Stories, Essays, Rants, Appreciations, Long Walks With Mookie The Dog, History Lessons, Occasional Social Justice Warfare and Bad Advice For Parents from the Left Bank of Duffy's Creek.
Author: John Duffy
John Duffy is a generally optimistic, rather thin, obssessive-compulsive second-generation Irish-American husband, father, son, brother, uncle, cousin, home owner, bleeding-heart liberal, animal lover, gardener, bird watcher, amateur musician, careful listener, passionate coffee drinker, news junkie, comedy afficeinado, Mets fan, Subaru-driving, upstate traveling, smart ass Long Islander proudly born, raised and residing in Valley Stream, NY. He has a job, which he works very hard at and takes pride in, but believes that it is a slippery slope to define yourself primarily in terms of how you make money. He is locked in a lifelong lover's quarrel with the human race, and tries to hate the right people. When he's shuffled off his mortal coil, run down the curtain and joined the bleedin' choir invisible, he hopes that his obituary will read: "Nice guy. Too bad. "
It’s New Year’s Day, 2019 as I begin this post. Of all my blog posts since June of 2015,this one will easily win the award for most depressing. I apologize for that in advance. The fact is, though, I can’t complain at all right now. I’m camped out on one of the comfy couches in our little warm and dry Creek Room, surrounded by contented furry beasts, half-watching the Odd Couple, a show that I first saw sitting on a couch in this house on a Friday night with my mom when I was 9 years old. Unlike many things, it’s still funny, and unlike my mom, I can still see it. My wife, Trisha, who loves me and knows me better than anyone ever has or ever will, knows how much I love shopping malls (like hemorrhoids) or going anywhere on New Year’s Day, and has therefore blessedly volunteered to take Jack, who’s almost 15 (shudder), to the Apple Store to see what the Geniuses can do with his Mac Book battery. I have the first of seven recently-made quarts of homemade spaghetti sauce all ready to go for dinner, one of the many things I’ve recently had time to get around to by virtue of having the last eleven days off from work. I tell you all this so that you may understand that, although I get up disgustingly early and work hard all day for what I have – when I’m not on eleven day vacations – I am above all a stupidly lucky individual, and I have been for a long, long time now. I think that’s important to know.
Because now I’m going to tell you how much everything sucks.
Out our windows on this New Year’s Day, the creek still flows past our little house as it flowed past farms seventy-five years ago and past fisherman from the Rockaway tribe seven hundred and fifty years before that. But last October, the chain-link fences and the Big Machines from the Town of Hempstead finally rolled in on the opposite bank. The $3 Million New York Rising Rehabilitation of Duffy’s Creek – shoreline resiliency to protect against future storms and aesthetic improvements because people like nice things – is underway.
This project was first proposed in 2013, the year after Hurricane Sandy changed everything in this place and the death of my mother and father-in-law changed us. The path and the open space across the creek was a familiar place, the same view out the kitchen window every time you looked, changing only with the seasons and the tides, unaltered since I rode it’s bumps and potholes on my little red Schwinn, looking for bunnies. But it had become a shabby, outdated place, and when we learned about the plan to make it cleaner and more native-friendly, we were optimistic about the change. Then five years went by and nothing happened. And we had a lot of cynical conversations about that.
Then last year, 2018, something happened. Lots. First, at the end of the summer, we discovered a giant crack in the majestic old oak tree that looked over our yard from the yard next door since before they were yards. My neighbor saw the danger immediately and had the tree taken down the following week. And we knew that losing the presence of that tree was going to be as joltingly nasty as someone opening up the blinds in dark, cool room where you’ve been sleeping peacefully for nineteen years, and that it was. Then, in October, in came the Big Machines, and the first thing they did was take down three more majestic old trees that graced our view and took care of our birds.
Then the Big Machines ripped out the Phragmites. They are, of course, an invasive species. More pleasant, well-mannered native plants will be planted to replace them. But my father, who doesn’t remember them now, called them Woozy-Woozies back then, and we picked them and he’d tickle my face with the seed heads and I did the same thing with my own little boy. And two of the first signs of spring on Duffy’s Creek were when the white-throated sparrows, getting ready to fly north, started to peep amongst each other in the phragmites at sunrise, and the rowdy bands of blackbirds gathered there later in the day to chat loudly about the winter vacations.
As the Great Rising progressed, the Big Machines ripped up what was left of the winding blacktop path, removed every last blade of grass and began dumping sandy fill, creating the surface of the moon with moving water that we currently see out our windows. With the trees and the Woozy-Woozies gone, and it being winter and all, it’s a damn depressing site. The birds come around when I fill up the bird feeders, but there are fewer of them. The ducks have all but abandoned us. It’s like the scorched earth left behind after a forest fire. But I’ve read everything that’s been put into words about this project, and seen every artist rendering. I’m optimistic that it will be just wonderful when it’s all finished. In those time-lapse videos of forest regrowth after a fire, everything looks pleasant and green and healthy in seemingly no time at all. You just have to have a little faith and let nature do the rest.
I’m a born optimist and I’ll prove it to you: On November 29th, I turned my left knee the wrong way and it’s pretty much hurt like an open stab wound ever since. X-Rays revealed a sprain in the interior cruciate ligament. I have to see Trisha’s pain management guy, or somebody. It may require some sort of knives or needles or something to put it right, but right now I know nothing except that Mookie’s pissed ‘cause I keep cutting the walks short. However, I am absolutely convinced that I will be loading kayaks on my car and climbing mountains without pain this summer, although I have no physical proof that this will be the case. I just feel like it’s going to work out ok, because it always does. Sometimes, magical thinking works.
Then again, I suppose it’s real easy to be an optimistic when you’ve been as stupidly lucky as I’ve been. But then again again, it’s hard to stay upbeat when you live in America in 2019 and you believe in silly, old-fashioned notions like compassion, accountability, justice and decency.
Out beyond the creek, the systematic destruction of America ordered by Trump’s Russian Master slithers like a snake into its third year. Children in cages, racists empowered, the environment willfully ransacked, the economy a ticking time bomb. Every day brings another tweet or news report with one more nail in the coffin of the physical and moral fabric of this country. Unthinkable shit is gong down before our eyes. Looking at what’s happening right now, I can’t help but conjuring up the metaphor of looking out the kitchen window at our creek in its current state. Everything that had value to us has been attacked, ripped out and smothered with dirt. We can live with the view from our backyard, I suppose, because we know it will evolve into something new and beautiful in its own right, even if it takes a couple of years. But you’d have to be a real touched-in-the-head optimist to believe that any good is coming out of the Russian Occupation of America, now, wouldn’t you?
But for the grace of God, any one of us could be the one trying to get the tear gas out of our eyes, or trying to find out where our child has been taken after seeking asylum and a second chance in what was once a country of promise, the reward for a 2,269 mile journey to escape God knows what. I don’t suppose I’d be particularly optimistic if that were my situation. I don’t suppose I could be much of an optimist right now if my livelihood was put into jeopardy by a fight over a goddamn wall, or if I had to absorb the looks of hate that my hajib or my turban earned me on line at the supermarket, or if I were a scientist studying climate change and told that none of what I do matters.
But last November, people voted. Lots and lots of pissed off people. The only major elections the Republicans won were the ones they blatantly cheated in, and they almost lost those, too. Once the elections were over, those same Republicans, led by the evil bastard himself, doubled-down on the same hate and scare tactics that people had just overwhelmingly rejected at the polls, so we can safely conclude that they didn’t learn a damn thing and will be beaten into near-extinction in elections this year and next. Meanwhile, more and more people are speaking out more and more as they get more and more pissed off. And they’re joining forces against a common enemy. And whether it takes this year or next to get rid of Trump and start cleaning up this damn mess, you can bet both of these things will happen. We’ll get rid of Trump, and we’ll start cleaning up the damn mess, though it will take a long time. My creek view will be back long before we undo the all the damage, but I have full faith that the spirit of America will grow back out of this scorched earth, and be healthier for it. This Age of Darkness will be followed by a true enlightenment, and if we survive the climate upheaval, people will look back on now and say what the fuck.
A bodhisattva – as well as being a kick-ass Steely Dan song – is a Buddhist who has delayed his attainment of Nirvana even though he could get there easily enough if he wanted to. He can’t be truly at peace as long as others are suffering. I’m not a Buddhist (and I don’t even play one on TV) but I get it: I can’t be as completely content as the well-fed, pampered furry beasts who surround me in this room, though I am well-fed and pampered beast myself, so long as there is this level of suffering around me and I feel powerless before it. I’m glad Mookie and the cats don’t have to know about demons pouring the water out of jugs left out in the desert to purposely cause the suffering of migrants, or people brazenly stealing elections. They’re in their own little Dog and Cat Nirvana, and I need their bliss.
Because beyond the manufactured (and apparently, ordered) suffering created by Trump and his enablers, too much suffering hit my circle of people last year, although who can say how much is too much. I personally don’t want to know. All I do know is that people died who were as important to the people they left behind as the two people whom I share this little house with are to me, and they left a lot of scorched earth on the surface of a lot of hearts. And this of course, scares me, as it well should. Every day I wake up is the day my luck could run out. The day of the terrorist attack, the school shooting, the killer storm, the accidental fire, the car accident, the fatal illness. It’s why I pray, though mostly not on my knees, ‘cause one of them hurts.
I know two families who lost young people in 2018. The first was a young man in his early 30’s who died suddenly in March from an accidental overdose, the second a young woman in her 20’s who died in September after a long and ferocious fight against cancer.
The young man’s father is one of my oldest friends. He and his wife had already lost a son at 17 seven years before. He grew up Catholic like myself, but has evolved through Buddhism into something of an agnostic. Despite these tragedies, he goes on. He woke up one day and his son was gone – again- and he couldn’t do anything about it – again – but grieve and move ahead. I know he suffers, but he assigns no reasons or higher meaning to what happened. It just happened, and it sucked like nothing else. But the sun keeps coming up, and he still finds reasons to smile.
The young woman’s mother is a Camp Lavigerie buddy, someone I’ve become friends with through our shared love of a magic place in the Adirondacks. She grew up Catholic like myself and has kept her belief and faith alive like a fire in her heart that glows out of her. She’s a sharer, and has documented her struggle to overcome and find meaning in the loss of her daughter and the effect its had on herself and her family, an excruciating process she watched happen before her eyes in slow motion over years. And from what she’s shared and written, I’ve learned two things: One is the thing that we all need to learn a million times over the course of our whole lives, and that is to cherish now. The other is that despite having the worse thing happen to you that can happen to you, she still finds reasons to smile.
Me, I was indoctrinated from birth with the inner faith in a higher being who will somehow protect my family and spare us from this level of tragedy, or at least will comfort me if they are somehow “chosen”. At the same time, I have 55 and a half years of life experience that has fostered a sense of inner doubt and dread, constantly leading me away from faith and towards the unsettling conclusion that it isn’t anything more than dumb luck.
And you can’t compare these tragedies to each other, much as our brains are geared that way. One young person who should still be alive gets sick, stays sick and doesn’t get better, ultimately passes away. Another young person is alive one day, dead the next day and shouldn’t be. It comes down to pick your poison. I can’t be as devotedly religious or as stoically existential as these friends of mine are. I guess I fall somewhere in between. And I can’t fathom how I would go on if I lost someone that close to me. I can’t even fathom losing my dog or my cats. But these friends of mine, they both go on. And they both find reasons to smile.
But the sadness I felt for the suffering these people and their families have gone through -and the pounding in my head when my thoughts circle around to the needless suffering of Trump’s Nazi America – was with me a lot of the time last year, though I couldn’t really say that any of it was my suffering in any way. But being something of a bodhisattva, I found it hard to enjoy my lack of reason to suffer. Between people dying young and babies in the cages, even apple picking and kayaking sort of lost their pure joy. But we kept trying to be happy. ‘Cause what would you be if you didn’t try?
There was a beautiful Sunday afternoon, October 7th, when we went down to Point Lookout to visit Grandma Jane. A couple of the sisters were there, so Trisha was happy and chirpy sitting down on the beach. I was sneaking Mookie onto the beach for one of his annual off-seasons dips in the ocean. Jack was in the living room talking to Grandma.
There was a rule I learned quickly when I became a McCloskey: You didn’t leave a conversation with Grandma Jane until she was finished with it. And young Jack had learned that rule, too. Mookie and I were heading to the beach, and she and Jack were talking. I asked him if he wanted to join us, and Grandma would’ve accepted that, because going to the beach makes her people happy, But Jack opted to stay in conversation with Grandma. And there they were a half hour later when I came back. Since Jack is not a stay in one place very long kind of guy, I was impressed with his maturity and warmed by the love he had for his Grandma Jane. She brought out the best in him.
Then, on the similarly beautiful Saturday afternoon of October 20th, around the same time the Big Machines started ripping up the path, Grandma Jane died, and it was our turn to suffer. But the two people I love most in the world, I know they’ve suffered more than I have, and there’s not a damn thing I can do about that but keep being me, lucky bastard that I am.
I loved my mother-in-law. She was a garden in the sunshine, a woman literally bursting with hope, faith, love and charity. But when I first became part of Trisha’s family, I drifted towards my father-in-law, Jack, and I found Jane a little over the top. In retrospect, I realize it was hero-worship of Jack on my part. He was a cool guy, and I’ve studied cool guys my whole life to learn their secrets. The over the top lady married him specifically because he was a cool guy, and loved him for a lifetime. He died three months after my mother died in 2012, and in his last weeks he didn’t have the capacity to know that he had just lived through the worst storm that ever hit his home in Point Lookout, the place that he loved. Point Lookout did all right after Hurricane Sandy, but Grandpa Jack was done a month later at 86. My mother had died in August at 82, and for the last week, she had pneumonia, which I learned that year was called “the old person’s friend”, she knew she was dying, and she got to say goodbye to her youngest grandson.
Pick your poison.
After two deaths and a hurricane in that fall and winter of 2012, optimism was in short supply. We were broke and lots of things were broken. We were hurting. The gardens were like the scorched earth of a forest fire, but destroyed by water instead of fire, if that makes any damn sense. What we did have going for us was a humongous monetary gift from Grandma Jane that we knew would help us get back on our feet.
And we did. The new place that emerged over the last six years from the wreckage and mud of the old place has been a perfectly nice place, and Grandma Jane was a big part of what made it so. She was Trisha’s best girlfriend, and she made our son step up his game when he was around her, because you just couldn’t be snotty around Grandma Jane. Her houses in Stewart Manor and Point Lookout were like big comfy blankets, and over 19 years and 9 days, she and I learned to enjoy each other’s company more and more. Of course, all the stupid shit in life prevented us from spending as much time with her as we should have or could have, but seemingly healthy in her 91st year, we had deluded ourselves into believing she would go on forever, until the phone rang on October 20th with the news that she had suffered a fatal heart attack. (In true Grandma Jane fashion, she was in a restaurant in Long Beach with a large group from the Catholic Daughters of America, who sent her on her way to the arms of God by reciting the rosary while the priest who was sitting at the table with her performed Last Rites).
Within an hour of that phone call, we were walking through the doors of the emergency room next to the empty wreck that used to be Long Beach Hospital. We saw Grandma Jane lying there lifeless. It seemed impossible to me. I cried like I don’t think I’ve ever cried in my life. We were dazed, sucker-punched, our hearts out in the cold. Then came the wake, and the funeral and the burial, and the barren landscape that follows. We entered a period of grief and sadness that hasn’t quite ended, but whose has? We had a wonderful Thanksgiving and Christmas, but we miss her terribly, and of course it’s been a lot harder for Trisha. Apparently, though, I’ve been supportive, which is good to know, ‘cause I really don’t have a clue.
Of our parents, only my father now survives, 89 years old and in an advanced state of dementia. He spends most of his time sleeping in a little room in a nursing facility 50 miles from here. It’s wonderful to be in the same room with him when I can clear all the shit out of the way and go see him, which I do once a month. He enjoys Mookie, and vice versa. I enjoy the fact that I can still look at him and he can still smile at me and we have the same shaped eyes, and I can give him a kiss goodbye on his bald spot like I would have done fifty years ago.
But since my mother’s death, and as my father slips further away, my side of the family has drifted further apart. We don’t see each other much and most of our contact revolves around my father’s health. He will likely slip away at some point, and we’ll drift further. There are a million different reasons for it, none of which I really know, and many of which likely have a lot to do with the way I am, but generally speaking, my siblings have never been as close-knit as siblings I’ve seen in other big families, and I’ve pretty much accepted that as a fact of my life. Not a whole lot of optimism there, I know.
My brother Thom, a thinking fellow, has pointed out that a lot of it has to do with what he called the “bandwidth theory”: We have so many other people in our lives, and so many layers of responsibility and things we want to learn and things that need to get done, that it’s like an AM radio at night in the mountains, where each station is just waves and crackles and some of them you go past because you’re not pulling anything in. We don’t dislike each other. We just have a lot going on, and our respective stations keep fading out.
I know the McCloskey Girls will refuse to let that happen on the other side of the family, and they haven’t so far, which is great for Trisha and Jack. They can’t have Grandma Jane back, but they’re making time for each other.
I suck at making time.
But, to remind you, I am a still a stupidly lucky person. And part of being stupidly lucky, I suppose, was being born with a face that most people seem to trust and a manner that most people are comfortable with, or at least unthreatened by. I’ve made lots and lots and lots of friends, and though I draw into myself a lot, and I wish I were more of a pick up the phone, meet ya for a drink, come on over and drop by kind of guy, there are lots and lots of people whose company I enjoy, and who seem to enjoy my company, when I get to see them.
And no man is failure who has friends. And every time a bell rings, and angel gets his wings.
I made a new friend last year, and right on time as it turned out. We met because through accidents of birth, I happen to have a friendly face and a pleasant manner, and so does my dog, even more so. And though I knew this friend for a relatively short time, and probably only spent an hour or two of elapsed time of his 99 years with him, I grieved his passing in 2018.
His name was Sal. He lived about a quarter-mile from here with his daughter in the brick cape with the built-in covered front porch that he’d bought after World War II. His house and his porch are in the last quarter-mile of one of power walk routes that Mookie and I take around South Valley Stream. When the weather turned warm, we’d see him out on the porch, a face weathered with sunshine, twinkling eyes and a wizened smile, always wearing his WWII Veteran’s ball cap. Of course you have to be extra nice to those guys, and it started with a “good morning, sir, how are you today?” as we passed him by. He and Mookie would make eyes at each other, and he’d tell Mookie what a handsome boy he is, which Mookie just can’t get enough of. Mookie would’ve moved up to stopping to sit on the porch with him a lot sooner than I did, and he eagerly awaited an invitation.
In time, that’s just what happened. Mookie started going up to the porch to give Sal a good sniff and a kiss (and check for crumbs), and eventually, when summer came and we had all the time in the world, I started up pulling up a chair and spent a few golden mornings sitting and shooting the breeze with Sal.
