I was a student in the Valley Stream Public Schools for 13 years. The single best thing they ever did for me was when they took me off Long Island for a week and showed me an Upstate New York winter.
It was the traditional trip to the Ashokan Center, the one my son didn’t get to take because the tradition ended sometime between my time in the Valley Stream schools and his time 41 years later. I’m gonna go out on a limb here and say the lawyers and insurance consultants got involved. But in February of 1975, way back before they ruined everything, two schools worth of sixth graders were loaded on tour buses and transported to a big camp near the Ashokan Reservoir in Olivebridge, NY, smack in the middle of the Catskill Mountains and smack in the middle of winter.
I was thinking about this trip when I was acclimating to the weather earlier this month up on Trisha’s Mountain. Embracing the cold, as my Buddhist friend likes to say. And Buddha, it was cold. The temperature only got above 30 degrees twice in 11 days, and then only briefly. It snowed on five of the days, and there was already two feet of snow on the ground when we got there. This of course didn’t stop Mookie from dragging me to the top of the backyard hill to sniff up every animal track immediately upon our arrival, which I expected. But he did keep looking back at me as if to ask why I, as God, had made this snow so deep and difficult for his little English Labrador Retriever legs to walk through.
Meanwhile, there were two things I remember from that 6th grade Ashokan trip.
One was the sheer exhilaration of flying through the air on a toboggan down a preposterously steep hill and whipping out across the frozen Esopus Creek, which is, coincidentally, the very same creek I was looking down on from a steep hill when I met Mookie in his breeder’s kitchen in nearby Saugerties 36 years later.
That toboggan ride is one of the single favorite memories of my life, and I always thought it was interesting that Lois Lowery chose sledding down a hill as Jonas’ first transmitted memory of the real life he was missing out on in the novel The Giver, a book I read with a lot of kids that never got to ride a toboggan down a hill and across a frozen creek and likely never would. I fully endorsed the experience, though, if they ever did happen to get the chance.
It was wild. When you hit the bottom of the hill, it was like being in a Hot Wheels car going through the speed booster, except you were propelled straight out across the ice instead of around the loop-de-loop. And don’t think that I don’t think of this image every Christmas Eve when George Bailey has to save his kid brother Harry. I’m gonna go out on a limb again here and say that the lawyers and the insurance consultants used that particular activity as Exhibit A when they finally put the kibosh on the sixth-grade trip.
The other thing I remember was winter.
I wanted to see if I could fill in some blanks about Ashokan, so I cast a net on Facebook and asked people who shared this experience what they remembered, and about 10 of them responded, God bless them.
Apparently I made a broom and a candle holder when I was there, and possibly a fire poker. I would have made a little man out of pewter, but somebody’s husband had broken the machine years earlier. I thought I had put on snowshoes for the first time in my life up on Trisha’s Mountain, but I’m told that my first snowshoe hike was 46 years earlier than that. Who knew.
One friend of mine, who went on to be a star pitcher on the Valley Stream South Falcons varsity baseball team, bravely recalled for us the memory of being such a homesick little wuss for the first two days of the trip that he required a full-scale intervention. As for myself, except for not wanting to poop in a public bathroom for the first two days, I don’t remember being homesick, but I probably missed TV, and Ace the beagle.
Another friend checked in, a guy I’ve known since kindergarten. In the interest of sharing the little details of life’s rich pageant that never cease to amuse and astound, I must tell you that this particular friend of mine happens to be a world-famous strongman who’s in the Guinness Book of World Records for rolling 14 frying pans into burritos with his bare hands in under a minute.
I pulled a couple of muscles in my ribcage opening the garage door last week. At the time, I thought my lung may have collapsed.
Not only did my old friend, a sweet, good-natured family man who is known in strongman competition circles as “The Crusher”, remember that the guys who set the toboggans up were named Kevin and Doug, and that another counselor named Andy challenged all comers to ice skating races, he was also able to pull up all the amazing pictures you see in this post in less time than I could have found last year’s tax returns.
The first pictures he posted were of us and our classmates, which were fun to see. Then he told me he had some other pictures, but they were of scenery rather than people. I asked him to send those pictures, too, and he did. You’d think I would have remembered that there were farm animals at the Ashokan Center, or that one of the counselors looked suspiciously like Richard Manuel of The Band, who had a place near the Ashokan Reservoir at the time.
What I did remember clearly as soon as I saw the pictures was the landscape, and the rickety old buildings dotting the snow and the bare trees stretched out across that landscape. Poking around the Ashokan Center website today, it looks like most of those buildings have been torn down and replaced. My broom and my fire poker are long gone, physically and in my memory, but the images of the countryside in winter that my friend probably took to finish up a roll of Kodak Instamatic film before we got on the bus back home are a direct match of the images in my mind’s eye.
I was eleven years old, and I was instantly charmed by winter in Upstate New York.
Now you can plainly see from the picture at the top of the post that my parents did not cheat when it came to keeping us dressed for the weather. That coat was as warm as a womb. There was an entire sheep sewed into that lining. And only fools go upstate in February without a good wooly hat and gloves. The picture doesn’t show them, but I’m sure I was wearing the sturdiest pair of boys’ brown leather waterproof hiking boots that JC Penney had on display that November. And I’m sure I had on a pair of long johns, which I still wear in the winter, as I’m still what my students in Rockaway amicably described as “one bony-assed motherf@#$er.”
It snows on Long Island, of course. Sometimes a lot. And the wind howls and the temperatures drop. And when it’s just a little too warm for snow, cold rain will come along and prick you with a million little needles. But in winter, it’s always just a smidge or so warmer in Valley Stream than it is in Copake Falls. The cold rain on Long Island is often snow in the Taconic-Berkshires. But the difference in what winter actually feels like in one place as compared to the other seems like more than a smidge, which we can define here as bigger than a tinge but smaller than a whit.
It feels like a different climate entirely.
To see if there were any scientific data to back this up, I learned all about the Koppen Climate Classification System, something I’m positive that I was not taught in school, but I don’t remember making the broom, either.
According to several sources, none of them Wikipedia, Duffy’s Creek is in a Cfa, a warm oceanic climate, also called a humid subtropical climate. Trisha’s Mountain is in a Dfb, a warm summer humid continental climate. Some maps put all of Long Island and the Lower Hudson Valley in a Dfa, which is a hot summer continental climate. I can tell you that summers have been getting progressively hotter for twenty years in Copake Falls, which not only sucks, but would also suggest it’s probably well on its way to being classified as a Dfa climate. But the climate around New York City, which has always mostly sucked, is forever at the mercy of the Atlantic Ocean, so Cfa would be the more accurate classification.
The difference between these climate classifications comes down to the number of days of sustained cold temperatures. It’s slightly colder upstate. There I proved it. Thank you Herr Koppen.
But there’s way more to it than that.
I have no scientific proof of this, and I’m too lazy to find any, but there are more days of stillness in upstate winter, more days when the wind isn’t blowing at all. While we get less snow and less deep cold on Long Island, it seems like the wind rarely takes a day off, and it accompanies every snow and rain event just to add to the misery.
Up in the country, you can catch a stretch of days where even if it’s only 10 to 15 degrees in the afternoon, there’s no wind at all. When you put that together with a light falling snow or some blue sky, some clean, fresh mountain air and a foot or two of snowpack to muffle all the noise except for that satisfying crunch under your boots, you got yourself some magic weather.
On the first morning of our February vacation on the mountain, my rectangle informed me that Mookie and I would be greeted outside by six degrees Fahrenheit with a 10-15 mph wind, making the “real feel” (what your daddy called the wind chill) a robustly negative seven degrees. The sun thermometer on the back porch, which is more form than function, announced a Good Morning Copake Falls temperature of zero degrees. But while it stayed cold, the wind calmed down after the first couple of days, which was a beautiful thing, as Trisha’s Mountain has its own little microclimate, and in the warm months we suddenly get attacked by swirling 20 mph winds for no apparent reason. When it stops, its absence creates a loud silence.
And since Mookie was working so hard to trudge up the hill through the snowpack in the yard and back down the hill through the adjacent cornfield, we did a lot of our walking along on the blessedly level Harlem Valley Rail Trail, where the snow had been already been snowshoed, cross-country skied and otherwise tamped down a bit.
But even with all this evidence of human activity, a lot of time we had the whole thing to ourselves, which was both incredibly peaceful and a little bit frightening. First off, there was a lot of poop along the trail, and I know the good citizens of the Roe Jan Valley overwhelmingly clean up after their dogs, so it could have been anybody’s poop. It occurred to me that a couple of hungry bad ass coyotes or mountain lions could be somewhere up there in the woods, with one saying, “I’ll take the one with the fur, you take the tall duck.”
And if we were a good ways up the trail and one of us suddenly pulled a hamstring or were otherwise unable to walk, the other would be pretty screwed. One scenario would involve a panicking, breathless 130 lb. man carrying a wriggling, confused 102 lb. dog and the other would be an equally confused dog searching frantically for someone with thumbs who can drive an Outback.
Plus of course, severe cold weather can kill you. There’s an extra risk in traveling in winter, as your troubles would be significantly more complex if you found yourself suddenly not traveling. And once you get where you’re going, there are also power outages to consider, which is why in a future chapter we’ll learn all about Generac.
Add in the risk being further away from places you might need to get to in a hurry, hospitals in particular, through potentially pitch-dark, black-iced roads, and you could see why, just out of curiosity, I visited the website of an assisted living community across the border in Lenox, Mass.
This was actually when I was in the kitchen on the mountain, warming up from the second time that day I had swept the snow off the entire driveway. In comparison to some of our fabulously wealthy neighbors with mile-long driveways further up the mountains on Breezy Hill Road, our driveway is nothing fancy. But it’s still over a hundred feet, mostly uphill. One of our neighbors owns a landscaping and plowing business and we’re all very happy that we met each other. But he only plows and sands the driveway if there’s more than three inches of accumulation. Not being a full-fledged country guy yet, I don’t have a snow blower, which meant that the “nuisance snow” (a term I learned from Albany TV News), which fell for four days in a row, had to be either shoveled or swept, then sanded by hand before it turned the driveway into an Olympic ski jump.
To paraphrase Steven Wright, it’s a small world, but I wouldn’t want to sweep it.
When you sign up for upstate, winter owns you for four or five months out of every twelve. My darling wife, raised in a culture where people roasted in the sun on Point Lookout Beach four or five months a year, jokes that she has no idea what she was thinking.
But we both know. For every challenge that upstate winter presents in a place with fewer people and more hills, it more than rewards the survivors by enveloping them in its charms, its peace, its oxygen and its stunning natural beauty. Crunching through the snow along the Rail Trail, my mind was clear and easy enough to float me all the way back to that week in Ashokan, when I first experienced a wide open, heaven-sized country landscape under a quiet falling snow, and a clear and silent 15-degree blue sky morning amid rolling hills lit up with twinkling crystals.
Yes it can be bleak. Lots of cloudy days to get through. One of the first things I noticed at the house on Trisha’s Mountain this month was that, since we haven’t gotten up to putting color on the walls yet, both the inside and outside color palette was an endless loop of brown and white, broken up only by rows of red-twig dogwood on the tree farm and a few big evergreen trees visible from the windows. But winter never lasts forever, and that bleakness is what makes the greens and the yellows truly beautiful when they show up in April.
All the houses in Copake Falls, and all through the Dfb climate, look very serious about their jobs in the winter. And you can see houses that you can’t ordinarily see though the leaf cover. I can’t describe light through leafless trees in winter any better than Warren Zevon did when he said it looked like “crucified thieves”, so I won’t even attempt it.
The houses are working very hard to keep their owners warm. No lace curtains billowing in the windows and no whirligigs spinning on the front lawn. This is crunch time. Sometimes when I see or smell the fires from the chimneys of these hundred-and-fifty-year-old houses, I think of the people who settled places like this, who couldn’t crank the thermostat up, and for whom a fireplace could be the difference between life and death.
But despite the lurking dangers of winter, Mookie and I got to live our best life out there in the sharp and cold, here and now air, crunching through the snow along the Rail Trail. If it’s peace and quiet and a Zen feeling of no time and no self that you’re after, a trail through upstate winter woods is the place to be, particularly if you don’t have to get to a job.
On one of those clear mornings, we literally walked into a flock of bluebirds. At least twenty of them, dancing and singing through the trees on either side of us. This moment now lives alongside others in my life where I witnessed something so beautiful that I said to God, out loud, smiling, “you gotta be kidding me, man!”
Though God has a sense of humor, when it comes to nature’s wonders, he’s dead ass. He arranged for a flock of bluebirds to come along and flitter through the trees that morning because he really thought that Mookie and I should see them, just like he arranged for a sunset to bathe the stalks of last years’ corn and the sweep of snow down the hill in an ethereal orange glow as my son and I snowshoed across the field late that afternoon. All we had to do was dress for it, and there it was.
When people tell you not to waste your life away, they’ll sometimes tell you that we only get so many summers. Make hay while the sun shines and all that. Conversely, we only get so many winters. And because we needed all the oil and the plastic, winters are not what they were in 1975. I’d likely meet the bottom of the Esopus Creek if I took that toboggan ride today, and I’d need the Crusher to pull me out.
So while it is a great time to enjoy the couch, catch up on books or naps or watch a little basketball, you’ve got to get out there and embrace the winter while it’s here, lean into its big shoulders, draw in its icy breath and let it embrace you back.
The day before we rolled down the sandy driveway on Trisha’s Mountain and back down to Duffy’s Creek, we got two inches of fresh snow upstate. But it was one of those occasional storms where Long Island gets a few more inches than Copake Falls. That snow stuck around for a few days, then started melting into patches. When the last patch started melting in the backyard on the creek, Mookie made sure to roll on his side and make a dog angel, and I made sure to crunch through it with my brown waterproof boots.
It’s a long, hot summer, and we just needed a little more of that real feel before winter got away.
When I started writing this “e-book” series of blog posts, in August 2020, I was shooting for what’s called “evergreen content,” meaning that the months and years in which the chapters were written wouldn’t really factor into the subjects of said chapters, which are, to date:
An insider’s guide to New York Route 22
Watching the sun set over the Roe Jan Valley
The path along Duffy’s Creek
The Harlem Valley Rail Trail
Vermin, sprit animals and motherf#$%ing snakes
Christmas trees and mulch
A big rock with a view and a famously deadly waterfall.
Despite these very general and innocuous topics, the damn Pandemic kept sneaking into the narrative.
Yes, the original premise was a guy from Valley Stream, Long Island who had just retired from twenty-five years of teaching and bought a second house in Upstate Copake Falls with his wife because they loved the area, thus becoming human wishbones. But I thought that it wouldn’t matter what particular month or year any of this took place, as long as the setting alternated from one chapter to the next.
But it’s become clear that the Pandemic of 2020-2021 makes “evergreen content” not only impossible right now, but pretty much pointless. This is a time in history that no one alive has seen the likes of, and no matter what (or where) the subject is, it can’t not go through that filter.
So, if you’re an historian who has happened to have come across any of these first nine chapters in the year 2121, you would realize that the guy who wrote them was ultimately just trying to stay alive until the coast was clear.
He drove from Nassau County to Columbia County and back again. He hunted, foraged and gathered at nearby grocery and hardware stores in both places for food and supplies. He walked his dog; he took naps with his cats; he did some writing for Pay Pal peanuts; he read books and magazines, he watched TV, he played some guitar, and he did a lot of crossword puzzles.
As the cold, dark and dreary winter of ’20-21 wore on, he spent most of his time confined to one or the other home and, while the company was always swell, he became increasingly bored and restless as a result. At the same time, he considered himself very, very, very lucky and he tried not to complain.
Nonetheless, person of the future, I have included the following memo, just for you:
To: Mr. or Ms. Historian
Re: The Pandemic of ‘20-21
However, here in February of 2021, despite the disturbing, more contagious and more deadly variants of the Covid-19 virus that keep popping up (how nice), it seems like we’re actually seeing a dim light at the end of this hellish tunnel, though try telling that to a half a million or so dead people, including my father, or the other people who lost family members, or jobs, or homes, or the businesses into which they had thrown their souls.
Still, we can now safely say that the President of the United States is not actively trying to infect and kill its citizenry. Imagine that. Plus, we survived an attack on the Temple of Democracy by ten thousand of most disgusting and ignorant people in the world, stirred into a twisted, violent rage by that same, now ex-President’s Big Lie about the election in which, by the grace of God and Stacey Abrams, he got his ass kicked to the goddamn curb and he knows it.
Their insurrection failed, mostly because once they breached the Capitol, these overwhelmingly deluded and dimwitted organisms were too busy posing for selfies to get around to murdering the Vice President, the Speaker of The House or any democrat they could get their hands on. It was the series finale of the four-year, reality TV nightmare that they inflicted on the rest of us, solely to punish us for electing a black guy twice, and for suggesting that maybe they were the damn problem.
But we survived, and the miserable failed Hitler who tried to kill us all has been as muted as he gets for the time being. Now that we’re back to living in actual reality, we have a real President and a functioning federal government again. Imagine that. More people are being vaccinated than are getting sick, and there are vaccines on the way by July for everybody with the sense to get one.
Plus, we’re past Thanksgiving, Christmas, New Year’s Eve and the Super Bowl, so all the unrepentant assholes who just HAD to get together and spread deadly germs in small spaces don’t have any excuses to cough on each other and thereby kill your grandmother for at least the next couple of months.
So things are looking up.
But it’s still necessary to quarantine as much as possible. And it’s still winter. In fact, this has been as close to a good, old-fashioned, pre-climate-change winter as we’ve had in a lot of years. Lots of cold, lots of snow. And by the grace of God and my immigrant grandparents, I live in New York, so I can find ways to enjoy the cold and the snow then come back inside to a warm house, unlike the millions of people in Texas who suffered miserably in the cold this month because the elected officials who are supposed to protect them let their power grid and their water supply freeze up.
Forgive the digression, but it seems that we can determine from this evidence that the average squirrel has more intelligence, more moral fiber, and certainly more empathy than the people who run Texas. Say what you like about the people who run New York. They know not to get caught unprepared for winter weather. Nobody forgets that shit.
Of course, even if this were in a non-Pandemic winter, there would be fewer things to do and fewer places to go, because, well, it’s winter. But in the alternative reality of a non-Pandemic winter, some of my favorite troubadours might have come to places a short car or train ride away from Valley Stream to sing for me, and I would have been able to accommodate them, even on a weeknight and even on a pension. And there would be museums and diners and libraries and movie theaters for the occasional change of scenery.
The troubadours are all home streaming on Instagram, and while there are theoretically places to go for that change of scenery, I haven’t died from coronavirus yet, and I don’t want to, nor do I want to experience any of the long-term effects that survivors are going through, so I’m not going anywhere I don’t have to go until they get to the 55-65 group and I can make an appointment at the CVS as easily as when I got my flu shot, even if that means five or six more months of semi-hermitage.
For now, everybody who was working at the King Kullen supermarket, the Pets Supplies Plus and the Raindew Variety Store a year ago is still alive and working there today, and we all wear our masks, and nobody hugs anybody. During the Valley Stream weeks, I go to these places, I get what I need, I go home, I stare out the window and I wait for spring.
But I do love winter weather. As a matter of fact, I love all weather. Every season has its unique charms, and to embrace each one of them when they arrive is among the great privileges of being alive. I wouldn’t live anywhere else but the Northeast for that reason. I’ve never been to Florida, have never had any burning desire to go to Florida, and I sure as hell am not going there any time soon. Apologies to my Floridian friends, but to me, living in a place without true seasonal extremes is, how shall I say, wack.
