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.
There have been Duffy’s on Duffy’s Creek since March 9, 1955. There have been people on Duffy’s Creek since about 4600 B.C. So the existence of people has a long and colorful history here, though the existence of too damn many people is a relatively recent phenomenon, out of which I was born in 1963, the youngest of five children, an unwitting part of the problem.
On summer nights, Trisha and I sit out in the backyard, and we talk some, while alternately staring at our little light-up magic rectangles and staring through the flowers towards the sunset over the creek. I like to imagine a Rockaway Indian couple sitting right in this spot in summer twilight a thousand years ago, without the stupid iphones and kindles, maybe listening to the “crawwwk!” of night herons, or watching swallows and bats circling the orange sky, or just watching the flow of the creek, the same tide and the same current, and maybe some of the same water molecules as we look at today, but maybe without so much spam in them.
But I don’t have to imagine being a little kid a hundred years ago, before the sprawl, walking into a deep, majestic forest at the end of Westwood Road in Woodmere, walking less than three miles to emerge from that forest into a farm field that overlooked this creek. I don’t have to imagine it at all because about ten years ago I discovered a book titled The Lord’s Woods: The Passing of an American Woodland written in 1971by a noted birder and naturalist named Robert Arbib. And Mr. Arbib told me all about it; what this place was like for thousands of years before cape cods and split levels ate it alive. And we’ve become friends, though he died twenty years ago, because I love learning about the history of places, and I’ve spent a whole lot of time hanging around this one. And so did he. I like him and I think he would’ve liked me.
A little disclaimer before I go on: I know a lot of people who are passionate about digging up the history of Valley Stream and the surrounding area, and some of them will read this post and want to point out possible discrepancies. (Gleefully). Please just relax. This is but a jumble of the stuff I know from reading Mr. Arbib’s book and a whole lot of other stuff, including stuff from the Hewlett-Woodmere Library website and the Valley Stream Historical Society Facebook page , called “Valley Stream of Yesteryear.” (You’re all wonderful people, and thank you for uncredited pictures, but you didn’t credit them either). I also know some history from my mother, who wrote the Valley Stream Historical Society newsletter for ten years or so, and my father-in-law, Jack McCloskey, who visited this neighborhood in the 1930’s for watercress and garden lime. But this is definitely not meant to be the definitive history of anything. (And by the way, it would be much easier to refer to Robert Arbib as “Bob” from here on in. “Mr. Arbib” sounds like I’m trying to be the New York Times, and I happen to know that his friends called him Bob. Anyway). What I am trying to do here is to put words and context to the pictures that I can I see in my mind sometimes when Mookie and I go walking.
Everybody knows us, Mookie and me. We’re local characters, and we’re proud of that. One sunny day in the middle of last winter, a woman called out to me from a car on Wood Lane as Mookie was reading his pee mail. She said, “you two really get around, don’t you! I see you everywhere!” I said, “Yes, yes we do.” And Mookie looked up and wagged his tail.
I knew at that moment that I had achieved my ultimate purpose in life: Being a local character. I’m the slightly crazy looking thin man with the very large happy yellow lab who you see walking around South Valley Stream all the time. But Mookie, of course, is superior to me in so many ways, particularly in his full-minded commitment to The Here And The Now. He’s living in the present when we’re out walking because he’s a dog, and that’s what dogs do, which is why they’re so much better than us. I try to stay in The Here And The Now, but I’m just not Mookie and I never will be. Often I’m living in the future as we’re walking, figuring out what things I can turn into things I’ve already done in the hours and the days ahead. But sometimes I’m living in the past, imagining what this place was like before the cars and the trucks and the poles and the lights and the wires and the fences and the signs and the asphalt and the whole rest of it. And it makes me wistful for a place I never knew, even though I’m walking through the middle of where it was; a place that, had it not been altered forever in the decades before I was born, actually would have made me as I know me impossible.
Bob’s story starts in 1920, as a nine year old boy exploring the woods that actually stretched from Lawrence to South Valley Stream, which he learned were called The Lord’s Woods after the very rich, successful lawyer who had owned the land at one time. (There’s a Lord Avenue way down in Lawrence in the area behind Rock Hall, where nobody ever goes unless you’ve got business there or you’re lost. It’s quite a beautiful area). The woods that Bob and his friend begin to explore stretched from about three miles southwest of here just about to my backyard. The entire Lord Estate stretched back through Cedarhurst and Lawrence all the way to Far Rockaway. My son is twelve and we can’t yet in good conscience let him cross the four lane road (Mill Road) that separates us from the rest of the world. Once upon a time, Mill Road was where the woods thinned out and the farms started. Bob and his friend walked through the woods, teeming with hundreds of different bird species and happy little animals. They discovered cool stuff like an Indian marker tree that was bent on purpose to indicate a trail, and a rope swing along a brook in the middle of nowhere. They crossed streams and marshland and followed along a dirt road until the realized they were following a gigantic water pipe, half-buried in the ground. The pipe led them to the “waterworks”, the Long Island Water Property, where the last little postage stamp of woods remain to this day.