When I first introduced myself by name, he shook my hand and said, “good to know you, John,” which struck me as a wonderful, lost expression from his era that sounds so much friendlier than “nice to meet you.” I’ve started working that one in.
He was a cool guy, and I’ve spent my whole life studying cool guys to learn their secrets. He had the slight growl of an old man’s voice, and that special quality that the old-school Italian guys had of making you feel like everything he said was in confidence, just for you. He wasn’t just talking at you; he was having a conversation. There’s a difference, and those guys knew what it was.
He was born in Brooklyn. He was drafted into the Navy during WWII. He swabbed the deck on an aircraft carrier in the Pacific and he made sure he didn’t get killed. He came back home, had a family and moved them out to Valley Stream. He worked as a carpenter, mostly for a Jewish guy. He went hunting with some guys in the Adirondacks once, got lost in the dark and decided he liked Brooklyn a whole lot better. The house across the street from him once belonged to the mayor of Valley Stream, and he liked having that access to the people in charge. We talked about these things, and we talked about dogs, and weather, and the neighborhood and about growing old. We both enjoyed the company, and Mookie would lie at his feet in the shade under his chair as we talked.
As our conversations continued, he started giving me a better sense of the downside of being 99. Most everybody was gone, he said, and, though he always greeted Mookie and I by name, he felt his mind slipping away. He couldn’t remember things anymore, and it frightened him. And he was frustrated that all he had left was sitting on this porch.
I told him about my own father, lost in a haze of dementia for five-plus years now, institutionalized, and spending most of his time asleep. I said, “I know it’s not a consolation, Sal, but hell, at least you got the porch.” Like me, he understood that he’d been stupidly lucky, but nobody skirts through this world untouched by sadness, and nobody gets out alive. The best we can do is enjoy the better moments, and my morning visits with Sal were among my favorite moments of 2018.
Once summer was over and the grind started grinding again, Mookie and I walked down Sal’s block on Saturday mornings hoping he’d find it warm enough to come out to the porch. I even brought Trisha with me once to see if she could meet him, but he wasn’t out. In the back of my mind, I figured we’d have another summer, his 100th, to enjoy each other’s company again.
Then, one cold gray morning in November or December, I saw a bunch of cars in his driveway and outside his house, and I knew it was over, but I hoped it wasn’t. A few weeks later, I saw his next-door neighbor, who told me that he fell and he never got recovered. Pick your poison.
We passed by his house on our Christmas Day walk, after a wonderful morning of opening presents with my wife and my son, happy for a time even though there’d be no Grandma Jane to visit later in the day. I told Mookie out loud that I wished we could wish your friend a Merry Christmas. Mookie heard “your friend” and stared forlornly up to the porch waiting for Sal to be there, and I felt bad for messing with his head.
To myself, I wished that I could wish my own mom a Merry Christmas, and though I’d seen him two days before, I wished I could call Dad up and exchange Christmas greetings with him, and wished that he could remember as well as I do all the Christmas’ that we shared. I wished that my wife could give her mother a hug on Christmas Day one more time, ‘cause I know how it’s been since I haven’t.
As I wrap up this post and send it out into the big wide world wide web, it’s Sunday January 6th, The Feast of the Epiphany, Little Christmas. We sadly take down another Christmas tree and we suck it up for another year, with it’s own fresh hells, but also its fresh heavens if you look for them. I’ve got kayaks coming from Washington State. My knee has been feeling better lately. I think we’re in the endgame with this Trump asshole and I think we’re going to win, and win big. The new path along Duffy’s Creek will look nice from our backyard, and our backyard will look nice from the new path.
But ultimately, five thousand words after I began writing this, I have no epiphanies for you about anything. No wisdom, and no myrrh either. I’m just thinking with a keyboard, but it’s my blog, so I can do whatever I want. Sorry to have wasted your time.
When I was young man, I read just about everything Kurt Vonnegut ever published, and he once told me that things were getting worse and worse and they’d never get better ever again, and sometimes, especially in the story of this country and this world, and even in the stories of our families, that’s exactly how it seems.
But God bless him, the DNA that my dad gave me, that Kurt Vonnegut’s dad apparently didn’t give him, compels me to hope, to be an optimist, to truly believe that everything will be fine. As a matter of fact, if you were to ask Francis J. Duffy right now how he felt, he would say, “fine.”
As far as the malevolent randomness of death and loss, the view of the optimist was best expressed by Dr. Seuss, who said, “don’t cry because it’s over, be happy because it happened.”
I think that if death struck me as closely as it did to friends of mine last year, I’d be inclined to tell Dr. Seuss to go fuck himself. But damn if he isn’t right. Enjoy the time we have and the people we love and the things that make us happy and bring us closer to God when we can, while we can, knowing that nothing is forever, and only God knows why that is. There’s your wisdom, there’s your epiphany, and there’s your myrrh. When my brothers and sisters and I fought as kids, my dad would quote Jesus: “Love one another.” When Dad woke up and came out of his bedroom in the morning on a day off, he’d say, “Thank God for a new day!” Often, I’d wished he’d shut up with that nonsense, and of course I’d love to hear him say that now, but I don’t feel the need to cry because it’s over, because it’s much better to be happy that it happened.
As for Sal and Mookie and me, there will be no 100th birthday visit in 2019. But it was good to know him. And at least we had the porch.
It’s been another long, inexcusable break from blogging, but for better or worse, A Creek Runs Through It rises from the ashes today. Today, it’s time to go for a good, long walk. If you’re up for it, Mookie and I would be pleased to take you along on a tour of Valley Stream, Long Island, New York, or at least a nice, big chunk of it.
Of course, we’re wired very differently, and our respective life experiences are very different as well, so no doubt Mookie would at some points be putting things in a more positive light for you than I might. But he doesn’t speak English, and he doesn’t blog. So today I’m your somewhat unreliable narrator.
We are eight summers and seven winters into walking our turf together now, Mookie and I, and we’ve interacted with hundreds of our neighbors along the way. And I’ve learned to appreciate his perspective. As a writer named Edward Hoagland wrote about dog training theory, I’ve learned ”to open up myself the possibility of becoming partly a dog.” We even negotiate over which way we’re heading on our walks, since he knows his way around as well as I do. If he could speak English, and he could blog, he’d just look at you with a big smile and say, “Isn’t this great?” But then again, he would say that about every place he’s been.
Futhermore, my dog believes that every person who opens every house or car door as we’re walking by has arrived in his field of vision purposely to see him and tell him what a beautiful big dog he is. He collects people. We’re just walking by your house and you happen to walk out your front door or get out of your car. Mookie stops dead in his tracks, squares his paws, sucks in his gut and targets his prey (you) with his best Labby smile, as if to say, “Hey! Hey you! Here I am! I love you! Wanna say hi waggy waggy?”
He’s very good at it and he scores a “Hey, Buddy!” or a smile back at the very least almost every time. Subsequently, he’s made me like people a little more in general. They’re actually not so bad, most of them.
Mookie deciding whether to bolt over to someone and tackle them, just to say hi.
Yes, my dog loves it here in Valley Stream. So does my son, whose grandparents moved here from Astoria, Queens in 1955, lived for 46 years on a house on a creek and raised five children in it. My son is already planning to send us away someday and buy this house. For the record, that never occurred to me when I was 14. I’m glad he likes it.
Me, I’m the youngest of those five children and right now the I’m guy who lives with his family of three people, three cats and a dog in that same house on that same creek. Do I love living in ValIey Stream? Well, honestly, a lot of the time I’m pretty much awash in ambivalence. I’ve met a lot of great people here, and a couple of soreheads. Plus I suppose it would be impossible not to feel affection for a place where you’ve spent most of fifty-five years and three months.
On the other hand, most of fifty-five years and three months is a very, very long time to live in the same anywhere. I feel like the place where I live could be a lot better if people in general had different priorities. But that’s true of all of Long Island, where people often have some really ass-backwards ideas about what’s important. And I will say this: What strengths Valley Stream does have put it way ahead of a lot of places not only on Long Island, but also in America in general.
So I’m going to take a cue from Mookie and try to keep it positive when I can. We’re going on a big, circuitous, approximately five-mile walk, but we’re going to take our time, and sometimes go back in time. Mookie will need to read his pee mail on the poles and trees, and I’ll be telling you some stories and acting as your tour guide. The goal is to see a place, a town in America in 2018, close up for what it is, as well as what it was and where it seems to be going. Remember, no matter who we happen to meet along the way, Mookie loves them. As for us, you’d probably agree with me that any day is a good day for a walk, and most people are likable enough. So I’d like to show you around our hometown. At its best, it’s a microcosm of the best things about our country. At its worst, maybe not so much. You wanna go for a walk? Come on! Let’s go for a walk!
Terrapin escaping troubled waters for a bit of sun on a rock
Egrets, we have a few. And I try to look out for them.
The walk starts from the house in which I was conceived and raised, and where I live more or less happily today. The house is on a winding street that follows a winding creek, and it’s called Jedwood Place for no good reason. In that house, on a 60 x 100 plot of land abutting tidal waters flowing in and out from Jamaica Bay (home of many interesting birds and one big-ass airport), I have been a baby, a son, a little brother, a snotty teenager, an occasional host of rowdy parties, a smart kid, a troublemaker, a mostly frustrated , bored but sporadically inspired young adult, a lot of peoples’ friend “Duff” who lives down the block from South High, a college student, a guy who’s been in his parents’ house too long, a guy carrying laundry and Ancona pizza on a visit home, a happy and loyal husband, a pleasant enough neighbor, a not-so-awful father and the guy with the big yellow dog.
Two big, fat side notes before we go walking (you can use this time to stretch, maybe tie your shoes. Mookie Dog will wait patiently on the front lawn and sniff the air) :
Note One: There is no other Jedwood Place on the face of the earth. But after 55 years of using the same mailing address, the name “Jedwood” feels as much a part of my name as my name. Yet there is no logical explanation why Mr. William Gibson, the man whose development company built my neighborhood in the early 1950’s and who built most of the neighborhoods of South Valley Stream thirty years before that, would have named a street “Jedwood Place.” The two most frequent citations of “jedwood” that you’ll find on Google refer to a hunting ground in Scotland and “jedwood justice”, which was a practice rooted in 19th Century Maryland wherein a person suspected of a crime was put to death without trial. Neither of these things have anything to do with Jedwood Place. Hopefully, they never will.
Note Two: Jedwood Place is in it’s own little development, bordered by Duffy’s Creek and dead-ending at Valley Stream South High School. Mr. Gibson called it “West Sunbury” but that name never stuck. The other three street names in this little development are Cluett Road, Sanford Court and Virginia Court. A Google search reveals that the man who developed the process of pre-shrinking fabrics known as “sanforization” was named Sanford Lockwood Cluett. Hmmmm. I have no idea if he was a friend of Mr. Gibson, though they were contemporaries, and captains of industry, sort of. I could find no mention of Sanford Cluett, who was born in upstate Troy, NY, hanging out on Long Island, though if I were from Troy I guess I’d jump at the chance. And oddly enough, Sanford Cluett was married to a woman whose maiden name was Camilla Elizabeth Rising, and the land Jedwood Place was built on was once part of the Riesing Farm, a different spelling but coincidental just the same. I have no idea who Virginia was. All this is interesting to me (if not to you, as you and Mookie wait for your promised walk) because Jedwood feels like part of my name, and it’s only because somebody pulled it out of nowhere in 1950.
Such is the randomness of our existence. Creek Street would have worked just as well.
I wanted you to know all this before we go because I ‘ve spent most of my life walking or driving around in circles, starting from and ending at Jedwood Place, of which there is only one on the face of the earth. And over the last seven years, in partnership with our beautiful, loyal, insanely friendly Labrador Retriever, I’ve taken walking in circles starting from Jedwood Place to a whole new level.
During the twenty-five years in which I was between dogs, I had often wished I had a dog just so I could go for a walk without having a destination in mind (and of course because dogs are generally so, so much better company than people). As we’ve established, Mookie’s mission in life is to say hi to as many people as he can, which in his best-case scenario means you rub his face and he stares deeply into your eyes and tries to kiss you. If you were actually here, you’d know that already, and as you may have guessed, I’m somewhat more reserved. But I enjoy all this about him greatly, and hundreds of people we’ve met on our walks have as well.
And so (surprise), having a friendly, good-looking dog and taking long, rambling walks around town is a great way to observe and often meet people, and when you observe and often meet people, sometimes you get talking to them. And when you get talking to people, you get to know the true character of a place. And I can say without any reservation that I (and to an extent, Mookie) know the character of Valley Stream – at least the south half of it – better than anyone, particularly anyone who works at Money Magazine.
Why Money Magazine? Well, apparently, somebody at Money Magazine really likes Valley Stream, so much so that earlier this year Money Magazine voted it the Best Place To Live in New York State. For heaven’s sake why? Well, this is what they said:
First settled by Scottish immigrants in 1834, Valley Stream is a Nassau County village that attracts residents with a reputation of being “neat, clean and safe”. The location is a big draw—it’s just 35 minutes from Manhattan, near two major highway arteries, and served by the Long Island Railroad. Snapple originated in Valley Stream, which also boasts several historic colonial sites, a diverse population, and a close-knit suburban community.
So, to use a buzz phrase that my boss loves, “let’s unpack that.”
First of all, Snapple. Really? What the hell is Snapple doing in three sentences of copy about Valley Stream being the best place to live in New York State? And I believe we have one colonial site. This is why I mostly avoid magazines.
Second of all, I’m very aware of the “major highway arteries” and the Long Island Railroad, thank you so much, as well as being five miles from JFK Airport. It’s often very noisy around here. It’s not “Manhattan noisy”, or even “Queens noisy”. You can still hear the birds. There still are occasional moments of relative quiet. But if you listen for it, there’s almost always a dull roar of the motor noise of trains, plains, automobiles and leaf blowers emanating from our surroundings, and I’m not entirely sure that this isn’t all slowly driving me insane.
Third of all, neat, clean and safe. These are just about the most relative terms you could string together to describe a place. Your idea and my idea of the threshold for earning those adjectives could be very similar or very different, depending on how much you are affected by Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder.
We’ll get to “clean” and “neat” when we get walking. (“Yawwwnnn!!!,” says Mookie). First, let’s talk about “safe”. “Safe” is ultimately what makes or breaks the reputation of a place. But again, it’s completely relative. Do I feel “safe” walking with Mookie at night through Valley Stream? Well, yeah, ‘cause we’re the scariest looking two guys out there if you’re up to something, so that’s a moot point. Do I feel safe if my 14-year old son or my wife is out after dark? Of course not, because I love them and I worry about them and I want to be with them all the time so I know where they are, but that would be true wherever we lived. That’s got nothing to do with Valley Stream.
Less than a mile to my west is Green Acres Mall, which has grown like an ink stain since it was built in the 1950’s. It has, over the years, fostered a reputation as being a slightly dangerous, crime-ridden place. So much so that the first neighborhood we’re going to visit on our walk changed it’s name from “Green Acres” to “Mill Brook” in the early 1980’s to distinguish itself from the shopping mall, a decision that at the time smacked of racism, because many of the shoppers at the mall are people of color from neighborhoods in Queens and Brooklyn. This is ironic in retrospect since all the ethnic groups that people in Green Acres were afraid of are now raising families and planting flowers in front of the houses they own in Mill Brook.
Within the last three years, Green Acres applied for and received a PILOT (Payment In Lieu Of Taxes, otherwise known as a big fat tax break) from the Town of Hempstead to expand yet again. Part of their strategy for legally cheating on taxes and stealing money from people in Valley Stream was to sell Green Acres as a “tourist attraction”, since more than 50% of the customer base comes from outside Nassau County. The mall is literally right on the New York City border. And so, when people on Valley Stream social media pages want to make snide comments about people from the city, they call them tourists. Isn’t that clever?
Statistically, I don’t know how true the perception of Green Acres Mall being unsafe is or ever was. But I can tell you this: The creek amplifies noise. All creeks do. It’s a property of water. If there’s a particularly egregious crime at the mall (I’d say an average of between 6-10 times a year depending on how hot the summer is and how much the giant flat-screen TV’s are going for on Black Friday) you’ll know about it at Duffy’s Creek. You’ll hear the angry roar of helicopters circling overhead (followed seconds later by the angry roar of people on the Valley Stream News Facebook page reporting helicopters circling overhead), and the apocalyptic sirens from emergency vehicles racing down Sunrise Highway and Mill Road.
At times like these, Green Acres is less a shopping mall than an encroaching monster that wants to eat my quality of life. Of course, it would certainly be LESS safe here if there WERE no circling helicopters and emergency vehicles ready to respond in minutes to intervene in whatever nonsense is going down. We pay some of the highest property taxes in the country for that sort of thing. And Roosevelt Field, the bigger shopping mall to the east bordered by the much more wealthy community of Garden City, makes it into Newsday for spectacularly stupid crimes as much as Green Acres does.
And the other 99% of the time, when there are no egregious crimes being committed, it’s just a shopping mall. And me, I hate shopping malls. They’re gross. I like forests. And lakes. But if you’re OK with shopping malls, go ahead and visit Green Acres Mall sometime. Don’t worry. It’s plenty safe. It’s a tourist attraction. Go there and waste your money.
Meanwhile, now that we’ve established that “safe” is an illusion that means absolutely nothing no matter where you live, let’s get to that walk. As you look across the street from my house, the first thing you will say is “What the…?” And then you will smile your dopiest smile, because you’ve just had your first look at the house of my longtime neighbor and friend John and his wife Amanda who live across the street. John and I disagree vehemently on politics, so we never ever talk about it when we see each other. However, I have great respect for and truly enjoy his execution of the American rights and traditions that allow one to do whatever the hell one wants to one’s house within local zoning regulations. Plus he does our taxes, and we always do pretty well. So I have no problem living across the street from a house that has been remodeled to resemble a giant log cabin.
Thanks to my neighbor John for giving me permission to share this view of his house from my house.
Yeah. That’s right. A giant log cabin. AND, there are two “showcases” in the front of the house. In one of those showcases you’ll see a life-size gorilla statue, along with a life-size guy who looks a little like John himself sitting in a chair in a white suit and a Panama hat, with a parrot on his shoulder, a totem pole and a monkey scaling a tree behind him. In the other showcase you’ll see a bear, several small hippos and a family of prairie dogs. You’ll also notice the two grazing bison attached to the second floor balcony and the almost life-sized plastic representation of a Tennessee Walking Horse mounted on the fence. Completing the look is a stone wall in the corner of the property with a faux blue pond made of concrete, engraved with various animal drawings, “flowing” out to the sidewalk.
I’ve seen a lot of people take pictures of John’s house. Selfies, mostly. I find it extremely amusing. And I know he doesn’t give a flying rat what anyone thinks of his log cabin, which another reason I like him. And since we have Valley Stream South High School up at the top of the dead-end of Jedwood Place, we have lots of pedestrian and vehicle traffic passing by our houses – and lots of very loud teenagers – when school is open. As a matter of fact, you literally can’t get out of our driveway between 7:15 and 7:40 a.m. on school days as the street is one long convoy of cars dropping those same teenagers off at school, most of whom live no more than a mile away. My friends all walked to school here, even the ones who lived two miles away. Most of them are still alive. Just sayin.’
