Chapter 3 of Mountain High, Valley Low or My Life As a Wishbone: Tales of Valley Stream and Copake Falls, New York: “Fezzik! You Did Something Right!

They really do want me to stay in Valley Stream. As a matter of fact, they’ve spent millions of dollars in infrastructure improvements trying to convince me to stay. And they know I have a soft spot for the old dump. 

I can only tell them three things right now: 

1) It all looks great.

2) I’m flattered. 

3) Can’t promise you anything. 

On a related note, hurricanes are way, way up on my list of scary things. Tornadoes, fire, cancer, car accidents, crazy people, snakes, Republicans, lightning. No particular order. There are scary things that enter your consciousness in an instant, and you have no time to think of how scary they could be because, well, there they are. You can only reflect back on how scary they were in retrospect. We’ll put snakes and crazy people in that category. But hurricanes, they creep up on you slowly. They fuck with your head. They scare you silly, then when they leave, they say, “you know, I could have REALLY kicked your ass. Maybe next time, punk. Good luck.”  

Anyone who has lived through a hurricane and doesn’t have permanent psychic damage as a result is either very, very stoic or very, very stupid. “Superstorm Sandy” hit Long Island on October 29th, 2012.  Why “Superstorm”? Why? Well, I know why. It was October and the hurricane met a cold front. That’s why they called it that. It’s an actual meteorological term. Still. “Hurricane” would have been just fine. “Superstorm” sounds like what a three-year old or a TV news writer would’ve called it. But I digress. 

The most ferocious part of the storm hit at night. Trisha and Mookie went up to Jack’s room in the attic to and the cats took the other room in the attic, all to maybe sleep and/or to silently freak out. Jack was eight years old at the time, but he’d already experienced Hurricane Irene a year earlier, and he knew the best thing you could do was cuddle up with your mom and your dog and let Dad do what dads do, which in this case was to stay downstairs to monitor the situation.

Hurricanes fuck with your head. When Craig Allen, the WCBS Newsradio 880 weatherman, told me around 9 p.m. that the storm surge at Battery Park at high tide was 14 feet, I knew that tide, and that storm surge, were coming, through Jamaica Bay and right up Duffy’s Creek. I was pretty confident that it wasn’t going to be 14 feet, but I also didn’t how high would be enough to submerge the first floor of the house, or how fast would be enough to knock it off its foundation. 10 o’clock, 11 o’clock, the water kept on rising higher and moving faster. I could hear it gushing into the cellar. At some point the broken garage door blew open, but at that point, I was too busy listening to the sinister glub glub glub sound emerging from the floorboards, so running around and picking everything I could off the floors became my first priority. At some point in the 11 to 12 hour, I looked out at the backyard to see that the water had completely submerged the three and a half foot high post and rail fence, and was just about up to the height of the windows, and the plastic playground set was careening wildly around the yard like a ship lost in a storm at sea. 

Lower Manhattan: 10/29/12

Lower Manhattan: 10/29/12
Floated from one end of the yard to the other through the entire storm surge.

The water got high enough to submerge these fence posts on Duffy’s Creek.

It was at this point that I asked my mom for help, as she had just died two months earlier and I was raised Catholic and I really didn’t know what the hell else to do, besides continuing to throw towels down on the kitchen floor. And whether coincidence or divine intervention, I looked out the back window again just a few minutes later and saw the tops of the fence posts. 

The aftermath was what Saint Joan herself would’ve called “a goddamn mess.” One smart thing I did was move Dan the Van and Buster the Fit up to higher ground on the hill at the end of the street in the parking lot of Valley Stream South High School (aka “Big Brick”), where I found them blessedly dry the next morning. Our neighbors’ cars were all wrecked. We didn’t have anything stored in the cellar, ‘cause anything down there had already been thrown away after the less-destructive Irene a year earlier (which got into the cellar but not the house). But after ripping up 20% of the wall-to-wall carpet and throwing out 75% of the contents of the garage, after seeing way too many of our shrubs, roses and perennials transformed into corpses, after having to rely on the kindness of relatives (who no longer live on Long Island or are no longer living at all) for heat and electricity for the better part of ten days, after reading about the destruction in every town between us and the ocean and realizing how stupidly lucky we actually were to have no more than three inches of water infiltrate the house, I now have a healthy dread of every little “X” off the coast of Africa that shows up on the NOAA Hurricane Central website, which I check each and every morning from June until November. 

