me and The Dude attempting to throw a football back and forth in the lake. He asked me if he could do a solo paddle, and I handed him the keys. Out he went for a short spin by himself on beautiful, beautiful Lake Kushaqua. I proudly watched as he did something I did when I was twelve, and loved it. And though it wasn’t a big risk, it was a risk just the same, and it produced a little reward for both of us.
That night after Donnelly’s, we took a little detour through the neighborhood in back of the House on The Hill, called Highland Park. The north side of Park Avenue is lined with the famous cure cottages of Saranac Lake. If you don’t know the story, in the 1870’s a New York City doctor named E.L. Trudeau, who had seen his own brother die of tuberculosis, contracted the disease himself and decided to visit Saranac Lake for the clean, cold air. He was miraculously “cured”, but subsequently died from tuberculosis in 1915. But in the 40 years he lived in Saranac in the interim, Dr. Trudeau researched the disease in his laboratory on Church Street and began the “cottage industry”(and everyone who uses that pun intends it) of bringing tuberculosis patients to the picturesque little North Country village to “take the cure”. Part of taking the cure involved sitting on a the porch of a cure cottage in a “cure chair” (naturally) with the windows wide open and breathing as much as possible; the colder the air, the better. (The House on The Hill has some very cool antique cure chairs that we carefully tried out, as one was broken and one wasn’t yet. The flower lady and the cleaning lady think the Rugby team was responsible. I know it wasn’t us).
As many people found a “cure” for tuberculosis in Saranac Lake, more and more of these humongous cure cottages were built, and people charged “lungers” (that’s what they called them) and their families room and board to stay in the houses as long as they needed to. Some lived and prospered, some died, and 40 years after Trudeau’s death, the antibiotic streptomycin more or less wiped out tuberculosis for good. But the houses stood.,’cause where were they going to go? Today, some of them are well-maintained apartment buildings, bed and breakfasts, or very rich family homes, and some of them are rat and squatter emporiums. But they are all still beautiful. The architecture is like nothing I’ve ever seen anywhere else. They sit majestically surveying the mountains and lakes and sky, exuding the stories that were lived in them. People in Saranac are comfortable with being surrounded by the benevolent ghosts that live in the cure cottages. It’s part of the character of the town.
My own story in the Adirondacks started fifty years ago with my parents drove five kids up to a camp built on the site of the Stony Wold Sanitarium, so those ghosts are my ghosts, too. And part of my character.
I had never seen these Highland Park cure cottages in all my trips “back home” to Saranac, and after seeing them up close on the drive that night after Donnelly’s, I took a nice slow walk along Park Ave. with Mookie the next morning, just to take it all in. We passed by Baker Street and I got a song caught in my head for the rest of the week, and we also made our annual pilgrimage to DJ’s Rustic Restaurant on Broadway for gigantic blueberry pancakes to go. If you like breakfast, remember that name.
The houses we saw on our walk fascinated me. (Particularly the one that looks uninhabitable with a tent pitched and colorful signs and hippy-painted cars on the front lawn). I wanted to learn more about the stories behind these gorgeous old buildings. The lady who owned the House on The Hill had all the local history books I could possibly want to look through, plus the wi-fi connectivity to ask my magic rectangle anything else I wanted to know. My absolute favorite factoid about Dr. Trudeau was that once he started feeling better, he challenged a local mountain man to engage in one of his favorite pastimes, “fisticuffs”. They even have an illustration of the event in the Laboratory Museum. A scrawny little doctor in a fistfight with a gigantic lumberjack.
You can’t beat that.
Back at The House on The Hill, as Tuesday moved on , it rained and it rained. We had a plan for the rainy day, though. The best positive visualization we could put together. Throw on some raincoats and drive to the interesting and fun (we hoped and prayed) things that were actually within walking distance if it weren’t pouring rain: The Adirondack Carousel, The Trudeau Laboratory and Romano’s Saranac Lanes, a bowling alley that I had passed by several hundred times since 1966 but had yet to visit. I had no idea on any one of those several hundred occasions how that bowling alley would eventually work its way into my life story.
First of all, The Dude was too cool to go on the Carousel, which is ridiculous, but he’s 12. The whole thing is carved out of wood, and the “horses” are Adirondack animals, all hand carved by local artists. It’s the coolest merry-go-round you’ve ever seen. Here’s a picture. You want to go on it right now, don’t you?