They realized that the Water Company actually owned all the land that they were walking on. and that the land was kept undeveloped because they needed to pump water from under it. (One of the main reasons they ultimately sold it off to development and bulldozed it was that the technology was developed to dig deeper wells, thereby needing less land to protect the aquifers). But people had been trespassing on and enjoying these woods forever, and Bob and his friend soon found like-minded young nerdy fellows who liked identifying birds.
I like identifying birds. When Trisha and I first took over at Duffy’s Creek, we started keeping track of how many different bird species we could attract, including the waterfowl, who just hung around with us because we have a creek. Over the course of three or four years of keeping neat little notebooks (before we became parents and chaos ensued), I counted somewhere around 105 different species. Many of them just showed up once or twice, inexplicably, like a Brown Thrasher or a Tri-Colored Heron. But in The Lord’s Woods, apparently all these birds were as common as pigeons. And this is how Bob became a famous orthinologist, and how I helped get Andrew Cuomo to promise South Valley Stream $3 million dollars to help rehabilitate the Left Bank of Duffy’s Creek, money which he may or may not be still holding on to, because they haven’t spent it yet. I suppose because he’s not up for re-election. But that’s a story for another post.
In the first half of The Lord’s Woods, Bob tells the story of his youth through his seasons exploring own local primitive wilderness. As a guy who likes birds and plants and stuff, I just ate it up. There’s also a particularly gut-wrenching storyline about showing his first girlfriend all the secrets of The Lord’s Woods, then losing her to a car accident several years later when she was away at college, which was absolutely heart-breaking to read. Nonetheless, It’s all beautifully written, and topped off by a really cool map (pictured below) that helped me follow exactly where he was (and what is there now) as he describes his discoveries. I live along what is called Mott’s Creek or Foster’s Brook on the map. When I was growing up, my father told me it was called Watt’s Creek. On USGS maps (United States Geological Survey) it’s called “Valley Stream”. About fifteen years ago, when I had some time on my hands, I wrote to the USGS and tried to get it changed to Duffy’s Creek. The nice man from the USGS patiently explained to me that: 1) The don’t use apostrophes, which was a total buzzkill, and 2) I would have to die. I know that Foster, Mott and Watt were also local characters who just started calling the creek by their own names, so until I die and someone does the paperwork, that’s my plan.
In the middle of the book, as Bob is still grieving for his lost love, first the Hurricane of 1938 and then a giant fire decimate the woods. (I’ve seen more than once what a big hurricane can do to big trees). And the omens begin to rise around this same time: Giant electrical transmission towers go up, and surveyor marks plot out Peninsula Boulevard (which you can see on Bob’s map cuts right through the heart of what he called The Big Woods).
A wilderness would eventually recover over time from a natural disaster, but it didn’t stand a chance against the the post-WWII boom, and it is this point in the story where the book rises from beautiful to powerful and unforgettable. In the chapter entitled “Boom”, Bob begins:
“It was not fire that destroyed the Lord’s Woods. Fire and storm, blizzard and drought, even hurricane and flood were all natural events in the woods’ long history, often experienced and somehow survived, their wounds slowly self-healing and finally obliterated in forgiving beauty. Before the final act could be staged and the curtain rung down on the last of the drama that had been unfolding here for thousands of years, there had to appear on stage the villian of the piece – modern man – and there had to be a motive. It was not fire or storm that came to destroy our woods. It was greed and duplicity, avarice and ignorance and apathy.”
The “Boom” chapter, and the following chapter, called “The Threat” take you through a truly American story: How people saw what was happening to the woods and tried to stop it, and other people laughed and said “Fuck you. We’re doing it anyway.” As more and more of the woods were being bulldozed for development, people began to realize that “what remained was the only remnant of wet woodland left” in Southwest Nassau County, “the only place where one cold lose himself from the frenetic world and be an Indian brave or a Thoreau, a Daniel Boone or a John James Audubon, or just oneself, a child learning about the world around him.”