Admittedly, as someone with very little natural insulation, I sure didn’t enjoy waking up at 4:45 am to commute to work in winter weather, though it did get the initial shock of cold over with every day. Now I have to rely on my personal trainer to get me out under the sky and moving every morning. He does this by lying on the floor and staring at me forlornly until I put on my boots and my big coat, which is a really effective strategy if you’re thinking about starting a personal training business, but you’d have to be a Labrador retriever.
We go for walks, we enjoy the weather, then we come back inside so the one of us who isn’t covered in thick fur and blubber can warm up for a while. But as I enjoy my first extended winter vacation since I was four years old, there’s just isn’t much to report on from Long Island. Any “evergreen content” I could come up with involves places I can’t justify going to or people I can’t justify seeing.
So this chapter is about basketball.
And since it all starts with reading the morning Long Island Newsday, it counts as a Valley Stream chapter.
It all started on the morning after Christmas Day on Duffy’s Creek. I was flipping through the paper and Mookie was getting his leg scratched. Upon reaching the sports pages, and since I didn’t have to be anywhere fast, I read an article about the Brooklyn Nets.
Now, I flip through every single page of the newspaper every single day in Valley Stream. When I’m upstate, I substitute the Berkshire Eagle and the Register Star, so if you want to know about the new restaurant in Pittsfield, Mass or what people are upset about in Hudson, I’m your man. This obsessive-compulsive disorder of mine also allows me to always know who’s winning and who’s losing among the New York Sports teams, who they’re big stars are and how much money they’re making.
I’m a baseball guy. I’ve been a baseball guy since Mrs. Milne brought the TV on the cart into our first-grade classroom so we could all watch the Mets play the Orioles in the 1969 World Series. I went home that October afternoon to check if the Mets were on my TV, and sure enough they were, and they’ve been there ever since. Thirty-one years after that, I set my personal record by being at Shea Stadium twenty-five times to root on the 2000 Mets, including three playoff games and the last game of the World Series against the Yankees, which was the last professional baseball game played in the 20th Century.
I’ll take it one step further. I’m one of those nauseatingly sentimental baseball guys. The ones that get all blubbery watching “Field of Dreams” and have the Ken Burns documentary on DVD. At our wedding, Trisha and I gave out autographed baseballs as table gifts, and we had a friend bring along his catcher’s mask and glove so my best man could throw out the first pitch to him.
I named my dog Mookie, then I stood on a line in a sporting goods store to show Mookie Wilson himself a picture of my dog.
So being a baseball snob, I was conditioned to believe that every other sport was inferior. Football, soccer, basketball and hockey were categorized together in my narrow little brain as “the back-and-forth games.” They were faster than baseball, as is your average sloth, but all they essentially did was go back and forth.
I pretended to like football from high school and into my twenties because nearly every single person I hung out with was a football fan. That’s not an exaggeration, and I’m not sure how that happened. I never really had a favorite team, and I don’t watch it anymore. I think it would be better if they just played flag football instead of trying to pulverize each other, but I digress again.
Way back when, I taught English as a Second Language to rich kids from all over the world who were pretending to go to school so they could get visas and hang out in New York. They, and my brother-in-law, who was born in Chile, taught me to appreciate World Cup Soccer, particularly in 1998, when France beat Brazil in the finals. Again, like football, I could sort of see what the fuss was all about, but it didn’t light my soul the way a base hit up the middle with two out in the ninth does.
Then I started teaching in Queens. There were plenty of good baseball fans among the kids, and more and more soccer fans as immigration increased (not to mention cricket). But “ball” in the city is basketball, and to hundreds of the junior high school kids that I crossed paths with, basketball was a serious a matter as the heart attack I would’ve suffered if I’d played them one-on-one.
When sizing me up, shortly after demanding to know my age, hometown, marital and housing status, they’d ask me, “you got game?”. And I, at 5’9’’ and 120lbs. at the time, would smile and reply matter-of-factly, “no, I suck.” Then they might ask me who my favorite NBA team was, and I’d have to tell them delicately that I was a baseball fan and didn’t really follow basketball, and they’d look at me sort of the way you’d look at somebody who says, “I really don’t think Tom Hanks is that good an actor.”
In my first year of teaching in Rockaway, I was asked to referee the faculty-student basketball game. To this day, I have to rely on the refs to tell me when I’ve seen a personal foul on a basketball court. But I was going to do it, because first-year teachers don’t say no. Thankfully, my assistant principal, who like me majored in Mets baseball but unlike me had a minor in NBA studies, took over and bailed me out. If I had refereed that game, knives would have been drawn before halftime.
Nevertheless, for the benefit of having something else to talk about with the kids when it wasn’t baseball season, I always knew what was going on. I knew who all the NBA stars were in the 90’s and the 00’s: Jordan and Pippin on the Bulls, Hakim Olajuwon on the Rockets, Shaq on the Lakers, Patrick Ewing on the Knicks, Charles Barkley, Karl Malone, etc. etc. I’d know who was in the playoffs and occasionally watch the games. And I could always tell the kiddies that I watched the great Knicks teams of my childhood, because I did: Willis Reed, Dave DeBusschere, Earl the Pearl Monroe, Walt Frazier and Phil Jackson. Ask your grandparents, kids. Those guys could have made a basketball fan out of a duck.
Jason Kidd was the biggest star for the New Jersey Nets when I was a young teacher. The Nets had a couple of good seasons around that time, but they were usually overshadowed by the Ewing and the Knicks and their annoying courtside celebrities at the Garden.
But I already had a soft spot for the Nets because I had actually seen them play a couple of times when they were the Long Island ABA team, with Julius Erving (Dr. J.), his cool afro and the red, white and blue ABA basketballs. The first time was at the Island Garden, right next store to the place where we’d get our Christmas trees in West Hempstead. Once in a while, my father, never a sports guy, would get free tickets to see the Nets when they moved to the brand-new Nassau Coliseum, and we’d go so my mom wouldn’t be able to tell him that he never did anything besides yell at me.
New York basketball in the late ‘00’s and early ‘10’s was mostly average if not outright bad, so not even the kids at school weren’t talking about the Knicks or the Nets. By this time of course, they all had iPhones and Xboxes and Play Stations, so most of them spent their free time out in an alternative-reality ether, which I couldn’t even begin to relate to. But I did think it was pretty cool when the New Jersey Nets became the Brooklyn Nets and chose black, white and grey as the team colors. Snazzy-looking uniforms if you ask me.
And in my last couple of years in Ozone Park, a new assistant principal came in and put together a team that no middle school in Queens could beat. One of the best students in my Year 25 classes was the star, well on his way to 7 feet tall, the dean’s list of whatever college he goes to and maybe the NBA draft. You couldn’t help but soak up a little basketball appreciation working at MS 202, and maybe part of the reason I’m watching it now is that I miss that city vibe, painful as it is for me to admit.
Fast forward back to where we were sixteen paragraphs ago: Not going to the city, sitting on the couch, flipping through the Newsday and scratching the dog on the morning after Christmas. From the article about Brooklyn Nets, I found out that Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving, who had both signed with the Nets after winning championships with other teams, were playing together for the first time, and that they had won their first two games of the 20-21 season with neither the Warriors nor the Celtics putting up much of a fight. They had a former great player as a first-year coach (Steve Nash, whom my wife calls “the stern fellow”) and the buzz was that this could be their year.
So being trapped at home by a Pandemic, I decided to watch the next game, on a Sunday night against the Charlotte Hornets. I saw one of the Nets’ best players, Spencer Dimwitty, suffer a nasty season-ending knee injury, then I saw those Nets still standing come roaring back from a 14-point deficit in the fourth quarter, only to lose by two points, 106-104.
Trisha, who justifiably had to break my chops for sitting on the couch watching a back-and-forth game, said, “Wow! This is just like the Mets!”
But it was fun watching another live competition on TV again besides Jeopardy. (It was enough that we’re still grieving Alex Trebeck). So I watched the game after that. And they lost again, in overtime. Nether Durant nor Irving was playing, so I got to know some of the other guys. You can’t help but notice D’Andre Jordan, who is 6’8” with shoulders big enough to tattoo entire verses of scripture on them and a more impressive ponytail than my wife’s. I quickly adopted him as my favorite.
And though I’m already sick of the broadcast team on the Yes Network, they did teach me some of the better nicknames: Joe Harris, who seems to never miss a three-point shot, is “Joey Buckets.” Jeff Green, 34 years old and playing in his 13th season, is “Uncle Jeff.” Timothe Luwawu-Cabarrot is “TLC”, ‘cause how the hell could you say all that when you’re calling basketball play-by-play? I give Ian Eagle, the voice of the Nets, credit for calling TLC’s baskets “French Dips” and “French Connections”, but other than that, the broadcasters all giggle too damn much and between them and the pathetic fake crowd noises I’m muting the TV more and more every game.
As my first weeks of being the accidental basketball fan unfolded, Durant and Irving were back on the floor together for a game against the Washington Wizards in which they both missed shots with seconds to play and lost by one point, 123-122.
Just like the Mets.
But I started to see what makes these guys special. “KD” is 6’10’’ and moves like a man who has oil flowing through his veins instead of blood. “Kai” is 6’2’’, and one of the most gifted natural athletes I’ve ever seen playing anything. He reminds me of the last line of the song, “The Cape” by Guy Clark: “He did not know he could not fly, so he did.”
And because I flip through every page of the newspaper every day, I knew about some things in the first week of January. I knew that there was this player out in Houston, James Harden, who was unhappy with the direction of his team and wanted to be traded to the Nets so he could play with Durant and Irving. But Durant was ineligible to play for a week because he’d been exposed to Covid-19 and Irving was taking some time off, which everyone said was directly related to the Capitol Insurrection.
So I find a happy little pastime to take my mind off all the misery and keep me entertained through the winter, and the misery kicks the door in and trashes the room. But I kept watching anyway, as I had nothing else to do.
Irving never directly said that he didn’t want to play because he was upset about the Insurrection, but that’s what was widely assumed. It didn’t help that he got also caught breaking covid protocols to go to his niece’s birthday party. There were a lot of big mouths on Twitter questioning his commitment to the game and his inner fortitude.
Here are some things I’ve learned about Kyrie Irving: His mother was Sioux, and he supports the Standing Rock Reservation in North Dakota in their fight against the Dakota Pipeline, which has earned him the Sioux name “Little Mountain.” He burns sage before games. When the WNBA players opted not to play last year out of covid concerns, he donated $1.5 million towards covering their salaries. He gave $300,000 to Feeding America and helped launch Share A Meal, a NYC charity that has delivered 250,000 meals during the Pandemic. He’s trying to eat a plant-based diet and he had to apologize for punking the press into believing he was a flat-earther, which is funny as hell.
And I’ll tell you what: If I were an African American professional athlete in this country, I would think that it’s a constant moral dilemma knowing that, at the same time at which I’m serving as a hero and a role model to kids who badly need one, I’m also providing entertainment for rednecks married to karens who pull their kids in close if they see a guy who looks like me coming up the street and yahoos who tried to destroy the country because my people outvoted their people. That wouldn’t be an easy thing for me to reconcile. The same guy who tried to kill a policeman with the pole of an American flag on the steps of the Capitol probably had shit to say about Colin Kaepernick kneeling during the National Anthem. I wouldn’t want these unrepentant assholes rooting for me to throw a ball through a hoop, either.
So I’ll appreciate the joy of watching the joy that Kyrie Irving gets out of playing basketball at a level that few mortals can, and as far as I’m concerned, he can take the day off anytime he needs to.
Meanwhile, in Kyrie’s absence during the first weeks of January, KD was trying to carry the team, but they were treading water. I continued to get to know the other guys, including Landry Shamet, to whom I like to yell, “Dammit, Shamet!” when he misses, and I’m sure I’m not the only one. I also came to appreciate Travis Allen, a young center with afro that would stop Dr J. in his tracks, and Caris LaVert, sort of a Kyrie-Lite, but very talented.
Then I met The Beard.
Brooklyn made a big trade on January 12, giving up Allen and LaVert and all their draft picks for the next hundred years to get James Harden. The only thing I knew about him was that he looked like the guy you want to be around when the party gets going. The bubbleheads on TV and the articles in the Newsday were all speculating as to how an elite, MVP player who led the league in scoring three times would get used to sharing the ball. Harden replied that he just wanted to win a championship, which is the only thing he hadn’t accomplished.
It was an interesting subplot. I kept watching the games.
You might know this already: The man is a magician, a grand imperial wizard of basketball. He passes the ball behind his back and over his shoulder without looking, he passes under other guys’ legs, he passes across court through a crowd of large, sweaty men to put it right into the unguarded hands of Joey Buckets for the three, or up over the basket where DeAndre Jordan brings it home with a pony-tail flyin’, bible-thumpin’ slam dunk. He hits field goals and free throws like my dog marks telephone poles and I pour cups of coffee and he regularly tricks his opponents into fouling him when he drives into the paint.
Watching Harden, Durant and Irving come together, I finally “got” basketball on the same level I’ve always understood baseball. A baseball game is a Beethoven Symphony. There are slow, quiet movements where you’re drawn into a particular instrument, but you know if you follow along, they’ll be great bursts of joyous noise that will lift your soul and set your spirit free, or sometimes make you weep.
Basketball is jazz.
Forgive me for just figuring this out at 57. I was busy learning other stuff.
A quick Google search credits this idea to a joke by Michael Scott on “The Office”, but Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Wynton Marsalis were both on it before that. Marsalis said that both basketball and jazz “reward improvisation and split-second decision making against the pressure of time.”
To say that two basketball teams are just going back and forth is to say that a jazz ensemble is just playing “When The Saints Go Marching In” over and over again. One of the things I love about baseball is the endless possibilities. As the great Mets’ announcer Bob Murphy would say, every time you come to the ballpark, there’s a chance that you’ll see something you’ve never seen before. You could subsequently say that about every time the ball leaves the pitcher’s hands. But I never realized until watching the Brooklyn Nets this year that basketball is also full of endless possibilities, every time the shot clock starts.
My Netsies went on a tear through the Western Conference this month, winning five games straight on the road against some of the best teams in the league. The last game of the road trip was tied with two minutes left and ended with Harden throwing himself into Paul George of the Clippers to force him into an offensive foul, thus taking two points off the board and getting two free throws, of which he hit both, after somehow missing two other free throws just minutes earlier, plus a shot by Irving that would have bounced off the rim if DeAndre Jordan hadn’t reached up like he was touching the hand of God to guide the ball through the hoop.
Nets 112- Clippers 108. A half-game behind Philadelphia for first place with 20 wins and ten losses. If you’re thinking about jumping on the bandwagon, I was the last one on the back, so I’ll help you up.
One of my favorite bands is The Band. There were five guys, each an exceptional player on one or more instruments. There are hardly any solos in The Band’s songs. But each musician is aware of what the others are doing, and they seamlessly create space for all the sounds to come through individually at the same time you that hear them in harmony.
All these years, I had no idea they were playing basketball.
In baseball news, the Mets are loaded with talent and personality this year, and their new owner is a nerdy hedge-fund guy with wads of money who wants desperately for everyone to like him.
In basketball news, there will be 300 masked, socially-distanced fans at the Barclays Center tonight when the Nets play the Sacramento Kings, the first time spectators have been present in a year. When the Pandemic is over, I’ll be a half-hour train ride away, at least part of the time. Maybe a way to get that change of scenery next February.
It appears that I’ve become a basketball fan. People can evolve. While the Boys of Summer are doing their stretches down in spring training, and President Biden is shoveling us out from four years of the toxic, deadly incompetence and corruption that at times felt like a blizzard that would bury us alive, I’m enjoying the happy, swashbuckling exploits of Brooklyn’s Boys of Winter.
Trisha always knows what night there’s a game on. When Jeopardy ends, I walk out to the kitchen to heat up a cup, and on the way, I yell out, “BROOKLANNN!!!”
I also shop, cook and clean, so she’s letting me stay for now.
Of course this means conflicts are bound to occur in my pathetically, disgustingly cushy little existence. What happens when June comes around, I’m still refreshing the CVS website for my vaccine, Jacob DeGrom is throwing a perfect game with only 80 pitches in the sixth and the Nets, who have never won a championship, are up 3-1 in the finals? And what if both of those games are on the West Coast and the next morning promises perfect kayaking conditions on Long Island or a perfect morning for a bike ride on the rail trial in Copake Falls?
Bob Murphy had another great line. Every spring, there’d be six good pitchers for five spots, or five outfielders for three spots, and all the talk would be about how the manager would decide who plays and who sits.
Bob referred to this as a “happy problem.”
I suppose that’s my wish for everyone of good will right now. May we all live to see days when we have happier problems.
The South Taconic Trail chops through miles and miles of deep woods, climbing the peaks of three mountains while rambling north and south through three towns in New York and one town in Massachusetts. Near the point at which those two states and Connecticut all stand on one foot, there’s a side trail along the Mighty South Taconic that scrambles up and down Mt. Frissell and leads to the far Mightier Appalachian Trail, which runs parallel at that point just a few miles to the east. Behind our backyard on Trisha’s Mountain is five and a half miles of unbroken wilderness to the east, stretching to the next cup of caahfee in Sheffield, Mass. This wild and pristine swath of the Earth is one of the Nature Conservancy’s designated Last Great Places, which lends to its no street cred.
And it all smells fantastic.
Along a ridge on Trisha’s Mountain, which is really the southern descent of Sunset Rock Mountain, is a trail that’s only about a mile long, called either the Wood Thrush Trail or the Blue Trail, depending upon whom you ask. The Wood Thrush Trail sounds more like morning in the English countryside and The Blue Trail sounds more like a Cannonball Adderly record, so for these purposes I’m going with Wood Thrush. This humble and fabulous little trail starts at Sunset Rock Road, just off the high point of North Mountain Road, then provides a fine aerobic workout up and down a few hollows before easing down at the end into the camping area of Taconic State Park.
On the official New York State Parks South Taconic Trail Map, available for $6.95 at the park office, the Wood Thrush Trail appears to be within close proximity of the point at which our lawn meets the wilderness. I was very excited at this discovery. So much so that I bought a Fiskars 29-inch machete axe on Amazon for $40 with which I planned to bushwhack my own trail through the woods and up the mountain, thus connecting to the Wood Thrush Trail, which would connect me to Sunset Rock Road, which would connect me to the Sunset Rock Trail, where I could in turn access the South Taconic Trail, along which I could travel south past Bash Bish Falls, up and over Mt. Frissell and on to the Appalachian Trail, from where I would have my choice heading north to Mt. Kahtadin in Maine or south to Springer Mountain in Georgia.
It’s a cool looking axe, as you can see. I showed it to Trisha when Amazon delivered it and she said, in her best Karl Childers from the movie “Slingblade”: “I’d like to be baptized.” That’s why I’m in love, boys.
But ain’t nobody gonna be walking to Georgia from our backyard.
Not that I didn’t try. It was in February of 2020. Six weeks after we bought our house in the country and three weeks before the criminal mismanagement of a coronavirus outbreak became a worldwide pandemic that broke everything and screwed everybody. A Buddhist friend from Long Island was doing us a huge favor (kindness and generosity being two of the five pillars of Buddhism) by following Jack, Mookie, Lou the Subaru and me up Route 22 in his van carrying stuff for the house, including two new toilets, obviously the most valuable of cargo, which would later be installed by a local plumber who plays Santa Claus at the Copake Town Christmas Parade every year and plays the organ at a local church every Sunday morning.
