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.
It’s New Year’s Day, 2019 as I begin this post. Of all my blog posts since June of 2015,this one will easily win the award for most depressing. I apologize for that in advance. The fact is, though, I can’t complain at all right now. I’m camped out on one of the comfy couches in our little warm and dry Creek Room, surrounded by contented furry beasts, half-watching the Odd Couple, a show that I first saw sitting on a couch in this house on a Friday night with my mom when I was 9 years old. Unlike many things, it’s still funny, and unlike my mom, I can still see it. My wife, Trisha, who loves me and knows me better than anyone ever has or ever will, knows how much I love shopping malls (like hemorrhoids) or going anywhere on New Year’s Day, and has therefore blessedly volunteered to take Jack, who’s almost 15 (shudder), to the Apple Store to see what the Geniuses can do with his Mac Book battery. I have the first of seven recently-made quarts of homemade spaghetti sauce all ready to go for dinner, one of the many things I’ve recently had time to get around to by virtue of having the last eleven days off from work. I tell you all this so that you may understand that, although I get up disgustingly early and work hard all day for what I have – when I’m not on eleven day vacations – I am above all a stupidly lucky individual, and I have been for a long, long time now. I think that’s important to know.
Because now I’m going to tell you how much everything sucks.
Out our windows on this New Year’s Day, the creek still flows past our little house as it flowed past farms seventy-five years ago and past fisherman from the Rockaway tribe seven hundred and fifty years before that. But last October, the chain-link fences and the Big Machines from the Town of Hempstead finally rolled in on the opposite bank. The $3 Million New York Rising Rehabilitation of Duffy’s Creek – shoreline resiliency to protect against future storms and aesthetic improvements because people like nice things – is underway.
This project was first proposed in 2013, the year after Hurricane Sandy changed everything in this place and the death of my mother and father-in-law changed us. The path and the open space across the creek was a familiar place, the same view out the kitchen window every time you looked, changing only with the seasons and the tides, unaltered since I rode it’s bumps and potholes on my little red Schwinn, looking for bunnies. But it had become a shabby, outdated place, and when we learned about the plan to make it cleaner and more native-friendly, we were optimistic about the change. Then five years went by and nothing happened. And we had a lot of cynical conversations about that.
Then last year, 2018, something happened. Lots. First, at the end of the summer, we discovered a giant crack in the majestic old oak tree that looked over our yard from the yard next door since before they were yards. My neighbor saw the danger immediately and had the tree taken down the following week. And we knew that losing the presence of that tree was going to be as joltingly nasty as someone opening up the blinds in dark, cool room where you’ve been sleeping peacefully for nineteen years, and that it was. Then, in October, in came the Big Machines, and the first thing they did was take down three more majestic old trees that graced our view and took care of our birds.
Then the Big Machines ripped out the Phragmites. They are, of course, an invasive species. More pleasant, well-mannered native plants will be planted to replace them. But my father, who doesn’t remember them now, called them Woozy-Woozies back then, and we picked them and he’d tickle my face with the seed heads and I did the same thing with my own little boy. And two of the first signs of spring on Duffy’s Creek were when the white-throated sparrows, getting ready to fly north, started to peep amongst each other in the phragmites at sunrise, and the rowdy bands of blackbirds gathered there later in the day to chat loudly about the winter vacations.
As the Great Rising progressed, the Big Machines ripped up what was left of the winding blacktop path, removed every last blade of grass and began dumping sandy fill, creating the surface of the moon with moving water that we currently see out our windows. With the trees and the Woozy-Woozies gone, and it being winter and all, it’s a damn depressing site. The birds come around when I fill up the bird feeders, but there are fewer of them. The ducks have all but abandoned us. It’s like the scorched earth left behind after a forest fire. But I’ve read everything that’s been put into words about this project, and seen every artist rendering. I’m optimistic that it will be just wonderful when it’s all finished. In those time-lapse videos of forest regrowth after a fire, everything looks pleasant and green and healthy in seemingly no time at all. You just have to have a little faith and let nature do the rest.
I’m a born optimist and I’ll prove it to you: On November 29th, I turned my left knee the wrong way and it’s pretty much hurt like an open stab wound ever since. X-Rays revealed a sprain in the interior cruciate ligament. I have to see Trisha’s pain management guy, or somebody. It may require some sort of knives or needles or something to put it right, but right now I know nothing except that Mookie’s pissed ‘cause I keep cutting the walks short. However, I am absolutely convinced that I will be loading kayaks on my car and climbing mountains without pain this summer, although I have no physical proof that this will be the case. I just feel like it’s going to work out ok, because it always does. Sometimes, magical thinking works.
Then again, I suppose it’s real easy to be an optimistic when you’ve been as stupidly lucky as I’ve been. But then again again, it’s hard to stay upbeat when you live in America in 2019 and you believe in silly, old-fashioned notions like compassion, accountability, justice and decency.
Out beyond the creek, the systematic destruction of America ordered by Trump’s Russian Master slithers like a snake into its third year. Children in cages, racists empowered, the environment willfully ransacked, the economy a ticking time bomb. Every day brings another tweet or news report with one more nail in the coffin of the physical and moral fabric of this country. Unthinkable shit is gong down before our eyes. Looking at what’s happening right now, I can’t help but conjuring up the metaphor of looking out the kitchen window at our creek in its current state. Everything that had value to us has been attacked, ripped out and smothered with dirt. We can live with the view from our backyard, I suppose, because we know it will evolve into something new and beautiful in its own right, even if it takes a couple of years. But you’d have to be a real touched-in-the-head optimist to believe that any good is coming out of the Russian Occupation of America, now, wouldn’t you?
But for the grace of God, any one of us could be the one trying to get the tear gas out of our eyes, or trying to find out where our child has been taken after seeking asylum and a second chance in what was once a country of promise, the reward for a 2,269 mile journey to escape God knows what. I don’t suppose I’d be particularly optimistic if that were my situation. I don’t suppose I could be much of an optimist right now if my livelihood was put into jeopardy by a fight over a goddamn wall, or if I had to absorb the looks of hate that my hajib or my turban earned me on line at the supermarket, or if I were a scientist studying climate change and told that none of what I do matters.
But last November, people voted. Lots and lots of pissed off people. The only major elections the Republicans won were the ones they blatantly cheated in, and they almost lost those, too. Once the elections were over, those same Republicans, led by the evil bastard himself, doubled-down on the same hate and scare tactics that people had just overwhelmingly rejected at the polls, so we can safely conclude that they didn’t learn a damn thing and will be beaten into near-extinction in elections this year and next. Meanwhile, more and more people are speaking out more and more as they get more and more pissed off. And they’re joining forces against a common enemy. And whether it takes this year or next to get rid of Trump and start cleaning up this damn mess, you can bet both of these things will happen. We’ll get rid of Trump, and we’ll start cleaning up the damn mess, though it will take a long time. My creek view will be back long before we undo the all the damage, but I have full faith that the spirit of America will grow back out of this scorched earth, and be healthier for it. This Age of Darkness will be followed by a true enlightenment, and if we survive the climate upheaval, people will look back on now and say what the fuck.