Here’s the short version: In 1955, the year my parents bought a house on a creek in a five-year old development of cape cods, the Lord’s Woods had been reduced to a box bordered approximately by, from what I can tell, Gibson Boulevard, Peninsula Boulevard, Woodmere Middle School, Hungry Harbor Road, Rosedale Road and Duffy’s Creek. The entire neighborhood of North Woodmere came after West Sunbury, so the ancient woods probably met the Hoeffner Farm all the way down Rosedale Road and went along Doxy Brook and blended into marshland as it got closer to Jamaica Bay. And in the other direction, I know for sure that there was a scout camp on the land where Peninsula Shopping Center sits now. You would need a lot of trees for a proper scout camp, so that was likely part of the woods as well. The neighborhood of North Woodmere on the opposite side of Rosedale Road from ours has bigger trees, because it was a woods and this was a farm. (I figured this one out all on my own).
The community got wind of a deal between the water company and a developer to buy up and bulldoze what was left of the Lord’s Woods. Bob tells of a woman named Helen Bergh and a man named Ben Berliner who were the leading forces in trying to save the woods, working with the Audubon Society to develop ways that the area could be used as a sanctuary and interpretive nature center. As the last acres of what was by that time called the Woodmere Woods were being eaten up, Helen Bergh (what a great name) led the Woodmere Woods Conservation Committee. They tried everything. New York didn’t want it for a state park. Nassau County didn’t want it. Officials from the Town of Hempstead suggested they would consider a park if Bergh, Berliner and their committee could show a public consensus for saving the last virgin woodlands in Southwestern Nassau County. But as Bob points out, “to prove that all people, everywhere wanted an esoteric amenity like a public wildlife preserve in 1956 was no easy task.” Some people wanted a park with lots of ballfields and tennis courts and swimming pools, which they eventually did get in North Woodmere Park. Other people, newer arrivals to the area, “would let the developers proceed; homes and gardens were more desirable neighbors than thickets of poison ivy and rat-infested woodlands where rapists can hide.” There wasn’t much you could do to convince people who had such disregard for the concept of open space that it would be in their interest to have a large undeveloped area around them. They’d no doubt never go in it anyway. Mosquitoes. Rapists. Very unsafe. Best to stay in the air conditioning.
By 1957, Helen Bergh had joined forces with a neighbor and friend who had also grown up enjoying the woods. His name was Edward S. Bentley. Together, they wrote a bill to present to the New York State legislature giving the Town of Hempstead authority to create a park district out of the Woodmere Woods. Before they could find sponsorship for the bill, the Water Company sold the land. Bob describes a race between the bulldozers, chain saws and graders, moving “like an invading army into the Lords’ Woods. One by one, the century-old oaks, maples, tulips, hickories, ashes and sweet gums crashed to the frozen ground.”
Sudddenly, as the woods came crashing down, people started paying attention to the destruction of the woods. Newsday was an up and coming newspaper at that time, according to Bob, and they took up the cause, but “while the editorial pages endorsed the principles of conservation and preservation, the business section, real estate section and its general news rang with announcement after proud announcement of the latest shopping center, housing development, industrial park, power station, highway expansion, population growth, property values and prosperity…No one was talking about the intangible cost of smog and summer heat, and the deprivation of natural beauty and an oasis of solitude and silence. Quality of life was of little concern to most people in 1957.” I’m sure if my parents knew about this story, and I’m sure they did, they were too busy to even think about joining a fight to save some woods.
Needless to say, the park proposal was shot down. Bob points out several bad guys in the tale, including lawyers and elected officials who were working both sides of the fence, pretending to help Mrs. Bergh’s cause for the public support it would bring them and working with the developers to destroy the woods at the same time. By the end of 1958, five years before I was born, the Lord’s Woods were completely gone. There is a little postage stamp of woodland around the waterworks, and some land that creeps up behind backyards up Doxy Brook to the reservoir on Hungry Harbor Road. When I was a kid, we’d sneak into those woods sometimes. My older brother and his friends used to catch turtles, bring them back to the house, paint their initials on the shells and set them free again. Today, most of it has barbed wire around it. And apparently, If I see something, I should say something. I assume it would be about what I saw, but I can only see though the fence, and there’s not much to see.
When I was younger than my son is now, I would go off in the summertime on my bike searching for rabbits in the parkland built behind the backyards in the Green Acres neighborhood, which is across Duffy’s Creek from our own neighborhood, which was called West Sunbury when Mr. William Gibson’s company built it in 1950. When I was a little older, I would take the aluminum rowboat from our backyard and row it down to Rosedale Road, pretending I was an Indian paddling along the creek. You could “park” the boat and climb the bulkhead into Brook Road Park in Green Acres. About twenty years ago, maybe more, they changed the name of the neighborhood to Mill Brook, because the residents did not want to be associated with the gargantuan shopping mall that sits right next to it (The same developer, Channan Corporation, built the houses and the shopping mall on land that once once divided between the Hoeffner Farm and Curtis Field, a famous airfield in the 1920’s that was visited by Ameliah Earheart and Charles Lindbergh. There’s a plaque in the middle of the Home Depot parking lot you could go look at if you don’t believe me). The shopping mall is still called Green Acres, and it’s about thirty times the size it was when I was a kid. I may be exaggerating there a little bit. All I can tell you is that there aren’t any kids looking for rabbits or pretending to be Indians around here anymore. Lately they’ve been looking for Pokemon.