Details like that are what makes life worth living.
Being familiar with the area, my Buddhist friend stopped at Brewster Pastry, located in a grand city-state shopping plaza on a shining hill just south of the official upstate line at the Red Rooster, to procure for us the most delicious danish ring I have ever experienced. Due to family obligations, which evolved in the time that took him to drive the 36 miles of Interstate 684, it turned out that instead of crashing on an air mattress on the mountain, which was the original plan, he only had a few hours before he had to turn around and go back to Long Island.
Patience and compassion are two more pillars of Buddhism. Plus he gets credit for the fifth one, wisdom, for knowing about Brewster Pastry.
After we unloaded the toilets and other somewhat lesser valuables, and after a cup of coffee and a memorable danish, we decided to do a little reconnaissance on the Wood Thrush Trail. It was dry and cold under a powder blue winter sky, a perfect afternoon for a good little hike through the woods.
To save time, we drove the three quarters of a mile uphill to the corner of North Mountain and Sunset Rock Road, which is a narrow dirt road that twists all the way through the wilderness from Copake Falls to Mt. Washington, Mass. The parking lot for the Sunset Rock Trail, which merges with the Mighty South Taconic, is about a mile straight uphill, but there is also a sign warning that the road is not maintained from November until March and I don’t think they’re just saying that.
Having been either cruelly deluded by the South Taconic Trail Map or too stupid to comprehend its scale, I figured that we’d eventually be able to see at least the tops of the houses along North Mountain Road, of which we’d be looking for the seventh one. It seemed promising that the trail actually started within a stone’s throw of the road.
As trails are hiked by humans, of course, they get a little wider and a little less wild over time, until they eventually become the Cross Island Parkway. It was clear that the Wood Thrush Trail, despite its frequent blue trail markers, was not as heavily traversed as the other local trails. It also became clear that, after one big dip, we were steadily gaining elevation, to the point where we could see the sky angling through the top of the mountain to our left. This meant that the houses that were down there somewhere to our right were hidden from view because of the extreme slope, except for the chimney and the very top of the great center hall colonial colossus next door to us. It was hard to judge the distance between us and the house, and it was of course, straight downhill. I had already figured out from the $6.95 trail map that there was a 400-foot elevation gain between the yard and the trail, which didn’t seem like a lot until one looked down.
Meanwhile, not only did my Buddhist friend have a tight schedule that winter afternoon, but I also had an appointment to have a propane tank delivered and connected to the stove sometime after 2 p.m. by the good folks at Herrington’s. It was and is my first ever propane tank, so it was obviously a special moment for me. Before we headed back to the house, we took a look at our surroundings on the Wood Thrush Trail. The plan was to take a mental snapshot of sorts of the spot on the trail that seemed to be directly in back of the yard, then walk up from the yard, back into the woods and back up to the trail, which despite the brush would be a mostly possible in February but completely impossible in April without a machete axe and a pair of loppers at the very least, and would also more than likely end in a prolonged bout of Lyme disease.
A quick stop for more danish and coffee and we were climbing the hill behind the house and stepping into the domain of the bears and the owls. I had already ventured into the woods one other time, the day we closed on the house. According to Zillow property line maps, which are almost uniformly useless, Trisha and I own some of these woods. The rest belongs to the People of the State of New York, so technically we own that, too. I had also seen on my trail map that a small stream ran through the woods not far from the edge of the yard. Some careful stepping and a few whacks with the machete got me to this stream, which, on that day at least, was not much more than a trickle of muddy water cutting through the rocky ground, easily bridged if one were blazing a trail to Maine.
My Buddhist friend understands that life is suffering, but the fact was he only had one pair of shoes with him and he was looking at another three-hour drive. So while I pulled myself up the hill with a big walking stick, he took his time to avoid any serious mud.
A few pertinent facts regarding the almost 58-year-old body to which my soul is tethered:
It has spent the majority of its life on the South Shore of Long Island, where there are far more escalators than hills, and no matter how much time it’s spent upstate, it has never truly gotten used to climbing.
It picked up a 24-piece case of Redpack 28 oz. Whole Tomatoes in Aisle 3 of the North Woodmere Foodtown in October of 1981 without bending its knees first, walked a mile back home looking a human jackknife, and has had a pain in its lumbar region ever since.
It was sideswiped and thrown to the ground by a large golden retriever in March of 1989, in a case of tragic miscommunication, resulting in several broken ribs on its right side.
It fell from a chair that flipped from under it sometime in late summer of 2013 while it was stapling bulletin board paper over a white board in Room 111 of Middle School 202, banging its left leg off a desk on the way down, resulting in a cramping pain every time it tries to accelerate or walk uphill.
But in my magical thinking world, I’m just as capable of blazing a trail up a mountain through the woods as anybody. All I have to do is switch into Little Engine That Could Mode and play through the pain.
Remind me of that when this body has 68 years on it. Maybe I’ll still have a sense of humor about it, but you may find me a grave man. (Joke credit: William Shakespeare).
I took the four-hundred-foot incline one step and one breath at a time, stopping every so often to avoid dropping dead of a heart attack. I kept calling down to my Buddhist friend that I was pretty sure I could see the path from where I was, but this was magical thinking as well. At the point where it became impossible to move forward without grabbing hold of the nearest small tree, I got the call on my rectangle from my soon to be new friend Paul from Herrington’s, who is just about everything you’d hope for in the guy that services your furnace and makes sure you don’t blow yourself up with propane. It was time to put this adventure to rest, and I still have no idea how close I got to the Wood Thrush Trail.
I took the Wood Thrush Trail again for a spectacularly good little hike in early May. I got past the point reached three months before with my Buddhist friend and I found a spot where a dry culvert ran straight down the mountain. Across that culvert, a mighty oak had fallen. So like the insects and fungi and other parasites that also took advantage of this tragedy, I found a great new place to sit down in the woods for a while and get some thinking done.
This accomplished, I turned around and headed back to Sunset Rock Road. While the sign marking the trailhead there clearly states “Campground 1 Mile”, and I have no idea how close I got to the campground, which I really didn’t want to get to anyway because it would mean a whole lot of uphill on the way back, it sure felt like I had walked over a mile.
One evening in August, Trisha and I were sitting in camp chairs on the front lawn, doing our Zen sunset thing, and a couple of guys came walking down the road from the direction of Sunset Rock. Figuring out that we were sitting out there just to watch the sunset, one of them asked if we do this every night. We told them every night we can. Then he told us that they were walking back to the campground after walking up the Blue Trail, believing it would be an easy mile, and that they could then walk from there up to the trail that goes to the rock, which, in the ultimate of ironies, closes at sunset.
They didn’t make it to Sunset Rock, and they were now racing daylight to get down North Mountain and back to their campsite. But they stopped to chat from ten feet away. One of the guys said that the trail seemed a lot longer than a mile. I said that’s what I thought.
So I checked it on Google Earth.
It’s a mile.
Maybe he also picked up a case of tomatoes when he was younger, or he got run over by a dog or decided to stand on a chair to staple bulletin board paper. Or maybe a mile through the woods is so full of sensory stimuli that it seems longer than it is.
Or maybe it’s just that trail.
The Sunset Rock Trail, which is a little over a mile round trip, does not seem as long when you’re hiking it. It could be because it changes so drastically in such a short time, or it could be because after not much effort at all you get to sit on a rock and look down over the Peaceful Roe Jan Valley and out into the Catskills, infinity and beyond while you eat your peanut butter and jelly sandwich.
I would have expected that a trail that leads to a rock with a million-dollar view would be a tough uphill climb, but most of the uphill is in the car on the seasonal dirt road to the parking lot. I sure enough feel the burn where my leg hit the desk on the one steep ascent, but my walking stick does most of the work.
Once you level off on the Sunset Rock Trail, you’ve reached a new climate with a little dash of alpine. Here you enter a clearing where there are smaller trees and bushes. There are big clumps of mountain laurel blooming in June and July. The air seems to improve suddenly. You’re at the turnoff where the Mighty South Taconic moves on north to its terminus at Catamount Ski Resort, and if you go that way by mistake, you’ll be back in the deep woods and you’ll miss the rock and your peanut butter and jelly sandwich. So don’t do that. Walk to the right.
If you go the right way, you pass through a wild place that looks like it was personally landscaped by God. It’s a tunnel created by high hardwoods on either side leading you through a path of ferns. One does have to be aware of mother#$%ing snakes up here, as they like to move towards the light when it starts to warm, and they like big sunny rocks as much as people do. And those particular Taconic-Berkshire mother#$%ing snakes just happen to be deadly rattlesnakes.
I’ve never run into one, thank Jesus, but I keep them in the back of my mind, like my own impending death. But so far, I’ve evaded both. I’m told that rattlesnake encounters are relatively rare. Besides which, this one little stretch of trail seems so removed from civilization that you might just as likely run into gnomes and fairies, which, while they can enchant you, will not attack you with venomous poison.
Still, I never let my guard down.
The view from Sunset Rock just goes on and on and on, and under ideal conditions, it will make all your worries disappear and you will be born again. But there’s always the chance that a few of the droves have broken loose from the Bash Bish Trail and have wandered up to the rock, waiting to annoy you upon your arrival. A friend of mine who hiked the Mighty South Taconic all the way up from the campground to the rock one day ended up having to share the view with a group of people who just wouldn’t shut up, a situation he described perfectly as, “kind of a buzzkill, John Daniel.”
Not to take anything away from the Bash Bish Trail. It is the Kingdom of the Droves and it always has been, but it’s a beautiful, beautiful place that, ultimately, people can’t ruin, although they have tried very, very hard.
First Insider Tip on the Bash Bish Trail: Take a Monday or a Tuesday off from work. Or be prepared to share it with lots and lots of people on a Saturday or Sunday. Second Insider Tip: All Massachusetts State Parks are alcohol-free, by decree of Governor Michael Dukakis forty years ago. So if you happen to be working on a forty in a brown paper bag as you swagger along the trail, because that’s how you roll, you’re going to have to either finish it or pour it out on the state line.
Third Insider Tip: When you get to the falls, don’t even think about climbing up to the top and diving 200 feet down into the inviting pool of water below, because if you make it you’ll likely get arrested by the Mass Park Police, and if you’re anything like twenty-five reckless or inattentive people in the last century or the mythical Native American woman named Bash Bish with a lot of emotional baggage who didn’t make it, it will be the last thing you do.
Trisha would call this an “unchristian” thought, but it is kind of cool to live near one of the most dangerous tourist attractions in the world. More no street cred. And the thing I love about the falls most of all is, no matter where I am or what I’m doing, It’s always up there Bashin’ and Bishin’, twenty-four-seven, waiting for me to come back and stare at it. It’s Bashin’ and Bishin’ right now. People like me who have been hiking up to the falls for years feel a sense of ownership, like they’re on their way to the home of an old friend who’s always up for a visit. People who have visited once never forget it, and they usually plan to get back there someday.
The trail from the parking lot to the falls is the epitome of a good little hike. Which is to say, that, among good little hikes, there is no better good little hike. Especially if you’re Mookie. Three-quarters of a mile through a state and a commonwealth, deep woods full of interesting scents rising to your left, the trail wide enough to ensure social distancing for people and dogs passing the other way, although Mookie doesn’t really know what those words mean. All he knows is there are people and dogs of all sizes everywhere and the freshest swimming water in two counties. It’s a festival of external stimuli.
The instant that my nine-and-a-half-year-old labby gets out of the car at the Bash Bish parking lot, he’s a puppy again. The first stop is to check the trail kiosks for the latest pee mail. Then he knows the path slopes down gradually until the place where he goes swimming, so he takes me for a walk, and I let him lead.
On one good little hike, when we he was around two years old, Mookie and I were playing in the Bash Bish Brook when we met some nice Massachusetts hippie girls – paisley bandana kerchiefs, nose rings and everything – who had a baby girl with them. The baby was six weeks old, but the hippie girls thought it would be cool for the baby to meet Mookie, and Mookie thinks it would be cool to meet everybody on Earth. And there I was, standing in cold water under warm summer skies, watching an animal for whom I was legally responsible and whose teeth were designed to rip through flesh and bone leaning in to sniff the face of a six-week-old baby. It was one of those moments early on when I realized I was walking around with God’s Most Perfect Dog.
And by the way. That water? Go ahead and drink it. Fill up a bottle with it. Yeah, I know, dogs and barefoot droves. Still. It’s holy water. It cures everything. @ me.
Everybody loves this stretch of the Bash Bish trail. On hot days, people stake out a spot on the brook and just sit there in for hours. There’s lots of big boulders in the middle of the brook to play on or take your narcissistic selfies on. Please be advised though, that if you decide to build a little balancing stone statue on one of the boulders, which seems to have been a thing for a while now, the manager of Taconic State Park, normally the most affable of gentleman, will come along at some point and angrily kick them over. God put the stones where he needed them. As much fun as stone balancing is, God know what he’s doing. Leave the damn stones alone.
Things got out of control in the summer of 2020 during the Pandemic. Droves invaded from every direction. They parked all over Copake Falls and dragged barbecue equipment and other bad ideas into the park and down the trail to the falls. On the weekends of these Drove Invasion Days, Mookie and I went up to the Roe Jan Park that the droves don’t know about – yet- to get in our swim and our good little hikes.
By the third week of July, there were police roadblocks at the two entrances to Copake Falls off Route 22. To go get take-out from Dad’s Diner or the Church Street Deli, I’d have to get waved on to make the left out of the hamlet, then fifteen minutes later, smile, roll down the window and say, goofily, “Hi! Just goin’ back to my house with lunch!” to armed law enforcement officers. Fact is, all my ID says I’m from Long Island, so I had to rely on their kind nature to gain entry to Route 344.
This insanity reached its zenith when people began lining up in their cars in a staging area for hours on Saturdays and Sundays just to get the chance to get in a good little hike to Bash Bish Falls. Mookie and I stuck to the Rail Trail, the Roe Jan Park and our secret little spot under the bridge.
You can’t blame the droves. Not all of them were unrepentant assholes from Long Island. Some of them were good, nature-respecting folks who were just trying to get out of the house. Of course, I didn’t have to clean up after the unrepentant assholes, so my sympathy comes easy. But these have been miserable times, and I’ve been using a good little hike through the woods to Bash Bish Falls for years to inject my spirit with some instant happy. Why would I, a nauseatingly lucky son of a bitch, deny that to anybody else, especially now?
Mookie and I went back to the Bash Bish Trail on the last day of September. It was a Wednesday. To the untrained, non-park-employee eye, the area showed no signs of the human invasion it had experienced over the summer, but the friendly Mass Park Policeman on duty that day to make sure nobody jumps off the falls told me stories that would bend your bones. The air was crisp, the trees were in color, and the brook was not too cold yet. So Mookie got in his swimming, then we walked along and said hi to people in masks as we climbed the big hill past the Mass border and up into the trees, where you’re at eye level with the birds. Our old friend was waiting for us up at the end of the trail, Bashin’ and Bishin’ away, and we sat on a rock, and we stared for a while.
We were there again for the First Day Hike on New Year’s Day of 2021, when everyone was guilty of a little magical thinking, but that’s how it should be. The First Day Hike was led by the affable park manager and his beautiful Newfoundland dog Mahi Bear, whom Mookie resents because Mahi gets more attention. There were only about ten or twelve people with us on the hike, but there were lots and lots of other visitors on the trail. The weather had suddenly improved and a few hundred people had the same idea at the same time: 2020 was such catastrophe of sadness that they were damned if they weren’t going to start 2021 by heading up to Bash Bish Falls for an injection of happiness. We greeted every single one of them, and they greeted us back. A few of them told Mookie how beautiful he was, and he wagged to say he knew that, but thank you for saying it.
Mookie and I love the Bash Bish Trail, and the Harlem Valley Rail Trail, which is great for broken down old guys from Long Island. Neither one of us needs to walk to Maine, or even the three mountains of the Mighty South Taconic Trail. But it is nice to know they’re up there. In his good dog life, he has gotten little licks of peanut butter while looking down from Sunset Rock over the Peaceful Roe Jan Valley. And if I want to go get lost in the woods for a while, my giant oak tree bench on the Wood Thrush Trail is there waiting for me. If it’s time for a little excitement and some holy water, we’re off on another good little hike to check on our old friend, always up there Bashin’ and Bishin’, and always up for a visit.
And if it ever seems like I’m taking any of this for granted, please don’t hesitate to pick up a couple of stones from the brook and aim them at my head.
We knew we’d be going back to see The Dee’s again before Thanksgiving. We just weren’t sure if we’d be going back to see Joey or Tommy.
We hadn’t been inside the gigantic, glass-walled store at Dee’s Nursery after the first frost since the last time we visited Santa Claus as part of our annual Christmas tree hunting and gathering tradition. The inside store is Joey’s domain, although his dad, Tom Sr., the Dee’s patriarch, still hangs out by the registers while we watch the damage we’ve done to ourselves in slow motion. Usually we won’t visit until April, when it’s time to load up Lou the Subaru with bags of tall fescue grass seed, with the topsoil and the peat moss to throw on top of it. Whether it’s Grass Seed Day, or a month later when we start loading up on annuals, veggies and compost, Trisha and I always get a hearty greeting from Joey. Long ago we maxed out on planting trees and shrubs and hybrid tea roses and perennials on our little 60 X 100 plot, so we usually don’t get out to the yard much anymore to see Joey’s older brother Tommy until the Christmas trees show up. But Tommy is always good for a hearty greeting, too. If you were Joey or Tommy, you’d be glad to see us, too.
The Dee’s Nursery is a second-generation family business in Oceanside, Long Island, started in 1958. It was one of my mom’s favorite places to visit in the springtime. Our Christmas Tree hunting and gathering tradition when I was a kid was to go to Garden World in Franklin Square, where they had reindeer you could feed, which is horrible in retrospect, but I suppose my parents and everyone else involved meant well at the time. But Mom loved going to see The Dee’s in the springtime, and taught me to love it, too. For a local, independent business, they have a huge operation, and their selection, quality and service in all things gardening just can’t be beat. Tommy told us one year that he drives a crew up to the family’s own Christmas Tree farm in Franklin, Maine every November. He was very happy and very proud of that, as well as being proud of their annual donation of thousands of Christmas trees shipped to troops serving overseas. And we are always happy and proud to buying one of those trees from this family year after year, comin’ to us straight from Maine.
Every business transaction should be as pleasant.
Unfortunately, we’re in America, so while the The Dee’s are all about service, selection and quality, their prices can be beat quite easily in any season, specifically by the likes of the Home Depot, the presence of which in Rego Park, Queens convinced my late father-in-law to close down his own second-generation nursery business, McCloskey’s Florist, shortly after I joined his family. That was tough to watch.
So we’re willing to pay The Dee’s a couple of extra bucks to support a local business and stay out of the Dante’s Inferno which is the Valley Stream Home Depot parking lot. And in addition to helping support The Dee Boys and their families, we have two other local guys: Ray, whose dad started Alma’s Garden Center on Sunrise Highway in Lynbrook around the time I was born, and Dave, who owns Di Setta Nursery down in Woodmere. A conservative estimate of $50,000 big ones over the course of eighteen years have been split among these three businesses by two slightly touched people who consider growing flowers in the yard to be an unnegotiable necessity.