About a year and a half after Sandy, I heard about the New York Rising Reconstruction Plan, and about a meeting wherein members of the Mill Brook Civic Association and representatives from a consulting firm called Louis Berger Inc. would explain how they intended to spend South Valley Stream’s share of the State money. $3 million big ones. This is where my complete lack of faith in people comes in. I went to the meeting expecting them to tell me that they wanted to build a big concrete bulkhead all along the creek, piss off all the wildlife and further the degradation of my little paradise into an open sewer. I figured I was the only one who knew there were herons and kingfishers and sandpipers back there, and that nobody really gave a rat about the neglected old pedestrian path, hidden from our view by fifteen-foot tall phragmites, which are actually called woozy-woozys if you’re one of Francis Duffy’s children.

And then I met Niek. 

Successful people amaze me. From reading Niek’s Linkedin page, I know the friendly, well-dressed Dutch gentleman I met at that meeting in 2013 is a civil engineer and environmental impact planner, a landscape architect, a transportation and stormwater specialist who helped to rebuild lower Manhattan after Sandy, never mind Duffy’s Creek in South Valley Stream. By contrast, I drove back and forth on the Belt Parkway for 25 years and tried to get teenagers to read and write and think big thoughts, mostly by pretending to follow the orders of people who insisted that they knew how to do it better than I did. A noble profession, of course, but I sort of feel like my kind are a dime a dozen compared to people with Niek’s level of expertise. 

The meeting was at Forest Road Elementary school in Mill Brook, which used to be called Green Acres, which is technically not my neighborhood because I’m on the other side of the creek. Everyone who attended got a look, through pamphlets and power points and pictures blown up and hung on easels, of the plans for storm resiliency in South Valley Stream. Color me blown away. No concrete bulkheads. Lots of organic storm protection through a natural shoreline with native plants and green infrastructure. Exactly what I would have proposed if I were as smart as Niek. 

The Mill Brook Civic Association was chosen by New York State to represent the area, because there is no other active civic association in Valley Stream. The guy who was president of the association at the time took an instant dislike to me, among other reasons because I was from the wrong side of the creek and I had the temerity to ask pertinent questions and volunteer relevant information. The other people from the Civic Association who I met were wonderful, but this guy didn’t want me around. I later found out that he did that to a lot of people for no particular reason, so I kept showing up at the meetings, mostly because of my vested interest in the project but a little bit just to piss him off. 

I think he was particularly pissed off that Niek and I hit it off so well. When I told Niek that I had counted over 100 bird species on and around Duffy’s Creek in the ten years I had been back there (which is the truth), Niek lit up. He told me that he had grown up along a river in the Netherlands and had begun watching and counting bird species as a boy. This put a great image in my head that’s still there. Then he asked me if I had written down all those species, and I told him I sure had. Then he told me that New York State was allocating an extra $3 million big ones (a “race to the top” thing) to communities that could demonstrate that their projects would have a positive impact on the environment, including habitat for native flora and fauna, and could I email him that list, and I said I sure could. 

At a few subsequent meetings of the Green Acres Civic Association that I insinuated myself into, Niek’s people were there to represent Louis Berger. The next time I saw Niek himself was about a year later, after New York State announced that South Valley Stream was among the winners of the extra $3 millon big ones and the final plan was being introduced to the public at Forest Road School. Niek recognized me and came over and shook my hand and thanked me. He told me that my bird species list had been extremely helpful, if not critical, in winning that extra money. I was as pleased as punch, as happy as a lark, for the contribution that I had made to my community and my bird friends, and because Niek thought I was cool. 

The guy who didn’t like me, his name is at the top of the South Valley Stream New York Rising Community Reconstruction Plan, published in March 2014.

I wrote down the names of birds in a spiral notebook. 

This is why my Linkedin page sucks. 

But I’m pretty sure my friends over at the Town of Hempstead Department of Engineering were able to use some of that extra $3 million big ones to raise the street I live on six inches higher.  So you could say I ultimately took care of number one..