Mr Gibson built our house. Thirty years before, he bought up a wooded area north of the farms and south of Sunrise Highway (which apparently was a hunting ground up until that time, though I don’t know who was hunting what) and built a planned neighborhood south of Sunrise Highway and north of the Lord’s Woods. Some of the houses were brick capes, but most of the houses were called “Gibson Colonials”. I’ve been in lots of Gibson Colonials, and they’re great houses. Before the 1920’s were over, Gibson started building bigger, pointy colonials on Munroe Boulevard and the surrounding streets. They’re great houses, too. In the middle of it all, he built his own Long Island Railroad Station in 1929.
After World War II, Gibson bought up some more farmland and built hundreds of cookie-cutter capes and rickety ranches. Not as big as the colonials, but darn comfy, and with slightly less claustrophobic backyards. My parents bought a cape from an original owner who left after five years (for a bigger house). Gibson cranked out South Valley Stream in the course of thirty years. Our house was built in 1950 on what was the a small patch of woods at the edge of potato fields belonging to Reising Farm, which was divided between the Gibson development called “West Sunbury”, Harbor Road Elementary School (later renamed Robert W. Carbonaro School) and Valley Stream South High School.
Three houses still exist on Hungry Harbor Road right around the corner from here that predate Mr. Gibson’s West Sunbury neighborhood and the North Woodmere neighborhood that begins just south of it. (The name Hungry Harbor goes back to the 17th Century, and referred to squatters who lived on the land). One of the houses (the red one below) is condemned, but there may or may not be a guy still living in it. And don’t think I don’t now his name, because I do, because you learn things when you hang around a place for 53 years. I’m just not telling you about him because I feel sorry for him. You can see “the farmhouse” from our front yard. Close enough that you could holler across the potato field from the back step and tell Pa supper was ready if he were standing in our backyard. It must have been beautiful. There was actually a buffer of woods between the field and the creek, which is tidal and would probably eat your potatoes if you planted them too close. You could probably take a quick swim in the creek and not smell like the back of a garbage truck when you came out.
My late father-in-law, the great Jack McCloskey, was a nursery man. His father started McCloskey’s Florist and Nursery in Rego Park Queens in the 1920’s. When Jack visited our house for the first time, I thought he would enjoy knowing that you could see the farmhouse from our front yard. The farmhouse has a large outbuilding. Not really a barn but more like a series of attached garages. Thanks to Jack McCloskey, I now know that in the 1930’s, he would ride out to Valley Stream with his parents, where his Dad would buy the garden lime the Reisings sold wholesale out of that building and he would pick watercress along the creek with his mom. We were standing in my driveway when he told me what he remembered. We would have been in the trees at the end of the potato field.
At the end of the chapter of The Lord’s Woods when Bob recounts how the last of the woods were lost, he interrupts the narrative and takes you back all the way to the glaciers to drive home the point of what was lost when those chain saws and bulldozers attacked the Lord’s Woods. He includes the ancient history of the place to illustrate just how disgusting the systematic destruction of this land for tract housing really was, how parts of the area surrounding me were literally untouched from before the birth of Christ until just after the arrival of Francis and Joan Duffy. He describes the arrival of the Rockaway Indians, a great bunch of people with a really cool name who showed up here around 1000 b.c. “For centuries untold, these people lived on these lands and waters making no destructive impact on the environment…They belonged to the woods and were as much a part of it as the turkey, the bear and the wolf.”