In years when money was tight, we bought our flowers and our dirt on credit cards, which is quite stupid when considered objectively and I wouldn’t recommend it. But we had to have them. In our defense, we’ve never spent money on lavish vacations and fancy restaurants. So it goes that I may die without seeing Yosemite or the Grand Canyon, but damn you should have seen our gardens in June.
I was away from the gardens a lot this year. More so than in any year since we began building them up from nothing in 2002. I spent about eight weeks of elapsed time in 2020 up in the Peaceful Roe Jan Valley, among the Taconic-Berkshire Mountains that nature built from nothing a couple of million years ago. There are lots of wildflowers and flowering shrubs around Trisha’s Mountain, but nothing we’ve planted, which I suppose could change in time, but as I pointed out in Chapter 5, it would take some intense negotiations with the deer and the bunnies and the groundhogs to get it off the ground.
We never took it for granted for a second this year. It was our incredibly good fortune to have a property up in the country with lots of oxygen, especially in the midst of all the Pandemic misery this year – when just down the road there were people sitting on line in their cars for hours outside Taconic State Park waiting for a chance to just take a walk to Bash Bish Falls, and less fortunate people than those people were dying on hospital beds. We’re only a year into our second home owning adventure as I write this, so the novelty has not even come close to wearing off yet. We’re still just walking around feeling stupid lucky. Knock freaking wood.
So I wasn’t giving the gardens a lot of thought during those eight weeks when I wasn’t in them. They were being watered or rained on and the weeds would wait ‘till I got back. I suppose in my mind I was beginning to move on from them. But that’s how it happens, isn’t it. You think about something until something else comes along that requires bandwidth in your brain, and the thing you were thinking about starts getting crowded out. Sometimes when you look back, you realize that’s kind of a scary process. The more time I spent up n the country this year, getting to know our upstate home, the less I was thinking about the downstate one. Not only can you not be in two places at once, it’s hard to even think of two places at once.
But after all these years, most of the landscaped space on Duffy’s Creek is on autopilot anyway. Most of the trial and error has been done. The losers don’t grow here anymore, and the winners come back stronger every year.
The Big Plan is, of course, to phase out Duffy’s Creek and live full-time on Trisha’s Mountain. When that actually happens remains a question. Back in the Aughts, I noticed on a sign that Copake Town was founded in 1824, so I was thinking I could be up here full time by the time the Copake Bicentennial comes around, maybe even walk down Main Street on stilts dressed as Uncle Sam. I have big dreams.
But that would mean only three more growing season’s on Duffy’s Creek. And that would also mean eventually selling the house, perhaps to someone who rips out all the gardens and replaces them with heavily fertilized grass, or worse, just lets them go to hell, which wouldn’t take long at all.
Once I landed back on Long Island in mid-November of 2020, following my nineteenth trip up and down Route 22 for the year, this time to take delivery of a new industrial-grade humidifier for the basement, I decided to get off the road for a while. I’d been back and forth eight times in thirteen weeks, and the plan (in progress as I write this) was to stay on the creek for six weeks, through Thanksgiving and Christmas. Mookie in particular was exhausted from all the traveling. We needed a break.
But unlike Mookie, I’m not good at doing nothing, no matter how hard or how often I try. I enjoy doing nothing, but after a while I have to do something. I admire people who can keep doing nothing going. I decided that not only was I going to clean up the gardens down to the last fallen leaf, but that this year, since I had the time, I was going to give them all a damn good mulching. And not only that, I was going to power wash the patio so it would already be clean in the spring. I have big dreams.
And I love mulch. I love topsoil and compost, too: The look, the smell, the feel, everything. I suppose I could live without the weight. But still. There’s no more agreeable afternoon activity to me than getting down and dirty in the gardens.
We have seven of them. They all have names. In the front are two semicircle raised beds built with river stone. One is my creation, which starts out as a well-mannered and proper bed of tulips and daffodils in the spring and devolves into an insane tangle of sunflowers and zinnias by July. I call that the Crazy Summer Garden. The opposite semicircle is Trisha’s statelier “Cottage Garden”, highlighted by a giant purple beautyberry bush, chiefly the domain of our resident mockingbird no matter how hard Lyle the Cat stares through the window at him. There’s mock orange and flowering quince around the front, coneflower and bee balm in the middle and creeping purple phlox cascading over the stones. Unlike my garden, somebody had a plan.
On the side of the garage was the tomato and vegetable garden. This year I phased that out and threw in a couple of dahlias which I mostly neglected despite their beauty. I couldn’t keep the damn squirrels away from the tomatoes, and I didn’t want to grow lettuce and broccoli that I wasn’t home to eat or give away. But I still grew cucumbers in another little patch next to the shed this year, way more than I could use, which was good news for a neighbor on the creek who loves cucumber sandwiches. Meanwhile, my 2020 bread and butter pickles were another raging success.
Between our backyard fence and the creek is my Wetland Garden. In one section, I’ve been naturalizing purple and pink native asters for ten years now, and let me tell you, come September, my aster is the most spectacular aster you’ve ever seen. In another section are shrubs that don’t mind drinking crappy brackish water; red twig dogwood, rosa rugosa and winterberry holly, plus a red cedar tree that my brother and I saved from being uprooted after Hurricane Sandy, which is now known as the Leaning Cedar. Most of these plants were, of course, bought from Tommy Dee, many on credit cards. The whole thing is held back from the creek with a bulkhead of logs, wire fencing and dirt that I carted in after ripping out forty years of thug brush eighteen years ago. I had the time of my life.
Along a wooden fence are Trisha’s hybrid tea roses. The roses also stretch into a spot between two houses that we call the Secret Garden. All the roses have cultivar names and stories which she’s told me lots of times because I asked, and she planted many of them in memory of people. Apparently, their preferred pronoun is “she”, as in, “she needs to be cut back.” I can’t keep much of this straight, but I do try really hard. And Trisha works very hard at keeping the hybrid tea roses sprayed with the stuff that keeps them from getting eaten up by little parasites every year. You can get high off the aroma of Trisha’s rose garden in June, and often we do. But one season of neglect and they’d be nothing but angry, thorny green sticks.
Out the back door is my Patio Garden. My parents had a deck when we bought the house. They had it built in the 1970’s, when you were required to build a deck in your suburban backyard under penalty of law. The deck had seen better days by the time we bought it, so we were already planning to rip it out and replace it with a patio when we visited the Berkshire Botanical Garden in Stockbridge, Mass. It was there that I encountered the Herb Associates, a group of volunteers that maintained an herb garden with a patio right outside a kitchen in one of the buildings on the grounds.
I have to admit, my biggest takeaway from this experience was the sheer joy of knowing that there was a group of old ladies from Stockbridge who called themselves the Herb Associates, but I also liked the idea. Eventually, the garden out the back door on Duffy’s Creek became a combination of herbs, perennials and annuals surrounding a loose-laid brick patio that looks like the mason who built it was actually an English teacher on summer vacation.
Around the patio, I have planters where I put the same annuals every year because I know they’ll behave themselves and look great doing it: Geraniums and lantana, both in red, white mandevilla, some years white jasmine if I want to splurge, plus some basil and oregano that I didn’t get around to harvesting this year. Plus I have three highbush blueberries in planters on the patio and four more on the side of the garage, which I’ve used to make some sublime pies over the years, and which us make us very popular with robins.
Since we’ve done all the heavy planting (and transplanting), and the gardens are what they are, most of the work now is adding compost in spring and keeping everything weeded and watered. Invariably, since you only have to get dirty once, I’ll do all the weeding in one shot once every two or three weeks. I can tell which days were weeding days just by looking at my Fitbit history. Any days when I walked 25,000 steps and saw some serious cardio orange and red on my heartbeat chart, those were the days I was out playing in the dirt.
After all these years of pulling weeds, I know every one of them personally, many by name. I can tell you, for instance, that every year I have to pull out deadly nightshade. And every year, deadly nightshade says, “Yeah, OK. Whatever, dude. I’ll be back.” Late in the season, I have to pull out white snakeroot, which can poison milk if cows eat it, and reportedly killed Abraham Lincoln’s mother. Weeding is serious business.
The fall cleanup is actually the biggest job in the gardens now. First is deadheading all the perennials and pulling out the dried-up ghosts of hundreds of zinnias and marigolds and other annuals. Then comes raking out all the leaves and cultivating the soil, then chopping out the last of this year’s weeds. It takes hours and hours and hours. Which is great if, like me, you enjoy this sort of thing, and you happen to have hours and hours and hours.
Any teacher who rides the rhythms of the school year knows that the fall semester is insanely busy. So for all the years I was on that ride, I’d check the Weather Channel app constantly to see what Saturdays and what Sundays would be suitably benign enough to get out and clean up the yard. And knowing how long each section took, I could plan out what I could get done in the time I had. My ultimate goal was to get a bed of cedar mulch down on every garden surface once all the leaves were raked up and the annuals were pulled out and the perennials were cut back and the deadly nightshade and the white snakeroot and all their outlaw buddies were on the brush pile.
I very rarely got anywhere close to that goal. Some years were better than others. Some years I’d still be cleaning out last years’ dead stuff in April. But a couple of years, I got all the mulch down, and it somehow made going to work easier knowing that I did it. This year, with a stretch of freakishly warm weather and a freakish amount of time on my hands, I realized that the attaining the ultimate goal of a damn good full mulching, topped off by a power washing, would somehow make standing around inside the house and looking out the windows all winter a lot easier. I cleaned the gardens until they screamed for mercy and gave them a long overdue mulching.
I usually go for the dyed red cedar mulch, but this year, Dave Di Setta, who keeps his mulch right at the front gate for easy access, only had fifteen bags of red left, and seeing as it takes thirty bags total (and three round trips for Lou the Subaru) I went half red and half plain brown this year.
it’s a beautiful sight and a warm, fuzzy feeling for this OCD sufferer. Not only is it a nice warm blankie for all the plants and enrichment for the soil, it’s also much easier to track what plants are breaking the soil next spring, meaning it’s also harder for the weeds to hide. So in the words of Cosmo Kramer, you’ve got to mulch. You’ve got to.
In the midst of this herculean effort, completed in three-or-four-hour blocks of time over the course of eight nice-weather days, I also put up the Christmas lights, which look delightful and which I absolutely hate doing, and which nobody will actually come to the house to see for themselves. I think I do it for my parents, most of all, and for the memories it conjures up. I have no control over whether any future owners of the property will celebrate Christmas.
Which brings us to the tree. Last December, which was two-thousand years ago, was very exciting for us. We were closing on a house in Copake Falls, a dream we had dreamed for twenty years. The closing was set for the 20th of December, the day the boiler stopped working in the house on what was not yet Trisha’s Mountain, and the closing had to be postponed. Someone flipped the reset switch on the boiler the next day and it’s been working since (knock wood again), and the closing was finally a done deal a week later, on the 27th. We reserved one of our old cabins at Taconic State Park to stay over both times, to avoid nighttime winter driving, which can kill you.
Fortunately, we had the World’s Most Responsible Teenager on the block to take care of the cats on both nights, but this time, she had the added pressure of watering the live Christmas tree next to the radiator in the living room. Leaving a live Christmas tree unattended, even overnight, gave us the willies. I guess I’ve seen one too many videos of blazing Christmas trees infernos. In practical terms, there was very little chance of the Christmas tree burning down the house. They don’t spontaneously combust like the drummers in Spinal Tap. As Bruce Springsteen sang in the worst song he ever wrote, you can’t start a fire without a spark. But if the tree had burned the house down, Lyle the Cat would surely have had something to do with it.
So this year, knowing that we could get up to the Mountain between Christmas and New Year’s, we took a ride to Dee’s to see Joey’s artificial Christmas trees for ourselves inside the store. Our tradition is to put up our tree in the first weekend in December, then take it down the first weekend after New Year’s, by which time some of them over the years have grown a trifle crispy. But neither Trisha nor I, and by extension our offspring and animals, has ever experienced a Christmas without a real Christmas tree. As a kid, I felt pity for people with artificial trees, people who were happy to spend the season looking at a sad, scrawny green plastic scarecrow, usually with boring all-white lights, that looked as much like a tree as a White Castle looks like Versailles, or as a Taco Bell looks like a hacienda. I don’t care what you got for Christmas, or how much fun you had. That’s not really living.
As with many things in my lifetime, though, artificial Christmas tree research and development has grown by leaps and bounds. The ones they make now look very much like trees. They’re pre-lit. You can find one in perfect symmetry to your available space and the initial investment pays for itself in three years of not buying a tree from Tommy’s yard. And you can leave them up as long as you like. John Prine left his up all year long, but he had a bigger house. And there would be no chance of fire by stupidity if we left the tree up on the Creek and drove up to the Mountain, despite Lyle the Cat.
Joey Dee took us through a couple of handsome artificial trees that looked promising and told us he had plenty in stock and more coming in. Nobody was coming to our house over Christmas, so we’d be the only ones who would see it. We’d likely end up getting a fake tree when we move upstate permanently because you really couldn’t put a living tree anywhere near the fireplace, so why not just get used to having a fake tree now? There was only one overriding downside, only one good reason why we didn’t pull the trigger.
We didn’t want to.
I started reading about Zen Buddhism when I was in college. Alan Watts, D.T. Suzuki. Those guys. I liked everything about it. In Zen philosophy, the past and the future are illusions. Any wisdom you’ve gained along your path is meant to applied to right now, not to some future day. What’s more, our house and gardens and creek and your house and all your stuff are events, not things, because everything is in a constant, slow-motion state of flux, and nothing is permanent. And since they’re events, not things, they should be celebrated like events, with as much enthusiasm as you work up, because they’re going to end, and we’re going to end, and since that will be the end of that, this right here and this right now are all we’ve got.
But as hard as I’ve tried, I’ve just never been able master the art of living in the Here and Now. I don’t know what’s in anyone else’s brain beyond what they’ve told me, so maybe I’m better at it than I think I am. All I know is that even after years and years of piling up great memories, there are still stupid little moments that I wish I had handled differently rattling around in my head like loose change in a coffee can. And Lord knows I’ve scattered baskets of brain cells across my years worrying about things that theoretically might have happened but never did.
And even when I’ve been as close as I could get to living fully and completely in the Here and Now, and there have been lots and lots of those times, I never went too long without checking my watch. It’s how I’m wired, and that’s just sad, but it’s no excuse. Very often, I enjoyed the hell out of the job I did for 25 years, but I could always tell you exactly how long I had to keep doing it until I didn’t have to.
But if anything could get me to finally shake off all this mental illness, finding myself floating along through the days, collecting my monthly Cash For Life payments from the New York State Teacher’s Retirement System while waiting for a Pandemic to end (and a psychopath to go away) may have been the ticket. I’ve cut off a big chunk of my past and I have no more than a vague plan for the future. Whenever I check my watch, I’m right smack in the middle of the Here and Now.
Self-awareness is one of the benefits of getting old, unless you’re hopeless. It becomes easier to catch yourself when you’re up to your same old lame tricks. Too often this year I’ve found myself sitting on my poorly constructed patio on the creek, thinking about what it would be like to leave Valley Stream and move up to Copake Falls permanently, how I’d feel about letting it all go. Then I’d be up on the Mountain thinking about what it would be like to be there with no back to go to. None of this is anything that I really had to think about at that moment, and any second I that I was, I knew I was only cheating myself out of good time.
And I’ve come to realize that the only reason I’m giving any unthinkworthy thoughts any space in my head at all, instead of enjoying the passage of time, which is of course the secret of life, is because I’m not thinking about my lesson plans for Monday morning, or what to do about that one kid. So all this extra room opens up in my brain, and something has to fill the vacuum. At times in 2020, to my credit, I happily feasted on whatever was in front of my eyes in the Here and Now.
But sometimes I pigged out on boxes of worry cookies and bags of regret chips.
We’re all works in progress. If you’re doing it right.
A moment of personal enlightenment came as it often does, after cleaning. In this case, on the first Sunday of December, when the temperature on Long Island was a sickeningly sweet 70 degrees. I had finished all the mulching and power washed the patio bricks, which takes just as long as cleaning them on your hands and knees with a pencil eraser, then topped off the weekend by cleaning out the garage. The property on Duffy’s Creek looked as good as it ever had on the first Sunday in December.
I was sitting in the yard with my nine-year-old dog, enjoying the fruits of my labor and watching the walkers on the creek path. Looking at how beautiful and how happy he looked, my mind had to find a way to try and ruin it by wandering up an unpleasant stream, as it does too often, to the day when I’d have to let Mookie go.
Then I remembered an excellent cartoon I came across called “Why Dogs Are Better Than People”. The artist drew a man and his dog walking. The man’s think bubble is crowded with dollar signs and buildings and cars and angry looking people and piles of paper. The dog’s think bubble is he and the man walking. I told myself to just stop it already. We’re Here. It’s Now. Nothing matters until it does.
And that was how the Christmas Tree Decision ultimately led us to the Fraiser Firs comin’ to ya straight from Maine via Tommy’s yard. Because we’re Here and it’s Now, and there’s no reason to get a fake tree this year just because we might get one in some distant future Christmas. We made one change in the tradition, and it I think it’ll work out just swell. Instead of waiting until the first weekend in December, we went to Dee’s on the day before Thanksgiving. There was only one other customer in the yard, and most of the trees hadn’t even been unwrapped, but we found this year’s winner within five minutes.
So we’re going to keep Christmas as well as we possible can, and we’re going to try to create a little joy in this miserable time. Then we’re going to take down that perfect Christmas tree the week after Christmas, and we’re going to head up to Copake Falls. Just for good measure when we get there, we’ll put up the little prelit tabletop Christmas tree that was in my father’s room at the nursing home when he woke up to his last Christmas. We’ll have a fire in the fireplace on New Year’s Eve and we won’t burn down either house.
And as another New Year rolls in, I won’t have to see the pictures of people in Taconic State Park enjoying a bonfire after their First Day Hike to Bash Bish Falls and say boy that looks like fun I’d like to get in on that some year because I’ll be there, soaking it in, unconcerned about any other day, past or present.
And by that same logic, I’ll still be pulling deadly nightshade and white snakeroot out of the gardens at Duffy’s Creek until the day we hand somebody else the keys. And if that day happens to be in December, I may just treat them to a damn good mulching before I move on, and before the next event starts.
I was not there for the corn snake. When I heard about it, the first person I thought of was Samuel L. Jackson. Motherf#%&ing snakes crawling around in this motherf#%&ing country house. Great.
The corn snake was, as reported by reputable sources related to me by blood, well in excess of 3 feet long. He was not crawling up the wall from behind the oil tank in the basement machine room in order freak anyone out. This was purely incidental on the snake’s part, as I assume it is with any snake. Snakes don’t intend to freak people out, and I would think they’re annoyed and distracted when it happens. I guess they have to look at it as the cost of doing snake business sometimes. Goddamned people.
Corn snakes are not venomous, but rattlesnakes are, and there are many, many rattlesnakes in Columbia County. Trisha and Jack did not know the corn snake was not a rattlesnake. A rattlesnake in the machine room of the basement would have been enough for any of us to say, “OK. Tried living Upstate. Didn’t like it. Let’s make a profit on this deal and get the hell out of here.”
But it wasn’t a rattlesnake. It was a corn snake, which are similarly fat, spotted and creepy. And the corn snake was there in the basement machine room to eat the mice.