Valley Stream South High School, where we regularly trespass and occasionally get off the leash to go get it. The new football field really pisses us off
As we set out on our five-mile walk (did I mention that?) we have three possible trails: We can walk towards Valley Stream South High School, my alma mater, where we don’t give damn about trespassing on the field because of the school taxes we pay (and Mookie has lots of friends in high places anyway). They’re currently transforming the South football field from natural to artificial turf, which Mookie and I, along with the sandpipers, agree is a really stupid idea, but we had no say in it at all. Walking up that way, we might see my next-door neighbor, originally from the Philippines, who Mookie has loved since he was a puppy, and how could you not? We might see Raffi, who doesn’t like Mookie sniffing at him, but who feeds me really good noodle and pastry stuff after Ramadan so I give him jars of homemade bread and butter pickles on my summer vacation. (All my other friendly neighbors get them. I don’t concern myself with the unfriendly ones, and Mookie knows not to stop in front of their houses).
We might see Bob walking his dog Eli the other way and we might say something about the Mets. One family of Mookie’s best friends moved to Florida last year and we both miss them. But he’s recently worn some other people down at the end of the street who now say hi to him by name. Up at the high school soccer field, Mookie might get to chase a ball off the leash if no one is around, but if it’s Sunday, they’ll be twenty gentleman of various ages, all in way, way better shape than I am, playing The Beautiful Game like their lives depended on it. When school is open, Mookie collects high school students. They’re not so bad, even with the littering. I digress.
If we take trail #2 and walk up Cluett, we’ll see a house that belongs to some wonderful neighbors of ours that is currently being renovated and has been raised way high off the ground to survive the next big hurricane. From what I can see, I like their chances. Mookie will check to see if his very best friend Vacco is relaxing in the hammock that hangs from the walls of his spotless garage, and if so will have to charge at him and wag his tail maniacally for a face rub while Vacco and I talk about our solar panels.
But we’re going to take trail #3 and walk up Jedwood towards Mill Road and around the Creek, into Mill Brook, which I still call Green Acres. There’s a story I want to tell you about the path on the other side. Walking up to the corner, we’ll pass about twenty houses, and Mookie has friends in at eight of them. He’s working on the other twelve.
The Mill Brook community (when it was Green Acres) used to be connected to Jedwood via a pedestrian bridge over Duffy’s Creek (called, not surprisingly, “the Bridge”) but it was deemed unsafe after a kid got stabbed there (long, stupid story) and it was demolished, meaning most kids from Mill Brook now either walk or get a ride down Jedwood to get to school. So once upon a time, you, me and Mookie could’ve walked to the footpath on other side of Duffy’s Creek from the high school without going to Mill Road and passing the stores. And if the bridge were there, I could tell you about all the bottles of cheap beer and other commodities that were consumed over the years by generations of Valley Stream South students. But it isn’t. So I won’t.
Instead we have to make our way past the insane little white dog that occasionally runs out into traffic to chase after us at the corner of Jedwood and Mill, and walk north past the stores.
Here’s the good news about the row of stores at the corner of Jedwood Place and Mill Road. There’s a dry cleaner, a deli, a pizza place which I don’t like but my son does, a Chinese take-out that everybody likes, and deli that’s really a bodega, which is different from a deli but I don’t have the patience to explain to you why that is if you don’t already know. There is a certain convenience in having these things in your neighborhood. I guess that makes them convenience stores.
Here’s the bad news about the row of stores at the corner of Jedwood Place and Mill Road. 1) It has not been updated since 1950. It’s shabby and run-down looking and there is 68 years of gum embedded in the sidewalk. They use the steel doors use that you see in the picture when they’re closed, which makes the neighborhood look worse than it is, but I suppose it’s better than broken plate glass, which would do the same. 2) Nassau County owns a strip of land next to the row of stores that abuts Duffy’s Creek. They have not cleaned this area in my lifetime. It’s a wasteland of weeds, dead trees and garbage, as disgusting as anything you’ll ever see in a place where the median family income is $85,00 a year. It screams, for all the world to hear, that here in Southwest Nassau County, we just don’t give a fuck. The water spilling from the culvert under Mill Road into the creek smells like death, but more about that later, too. 3) There is a very large laundromat between the deli and the pizza place and people double park in front of it all the time. 4) The first store was a dive bar for most of my life – originally called “The Sportsman’s Rendezvous” – but has become a Nail Salon. It is one of approximately 500 nail salons in a five-mile radius. I never hung out in the dive bar, but I’m sure there were a lot less nefarious things going on in the Sportsman’s Rendezvous than there are in the Nail Salon. But that’s just me. 5) The Garbage.
The Path along the Left Bank of Duffy’s Creek, owned by the Town of Hempstead.
The spillway under Mill Road, where the “fresh” water from Hendrickson Lake and Mill Pond meets the salt water from Jamaica Bay at Diuffy’s Creek,
Mill Pond Park, Village Of Valley Stream
Mill Pond Park, Village Of Valley Stream. They tell me they can’t do much about the pond scum, and I’ve met pond scum, so I get that.
The toxic wasteland is owned by Nassau County. If you don’t believe that it is a toxic wasteland, I’d invite you to go take a whiff.
The amount of garbage on the street in and around Jedwood Place, most of it originating from the row of stores, and the very loud teenagers from the high school, whom Mookie loves and who visit those stores regularly, would have cost Valley Stream our Money Magazine “Best Place To Live in New York” designation if Money Magazine had known about it. I regularly feel like the Crying Indian when I walk around and see all the garbage that kids drop on the street (and that people throw out of their car windows after dropping their kids off at the high school. Don’t worry. I see you). There was a big push back in the 70’s to get people to stop littering, because nobody really wanted to make the Indian cry. But somehow, somewhere along the line, this morphed into the idea that people are paid to pick up after you. And who the hell is the Crying Indian? If you litter on Jedwood Place, ultimately, I pick up after you for free, because I get to the point where I can’t look at it anymore. People walk around with a bottle of something and a magic rectangle everywhere they go but somehow carrying a wrapper, or that now empty bottle of something, to the next garbage can is far too great a burden. This is a Valley Stream problem and a Long Island problem in general. We spent a week in Copake, NY and a week in Saranac Lake, NY this summer. There are fewer people in these places, of course, but none of them throw their fucking garbage in the street. So it’s not like a ratio or anything. People on Long Island – though I like many of them, and Mookie loves all of them – are pigs. There, I said it.
But Mookie, of course, doesn’t mind at all. He’s more interested in smells and finding people to say hi to than he is in aesthetics. This is one part of me that refuses to become partly a dog.
So we’re past the stores now, we’ve checked for terrapin turtles sunning themselves on the rocks next to the horrible-smelling spillway (sometimes we see our friend Steve who works at the high school looking for turtles, too). We’re around to the Right Bank of Duffy’s Creek, going down the path that runs behind the backyards in the “new” section of Mill Brook. We could have gone straight and gone through “Old Green Acres” on the streets north of Flower Road, which was the part of the development built in 1939 and features some very nice tudors and brick colonials that help keep the property value up on our little wooden box, but I would rather show you this path. I have my reasons.
My sister Mary Frances on The Path, around 1958
The same spot in 2018
Unlike much of Valley Stream, the path along Duffy’s Creek -which like Jedwood Place is outside the boundaries of the Village of Valley Stream and within the jurisdiction of the Town of Hempstead – looks pretty much the same as it did when I was a kid, but with one big difference: There’s less of it. The creek has been eroding the path for as long as they’ve been matched together. The hard surface of the path is just about gone in most places. Tall Phragmites (what my father referred to as “woozy-woozies” when he had small children and even when he didn’t) block your view of the water through most of it, except where one guy takes it upon himself to cut them all down with one of his many, many power tools so he can see the creek from his deck, which happens to be directly across the water from our house. It’s a reasonably nice place to walk your dog, as Mookie can attest. But it’s supposed to be a lot nicer. And I can prove that with a 123 page pdf file available online from the New York State Office of Storm Recovery, otherwise known as “New York Rising.”
South Valley Stream got whacked pretty well by Hurricane Sandy (or “Superstorm Sandy” if you insist, but please don’t). Being just south of Sunrise Highway, we were on the northern end of the area that got flooded. Towns south of us, East Rockaway, Oceanside and Long Beach in particular, were whacked much, much more devastatingly. (Not sure if anybody at FEMA uses the term, “whacked” to describe what happened, but I’m going with it).
About a year and a half after Hurricane Sandy surrounded our house in four feet of tidal surge on the night of October 29th, 2012, I heard about a meeting, the first in a series of meetings, at the Forest Road School, where the Mill Brook Civic Association would be taking public comments on how to spend the $3 Million in New York Rising Storm Recovery money that was apportioned to South Valley Stream. I just wanted to make sure they weren’t planning to build concrete retaining walls along my creek and declare it as a permanent open sewer, because that would really piss off the egrets. (I have a few). I was pleasantly surprised to see that this was not the plan.
New York State contracted with the Louis Berger Group as consultants to advise individual communities on how to spend the money they were getting through New York Rising. The Louis Berger Group (I saw them at the Peppermint Lounge in ’83) would work with existing community organizations to formulate and document a plan of action. The exiting community organization here was (and is) the Mill Brook Civic Association, even though Mill Brook is only about one-third of South Valley Stream. Gibson used to have a civic association but it doesn’t anymore because the old one died and I haven’t had the time to start the new one, and neither has Sean Lally.
I was wary of what the folks in the Mill Brook Civic Association were up to, so I kept haunting their meetings. Again, I was pleasantly surprised by the plan, officially published in March of 2014. Through going to the meetings, I got to know a wonderful gentleman who was leading the Louis Berger Group contingent for the project, a Dutch fellow by the name of Niek, or Neiyk. No matter. We got talking about birds. I told him that when I first moved back to my childhood home here, I documented the different bird species we saw.
I had always noticed the variety of birds around here as a kid, but I never got all citizen science about it until I was a homeowner, and they were MY birds. Way back then in 2002 we still had two gigantic maple trees out front and two Bradford pears in the back that were allowed to get out of control before our arrival, and they were all threatening to kill the house, so we eventually had to have them taken down. (We have replaced them, and then some, but trees take time). There were several giant Eastern White Pines in the neighborhood that have since been taken down or blown over in storms. Sadly, a beautiful oak tree on my next door neighbors’ property (once my grandmother’s), a tree that was probably planted along the creek by the Reising Farm owners before the houses were built, had to come down just this summer.
Big trees mean lots of birds, of course. And fewer trees mean fewer birds. And who doesn’t like birds? But sometimes where little wooden boxes are jammed together in 60 x 100 plots, you have to take down big trees, because they might kill you. And when you lose the trees, you lose the birds, who I’m sure don’t understand what the hell anyone would have against a big tree. I used to say that Duffy’s Creek was a great place to be a bird. Sadly, it’s come to the point, especially after losing the oak tree this summer, that if I were a bird, I’d probably blow this hot dog stand and move upstate.
But back when Trisha and I moved in, and we still had lots of big trees, filling up the bird feeders would get you twenty cardinals at sunset on a snowy afternoon. Waves of warblers and other migrant songbirds stopped in our trees in the spring and fall. We still have an impressive variety of waterfowl, especially in fall and winter, but every year the creek is neglected, it gets a little less populated. But in a year or so upon moving back to Jedwood Place in back in 2002, I had identified close to a hundred different species of birds in our yard and on our creek. Most of them I will never see here again because of the whole tree thing, but this little tidbit was still very impressive to Niek, or Neiyk, who had himself grown up in the Netherlands along a river (I knew that without him telling me) and was still something of a bird guy himself. At the meeting where the Louis Berger Group were unveiling the New York Rising plan for South Valley Stream, he told me that I should send him a list of those birds, and so I did.
The plan that Niek, or Nieyk and the Louis Berger Group put together was a beautiful thing. Landscaping and naturalizing the path, planting lots of trees, replacing the sewer pipes with a wetland filtration system (called a “bioswale”) that would clean the water over time. And to top it off, South Valley Stream was awarded another $3 million from New York State in “Race To The Top” money (gag me) for showing that the plan could, among other things, help bring back the birds on the list I sent to Neik, or Nieyk, who gave me some of the credit for the $3 million when nobody else did, which he didn’t have to do because all I did was count birds, but I appreciated it. I met some great people through stalking the Mill Brook Civic Association. They made me feel very optomistic about living here.
Now you may recall, a couple of paragraphs back, that this plan was published in 2014. The Town of Hempstead received the money from the State of New York to implement the plan. They’re sitting on $6 million as far as I know. And as you may have guessed from our walk today, they haven’t done shit yet, besides stick some flags in the ground and mow the grass.
But I’m hopeful. And our walk continues.
We’re around on the other side of the creek now, and in this section, past the path, there are house on both sides of the creek. There’s a style of house here, and on Rosedale Road where we emerge at Hoeffner’s Gas station on the city line (opened when the whole area was still Hoeffner’s Farm) and in the neighborhood on the other side of South High School from Jedwood, which I can only describe as the ”three little window houses”. They’re ranches with attached garages and a room jutting out towards the street with three ridiculously small windows hung in a parallel line at the top of the wall. Having been in those houses, I can tell you they’re nice from the inside. Big open floor plans and all that. They’re just kind of goofy looking from the outside.
Hoeffner’s Gas Station. The New York City Line is less than 500 feet from here.
I can’t say anything if you won’t let me in to see anything.
A Three Little Window House
Temple Hillel, Rosedale Road
The “Lilco Woods”
Which brings us to two “when I was a kid” observations that are true of this neighborhood and the rest of the places we’ll pass on our walk.
Observation #1: Every house on every street used to look like every other house on that street. That’s not quite as true anymore, as people have remodeled, and in some cases created great Taj Mahal-like structures from the little ranches and capes they started out with. This is more true in Mill Brook / Green Acres and the “North Woodmere” section of South Valley Stream. A lot of Mr. Gibson’s streets look structurally as they did 100 years ago. As an architecture fan, I find some of the remodels classy and sharp, and others a violent assault on my senses. But, like John’s Log Cabin, I respect and admire people for making these boxes into their own personal statements to the world. It’s a very American thing to do. We haven’t built a Taj Mahal, but we’ve planted a lot of flowers and trees. That’s a human thing to do.
Observation #2: When I was a lad here, the community of Green Acres, as well as the development along Rosedale Road up into North Woodmere, was a primarily Jewish neighborhood. I personally went to at least five bar and bas mitzvahs. Had a great time, too, as I remember. The majority of Valley Streamers were of Italian, Jewish, German and Irish descent, like my parents, one-generation removed from apartment buildings in Brooklyn and Queens, just like the new folks moving in these days. People of color lived across the City Line (at the time even further, the color line was really Brookville Boulevard in Rosedale, Queens) and that’s the way it was. As a matter of fact, you should read this New York Times story from 1979 and some 2010 census statistics before we go on, so as you continue on our walk up into the heart Valley Stream, you can see how far we’ve come, and why there’s really no such thing here as an anyone’s neighborhood anymore, and that’s a good thing:
VALLEY STREAM, L.I., Aug. 15 – A crude wooden cross was set afire last night on the front lawn of a house that a black family moved into here last week.
The cross was discovered at 10:15 P.M. by Inga Grant, the mother of seven children, who had moved into the two‐story, four‐bedroom colonial house from Rego Park, Queens, according to the Nassau County police.
They said the family had received obscene telephone calls and that windows had been broken while it was moving into the house, at 101 Woodlawn Avenue, in this South Shore village that neighbors said was predominantly white.
A real‐estate agent who had an exclusive listing on the house for several months, but did not sell it to Mrs. Grant, said today that he had been receiving obscene and threatening phone calls since Aug. 1, when the sale, reported at “upward of $70,000,” was closed.
Few of the neighbors gathered near the house today expressed sympathy for the Grants. And some of them said there had been neighborhood speculation that the sale was an attempt at blockbusting that is, inducing homeowners to sell quickly by creating the fear that purchases of homes by members of a minority group will cause a loss in value.
Now here’s the Wiki for the latest demographics of South Valley Stream, not including most of the Village of Valley Stream or North Valley Stream, which for the record are equally or more diverse. The CDP is my little “census designated place”, which is relatively small in area compared to everything that’s called “Valley Stream”. It’s a little confusing, I understand:
As of the census of 2010, there were 5,962 people, 1,969 households, and 1,554 families residing in the CDP. The population density was 6,415.1 per square mile. (Holy crap). There were 2,045 housing units at an average density of 2,326.9/sq mi. The racial makeup of the CDP was 51.90% White, 23.10% African American, 0.07% Native American, 18.10% Asian, 0.00% Pacific Islander, 4.40% from other races, and 2.20% from two or more races. Hispanic or Latino of any race were 9.80% of the population.
As for the “loss of value” that haunted the dreams of Woodlawn Avenue residents 29 years ago (not all of them, of course), you might be interested to know that the average price of a house in my neighborhood today is $462,000 big ones. We just do that to keep the riff-raff out.
And I suspect, based on the unscientific method of walking around with my dog, that the 2020 census will show more even slices of pie among white, African American Hispanic or Latino and Asian. And more and more, there’s an overlap among them all. And, not for nothin’, half of us have college diplomas. So fuck you.
Sorry, I didn’t mean that. We’re just a little defensive here sometimes. It’s because of Rockville Centre and Hewlett.
Statistically speaking, concepts of race and ethnicity could someday disappear altogether in a place like Valley Stream, which is pretty noteworthy considering the attitudes of 1979, when I was in 10th grade at Italian-Jewish-Irish South High School and knew those cross burners personally, or at least their families. And, while it’s easy to say this for a white guy, and I try to be aware of the systemic, institutionalized racism that people darker than myself have to put up with all the time no matter how enlightened their community supposedly is, I believe that in some ways, we’re almost there. As people get to know their neighbors, and share the common spaces, they see each other’s colors less and less. Unless they’re beyond hope, and most of the people who were beyond hope left here years ago. Valley Stream is not perfect in this regard, but it’s become a pretty good place to walk around in whatever color skin you happened to have been born wearing.
Let’s keep walking.
We’re on Rosedale Road, which for no good reason becomes Brookfield Road when it intersects Hungry Harbor Road, which was actually named for people who were hungry. Squatters, I’m told. We’re passing a fenced-off two acres or so of woods that belongs to Long Island American Water. There’s a good story behind this little piece of woods that you should say something if you see something in, even though you can’t go in it, but I’ve already told that story in a previous blog post: https://duffyscreek.com/2016/08/07/taking-a-walk-an-abridged-10000-year-history-of-south-valley-stream and we’re crossing Mill Road again, heading up Dubois Avenue, where Du Boys used to hang out in front of the candy store and the deli at Gibson Station.