Of course, once the English Settlers showed up in the 1600’s and created Ye Olde Town of Hempstead, the jig was up for the Rockaway Indians. Within about two hundred years, in 1818, the last of the Rockaways, an old man named Culluloo Telewana, died in his little house in Woodmere. 70 years later, a local man named Abraham Hewlett, who “was enthralled with his stories as a boy” erected a monument to Cullulo Telewana. As Bob points out in The Lord’s Woods, “It is the only memorial to a 7,000 year history to be found anywhere.” And here it is:
And so Mookie and I go for a walk a hundred years ago, in 1916, before Gibson, before Curtiss Airfield. It’s very, very quiet here. We start at the creek and walk through a small patch of woods until we’re walking along farm fields towards Mill Road. We cross the dirt road and stroll beside the mill on Watt’s Pond. Mookie jumps in for a quick swim while I watch the ducks fly off. We walk back along the dirt road, maybe seeing people out working in the fields. The land is completely flat, so you can see the farmhouse all the way from the pond. Mill Road disappears into the woods. We walk through a cathedral of trees along an old Indian path. Maybe it’s the end of October, and the leaves are on fire as they rain softly from the giant trees, and the autumn sunshine streams down, bringing the whole scene into sharp focus and preposterous color, like an old Kodachrome print. We walk about as far as Peninsula Boulevard then we turn around and head back to the 21st Century, our footsteps and birds singing around us the only sounds we hear. Yes, folks, there could have been a beautiful, majestic nature preserve right in my backyard, an ancient woodland preserved for the benefit of my son, his son, his grandson and all our dogs. But as Bob Arbib writes at the end of the final chapter of The Lord’s Woods, “greed and apathy, deceit and arrogance, ignorance and blindness to future needs had finally done their dirty work.”
One of my favorite passages from The Lord’s Woods appears on page 175, when Bob is explicitly expressing his opinion of my neighborhood, the place my parents fell in love with, the place my son loves. This is how he saw it:
“North of the woods along the Old Grey Road (Rosedale Road was its official name) the farms were disappearing fast…Grids of roads were slashed across them and the houses went up blocks at a time, more densly crowded, more monotonously uniform than anywhere around…I looked upon them as rural, ready-made slums, quickly and badly thrown together…they were sold and occupied as fast as they were built. This was a sorry wasteland, now, with no single inhabitant of any of those tacky boxes who could remember what had once been here: The corn, the rows of lettuce, the potatoes, the bluestem grass. No one could remember a horse and buggy shooting up banners of yellow dust as it raced along, one summer’s morning years ago.”
I can remember it, Bob. I can remember what it looked like, even though I wasn’t there, and I’m part of the reason it’s gone. I see it sometimes when I’m out walking my dog. It’s beautiful here.
Once upon a time, in the year 2002, during the my first summer as a married grown-up paying a mortgage to live in the house I grew up in on Duffy’s Creek, a small child went missing from the family next door because he was watching me scrub the green shit off the siding on the side of our little house, which is one of the many small joys of living on brackish water. Sort of like being Born on The Bayou, but not quite as cool. But I can still hear my old hound dog barking, chasin’ down a who do there. Chasin’ down a who do there.
I knew the small child. I guess he was about four years old. He’s the oldest son of one of the daughters of the people who used to live next door. I grew up with them. So I knew him and he knew me. And I knew his parents. And his grandparents, his uncles, his aunt, his great uncles and great aunts, and his great-grandparents for that matter. They’re all really nice people.
But being two years away from becoming a father myself, I didn’t realize how bugfuck you could get, and how quickly you could get bugfuck, if your kid disappeared. I thought the people next door knew that the four year-old boy was standing watching me scrub the green shit off the side of the house. I had no idea they were looking for him. And while they were looking for him, he and I were engaged in a fascinating and wonderful conversation, a line from which has become one of my all-time favorites. Here’s approximately how it went:
“What are you doing?”
“I’m cleaning this green stuff off the side of the house.”
“To make the house look nice. I had some time this afternoon, and it was bugging me. It’s been on my list of things to do for a long time now.”
“You have a list of things to do?”
“Like you wouldn’t believe.”
“Do you have a list of things you’ve already done?”
(I stop dead in my tracks). “You know what? I don’t. But I should.”
At this point, the young boy’s mother came running around the corner of the house frantically looking for him, and got pretty annoyed at me when she found him. And rightly so, as the first thing I should done when he wandered over was call over to their yard and tell them he was here. Again, I thought they know. No matter, as far as I know he’s about college age now, and doing well I’m sure. And he left me with a gem of a line that day:
A List of Things I’ve Already Done.
If you’re among the landed gentry, and you’re the co-CEO one of those little business called two jobs, a kid in school, a house, two cars, four animals and a garden, It’s a great stress beater that you can fall back on when you’re immediate List Of Things To Do becomes overwhelming. It makes you feel less whelmed. You take a step back and you consider what you HAVE accomplished already, and you think, “well, at least I did that. That’s on The List Of Things I’ve Already Done.”
There are things that are only on the list temporarily, of course. The kitty litter tracks and Mookie hair have to be vacuumed out of the carpet on a regular basis. I have to go hunting and gathering at the King Kullen pretty much every Friday night. And the school year is a ten-month ferris wheel. (I think I just admitted what I do for a living).