A bodhisattva – as well as being a kick-ass Steely Dan song – is a Buddhist who has delayed his attainment of Nirvana even though he could get there easily enough if he wanted to. He can’t be truly at peace as long as others are suffering. I’m not a Buddhist (and I don’t even play one on TV) but I get it: I can’t be as completely content as the well-fed, pampered furry beasts who surround me in this room, though I am well-fed and pampered beast myself, so long as there is this level of suffering around me and I feel powerless before it. I’m glad Mookie and the cats don’t have to know about demons pouring the water out of jugs left out in the desert to purposely cause the suffering of migrants, or people brazenly stealing elections. They’re in their own little Dog and Cat Nirvana, and I need their bliss.
Because beyond the manufactured (and apparently, ordered) suffering created by Trump and his enablers, too much suffering hit my circle of people last year, although who can say how much is too much. I personally don’t want to know. All I do know is that people died who were as important to the people they left behind as the two people whom I share this little house with are to me, and they left a lot of scorched earth on the surface of a lot of hearts. And this of course, scares me, as it well should. Every day I wake up is the day my luck could run out. The day of the terrorist attack, the school shooting, the killer storm, the accidental fire, the car accident, the fatal illness. It’s why I pray, though mostly not on my knees, ‘cause one of them hurts.
I know two families who lost young people in 2018. The first was a young man in his early 30’s who died suddenly in March from an accidental overdose, the second a young woman in her 20’s who died in September after a long and ferocious fight against cancer.
The young man’s father is one of my oldest friends. He and his wife had already lost a son at 17 seven years before. He grew up Catholic like myself, but has evolved through Buddhism into something of an agnostic. Despite these tragedies, he goes on. He woke up one day and his son was gone – again- and he couldn’t do anything about it – again – but grieve and move ahead. I know he suffers, but he assigns no reasons or higher meaning to what happened. It just happened, and it sucked like nothing else. But the sun keeps coming up, and he still finds reasons to smile.
The young woman’s mother is a Camp Lavigerie buddy, someone I’ve become friends with through our shared love of a magic place in the Adirondacks. She grew up Catholic like myself and has kept her belief and faith alive like a fire in her heart that glows out of her. She’s a sharer, and has documented her struggle to overcome and find meaning in the loss of her daughter and the effect its had on herself and her family, an excruciating process she watched happen before her eyes in slow motion over years. And from what she’s shared and written, I’ve learned two things: One is the thing that we all need to learn a million times over the course of our whole lives, and that is to cherish now. The other is that despite having the worse thing happen to you that can happen to you, she still finds reasons to smile.
Me, I was indoctrinated from birth with the inner faith in a higher being who will somehow protect my family and spare us from this level of tragedy, or at least will comfort me if they are somehow “chosen”. At the same time, I have 55 and a half years of life experience that has fostered a sense of inner doubt and dread, constantly leading me away from faith and towards the unsettling conclusion that it isn’t anything more than dumb luck.
And you can’t compare these tragedies to each other, much as our brains are geared that way. One young person who should still be alive gets sick, stays sick and doesn’t get better, ultimately passes away. Another young person is alive one day, dead the next day and shouldn’t be. It comes down to pick your poison. I can’t be as devotedly religious or as stoically existential as these friends of mine are. I guess I fall somewhere in between. And I can’t fathom how I would go on if I lost someone that close to me. I can’t even fathom losing my dog or my cats. But these friends of mine, they both go on. And they both find reasons to smile.
But the sadness I felt for the suffering these people and their families have gone through -and the pounding in my head when my thoughts circle around to the needless suffering of Trump’s Nazi America – was with me a lot of the time last year, though I couldn’t really say that any of it was my suffering in any way. But being something of a bodhisattva, I found it hard to enjoy my lack of reason to suffer. Between people dying young and babies in the cages, even apple picking and kayaking sort of lost their pure joy. But we kept trying to be happy. ‘Cause what would you be if you didn’t try?
There was a beautiful Sunday afternoon, October 7th, when we went down to Point Lookout to visit Grandma Jane. A couple of the sisters were there, so Trisha was happy and chirpy sitting down on the beach. I was sneaking Mookie onto the beach for one of his annual off-seasons dips in the ocean. Jack was in the living room talking to Grandma.
There was a rule I learned quickly when I became a McCloskey: You didn’t leave a conversation with Grandma Jane until she was finished with it. And young Jack had learned that rule, too. Mookie and I were heading to the beach, and she and Jack were talking. I asked him if he wanted to join us, and Grandma would’ve accepted that, because going to the beach makes her people happy, But Jack opted to stay in conversation with Grandma. And there they were a half hour later when I came back. Since Jack is not a stay in one place very long kind of guy, I was impressed with his maturity and warmed by the love he had for his Grandma Jane. She brought out the best in him.
Then, on the similarly beautiful Saturday afternoon of October 20th, around the same time the Big Machines started ripping up the path, Grandma Jane died, and it was our turn to suffer. But the two people I love most in the world, I know they’ve suffered more than I have, and there’s not a damn thing I can do about that but keep being me, lucky bastard that I am.
I loved my mother-in-law. She was a garden in the sunshine, a woman literally bursting with hope, faith, love and charity. But when I first became part of Trisha’s family, I drifted towards my father-in-law, Jack, and I found Jane a little over the top. In retrospect, I realize it was hero-worship of Jack on my part. He was a cool guy, and I’ve studied cool guys my whole life to learn their secrets. The over the top lady married him specifically because he was a cool guy, and loved him for a lifetime. He died three months after my mother died in 2012, and in his last weeks he didn’t have the capacity to know that he had just lived through the worst storm that ever hit his home in Point Lookout, the place that he loved. Point Lookout did all right after Hurricane Sandy, but Grandpa Jack was done a month later at 86. My mother had died in August at 82, and for the last week, she had pneumonia, which I learned that year was called “the old person’s friend”, she knew she was dying, and she got to say goodbye to her youngest grandson.
Pick your poison.
After two deaths and a hurricane in that fall and winter of 2012, optimism was in short supply. We were broke and lots of things were broken. We were hurting. The gardens were like the scorched earth of a forest fire, but destroyed by water instead of fire, if that makes any damn sense. What we did have going for us was a humongous monetary gift from Grandma Jane that we knew would help us get back on our feet.
And we did. The new place that emerged over the last six years from the wreckage and mud of the old place has been a perfectly nice place, and Grandma Jane was a big part of what made it so. She was Trisha’s best girlfriend, and she made our son step up his game when he was around her, because you just couldn’t be snotty around Grandma Jane. Her houses in Stewart Manor and Point Lookout were like big comfy blankets, and over 19 years and 9 days, she and I learned to enjoy each other’s company more and more. Of course, all the stupid shit in life prevented us from spending as much time with her as we should have or could have, but seemingly healthy in her 91st year, we had deluded ourselves into believing she would go on forever, until the phone rang on October 20th with the news that she had suffered a fatal heart attack. (In true Grandma Jane fashion, she was in a restaurant in Long Beach with a large group from the Catholic Daughters of America, who sent her on her way to the arms of God by reciting the rosary while the priest who was sitting at the table with her performed Last Rites).