We anticipated this, and we decided we didn’t give a fuck. We rode it without him, just me and Trisha. I took the Giant Bunny so she could ride next to me on the River Otter, which is the closest thing to her favorite animal, which is the sloth. I do love that woman. And our son loves us. So despite his pre-adolescent need to be no fun sometimes, he was most definitely amused by watching his parents being children.
But The Dude was actually engaged by the Saranac Laboratory Museum, which to their credit is no easy task. They’ve really done an excellent job of telling the story of Trudeau and the lives of the tuberculosis patients, and the place is definitely worth a visit. Trudeau’s laboratory has been kept essentially intact, enhanced by little phone receivers through which the good doctor and some early patients “talk” to you and tell you about what you’re looking at.
There’s also a room where you’ll find a cure chair next to a widow with a large brown fur coat draped over it, and if you listen on the old-fashioned phone receiver, you’ll hear the story and poetry of a woman who spent her entire adult life sitting in one of those chairs, wearing one of the coats in the brutal winter on an open porch, trying, ultimately unsuccessfully, to survive tuberculosis. It’s sobering stuff. They also have a room of “Medical Marvels”, which are the god-awful machines used to treat conditions and diseases dating back to the 19th Century. All of this was enough of a distraction to keep the Dude from trying to find the machine room and the electrical panel box, which his usual plan upon entering any building for the first time. It was a very good take your twelve year old to a museum experience.
And then we went bowling.
Now mind you, The Dude had gone bowling before. Quite a few times, actually. And I had already experienced a bowling alley meltdown a couple of years back. But I was TOLD that he won a game on a recent day camp field trip, so I was under the impression he must have figured it out. I guess they must have not told me about the gutter guards.
And as Trisha pointed out to me later, we went from a quiet museum to a comparatively noisy bowling alley, where the implication was that we had to on our best behavior, since we were among the locals now. Our son has difficulty with sensory overload. He can’t process everything at once because he perceives so much. He gets overwhelmed. We may as well have set a bomb off behind him when we brought him into that bowling alley. And it was pretty much all my idea.
And I’m sure Jeff Romano, proud owner of Romano’s Saranac Lanes, probably had gutter guards on lane 8, because I saw a family with (much) smaller children using them. But I didn’t ask and he didn’t offer.
As I mentioned earlier, I had never actually walked into Saranac Lanes, despite having passed by it hundreds of times. It’s always been there, and in my memory, and based on the condition of the building and the slightly shady-looking people I’d seen outside of it over the years, it always seemed just a little bit unprosperous. And apparently that was true (as I found out later) before Jeff and Cathy Romano took over ten years ago and sunk a very, very large amount of money into the business. I had a visualization of what it would be like at two o’clock on a rainy afternoon, and the reality was much, much better than my visualization.
It’s a delightful place. When you walk in, there’s a bar area along the left side with a pool table and at least one big TV with a game on. There were three little girls playing pool in the bar area. The bar is separated by a wall and windows from the rest of the business, which also features an L-shaped, sparkling clean lunch counter with old-time spinning stools and an arcade area. The bowling alley itself is eight lanes and state-of-the-art, with all the video and interactive stuff to keep score. It’s all just big enough for a town of 5600 people, and it turns out, for passing tourists with children who are occasionally prone to screaming meltdowns.
Now The Dude is not a competitive guy in any way. But unfortunately, while he doesn’t try to figure out strategies to win, he also hates losing. I probably wouldn’t have even kept score if the video screen didn’t do it automatically. But he would have known how much he was sucking anyway. Games were $5 each, and it just so happened that Tuesday afternoons were 2 for 1, but I didn’t know that. So we were unaware at the time that had two free games to play after the initial two games. (Trisha has a cranky back, so we decided to put The Dude on one game and split the other one). And I’m not good at all, and threw a few gutters while I was trying to remember how to do it. But I managed to keep in perspective that I was there to have fun. The Dude, not so much.