Then there are the annual things, especially in the springtime. Spreading seed, cleaning out the garden beds, cultivatin’, throwing down cow and/or chicken shit. Sunday April 23rd was the annual Early Spring Power Washing of the brick patios. It’s a beast of a job, especially since the handle of the power washer leaks now and I was completely soaked to the bone after an elapsed five hours of cleaning every brick with a 1400 pound per square inch stream of water about the width of a pencil eraser, but it makes the patio look brand new, and that makes me really, really happy, and it makes Trisha really, really happy because the patio is our happy, happy place. So I do it. Every Spring. And it was bubbling up on my List Of Things To Do since about the middle of March. But it was a really cold Spring up ’till about two weeks ago, which was OK by me ’cause I got in a couple of good naps.
And besides, the Annual Power Washing was especially sweet this year because we had the roof and siding replaced on the house, amazingly enough during the last week of January. If you’re on Long Island and you’re roof is falling down, call The Dude’s good friend John Roth at Responsible Remodeling. They are the single best company we’ve ever done business with, and the house looks brand new, at least the outside of it. The roof and siding were a gigantic elephant stepping on the head of The List of Things To Do. But because Trisha works really hard and is really good and successful at what she does, which of course I still don’t understand after sixteen and a half years, we were able to move it to the List Of Things We’ve Already Done, which makes up both happy every time we think of it. The house looks beautiful, a pretty little white Cape Cod with black shutters and no tiles missing from the roof and no water leaking into the laundry room, and it would sell a lot faster and for a lot more if we ever decide we have to get the hell out of here and buy that house on Main Street in Copake Falls. You sleep better at night knowing that. And there’s no green shit growing on the white vinyl siding anymore, so for the moment, that never even has to go on The List Of Things To Do, and I spend less time with the power washer, which at this point I’m perfectly fine with.
But once the weather gets nice, there’s a gigantic List of Things To Do. Some are amazingly complicated. Some you look at for months until you finally find the ten minutes that it actually takes to do them.
Sometime in the 1980’s, my mother had a white dogwood tree planted in the front yard. It was a tribute to her Aunt Nanny, who either had a white dogwood tree or really liked white dogwood trees. I really have no idea. Longtime readers know she talked a lot. Nonetheless, it was a beautiful tree, but when we fenced off the side yard in 2002 (and created “the Secret Garden”), the gate (which has needed replacement for four years, and sits stubbornly on the List Of Things To Do) opened right into the lower branches of the tree, so I raised it and turned into into a kind of big white dogwood umbrella with no lower branches, which is not a very nice thing to do to a white dogwood tree.
Then we put in the stone walled gardens when the great Valley Stream stone artist Alex Hoerlin built us a new driveway, front path and stoop in 2006, which buried the dogwood in six inches of topsoil. Then Hurricane Sandy swamped it and everything else in two feet of creek water in 2012. None of this, of course, was what the white dogwood signed up for thirty years ago, so as we embarked on 2016, it was a complete goner. Meanwhile, two small Wichita Blue junipers that I planted along the edge of the property line had become mostly Wichita Brown junipers. They had five years or so and they weren’t going anywhere except the brush pile. So I decided to pull them out, cut the dead tree down to the stump and plant a new white dogwood where the junipers were. Plus I needed something for the empty space in the backyard where we took out the Bradford Pear that wanted to kill us in the Hurricane, and I figured Dave (you don’t know Dave, but I do, and that’s all that matters) might give me a deal on two white dogwoods, and I’d have one for the backyard, too. ‘Cause they really are beautiful trees, and of course I carry a certain amount of guilt for killing my mother’s white dogwood tree. (The bradford pear was hers, too, but I couldn’t give a damn about that).
So around the first week of April, The Dude and I started sawing away at the dead white dogwood tree. The Dude enjoys work that involves physical pressure and force. It’s one of those sensory things with ASD and Asperger’s Syndrome. He’s in charge of peeling carrots and potatoes. He enjoys vacuuming and washing cars. And off course anything that involves using sharp grown up tools is an added bonus. As you’ll notice in the picture at the top of this post, he has a little way to go to get that last bit of stump off. Then I’m going to let him drill a giant hole in the middle of it and stick a post in it to hang a flower basket. This is something that can sit calmly for awhile on The List Of Things To Do.
Digging up the Mostly Dead Wichita Blue (Brown) Junipers jumped quickly from being on The List Of Things To Do to The List Of Things I’ve Already Done this past Monday morning, the beginning of a work week where I didn’t have to go to work. (School vacations were not my idea, so if you’re jealous I can’t help you. Do what I do). It all happened in less than half an hour. They are now part of the bulkhead the keeps the Creek at bay. Ha ha ha.