Within an hour of that phone call, we were walking through the doors of the emergency room next to the empty wreck that used to be Long Beach Hospital. We saw Grandma Jane lying there lifeless. It seemed impossible to me. I cried like I don’t think I’ve ever cried in my life. We were dazed, sucker-punched, our hearts out in the cold. Then came the wake, and the funeral and the burial, and the barren landscape that follows. We entered a period of grief and sadness that hasn’t quite ended, but whose has? We had a wonderful Thanksgiving and Christmas, but we miss her terribly, and of course it’s been a lot harder for Trisha. Apparently, though, I’ve been supportive, which is good to know, ‘cause I really don’t have a clue.
Of our parents, only my father now survives, 89 years old and in an advanced state of dementia. He spends most of his time sleeping in a little room in a nursing facility 50 miles from here. It’s wonderful to be in the same room with him when I can clear all the shit out of the way and go see him, which I do once a month. He enjoys Mookie, and vice versa. I enjoy the fact that I can still look at him and he can still smile at me and we have the same shaped eyes, and I can give him a kiss goodbye on his bald spot like I would have done fifty years ago.
But since my mother’s death, and as my father slips further away, my side of the family has drifted further apart. We don’t see each other much and most of our contact revolves around my father’s health. He will likely slip away at some point, and we’ll drift further. There are a million different reasons for it, none of which I really know, and many of which likely have a lot to do with the way I am, but generally speaking, my siblings have never been as close-knit as siblings I’ve seen in other big families, and I’ve pretty much accepted that as a fact of my life. Not a whole lot of optimism there, I know.
My brother Thom, a thinking fellow, has pointed out that a lot of it has to do with what he called the “bandwidth theory”: We have so many other people in our lives, and so many layers of responsibility and things we want to learn and things that need to get done, that it’s like an AM radio at night in the mountains, where each station is just waves and crackles and some of them you go past because you’re not pulling anything in. We don’t dislike each other. We just have a lot going on, and our respective stations keep fading out.
I know the McCloskey Girls will refuse to let that happen on the other side of the family, and they haven’t so far, which is great for Trisha and Jack. They can’t have Grandma Jane back, but they’re making time for each other.
I suck at making time.
But, to remind you, I am a still a stupidly lucky person. And part of being stupidly lucky, I suppose, was being born with a face that most people seem to trust and a manner that most people are comfortable with, or at least unthreatened by. I’ve made lots and lots and lots of friends, and though I draw into myself a lot, and I wish I were more of a pick up the phone, meet ya for a drink, come on over and drop by kind of guy, there are lots and lots of people whose company I enjoy, and who seem to enjoy my company, when I get to see them.
And no man is failure who has friends. And every time a bell rings, and angel gets his wings.
I made a new friend last year, and right on time as it turned out. We met because through accidents of birth, I happen to have a friendly face and a pleasant manner, and so does my dog, even more so. And though I knew this friend for a relatively short time, and probably only spent an hour or two of elapsed time of his 99 years with him, I grieved his passing in 2018.
His name was Sal. He lived about a quarter-mile from here with his daughter in the brick cape with the built-in covered front porch that he’d bought after World War II. His house and his porch are in the last quarter-mile of one of power walk routes that Mookie and I take around South Valley Stream. When the weather turned warm, we’d see him out on the porch, a face weathered with sunshine, twinkling eyes and a wizened smile, always wearing his WWII Veteran’s ball cap. Of course you have to be extra nice to those guys, and it started with a “good morning, sir, how are you today?” as we passed him by. He and Mookie would make eyes at each other, and he’d tell Mookie what a handsome boy he is, which Mookie just can’t get enough of. Mookie would’ve moved up to stopping to sit on the porch with him a lot sooner than I did, and he eagerly awaited an invitation.
In time, that’s just what happened. Mookie started going up to the porch to give Sal a good sniff and a kiss (and check for crumbs), and eventually, when summer came and we had all the time in the world, I started up pulling up a chair and spent a few golden mornings sitting and shooting the breeze with Sal.
When I first introduced myself by name, he shook my hand and said, “good to know you, John,” which struck me as a wonderful, lost expression from his era that sounds so much friendlier than “nice to meet you.” I’ve started working that one in.
He was a cool guy, and I’ve spent my whole life studying cool guys to learn their secrets. He had the slight growl of an old man’s voice, and that special quality that the old-school Italian guys had of making you feel like everything he said was in confidence, just for you. He wasn’t just talking at you; he was having a conversation. There’s a difference, and those guys knew what it was.
He was born in Brooklyn. He was drafted into the Navy during WWII. He swabbed the deck on an aircraft carrier in the Pacific and he made sure he didn’t get killed. He came back home, had a family and moved them out to Valley Stream. He worked as a carpenter, mostly for a Jewish guy. He went hunting with some guys in the Adirondacks once, got lost in the dark and decided he liked Brooklyn a whole lot better. The house across the street from him once belonged to the mayor of Valley Stream, and he liked having that access to the people in charge. We talked about these things, and we talked about dogs, and weather, and the neighborhood and about growing old. We both enjoyed the company, and Mookie would lie at his feet in the shade under his chair as we talked.
As our conversations continued, he started giving me a better sense of the downside of being 99. Most everybody was gone, he said, and, though he always greeted Mookie and I by name, he felt his mind slipping away. He couldn’t remember things anymore, and it frightened him. And he was frustrated that all he had left was sitting on this porch.
I told him about my own father, lost in a haze of dementia for five-plus years now, institutionalized, and spending most of his time asleep. I said, “I know it’s not a consolation, Sal, but hell, at least you got the porch.” Like me, he understood that he’d been stupidly lucky, but nobody skirts through this world untouched by sadness, and nobody gets out alive. The best we can do is enjoy the better moments, and my morning visits with Sal were among my favorite moments of 2018.
Once summer was over and the grind started grinding again, Mookie and I walked down Sal’s block on Saturday mornings hoping he’d find it warm enough to come out to the porch. I even brought Trisha with me once to see if she could meet him, but he wasn’t out. In the back of my mind, I figured we’d have another summer, his 100th, to enjoy each other’s company again.
Then, one cold gray morning in November or December, I saw a bunch of cars in his driveway and outside his house, and I knew it was over, but I hoped it wasn’t. A few weeks later, I saw his next-door neighbor, who told me that he fell and he never got recovered. Pick your poison.
We passed by his house on our Christmas Day walk, after a wonderful morning of opening presents with my wife and my son, happy for a time even though there’d be no Grandma Jane to visit later in the day. I told Mookie out loud that I wished we could wish your friend a Merry Christmas. Mookie heard “your friend” and stared forlornly up to the porch waiting for Sal to be there, and I felt bad for messing with his head.
To myself, I wished that I could wish my own mom a Merry Christmas, and though I’d seen him two days before, I wished I could call Dad up and exchange Christmas greetings with him, and wished that he could remember as well as I do all the Christmas’ that we shared. I wished that my wife could give her mother a hug on Christmas Day one more time, ‘cause I know how it’s been since I haven’t.
As I wrap up this post and send it out into the big wide world wide web, it’s Sunday January 6th, The Feast of the Epiphany, Little Christmas. We sadly take down another Christmas tree and we suck it up for another year, with it’s own fresh hells, but also its fresh heavens if you look for them. I’ve got kayaks coming from Washington State. My knee has been feeling better lately. I think we’re in the endgame with this Trump asshole and I think we’re going to win, and win big. The new path along Duffy’s Creek will look nice from our backyard, and our backyard will look nice from the new path.