As the game went on, he fell into the spiral familiar to seven years of teachers. I tried to show him what he was doing wrong and got “I KNOW how to DO IT! Leave me ALONE!” and he threw another gutter ball. I tried to show him that he should be using a lighter ball, and how to hold his fingers. “The ball’s FINE!” After another gutter in the sixth or seventh frame, he said, “Just SAY it! I SUCK ! PLEASE tell me I suck!” I offered again to help and again got stepped on. The game went on like this, as the people on the other seven lanes had an enjoyable afternoon at the bowling alley. By the time it was over, The Dude had bowled a 20, and was seemingly on an unstoppable trajectory towards rage mode. He told us he was going to take a walk and started walking towards the door. I told him he had to change out of the bowling shoes. He threw one of them against a wall. And he got angrier and angrier when Jeff Romano told us we still had two free games and Trisha and I embarrassingly had to explain that our son was too far gone at this point. he headed for the door, towards a very busy street. I had to catch him and fight off flailing arms and put him in a restraining bear grip as he screamed his head off and the little girls playing on the pool table next to the bar and everybody else watched on.
We literally threw him into the car, which we had fortuitously parked right in front of the bowling alley, and he screamed that he hated us, that we were ignorant, horrible fucking parents and he wanted to get away from us. He kicked the driver’s seat over and over and screamed and screamed. At this point, I just had to pull over around the corner and wait it out. I told him I couldn’t go back to the house as long as he was raging, ’cause I couldn’t afford to replace the things he’d break. I think he must have realized that he needed to go back to “his room” in the basement of The House on The Hill to hide and to somehow save himself, but his Dad wouldn’t risk taking him there if her were still screaming and kicking the chair, so he stopped.He made himself stop. We parked the car in the driveway.
Trisha stayed with him in the car for a few minutes. He got out and did a long 360 around The House on the Hill, which we had all quickly grown to love. He walked through the living room, stomped down the narrow spiral staircase and slammed the door of his room. I asked Trisha to go down and make sure he wasn’t trashing the room. He wasn’t. He was beneath the covers, crying it out. I gave it twenty minutes or so. I went downstairs.
He was completely out of rage. He was done and he was sorry. He was ashamed. I told him I had a picture in my head: Just you and me. We walk over to ride the Carousel, then we apologize to the man at the bowling alley and we enjoy a game, and you let me help you, you let me teach you.
He didn’t want to do the Carousel. He thought it was embarrassing. He’s afraid of being perceived as a little kid, yet he’s afraid to grow up. I adjusted. I paddled right. Forget the Carousel, but let’s wipe out an ugly memory of the bowling alley with a happy one. We’ve only got this time and this place, only here and only now. Let’s do it right.
He washed the tears away. We walked down the hill. The rain was letting up. Not knowing what I was dealing with, I warned him on the walk over that the guy at the bowling alley might say he doesn’t feel comfortable letting you back in. I thought this might be a possible scenario and had to plan for it, though I doubted it. Still. We practiced a simple apology. “I’m really sorry for acting out here before. I’d like to play another game.”
I don’t know if Jeff Romano is originally from Saranac Lake. I saw a picture of him online, standing proudly with his wife Catherine, holding the Adirondack Daily Enterprise readers’ choice award for best bowling alley in the region. In the picture he was wearing a Mets t-shirt. I usually don’t wear my Mets cap upstate because it screams where I’m from, and when I’m upstate I’m not proud of where I’m from because by comparison it really, really sucks here. My decision to live on Long Island ultimately shows bad judgement on my part. But if you read this, Jeff, we have something in common. Let’s Go Mets!
But unlike myself, wherever you’re from Jeff, you’re a true Saranac Lake Guy.
A true Saranac Lake Guy knows that kids throw tantrums, and sometimes they do it in his bowling alley. And it shouldn’t be embarrassing and it doesn’t reflect any judgement of any kind on the kid or on his parents, other than it happens sometimes. And with some kids, it happens a little more often. And Jeff Romano accepted The Dude’s articulate apology and smiled, and told him we still had our free games, gave us the same lane and asked for our shoe sizes.
And The Dude bowled a 64. We both had a couple of gutters. I had a strike and he rejoiced in my success. We high fived. We laughed. He let me show him what he was doing wrong as best as I could and he got better. He took his poor executions in stride as best as he could, and he reveled in his better ones. In short, he had fun bowling. He sat down calmly when it was my turn. He looked around at the other people playing . He was digging the scene. I asked him how he felt. He told me it felt very comfortable here.
I had a nice chat with Jeff Romano on the way out, though he was busy doing at least three jobs at the same time. I thanked him and asked him about his business. That’s when he told me what he and his wife had invested in what was, in fact, a pretty run-down place at one time. And I was heartened for my old friend Saranac Lake that these wonderful, hardworking people run a business where you can have good, clean fun for not a lot of money. I correctly noted that he must really like rainy days. It was one of those restore your faith in humanity moments. He tried to get me to come back for Wing Night, and I told him my wife was cooking a steak.