From there, with the help of my trustee sidekick, who was mostly very helpful for helping me get things done (and at one point was very helpful for taking a three hour nap on the couch so I could get things done) the List Of Things I’ve Already Done grew rapidly over the course of the week. I’m picturing a long scroll of paper being read by a guy from the Middle Ages, but you’ll have to settle for a middle aged guy on a MacBook Air to tell you about them. After I dug up the junipers, we went over to see Dave, but he didn’t have any white dogwood trees. Dave being Dave, he was willing to order them for me, but despite his eye rolling, we decided instead to take a ride down to Dee’s Nursery in Oceanside, which is a phenomenal place, and phenomenally expensive. But as Dave points out about Nurseries, “they don’t sell you ice in the winter.” And sure enough there were two little four-foot high white dogwoods, in bloom, waiting right there for me. Tommy Dee was happy to see me. Why on earth wouldn’t he be? I’m a guy who has 18 trees growing on a 60 x 105 plot of land and he’s seen plenty of that action. I’m a guy who’ll pay $129 each for two little trees, which I’m sure Tommy makes a nice profit on, but God bless him. He’s a good guy, and he knew I’d be coming for the white dogwoods.
After we found the camera that The Dude put down in the shed he wasn’t supposed to go into, Duffy’s Creek’s two new white dogwood trees slid right into the back of Lou The Blue Subaru Outback, along with a bag of Plant Tone for the blueberries, who had a terrible year last year. On the way home, we stopped at Modell’s and got The Dude a pair of sneakers. His first pair of Adidas as a matter of fact, which I’ve been wearing exclusively for 25 years because I thought Mose Allison looked cool in them. We had Nathan’s hot dogs and french fries for lunch at the new “Little Nathan’s” that replaced the legendary Nathan’s on Long Beach Road. (They did a nice job adapting. I’m impressed). We went home and planted two new trees, which perhaps he will cut down with his own son someday.
Over the course of the rest of the week, we went back to Dee’s and bought $300 of organic garden soil (Bumper Crop, ask for it by name). I got the last of those bags of Bumper Crop down in the Rose Garden at 5:30 Saturday afternooon and I don’t want to see another bag of dirt until next April. We also went to Five Star Lumber and Hardware and bought two six foot poles, which The Dude married together using eight metal brackets, 32 screws and his trustee Black and Decker cordless drill. We mounted the Acu Rite Weather Station to the top of the pole and sunk it into two feet of gravel and Quickrete. Why? Because it was mounted on the railing of the garage roof and the wind gauge was being blocked by the house next door, which I couldn’t move. So moving it to a pole in the backyard went on The List Of Things To Do for four months, until Wednesday, when it officially joined The List Of Things I’ve Already Done. Of course, the wind hasn’t blown more than ten miles an hour since I moved it, so I’m not sure if it works any better yet.
While we were at Five Star, we also bought the supplies to paint the railing on the garage roof, which has been on The List Of Things To Do for at least seven years, but moved up a few notches once we had the roof and siding replaced and realized how crappy the railing looked unpainted. Weather permitting, that should be on The List Of Things I’ve Already Done by the end of May. We also have to replace the cellar door, which also now stands out like a bad actor now that the siding is new. There’s a company on Long Island called Man Products, which cracks me up, and which sells metal cellar doors. I insisted on a wood cellar door last time because I thought the rain on the metal cellar door right outside my bedroom window would interrupt my sleep. When the wooden door fell apart after five years, I decided to be less fussy, but I realized upon inspection that I would have to first fix the big crack in the foundation under the cellar door before I actually contact Man Products about replacing the door itself. It will stay on The List Of Things To Do for awhile longer, and just as well, ’cause I’m a little intimidated by Man Products.
Rounding out the list of Things I’ve Already Done that I did this week: The Dude wanted his own vegetable garden, so while he took a three hour nap on the couch Thursday afternoon after staying up all night the night before, I made him one. With broccoli, romaine lettuce, carrots and sugar snap peas ready to climb the trellis. Here it is:
I’m also proud that I set up two nice outdoor fountains this week including a little display on the patio with white jasmine and white petunias that Trisha has already dubbed, “The Zen Garden”. And of course I went back to see my friend Dave and bought a bunch of marigolds and petunias and two new Bluecrop blueberry bushes, so I can walk around in the yard in the summer smoking cigarettes and picking blueberries, thus getting my carcinogens and antioxidants at the same time. Plus I bought some lantana at Dee’s to put in planters on the patio, ’cause God knows we don’t have enough flowers. And I walked about 15 miles with Mookie over the course of the week. (We’re at 128.9 miles for the year. We’re shooting for 500. So we can sing the song).