It certainly took a long time for it all to come together. The next time there was a meeting to tell everybody what was going to happen, Niek had moved on to his next adventure, the guy who didn’t like me had moved to Cedarhurst, and the meeting was being conducted by the chief engineer of the Town of Hempstead, who turned out to be the brother-in-law of one of my high school friends. I didn’t recognize him at first, as he was wearing a nice suit and I had only ever seen him wearing a Jets jersey. But that’s one of the perks of living your whole life in the same town. Ask George Bailey. You end up knowing a lot of people and a lot of people know you. And if you behave yourself, you end up with a lot of people on your side.

From my new-found friend of a friend, I found out all the particulars of the creek path reconstruction, how there was going to be lots of native plants and trees, just liked Niek had planned, plus all sorts of engineering tricks aimed at flood-prevention, like a footbridge over a large oval-shaped spillway covered in eelgrass that’s designed to take in tide water and soak it up like a sponge. Plus they worked in an osprey nest, which in my informed opinion is too close to people to ever attract ospreys, and a kayak ramp, though I’ve only seen two other people kayaking in the creek besides myself and Jack. Still, the whole project was like they had sat down and begun planning by saying, “what would Duffy do, if he were smart enough?” 

And if that weren’t enough, I found out that Jedwood Place, on my non-Mill Brook side of the creek, was going to be torn up and rebuilt six inches higher, with new gas lines and storm drainage underground topped off by shiny new sidewalks, curbs and asphalt on top.

The reconstruction of the path started with some little red flags in the ground in October of 2018. Six years after Sandy. There was a lot of “well, they’re never actually going to follow through on this stuff” talk at our house during those six years. Mostly from Trisha. But the big machines came in November and they cut down a few giant trees and ripped out all the woozy-woozys, which was tough to watch, but you’ve got to break a few eggs to make real mayonnaise, now don’t you?

Over the winter and into the spring, we watched the plan come into action. They raised the whole path about four feet. They “terraced’ the bank of the creek with big logs of compressed dirt (which I’m sure Niek and the Town Engineer know the technical name for) and they planted all the pretty little shrubs that we planted years ago when we learned about going native: Rosa Rugosa, Red-Twig Dogwood, Inkberry Holly, Sweet Pepperbush aka Summersweet, plus new Maple, Dogwood and Oak trees to replace the ones they killed. They built the footbridge over the spillway, and a platform overlooking the creek where the path bends around towards Forest Road. They lined the whole thing with hunky rocks. They installed brightly illustrated educational signs to teach people about the birds and plants and flowers they’re looking at, and miraculously, no idiot Valley Stream kid has marred any of them with graffiti yet. Although the original plan called for a path surface that soaked up water, they ended up going with asphalt, probably to allow police cars to access it, which considering how many idiot Valley Stream kids there are, was probably a smart trade off. 

Before

After

In the summer of 2019, the construction in the backyard wrapped up as the construction in the front yard started. Without the woozy-woozys, we now had a front row seat in the backyard to people enjoying the brand-new path along Duffy’s Creek. Oddly, because they’re higher in elevation and because we have a lot of flowers in the way, we can see them, but they can’t really see us, which is kind of like watching your neighborhood park on a live webcam. Meanwhile, out front, National Grid came in and replaced all the gas lines under the street, then left it not unlike the surface of the moon. 

Then of course, in March of 2020, Trump broke the country, and everything closed down. The big construction work on the street was supposed to start as the school year was wrapping up, but as soon as Big Brick closed its doors for the Pandemic, the New York Rising sign with Andrew Cuomo’s name in 28-point type went up and the guys from Allen Industries of Amityville came in, with bulldozers, front loaders, excavators, backhoes, flatbeds full of concrete and the big pick-up trucks they commuted to work with. As we were all working from home, we got to watch the whole thing. I hardly minded the various inconveniences involved (noise, dust, no driveway, etc.) as I knew it was all for a greater good, and because I was in awe of how hard these guys were working every day, especially since I had it relatively easy. 