The Dude and I walked along Bloomingdale Avenue, past Church Street, across the railroad tracks back home to The House on The Hill. It’s a beautiful moment in time, frozen in my mind forever, just like the one from 36 years ago on this same stage, but for completely different reasons. My son was beautiful to me at that moment. Beautiful and perfect.
And Trisha, beautiful and perfect in her own right, is so much more perceptive than I am. And like The Dude, she was and still is much more of a stranger to Saranac Lake than I am. She saw things in the situation that I didn’t see. He knew how to bowl much better than he did. It was much more about sensory processing than physical limitations. He was completely out of his element, and he fought against the feeling until he couldn’t fight it anymore.
But she reminded me that there was a point where the meltdowns used to come almost every day, and once the meltdown came, the rest of the day was shot. What was shocking to us about the bowling alley meltdown is how long it had been since we’d seen one like that. At least four months. And I agreed with my very smart wife that we could’ve somehow found a way to handle it better. We always could. She could have taken him for a walk and I could’ve stayed there and bowled until he was ready to come back and join me. And that probably would’ve worked. Woulda, shoulda, coulda.
We walk a line, Trisha and I. The line we walk is between “we completely understand why the bowling alley would overwhelm you” and “it’s a goddamn bowling alley for Christ’s sake.” Between knowing what the result might be in the transition from one a given sensory input to another and knowing that the big, wide world can and will throw much harder challenges at our son then transitioning from a museum to a bowling alley.
And our son walks that same line. He knows it all by this time. He’s a mechanical genius who can’t stop fussing with his hair. A steel-trap learning machine that can’t remember where he left his glasses. A guy who knows his own potential for raging (as he now calls it) and fights through his frustrations as hard as he can. He doesn’t need us to tell him what he has to deal with in his own head every second of every day. The brave young man who loves his father very much walked back into that bowling alley a second time strapped with the best visualization he could carry, determined to enjoy the experience.
He told me last year that he wanted to learn how to be a Saranac Lake Guy. To me, the title refers to a special quality that I’ve observed in so many of the people I’ve met there (men and women). The best way I can describe it is “easiness”: They go easy, or always seem to. They’re easy with other people, with nature, with animals, with seasons, with situations. I certainly can’t say that I’m that way all the time. Not even close. But I try to be. And what would you be if you didn’t try. (The Dude once answered that question when he was very young with : “A Non-Trying Guy”). I’ve tried to teach my son the value of that quality. Just go easy. Easy does it. But to think he would learn it just by being in the place I associate with that quality, like it would just wash over him like baptismal water, is a pretty stupid notion. He’ll get there, as close as he can get, on his own time in his own place. Me too, maybe.
We had a great time the rest of the week. The weather slowly got better. We went to The Wild Center in Tupper lake, and so should you. Trisha and The Dude took the Scenic Railroad to Lake Placid and Mookie and I drove there and met them at the station. We meandered along the River Walk and took in all the little nooks and crannies of Saranac Lake, NY. The river was extremely low, because it hadn’t rained much before we showed up, which took out my idea of paddling from downtown out to Route 3, but we took a beautiful paddle out of Lake Colby on Levon the boat Thursday afternoon. If you were driving past the hospital on 86 and you looked out at the water at two people out in a kayak and said to yourself, “damn, that looks nice”, that was us, and it was.
On Thursday night we went for a walk downtown. For some reason, Thursday Night is Friday Night in Saranac Lake. There’s always a lot going on. On this particular night, artists were selling paintings they had painted around town during the week as part of the “Plein Air Festival” and there were running races for all ages down along Lake Flower. But most of all, I wanted to stand in front of Waterhole #3, across from Town Hall, and check out the scene for awhile.
Trust me when I tell you that Waterhole #3 is one of the coolest, friendliest bars you could ever walk into (and you should trust me, because if you have never been to Saranac and you walk by “The Hole”during the day you might be frightened at first. Don’t be). It’s the happiest place in the world when a band is playing on the patio, surrounded by two floors of big balconies for spectators, on a beautiful summer night. The band playing on the patio that night was called Raisinhead. They were playing “New Speedway Boogie” by The Grateful Dead when we started getting close enough to hear.