But ultimately, five thousand words after I began writing this, I have no epiphanies for you about anything. No wisdom, and no myrrh either. I’m just thinking with a keyboard, but it’s my blog, so I can do whatever I want. Sorry to have wasted your time.
When I was young man, I read just about everything Kurt Vonnegut ever published, and he once told me that things were getting worse and worse and they’d never get better ever again, and sometimes, especially in the story of this country and this world, and even in the stories of our families, that’s exactly how it seems.
But God bless him, the DNA that my dad gave me, that Kurt Vonnegut’s dad apparently didn’t give him, compels me to hope, to be an optimist, to truly believe that everything will be fine. As a matter of fact, if you were to ask Francis J. Duffy right now how he felt, he would say, “fine.”
As far as the malevolent randomness of death and loss, the view of the optimist was best expressed by Dr. Seuss, who said, “don’t cry because it’s over, be happy because it happened.”
I think that if death struck me as closely as it did to friends of mine last year, I’d be inclined to tell Dr. Seuss to go fuck himself. But damn if he isn’t right. Enjoy the time we have and the people we love and the things that make us happy and bring us closer to God when we can, while we can, knowing that nothing is forever, and only God knows why that is. There’s your wisdom, there’s your epiphany, and there’s your myrrh. When my brothers and sisters and I fought as kids, my dad would quote Jesus: “Love one another.” When Dad woke up and came out of his bedroom in the morning on a day off, he’d say, “Thank God for a new day!” Often, I’d wished he’d shut up with that nonsense, and of course I’d love to hear him say that now, but I don’t feel the need to cry because it’s over, because it’s much better to be happy that it happened.
As for Sal and Mookie and me, there will be no 100th birthday visit in 2019. But it was good to know him. And at least we had the porch.
It’s been another long, inexcusable break from blogging, but for better or worse, A Creek Runs Through It rises from the ashes today. Today, it’s time to go for a good, long walk. If you’re up for it, Mookie and I would be pleased to take you along on a tour of Valley Stream, Long Island, New York, or at least a nice, big chunk of it.
Of course, we’re wired very differently, and our respective life experiences are very different as well, so no doubt Mookie would at some points be putting things in a more positive light for you than I might. But he doesn’t speak English, and he doesn’t blog. So today I’m your somewhat unreliable narrator.
We are eight summers and seven winters into walking our turf together now, Mookie and I, and we’ve interacted with hundreds of our neighbors along the way. And I’ve learned to appreciate his perspective. As a writer named Edward Hoagland wrote about dog training theory, I’ve learned ”to open up myself the possibility of becoming partly a dog.” We even negotiate over which way we’re heading on our walks, since he knows his way around as well as I do. If he could speak English, and he could blog, he’d just look at you with a big smile and say, “Isn’t this great?” But then again, he would say that about every place he’s been.
Futhermore, my dog believes that every person who opens every house or car door as we’re walking by has arrived in his field of vision purposely to see him and tell him what a beautiful big dog he is. He collects people. We’re just walking by your house and you happen to walk out your front door or get out of your car. Mookie stops dead in his tracks, squares his paws, sucks in his gut and targets his prey (you) with his best Labby smile, as if to say, “Hey! Hey you! Here I am! I love you! Wanna say hi waggy waggy?”
He’s very good at it and he scores a “Hey, Buddy!” or a smile back at the very least almost every time. Subsequently, he’s made me like people a little more in general. They’re actually not so bad, most of them.
Mookie deciding whether to bolt over to someone and tackle them, just to say hi.
Yes, my dog loves it here in Valley Stream. So does my son, whose grandparents moved here from Astoria, Queens in 1955, lived for 46 years on a house on a creek and raised five children in it. My son is already planning to send us away someday and buy this house. For the record, that never occurred to me when I was 14. I’m glad he likes it.
Me, I’m the youngest of those five children and right now the I’m guy who lives with his family of three people, three cats and a dog in that same house on that same creek. Do I love living in ValIey Stream? Well, honestly, a lot of the time I’m pretty much awash in ambivalence. I’ve met a lot of great people here, and a couple of soreheads. Plus I suppose it would be impossible not to feel affection for a place where you’ve spent most of fifty-five years and three months.
On the other hand, most of fifty-five years and three months is a very, very long time to live in the same anywhere. I feel like the place where I live could be a lot better if people in general had different priorities. But that’s true of all of Long Island, where people often have some really ass-backwards ideas about what’s important. And I will say this: What strengths Valley Stream does have put it way ahead of a lot of places not only on Long Island, but also in America in general.
So I’m going to take a cue from Mookie and try to keep it positive when I can. We’re going on a big, circuitous, approximately five-mile walk, but we’re going to take our time, and sometimes go back in time. Mookie will need to read his pee mail on the poles and trees, and I’ll be telling you some stories and acting as your tour guide. The goal is to see a place, a town in America in 2018, close up for what it is, as well as what it was and where it seems to be going. Remember, no matter who we happen to meet along the way, Mookie loves them. As for us, you’d probably agree with me that any day is a good day for a walk, and most people are likable enough. So I’d like to show you around our hometown. At its best, it’s a microcosm of the best things about our country. At its worst, maybe not so much. You wanna go for a walk? Come on! Let’s go for a walk!
Terrapin escaping troubled waters for a bit of sun on a rock
Egrets, we have a few. And I try to look out for them.
The walk starts from the house in which I was conceived and raised, and where I live more or less happily today. The house is on a winding street that follows a winding creek, and it’s called Jedwood Place for no good reason. In that house, on a 60 x 100 plot of land abutting tidal waters flowing in and out from Jamaica Bay (home of many interesting birds and one big-ass airport), I have been a baby, a son, a little brother, a snotty teenager, an occasional host of rowdy parties, a smart kid, a troublemaker, a mostly frustrated , bored but sporadically inspired young adult, a lot of peoples’ friend “Duff” who lives down the block from South High, a college student, a guy who’s been in his parents’ house too long, a guy carrying laundry and Ancona pizza on a visit home, a happy and loyal husband, a pleasant enough neighbor, a not-so-awful father and the guy with the big yellow dog.
Two big, fat side notes before we go walking (you can use this time to stretch, maybe tie your shoes. Mookie Dog will wait patiently on the front lawn and sniff the air) :
Note One: There is no other Jedwood Place on the face of the earth. But after 55 years of using the same mailing address, the name “Jedwood” feels as much a part of my name as my name. Yet there is no logical explanation why Mr. William Gibson, the man whose development company built my neighborhood in the early 1950’s and who built most of the neighborhoods of South Valley Stream thirty years before that, would have named a street “Jedwood Place.” The two most frequent citations of “jedwood” that you’ll find on Google refer to a hunting ground in Scotland and “jedwood justice”, which was a practice rooted in 19th Century Maryland wherein a person suspected of a crime was put to death without trial. Neither of these things have anything to do with Jedwood Place. Hopefully, they never will.