And the mice were there because up until this year, they lived there.
The House on Trisha’s Mountain was more or less vacant for two years before we bought it, although it was being minimally maintained. So there was plenty of quiet time with no people around for the mice to workshop ways of getting in, but since there was no food or water once they did, they were most likely taking up residence to escape from the coyotes and other predators who couldn’t follow behind them, or else just to get warm, since the boiler was running for no one to keep the pipes from freezing, as it is right now.
Somewhere in the midst of this year of Pandemic, social unrest and civil war, in a small rural town in Upstate New York, a man and a woman removed more mouse shit from habitable space than they had ever before or will ever again. Cleaning the garage alone should have killed us via hantavirus, but here we are, still standing.
The very first time I stood outside of the garage on the Mountain, on a hot and murky September afternoon in 2019, when it was a vacant house full of mice and snakes, there was also a shed full of wasps to my right, and one of those wasps rightly saw me as a potential enemy and stung me on my right arm, which screamed silently in pain for the rest of the afternoon as we assessed the potential investment in a house full of mice and snakes surrounded by angry wasps. But neither the wasp that stung me nor the squirrel I accidently ran over on the way up the hill that afternoon was enough to make me think there was any sort of bad mojo embedded in this whole buying a second house plan. Though I still feel bad about the squirrel and I always will.
One key difference between my wife Trisha and I is that I’ll always try the stupid idea first and work my way up to the practical one. After I tried to drive the wasps away with noxious gas in a can from the Herrington’s Hardware store, Trisha called Meerkat. After vacuuming out two years of mouse shit from the kitchen drawers, I bought some of those plug-in things that are supposed to emit a deafening noise torturous to mice and drive them away, or something like that, and stuck them in various electrical outlets around the house.
Trisha called Meerkat. This was shortly after a hot day in July when Jack and I came back from a peaceful, positive morning bike ride on the Rail Trail from Millerton to Coleman Station and I cooked four slices of leftover pizza and a mouse in the oven.
The first thing I can tell you is that a mouse cooked in an oven at 400 degrees on a hot July afternoon, even for a just few minutes, is just about the most horrific thing I’ve ever smelled. And I consider myself lucky in that regard.
The second thing I can tell you is that Meerkat is a company well on their way to building a rodent and insect control empire in Upstate New York, in part you can be sure through contracts with people who have come from Long Island and other more barren places to find a countryside teeming with critters they have never had to deal with in any sort of large numbers before. Lyle Cat had effectively (and proudly) taken care of the comparatively few mice that have made their way into the House on Duffy’s Creek, but it was way too problematic to temporarily export a cat, and the problem was bigger than Lyle, as big as he thinks he is.
Of course, The Country Way would be to get rid of those critters oneself: Trap all the mice, and the motherf#$&ing snake if necessary. Blast those wasps out of the yard and seize their nest while they slept. Painstakingly seal up all the crevices between out there and in here which would be big enough to accommodate a stone-cold outlaw mouse with nothing to lose.
Around the same time I cooked the mouse, I discovered an angry nest of yellow jackets living under the front porch, directly beneath the front door. I discovered them because they all swarmed up and attacked me the moment I arrived on the Mountain. Another trip to the Herrington’s Hardware store procured some more noxious gas in a can designed to take them out, and that was my stupid plan. But the electrician who was working at the house advised me on one of his trips out to the truck that the Country Way, as it were, would be to just get in there and take the nest out. He grabbed a plastic bag, wrapped it around his hand, and proceeded to crawl under the porch and grab the yellow jacket nest with one hand, wrapping it into the bag in one motion. After that we hit it with the noxious gas. Problem solved.
He told me, “they sense fear.”
The Suburban-Pretending-To-Be-Country-Way is to write checks. The Meercat Guys who had rid us of angry wasps in the springtime were more than happy to return to Trisha’s Mountain to rid us of mice and the snakes who love them. This was not their first circus. In regard to the very large corn snake (who was probably the descendant of a long-ago escaped pet, as they are not native to the area), as well as some smaller garter snakes that Trisha and Jack had also met in the basement, one Meerkat Guy suggested that the snakes would find their way out once there were no more mice, which would be after they did their Meerkat thing, baiting and trapping the mice inside the house and sealing up the entry points for adventurous and/or desperate mice outside the house. He also suggested that we might find a few dead mice here and about upon our arrival after this process was completed, and that was certainly the case.
When asked how the snake would find its way out if they were sealing up the house, he suggested the disengaged dryer vent where no dryer was at the time. I’m hoping the corn snake overheard him.
The other Meerkat Guy pointed out to Trisha that the unfinished attic space under the roof was full of snake shit, which he noticed was part of the general potpourri of the house when it was closed up for a while. Having no idea what snake shit actually smells like, I could only accept this information at face value, and I have no reason to go into the attic. The Meerkat Guys cleaned the attic, and the house smells just fine to me. I burn a lot of Yankee Candles when I’m there.
Apropos of nothing, every deer is Bambi to Trisha Duffy. And if there are more than one, it’s not “Look! Bambi and her family!”, it’s simply the plural: “Bambies!” Which really makes no sense. This has been going on for twenty-one years, but I’m not tired of it.
The House on the Mountain is bordered on one side by a cornfield (more about that in a future chapter) and in the back by Taconic State Park woodland. There’s a large crabapple tree at the top of the hill in the backyard, which is convenient if you’re a deer on your way from the cornfield to the woods and you decide to stop for lunch. It’s a swell place to be a deer, Trisha’s Mountain is, although it’s tough being everybody’s favorite large prey.
We’d like to have a garden on the Mountain someday. The deer of course, would like everything about that idea, as would the bunnies and the chipmunks and the groundhogs. So without a significant investment in infrastructure; fencing, raised beds, fake owls, air horns and the like, there’s a lot of stuff we just couldn’t grow. Food, for instance. And it would certainly be the end of the road for the bread and butter pickles I’ve been making from creek-grown cucumbers and passing around to people for the last few years. Anyone who’s tried one could tell you that would be a tragedy.
The bunnies and the groundhogs live in the brush bordering both sides of the property, along with the chipmunks and the little brown squirrels who seem smarter than the grey ones who run in front of moving vehicles. They have all given Mookie Dog new purpose. Long ago on Long Island, he decided that squirrels were not worth his time or attention, but he knows the scent of every outdoor cat within 3 square miles of Duffy’s Creek and they should all consider themselves under surveillance. We haven’t run across one outdoor cat on Trisha’s Mountain to date, but we’ve got bunnies in every bush, and Mookie knows it. He knows them as small but highly entertaining pretend prey, slightly bigger than Lyle the Cat but with similar markings. He’s chased a couple of bunnies back into the bushes and he knows damn well when a groundhog or a chipmunk is watching him from under the back porch. He enjoys picking up their tracks, which had done wonders for his self-esteem. I’m glad I was able to give him that experience.
But there are some tough fellows in the neighborhood, and you never know when you might run across one. If you happen to be large or small prey, it might prove a fatal encounter. If you’re an old man and an old dog from Long Island, you just have to keep your guard up and try not to make eye contact and you should be all right.
Fortunately, I have not come across a bobcat, a coyote or a black bear while hanging out with Mookie. The only bobcat I’ve come across at all ran across Route 22 directly in front of my car at night in the middle of a nasty summer thunderstorm. I considered it a close call, but I’m sure the bobcat knew he had it all along. If Mookie were to come face to face with a coyote or a black bear, he’d likely growl and be a jerk about it, because he grew up on Long Island and he thinks he’s hot shit, and this would likely make a tense situation worse. He would even make a fool out of himself trying to stand up to any passing deer, and the local wild turkeys probably smell vaguely like dog food. So if we’re chilling up at the top of the hill in the backyard, with several hundred square miles of New York and Massachusetts wilderness directly behind us, I have his leash where I can grab it and I listen for rustling, ready at any moment to save my stubborn friend from himself.
Because Trisha and I have, in fact, seen both a coyote and a black bear on the Mountain, and both relatively up close. Oddly, they were both traveling the same path, though I would think they’d stay out of each other’s way generally speaking. The path starts at our mailbox on the opposite side of the road from the driveway and travels straight downhill between our neighbor’s heavily wooded property and the southern edge of tree farm, ending at the Orphan Farm Road parking lot for the Harlem Valley Rail Trail.
I took an unauthorized walk down there one day, without Mookie, then Trisha told me about the coyote she saw coming out from the path and heading up the road and I took no more walks down there. A month or two later, I happened to look out the front door just at the right moment to see a black bear circling the mailbox. I managed to get a loch ness type picture and video of him. I thought about running outside to follow him once he started back down the path, picture-taking rectangle in hand, but then I remembered that he could kill me.
As a matter of fact, when were in the process of buying a house where the wild things are, I conjured up a scenario wherein if I were ever diagnosed with a terminal illness, and was told that I would suffer and die in a short time, I would simply eat four or five “infused” chocolate bars from Theory Wellness in Great Barrington, cover myself in peanut butter and go to sleep in my hammock up where the yard meets the woods. Trisha noted that this would definitely make the local news, and that I could go out as “Copake Falls Man.” When I decided for whatever reason to share this little joke at the conference table where we all met for the house closing, our lawyer suggested honey would work better than peanut butter, which is the difference between a teaching degree and a law degree, never mind a Long Islander and a Copakean.
For now I am alive and well and staying away from doctors. And when the moon rises over Trisha’s mountain, the coyotes howl and my friends the barred owls hoot, I feel like the luckiest bipedal son of bitch in the world to be in their presence.
As I finish up this chapter, the House on Trisha’s Mountain is quiet, but the boiler is running for nobody to keep the pipes from freezing. I can only hope that the mice and the snakes who love them are no longer able to gain access. I can’t help but imagine coyotes and black bears sitting around on the La-Z–Boy furniture watching Spectrum News, burning Yankee Candles, maybe inviting the bobcats in for Scrabble around the kitchen table. But this is only because I watched a lot of cartoons as a child.
Black Bears and Coyotes are excellent spirit animals. Owls, too. The bear totem is quiet strength, a grounding force of peaceful confidence and courage in the face of adversity. I also learned that the bear “medicine” is healing through quiet solitude and rest, which was pretty cool since the day after I met my bear I headed out on a trip to the Adirondacks with Mookie after 25 years of being yelled at under fluorescent lighting. I don’t know about him, but I needed that bear medicine real bad, never mind the chocolate bars from Theory Wellness.
The Coyote Spirit (according to spiritanimal.info) is one who imparts his wisdom indirectly through “jokes or trickery. The spirit of the coyote may remind you to not take things too seriously and bring more balance between wisdom and playfulness.” Part of its magic is to reveal the truth behind illusion and chaos.” Lord knows there was plenty of that to sort through this year.
The Owl Spirit announces change. The death of one thing and the start of another, and the wisdom to accept it and live with it. I’ll look to him for comfort when the time comes that I have to drag myself kicking and screaming from my little creek in Valley Stream.
For now, I’m blessed to live even part of the time in a place where all this animal magic abounds. Even snakes, of course, whose likeness is rarely printed on country décor lampshades and curtains, have their own magic and their own wisdom. “The snake as a spirit animal can be to provide guidance about life changes and transitions, whether they are happening at the physical, emotional or spiritual level. “
I don’t know how exactly they transmit their magic, the spirit animals, but the folks up at the Six Nations Indian Museum in Onchiota, New York convinced me as a small child that this stuff was as real as anything the Catholics taught at Sunday Mass, and I’ve never had reason to doubt any of it.
Still, whenever I get up to the Mountain, the first thing I do when I go down to the basement is grab the broom at the bottom of the stairs. Spirits notwithstanding, I am so tired of these motherf#$&ing snakes in this motherf#%&ing country house.
We’re not sure where we’re putting the litter box on Trisha’s Mountain. We’re also not sure when we’re going to leave Valley Stream for good, so where to eventually put the theoretical litter box on the Mountain is sort of a pointless thing to worry about. But that’s what I do.
In addition to being fortunate enough to live in the divine presence of God’s Most Perfect Dog, we have three cats. The oldest, Sunny, is a silky black and white girl with eyes the color of a forest at twilight. She is God’s Most Perfect Cat. We consider her one of the adults here. The other two I’ll tell you about, brother and sister brown tabbies named Lyle and Allie, are excellent cats in their own right, but there can only be one God’s Most Perfect Cat.
We’re also fortunate to have God’s Most Perfect 17-Year-Old Neighbor on Duffy’s Creek, who conscientiously looks after those cats, AND waters the gardens if necessary while we go traipsing off to sit on a mountain. Plus we have another neighbor who can provide backup when the first one’s not available. Really. How lucky are we? When I was a teenager, I occasionally took care of a neighbor’s dog named Pugsley, whom I never particularly bonded with, but I kept him alive for several weeks at a time, so I know it’s a relatively easy gig. But still, it helps that Maya really likes the cats and the cats really like Maya, and the other neighbor is a cat person, too.
And yet, we still feel super guilty every time we ditch the cats and head north again. And you know that it’s just impossible to explain to them 1) exactly where we’re going 2) how long we’ll be gone this time and 3) why it’s in their best interests that they don’t come along with us until they absolutely have to. I’m sure even Mookie has to tried to explain it to them, and he couldn’t either. So they’re just as confused as hell. But all things considered, our cats have it pretty good. If they complain, which they occasionally do, we remind them of how they got here: “We rescued you.”
These cats are our second group of three cats. They came to live on Duffy’s Creek almost ten years ago, on Jack’s 7th birthday in February of 2011, five months before the heralded arrival of the Labrador Retriever puppy who would quickly grow into the great, lumbering beast that is Mookie Dog.
Trisha had three cats when we met. Two of them were seven years old and the other was six. And apparently, I told my future wife on one of our first dates that I planned to have a dog someday and name him after Mookie Wilson (my all-time favorite New York Met) though I have no memory of actually saying this out loud. I guess that’s how you know you’ve met your soul mate. So seeing as I had every intention of keeping Trisha, I had every intention of adopting her three cats as my cats, too, even before I met them. It was all good as far as I was concerned. I’d always been a cat guy as well as a dog guy, and I could wait on the dog if I absolutely had to. Just not forever.
Those cats, Jenny, Jezebel and Jasper, were with us for most of our first ten years together. Two of them got to meet the dog and neither was impressed.
Rewinding a little more: About six years before I met Trisha’s “girls”, at a point in time when I was taking refuge with my parents, they and I started feeding a couple of sweet stray cats that were hanging around the creek. Naturally, this situation spiraled into my poor father having to chase kittens around the backyard to take them to a shelter several months later. But we managed to get the main mamma cat fixed. Mom gave her the unfortunate name “Runt” and she ended up living around 15 years. She moved out to the retirement home with the old folks when they left the creek. At the point when Runt was becoming domesticated, I also tried to save a friendly little black cat that hung around with Runt who I named Mose Allison, but he got hit by a car, and I had to scrape his body off the street for a proper burial. It’s a cat jungle out there.
We had a big, tough cat named Herman when I was growing up. My oldest sister saved him when she happened across a guy who was drowning kittens in the creek by throwing them off the bridge. Yeah, I know. This was on May 2, 1965, which happened to be my second birthday. My sister, who was 12 at the time, insisted that the guy give her one of the kittens, before he cruelly murdered the others, and Herman (named after Herman’s Hermits) lived with us for 18 years. He was an indoor / outdoor cat, and every once in a while he’d come home bloodied and battle-scarred from popping off to the wrong cat in the middle of the night, but knowing Herman, we knew the other cat likely got it worse.
Still, it didn’t take too much convincing for Trisha to make me see that letting a cat come and go outside as he or she pleases was in general a pretty bad idea for everyone involved. After meeting Jenny, Jasper and Jezebel, none of whom had a speck of outside dust on them, I tried to preach this gospel to my parents, advising them that if they were going to keep Runt as a pet, they were better off keeping her inside, and pretty soon she’d give up trying to fight them on it. She had already had her tail bitten off as a kitten (I found her and a few of her cat friends playing cat hockey with it on the deck one morning) and I knew they had a lot of emotional investment tied up in this little mottled tabby.
Well, they always called me a know-it-all, but I came by that honestly, so Runt the Cat had an acre or two of woods to patrol out at the Jefferson’s Ferry Lifecare Community. But being an indoor / outdoor cat, she’d occasionally go on special assignment and disappear for a few days, thus scaring the crap out of my parents. She ultimately died right in my father’s lap when she was about 16 years old. And you know what? My parents’ health and well-being went straight downhill after that, not so much out of grief of losing the cat, but more out of not having anyone else to take care of anymore. I think that thought a lot.
Meanwhile, I had embarked on the journey of being a stepfather to Jenny, Jezebel and Jasper for the back nine of their lives. Jenny and Jezebel were both part Maine Coon, and since my recent frame of reference had been a cat that could fit inside a Costco coffee can, they seemed monstrously gigantic in comparison the first time I saw them. Jasper was a little black female cat with a long, long tail and seemingly hidden opposable thumbs that could open any door or drawer, who Trisha had named already when she found out she was actually female and not male, so she decided it was actually short for Jasperella and left it at that.
Before Trisha and I moved in together, I didn’t see too much of Jenny, Jezebel and Jasper. She and the cats were living at her parents’ house in Point Lookout, and even though her parents weren’t actually there, there would be no boys at the sleepover and that was that. So we spent lots of time at my little apartment on the highway in Lynbrook and the cats spent a lot of time waiting for Trisha to come home. If they had made that connection, they probably would have been less friendly to me than they were when I occasionally did see them, which wasn’t friendly at all.
So you could imagine how pissed they must have been to find themselves scooped up from a big airy house by the ocean in Point Lookout and transported to a third-floor apartment in a tenement in downtown Valley Stream. And what was worse, I was there.
Over the years we’ve tried, unsuccessfully, to block out most of the year and a half that we spent in that third-floor apartment, especially any part that isn’t funny in retrospect. All told, it wasn’t a particularly pleasant place to live. But they allowed cats. And smokers. So you get what you get and you don’t get upset. And once they established that I was home earlier in the day and more often, and that I had the requisite thumbs needed to open cans and clean litter boxes, Jenny, Jezebel and Jasper started coming around.
Jenny and I bonded through our shared love of naps. Being part Maine Coon, she had a fur coat like the ones Sinatra and the Brat Pack probably bought for their girlfriends, and a purr like the sound of an outboard motor on a mountain lake. Trisha told me early on that Jenny was actually a doctor, and I’ll tell you what: You show me the best treatment or medication that science has developed to lower human blood pressure, and for ten years I could’ve countered with Jenny Cat. After we finished the move to the creek over Christmas Vacation in 2001, Jenny and I took a three-and-a-half-hour nap one cold and cloudy Sunday afternoon in January that I have never replicated.
Jezebel, whose name morphed into “Bella” was the original “Heat-Seeking Kitty”. That’s Trisha’s line. She’s been cracking me up for the entire 21st Century with stuff like that. As soon as Bella saw me sitting down in my comfy chair she’d be on it immediately. Furthermore, it became an especially vital mission to secure the lap if a blanket were tossed over it. Then she could sink her claws in and enjoy whatever was on TV, Mets Baseball and Sir David Attenborough documentaries being her favorites. Of course, being a cat, if you walked up to Bella when she was trying to sleep on a pile of towels and tried to pet her, she’d likely claw your hand up before you knew what happened.