Spent a little time on the mountain. / Spent a little time on the hill / Things went down we don’t understand / But I think in time we will.
And if that weren’t enough:
You can’t overlook the lack, Jack, of any other highway to ride / It’s got no signs or dividing lines, and very few rules to guide.
Ironically, at that moment The Dude suddenly realized that he hadn’t changed out of the bathing suit he wore out on Lake Colby and wanted to turn around and go home because he thought people would actually notice or care. And it was getting late, and we wanted to get to Donnelly’s for ice cream, so we told him he had to deal with it. And the kicker is that we KNEW he was still wearing the bathing suit, and didn’t want to annoy him by telling him to change his clothes after dinner. One way or another, this darkness got to give.
So Trisha, Mookie and I took in a song or two on the steps of the Town Hall (watching a scene wherein all the people on the two-floor balcony erupted into applause when one couple showed up in a camper) and The Dude walked down to the River Walk in back of the Town Hall to get away from people and wound up meeting some nice people on the River Walk behind the Town Hall and almost forgetting he was wearing his bathing suit.
Trisha let me go back to Raisinhead with Mookie after we got ice cream. The people outside The Waterhole, already quite happy, were overjoyed to meet Mookie, and Mookie was overjoyed to meet them, despite the very, very loud music. I had left my wallet back at the house, but I could’ve handed someone my dog and gone in for a beer and not thought twice about it. I even ran into some of my neighbors. And you could hear Raisinhead all over town until 11pm. I was listening from The House on the Hill when they finished with 200 happy revelers singing the chorus of “Willing” by Little Feet, just as the Town Hall rang 11 bells. I felt like I was missing a really good time because I was, but at least I had caught a little piece of it.
Friday was a stunner of a weather day. We drove back out to Onchiota to visit Road’s End, where we knew Mary Grace Haltigan’s family was staying. The Dude got to explore the house a little, but Mookie had to wait in the car, because they had three dogs, and he’d been growling at strange dogs all week, thinking he had to protect us. (He was out of his element a bit, too. He’s not quite a Saranac Lake Dog yet but he’s working on it. He likes the way people rub his face there). We went back to Kushaqua, this time without the boat, because Dad didn’t really want to risk driving Lou the Subaru down what’s left of the road that goes to the beach when we had a 330-mile drive the next day, so we left the car at the top of the hill and brought some chairs and lunches, and Mookie went swimming. (That’s it. Subaru just yanked the sponsorship. Seriously guys. Your cars are great. It’s not you, it’s me).
Despite enjoying his visit to Road’s End, The Dude was growing out of sorts by the time we got to Kushaqua. But he was trying to not make it anyone else’s problem, and we could see that. Still, when Pat asked if we could watch his son for awhile, I had to tell him I didn’t know how long my son would last down on the beach. It would have been nice if he could have just played with another kid without being aware of the time, but I knew he couldn’t have handled it for very long. Pat totally understood and said sometimes his kid gets that way, too. Everybody’s kid gets that way.
We didn’t stay as long as I would have liked, and I didn’t like the fact that The Dude had brought his phone down to the beach. Last year, I had a visualization of leaving all the electronic stuff at home. But we decided that just wasn’t worth the stress it would have put The Dude under, or us. He is of his time and of his place. He’s a guy who appreciates the Adirondacks but would like to have his phone with him while he’s there. At one point as I stood out in the lake with Mookie, I looked back to see The Dude sitting on a rock staring down at his phone. I rolled my eyes. Then I called Trisha over to me. I said, “Hey Dude! Take a picture of me and Mom!” Trisha and I posed by giving each other a big kiss. The Dude said, “I’m going to post that all over the Internet!” I told him send it to me and I’ll beat you to it.
People have been coming to Saranac Lake to “take the cure” for 150 years. Back when there was no cure for tuberculosis, people came to Saranac on faith, that somehow being there would make them feel better, feel stronger. Sometimes that worked and sometimes it didn’t. It works for me.
Fact is, there’s no streptomycin to cure the tough parts of being a parent, or to ease the pain of the tides, currents and winds that come with being a very intelligent but very sensitive 12 year-old boy. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t come back here and keep taking the cure the old-fashioned way whenever we can.
There’s a great bowling alley in town if you need something to do on a rainy day. And up at Donnelly’s, just outside of town on the road to Onchiota, they have the best soft serve ice cream in the world. And we’ve earned it. ’cause we’ve been trying to be good. Even Mookie.