Note Two: Jedwood Place is in it’s own little development, bordered by Duffy’s Creek and dead-ending at Valley Stream South High School. Mr. Gibson called it “West Sunbury” but that name never stuck. The other three street names in this little development are Cluett Road, Sanford Court and Virginia Court. A Google search reveals that the man who developed the process of pre-shrinking fabrics known as “sanforization” was named Sanford Lockwood Cluett. Hmmmm. I have no idea if he was a friend of Mr. Gibson, though they were contemporaries, and captains of industry, sort of. I could find no mention of Sanford Cluett, who was born in upstate Troy, NY, hanging out on Long Island, though if I were from Troy I guess I’d jump at the chance. And oddly enough, Sanford Cluett was married to a woman whose maiden name was Camilla Elizabeth Rising, and the land Jedwood Place was built on was once part of the Riesing Farm, a different spelling but coincidental just the same. I have no idea who Virginia was. All this is interesting to me (if not to you, as you and Mookie wait for your promised walk) because Jedwood feels like part of my name, and it’s only because somebody pulled it out of nowhere in 1950.
Such is the randomness of our existence. Creek Street would have worked just as well.
I wanted you to know all this before we go because I ‘ve spent most of my life walking or driving around in circles, starting from and ending at Jedwood Place, of which there is only one on the face of the earth. And over the last seven years, in partnership with our beautiful, loyal, insanely friendly Labrador Retriever, I’ve taken walking in circles starting from Jedwood Place to a whole new level.
During the twenty-five years in which I was between dogs, I had often wished I had a dog just so I could go for a walk without having a destination in mind (and of course because dogs are generally so, so much better company than people). As we’ve established, Mookie’s mission in life is to say hi to as many people as he can, which in his best-case scenario means you rub his face and he stares deeply into your eyes and tries to kiss you. If you were actually here, you’d know that already, and as you may have guessed, I’m somewhat more reserved. But I enjoy all this about him greatly, and hundreds of people we’ve met on our walks have as well.
And so (surprise), having a friendly, good-looking dog and taking long, rambling walks around town is a great way to observe and often meet people, and when you observe and often meet people, sometimes you get talking to them. And when you get talking to people, you get to know the true character of a place. And I can say without any reservation that I (and to an extent, Mookie) know the character of Valley Stream – at least the south half of it – better than anyone, particularly anyone who works at Money Magazine.
Why Money Magazine? Well, apparently, somebody at Money Magazine really likes Valley Stream, so much so that earlier this year Money Magazine voted it the Best Place To Live in New York State. For heaven’s sake why? Well, this is what they said:
First settled by Scottish immigrants in 1834, Valley Stream is a Nassau County village that attracts residents with a reputation of being “neat, clean and safe”. The location is a big draw—it’s just 35 minutes from Manhattan, near two major highway arteries, and served by the Long Island Railroad. Snapple originated in Valley Stream, which also boasts several historic colonial sites, a diverse population, and a close-knit suburban community.
So, to use a buzz phrase that my boss loves, “let’s unpack that.”
First of all, Snapple. Really? What the hell is Snapple doing in three sentences of copy about Valley Stream being the best place to live in New York State? And I believe we have one colonial site. This is why I mostly avoid magazines.
Second of all, I’m very aware of the “major highway arteries” and the Long Island Railroad, thank you so much, as well as being five miles from JFK Airport. It’s often very noisy around here. It’s not “Manhattan noisy”, or even “Queens noisy”. You can still hear the birds. There still are occasional moments of relative quiet. But if you listen for it, there’s almost always a dull roar of the motor noise of trains, plains, automobiles and leaf blowers emanating from our surroundings, and I’m not entirely sure that this isn’t all slowly driving me insane.
Third of all, neat, clean and safe. These are just about the most relative terms you could string together to describe a place. Your idea and my idea of the threshold for earning those adjectives could be very similar or very different, depending on how much you are affected by Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder.
We’ll get to “clean” and “neat” when we get walking. (“Yawwwnnn!!!,” says Mookie). First, let’s talk about “safe”. “Safe” is ultimately what makes or breaks the reputation of a place. But again, it’s completely relative. Do I feel “safe” walking with Mookie at night through Valley Stream? Well, yeah, ‘cause we’re the scariest looking two guys out there if you’re up to something, so that’s a moot point. Do I feel safe if my 14-year old son or my wife is out after dark? Of course not, because I love them and I worry about them and I want to be with them all the time so I know where they are, but that would be true wherever we lived. That’s got nothing to do with Valley Stream.
Less than a mile to my west is Green Acres Mall, which has grown like an ink stain since it was built in the 1950’s. It has, over the years, fostered a reputation as being a slightly dangerous, crime-ridden place. So much so that the first neighborhood we’re going to visit on our walk changed it’s name from “Green Acres” to “Mill Brook” in the early 1980’s to distinguish itself from the shopping mall, a decision that at the time smacked of racism, because many of the shoppers at the mall are people of color from neighborhoods in Queens and Brooklyn. This is ironic in retrospect since all the ethnic groups that people in Green Acres were afraid of are now raising families and planting flowers in front of the houses they own in Mill Brook.
Within the last three years, Green Acres applied for and received a PILOT (Payment In Lieu Of Taxes, otherwise known as a big fat tax break) from the Town of Hempstead to expand yet again. Part of their strategy for legally cheating on taxes and stealing money from people in Valley Stream was to sell Green Acres as a “tourist attraction”, since more than 50% of the customer base comes from outside Nassau County. The mall is literally right on the New York City border. And so, when people on Valley Stream social media pages want to make snide comments about people from the city, they call them tourists. Isn’t that clever?
Statistically, I don’t know how true the perception of Green Acres Mall being unsafe is or ever was. But I can tell you this: The creek amplifies noise. All creeks do. It’s a property of water. If there’s a particularly egregious crime at the mall (I’d say an average of between 6-10 times a year depending on how hot the summer is and how much the giant flat-screen TV’s are going for on Black Friday) you’ll know about it at Duffy’s Creek. You’ll hear the angry roar of helicopters circling overhead (followed seconds later by the angry roar of people on the Valley Stream News Facebook page reporting helicopters circling overhead), and the apocalyptic sirens from emergency vehicles racing down Sunrise Highway and Mill Road.
At times like these, Green Acres is less a shopping mall than an encroaching monster that wants to eat my quality of life. Of course, it would certainly be LESS safe here if there WERE no circling helicopters and emergency vehicles ready to respond in minutes to intervene in whatever nonsense is going down. We pay some of the highest property taxes in the country for that sort of thing. And Roosevelt Field, the bigger shopping mall to the east bordered by the much more wealthy community of Garden City, makes it into Newsday for spectacularly stupid crimes as much as Green Acres does.
And the other 99% of the time, when there are no egregious crimes being committed, it’s just a shopping mall. And me, I hate shopping malls. They’re gross. I like forests. And lakes. But if you’re OK with shopping malls, go ahead and visit Green Acres Mall sometime. Don’t worry. It’s plenty safe. It’s a tourist attraction. Go there and waste your money.
Meanwhile, now that we’ve established that “safe” is an illusion that means absolutely nothing no matter where you live, let’s get to that walk. As you look across the street from my house, the first thing you will say is “What the…?” And then you will smile your dopiest smile, because you’ve just had your first look at the house of my longtime neighbor and friend John and his wife Amanda who live across the street. John and I disagree vehemently on politics, so we never ever talk about it when we see each other. However, I have great respect for and truly enjoy his execution of the American rights and traditions that allow one to do whatever the hell one wants to one’s house within local zoning regulations. Plus he does our taxes, and we always do pretty well. So I have no problem living across the street from a house that has been remodeled to resemble a giant log cabin.
Thanks to my neighbor John for giving me permission to share this view of his house from my house.