Yes, almost forty years ago, I was one of the boys. A scrawny, tag-along boy but a Verified Gibson Rat just the same. Where the Nail Salon is now (one of the five-hundred) was once Jimmy and Ronny Duffy’s “Candy Store”, which as anyone from Long Island would know is a place where you could buy candy, newspapers, magazines, greeting cards, Whiffle Bats and Spalding Balls and odd stuff hanging around like flyswatters, condoms and birthday cake candles. There was also be the obligatory pinball tables, and later video games, in the back of the store, eager to swallow the quarters of local idiots. I got pretty good at Asteroids, but never could handle Defender.
Jimmy was Ronny’s father, and their names weren’t actually Duffy. They were using Jimmy’s wife’s maiden name to avoid something or somebody, but I didn’t care. They treated me and the rest of the knuckleheads who hung around the store like Italian family. Still, in retrospect, I regard every second hanging around Gibson Station as a colossal waste of time. I guess I must have learned something from the experience, but I have no idea what. Maybe how to act more Italian, but I could never pull it off. Oh, well.
Today my favorite thing about Gibson Station (besides the fact that it is frozen in time and could be easily used for the “1979” scenes of my biopic) are the guys who make Mookie and I our bacon and egg breakfast at the Cold Cut Express. Not being invited inside, Mookie stays tied up to a parking meter no one ever feeds (shhh!!!) and usually makes at least one new friend in the time it takes to scramble two eggs. As most people in this line of work now, the guys at the Cod Cut Express are immigrants from somewhere and they work and they work and they work. They are gentleman who treat their often annoying customers with respect and I appreciate them being there, as the only time I see them is when I’m not working.
And one of these days, I have to check out Meli Melo, which is the Cajun-Creole restaurant that opened where Goldie’s, an Italian Restaurant, used to be. (“A Taste of Louisiana and Haiti”) Mookie and I had a nice conversation one morning with a guy who was working on the remodel for a long, long time. (They’d have to put the smiling clown from the Goldie’s sign back up to shoot those 1979 scenes). When Goldie’s was empty, I had a fun little dream about buying a winning lotto ticket at the Cold Cut Express and opening “Duffy’s At The Station”, but I guess now it’s too late, and I wish Meli Melo nothing but success. We’re walking north up Dubois Ave. now, leaving Du Boys at the Cold Cut Express and Du New Boys at Meli Melo to keep chasing their American dreams.
On the left side of the street are some beautiful colonial houses with big front porches that predate Mr. Gibson. Starting on the right side of Dubois and heading south are Mr. Gibson’s 1920’s era, rather unique Pointy Houses.
As I walk through all these neighborhoods, I’m privately amused when I consider that I’ve been inside at least one example of each style of house, even though the people who lived in those houses when I visited are long gone, and the people who live there now have no idea I’ve been in their houses. I still keep in touch with lots of people from high school, and they live all over, and I pass their childhood houses all the time. The kids who lived in this neighborhood either went to William L. Buck or Brooklyn Avenue School. I went to Robert W. Carbonaro, which is on back on Hungry Harbor Road around the corner from Jedwood Place.
Brooklyn Avenue is a beautiful old building from the 1920’s. Buck and Carbonaro are identical buildings, 1960’s Splanch Style, approximately two miles away from each other, at the southwest and northeast polar ends of Mookie’s turf. When our son had some accumulated trouble at Carbonaro in fourth grade, he went in to the BOCES system for a year, and then we insisted that he go back to his home district. This story is, of course, a lot more involved than what I’m telling you.
There was a new principal at Carbonaro at the time. My personal interactions with him were both pleasant and nauseating. Overall, the place seemed a bit on edge. We met some great people there, and some maybe not so much. I myself spent seven wonderfully happy years at Carbonaro from 1968 to 1975. As for our son, the district people didn’t want him to go back to Carbonaro and agreed to enroll him at Buck. That summer, the principal at Buck got in touch with me to invite my son in to look over the building (and teach him all about the new geothermal heating and cooling system that had just been installed for free by New York State) and introduce him to his teacher. They were nothing but kind. The school was a happy place. And our son ended up having his best year in elementary school.
So now every time Mookie and I walk past Carbonaro (pretty much every day) I feel a little twinge of betrayal mixed in with the nostalgia. And every time we walk past Buck, which is different but looks almost exactly the same, I’m reminded to keep an open mind, and have some faith that things have away of working themselves out.
Meanwhile, I could take you through some really drop-dead gorgeous neighborhoods at this point, the nicest streets in South Valley Stream, between Rockaway Avenue and Forest and Brooklyn Avenues, pre-Gibson colonials with big front porches set back from the street on huge plots of land with lots of big trees that don’t want to kill anyone. There are also neighborhoods like this in Central and North Valley Stream – particularly Westwood on the border of Malverne – but we’re not going that far today, because that’s generally outside of our walking turf and I’m looking down the barrel of 8,000 words already.
We’re going straight up Rockaway Avenue, across Sunrise Highway. In short, we’re going to town. You get to see the sights, visit our fine stores and restaurants. And you get to meet David Sabatino.
Mookie’s psyched. He slipped David the tongue once when he kissed him.
First we have to wind our way along the part of Rockaway south of the highway, where you’ll pass Wondarama, where they’ve been fixing flats and replacing batteries for 45 years or so. Across the street is Temple Beth Shalom. There is a small Hasidic community that lives in some of the houses around the temple. They enjoy seeing Mookie and I out walking with them on Saturday mornings. He wags his tail for them.
Right next door to the temple are two warehouse buildings, the second a monstrosity of contemporary glass in your face architecture, which went up in the last three years. A company called International that distributes many, many bottles of booze owns both buildings. And if you say, “well, gosh, those buildings are nice for warehouses and all but they’re totally too big and out of character for the area,” Then I’d agree with you and watch your reaction when we come up on the Sun Valley Apartment Building.
Yes, folks, this is the future of Valley Stream. Five stories, 72 modern squirrel cages with Blink Fitness on the ground floor and a tennis court on the roof where in four years I have yet to see a tennis ball in flight when I happen to look up. It may yet happen.
People want to live here. They like the schools, and the parks. They even like the mall. The population is exploding. Since you’re not getting our little wooden box for under $400,000, housing is a problem. Plus, in another five years or so, the Long Island Rail Road will have burrowed through to Grand Central Station in Manhattan, finally creating direct access from Long Island train stations to the East Side of Manhattan, and as Money Magazine breathlessly told you, we could be on the next train west from Valley Stream and jostling our way through Penn Station in 35 minutes. It’s great, isn’t it? And now you can add in a couple of thousand people who would like to be jostling through Grand Central in 45 minutes, and the end result is apartment buildings, and lots of ‘em.
It’s a tide you just can’t fight. And you can take that from an experienced kayaker and worry wart. To suggest it’s “out of character” for a suburban “bedroom community” to have buildings with 74 apartments on a commercial corner is a shortsighted notion and completely out of touch with reality. This was something I had to learn. When Sun Valley was going up (and up and up) I bitched and moaned to the Deputy Mayor, a wonderful fellow who excels at debate, mostly about what I saw as the horrible aesthetics of the building. A lot of people who were watching this thing go up described it in terms of the Bronx House of Detention.
Deputy Mayor Vincent Grasso said, “Just wait until it’s done.” The Village didn’t sign off on the CO until the development company, which was making it’s first foray into Nassau County after a successfully putting people in cages in Queens and Brooklyn for years, made a series of aesthetic improvements to the building’s exterior. It was pretty amazing to me how just a clean buttress line along the top of the building and two-toned brick made it seem less like a tenement. As giant apartment buildings go, I’ve seen worse. But people still complain about it, as they are complaining about several other apartment buildings either planned or currently rising like steel Godzillas around town.
You want to take these folks at their word, that it’s overcrowding they are most concerned about. But Lynbrook and Rockville Centre, the next two towns down the highway, considered more affluent than Valley Stream, have always had lots of apartment buildings (albeit somewhat lower to the ground) mixed in with the beautiful houses, with more going up as we speak. And the whole damn Island is choked with people and cars already. So unfortunately, I think the overcrowding argument is a just a cover.
There is a mild strain of Trumpanzeeism, “more white, more right” thinking that still pervades, bubbling under the surface of Valley Stream, despite the diversity we’ve achieved here. You see it especially in some of the comments on social media pages and in comment threads attached to articles in the Valley Stream Herald newspaper. Case in point: A contingent of people went absolutely bugfuck last year when the Herald printed an article about a Muslim group petitioning the schools to declare Eid Al-Fatir as a school holiday. It’s an ugly little microcosm of the nativism that rages in some other parts of the country in the Age of Twitler and his MAGAT’s. For the most part, these people quickly reveal themselves for what they are and what they believe to be true about the “kind” of people moving into town. They stand out through their small-mindedness here, and the future is leaving them behind.
Up in the Adirondacks, my family used to stay near the tiny crossroads of Onchiota, NY, where the local General Store owner and Postmaster, Bing Tormey, posted signs around his little main square that became legendary. The best of these was: “You are leaving 97 of the friendlist people in the Adirondacks (plus a couple of soreheads).”
There ya go.
Me, I don’t particularly like apartment buildings. We lived in one – the really old one on Grove Street across from Holy Name of Mary Church – for a year and a half before we came here. Nothing personal against the other people whose lives led them to that same apartment building, but for us personally, the experience was like being under siege all the time. I like mountains. And rivers. We’re really just here for the money, my wife and I. So we can go visit mountains and rivers. This is where our jobs are, and this is my son’s hometown. If we left, it sure wouldn’t be because of anybody who’s moving in.
And yes, every town on Long Island is a property tax rabbit hole and everything costs way too much, but the opportunities exist here to do pretty much anything for a living (except maybe forestry or sheparding) and live a decent middle-class life. We have a lot invested in getting up and going to work in the morning, and we get a pretty good return on that investment. Not great, but pretty good. All things considered, we have very, very little to complain about compared to most of the people on Earth.
And this past weekend, the people who monitor the Valley Stream News Facebook – the first ones to tell you the helicopters are flying over the mall and all hell is breaking loose again – had a get-together at our very neat and clean Hendrickson Park, where people came on down and met their neighbors for a pot-luck meal and some pleasant company on a Saturday afternoon, all happy to be part of the scene in New York State’s best town. I’ll let the picture below stand for itself . Not pictured is John Duffy or his family, as we were upstate in Copake Falls that day (ironically) but otherwise we’d have be there, and I appreciate every effort that people make to make this a better place, knowing full-well that it will never be 1955 ever again, and the whole world is crowded except for Onchiota, NY.
The reality of Valley Stream, Long Island in 2018, is simply not the reality my parents bought into in 1955. With nothing but $400,000 houses, there’s really no place for people get started here. And many of the people who are trying to get started here anyway are from other places in the world, many of them having done their time in those same neighborhoods in Queens and Brooklyn that produced the population of post-war Long Island. And one could take it as a compliment that they think so much of Valley Stream that this is where they want to live and raise their kids. Or one could bemoan the fact that one’s hometown is not what it was. But really, nothing is, so what sense does that make? And for the second and third generations of Valley Streamers like myself, why would you begrudge people who are trying to do for their kids what your parents did for you, no matter where those people came from?
We’re waiting at the light to cross Sunrise Highway right now, and there’s always the chance we might get killed. It’s a busy, angry, stressed-out six-lane highway in a town full of busy, angry, stressed out drivers on roads choked with way too many cars, hence there are generally two or three fatalities a year on Sunrise Highway just in Nassau County alone. The State DOT just finished a big expensive reconstruction that, I have to admit, made me feel better about my chances of not getting killed. Included in that reconstruction was a series of crosswalks where you press the button and a very commanding computer voice tells you very matter-of-factly to “WAIT.” The first time Mookie heard this, he looked back at me to figure out how the hell I did that with my voice. And, of course, he waited, because he’s a good dog. And I laughed and I laughed.
Now we’re walking up Valley Stream’s main drag. The question of “what can we do to make people shop on Rockaway Avenue?” has been bandied about since Green Acres was built. (Here’s an idea: Don’t build Green Acres). Rockaway Avenue has been slightly dysfunctional for most of my life, but like me, it gets by. There used to be a movie theatre, The Rio, which was actually an old vaudeville playhouse. I saw the Grateful Dead Movie there at least five times, and saw the Stray Cats perform on the 4th of July, probably 35 years ago. In many towns east and north of us in Nassau County and out into Suffolk County, people made the investment to save their local one-screen movie houses and turn them into performing arts spaces. Subsequently, if you look around, there are interesting places to see plays and live music and vintage films all over Long Island and Valley Stream isn’t one of them. Oops.
We do have Ancona, which is famous for their true New York pizza, calzones and heroes, and where you are officially in with the Valley Stream in-crowd if George knows you by name. We have Itgen’s, famous for their homemade ice cream, and recently sold with the promise that it will continue. We have Mitchell’s, a nice little restaurant, though I prefer the Valbrook Diner up on Merrick Road, and an Italian Restaurant called Mia’s that’s been on my list of places to try a lot longer than Meli Melo. We used to have Morris’ Variety, which for years was the place to get everything from a screw to a fake Christmas tree. It was taken over a few years back by Raindew. Not quite as quirky as Morris’, but it serves the same purpose. They got me hooked on Yankee Candles. A lot of businesses have disappeared over the years, but there are a surprising number of survivors.
Among the Rockaway Avenue old-timers are the T & F Pork Store, DePalma Florist, Larry’s Bar, Woods Locksmith, Ciccarelli the Tailor (make-a you a nice suit), Brancard’s Deli, Valley Home Care and Surgical Supplies, Valley Stream Pharmacy, Chicken Gyro Delicious and the stalwart Sal and Vin’s Barbershop, established in 1952. Tell Michael you know me.
Rockaway Avenue is also the go-to place if you like Latin American and South American cuisine. The Chicken Coop does Colombian chicken. There’s a couple of Spanish delis plus the Juanito Bakery and Café, and my favorite, the San Antonio Bakery, that will make you a hot dog they call a “compleato” – with avocado and a bun they made at 6am – that’ll knock you on your ass. If you want to go Mediterranean, there’s Sam’s Halal Steak and Grill where a Not-Halal Steak and Grill called P.J Harper’s used to be, and the Nightcap Café used to be before that. Haven’t tried it but I hear good things.
And yet, with this all going for it, Rockaway Avenue looks kind of shabby compared to other main drags on the Island. Beyond the stores I mentioned are your usual nail and hair salons, dollar stores, second-hand merchandise stores, empty storefronts and (of course) a T-Mobile. Taken as a whole, living organism, it doesn’t seem cohesive. It has a “patched together” quality about it. Many of the surrounding downtowns have invested more in visual appeal, fancy sidewalks and facades and uniform signage and the like. It’s also a heavily trafficked street so it’s somewhat noisy and dirty in general. The Village recently reclaimed an old building across from Ancona and renovated it into the Village Court in an effort to bring in more pedestrian traffic around Rockaway businesses and restaurants, so it’s not like they’re not trying.
But here’s the thing: Ultimately, how important is aesthetics if I can get a haircut, a new welcome mat, a compleato or a meatball parm hero and even get my wife’s shoes fixed by an old-timey shoe repair guy? How badly do I need bricked sidewalks and signs that all in the same typeface? I’d like the stores and the open space up the block from me to be less of a toxic wasteland, but to what end? So it suits my fussy sensibilities?
Sometimes you just have to get over it. Money Magazine thinks we’re “neat and clean”, and I’ll tell you what: As we’re walking through residential neighborhoods in Valley Stream that are now almost 100 years old, 95% of the front yards that we pass are pretty as a picture. The houses themselves, if not renovated, are well-maintained. People are house proud here, and it shows. This is all we have. We take care of it. We make lemonade.
But sometimes you have every right to be pissed. The surface of the roads, a juristictional spider web of responsibility divided among the Village, the Town of Hempstead and Nassau County, are for the most part terrible. While the parks are nice enough, too many public spaces are tired eyesores. The LIRR and the Utility Companies bear a lot of responsibility for that. Above our heads is a jungle of wires that may or may not stay up there if there’s a thunderstorm this afternoon, or a hurricane. The train trestles are rusting away.
Roads and public spaces are among the basic services that we pay property taxes for, and from what I see, they are not given priority. Somebody decided it was more important to give tax breaks to Green Acres Mall.
That’s right. Screw your roads. This is Long Island. We shop. Commerce is King here. If there are enough band-aids and rolls of duct tape holding together the infrastructure to get you to the next strip mall and back, then what the hell are you complaining about? Your neighbors in Valley Stream plant pretty flowers, and they smile at your dog. It’s the Best Place To Live in New York State. Just keep buying shit and we’ll all be fine.
Todd Pratt was a backup catcher for the New York Mets in the late 90’s / early 2000’s, when Hall of Famer Mike Piazza was the starting catcher. He was a good guy to have on your team. At this time, Shea Stadium, which was a perfectly wonderful place to go watch a baseball game, was already facing its demise. The plan, ultimately implemented in 2006, was to knock old Shea down – deemed a poorly designed relic of another time with ever-more disgusting bathrooms and concessions and 30 years of gum embedded in the concrete – and replace it with a “retro” stadium with all sorts of cool angles and seats closer and better angled towards the field, not to mention lots more expensive places to eat and cushy seats for the one-percenters.
Back in the 90’s, when the Mets flew into LaGuardia Airport after a road trip and Shea Stadium came into view from the plane, Todd Pratt would (I’ve read) stand up and make this announcement:
“Well, there it is boys. It’s kind of a dump. But it’s OUR dump.”
I get it. I never have really taken to Citi Field.
David Sabatino would get it, too, but unlike me, he wouldn’t accept it as the truth of his hometown. To David’s way of thinking, it would be blasphemous to call Valley Stream a dump, even to convey a sense of familiarity, or in my case, resignation. David, who loves Valley Stream like Mookie loves me, is the co-owner of Sip This, a coffee shop and cool hangout place that’s been on Rockaway, right across from where the movie theatre isn’t, for seven years. (It was named after Slipped Disc, the iconic hipster record store that once occupied the space. Get it? Slipped Disc? Sip This? Clever, huh? ). David also has a degree in urban planning ( I’m pretty sure) and he is a natural-born organizer. But more importantly, David is a good guy, and an optimist. And Valley Stream is lucky to have a guy like him around. So now he works for the Village as well, and very well may be the mayor someday whether he likes it or not.
He’s probably a good twenty-five years younger than me, but I didn’t have his level of energy and hope for the future when I was five, never mind thirty. It was Mookie, really who introduced me to David. In 2010, when Mookie was just a gleam in his father’s eye, I was researching dog parks to take the puppy I was getting in 2011. I came across a website for an organization called “Envision Valley Stream”, the brainchild of my friend Mr. Sabatino, which was, among other things, petitioning the Village of Valley Stream government to build and maintain a dog park.