A side note: There’s a silly You Tube video in which a marmot chipmunk appears to be yelling “Allen!…Allen!…Allen!” over and over again. Maybe you’ve seen it. Trisha started walking around saying “Allen!” in the chipmunk’s English accent every morning when the guys showed up. By day three or four, we were both doing it. One of the secrets to happiness is to marry somebody who’s good at starting inside jokes. Here it is for your enjoyment, until they catch me and take it down:

The head guys, Mr. Allen himself and the rest, became like friendly neighbors with big machines and power tools for the four months they were here. They were guys we saw every day when we stopped seeing all the other people in our lives every day, so there was something weirdly comforting about their presence. And when it came time to tear up our driveway, they had to also tear up part of the curving inlaid slate walkway up to the door. We all had a meeting wearing masks on the on the front lawn where I watched them brainstorm how to take it out and put it back in without damaging it, which they ultimately did flawlessly. Plus we got brand-new sidewalks and most of a brand-new driveway, which was a couple of thousand big ones that we won’t have to spend on curb appeal. They even replaced the grass they ripped up with sod, but it got hot and dry out in June and the homeowner kept disappearing with his dog for a week at a time, so despite a valiant effort by Mr. Allen and the brand-new fire hydrant, the sod all died. Still, it’s the thought that counts, and we’ll always have fond memories of the guys from “Allen!” 

Mookie admiring the driveway work.

And then a day in July came when Mookie and I rolled back into town from Copake Falls, the construction vehicles and the pickup trucks were all gone, and everything was done. A brand-new, six-inch higher asphalt street, sewer grates twice the size of the old ones and beautiful new curbs and sidewalks (albeit lined with dead sod). And out back, people who couldn’t really see me were enjoying a stroll or a jog or bike ride along my creek, where thousands of yellow Black-Eyed Susans were in bloom at the same time all the yellow daisies in my insane patio garden were doing their thing.

Isn’t that nice?

At the end of “The Princess Bride” (if you don’t know, I can’t help you), Inigo Montoya compliments Fezzik the giant for finding four white horses with which the heroes can ride into the sunset together. Inigo says what I said when I looked around at my newly rebuilt neighborhood:

“Fezzick! You did something right!”

Fezzik answers, “I’ll try not to let it go to my head.”

I’d like to think I had a little something to do with helping this whole thing happen, but I’ll try not to let it go to my head, because it probably would have happened exactly as it did if I had just stayed home and kept my bird list to myself. Still I’ll always have that image of a little Dutch boy counting birds as he walks along a river, and I’m proud that I could help out the birds who’ve enhanced my life so much, ’cause God knows they can use every little bit of help they can get.

As far as storm resiliency, the last hurricane that scared the bejesus out of me blew through in just a few hours in August, just after the construction was completed. That was the unpronounceable Isaias, that actually hit Long Island as a tropical storm. We were on the right side of the eye this time, which meant less rain, but it also meant ferocious, relentless winds that fucked with my head for six hours, and has left me with further psychic damage. It remains to be seen how the re-engineered Duffy’s Creek will respond to a major rain event, and if I’m lucky, and I am a lot but not always, I’ll never find out. 

Meanwhile, as we were all trapped in our neighborhoods by the Pandemic in 2020, nice weather came around just the same, and the seasons changed and the natural world went on as always, because nature doesn’t really give a fuck what happens to us and would probably prefer that we all die at this point. And as the nice weather came around, so did people in masks desperate to get the hell out of their houses for a while. And the beautiful new “Mill Brook Park” gave them somewhere to take the dog for a walk, teach their kid to ride a bicycle, push a baby stroller, jog resolutely along with very serious faces or just sit on a bench and enjoy the pretty little winding creek along with all the plants and the ducks and the swans and the herons and the egrets and the osprey and the kingfishers. I’m sure more than one visitor to the park never knew how nice it was, and though our one-way mirror of flowers, I was proud to watch my creek get the recognition it deserves. 

So to Andrew Cuomo and the Mill Brook Civic Association and Niek Verhaart and his team and the Town of Hempstead Engineering Department and, of course, “Allen!” and every single construction worker who put his or her back into rebuilding my neighborhood: I don’t know how much longer I’ll be hanging around here, but thank you for making South Valley Stream somewhat more tolerable in the interim, and thank you for respecting my creek. 

You did something right, and you should all be very proud of that. 

Oh, and also, thanks most of all for ratcheting up the property values. 

Ca-ching!