Yeah. That’s right. A giant log cabin. AND, there are two “showcases” in the front of the house. In one of those showcases you’ll see a life-size gorilla statue, along with a life-size guy who looks a little like John himself sitting in a chair in a white suit and a Panama hat, with a parrot on his shoulder, a totem pole and a monkey scaling a tree behind him. In the other showcase you’ll see a bear, several small hippos and a family of prairie dogs. You’ll also notice the two grazing bison attached to the second floor balcony and the almost life-sized plastic representation of a Tennessee Walking Horse mounted on the fence. Completing the look is a stone wall in the corner of the property with a faux blue pond made of concrete, engraved with various animal drawings, “flowing” out to the sidewalk.
I’ve seen a lot of people take pictures of John’s house. Selfies, mostly. I find it extremely amusing. And I know he doesn’t give a flying rat what anyone thinks of his log cabin, which another reason I like him. And since we have Valley Stream South High School up at the top of the dead-end of Jedwood Place, we have lots of pedestrian and vehicle traffic passing by our houses – and lots of very loud teenagers – when school is open. As a matter of fact, you literally can’t get out of our driveway between 7:15 and 7:40 a.m. on school days as the street is one long convoy of cars dropping those same teenagers off at school, most of whom live no more than a mile away. My friends all walked to school here, even the ones who lived two miles away. Most of them are still alive. Just sayin.’
Valley Stream South High School, where we regularly trespass and occasionally get off the leash to go get it. The new football field really pisses us off
As we set out on our five-mile walk (did I mention that?) we have three possible trails: We can walk towards Valley Stream South High School, my alma mater, where we don’t give damn about trespassing on the field because of the school taxes we pay (and Mookie has lots of friends in high places anyway). They’re currently transforming the South football field from natural to artificial turf, which Mookie and I, along with the sandpipers, agree is a really stupid idea, but we had no say in it at all. Walking up that way, we might see my next-door neighbor, originally from the Philippines, who Mookie has loved since he was a puppy, and how could you not? We might see Raffi, who doesn’t like Mookie sniffing at him, but who feeds me really good noodle and pastry stuff after Ramadan so I give him jars of homemade bread and butter pickles on my summer vacation. (All my other friendly neighbors get them. I don’t concern myself with the unfriendly ones, and Mookie knows not to stop in front of their houses).
We might see Bob walking his dog Eli the other way and we might say something about the Mets. One family of Mookie’s best friends moved to Florida last year and we both miss them. But he’s recently worn some other people down at the end of the street who now say hi to him by name. Up at the high school soccer field, Mookie might get to chase a ball off the leash if no one is around, but if it’s Sunday, they’ll be twenty gentleman of various ages, all in way, way better shape than I am, playing The Beautiful Game like their lives depended on it. When school is open, Mookie collects high school students. They’re not so bad, even with the littering. I digress.
If we take trail #2 and walk up Cluett, we’ll see a house that belongs to some wonderful neighbors of ours that is currently being renovated and has been raised way high off the ground to survive the next big hurricane. From what I can see, I like their chances. Mookie will check to see if his very best friend Vacco is relaxing in the hammock that hangs from the walls of his spotless garage, and if so will have to charge at him and wag his tail maniacally for a face rub while Vacco and I talk about our solar panels.
But we’re going to take trail #3 and walk up Jedwood towards Mill Road and around the Creek, into Mill Brook, which I still call Green Acres. There’s a story I want to tell you about the path on the other side. Walking up to the corner, we’ll pass about twenty houses, and Mookie has friends in at eight of them. He’s working on the other twelve.
The Mill Brook community (when it was Green Acres) used to be connected to Jedwood via a pedestrian bridge over Duffy’s Creek (called, not surprisingly, “the Bridge”) but it was deemed unsafe after a kid got stabbed there (long, stupid story) and it was demolished, meaning most kids from Mill Brook now either walk or get a ride down Jedwood to get to school. So once upon a time, you, me and Mookie could’ve walked to the footpath on other side of Duffy’s Creek from the high school without going to Mill Road and passing the stores. And if the bridge were there, I could tell you about all the bottles of cheap beer and other commodities that were consumed over the years by generations of Valley Stream South students. But it isn’t. So I won’t.
Instead we have to make our way past the insane little white dog that occasionally runs out into traffic to chase after us at the corner of Jedwood and Mill, and walk north past the stores.
Here’s the good news about the row of stores at the corner of Jedwood Place and Mill Road. There’s a dry cleaner, a deli, a pizza place which I don’t like but my son does, a Chinese take-out that everybody likes, and deli that’s really a bodega, which is different from a deli but I don’t have the patience to explain to you why that is if you don’t already know. There is a certain convenience in having these things in your neighborhood. I guess that makes them convenience stores.
Here’s the bad news about the row of stores at the corner of Jedwood Place and Mill Road. 1) It has not been updated since 1950. It’s shabby and run-down looking and there is 68 years of gum embedded in the sidewalk. They use the steel doors use that you see in the picture when they’re closed, which makes the neighborhood look worse than it is, but I suppose it’s better than broken plate glass, which would do the same. 2) Nassau County owns a strip of land next to the row of stores that abuts Duffy’s Creek. They have not cleaned this area in my lifetime. It’s a wasteland of weeds, dead trees and garbage, as disgusting as anything you’ll ever see in a place where the median family income is $85,00 a year. It screams, for all the world to hear, that here in Southwest Nassau County, we just don’t give a fuck. The water spilling from the culvert under Mill Road into the creek smells like death, but more about that later, too. 3) There is a very large laundromat between the deli and the pizza place and people double park in front of it all the time. 4) The first store was a dive bar for most of my life – originally called “The Sportsman’s Rendezvous” – but has become a Nail Salon. It is one of approximately 500 nail salons in a five-mile radius. I never hung out in the dive bar, but I’m sure there were a lot less nefarious things going on in the Sportsman’s Rendezvous than there are in the Nail Salon. But that’s just me. 5) The Garbage.
The Path along the Left Bank of Duffy’s Creek, owned by the Town of Hempstead.
The spillway under Mill Road, where the “fresh” water from Hendrickson Lake and Mill Pond meets the salt water from Jamaica Bay at Diuffy’s Creek,
Mill Pond Park, Village Of Valley Stream
Mill Pond Park, Village Of Valley Stream. They tell me they can’t do much about the pond scum, and I’ve met pond scum, so I get that.
The toxic wasteland is owned by Nassau County. If you don’t believe that it is a toxic wasteland, I’d invite you to go take a whiff.
The amount of garbage on the street in and around Jedwood Place, most of it originating from the row of stores, and the very loud teenagers from the high school, whom Mookie loves and who visit those stores regularly, would have cost Valley Stream our Money Magazine “Best Place To Live in New York” designation if Money Magazine had known about it. I regularly feel like the Crying Indian when I walk around and see all the garbage that kids drop on the street (and that people throw out of their car windows after dropping their kids off at the high school. Don’t worry. I see you). There was a big push back in the 70’s to get people to stop littering, because nobody really wanted to make the Indian cry. But somehow, somewhere along the line, this morphed into the idea that people are paid to pick up after you. And who the hell is the Crying Indian? If you litter on Jedwood Place, ultimately, I pick up after you for free, because I get to the point where I can’t look at it anymore. People walk around with a bottle of something and a magic rectangle everywhere they go but somehow carrying a wrapper, or that now empty bottle of something, to the next garbage can is far too great a burden. This is a Valley Stream problem and a Long Island problem in general. We spent a week in Copake, NY and a week in Saranac Lake, NY this summer. There are fewer people in these places, of course, but none of them throw their fucking garbage in the street. So it’s not like a ratio or anything. People on Long Island – though I like many of them, and Mookie loves all of them – are pigs. There, I said it.