We have a neat and clean and picturesque village park called Hendrickson Park a mile and half due north of Duffy’s Creek, which gets it fresh water and anti-freeze runoff from Mill Pond – which we’ll pass on the way back – and from Hendrickson Lake via pipes that go under Merrick Road and through the Village Green. Hendrickson Lake features a fine walking and biking path that leads up to Valley Stream State Park, and there’s an equally fine community pool complex in the park that we pay lots of money to swim in every summer. But no dogs are allowed on the path, and they can only swim in the kiddie pool on the day after Labor Day because everybody at Village Hall likes Mike Powers, who first had the idea. And how could you not?
So back in 2010, David starts planning a dog park, and I start going to his Envision Valley Stream meetings, and we strike up a friendship and all of a sudden I’m involved in the community. I start getting to know Mayor Fare (yeah, I know. It’s like it’s made up) and Deputy Mayor and Renaissance Man Vinny Grasso and other people who I liked right away because I recognized them instantly as real Valley Stream as an adjective (smart; personable; outspoken; funny; genuine).
The road to building the dog park, now located in the Village Green next to the Village Hall and the Library, had a couple of rough patches along the way. I got discouraged and frustrated, but other people who had taken David’s idea and run with it, including the aforementioned Mr. Powers, did not, because they’re better people than I am. Eventually you would have to say it was a success. So much so that the Town of Hempstead, Nassau County and other village municipalities started building more dog parks, so our dog park doesn’t get quite the crowd that it used to. Still, over the years, it’s been a great place to kill a half hour and shoot the breeze while Mookie watches dogs that are way too fast for him to keep up with. (It’s really the people park with dogs in it for Mookie).
David Sabatino, force of nature that he is, moved on to other things, including starting a family and buying a house in Westwood. Right now he’s planning a Community Garden and – get this – a “Winter Festival” centered around the ice hockey rink next to the train station. And getting involved with Sabatino’s vision gets you involved with all sorts of other people, which is indirectly how I wound up agreeing to do a presentation about the history of Valley Stream through the history of my parents for the local Historical Society. I’ll be at the Community Center on Wednesday September 12th of this year (2018). Unless of course they read this post and tell me to stuff it.
Rockawy Avenue was busy with so many people at the Valley Stream Community Feast.
Anyway, there’s one more important thing I have to tell you about Sabatino. His greatest civic accomplishment by far has been the establishment of the annual Valley Stream Community Fest on the fourth Saturday of September. For one day, Rockaway Avenue becomes a laid back pedestrian street fair, Hundreds of people turn out to stroll up and down the avenue. Every sports, civic, religious and cultural organization in town is represented, seated at folding tables with brochures and big smiles, ready to tell you all about what they do. The businesses on Rockaway get to promote themselves. Plus there’s lots of arts and crafts and junk food for sale, rides for the kids, demonstrations, people dancing around in brightly colored clothing, an antique car show and enough ethnic and religious diversity to make your average Trumpanzees want to crawl back into their caves, or possibly realize what assholes they’ve been all this time. But I doubt it.
And don’t think that Mookie doesn’t get in on all this. For three of the last four years, he’s worked a three-hour shift at the “Doggie Kissing Booth”, raising money to support the Friends of Valley Stream Dogs. On Fest Day, he’s in Mookie Heaven, wagging people over to him as they walk by (“Ohhhhh!!! Look how cute!!!) and convincing them to hand Mike a dollar so they can lean down and get a big, sloppy wet dog smooch. Once Mookie is sufficiently overwhelmed, Bella the Chocolate Lab takes over, and that’s usually when we grab a compleato from San Antonio and head on home to the backyard. The creek is too icky for Mookie to swim in, so he has a kiddie pool to jump in to cool down after his walk. I can offer you a cold Dr. Pepper.
We’ll head home along South Franklin Avenue. We’ll pass the post office, the Burrito Monster (not a fan) and the Railroad Inn next to the train station, a bar now owned by a guy I went to kindergarten with, which is next to another bar called Buckley’s that’s been an old man’s bar since before the owner of the Railroad Inn and I were in kindergarten. The Dog Park and the Village Green are over on the other side of the tracks, but we’ve put about four and half miles on the Fitbit already, and we’re a half mile from home, and Mookie and I ain’t so young anymore, so the Dog Park will have to wait for later. We’ll pass Papandrew Jewelers, where the owner, who’s the son of the original owner, once took out an armed robber. We’ll cross Sunrise (“WAIT.”) and be glad we don’t need anything from Staples today.
We could cut across Mill Pond Park, which still has some nice, big trees, but instead we’ll walk through the almost 100-year old original Gibson neighborhood anchored by Roosevelt Avenue, because Mookie has a lot of friends down that way. Passing by the Sunoco with the sign that says :”COOFFEE 99 CENTS!” (you can also get free air for your tires if you press the “botton”) we’ll make the turn at the Greek Pie Factory (they’re really tasty) and the hair salon with the sign lit up in 100-point type (“HAIR SALON!”), both on the ground floor of a very old two-story building that someone would like to knock down to build another high-rise apartment, and probably will.
We could go up to Cochran Place, which would lead us back to Gibson Station, but we’re going to cut west back towards Jedwood Place. Once on a summer Sunday afternoon we saw a group of people in a tiny back yard on Cochran who had a dance floor set up where they were all watching one couple dancing a tango. My, I was glad I saw that. This same family has some sort of parrots that used to squawk at my son and I from the windows when we rode on our bikes to the summer camp he loved going to at Barrett Park. There’s another guy along Ridge who walks his parrot on his shoulder, which makes Mookie think to himself, “My, I’m glad I saw that.”
We could walk straight down Roosevelt to Fairfield where some old guys might be leaning on a chain link fence shooting the breeze, and Mookie will growl at the dog behind that fence because they’re supposed to be his old guys. A little further on he might see his friend the 99-year old WWII veteran sitting on his porch, and he’ll stop and do his waggy waggy routine until the his old friend invites him up on the porch for a face rub.
Crossing Mill, we might see the happiest guy in the world, one of my new neighbors from somewhere far away who always greets us warmly, who is out almost every evening when the sun is shining, happily tidying up the gardens around his little house at the corner of Mill and Jedwood, where the traffic is hideous and where I wouldn’t live if you gave me $400,000 but he seems to love it. It just goes to show you. Everything is relative. And his relatives seem to enjoy it, too.
We’ll arrive home in Mookie’s backyard, and he’ll cool down in his pool. But before you go, I’ll leave you with a scene I saw on that neglected path that you see directly across the creek. Mookie and I were walking along that path one morning when we came upon a young Filipino couple getting their three little kids out of the house for a while. Two of the kids were on bikes and the youngest was walking. The kids on the bikes stopped riding, as they were very excited to meet Mookie, and he them. The father and the mother caught up to them and the father asked me about his breed and I told him and he said, “he’s a big boy.” And I said, “he sure is!” and Mookie wagged his tail.
I was thinking to myself that these people are my parents in 1958, with three little kids who need to get out of the house and a nice path along a creek (somewhat nicer then) to go for a walk right near their house.
Livin’ the Dream in Valley Stream.
And just as I was thinking this, I saw the smallest kid, who was on foot, catching up to the others and zooming in on Mookie. Then I noticed his t-shirt. It said, “YOU CAN’T STOP THIS!”
And I thought to myself: Why would I want to? Why would anyone?
Kid, let me tell you something about Valley Stream, since you’ll be growing up here just like I did. I’ve been around here a long time, and to tell you the truth I’m at the point where other places, with bigger trees and fewer cars, are calling to me. (I suppose you’ve never heard of Zillow, kid, but don’t worry about it).
For the foreseeable future, though, I suppose Mookie and I will be part of the scenery as you grow up here. And the fact is, we could both do a lot worse. I don’t know about the Best Place to Live in New York State, but your parents still picked a good place for you to live, just like my parents did. Remember that.
And kid, if and when Mookie and I do move on, please do us both a favor and take care of what’s left of the natural world around here. It’s probably going to get more and more crowded and noisy, but help out the birds any way you can. And keep your antenna up, ’cause you never know what kind of shit your local politicians will pull, or what they will neglect. Better yet, get to know them, and let them know what you think.
And this is important, kid. Don’t let anyone ever, ever make you believe that you don’t belong here. That’s up to you to decide. Until then, you belong here as much as I do.
And one more thing:
Valley Stream? The Town of Hempstead? Nassau County? Long Island? New York? America? The Planet Earth?
People throw their garbage in the street here, but people also organize street fairs. People build humongous apartment buildings here, but they also build dog parks, and maybe they’ll fix this path. People drive like psychopaths here, but they light up at red lights when they see a big happy dog smiling at them from the sidewalk. People who can get away with it steal money here to build more stores to steal more money, but the teacher or principal that you remember forever at Forest Ave. School or South High will be worth every penny your parents pay in school taxes. People make a mess of things here, and people keep it from becoming a complete mess.
George Bailey, the regular-guy hero of Bedford Falls, New York, as portrayed by James Stewart in Frank Capra’s 1946 movie, “It’s A Wonderful Life.” is one of my role models. I know I’m not alone in this. While I never saved my little brother from drowning (I don’t have one) and I’ve never been known for distributing cash among my neighbors (but I would if I could), I’ve always admired how George was able to balance the big dreams of what he thought his life should have been with the reality of what it was. And how, by his actions, he intuitively made his little world, the one he privately complained of being “stuck” in, a better place for himself and for everybody around him. It would be ridiculous of me to suggest that I’ve had anywhere close to the same effect on my little world as George had on his, but I’ll tell you what: I’ve done no harm, and like George, I’ve been blessed in having made a lot of friends around town, though I hope I never have to ask them for $8000, ’cause that would be awkward.
And of course, everyone knows that George never leaves Bedford Falls. And me, I have found myself as an AARP-eligible adult landed on a comfy couch right here on the same 60 x 100 plot of land in Valley Stream, Long Island that I started out on 54 and a half years ago. I have a beautiful, funny, successfully employed wife and a smart, good-looking son with who is finding his way through adolescence pretty well despite a school system and social system totally unsuited to his particular genius (which is fixing every single mechanical thing on the planet that has broken). I have a good job, a nice little house, more toys and diversions that I ever have time to get around to (like this blog). I have a big happy yellow lab who is my personal ambassador to the human race and three cats for entertainment and interesting conversation.
Just like George Bailey, I could have done a whole lot worse. I’ve really had a wonderful life and I have no intention of throwing it all away. But I also have no intention of letting it be taken away from me piece by piece by the Forces of Pottersville, at least not without a fight. This is me fighting.
I first saw, “It’s a Wonderful Life” when I was about 14 in 1977, around the time the 1946 movie became public domain and Channel 11 in New York would show it over and over before Christmas. I started telling everyone in my family and anyone who would listen that they had to see this movie. I dare say I was in on the ground floor of the revival that made it Everybody’s Favorite Christmas Movie. And I dare say I do a dead-on Jimmy Stewart impersonation, which I promise I’ll do for you when I branch out into podcasting. I was immediately charmed by the story, the town of Bedford Falls and George Bailey’s character. And I guess the lesson that George learns from his nightmare in Pottersville became part of the unshakable truths that I’ve built my value system on: Success has nothing to do with money or career status and everything to do with the cumulative effects of being a good person and trying to do the right thing. I don’t know if George had anything to do with me never moving more than twenty miles away from where I was born, but that’s entirely possible.
George had his chances to get out of Bedford falls (‘and see the world!”), but he realized early on that the big dreams he had a young man were not as important as being a good guy, which is the most important thing of all. He didn’t necessarily want to be where he was, but until Uncle Billy handed Mr. Potter an envelope with $8000 in it, he didn’t take that dissatisfaction and frustration out on anybody around him. He treated people the way you should treat people. Despite his desire to “shake the dust of this crummy little town off my feet,” George took comfort in people and places and protocols that had remained the same in Bedford Falls throughout his life. He knew where he stood with everybody and everybody knew where they stood with him. Me, too.
George could’ve done something more with his life than holding together the Bailey Building and Loan. (It’s always presented with a pejorative: “Broken down”, “measly”, “penny-ante”). I probably could have been something “more” than a junior high school English teacher if I had applied myself a little more as a younger guy. Before I started phoning it in and getting crappy grades in high school (just like my beloved Dude does now, bless his heart), I was supposed to write great things or be a famous something or other. By the time I was going to Queens College at night to cobble together the credits for an English BA, those dreams of writing novels, or sitcoms in Hollywood, or being a famous FM disc jockey were all pretty much dead, and after two years in the production department at New York Magazine, finding out how unpleasant life could potentially be in the editorial department, I got my master’s and went into teaching ’cause I knew I’d be good at it and I could finally get out of my parent’s house. Those aren’t noble reasons to enter my profession, I’ll admit. But you know what? I followed in my mother’s footsteps, and I’ve helped thousands of kids learn to read, write and think a little better and a little deeper in my “shabby little office” for over 23 years.
So George and I find ourselves with something else in common: Our professional lives are a tribute to a parent that instilled a sense of values and beliefs in us that neither one of us could ultimately escape from, simply because it made so much sense. George keeps the Bailey Building and Loan going so people have someplace to go without crawling to Potter. I ultimately decided teaching was a better use of my life than helping to produce a magazine that would be thrown away when the next one came out (though it’s a mostly insane existence from September to June every year, which my archives will tell you doesn’t leave a whole lot of time for blogging).
Plus, I couldn’t help noticing that some of the people who wrote this magazine were terribly impressed with themselves and their Manhattan lifestyles. I spent Sundays waxing floors with a friend of mine from Valley Stream because I wasn’t making enough money. That friend was smarter, funnier and more original than anyone at New York Magazine, but they would never understand why. They wouldn’t get him. In the end, I needed to be with real people. To “fritter my life away playing nursemaid to a bunch of garlic eaters.” as Mr. Potter puts it to George. It was good enough for my mother, and it’s been good enough for me. And I love garlic.
And of course, when not at work, when it’s safe to speak my mind, I continue another one of my mother’s traditions (besides an addiction to Jeopardy, which she actually got from me, and blasting WQXR Classical in the kitchen while cooking dinner, which my Bose Soundtouch has taken to a whole other level, thank you Trisha): The tradition of Good Old-Fashioned Democratic, Bleeding-Heart Liberal Politics.
Growing up, I soaked up both of my parents complaints about that Crook Nixon in the 70’s and that Buffoon Cowboy Reagan in the 80’s. I saw the damage they did, (and later felt that damage more acutely as an adult while W. wrecked the country in the 2000’s). By virtue of working in the New York City high schools, my parents were immersed in diversity before it was even close to a thing. They believed that without labor unions, “the bastards” would rob you blind. They took their children to the Adirondacks and grew flowers and vegetables in the backyard and studied the comings and goings of the ducks on the creek and thus turned us all into environmentalists, around the time it was becoming a thing. My parents always rooted for the underdog and they despised guns and the abuse of power. They were devout, religious catholics who practiced their faith in their lives and knew Billy Graham and the evangelists were full of shit.
Mom was more vocal about all this, as she was about everything. My dad was more of a “do as I do” guy. But I’ll tell you what: If my mother, Joan Marie Duffy, were alive today, she’d be screaming bloody murder about what’s going on in this country. She’d be a voice of Resistance on Twitter, probably with a couple of thousand followers, probably using the expletive “fuck” in all it’s forms to comment on the disgusting developments of the past year. She can’t so I do. They’ll vote with Potter otherwise.
Because as we all know now, this is what happened: The GOP knew Trump was disgusting, and they pretended to complain about him at the start of the primaries but they knew that their primary voting base was equally disgusting, and the more primaries he won, the less they complained (and the more free air time he got on cable news for the Hitler rallies). And the more disgusting things he said, the more the people in this country who had already been thrown into their own Pottersville Of The Mind loved him for it.
A lot has been said and written about the people and the vibe in the Nightmare Pottersville of “It’s a Wonderful Life.” (For example, the friend who I used to wax floors with thought it seemed like a lot more fun). One has to admit, Capra’s vision of dystopia is a bit over the top, from the amphetamine-driven boogie-woogie piano player in Nick’s Bar to the over-capacity dance halls on Main Street to Burt the cop opening fire into a crowd. I personally always found it amusing that there even was a Pottersville Public Library, never mind the fact that Mary Hatch was an old maid who was just about to close it down. I think it’s more likely that the town council, all in Mr. Potter’s back pocket, probably would have closed it as part of an austerity budget designed to line their own pockets.
But I think that the point Capra was trying to illustrate with all this silliness was simply this: The rich assholes pit everyone against each other. People lose trust. They turn on their neighbors. They come to believe that not giving a shit is much easier, which it is, and why make the effort to make your town or your country better if those rich assholes are pulling all the strings? Fuck ’em all. Nothing matters. Just lay down a few bucks for some mindless entertainment, get shitfaced and forget about how much better your life could actually be if you got educated and exercised your First Amendment rights, ’cause it ain’t never gonna happen, bub. You’re just too lazy, and they’ve got you by the balls.
Nick the Bartender showed compassion for George Bailey as he breaks down on the bar stool. Nick the Boss is the twisted dictator of his own little band of small-time assholes, a big fish in a toxic pond of deplorables who gets off on spraying Mr. Gower in the face with a seltzer bottle, ostensibly because Mr. Gower deserved it, even though he’s obviously paid his debt to society and is a threat to no one in his current condition. He has no patience for Clarence the Angel, even after George suggests he has a mental disability. If you’re different in Pottersville, you get thrown out on your ass in the snow.
And Mary Hatch? Why is she an old maid? Capra is suggesting that it’s because there weren’t enough decent people left in Pottersville. She couldn’t find George not because George didn’t exist but because people who, in a fair, compassionate society, may have been more like George were instead being reprogrammed into mean, suspicious, wounded and dangerous animals like Violet Bick, Ernie the Cab Driver and George’s own mother have become in George’s Pottersville nightmare.
As the media narrative goes, in the Rust Belt states where Trump won the electoral college; Pennsylvania, Ohio, Wisconsin, and Michigan, the people were fed up with the status quo and didn’t trust Hillary Clinton. Some of that may be true, but here’s how I and many other people have come to see it: Some of those people are exactly what Hillary said they were, the famous “Basket of Deplorables”. They’re pissed off because they have come to believe that people of color and immigrants are treated better than they are by society at large, ignoring the small fact that those people of color and immigrants happened to have spent the previous ten years working their asses off to get educated, learn trades and build up businesses instead of watching “The Apprentice” in their double-wides and smoking crystal meth in the Wal Mart parking lot. The Deplorables are bitter, nasty, poorly-dressed, poorly-educated, poorly-spoken people who resent everyone, blame everyone but themselves for their troubles and saw Trump as a way to take all us liberal coastal elite smart asses down into the Pottersville Pit of Despair right along with them.
But these people had been like this for years, as anyone who ever watched “Here Comes Honey Boo Boo!” or “Duck Dynasty” for five minutes can attest. And Fox News stoked the fire against The Black Guy for eight years, convincing the most hardcore stupid among them that Obama wouldn’t say Merry Christmas because he was a Muslim, even if he was saying it on every other news channel.