Bella and I also bonded over butter. In fact, her other nickname was “Butter Cat”, which wasn’t a Pearl Jam song. One morning in the tenement, she was at my feet staring at me as I ate an English muffin. As you probably know, nobody can stare at you like a cat can stare at you. And while she was staring at me, she was telepathically instructing me to scoop a little butter off the English muffin with my index finger and hold it where she could get to it, a message which I telepathically received and responded to in kind. And thus was born a morning ritual that would last ten years.
Jasper’s favorite ritual, besides hunting for crinkly paper, was making one of us follow her around. She wasn’t too crazy about sharing naps or laps. She liked attention on her terms, and she knew she couldn’t compete with two Maine Coons. Nobody could. So once or twice a day one of us had to follow her around through the house until she decided on a good place for rubbies and scratchies, and if we didn’t follow as instructed, she would yell at us. For almost ten years, the last thing I did before leaving for work in the morning was to pet a little black cat with a long, long tail at the top of the stairs.
We all have snapshots in our heads of the most perfect moments of our lives, and if you’re like me, you don’t call them up on the screen behind your eyes as often as you should, because you spend too much time staring at the physical screen in front of your eyes and getting pissed off, or worse, dredging up all the bad stuff for no good reason. I’m working on all that. But I digress. One of my all-time favorite mental snapshots is the picture of my three step-cats at sunrise on Christmas Morning of 2001, the day after we fought a violent and bloody battle to get them into crates and move them out of the tenement and into their new house on Duffy’s Creek. We set up one of the sheet-metal radiator covers we had to buy for the tenement in front of the picture window looking out on the backyard and the creek as a “Cat TV” perch, and there they were at dawn, lined up at the window whisker to whisker, awestruck by the birds fluttering around the feeders.
I knew they could all grow old here and they’d never have to leave. I couldn’t necessarily say the same for myself, and still can’t, but for that moment I was content because they were content. Animals make your house a home, for sure.
So we all settled in and made ourselves at home in the House on Duffy’s Creek, and Jenny and I took naps, and Bella and I ate butter and watched The Mets and PBS, and Jasper and I walked around the house together, and we all enjoyed the occasional game of string and Trisha had a baby. I have lots of favorite mental snapshots from that experience. One of them is when we brought said baby home from the hospital on a sunny winter’s morning and laid him down on the bed to take him out of his warm flannelly yellow baby traveling clothes.
Jenny Cat immediately jumped up on the bed to see what we had there. And we both had two immediate thoughts in split-second progression: “Get the fuck away from my baby,” followed by, “chill. She knows what she’s doing.”
So we checked ourselves and let Jenny come in for a sniff, through a permanent scar across our only child’s face would’ve been hard to explain. And Jenny sniffed the baby and the baby gave Jenny a wide-eyed baby look and Jenny decided as we already had that nothing smells better than a new baby, and she was now Jack’s cat, too. Bella and Jasper liked him well enough, but he moved too unpredictably, and besides, Jenny found him first.
So we can at least say that our only child has never been without an animal brother or sister. As the baby started standing and toddling, he enjoyed going on trips around the house in pursuit of “Bap-per” and watching Bella hunt string and lick butter off Dad’s finger, but Jenny was always available for a warm, furry purr.
Babies grow up. Pets grow old. Take lots of pictures.
I’m an admirer of Teddy Roosevelt, despite our respective political affiliations and despite all the dead animals hanging in his living room in Oyster Bay, Long Island, which I’ve visited several times. He only lived 60 and a half years, which would give me only three more, though I reckon I’ve eaten less read meat, and probably smoked less, so I’m hopeful. The man lived like a man on fire. He was passionate about learning and exploring and was always looking for ways to change things for the better, and I’m sure he would’ve stuck to digital photography if he were taking those African safaris today. I tell you all this because I carry one of Teddy’s best pieces of practical wisdom as a personal mantra, every day:
“Do what you can, with what you have, where you are.”
That’s a good one, huh?
We can’t stop the babies from growing up. We can’t stop the animals, or ourselves for that matter, from growing old and dying. We can’t hold on to the good times, but we can keep trying to conjure up new good times until all our time is up. Maybe not the same, but just as good in their own right. Where we are, with what we have.
Jenny went first, on the last day of September, 2010. She had found a spot next to the piano, and she stayed there most of the time for months, waiting to die. At this point, Trisha had acquiesced to getting a family dog, and we had first dibs on a Labrador puppy to be born at a breeder’s house in Saugerties the following spring. Bella and “Bap-per” were holding on, but we knew they were both nearing the end of their run.
Jack was never going to get a brother or sister, but he was never going to experience a family without animals either, so that was something.
But I did feel a little guilty about getting a purebred dog through a breeder when there were dogs who needed to be rescued. Among my selfish reasons were that Trisha had never lived with a dog and we needed a relatively calm dog who could provide some therapy, because that’s what we all that’s needed.
But since we were where we were, and had what we had, I felt like we needed to keep the good times rolling, before the calm dog was even born, so I decided we needed to go rescue a cat.
I found God’s Most Perfect Cat the same way I found God’s Most Perfect Wife. On the Internet. Albeit at a different website. I saw Trisha’s picture on match.com in 1999 and said, “gosh, she’s sure pretty!” and the rest is history. I saw Sunny Cat’s picture on petfinders.com in 2010 and showed it to Trisha and she said, “gosh! She’s sure pretty!” And we rescued her.
On the day of his birthday, we dropped our seven-year old boy at his aunt and uncle’s house and said we had to take care of something, but it was a surprise, which we surprisingly got away with. We drove to an animal shelter in Glen Cove, still planning to meet the pretty black and white cat.
I wanted to get new cats before the new dog showed up, because I thought that cats should have the territory well-established before the dog moved in and started hassling them. They would need to train the dog. And notice I said “cats”. Ideally, I wanted to adopt more than one cat, but I have no good reason why. Keep in mind that we still had two elderly cats, who at this point were keeping mostly to themselves. We knew they wouldn’t put up any sort of fight no matter what sort of animals we brought on to their turf.
But a call ahead to the folks at the shelter suggested that Sunny Cat might not work out. She was almost two and she had been at the shelter since being brought in with her siblings from a golf course as a kitten. Somehow, all her siblings had been adopted and no one had fallen for her, and she was well into a career as a shelter cat. They didn’t think she’d do so great sharing space with a young child, never mind old cats and a dog. She lived in a cage, but she was allowed to wander around and make conversation with various dogs and cats in the shelter. We met her briefly, already having sort of talked ourselves out of her, pretty as she was, and they let her out of the cage to go make the rounds.
In the cage next door were two three-month-old brown tabbies that had not been listed on petfinder.com yet, stalking each other and play fighting and having a grand old time of it all. I’ve always liked brown tabbies. They’re cool-looking cats. And what seven-year-old boy wouldn’t love two kittens to play with?
But there was a rub. One of the kittens was male, and Trisha didn’t want a male cat because they tend to destroy everything in their path and make pests of themselves. On the other hand, we didn’t want to separate them, as they seemed to be having so much damn fun together.
So we took a walk around the shelter, including a room where they kept the older “lifers”, which was sort of like the Island of Misfit Cats. We found ten or fifteen we were ready to take home before we pulled each other the hell out of there. Trisha decided we could adopt the two brown tabbies, and she couldn’t have been more right about the male cat, but we’ll come to that later.
We walked back up front where the people behind the desk and the brown tabby kittens in the cage were. (They had really stupid names which we’ve both since forgotten. The kittens, not the people). At the moment we were telling the kittens that they were going home with us, Sunny Cat came bounding up to us, onto a box where she could meet us at eye level, looked us both straight in the eye and said, resolutely, “Meee-owwww!!!”, which was cat for, “you came here to rescue me!!!”
We had no choice. The animal shelter folks told us they would waive the adoption fee on Sunny (so named because she liked sleeping in sunny spots, and still very much does) if we took all three cats. We dumped the two kittens in one of the two crates we brought with us, and a young fellow at the shelter put on thick leather gloves to grab Sunny and throw her in the other one.
We looked at each other as if we were completely insane. Trisha said, out loud so she could hear herself say it, “this gives us five cats.” One of the rescue people said, “I have twelve!”. We loaded the crates in the back of Dan the Van and headed home.
Trisha and I have a favorite movie. We’ve watched it more than 50 times and quote lines from it 20 times a day. That movie is David Lynch’s “The Strait Story,” starring Richard Farnsworth and Sissy Spacek. It’s based on the true story of a 73-year-old man who drove a riding mower from Iowa to Wisconsin to see his ailing brother. Farnsworth plays the old man, Alvin Strait, and Harry Dean Stanton is his brother Lyle. We had just watched the movie for the 35th time the night before. We’re also big fans of Lyle Lovett. The brown tabbies who had terrible and forgettable names became Lyle Cat and Allie Cat by the time we reached the Long Island Expressway. In retrospect, Chaos and Mayhem would have worked as well.
We tried kicking around some new names for Sunny Cat, which at first we thought was kind of a silly name. We tried being clever with names related to pianos and other black and white things. But we realized that she was already a year and a half old and she deserved to keep her name, so by the time we reached the Southern State Parkway, we were ready introduce Jack to his new furry siblings, Lyle, Allie and Sunny.
The old girls, Bella and Jasper, were with us for the first six months or so of the madness that followed. They did what they could to pass on their wisdom to the young’uns. We made sure they were getting their share of the cat food and the attention until they didn’t want it anymore.
It was tough to see them go, which is one of the reasons that my sensible wife did not want to adopt new cats and go through the pain all over again someday. I could definitely see her point, but we all know that the joy that animals bring to our lives is worth the pieces that they gorge out of our hearts when they die.
We had planned and executed this daring cat rescue for the beginning of the week in February when Jack and I were on school vacation, which we would give me some time to acclimate everyone. We all have great mental snapshots of that week, starting with this one: There are two rooms upstairs at Duffy’s Creek. One of those rooms, Jack’s bedroom, has a separate door. The other room is accessed through the door at the top of the stairs. We let Sunny have that room and took the kittens behind the door into Jack’s bedroom to let them out of the crate.
Immediately upon being freed, they both crawled under the approximately two-inch space under Jack’s dresser because that’s what cats do, particularly scared ones. I don’t know why we couldn’t have foreseen that.
I reached my arm as far as I could and managed to grab hold of a kitten, but I didn’t know which one. Trisha reached way back and pulled out the other one. The one I pulled out turned out to be Lyle, and from that moment, Lyle imprinted on me and decided I was his mother, and he was my dog.
Lyle is actually several animals. As well as being a cat with freakishly long back legs and a Machiavellian complex, he is also, at the very least, a small dog, a meercat, a sloth, a vulture, a howler monkey and a cockroach. I’m pretty certain that Lyle was the runt of his litter, as he is expert at making his presence known and at manipulating me, his mother.
It started with coming to nurse every night when I went to sleep. I missed Jenny coming in to put me to sleep every night, so I was glad to have a new cat napping partner. But Lyle has to circle around and stalk back and forth for several minutes before finding the right spot to do a full-body flop as close to me as he can get. Then he’s got to dig his claws into me (which Trisha calls, “making’ biscuits.”) and purr ridiculously while he pretends to nurse. He usually sticks around for about fifteen minutes then goes off to stare intently at the spot under the stove where he has caught several mice, then comes back and settles in on my legs.
And once he realized that the potential existed for me to wake up in the middle of the night to pee, forget it. He trained me to put out plates of cat food for everybody at 2 am while the dog waited in the crate. If I didn’t wake up, he’d crawl on top of me and try to pry my eyelids open by scratching at them. And Lyle has the most deranged, intense stare of any cat I’ve known, so throwing him off the bed like some demonic sentient pillow only works so many times. He just pops back and stares at me vulture-like, ready to give my eyelids a fresh scratch if that’s what it takes. He’s at this moment working on his masterpiece of scratching, the ottoman in front of the couch. Lyle does nothing halfway He’s a sick bastard.
And yet he’s a sweet, essentially well-meaning little guy who walks around me and in front of me, like the cockroach in WALLE, always managing to just avoid being stepped on and/or kicked. Mookie has come to associate the words “idiot” and “asshole” with Lyle getting in the way or causing trouble. Right now, the large dog is lying on the floor, slightly jealous that the small cat dog is sharing the chair and a half with me, upside down with his back paws attached to me arm as I type. All I would have to do is say, “IDIOT!”, as I do when Lyle gets in the way, and they would immediately begin arguing, using sharp words like “grrrrrr!” and “hisssss!”. Fun as it is, I’ll let them be.
Mookie is much more patient with Lyle’s rotund and shy sister, Allie Cat. First of all, having struggled with a life-long battle to maintain his figure, he can relate to Allie Cat, whose short, stocky over-furry physique makes Lyle look like a Tabby Cowboy. Allie’s legs are as freakishly short as Lyle’s are long, so when she runs she has to double the amount of steps, which makes her look like a cartoon cat. But I wouldn’t tell her that because she’s very sensitive and suffers from low self-esteem. Allie went upstairs when Mookie came home and stayed up there most of the time for around three years. She only came back down and rejoined the family after Sunny assured her that he had the dog completely trained.
While Mookie, Sunny and Lyle shadow me pretty much all the time, more so as we get closer to the times when the cans open, Allie stays in a little cat bed behind the loveseat until lunch, then goes back for a quick four-hour nap, at this time of year under the Christmas Tree skirt, whereupon she joins me up on the couch for “Jeopardy” after dinner, making sure she gets her daily minimum requirement of pets and scratchies. Mookie defers to her and doesn’t try to get in between us, and if Lyle tries to move in, Mookie tells him to stop being a needy little pain in the neck all the time by stomping his front paws back and forth and saying “grrrr.”
Allie imprinted on Jack the most as a kitten. He’s good friends with everyone on four legs here, but you can tell when he gives Allie some attention that it means a lot to her. It’s hard to get that attention when your dog brother is enormous, you cat brother is batshit crazy and everybody thinks that your older cat sister is perfect.
Sunny, God’s Most Perfect Cat, is at this moment sitting inside a cardboard box – in a sunny spot on the floor- because it’s there. And no doubt thinking deep thoughts which she will never share. But her default location is wherever Trisha is. While I’ve pointed out to Sunny many times that I was the one who had the idea to rescue her, and that Trisha didn’t want any more cats at first, and that I was the one who sat with her upstairs more often for the first couple of weeks so we could bond, Sunny wisely figured out from the start that one of the three humans in this house was softer, calmer, more nurturing and better smelling than the other two, and that’s the wagon to which she hitched her star. If Trisha is in a comfy chair, Sunny is often curled up next to her.
Which is not to say that Sunny and I don’t get in some quality time together, because we do. (As far as me and Trisha, God knows we try). Sunny enjoys the fact that I’ll be the last person on Earth who gets a physical, printed newspaper delivered to his house. There’s a guy I’ve never met who has been dropping an expertly wrapped addition of Long Island’s Newsday in the same spot on my front lawn at around 4 a.m. every morning for 18 years, and he did it for my parents for years before that. Insanely expensive as it’s gotten, I’m still not ready to give it up. So every non-working morning (which right now is all of them) begins with twenty minutes of sitting on the couch scratching the dog and flipping through the Newsday.
This twenty-minute block often stretches into a half hour when Sunny decides to come up and visit, first rubbing her head on Mookie’s ear, then walking back and forth across the newspaper on my lap while I pet her, for as long a time as she deems appropriate or necessary. If she decides to sit down on the newspaper, I am to wait until she gets up before I continue reading, and that is that. After a couple of months of this I figured out that she liked newspaper because that was the floor of her cage for 21 months. I’m a little slow sometimes. But Sunny is an excellent human trainer as well as an excellent dog trainer.
She’s a beautiful cat. Jet, silky black with deep-set eyes that only open as much as they have to (giving her a bit of a stoned cat look), white whiskers and a white patch that starts under her chin and stretches down her chest, with another patch of white on her belly and back legs and front paws that look as though they were dipped in white paint.
I don’t know if it helped that she was good looking, but Sunny was the cat who trained Mookie to appreciate and respect cats. In his puppy year, he spent the majority of his time in one room in the back of the house, which we separated from the kitchen with a gate. When our five cats came into the kitchen to eat, you could imagine the excitement and frustration of a Labrador puppy who can only stick his head through the cat door of the gate and watch as other carnivores devoured a meat like substance, and who has been instructed by God not to bark. It was Sunny who first came over and gave him a little sniff, to which he gave her a large sloppy sniff, which she seemed to enjoy. She would always stay back and they’d gaze into each other’s eyes, like Bowie’s heroes at the Brandenburg Gate.
Once the old girls had left us and gone over the Rainbow Bridge and Mookie got the run of the first floor, we moved the Brandenburg Gate up to the top of the stairs, with the cat door open so they could have a place to escape when they had to, in spite of the fact that they tell you not to install those gates at the top of the stairs because somebody could get killed. Lyle had already perfected the art of finding places higher than Mookie could get to, and of giving him a good whack in the snout if he stuck said snout where it didn’t belong. But then Mookie can scare Lyle by just reminding him of how tremendously big he is, and how tremendously small Lyle is in comparison.
Being an idiot, Lyle has been drinking out of the dog’s bowl his entire life, trying to grow big and strong like Mookie, but it hasn’t worked. They’ve had a nine and a half year codependency, gargantuan size vs. claws, speed and attitude, with each one vying to be the alpha dog, but both acutely aware that this ongoing battle gives them something else to do when they’re not watching me eat chicken.
But Sunny didn’t need her claws to train Mookie. One day (I was there when it happened) she left East Berlin and met him at the bottom of the stairs, and before he could start bouncing up and down and doing his big, floppy Labrador routine, she looked him dead in the eye and declared, “Yoooouuuuu Staaayyyy!!!” And he did as he was told. She understands positive dog training, because she routinely tells him, in her cat language (which, like English, he understands but does not speak), “that’s my good doooogggg!” After a while, she let Allie know the coast was clear and they both left the attic for good. Allie finally had a dog friend, and God’s Most Perfect Dog was able to add “very well-behaved around cats” to his already impressive resume.
As I wrap up this chapter, we’re well into the ninth month of Pandemic of 2020, soon to be the Pandemic of 2020-2021, as all indications point towards things getting worse before they get better. My current responsibilities include driving up and down New York State Route 22 when necessary and staying out of the way of my wife and son as they do real work remotely when I’m here on the Creek. By virtue of first working remotely for four months and then not working at all for five and counting, I’ve spent more time in the house I grew up in than I have since before kindergarten, and at the same time I’ve been off Long Island more than in any year of my life. I’m on the Creek or on the Mountain, and that’s pretty much it.
In normal times, I’d be in heaven with all this time on my hands, as both Long Island and the Berkshires always have something interesting going on somewhere, if you don’t mind traffic and people. In these times, I leave to walk the dog along the creek or on the rail trail, I go out for groceries and other essentials, I come back to whichever home I’m in and I wait for this misery to end, always being aware that I could get sick and suffocate to death in a hospital no matter how careful I am so I don’t dare complain. Under these circumstances, It’s nice to be able to pet a cat when you can.
There are a couple of silver linings in all this, as painful as it is to admit. As a result of our rebooted lifestyle, which include long morning walks for the dog and bigger lunches for me, I’ve gained ten pounds, and Mookie has lost ten pounds. Really. As anyone who knows either one of us could tell you, these are both epic accomplishments. I also get more than enough sleep, which I also haven’t done since before kindergarten. Lyle still tortures me at 2 am when he can get to me, but Sunny has in turn tortured Lyle by taking over the bed during the day, available for a good purr if I can work a cat nap into my busy schedule.