On Wednesday afternoon, after we installed the ten-foot poll, we visited the nice guy who lives in the former Reising Farmhouse over on Hungry Harbor Road regarding a ten-foot panel of black cast iron fence with fleur-de-li finials that’s been sitting in his backyard next to Robert W. Carbonaro School for quite possibly my entire lifetime. The guy’s in-laws owned the house before him, which was built in 1920 and surrounded by a potato farm before the Reising’s sold the land to build Carbonaro School (formerly Harbor Road, until I was in 2nd grade and a guy named Carbonaro died) and Valley Stream South High School, which never did me any good and now I have to send my son there. My father-in-law, the great Jack McCloskey, was the second generation of a nursery business in Queens, and he remembered buying lime in the 1930’s or 40’s out of the big barn in the backyard of the Reising Farmhouse, which is still there. The rest of the land was sold to one Mr. Gibson, who built a whole lot of little Cape Cods here in 1950, one of which my parents bought.
I had my eye on the fence for about three or four years because I had just the place for it, where the bradford pear tree took down a piece of our fence during Hurricane Sandy. I’m pretty sure the fence used to be around the farmhouse property when I was a little feller, so as well as looking cool in the space I envisioned it, I’d have a little bit of the history of South Valley Stream right here in our backyard. You gotta like that. It was on the List Of Things To Do to see if the guy who lived in the house would either give me the fence or sell it to me. About six months ago, while out rambling with Mookie, I saw the guy outside, introduced myself, and found out that he had bought the house from his in-laws, who still own an antique store on Rockaway Avenue, and most of the stuff in the barn was antiques. When I finally got around to seeing him again this week, he told me that he wanted $150 for the fence. I got him down to $125. I tried to get him to $100 by saying the fence was just going to sit there until I bought it. He patiently explained to me that this was the whole point of antiques. They get older. So I’m going to accept his offer, but only if he lets us peak inside the barn.
The only problem is, the fence is very, very heavy. But yet again, the solution is that The Dude is a genius and saves things because he might need them later. Last year, he scavenged a sliding closet door from his friends two doors away who are renovating their house. When I threw out a desk before Christmas, he scavenged the casters. I’ve been meaning to throw both of these things out when he wasn’t looking, but I’m glad I didn’t, as we now have the materials for making a giant rolling pallet, which we can use to roll the fence from the Reising farmhouse to the Duffy’s Creek Tenant Farm. It’s on The List Of Things To Do right now. God willing, it will be on The List Of Things I’ve Already Done by this time next week.
Tomorrow, I turn 53 years old. The List Of Things I’ve Already Done is enough to get me right to sleep most nights. Of course, if Trisha hadn’t been nice enough to marry me, I would have been an abject failure. But she did, and we’ve built a nice little life for ourselves. We have a nice long List Of Things We’ve Already Done. Then again, we’ve never been to the Grand Canyon or Yosemite. We’d both like to see San Francisco. We’d also like the Dude to see Ireland and love it like we did, which he will. Trisha wants nothing to do with the fact that I’d like to buy a kayak or a canoe and annoy the idiots that run Hempstead Town and Nassau County into opening up the flood gate that holds Duffy’s Creek back from the waterways that lead out to Jamaica Bay and building a boat launch along the public path on the Left Bank. I think that would be cool. All that taken into consideration, I also want to spend as much time with Mookie Dog as possible, because he’s going to be five this week, and dogs are designed to break your heart someday. And he doesn’t like boats. Trisha doesn’t like both either and I want to spend as much time as possible with her, too.
In the next ten years or so, maybe twenty, we both have to work like hell to help a brilliant but delicate young psyche find his way from 12 years old to adulthood, complete with all the disappointments and heartbreak, triumphs and perseverance that it will surely involve. I think if I can make it to retirement, I might have a book or two in me, but If I don’t quit smoking at some point I’m plain fucked, and right now it ain’t looking good. That’s the subject for yet another blog post.
Speaking of which, It’s been four months since I’ve published a blog post. I have three that are sitting in draft stage. One is about my history as a passionate follower of the New York Mets. One is about the evolution of my relationship with food. Another is about my musical heroes. And since The Mets, food and music account for about 55 to 60% of my available brain space, there’s a lot to write. And I have to get up and go to work in seven hours. So those creative writing endeavors will have to sit around in the waiting room flipping through magazines while they are on the List Of Things To Do. This one? This one is now officially on The List Of Things I’ve Already Done.