And if these people really had that much power in the electorate, how did Obama get elected – and win those states – twice? Those elections, in 2008 and 2012, were won with voter turnout, and with the votes of intelligent, compassionate residents of Bedford Falls America who saw right through The Republican Lie that bankrupted the country at least three times in the last 100 years. There’s way more of us than there are of them and that remains true right now. But especially after Obama’s re-election over the guy with the dog strapped to the roof of his car (who honestly doesn’t look nearly as bad in retrospect), we thought we’d finally turned the corner. The new, diverse, young optimistic America was ready to drive policy and public opinion away from your crazy ass, obnoxious bigoted old uncle who blames everything on minorities and immigrants and suggests that maybe Hitler had the right idea.
The Republican Party was well on its deserved way to being irrelevant on the morning of November 8th, 2016. And then, it happened: Your crazy ass, obnoxious bigoted old uncle who blames everything on minorities and immigrants and suggests that maybe Hitler had the right idea was declared the winner of the Presidential Election.
My take on why: There were people on the fence about Hillary. I could understand that to a certain extent. I supported Bernie in the primaries because I’m a socialist. I know Hillary wouldn’t take that personally. I had no problem with her prospective Presidency. I figured she’d still have to deal with Republican control of the House at the very least and probably would be limited, like Obama was after 2010, in what she could actually get done, but that I’d agree with 90% of what she wanted to do. I’m sure lots of people felt the same way about her.
But the bastards saw their opening: Besides their usual voter suppression tricks, they leaked the emails that made Hillary look like the politician that anybody with a brain already knew she was. They pushed the server story over and over, despite the fact that it wasn’t really a story at all. And of course, with Putin’s help, they planted lie after lie on people’s Facebook pages and bot after bot on their Twitter feeds.
And those people who were on the fence about Hillary, but at the same time thought that Trump was a disaster, they figured no sweat, there’s no way the same America that voted for Obama twice is ever going to turn 180 degrees and elect a racist, ignorant buffoon. They stayed home and didn’t vote at all because the Forces of Pottersville had sown their doubts about the intentions of the Big Clinton Machine.
As for those that did vote, contaminated by those Putin-inspired doubts, I suppose they found themselves walking into the voting booth like Uncle Billy walking into the bank. They got distracted by the drama of the moment and handed Trump and the Republican Party the United States of America stuck inside a folded up newspaper. The majority of the country woke up the next morning rifling through the garbage can incredulously, with a sense of panic growing by the second, while they smirked at us from behind the door, knowing that they had us where they always wanted us.
And here we are, a year later. The evidence in the public domain that Trump stole the election with the help of the Russians is overwhelming, so one could only imagine what’s in Robert Mueller’s filing cabinets right now. I can’t begin to imagine how that whole thing is going to play out. (But most people realize it would be hard to have a Civil War with no Mason-Dixon Line to stand behind). And, just in time for Christmas, the rich assholes who paid for their Republican candidates, from Trump on down – they got what they wanted: Their big, fat, immoral corporate tax cut. My parents always warned me: The bastards will rob you blind if you let them.
Our accountant is a decent fellow. I’ve known him for many years. We both love dogs. But he is a Trump supporter and a Hillary hater. And I know if I asked him, he’d tell me (passionately) that we’re going to do great on this GOP tax cut, although I don’t see how that could possibly be. (My usual reaction when I hear a Republican say anything). Statistically, It turns out that my wife and I, by virtue of getting up really every working morning, keeping our mouths shut, and being really, really lucky, are rich; a notion that’s “rich” in itself as we’re always broke. We may not be part of the doomsday scenarios of what this tax plan will actually do to the middle class, because again statistically, we’re not in it. Despite losing the deduction of the $9,000 we pay in school and property taxes, not to mention losing the deduction for state income tax here in the Incredibly Expensive Empire State, our very successful accountant will probably tell us that we’re going to come out ahead, or at least even. We’ll wait and see.
The problem for me is that the, “I’ll be fine so screw everybody else” mentality is exactly why America has been allowed to turn into Pottersville. It’s very nice if we pay less federal income tax. It would be even nicer if I could be assured that people less fortunate than us will be able to stay in their houses, never mind heat them. It would be really nice if people in Puerto Rico could put food in refrigerators and turn a light on when they use the bathroom right now. It’s what my mother would have been screaming about right now, but no one making decisions in the federal government seems terribly concerned.
And it It would be especially very nice to know that this mass redistribution of wealth upwards will not be followed as it always is by municipal budget cuts, reduction of school aid, home foreclosures, small business layoffs and personal bankruptcies. We’ve seen this movie before. We know where they’re going with this. Cities and towns all over America cutting back transpotation service, library service, after-school and elderly programs, public assistance for the poor, drug and alcohol treatment. Then they start telling you that you’re getting too much in Social Security and we just can’t afford to support all these people on Medicaid and Medicare. But look! The stock market is doing great! Corporation are making record profits! There’s never been more choices of shit to watch on TV!
Fucking Pottersville. All over again.
So what do you do if you go to sleep in Bedford Falls and you wake up in Pottersville? What do you do when your beautiful, compassionate country has turned more mean and more ugly in a year than you thought possible? What do you do when America is starting to feel like Nick’s Bar and you just want to sit quietly with a friend, sipping at your flaming rum punch, heavy on the cinnamon, light on the cloves, but the motherfuckers are harassing you at every turn and it’s looking more and more like you’ll get thrown into the snow with everyone else who doesn’t fit their Nazi, Deplorable prototype? If they don’t get me because of my political views, maybe they’ll just smirk at me from behind a cracked-open door when the next big hurricane wipes away everything I have, despite paying FEMA $2000 something a year to protect against that. Or maybe flat out kill me with radiation poisoning, in which case, I suppose they win. That’d be just like something they’d do.
Well, for one thing, you take Barack Obama’s advice: “Don’t boo. Vote.” While I regularly employ my First Amendment rights and Internet access to tell Speakers McConnell and Ryan and the Liar-in-Chief to go fuck themselves, I realize they aren’t bothered particularly by my provocations. Though it would be fun to get into a shouting match with Paul Ryan and watch him get all flustered and hysterical.
I do hope all the people who are screaming outrage and hashtagging themselves with #The Resistance are people who voted in the last Presidential Election, but statistically, I know many of them did not. They did put a nice dent into the Republican Lie this past November, which was nice to see. (And especially nice to see Alabama rise up to stop Roy Moore just this past month). Even here on Long Island, voters booted out Republican administrations in Nassau County and the Town of Hempstead that were as hard to get rid of as cockroaches.
And in the year that starts tomorrow, every seat in The House of Representatives that has stood by and done nothing as Trump has wrecked the country by executive order, enriched himself and his family at taxpayer expense, and proven himself to be batshit crazy – every seat in that political body is up for grabs, gerrymandering and voter suppression notwithstanding. Alabama has shown that anything is possible and maybe people aren’t quite so stupid after all. So if you read this and you agree with me, vote. And if you read this and yout think I’m a naive hippe liberal that has no idea how the world really works, vote. Because it’s your right. I’m going to bet the odds that more people think like me, and would much rather live in a place like Bedford Falls. And that the criminal tragedy of the 2016 Election and all bullshit that’s been thrown at us will still be very fresh in people’s minds come this fall.
In the meantime, consider Zuzu’s petals, the metaphor. When George finds Zuzu’s petals (in that cool little pocket sewed into his suit pants for which I couldn’t imagine another purpose) he knows he’s home. He knows everything is going to be OK, even though he’s still missing $8000. (“Isn’t it great? I’m goin’ to jail!”) As long as he has his family, and the people and the life he loves in Bedford Falls, it will all work itself out.
Zuzu’s petals represent home. Here in our home, we don’t watch 24-Hour Cable News. We get our daily Trump Disasters on a need-to-know basis from Twitter and respond in kind, often using a form of the expletive “fuck”, just like Mom would have. We watch Stephen Colbert mock the Fat Dotard, the Turtle and the Smirker, reminding us that they might have the power to poison our air and water, and possibly deport our neighbors, but they can’t kill our spirit, the American Spirit. It runs way too deep, and goes back way too far to ever die. We’ll be back in the fight tomrrow, no matter what happens.
The people who brought you Trump and that Tax Nonsense, they weren’t listening to Martin Luther King when he said, “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.” They thought they didn’t have to listen to him because he was black.
But we were listening, and we believe it.
Zuzu’s petals are the birds and ducks living around Duffy’s Creek, and the garden of colors we let loose in the summertime. Zuzu’s petals are driving down to the Long Beach Boardwalk on a warm day or going out to sit awhile with my elderly father at the nursing home then going for a hike up in Stony Brook. Zuzu’s petals are watching my nephews become husbands and fathers and knowing Joan and Francis Duffy’s family will live well past my own expiration date. Zuzu’s petals are stopping in to our favorite businesses around Valley Stream, where they know us and we know them, just like in Bedford Falls. Zuzu’s petals are in the food we cook, the music we play, the one-liners we trade, the neighbors we wave to, the church we go to, the roof over our heads and the hot water coming out of our faucet. Everything that is good in our lives, that still stayed good this year, despite all attempts by the Forces of Pottersville to turn us into a bitter, selfish assholes just like them.
So I wish you a Happy New Year and offer some unsolicited advice of how to survive a difficult time that may get more difficult before it gets less difficult:
Keep Zuzu’s petals in your pocket. Any pocket will do. You will have hope for a better future, and hope for a better future is really all you need to get out of bed in the morning.
And treat the place where you live like your own little Bedford Falls, even if the sign says Pottersville. Being a good person is the ultimate measure of success. As I regularly tell my son, please don’t be an asshole.
Your reward for being good? You’ll be at the front of the crowd, your heart filled with joy, together with all your good American neighbors, and together in spirit with all the people who made you who you are and imbibed you with that spirit, when we all rise up to tear that fucking sign down for good.
I’ve eaten a lot of crap over 53 and a half years. I’m guessing you’ve eaten your share, too. I’ve eaten storage rooms and barrels full of common poisons, ingested by way of Sour Cream Pringles, Double Stuff Oreos, Rold Gold Pretzels, Three Musketeer Bars, Double-Cheese and Bacon Burgers, Taco Supremes , Hot Dogs from Questionable Sources and the Rubbery Swanson’s Object that they refer to as Fried Chicken, among other common people swill. Despite this (and despite the personal campfire that I light around my head at regular intervals – not to mention the bottomless cup of coffee that’s always nearby) I’m not dead. Actually, I feel pretty good. I think it might be the long walks. And the farm fresh food. So does Mookie.
When I was a kid, I had an iron stomach. Some of the things I found edible astound me now. And there was no barrier on my access to poor food choices. As the youngest child of five, I was my mother’s or father’s co-pilot on their weekly trips to the supermarket. (It remains one of my primary household responsibilities to this day, and oddly enough, I love supermarkets so much I worked as a stock clerk off and on for many happy years, without having to think about what I was doing once. Anyway…). When I’d go to the supermarket with my mother especially, she’d let me buy just about anything that looked like it might be something. It’s possible that she was a little distracted. Nevertheless, I have happy childhood memories of eating entire boxes of Bugles while watching afternoon game shows and sitcoms on a portable black and white TV after school, of making myself a Friday Night Elio’s Frozen Pizza to go with Sanford and Son or The Odd Couple, or doing up an entire box of pigs in a blanket for a late Saturday afternoon Mets game from the West Coast. If you stacked the slices of Oscar Meyer Bologna that I consumed between 1970 and 1990, and stood three of their nasty hot dogs between each slice, it would be approximately the height of the famous Jones Beach Water Tower, and far and away the greater engineering marvel. They’re very thick slices, but still.
Some of my childhood favorites make me flat out nauseous in retrospect. I would crack open a tin of vienna sausages and munch on them, or make Underwood Chicken Spread or Deviled Ham on Wonder Bread and, Good Lord, actually have it for lunch. I’ve eaten Spam with a Hershey’s Chocolate Milk chaser . And speaking of chocolate, there were Yodels. And Ring Dings. And Devil Dogs. They all go great with a cold Dr. Pepper. Did I mention I had all my teeth extracted seven years ago?
Moving on. As I mentioned, I’m the youngest of five children. There’s four years between the four of them and four and a half years between me and everybody else. By the time I was in fourth grade, my parents were already paying three college tuitions. My mom was working full-time as a NYC high school English teacher and my dad was working two nights a week at Apex Technical School in Manhattan teaching HVAC classes in addition to his day job. During the school year, my mom still felt strongly about getting anyone to the table who happened to be home at exactly 6 pm for dinner, but in order to plan that dinner, she had to relegate it to auto-pilot. She’d get a delivery from Pat’s Prime Meats in Malverne on Saturday (they’re still around), and off we went on another trip on the merry-go-round: Lamb Chops with mashed potatoes and frozen cut green beans on Monday, Turkey Roll or Howard Johnson’s Chicken Croquettes from the A&P on Tuesday, chicken cutlets with white rice and frozen mixed vegetables on Wednesday, Meatloaf with baked potato and carrots on Thursday, frozen pizza or whatever was left over on Friday. Everything prepared as quickly and with as little complication as possible, out of the necessity of eating at exactly 6pm.
My mom was actually a very good cook. On the weekends we might have a broiled steak, or something like veal parmesan, which my mom called veal scallopini. That was always my birthday dinner request. She also made her own spaghetti sauce with meat that rivaled that of any Italian mother. But the busier she got, and the fewer people who were around to eat, the more the weekly rotation, all of which got pretty old after a while anyway, started falling apart. There were a lot more Chinese food and Ancona Pizza nights, which suited me just fine, and a lot more frozen food.
Nobody knew any better. What could be more convenient than a TV Dinner? : Swanson’s Salisbury Steak, or the iconic and evil Fried Chicken Dinner, or the meatloaf, which was to meat what particle board is to wood, with the chocolate brownie that would be unsalvageable if you left it in at 350 degrees for a second longer than 30 minutes. There was the Stouffer’s Chicken A La King that you boiled in two bags, one for the so-called chicken and sauce-like substance and one for the rice. Hard to screw up rice. And there were Hungry Man Chicken and Turkey Pot Pies. We had ’em all. Like many children of the 70’s, the generation when moms went back to work again, TV Dinners were perfectly acceptable alternatives to home cooked meals. They taste pretty good, too.
Except really, they aren’t, and they don’t.
As I got into working more and more (at Mel Weitz’ Foodtown, as well as other Mcjobs) and going to college at night, I subsided almost exclusively on fast food, junk, the Queens College cafeteria, friendly delis, the 7-11 and the ubiquitous stalwart TV Dinners. I’ve always had a metabolism not unlike a coal furnace. I’ve weighed somewhere between 120 and 125 pounds my whole adult life, and yes, at 5’9”, I am a human scarecrow, and maybe a little sensitive about that, but I’ve accepted that I am as God made me. (I’m always amused that people are allowed to say, “you’re so skinny!” but not allowed to say, “Christ, look how fat you are!” It’s a bit of a double standard. And I wrote that line at least 35 years ago). Nonetheless, I have to constantly feed the furnace to maintain my weight and keep from falling off the face of the earth, or slipping into a crack in the sidewalk.
One of my favorite go-to meals when I went to school at night was to come home to a big breakfast at 9:30 pm. Some french toast, maybe fried eggs on an english muffin, maybe a couple of nuked sausage links on the side. My parents thought I was fucking crazy but they loved me anyway. My mother would always tell me there was a leftover lamb chop, but I’d be more likely to have a bowl of Apple Cinnamon Cheerios.
Once out in the working world, if you had a good pizza place I could get in and out of in less than twenty minutes, or a diner where the grease soaked into the bun of the cheeseburger as you ate it, you and I became the best of friends, and you got 15% of my weekly income. When I worked in the production department at New York Magazine in the late 80’s (as much fun and as little fun as it sounds) there was a tradition that when a staffer left they would receive a mock magazine cover as a parting gift. When I left after two years and two months, one of my favorite co-workers (I remember you, Franny!) included an inset picture of the pizza place across 2nd Avenue on my cover with the headline “Sal In Shock! Sales Plunge!” I was also famous for using my weekly food allowance for staying late to “close the book” on Tuesday nights to pig out on KFC. A lot of people who worked there were very into fancy-schmancy restaurants, which more often than not frightened me. They would all walk into our end the office and become immediately enraptured, then quickly repulsed, by the smell of mass-produced fried chicken. I didn’t really care. I was just shoveling coal into the furnace.
After a while I settled into this job where you’re lucky to get ten minutes to eat lunch and they don’t buy your KFC, or your copy paper. I’ve been on “continuous service” in this particular job for 21 years and three months. I needed something to eat fast that I wouldn’t necessarily get the chance to fully and properly digest (and expel) until two or three hours later. Thus began the legend of the peanut butter and jelly sandwich.
People are amazed at the fact that I’ve eaten a peanut butter and jelly sandwich nearly every working day for over twenty years. I’m amused that they’re amazed. Especially when I sneak it in during meetings and somebody says, “Hey! That looks good!”, like they just now realized you could put these particular ingredients together. Why wouldn’t you eat peanut butter and jelly? It’s perfect!
And let me be precise here. (This is a very big part of my OCD, so it’s a subject very dear to me). It’s actually peanut butter and jam, and I do randomly switch between grape and strawberry jam.(Sometimes obsessive-compulsives will surprise you). But it has to be Smuckers Jam. And Jif Creamy Peanut Butter. Liberally spread together on Pepperidge Farm Honey Wheat Bread, then wrapped in foil, then put in a Ziploc bag (with a zipper) for maximum freshness. I make tomorrow’s peanut butter and jelly within a half hour of getting home from work. It has to be well-refrigerated. It goes in the bottom drawer of the fridge, where everything I pack in my working day lunch bag goes: A bottle filled with water, a bottle filled with Tropicana Orange juice, a plastic bottle of Dr. Pepper or Coca-Cola for the ride home on the God Damned Belt Parkway, some apple slices in a Ziploc bag, an individually-wrapped Entemann’s crumb cake, and my magic potion: A La Yogurt Mixed Berry and a bag containing about fifteen blueberries.
Yogurt was one of my big turning points on my food journey. It’s about as far away as you can get from Bugles, for starters. In fact, I could make the case that yogurt is the axis on which this entire silly narrative tilts upward towards it’s title: Better Food.
When you become a parent, it’s not about feeding yourself anymore. Fifteen years ago, I married a lovely girl named Trisha who had been a vegetarian for seventeen years when I met her. She couldn’t believe some of the stuff I ate, and the stuff she ate didn’t seem at all filling to me. And yet we loved each other then as now. She was especially repulsed by one of my g0-to dinners, the Dread Birdseye Garlic Chicken Voila. Available in your frozen food section, but if you’re smart, you’ll just keep on walking. Quote the funniest woman I know: “The chicken is kind of suspect, but it’s the voila that’ll get you.”
Nonetheless, for the first couple of years, we figured it out. A lot of pasta, a lot of take out. If you’re ever in Valley Stream, Ancona Pizza on Rockaway Avenue could theoretically feed you for the rest of your life. Start with the meatball parm hero. Tell them John sent you.