I’ve seen some “funny cat stuff” in my rectangle scrolling these past nine months about cats being pissed off about their routines suddenly being disrupted by virtue of their people being home all day, every day. Not our cats. We like them, and they like us. Their goofiness entertains us, and their affection comforts us. And while they may not like being left alone when the Song of The Mountain calls, they don’t hold grudges when we come back to the Creek. But you can be damn sure they insist on extra rubbies and scratchies for the first few days. Especially Lyle.
And it’s funny, as comfortable as we’ve made the House on Trisha’s Mountain, the absence of our furry furniture keeps it from truly feeling like home. It’s the thing that’s missing. Of course, given the opportunity, they’d no doubt scratch the beautiful new furniture and they’d trail cat litter all over the house no matter where we put the box, but they’d love the view. And they’d continue to love us, and we’d love their company.
Meanwhile, for as long as this thing goes on, nobody in our family is going out to the movies. But at least if there’s a movie playing on TV on Duffy’s Creek, everybody gets a cat to curl up with. Even Mookie.
Sunny will be 12 years old next year. Lyle and Allie will be 11. I don’t know if we can make the same promise that we made to the old girls when they moved here at the dawn of this Century and we told them they’d never have to move again. I can tell you that if these three cats have to move, they won’t like it one damn bit, and I’m sorry in advance for a day that comes when we have to put them through it. I’ve seen what it’s like to be an old cat, and it ain’t for sissies. I suppose we compensate for the guilt by spoiling the hell out of them now.
But you what? They deserve it. Yeah, they lie around and sleep most of the day. But they appreciate us, and we appreciate them. They count on us to take care of their physical needs and we count on them to help us out with our psychological needs, which sometimes means having something else to think about besides how screwed up everything is. Hey, look! Allie’s getting high on catnip again! Lyle and Mookie are having a staring contest! Sunny is keeping her svelte figure in shape by doing zooms back and forth through the house! While it’s important to stay on top of current events, watching your cats living their best lives is ultimately a much better use of brain space than wondering about who may have just tweeted a bunch of dangerous lies, or how many people were packed into wedding in Brooklyn, or why going bowling might kill you.
The day is going to come when we can start crawling out from under this weight on top of us, when the world will be open and safe again. But for now we’re in survival mode. And with a little help from our feline friends, our unsung furry heroes of Duffy’s Creek, we’re doing what we can where we are with what we have.
Mookie Dog knows he’s got it good up in the country. In his Labrador heart, though, I think he’d always rather be in Valley Stream. For one thing, he has deep and soulful connections with all three of his cats, and it’s difficult for all of them to be separated. But that’s a story for Chapter 5. I feel bad for him because his puppy brain struggles to make sense of things these days. You can explain the what, the where, the who and sort of the when to dogs, but they’ll never fully understand the why. We do too many things that just make no canine sense.
For the first eight and a half years of Mookie’s life, we took one or two long trips in the car in July and/or August. He stayed at his friend Gina’s K9 Bed and Breakfast a mile away because he wasn’t supposed to be in the cabin, and I’d come by to take him out to play for the day, then bring him back, and then after a couple of days we’d take another long car ride and everything went back to normal. For the rest of the year, including all the cold months, we were in the home he first arrived in as a nine-week old puppy. So you can certainly imagine his confusion as he finds himself, at the equivalent of 63 years old, suddenly going on two and a half-hour car trips every couple of weeks.
But if I told him right now that we were going for a ride in the car, he would immediately begin wagging and hopping up and down and panting, because it would mean that we would possibly be going somewhere where things smell differently and there might be water for swimming or at the very least people who rub his face and say hi. We’d get there, wherever there might be, have our fun, and as soon as that fun was over and he came back to wherever we started, he’d have a short nap, then return to staring at me and moping, like he’s doing right now. He’s a fun junkie, my dog is.
And even though he willingly and joyfully gets in the car every time I suggest the idea, he plainly dislikes the sensation of the wheels moving under him. Though a purebred labby, he’s just not a head sticking out the window dog, which is something I’ve accepted about him. I don’t shoot ducks out of the sky and he loves me just the same. As any long car ride evolves, If he’s not lying down across the back seat in defensive sleep, he sits up and stairs down at the seat with an expression I can only describe as existential dread, and I say, “everything’s OK! Everything’s fine! Lie down, Puppy!” until he lies down again and tries to sleep. He especially dislikes exit ramps. They mess with his large center of gravity.
But while long car drives are stressful, staying home while I disappear for a couple of days is far more so. There were a few trips when I needed the whole car for transporting stuff and I left him home, safely with the others in the pack who have access to the dog food, but still this was not acceptable. So when he sees the duffle bag and the cooler come out, he never lets me out of his sight. And the cycle continues.
This place where we go these days, which I realize will never truly be home to him until his cats are there, only recently got comfy couches, a dog crate and a big comfy queen bed. For the first eight months, he had a dog bed on the floor and an air mattress that made him nervous. But while he enjoys these amenities we’ve provided, and he loves his big upstate backyard that smells like bunnies, he misses his neighborhood around Duffy’s Creek. He’s spent most of his life marking every tree and pole within two square miles of his house, and that’s not an accomplishment that’s easy to just walk away from.
In Valley Stream, we’ve gotten to the point where he takes me for walks, and ideally, to him, those walks are circular in nature, or at least Q-shaped. He has pre-determined routes where he has to check and respond to his pee-mail at specific poles and trees. My job is to follow along with plastic bags and keep him out of trouble.
And while he certainly enjoys the variety of scents that one can encounter in and around Copake Falls, it’s taken him some adjustment to accept that the majority of our walks in the country are linear. We go somewhere and then we go back the way we came. It’s the Road to Nowhere. Picture a man and his dog on two ends of a taut leash, debating about which of two opposite directions is the way they have to go now. It looks as ridiculous as it seems.
But he ultimately recognizes and accepts my position as the Alpha Dog. Actually, it’s bigger than that. He thinks I’m God. And of course, God doesn’t always give you what you want. Sometimes you can’t go lick the baby in the stroller and sometimes you can’t try to jump in the hammock that your favorite neighbor set up in his garage and that’s the way it is. God is all-knowing, and Mookie accepts this because he has faith. Every walk with God is essentially a good walk, circular or linear. Just like my own relationship to my own God, he’s a stubborn mule and his God loves him anyway. Besides, only a loving and benevolent God would know about a place like the Harlem Valley Rail Trial.
My relationship with the Rail Trail predates my relationship with my dog, never mind my human child. It goes back to the year 2000, the first year that Trisha and I took a full week of vacation in Columbia County. It was three days of camping with the hippies on Long Hill at the Falcon Ridge Folk Festival in Hillsdale (what a scene, man) then four days in cabin GH1 at Taconic State Park. Back then, everything was new to us and everything was the greatest thing ever. (“Hey! The Methodist Church is having a chicken barbecue!” “There’s a school near here where kids learn about organic farming!” “Did you know Copake had a lake? It’s huge!” “Look at the price on this house! Two acres!”). And since (blessedly in retrospect) we didn’t have any magic rectangles with Internet connections while we were there, the first two days back home on Long Island would be filled with wasted hours looking up every single thing I’d come across in Columbia County the week before. (“Hey honey! Those cows we saw last week on North Mountain Road? Brown Swiss!”).
I walked up to the Depot Deli the morning after we checked into cabin GH1, and there it was, something to do, forever: A paved path that hadn’t been there before with a sign explaining that I was entering the Harlem Valley Rail, which “derives its name from The New York and Harlem Railroad, chartered in 1831 and opened in lower Manhattan in 1832 with horse-drawn cars. In 1842, the line crossed the Harlem River, and in 1973 joined the New York Central Railroad, becoming known as the Harlem Division. By 1852, it extended north to the village of Chatham. In all, the line stretched 131 miles of track. What you see today while hiking and biking on this recreationway is a glimpse of Columbia and Dutchess Counties as thousands of paying customers saw the countryside until a little more than two decades ago, when passenger service was discontinued between Dover Plains and Chatham in 1972.”
Post-vacation research uncovered that this had all been developing under my radar for years. The first segment of the Harlem Valley Rail Trail opened in 1996, eventually connecting Wassaic, the last stop on Metro-North, and hence the southern end of the Rail Trail, to Amenia, which is a nice, little place. A connection from Amenia to Millerton, an equally nice, somewhat bigger little place than Armenia, came later, but I wasn’t hip to any of it at the time, as these were just the towns I passed through on the drive north and I wasn’t going to be in them again until my drive south. I also learned that there are a whole lot of people who have volunteered a whole lot of time and energy to building and maintaining this trail, and the guilt I feel at not being one of them is manifested annually to this day in the form of a charitable contribution to the Harlem Valley Rail Trail Association the week after Christmas.
The Copake Falls to Valley View Road to Undermountain Road in Ancram section of the trail opened in 2000, just in time for me to stumble on to it that morning. The first thing I thought to myself as I began ambling along is I gotta bring my bike up here next year, though it was plain as the years passed and the Rail Trail Culture evolved that I’d be no match for serious fellows in black speedos and wicking shirts with bright yellow and orange patterns and calf muscles like beer kegs who’d often pass me by. No matter, I like my calf muscles as God made them, and for me the bike would be just a way to get to the places where the cool birds are.
Birdwatching has always been one of my things, growing up on a creek and all. I had to know that those little ducks with the black and white heads who showed up in the winter were hooded mergansers, and not just those little ducks with the black and white heads, and I had to know that they bred in wooded lakes, ponds in rivers in Canada and migrated to tidal creeks and estuaries all over the U.S., including mine. When I meet birds, I want to know their names and I want to know their stories.
That morning, I walked the first section of the trail, a little over a mile to Valley View Road and back again (while my fiancée, who was told only that I was walking to the Depot Deli for newspapers, waited back at the cabin, in days before I would’ve thought to take my cell phone just to walk to the Depot Deli). I walked over the bridge the spans the Bash Bish Brook, little knowing at the time that the swimming hole directly under that bridge would be my dog’s favorite spot someday, or that I’d be pushing a stroller across that bridge not four years later, or that I’d be following behind a red Radio Flyer tricycle on that bridge a couple of years after that, or that twenty years later I’d be riding across that bridge on one of the two bicycles that I bought on Craiglist from a guy who I’d exchange $350 with in the parking lot of the Pittsfield, Mass. Wal Mart so I wouldn’t have to keep lugging two bikes back and forth from Long Island, which I’m embarrassingly aware was a First World Problem.
A little ways past the bridge, the west side of the trail opens up into a view of farmland sweeping up a gently rolling hill. Later, when I hit the trail at sunset, I found out why they had decided to put a bench there, as the sun sets directly behind that hill all summer. And I’ve got a thing for sunsets. On the east side is more farmland, but on a steeper climb, leading to the houses on the top of Valley View Road that are built into the side of Washburn Mountain, a point at which, if you can get a bike up the ridiculously steep hill that starts where the Rail Trail meets the road, whether by walking it up or with your overly-developed calf muscles, you can do a 30 mph coast about three quarters of a mile straight downhill and around a big turn right back to the Taconic State Park cabins. Just watch out you don’t get killed.
The morning I discovered the Rail Trail was a sweet, summer stunner and it was a Tuesday, so I pretty much had this whole thing to myself, and I knew Trisha wouldn’t be mad at me for wandering off once I told her what I’d found. While the spectacular views emerge in front of you, the trail is still lined with trees and bushes, and the birds were bursting at the seams. A line of thick brush along a farm or an open field or a meadow is what the good people at the Cornell Ornithological Society would tell you is “edge habitat.”
I met some of my usual friends walking along the edge habitat that morning; cardinals, robins, sparrows, chickadees. My favorite bird, the grey catbird, was following me all down the trail, greeting me by name as he always does. “Johhhhnnnn!” I started to get the feeling that I’d be spending a lot of time here.
At the point where the Rail Trail meets Valley View Road, the paved trail ends, and one has to follow a mostly uphill dirt road for about a half mile before reaching the next paved section that takes you south to Undermountain Road in Ancram. There are several properties along this dirt road. I may not have this story straight, but as I understand it, there’s a property owner who not only owns the road in front of his or her house but also the small meadow that looks out over the Peaceful Roe Jan Valley (hence “Valley View”) on the other side of the road. Apparently, this property owner refused to allow the road to be paved. There are also benches set up to take in the Valley View, adorned with angry “POSTED!” signs on poles surrounding them in case you even thought about sitting on one of them.
When the Harlem Valley Rail Trail is complete, it will run 46 miles from Wassaic to Chatham, and that half mile might be the only part that isn’t paved. The HVRTA has purchased 14 of the privately held miles from Copake Falls to Chatham, and NYS State Parks, who run the Rail Trail, are “in negotiation” for the other 22 miles. Knowing the way people are, they’re bound to run into a few more selfish types before they can connect the whole thing. Some of our neighbors on the bottom of North Mountain Road have the trail right in their backyards, and down in Millerton, there are houses you could jump into from it, and I don’t think anyone is being terrorized by gangs of thuggish nature enthusiasts.
I can tell you two things: One, I have passed the property in question on Valley View Road probably fifty times over twenty years. It’s built into a hill and has lots of windows. Every shade in every window has been pulled down every time I’ve gone past. Two, while riding past that in that meadow, I saw the biggest male deer I’ve ever met in person, and he didn’t give a rat’s ass that he was on private property.
I didn’t continue on to the Undermountain Road section on my first visit to the trail that morning, again because I’d wondered off without telling Trisha, which I can attribute to less than a year of having to tell someone where I was going after going wherever I wanted whenever I felt like it for most of my adult life to that point. On the way back along the dirt road, in a heavily wooded area at the point where the rail trail to Downtown Copake Falls goes to the left and Valley View Road goes straight up in the air, I saw a wood thrush low in the bushes after following his call; a deep, rich “bood-dood-a-weeeeee!” with bass in the “bood-dood” and treble in the “weeeeee!”. It’s a Morning in Copake Falls Sound, and like the nighttime sounds of bats chatting in the trees and coyotes howling at the full moon, I get homesick for it when I’m on Long Island.
On the way back to Copake Falls, at the point where the sun goes down behind the hill, I saw a meadowlark singing his heart out from the top of an evergreen tree. I said screw the bike, I gotta come back here with a pair of binoculars. And Trisha.
I don’t know if it was that year, or two years later in ’02, when we walked the trail from Copake Falls to Undermountain Road to get in some intensive birding, early in the morning, heavily caffeinated and armed with binoculars and the Peterson Guide. I know it wasn’t ’01 because we were a little preoccupied with getting married that summer, and though we managed to squeeze in a couple of nights of camping out on the hill with the hippies at Falcon Ridge, we didn’t make it down to the park. We haven’t missed a year since then, and now we never miss a month, but I digress.
The best birding turned out to be in a stretch with big trees adjacent to farmland most of the way, but with enough high trees along the trail itself for some kick-ass edge habitat. The catbird followed us along and called me by name. The wood thrush played their stereophonic flutes in the deep brush. All the cool songbirds were there: Little warblers and vireos that are only pass through Long Island in spring and fall all darting around here like they owned the place, swallows and flycatchers swooping over the fields while vultures and hawks hovered in circles above like guys cruising their hot rods around town. We found a whole family of cedar waxwings, Trisha’s favorite bird, with their new wave haircuts and their squeaky metallic “zeeet” call that sounds like feedback from tiny guitar amps.
We took a lot of walks specifically to watch the birds back then. We followed people with very expensive spotting scopes around the pond at Jamaica Bay picking up pointers. I dragged the poor woman around the dunes on the West End of Jones Beach when she was six months pregnant, but we did see a saw-whet owl sleeping in a fir tree. We spent my fortieth birthday circumnavigating Camusett Park and Target Rock Wildlife Refuge on the north shore of Long Island. We saw lots and lots of birds that day, but the highlight was spotting a bluebird flying across a field.
When I think back on that first walk to Undermountain Road with my gal, that will always be the day of the indigo bunting.
Indigo Buntings are bluer than bluebirds. They’re as blue as blue gets before it starts turning black. They’re the blue of the denim jacket you got for your 13th birthday. And they chirp a little song like an overly friendly storekeeper who’s had too much coffee. “Helloo! It’s a beautiful day! Nice to see you! Thanks for coming! Isn’t this great! Please! Look around!”. He sat on top of a bush in plain sight, no binoculars needed, and sang to us and showed off his magnificent blueness for as long as we wanted to look at him, and we looked at him for a long, long time.
Once we got into the baby business, we had to curtail the birding adventures a bit, but by that time we’d built a wildlife refuge on the creek in the backyard, and there were still lots of high trees around that have since been cut down, so we put out lots of seed and let the birds come to us. One snowy January night in the Early Aughts we had twenty-one cardinals visit the feeders at dusk, something that will never happen again, as their homes were all cut up with chain saws over the ensuing ten years. But up in Copake Falls, where time stands more still and the trees are still tall, there was no better place to push a stroller than up and down the Rail Trail. And when it was time for the guy in the stroller to start powering his own wheels, that was the place to do it.
And since you can’t rightly stare at trees with binoculars at the same time you’re making sure your five-year old doesn’t ride his bike into a ditch, we started to really appreciate the stunning variety of wildflowers just as much as the birds on the trail. Summer is a hippie festival of color and fragrance up and down the trail, and you can eat the wild blackberries and raspberries you come across and I promise that you won’t get sick and die.
My son loves the Rail Trail. It’s never not been part of his life. He went from three wheels to four wheels to two wheels in the blink of five summers. Then of course Dad had to teach him about the Valley View Road Downhill Challenge, just to scare the crap out of Mom. I loved sitting on our front porch at GH7 waiting for him to come whipping around that corner as he coasted in. We regularly biked the Copake Falls to Undermountain Road and back again route together as part of our week in the park.
Speaking of Undermountain Road, it’s under mountains, the biggest ones in the part of the Taconic Range that overlooks the Peaceful Roe Jan Valley. When you get to this section of the Rail Trail, you’re literally under Alander Mountain. The trailhead is just down the road. There’s another big boy called Brace Mountain that is easily accessed from Copake Falls. These mountains are not much taller than Baker Mountain in Saranac Lake, which I climbed twice in the last three years. When I was a whole lot younger, I climbed Mt. Marcy, the highest point in New York State and a mile up in the air, at least five times. I have a brother who is four and a half years older than me who still climbs mountains whenever he gets the chance and is working on being an Adirondack 46’er. I’ve also got a pack of Marlboro 27’s on the patio table.
My excuse for not climbing any Taconic Mountains to this point is that I didn’t have a day when I happened to be up that way and the weather conditions would make it worth the effort. Now that I’m a part-time resident, that excuse is trickling away. I know I could always ask one of the people I know in Copake Falls who are in their 80’s, and don’t have a pack of Marlboro 27’s on their patio table, to serve as a guide. They climb the local mountains all the time. There’s something in the water up there and I sure as hell hope it works for me.
Less intimidating is the challenge of a bike ride from Copake Falls to Millerton on the Rail Trail, which should be possible by 2021, when the newest eight-mile section is completed. That would be 12 miles of mostly level or slightly downhill rolling, with a sandwich and a ride back from Trisha waiting at the Millerton parking lot. Hell, we could even make it to Wassaic, 22 miles away, as long as I get that sandwich and that ride. Dream big, that’s what I say.