But Mookie, of course, doesn’t mind at all. He’s more interested in smells and finding people to say hi to than he is in aesthetics. This is one part of me that refuses to become partly a dog.
So we’re past the stores now, we’ve checked for terrapin turtles sunning themselves on the rocks next to the horrible-smelling spillway (sometimes we see our friend Steve who works at the high school looking for turtles, too). We’re around to the Right Bank of Duffy’s Creek, going down the path that runs behind the backyards in the “new” section of Mill Brook. We could have gone straight and gone through “Old Green Acres” on the streets north of Flower Road, which was the part of the development built in 1939 and features some very nice tudors and brick colonials that help keep the property value up on our little wooden box, but I would rather show you this path. I have my reasons.
My sister Mary Frances on The Path, around 1958
The same spot in 2018
Unlike much of Valley Stream, the path along Duffy’s Creek -which like Jedwood Place is outside the boundaries of the Village of Valley Stream and within the jurisdiction of the Town of Hempstead – looks pretty much the same as it did when I was a kid, but with one big difference: There’s less of it. The creek has been eroding the path for as long as they’ve been matched together. The hard surface of the path is just about gone in most places. Tall Phragmites (what my father referred to as “woozy-woozies” when he had small children and even when he didn’t) block your view of the water through most of it, except where one guy takes it upon himself to cut them all down with one of his many, many power tools so he can see the creek from his deck, which happens to be directly across the water from our house. It’s a reasonably nice place to walk your dog, as Mookie can attest. But it’s supposed to be a lot nicer. And I can prove that with a 123 page pdf file available online from the New York State Office of Storm Recovery, otherwise known as “New York Rising.”
South Valley Stream got whacked pretty well by Hurricane Sandy (or “Superstorm Sandy” if you insist, but please don’t). Being just south of Sunrise Highway, we were on the northern end of the area that got flooded. Towns south of us, East Rockaway, Oceanside and Long Beach in particular, were whacked much, much more devastatingly. (Not sure if anybody at FEMA uses the term, “whacked” to describe what happened, but I’m going with it).
About a year and a half after Hurricane Sandy surrounded our house in four feet of tidal surge on the night of October 29th, 2012, I heard about a meeting, the first in a series of meetings, at the Forest Road School, where the Mill Brook Civic Association would be taking public comments on how to spend the $3 Million in New York Rising Storm Recovery money that was apportioned to South Valley Stream. I just wanted to make sure they weren’t planning to build concrete retaining walls along my creek and declare it as a permanent open sewer, because that would really piss off the egrets. (I have a few). I was pleasantly surprised to see that this was not the plan.
New York State contracted with the Louis Berger Group as consultants to advise individual communities on how to spend the money they were getting through New York Rising. The Louis Berger Group (I saw them at the Peppermint Lounge in ’83) would work with existing community organizations to formulate and document a plan of action. The exiting community organization here was (and is) the Mill Brook Civic Association, even though Mill Brook is only about one-third of South Valley Stream. Gibson used to have a civic association but it doesn’t anymore because the old one died and I haven’t had the time to start the new one, and neither has Sean Lally.
I was wary of what the folks in the Mill Brook Civic Association were up to, so I kept haunting their meetings. Again, I was pleasantly surprised by the plan, officially published in March of 2014. Through going to the meetings, I got to know a wonderful gentleman who was leading the Louis Berger Group contingent for the project, a Dutch fellow by the name of Niek, or Neiyk. No matter. We got talking about birds. I told him that when I first moved back to my childhood home here, I documented the different bird species we saw.
I had always noticed the variety of birds around here as a kid, but I never got all citizen science about it until I was a homeowner, and they were MY birds. Way back then in 2002 we still had two gigantic maple trees out front and two Bradford pears in the back that were allowed to get out of control before our arrival, and they were all threatening to kill the house, so we eventually had to have them taken down. (We have replaced them, and then some, but trees take time). There were several giant Eastern White Pines in the neighborhood that have since been taken down or blown over in storms. Sadly, a beautiful oak tree on my next door neighbors’ property (once my grandmother’s), a tree that was probably planted along the creek by the Reising Farm owners before the houses were built, had to come down just this summer.
Big trees mean lots of birds, of course. And fewer trees mean fewer birds. And who doesn’t like birds? But sometimes where little wooden boxes are jammed together in 60 x 100 plots, you have to take down big trees, because they might kill you. And when you lose the trees, you lose the birds, who I’m sure don’t understand what the hell anyone would have against a big tree. I used to say that Duffy’s Creek was a great place to be a bird. Sadly, it’s come to the point, especially after losing the oak tree this summer, that if I were a bird, I’d probably blow this hot dog stand and move upstate.
But back when Trisha and I moved in, and we still had lots of big trees, filling up the bird feeders would get you twenty cardinals at sunset on a snowy afternoon. Waves of warblers and other migrant songbirds stopped in our trees in the spring and fall. We still have an impressive variety of waterfowl, especially in fall and winter, but every year the creek is neglected, it gets a little less populated. But in a year or so upon moving back to Jedwood Place in back in 2002, I had identified close to a hundred different species of birds in our yard and on our creek. Most of them I will never see here again because of the whole tree thing, but this little tidbit was still very impressive to Niek, or Neiyk, who had himself grown up in the Netherlands along a river (I knew that without him telling me) and was still something of a bird guy himself. At the meeting where the Louis Berger Group were unveiling the New York Rising plan for South Valley Stream, he told me that I should send him a list of those birds, and so I did.
The plan that Niek, or Nieyk and the Louis Berger Group put together was a beautiful thing. Landscaping and naturalizing the path, planting lots of trees, replacing the sewer pipes with a wetland filtration system (called a “bioswale”) that would clean the water over time. And to top it off, South Valley Stream was awarded another $3 million from New York State in “Race To The Top” money (gag me) for showing that the plan could, among other things, help bring back the birds on the list I sent to Neik, or Nieyk, who gave me some of the credit for the $3 million when nobody else did, which he didn’t have to do because all I did was count birds, but I appreciated it. I met some great people through stalking the Mill Brook Civic Association. They made me feel very optomistic about living here.
Now you may recall, a couple of paragraphs back, that this plan was published in 2014. The Town of Hempstead received the money from the State of New York to implement the plan. They’re sitting on $6 million as far as I know. And as you may have guessed from our walk today, they haven’t done shit yet, besides stick some flags in the ground and mow the grass.
But I’m hopeful. And our walk continues.
We’re around on the other side of the creek now, and in this section, past the path, there are house on both sides of the creek. There’s a style of house here, and on Rosedale Road where we emerge at Hoeffner’s Gas station on the city line (opened when the whole area was still Hoeffner’s Farm) and in the neighborhood on the other side of South High School from Jedwood, which I can only describe as the ”three little window houses”. They’re ranches with attached garages and a room jutting out towards the street with three ridiculously small windows hung in a parallel line at the top of the wall. Having been in those houses, I can tell you they’re nice from the inside. Big open floor plans and all that. They’re just kind of goofy looking from the outside.