And because Trisha’s mother told her it was her responsibility to feed me, which it isn’t, she would make really good cheese lasagnas, and even made me Shake and Bake Chicken and cutlets like my mom made, even though she wasn’t eating any of it. Once when she made me a roasted chicken, I caught her making it dance on the sink as she cleaned it. I love that woman like you wouldn’t believe. But she herself stayed a vegetarian until one July day in 2003, when she was pregnant and she smelled really good.
We were sitting in Dad’s Copake Diner, which is one of my favorite ways to start a sentence. Usually, she’d have to go through five minutes of making faces at the menu to find the best vegetarian thing they had. Suddenly she just said fuck it. She didn’t really say that because she curses much less than I do. What she did say is: “I’m going to have a chicken cesear wrap.”
And just like that, Trisha wasn’t a vegetarian anymore. And I started barbecuing more steaks. And we had a baby. And we bought baby food. And the baby ate the baby food, and we ate what we ate. And the baby got a little older, and we started expanding his menu. Trisha bought some Axlerod Yogurt.
Yogurt grossed me out from the mid-1960’s up until 2006 or so. And one day I tried one again. And I eat it every working day, and many non-working days at that, and have been eating it religiously for ten years now. It not only tastes great, it’s like a fresh coat of paint on the walls of your digestive tract every morning. Once I got hooked, I suggested that Axlerod’s motto ought to be: “It’s so Mother Fucking Good!” But ah, so you ask, why’d you put a picture of La Yogurt in here? Well, first I’m glad you’re still paying attention, and secondly, there was a distribution problem at my King Kullen with Axlerod. They often didn’t have my favorite flavors. And I haven’t changed my mind about greek yogurt, or the cottage cheese my mother used to eat for lunch with a half a melon when she was on some weird diet. That shit is vile. But out of necessity, I tried La Yogurt and found it just as mother fucking good as Axlerod. Again, people with obsessive-compulsive disorder will surprise you sometimes.
The blueberries got added to the morning yogurt when I decided to start growing blueberries in giant pots around the yard. I started about ten years ago and I now have ten blueberry bushes. I love blueberries. I love everything connected to blueberries. The plants themselves are beautiful. It’s fascinating to watch the flowers slowly become berries, and the fall foliage is a deep crimson red that’s like a bonfire in the sunshine. So many things are better with blueberries. I’d buy blueberry scented toilet paper if they made it. (I actually wrote that joke about cinnamon a long, long time ago. But I think it’s pretty good, so I recycled it). And after a few summers, I realized that one of my truly favorite things about growing blueberries (specifically, highbush blue jay, blue crop and one or two other cultivars I can’t remember right now) is that they come into season just about the same time that I get some time away from the Belt Parkway for a while and can actually enjoy a summer morning. I was walking around the house smoking a cigarette (Gasp!) and picking at the blueberries at the same time. (The robins, mockingbirds and catbirds, who don’t smoke, also get their share) when it suddenly occurred to me that I was ingesting carcinogens and antioxidants at the same time And let me tell you, it felt great. So every morning I pack every spoonful of La Yogurt with as many blueberries as I can, and I become as indestructible as I possibly can be until peanut butter and jelly sandwich time approximately four hours later.
Meanwhile, back in fatherhood, our young lad, known on A Creek Runs Through It as “The Dude”, started to have (well-documented) sensory issues, and among those was disliking the texture and taste of certain foods. By the time he was 8 or 9, milk was out. Eggs were never in. You could get away with things made with milk and eggs sometimes, as long as they were cutlets or lasagna. But then he started to have a problem with cutlets and lasagna. we couldn’t win. Shake and Bake Chicken was one of the first ones to go, which made me very sad. I mean, how the hell…? Never mind.
Suffice to say, it was getting harder and harder to feed him without disappointment and what my mom used to call “whammy faces” at the dinner table, and I was getting more and more frustrated, since by this time I had put myself in charge of cooking because Trisha doesn’t get home from work until after six. And I was really starting to enjoy cooking. I always liked it, but I was digging up more recipes and learning more about the magic ingredients and spices that really good cooks put together. Mrs. Duffy is my witness: I have gone from Chicken Garlic Voila in a frying pan to restaurant quality presentations. As a matter of fact, when they closed down a long, long established restaurant called Goldie’s at Gibson Station, which is one one of my favorite walking routes with Mookie Dog, I conjured up a Powerball Dream of opening “Duffy’s At The Station” and hiring lots of people I know to create the best family restaurant in Valley Stream (which already has Mitchell’s). It’s a nice dream, but it’d be way too much work. If I did hit Powerball, I’d probably just take more naps.
So you could imagine, becoming really good at cooking, great even, and starting to really feel strongly about family dinners just like Mom used to, and having very little time to put them together, just like Mom used to, and then having the guy you’re cooking for constantly whining that he can’t eat what you cook. It was getting frustrating to say the least. And then, like manna from heaven two summers ago, Our Harvest entered my life.
This is a picture of Mike Winik and Scott D. Reich, undoubtedly the smartest guys in their lunchroom when they went to school, blissfully unaware that I am using their picture without permission and that they are tagged in this post. They are the co-founders of Our Harvest. Let me tell you the amazing idea that these two young fellers came up with and how it’s changed my life.
This is what they do: They buy fresh meat, poultry, dairy products, vegetables, fruit and other stuff from farms in the Hudson Valley upstate, New Jersey and out east on Long Island and local organic foodies, they sell it to me through their website at ourharvest.com and I pick it up on Saturday mornings, where a nice college kid waits in the parking lot of Blessed Sacrament Church, a mile north of here, with bags and coolers of fresh food. And not only that, for every $25 you spend with Our Harvest, they donate one meal to a family in need on Long Island, and I assume it’s not a TV dinner. They have pick up points all over Long Island and the Five Boroughs. It’s a wonderful thing when your business model ensures that everyone wins. I was in on the ground floor of this, and actually met Scott or Mike, or both, one of the first times I picked up my order. I complimented them on their cool t-shirts (It has their logo on the front and the slogan “Eat Better Together” on the back) and they had a free t-shirt waiting for me with my next order. They had me at the chicken, but the t-shirt was a nice touch.
And this is what I can tell you: It’s all so mother fucking good. Perdue chicken and King Kullen steaks are like Swanson TV Dinners compared to eating chicken and steak that was enjoying the sunshine just a couple of weeks ago. Once you have eaten farm fresh meat and poultry, it’s impossible to go back. There’s a Turkey London Broil I get that’s from the DiPaolo Turkey farm in New Jersey, and I found a outrageously delicious recipe for an orange honey glaze for said turkey – complete with herbes de provence (which is fun to say) – from thecozyapron.com, the domain of a nice lady named Ingrid who my wife thinks I have a little thing for. And the carrots taste like carrots. Everything is fresh and full of the food flavors that are slowly disappearing from just about everything you buy at the supermarket. And Sunday I cook things to last all week. I’m a regular visitor to an app called The Big Oven, which you have to say in a silly Fat Albert voice when you refer to it. And since we all eat enough chicken to start growing feathers, I have an arsenal of six or seven chicken recipes that The Dude is guaranteed to eat every time. We still have wars at dinner time here and there, mostly because The Dude didn’t fall far from the tree, and The Tree still keeps a supply of Oreo cookies, donuts, Pringles and spice drops in the house at all times, and The Dude often snacks too much before dinner. But for the most part, food has been solved on Duffy’s Creek
And oddly enough, The Dude has developed a Temple Grandin-ish interest in the humane treatment of farm animals and the importance of organic food. Taking advantage of this, Trisha brought home some organic milk last year and suddenly The Dude’s five-year milk boycott ended, and he drinks it with his Our Harvest-laced dinner pretty much every night. And then I tried the organic milk. And I never went back. It tastes like the the milk my parents got in glass bottles from the Dairy Barn. It makes store brand milk taste like milk-flavored water. It costs a lot more, as does all the Our Harvest food, but I couldn’t care less. What should you spend money on that’s more important? For one thing, my son eats. And he’s a human scarecrow, too, so he needs every bit of protein he can get.
And for another thing, a funny thing has happened to me over the last couple of years with long walks with Mookie Dog , more farm fresh and organic food and slightly fewer Oreo cookies. I feel better. A Lot better. I feel like I very well may have expelled a lot of chemicals from my system and not replaced them with more chemicals.
Thanks to Our Harvest, we’re eating better food all the time. Thanks to the miracle and inspiration of childbirth, the guy who ate ten-thousand baloney sandwiches is one of the best cooks you know. Yes, I still have a bag of Oreo cookies in the pantry. And yes, there is nothing Mookie and I love more than an individually-wrapped Entemenn’s Crumb Cake. But when it comes to dinner, I don’t mess around. I wish I could invite you all over to prove it. I’d make you some Sesame Chicken Thighs that would make your knees quiver. Maybe some Baked Yukon Gold Potatoes and fresh steamed broccoli on the side.
And fresh salad. Always fresh salad, and always organically grown. I haven’t touched a pre-made bagged Dole salad in years and years.
There have been Duffy’s on Duffy’s Creek since March 9, 1955. There have been people on Duffy’s Creek since about 4600 B.C. So the existence of people has a long and colorful history here, though the existence of too damn many people is a relatively recent phenomenon, out of which I was born in 1963, the youngest of five children, an unwitting part of the problem.
On summer nights, Trisha and I sit out in the backyard, and we talk some, while alternately staring at our little light-up magic rectangles and staring through the flowers towards the sunset over the creek. I like to imagine a Rockaway Indian couple sitting right in this spot in summer twilight a thousand years ago, without the stupid iphones and kindles, maybe listening to the “crawwwk!” of night herons, or watching swallows and bats circling the orange sky, or just watching the flow of the creek, the same tide and the same current, and maybe some of the same water molecules as we look at today, but maybe without so much spam in them.
But I don’t have to imagine being a little kid a hundred years ago, before the sprawl, walking into a deep, majestic forest at the end of Westwood Road in Woodmere, walking less than three miles to emerge from that forest into a farm field that overlooked this creek. I don’t have to imagine it at all because about ten years ago I discovered a book titled The Lord’s Woods: The Passing of an American Woodland written in 1971by a noted birder and naturalist named Robert Arbib. And Mr. Arbib told me all about it; what this place was like for thousands of years before cape cods and split levels ate it alive. And we’ve become friends, though he died twenty years ago, because I love learning about the history of places, and I’ve spent a whole lot of time hanging around this one. And so did he. I like him and I think he would’ve liked me.
A little disclaimer before I go on: I know a lot of people who are passionate about digging up the history of Valley Stream and the surrounding area, and some of them will read this post and want to point out possible discrepancies. (Gleefully). Please just relax. This is but a jumble of the stuff I know from reading Mr. Arbib’s book and a whole lot of other stuff, including stuff from the Hewlett-Woodmere Library website and the Valley Stream Historical Society Facebook page , called “Valley Stream of Yesteryear.” (You’re all wonderful people, and thank you for uncredited pictures, but you didn’t credit them either). I also know some history from my mother, who wrote the Valley Stream Historical Society newsletter for ten years or so, and my father-in-law, Jack McCloskey, who visited this neighborhood in the 1930’s for watercress and garden lime. But this is definitely not meant to be the definitive history of anything. (And by the way, it would be much easier to refer to Robert Arbib as “Bob” from here on in. “Mr. Arbib” sounds like I’m trying to be the New York Times, and I happen to know that his friends called him Bob. Anyway). What I am trying to do here is to put words and context to the pictures that I can I see in my mind sometimes when Mookie and I go walking.
Everybody knows us, Mookie and me. We’re local characters, and we’re proud of that. One sunny day in the middle of last winter, a woman called out to me from a car on Wood Lane as Mookie was reading his pee mail. She said, “you two really get around, don’t you! I see you everywhere!” I said, “Yes, yes we do.” And Mookie looked up and wagged his tail.
I knew at that moment that I had achieved my ultimate purpose in life: Being a local character. I’m the slightly crazy looking thin man with the very large happy yellow lab who you see walking around South Valley Stream all the time. But Mookie, of course, is superior to me in so many ways, particularly in his full-minded commitment to The Here And The Now. He’s living in the present when we’re out walking because he’s a dog, and that’s what dogs do, which is why they’re so much better than us. I try to stay in The Here And The Now, but I’m just not Mookie and I never will be. Often I’m living in the future as we’re walking, figuring out what things I can turn into things I’ve already done in the hours and the days ahead. But sometimes I’m living in the past, imagining what this place was like before the cars and the trucks and the poles and the lights and the wires and the fences and the signs and the asphalt and the whole rest of it. And it makes me wistful for a place I never knew, even though I’m walking through the middle of where it was; a place that, had it not been altered forever in the decades before I was born, actually would have made me as I know me impossible.
Bob’s story starts in 1920, as a nine year old boy exploring the woods that actually stretched from Lawrence to South Valley Stream, which he learned were called The Lord’s Woods after the very rich, successful lawyer who had owned the land at one time. (There’s a Lord Avenue way down in Lawrence in the area behind Rock Hall, where nobody ever goes unless you’ve got business there or you’re lost. It’s quite a beautiful area). The woods that Bob and his friend begin to explore stretched from about three miles southwest of here just about to my backyard. The entire Lord Estate stretched back through Cedarhurst and Lawrence all the way to Far Rockaway. My son is twelve and we can’t yet in good conscience let him cross the four lane road (Mill Road) that separates us from the rest of the world. Once upon a time, Mill Road was where the woods thinned out and the farms started. Bob and his friend walked through the woods, teeming with hundreds of different bird species and happy little animals. They discovered cool stuff like an Indian marker tree that was bent on purpose to indicate a trail, and a rope swing along a brook in the middle of nowhere. They crossed streams and marshland and followed along a dirt road until the realized they were following a gigantic water pipe, half-buried in the ground. The pipe led them to the “waterworks”, the Long Island Water Property, where the last little postage stamp of woods remain to this day.
They realized that the Water Company actually owned all the land that they were walking on. and that the land was kept undeveloped because they needed to pump water from under it. (One of the main reasons they ultimately sold it off to development and bulldozed it was that the technology was developed to dig deeper wells, thereby needing less land to protect the aquifers). But people had been trespassing on and enjoying these woods forever, and Bob and his friend soon found like-minded young nerdy fellows who liked identifying birds.
I like identifying birds. When Trisha and I first took over at Duffy’s Creek, we started keeping track of how many different bird species we could attract, including the waterfowl, who just hung around with us because we have a creek. Over the course of three or four years of keeping neat little notebooks (before we became parents and chaos ensued), I counted somewhere around 105 different species. Many of them just showed up once or twice, inexplicably, like a Brown Thrasher or a Tri-Colored Heron. But in The Lord’s Woods, apparently all these birds were as common as pigeons. And this is how Bob became a famous orthinologist, and how I helped get Andrew Cuomo to promise South Valley Stream $3 million dollars to help rehabilitate the Left Bank of Duffy’s Creek, money which he may or may not be still holding on to, because they haven’t spent it yet. I suppose because he’s not up for re-election. But that’s a story for another post.
In the first half of The Lord’s Woods, Bob tells the story of his youth through his seasons exploring own local primitive wilderness. As a guy who likes birds and plants and stuff, I just ate it up. There’s also a particularly gut-wrenching storyline about showing his first girlfriend all the secrets of The Lord’s Woods, then losing her to a car accident several years later when she was away at college, which was absolutely heart-breaking to read. Nonetheless, It’s all beautifully written, and topped off by a really cool map (pictured below) that helped me follow exactly where he was (and what is there now) as he describes his discoveries. I live along what is called Mott’s Creek or Foster’s Brook on the map. When I was growing up, my father told me it was called Watt’s Creek. On USGS maps (United States Geological Survey) it’s called “Valley Stream”. About fifteen years ago, when I had some time on my hands, I wrote to the USGS and tried to get it changed to Duffy’s Creek. The nice man from the USGS patiently explained to me that: 1) The don’t use apostrophes, which was a total buzzkill, and 2) I would have to die. I know that Foster, Mott and Watt were also local characters who just started calling the creek by their own names, so until I die and someone does the paperwork, that’s my plan.
In the middle of the book, as Bob is still grieving for his lost love, first the Hurricane of 1938 and then a giant fire decimate the woods. (I’ve seen more than once what a big hurricane can do to big trees). And the omens begin to rise around this same time: Giant electrical transmission towers go up, and surveyor marks plot out Peninsula Boulevard (which you can see on Bob’s map cuts right through the heart of what he called The Big Woods).
A wilderness would eventually recover over time from a natural disaster, but it didn’t stand a chance against the the post-WWII boom, and it is this point in the story where the book rises from beautiful to powerful and unforgettable. In the chapter entitled “Boom”, Bob begins:
“It was not fire that destroyed the Lord’s Woods. Fire and storm, blizzard and drought, even hurricane and flood were all natural events in the woods’ long history, often experienced and somehow survived, their wounds slowly self-healing and finally obliterated in forgiving beauty. Before the final act could be staged and the curtain rung down on the last of the drama that had been unfolding here for thousands of years, there had to appear on stage the villian of the piece – modern man – and there had to be a motive. It was not fire or storm that came to destroy our woods. It was greed and duplicity, avarice and ignorance and apathy.”
The “Boom” chapter, and the following chapter, called “The Threat” take you through a truly American story: How people saw what was happening to the woods and tried to stop it, and other people laughed and said “Fuck you. We’re doing it anyway.” As more and more of the woods were being bulldozed for development, people began to realize that “what remained was the only remnant of wet woodland left” in Southwest Nassau County, “the only place where one cold lose himself from the frenetic world and be an Indian brave or a Thoreau, a Daniel Boone or a John James Audubon, or just oneself, a child learning about the world around him.”
Here’s the short version: In 1955, the year my parents bought a house on a creek in a five-year old development of cape cods, the Lord’s Woods had been reduced to a box bordered approximately by, from what I can tell, Gibson Boulevard, Peninsula Boulevard, Woodmere Middle School, Hungry Harbor Road, Rosedale Road and Duffy’s Creek. The entire neighborhood of North Woodmere came after West Sunbury, so the ancient woods probably met the Hoeffner Farm all the way down Rosedale Road and went along Doxy Brook and blended into marshland as it got closer to Jamaica Bay. And in the other direction, I know for sure that there was a scout camp on the land where Peninsula Shopping Center sits now. You would need a lot of trees for a proper scout camp, so that was likely part of the woods as well. The neighborhood of North Woodmere on the opposite side of Rosedale Road from ours has bigger trees, because it was a woods and this was a farm. (I figured this one out all on my own).