I could point out to anyone who might actually be using this document as a guide to the Harlem Valley Rail Trail that you could stop wasting your time with me right now and got to hvrt.org, but I could also tell you that the two and a half miles of trail south of Millerton to Coleman Station (I haven’t made it to Armenia or Wassaic) is just about the nicest walk or ride you’d ever want to take. Right after you pass through the pretty little town, and right before the trail opens up to some beautiful scenery, you go through a section that was originally created by blasting through solid rock, and the solid rock they didn’t blast remains on both sides of you, so it’s always about fifteen degrees cooler on this part of the trail than it is everywhere else, which was a blessing on the hot day that Jack and I finally got around to riding this trail last summer, which was the same day I inadvertently cooked a mouse in the oven, which is a story for Chapter 6.
In 2010, ten years after the Copake Falls to Undermountain Road section opened up, the trail was extended north to Orphan Farm Road, which now borders the Shagbark Tree Farm. This is the stretch where you’ll find Mookie and I most often these days. It’s a nice mile and a half jaunt with what is probably the most spectacular scenery that the paying customers on Harlem Valley Line saw from the trains, although I can’t state that for a fact. There is also a small section across Route 22 from Black Grocery Road (the etymology of which I want nothing to do with) to the Herrington’s Hardware store parking lot in Hillsdale. Eventually, the plan is to build a pedestrian bridge over 22, connecting Orphan Farm Road to Black Grocery Road, thereby connecting everything from Wassaic to Hillsdale, which would give the trail 26.6 of its eventual 46.1 miles to Chatham. The motto of the Harlem Valley Rail Trail Association is “Chatham or Bust!”, and I take them at their word.
Meanwhile, the end of the Orphan Farm trail is where Mookie questions the need for walks to be linear rather than circular in Nature. His nose tells him that his second home in the country is right up there at the top of a very steep and narrow path that runs between the hill full of Happy Little Trees and a heavily wooded patch of the Rail Trail right-of-way leading into my neighbor’s backyards. This shortcut back to Trisha’s Mountain is easily accessible from the Orphan Farm parking lot. He’s sniffed it and seen and it for himself while sitting on his front porch up on the hill. As a matter of fact, we could make this a completely circular walk by traveling down North Mountain Road to the rail trail, then climbing back up this path right back to our mailbox. What he doesn’t know is that 1) It’s private property, which he wouldn’t care about anyway, and 2) Trisha has already seen a coyote and I’ve already seen a black bear emerge from that path in broad daylight, not at the same time of course (that’d probably be newsworthy, even in Columbia County), and if my stubborn dog thinks he can talk shit to animals that live in mountains like he does to dogs and cats and squirrels that live in Valley Stream he would be tragically mistaken. God watches after fools, little children and their dogs.
And since Mookie can’t think figuratively, which is really one of the best things about him, I wouldn’t be able to explain to him that these one-way walks are sort of metaphoric. While I hope we’re walking together for a couple of more years, mortality will eventually come between us. He’s a 9-and-a-half-year-old dog and I’m a 57-and-a-half-year-old human doing his best to stay alive in the midst of a pandemic. The road we’re on is not a circle, and one of these days, we’ll have gone as far as we can go.
But the good news is that neither one of us I really have anything left to prove to anybody. We’ve both been good boys, and now we’re just trying to live in the moment, both happy to be walking relatively pain-free. Our journey is our destination. We’re on the road to nowhere, but baby, it’s all right. Despite all of our shared internal conflict about leaving behind everything we’ve loved and marked back in Valley Stream, when we’re out on the Harlem Valley Rail Trail, and the sun is shining and the birds are chirping and the breeze is blowing and the wildflowers are blooming, there’s just nowhere else we’d rather be.
They really do want me to stay in Valley Stream. As a matter of fact, they’ve spent millions of dollars in infrastructure improvements trying to convince me to stay. And they know I have a soft spot for the old dump.
I can only tell them three things right now:
1) It all looks great.
2) I’m flattered.
3) I can’t promise you anything.
On a related note, hurricanes are way, way up on my list of scary things. Tornadoes, fire, cancer, car accidents, crazy people, snakes, Republicans, lightning. No particular order. There are scary things that enter your consciousness in an instant, and you have no time to think of how scary they could be because, well, there they are. You can only reflect back on how scary they were in retrospect. We’ll put snakes and crazy people in that category. But hurricanes, they creep up on you slowly. They mess with your head. They scare you silly, then when they leave, they say, “you know, I could have REALLY kicked your ass. Maybe next time, punk. Good luck.”
Anyone who has lived through a hurricane and doesn’t have permanent psychic damage as a result is either very, very stoic or very, very stupid. “Superstorm Sandy” hit Long Island on October 29th, 2012. Why “Superstorm”? Why? Well, I know why. It was October and the hurricane met a cold front. That’s why they called it that. It’s an actual meteorological term. Still. “Hurricane” would have been just fine. “Superstorm” sounds like what a three-year old or a TV news writer would’ve called it. But I digress.
The most ferocious part of the storm hit at night. Trisha and Mookie went up to Jack’s room in the attic to and the cats took the other room in the attic, all to maybe sleep and/or to silently freak out. Jack was eight years old at the time, but he’d already experienced Hurricane Irene a year earlier, and he knew the best thing you could do was cuddle up with your mom and your dog and let Dad do what dads do, which in this case was to stay downstairs to monitor the situation.
Hurricanes mess with your head. When Craig Allen, the WCBS Newsradio 880 weatherman, told me around 9 p.m. that the storm surge at Battery Park at high tide was 14 feet, I knew that tide, and that storm surge, were coming, through Jamaica Bay and right up Duffy’s Creek. I was pretty confident that it wasn’t going to be 14 feet, but I also didn’t how high would be enough to submerge the first floor of the house, or how fast would be enough to knock it off its foundation. 10 o’clock, 11 o’clock, the water kept on rising higher and moving faster. I could hear it gushing into the cellar. At some point the broken garage door blew open, but at that point, I was too busy listening to the sinister glub glub glub sound emerging from the floorboards, so running around and picking everything I could off the floors became my first priority. At some point in the 11 to 12 hour, I looked out at the backyard to see that the water had completely submerged the three and a half foot high post and rail fence, and was just about up to the height of the windows, and the plastic playground set was careening wildly around the yard like a ship lost in a storm at sea.
It was at this point that I asked my mom for help, as she had just died two months earlier and I was raised Catholic and I really didn’t know what the hell else to do, besides continuing to throw towels down on the kitchen floor. And whether coincidence or divine intervention, I looked out the back window again just a few minutes later and saw the tops of the fence posts.
The aftermath was what Saint Joan herself would’ve called “a goddamn mess.” One smart thing I did was move Dan the Van and Buster the Fit up to higher ground on the hill at the end of the street in the parking lot of Valley Stream South High School (aka “Big Brick”), where I found them blessedly dry the next morning. Our neighbors’ cars were all wrecked. We didn’t have anything stored in the cellar, ‘cause anything down there had already been thrown away after the less-destructive Irene a year earlier (which got into the cellar but not the house). But after ripping up 20% of the wall-to-wall carpet and throwing out 75% of the contents of the garage, after seeing way too many of our shrubs, roses and perennials transformed into corpses, after having to rely on the kindness of relatives (who no longer live on Long Island or are no longer living at all) for heat and electricity for the better part of ten days, after reading about the destruction in every town between us and the ocean and realizing how stupidly lucky we actually were to have no more than three inches of water infiltrate the house, I now have a healthy dread of every little “X” off the coast of Africa that shows up on the NOAA Hurricane Central website, which I check each and every morning from June until November.
About a year and a half after Sandy, I heard about the New York Rising Reconstruction Plan, and about a meeting wherein members of the Mill Brook Civic Association and representatives from a consulting firm called Louis Berger Inc. would explain how they intended to spend South Valley Stream’s share of the State money. $3 million big ones. This is where my complete lack of faith in people comes in. I went to the meeting expecting them to tell me that they wanted to build a big concrete bulkhead all along the creek, piss off all the wildlife and further the degradation of my little paradise into an open sewer. I figured I was the only one who knew there were herons and kingfishers and sandpipers back there, and that nobody really gave a rat about the neglected old pedestrian path, hidden from our view by fifteen-foot tall phragmites, which are actually called woozy-woozys if you’re one of Francis Duffy’s children.
And then I met Niek.
Successful people amaze me. From reading Niek’s Linkedin page, I know the friendly, well-dressed Dutch gentleman I met at that meeting in 2013 is a civil engineer and environmental impact planner, a landscape architect, a transportation and stormwater specialist who helped to rebuild lower Manhattan after Sandy, never mind Duffy’s Creek in South Valley Stream. By contrast, I drove back and forth on the Belt Parkway for 25 years and tried to get teenagers to read and write and think big thoughts, mostly by pretending to follow the orders of people who insisted that they knew how to do it better than I did. A noble profession, of course, but I sort of feel like my kind are a dime a dozen compared to people with Niek’s level of expertise.
The meeting was at Forest Road Elementary school in Mill Brook, which used to be called Green Acres, which is technically not my neighborhood because I’m on the other side of the creek. Everyone who attended got a look, through pamphlets and power points and pictures blown up and hung on easels, of the plans for storm resiliency in South Valley Stream. Color me blown away. No concrete bulkheads. Lots of organic storm protection through a natural shoreline with native plants and green infrastructure. Exactly what I would have proposed if I were as smart as Niek.
The Mill Brook Civic Association was chosen by New York State to represent the area, because there is no other active civic association in Valley Stream. The guy who was president of the association at the time took an instant dislike to me, among other reasons because I was from the wrong side of the creek and I had the temerity to ask pertinent questions and volunteer relevant information. The other people from the Civic Association who I met were wonderful, but this guy didn’t want me around. I later found out that he did that to a lot of people for no particular reason, so I kept showing up at the meetings, mostly because of my vested interest in the project but a little bit just to piss him off.
I think he was particularly pissed off that Niek and I hit it off so well. When I told Niek that I had counted over 100 bird species on and around Duffy’s Creek in the ten years I had been back there (which is the truth), Niek lit up. He told me that he had grown up along a river in the Netherlands and had begun watching and counting bird species as a boy. This put a great image in my head that’s still there. Then he asked me if I had written down all those species, and I told him I sure had. Then he told me that New York State was allocating an extra $3 million big ones (a “race to the top” thing) to communities that could demonstrate that their projects would have a positive impact on the environment, including habitat for native flora and fauna, and could I email him that list, and I said I sure could.
At a few subsequent meetings of the Green Acres Civic Association that I insinuated myself into, Niek’s people were there to represent Louis Berger. The next time I saw Niek himself was about a year later, after New York State announced that South Valley Stream was among the winners of the extra $3 millon big ones and the final plan was being introduced to the public at Forest Road School. Niek recognized me and came over and shook my hand and thanked me. He told me that my bird species list had been extremely helpful, if not critical, in winning that extra money. I was as pleased as punch, as happy as a lark, for the contribution that I had made to my community and my bird friends, and because Niek thought I was cool.
The guy who didn’t like me, his name is at the top of the South Valley Stream New York Rising Community Reconstruction Plan, published in March 2014.
I wrote down the names of birds in a spiral notebook.
This is why my Linkedin page sucks.
But I’m pretty sure my friends over at the Town of Hempstead Department of Engineering were able to use some of that extra $3 million big ones to raise the street I live on six inches higher. So you could say I ultimately took care of number one..
It certainly took a long time for it all to come together. The next time there was a meeting to tell everybody what was going to happen, Niek had moved on to his next adventure, the guy who didn’t like me had moved to Cedarhurst, and the meeting was being conducted by the chief engineer of the Town of Hempstead, who turned out to be the brother-in-law of one of my high school friends. I didn’t recognize him at first, as he was wearing a nice suit and I had only ever seen him wearing a Jets jersey. But that’s one of the perks of living your whole life in the same town. Ask George Bailey. You end up knowing a lot of people and a lot of people know you. And if you behave yourself, you end up with a lot of people on your side.
From my new-found friend of a friend, I found out all the particulars of the creek path reconstruction, how there was going to be lots of native plants and trees, just liked Niek had planned, plus all sorts of engineering tricks aimed at flood-prevention, like a footbridge over a large oval-shaped spillway covered in eelgrass that’s designed to take in tide water and soak it up like a sponge. Plus they worked in an osprey nest, which in my informed opinion is too close to people to ever attract ospreys, and a kayak ramp, though I’ve only seen two other people kayaking in the creek besides myself and Jack. Still, the whole project was like they had sat down and begun planning by saying, “what would Duffy do, if he were smart enough?”
And if that weren’t enough, I found out that Jedwood Place, on my non-Mill Brook side of the creek, was going to be torn up and rebuilt six inches higher, with new gas lines and storm drainage underground topped off by shiny new sidewalks, curbs and asphalt on top.
The reconstruction of the path started with some little red flags in the ground in October of 2018. Six years after Sandy. There was a lot of “well, they’re never actually going to follow through on this stuff” talk at our house during those six years. Mostly from Trisha. But the big machines came in November and they cut down a few giant trees and ripped out all the woozy-woozys, which was tough to watch, but you’ve got to break a few eggs to make real mayonnaise, now don’t you?
Over the winter and into the spring, we watched the plan come into action. They raised the whole path about four feet. They “terraced’ the bank of the creek with big logs of compressed dirt (which I’m sure Niek and the Town Engineer know the technical name for) and they planted all the pretty little shrubs that we planted years ago when we learned about going native: Rosa Rugosa, Red-Twig Dogwood, Inkberry Holly, Sweet Pepperbush aka Summersweet, plus new Maple, Dogwood and Oak trees to replace the ones they killed. They built the footbridge over the spillway, and a platform overlooking the creek where the path bends around towards Forest Road. They lined the whole thing with hunky rocks. They installed brightly illustrated educational signs to teach people about the birds and plants and flowers they’re looking at, and miraculously, no idiot Valley Stream kid has marred any of them with graffiti yet. Although the original plan called for a path surface that soaked up water, they ended up going with asphalt, probably to allow police cars to access it, which considering how many idiot Valley Stream kids there are, was probably a smart trade off.
In the summer of 2019, the construction in the backyard wrapped up as the construction in the front yard started. Without the woozy-woozys, we now had a front row seat in the backyard to people enjoying the brand-new path along Duffy’s Creek. Oddly, because they’re higher in elevation and because we have a lot of flowers in the way, we can see them, but they can’t really see us, which is kind of like watching your neighborhood park on a live webcam. Meanwhile, out front, National Grid came in and replaced all the gas lines under the street, then left it not unlike the surface of the moon.
Then of course, in March of 2020, Trump broke the country, and everything closed down. The big construction work on the street was supposed to start as the school year was wrapping up, but as soon as Big Brick closed its doors for the Pandemic, the New York Rising sign with Andrew Cuomo’s name in 28-point type went up and the guys from Allen Industries of Amityville came in, with bulldozers, front loaders, excavators, backhoes, flatbeds full of concrete and the big pick-up trucks they commuted to work with. As we were all working from home, we got to watch the whole thing. I hardly minded the various inconveniences involved (noise, dust, no driveway, etc.) as I knew it was all for a greater good, and because I was in awe of how hard these guys were working every day, especially since I had it relatively easy.
A side note: There’s a silly You Tube video in which a marmot chipmunk appears to be yelling “Allen!…Allen!…Allen!” over and over again. Maybe you’ve seen it. Trisha started walking around saying “Allen!” in the chipmunk’s English accent every morning when the guys showed up. By day three or four, we were both doing it. One of the secrets to happiness is to marry somebody who’s good at starting inside jokes. Here it is for your enjoyment, until they catch me and take it down:
The head guys, Mr. Allen himself and the rest, became like friendly neighbors with big machines and power tools for the four months they were here. They were guys we saw every day when we stopped seeing all the other people in our lives every day, so there was something weirdly comforting about their presence. And when it came time to tear up our driveway, they had to also tear up part of the curving inlaid slate walkway up to the door. We all had a meeting wearing masks on the on the front lawn where I watched them brainstorm how to take it out and put it back in without damaging it, which they ultimately did flawlessly. Plus we got brand-new sidewalks and most of a brand-new driveway, which was a couple of thousand big ones that we won’t have to spend on curb appeal. They even replaced the grass they ripped up with sod, but it got hot and dry out in June and the homeowner kept disappearing with his dog for a week at a time, so despite a valiant effort by Mr. Allen and the brand-new fire hydrant, the sod all died. Still, it’s the thought that counts, and we’ll always have fond memories of the guys from “Allen!”
And then a day in July came when Mookie and I rolled back into town from Copake Falls, the construction vehicles and the pickup trucks were all gone, and everything was done. A brand-new, six-inch higher asphalt street, sewer grates twice the size of the old ones and beautiful new curbs and sidewalks (albeit lined with dead sod). And out back, people who couldn’t really see me were enjoying a stroll or a jog or bike ride along my creek, where thousands of yellow Black-Eyed Susans were in bloom at the same time all the yellow daisies in my insane patio garden were doing their thing.
Isn’t that nice?
At the end of “The Princess Bride” (if you don’t know, I can’t help you), Inigo Montoya compliments Fezzik the giant for finding four white horses with which the heroes can ride into the sunset together. Inigo says what I said when I looked around at my newly rebuilt neighborhood:
“Fezzick! You did something right!”
Fezzik answers, “I’ll try not to let it go to my head.”
I’d like to think I had a little something to do with helping this whole thing happen, but I’ll try not to let it go to my head, because it probably would have happened exactly as it did if I had just stayed home and kept my bird list to myself. Still I’ll always have that image of a little Dutch boy counting birds as he walks along a river, and I’m proud that I could help out the birds who’ve enhanced my life so much, ’cause God knows they can use every little bit of help they can get.
As far as storm resiliency, the last hurricane that scared the bejesus out of me blew through in just a few hours in August, just after the construction was completed. That was the unpronounceable Isaias, that actually hit Long Island as a tropical storm. We were on the right side of the eye this time, which meant less rain, but it also meant ferocious, relentless winds that messed with my head for six hours, and has left me with further psychic damage. It remains to be seen how the re-engineered Duffy’s Creek will respond to a major rain event, and if I’m lucky, and I am a lot but not always, I’ll never find out.
Meanwhile, as we were all trapped in our neighborhoods by the Pandemic in 2020, nice weather came around just the same, and the seasons changed and the natural world went on as always, because nature doesn’t really care less what happens to us and would probably prefer that we all die at this point. And as the nice weather came around, so did people in masks desperate to get the hell out of their houses for a while. And the beautiful new “Mill Brook Park” gave them somewhere to take the dog for a walk, teach their kid to ride a bicycle, push a baby stroller, jog resolutely along with very serious faces or just sit on a bench and enjoy the pretty little winding creek along with all the plants and the ducks and the swans and the herons and the egrets and the osprey and the kingfishers. I’m sure more than one visitor to the park never knew how nice it was, and though our one-way mirror of flowers, I was proud to watch my creek get the recognition it deserves.
So to Andrew Cuomo and the Mill Brook Civic Association and Niek Verhaart and his team and the Town of Hempstead Engineering Department and, of course, “Allen!” and every single construction worker who put his or her back into rebuilding my neighborhood: I don’t know how much longer I’ll be hanging around here, but thank you for making South Valley Stream somewhat more tolerable in the interim, and thank you for respecting my creek.
You did something right, and you should all be very proud of that.
Oh, and also, thanks most of all for ratcheting up the property values.
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.
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.