The community got wind of a deal between the water company and a developer to buy up and bulldoze what was left of the Lord’s Woods. Bob tells of a woman named Helen Bergh and a man named Ben Berliner who were the leading forces in trying to save the woods, working with the Audubon Society to develop ways that the area could be used as a sanctuary and interpretive nature center. As the last acres of what was by that time called the Woodmere Woods were being eaten up, Helen Bergh (what a great name) led the Woodmere Woods Conservation Committee. They tried everything. New York didn’t want it for a state park. Nassau County didn’t want it. Officials from the Town of Hempstead suggested they would consider a park if Bergh, Berliner and their committee could show a public consensus for saving the last virgin woodlands in Southwestern Nassau County. But as Bob points out, “to prove that all people, everywhere wanted an esoteric amenity like a public wildlife preserve in 1956 was no easy task.” Some people wanted a park with lots of ballfields and tennis courts and swimming pools, which they eventually did get in North Woodmere Park. Other people, newer arrivals to the area, “would let the developers proceed; homes and gardens were more desirable neighbors than thickets of poison ivy and rat-infested woodlands where rapists can hide.” There wasn’t much you could do to convince people who had such disregard for the concept of open space that it would be in their interest to have a large undeveloped area around them. They’d no doubt never go in it anyway. Mosquitoes. Rapists. Very unsafe. Best to stay in the air conditioning.
By 1957, Helen Bergh had joined forces with a neighbor and friend who had also grown up enjoying the woods. His name was Edward S. Bentley. Together, they wrote a bill to present to the New York State legislature giving the Town of Hempstead authority to create a park district out of the Woodmere Woods. Before they could find sponsorship for the bill, the Water Company sold the land. Bob describes a race between the bulldozers, chain saws and graders, moving “like an invading army into the Lords’ Woods. One by one, the century-old oaks, maples, tulips, hickories, ashes and sweet gums crashed to the frozen ground.”
Sudddenly, as the woods came crashing down, people started paying attention to the destruction of the woods. Newsday was an up and coming newspaper at that time, according to Bob, and they took up the cause, but “while the editorial pages endorsed the principles of conservation and preservation, the business section, real estate section and its general news rang with announcement after proud announcement of the latest shopping center, housing development, industrial park, power station, highway expansion, population growth, property values and prosperity…No one was talking about the intangible cost of smog and summer heat, and the deprivation of natural beauty and an oasis of solitude and silence. Quality of life was of little concern to most people in 1957.” I’m sure if my parents knew about this story, and I’m sure they did, they were too busy to even think about joining a fight to save some woods.
Needless to say, the park proposal was shot down. Bob points out several bad guys in the tale, including lawyers and elected officials who were working both sides of the fence, pretending to help Mrs. Bergh’s cause for the public support it would bring them and working with the developers to destroy the woods at the same time. By the end of 1958, five years before I was born, the Lord’s Woods were completely gone. There is a little postage stamp of woodland around the waterworks, and some land that creeps up behind backyards up Doxy Brook to the reservoir on Hungry Harbor Road. When I was a kid, we’d sneak into those woods sometimes. My older brother and his friends used to catch turtles, bring them back to the house, paint their initials on the shells and set them free again. Today, most of it has barbed wire around it. And apparently, If I see something, I should say something. I assume it would be about what I saw, but I can only see though the fence, and there’s not much to see.
When I was younger than my son is now, I would go off in the summertime on my bike searching for rabbits in the parkland built behind the backyards in the Green Acres neighborhood, which is across Duffy’s Creek from our own neighborhood, which was called West Sunbury when Mr. William Gibson’s company built it in 1950. When I was a little older, I would take the aluminum rowboat from our backyard and row it down to Rosedale Road, pretending I was an Indian paddling along the creek. You could “park” the boat and climb the bulkhead into Brook Road Park in Green Acres. About twenty years ago, maybe more, they changed the name of the neighborhood to Mill Brook, because the residents did not want to be associated with the gargantuan shopping mall that sits right next to it (The same developer, Channan Corporation, built the houses and the shopping mall on land that once once divided between the Hoeffner Farm and Curtis Field, a famous airfield in the 1920’s that was visited by Ameliah Earheart and Charles Lindbergh. There’s a plaque in the middle of the Home Depot parking lot you could go look at if you don’t believe me). The shopping mall is still called Green Acres, and it’s about thirty times the size it was when I was a kid. I may be exaggerating there a little bit. All I can tell you is that there aren’t any kids looking for rabbits or pretending to be Indians around here anymore. Lately they’ve been looking for Pokemon.
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.
Sometimes we’re a little bit arrogant here at Duffy’s Creek regarding how we spend our free time vs. how other people spend their free time. It’s a really obnoxious and pointless way to be and we’re trying to get over it. While we can’t fathom why anybody would go near any shopping mall unless they had to, or why anybody would want to go to a casino, or on a cruise ship, or to the state of Florida, or spend one minute watching 95% of the movies and TV shows that get thrown at us, the fact is you’ve got to live and let live. As I’m writing this, I’m watching grown men in matching pajamas playing with balls and bats. Who’s to say what’s a waste of time?
I guess for us it’s mostly about avoiding the crowd. We feel so packed in just living on Long Island that the idea of subjecting ourselves to a large crowd of people (that isn’t chanting “Let’s Go Mets!” or staring at the ocean) is just not something that seems like fun.
And then there’s Splish Splash.
If you’re not familiar with it, Splish Splash is a 95-acre water park at the end of the Long Island Expressway off the Calverton / Riverhead exit. It’s a good hour and a half from here in Sunday morning traffic. For four of the last five years, we have willingly made that trip once a summer to wade through crowds of half naked people, wait on really long lines for really fast rides and inhale chlorine fumes for five hours or so. And we’ll do it again next year. I think I can speak for Mrs. Duffy here when I say that for me to go to Great Adventure or Dorney Park would require kidnapping me and throwing me in the trunk of your car. And I guess if you did, I’d probably end up having fun if I survived the trip. But I won’t go on my own. Why? I’m not sure. Why do we love Splish Splash? I have my theories.
When they first opened in 1991, I remember hearing about it and thinking that it sounded like a fun place – if you weren’t a 28 year-old hipster doofus who had a seemingly cool job working at a magazine in the city and who hung out with people who never came out in the daylight. Those were days when my circumstances were very far from my true essence. I was trying to live a life that other people thought was cool, and deep down I wanted to be just another grinning idiot flying down a water slide. But I didn’t see myself going to Riverhead with a bunch of friends to ride the Giant Twister, ’cause I didn’t have a bunch of friends to go with, or with which to go. Many of my high school friends were already taking their own little kids to places like Splish Splash while I was hanging out in places with too much mascara. Then, in the fall of ’99, I met the woman I would marry, who likes the sun, and trees and birds and things like that. Our first two dates involved the Long Beach Boardwalk and flying a kite on the beach, so I knew I was on the right track. I’m happy to say that I left all vestiges of hipster city-guy life, and all the pallid people who go with it, back in the 20th Century. For the last 16 years, I’ve just been a happy doofus. So as soon as The Dude was old enough, I said the words to my wife that I had wanted to say to somebody for 12 years: “Hey! Let’s Go to Splish Splash!” And she liked everything about that idea.
The Dude was six the first year we went. The first thing I noticed when we got there is there were actually shade trees lining all the paths around the park, and lots of trees between the rides and pools. For some reason I hadn’t expected any trees at all. It’s really a beautiful place. It’s a park with a giant pool infrastructure built into it. The second thing I noticed is that no matter how big it gets, and what sort of insane rides they add, Splish Splash aims for a sort of “Land That Time Forgot” vibe, from the goofy parrot show to the dippin’ dots and carnival games, right down to the typefaces they use on the signs and the music soundtrack where everything is either from the 70’s or sounds like it is. I was instantly charmed. And I knew it was going to be crowded, so I prepared myself for that. And Lord it was crowded.
But I noticed something else right away. Many subsets in this huge crowd were big, extended families: Grandmas and aunts and uncles and cousins and brothers and sisters, all making a day of it, and all of whom required a ticket between $30 and $40 to get in. And many of these families, whatever color or flavor they were, didn’t look like the most prosperous members of the general population of Suffolk County or the surrounding area. To the uninitiated, “Out East” is the land of Hamptons Horse Shows and Writer and Artist Softball Games and Rock Star Mansions. But if you’re from Long Island, you know that there are a lot of pretty hardscrabble corners you can get to on the LIE. And you’ll find people with white, black or caramel mocha latte skin in these towns, but since the county at large is still pretty segregated, not necessarily in the same neighborhoods. But the fact is, there are people from parts of Suffolk like North Bellport and Central Islip and Mastic Beach who are all in the same economic boat, the one that sinks shortly after it misses a paycheck. It’s the same situation that millions of people in the outer boroughs of NYC find themselves in, and lots of them escape their cages for a day in the summertime to bring the whole family to Splish Splash. And for a family of ten people to spend over $500 to spend a day at a water park, when it’s entirely possible that the breadwinners of those families are making the minimum wage, is no small thing.
And I don’t think they’re being overcharged. I’m sure the owners of Splish Splash are making a nice healthy profit, but they deserve it, because they run a good business. It’s sparkling clean, fully-staffed, totally safe, and amazingly well-run for a place of it’s size. You get your money’s worth. It cost my little family of three $148, plus $24 for lunch, probably about $7 of gas and $3.50 for Daddy’s to go coffee on the way out. But we drove home with the feeling a euphoria that you get when you have a really, really fun day, and judging by the smiles that pass by you in waves as you walk through Splish Splash, I’m sure those big families had the time of their lives and made some great memories. (By the way, if there’s no line, that’s because the food is terrible. Stay away from the burgers on the boardwalk and go to Johnny Rockets Diner up by the Kahuna Bay Wave Pool. This is not a service article or a review, but you needed to know that).
But here’s the best part: If you factor out the recent “pay us more and cut the line” incentives that amusement parks are now pushing (the one at Splish Splash is called the “H2Go Pass” and costs between $40 and $60 – and I’ve never seen that many people using them) once you have bought that ticket and passed through that turnstile, you are an equal citizen of Splish Splash, with the same rights and privileges to jump around and woot and holler as every person you see. Even with the silly cabanas that they try to get you to rent, Splish Splash is a Democratic Socialist state. And like all Democratic Socialist States, it’s a great place to be a kid. Even a kid with sensory processing issues. And even if it takes a little while to warm up to it.
Our first stop in our first year was the Lazy River. First of all, holy crap what a great idea! You get in an inflatable tube and you float for twenty minutes, the water carries you forward and you end up where you started. You also have the option of going under periodic showers of water or steering around them. It is Trisha Duffy’s ultimate amusement park ride. She was all like this is the best thing ever. (She admires sloths). I don’t remember who rode the two-person tube with the Six-Year-Old Dude, but he loved it as well, as long as no one said the word “inflatable” (he was afraid of it at the time) and his head was never completely submerged in the water (which at the time would cause a meltdown as quick as you can say, “inflatable”). We spent the rest of the day doing what you can do at Splish Splash if you’re happily shackled to a six year-old boy. We watched him go down the nice easy water slides and run around around in the kids area, then we made our way over to the wave pool, where he got to wear a life preserver and was therefore in heaven for a good hour or more. We left already planning to come back the next year.
And we did. And we headed right for the Lazy River, which is, as I mentioned, my wife’s whole Splish Splash raison d’etre. And then the wheels came off. Trisha made a wrong move getting The Dude into the two-person raft and he was submerged over his head in two and a half feet of water for approximately three quarters of a second. And he threw a wicked meltdown and yelled and screamed and cried and carried on. I was already floating away at this point, and was ready to come back, but Trisha told me to keep on going. I told her that I’d get him when I came back and she would get her turn, but she was so pissed at the whole situation that she just didn’t want to. So she never got to go on the Lazy River that day. The Dude calmed down and we sat bored out of our minds at the kiddie area and the wave pool for the rest of the day.
The “Holland” story about acceptance of kids on the Spectrum has been around long enough that lots of people have heard it, but I’ll run you through it anyway in case you haven’t. It was written by a woman named Emily Perl Kingsley. I looked that up. The deacon at my church said once that he’d kill the next person who told it to him when he mentioned autism, and it is an oversimplification, but I think it makes a lot of sense. Here it is in a nutshell: When you find out you’re going to have a baby, it’s like you’re going on a fabulous trip to Italy. You’re going to see the Sistine Chapel, The Mona Lisa, The Tower, The Vatican, all that stuff. You’re stoked. You buy guide books and you try to pick up a little Italian. You get on the plane and six hours later the pilot announces that you’ll be landing in Holland instead, and you have to stay there. At first you don’t know what the hell to do, and you’re trying not to be pissed but you are. And then you have your breakthrough. Holland is really nice. There’s windmills and tulips and friendly helpful people. It’s a different place, but it’s a beautiful place just the same. You buy new guidebooks and learn some Dutch and you forget you ever wanted to go to Italy.
I’ve said it before and It’s time to say it again: The Dude may or may not be autistic. He’s been classified as such because school has been really difficult for him. And he exhibits some of the tendencies of an “Aspergian”: The monologue, the awkwardness, the sensory processing issues, the social cluelessness, the obsessions and compulsions.
We love him and wouldn’t change him. But we’re humans. There have been times, and the aborted Lazy River Trip of 2011 was one of those times, where we felt like saying fuck Holland, We hate it here. Be normal for Christ’s sake. Just stop.
We always come out of it, mostly because it’s an awful way to be, and we’re humans. But we also come out of it because The Dude keeps learning from his meltdowns. He’s still has them, but their frequency and duration have been decreasing every year. He keeps on getting better. He keeps on learning about himself and making adjustments. He keeps surprising us to the point where it’s hard to surprise us anymore, and it’s been the most beautiful experience of our life together to not only watch him grow up, but to watch him rise up.
And what have we done to help him? Everything we could think of, as much of it as possible. And If it worked, we kept doing it, and if it didn’t we stopped doing it and did something else. Our pediatrician, who may or may not know that he and I were in the same graduating class of Valley Stream South, ’cause neither one of us has ever mentioned it, suggested to us that kids like The Dude sometimes “grow out” of some of the symptoms of Asperger’s Syndrome, but what they’re really doing is learning how to ameliorate those symptoms, learning how to put them aside or rationalize them, or see the irrationality of them by developing a higher self that looks down. He ‘s starting to understand that his “condition” is a gift. A unique way of seeing the world and a unique set of skills to bring to that world. Teenage angst will come, and we’ll deal with it together. But right now, he’s cool with being a little weird. And this is what we’ve been trying to instill in The Dude for eleven and a half years. Look at yourself, then look around. Figure out what’s real and what’s in your head. Celebrate your strengths and fight like hell against your weaknesses.
For the last two years, The Dude has been a magnificent fish in the water, and we get to the pool and the beach as much as we can. We even keep it going with the indoor pool at Echo Park, where Daddy can sit in the sauna with the old Russian guys on cold winter afternoons. The boy who wouldn’t let his head get wet jumps off the diving board, swims out to the deep end, does summersaults underwater, even lets me throw him backwards in the Valley Stream Pool. He’s overcome his demons and is a much happier person for it.
And for the last three years at Splish Splash, we all floated solo on the Lazy River, then scared the hell out of the sloth enthusiast with a trip down the Mammoth River in the big raft. Then she watched as The Dude and I did a couple of trips down Dinosaur Falls. The whole dinosaur aspect of it is so Splish Splash Cheesy, which is why I love it. They put a couple of dinosaurs along the big twisting water slide because calling it “The Big Twisting Water Slide” didn’t have the mythology they were going for. Although the big slide in the center of the park, which we’re doing next year, is called “The Giant Twister”. Go figure.
This year we overcame the demons of Shotgun Falls. It’s a simple water slide that sends you down twenty feet in two seconds, whereupon you are catapulted through a waterfall and a geyser and dropped five feet off the slide into a ten-foot deep pool at about sixty miles an hour. Then you swim out. Nothing to it. I was trying to get him to do it last year and he was absolutely adamant that he was not going near it. And I didn’t push it. Because you don’t push it in Holland if you know what’s good for you. This year I suggested it again. And he was adamantly against it, until he decided to force himself to do it. I went down two times. May I suggest having the common sense my son has and holding your nose when you hit the water. Just as a heads up. He went down three times, right along with a bunch of young jock kids his age, who all looked like they’d been flying down this thing since they were three. They never suspected. And The Dude was on top of the world when he hit the bottom of that slide.
After the pretty bad lunch which we’ll improve on next year, we got to sit around the beloved Monsoon Lagoon for the better part of an hour. It’s impossible to really explain the Monsoon Lagoon so I will refer you to the accompanying picture, which of course I took without permission. (I didn’t tell them to post it on the Internet).
You will notice that there’s a big ship-like structure on the top of the Monsoon Lagoon. Every fifteen minutes or so, it dumps a large volume of water on whoever is lucky enough to be standing under it. The life guard on duty at the Monsoon Lagoon very well may have been working his last shift at Splish Splash before he left for SUNY Oneota, because he was letting The Dude and the other kids go down the slide backwards head first. Usually you don’t see a lot of civil disobedience in the Socialist Democratic Republic of Splish Splash. People are treated with equality and respect. It’s clean, you get to spend quality time with your family and there are opportunities to have fun, maybe take a risk or two. Not to mention plenty of bathrooms. Why would anybody act up? Give ’em a country like that and watch how well people would co-exist.
And that’s what Trisha and I were watching and thinking about as we relaxed at the Monsoon Lagoon, while our young maniac romped and played and created a good childhood memory for himself. We were watching a young couple, part of a larger extended family, introducing their very small baby girl to the wonders of a kiddie pool. The young daddy in particular made a striking impression on me. I didn’t get to be a daddy until I was forty. This kid was maybe twenty-two and he was enraptured by his beautiful baby daughter. His smile literally sparkled in the sunshine. He was so damn happy. They sat in the water together, and pretty soon the mommy sat down, and some older cousins sat down and they all sat there in the water watching this little girl explore this wonderful place that they had taken her. In her world and in our son’s world, this place is perfect. There’s nothing wrong here.
And outside the gates of The Socialist Democratic Republic of Splish Splash, buffoons in suits spewed more hate to capitalize on the lowest common denominator in people’s souls. They talked about building walls and rounding people up, or tracking them like Fed Ex packages. And people whose jobs suck and are broke all the time start to believe that the problem is immigration, when the real problem is the greedy bloodsuckers who bankroll the buffoons in the suits.
I am a second-generation American. My paternal grandparents emigrated here from Ireland a hundred years ago. I’m sure they took some crap, but they came anyway, because this country was worth sacrifice, worth risks. And let’s say my guess is right, and that young daddy at Splish Splash is a first-generation American, like my father, who also had a little baby when he was twenty-two as a matter fact, and probably smiled just as brightly. Or maybe this young man and others in his family snuck in to this country, and his daughter is the first-generation American.
Well if that’s the case, young feller, as far as I’m concerned, you’re doing it right.
It’s not your fault that the laws regarding your legal status have been outdated for years because no group of politicians has had the will or power or cajones to do anything about it. And if they call your little daughter an “anchor baby” or the next awful thing they think of, don’t worry about it. All their talk about immigration is nothing but coded racism, and anyone who thinks America was better when it was whiter better start swimmin’ or they’ll sink like a stone, for the times they are a-changin’. Their outdated ideas will drown in a Lazy River of ignorance.
You and I will keep coming back here with our kids every summer, young feller, and we’ll watch them grow up. And better yet, we’ll watch them rise up.