I can’t say anything if you won’t let me in to see anything.
A Three Little Window House
The “Lilco Woods”
Hoeffner’s Gas Station. The New York City Line is less than 500 feet from here.
Temple Hillel, Rosedale Road
Which brings us to two “when I was a kid” observations that are true of this neighborhood and the rest of the places we’ll pass on our walk.
Observation #1: Every house on every street used to look like every other house on that street. That’s not quite as true anymore, as people have remodeled, and in some cases created great Taj Mahal-like structures from the little ranches and capes they started out with. This is more true in Mill Brook / Green Acres and the “North Woodmere” section of South Valley Stream. A lot of Mr. Gibson’s streets look structurally as they did 100 years ago. As an architecture fan, I find some of the remodels classy and sharp, and others a violent assault on my senses. But, like John’s Log Cabin, I respect and admire people for making these boxes into their own personal statements to the world. It’s a very American thing to do. We haven’t built a Taj Mahal, but we’ve planted a lot of flowers and trees. That’s a human thing to do.
Observation #2: When I was a lad here, the community of Green Acres, as well as the development along Rosedale Road up into North Woodmere, was a primarily Jewish neighborhood. I personally went to at least five bar and bas mitzvahs. Had a great time, too, as I remember. The majority of Valley Streamers were of Italian, Jewish, German and Irish descent, like my parents, one-generation removed from apartment buildings in Brooklyn and Queens, just like the new folks moving in these days. People of color lived across the City Line (at the time even further, the color line was really Brookville Boulevard in Rosedale, Queens) and that’s the way it was. As a matter of fact, you should read this New York Times story from 1979 and some 2010 census statistics before we go on, so as you continue on our walk up into the heart Valley Stream, you can see how far we’ve come, and why there’s really no such thing here as an anyone’s neighborhood anymore, and that’s a good thing:
VALLEY STREAM, L.I., Aug. 15 – A crude wooden cross was set afire last night on the front lawn of a house that a black family moved into here last week.
The cross was discovered at 10:15 P.M. by Inga Grant, the mother of seven children, who had moved into the two‐story, four‐bedroom colonial house from Rego Park, Queens, according to the Nassau County police.
They said the family had received obscene telephone calls and that windows had been broken while it was moving into the house, at 101 Woodlawn Avenue, in this South Shore village that neighbors said was predominantly white.
A real‐estate agent who had an exclusive listing on the house for several months, but did not sell it to Mrs. Grant, said today that he had been receiving obscene and threatening phone calls since Aug. 1, when the sale, reported at “upward of $70,000,” was closed.
Few of the neighbors gathered near the house today expressed sympathy for the Grants. And some of them said there had been neighborhood speculation that the sale was an attempt at blockbusting that is, inducing homeowners to sell quickly by creating the fear that purchases of homes by members of a minority group will cause a loss in value.
Now here’s the Wiki for the latest demographics of South Valley Stream, not including most of the Village of Valley Stream or North Valley Stream, which for the record are equally or more diverse. The CDP is my little “census designated place”, which is relatively small in area compared to everything that’s called “Valley Stream”. It’s a little confusing, I understand:
As of the census of 2010, there were 5,962 people, 1,969 households, and 1,554 families residing in the CDP. The population density was 6,415.1 per square mile. (Holy crap). There were 2,045 housing units at an average density of 2,326.9/sq mi. The racial makeup of the CDP was 51.90% White, 23.10% African American, 0.07% Native American, 18.10% Asian, 0.00% Pacific Islander, 4.40% from other races, and 2.20% from two or more races. Hispanic or Latino of any race were 9.80% of the population.
As for the “loss of value” that haunted the dreams of Woodlawn Avenue residents 29 years ago (not all of them, of course), you might be interested to know that the average price of a house in my neighborhood today is $462,000 big ones. We just do that to keep the riff-raff out.
And I suspect, based on the unscientific method of walking around with my dog, that the 2020 census will show more even slices of pie among white, African American Hispanic or Latino and Asian. And more and more, there’s an overlap among them all. And, not for nothin’, half of us have college diplomas. So fuck you.
Sorry, I didn’t mean that. We’re just a little defensive here sometimes. It’s because of Rockville Centre and Hewlett.
Statistically speaking, concepts of race and ethnicity could someday disappear altogether in a place like Valley Stream, which is pretty noteworthy considering the attitudes of 1979, when I was in 10th grade at Italian-Jewish-Irish South High School and knew those cross burners personally, or at least their families. And, while it’s easy to say this for a white guy, and I try to be aware of the systemic, institutionalized racism that people darker than myself have to put up with all the time no matter how enlightened their community supposedly is, I believe that in some ways, we’re almost there. As people get to know their neighbors, and share the common spaces, they see each other’s colors less and less. Unless they’re beyond hope, and most of the people who were beyond hope left here years ago. Valley Stream is not perfect in this regard, but it’s become a pretty good place to walk around in whatever color skin you happened to have been born wearing.
Let’s keep walking.
We’re on Rosedale Road, which for no good reason becomes Brookfield Road when it intersects Hungry Harbor Road, which was actually named for people who were hungry. Squatters, I’m told. We’re passing a fenced-off two acres or so of woods that belongs to Long Island American Water. There’s a good story behind this little piece of woods that you should say something if you see something in, even though you can’t go in it, but I’ve already told that story in a previous blog post: https://duffyscreek.com/2016/08/07/taking-a-walk-an-abridged-10000-year-history-of-south-valley-stream and we’re crossing Mill Road again, heading up Dubois Avenue, where Du Boys used to hang out in front of the candy store and the deli at Gibson Station.
Yes, almost forty years ago, I was one of the boys. A scrawny, tag-along boy but a Verified Gibson Rat just the same. Where the Nail Salon is now (one of the five-hundred) was once Jimmy and Ronny Duffy’s “Candy Store”, which as anyone from Long Island would know is a place where you could buy candy, newspapers, magazines, greeting cards, Whiffle Bats and Spalding Balls and odd stuff hanging around like flyswatters, condoms and birthday cake candles. There was also be the obligatory pinball tables, and later video games, in the back of the store, eager to swallow the quarters of local idiots. I got pretty good at Asteroids, but never could handle Defender.
Jimmy was Ronny’s father, and their names weren’t actually Duffy. They were using Jimmy’s wife’s maiden name to avoid something or somebody, but I didn’t care. They treated me and the rest of the knuckleheads who hung around the store like Italian family. Still, in retrospect, I regard every second hanging around Gibson Station as a colossal waste of time. I guess I must have learned something from the experience, but I have no idea what. Maybe how to act more Italian, but I could never pull it off. Oh, well.
Today my favorite thing about Gibson Station (besides the fact that it is frozen in time and could be easily used for the “1979” scenes of my biopic) are the guys who make Mookie and I our bacon and egg breakfast at the Cold Cut Express. Not being invited inside, Mookie stays tied up to a parking meter no one ever feeds (shhh!!!) and usually makes at least one new friend in the time it takes to scramble two eggs. As most people in this line of work now, the guys at the Cod Cut Express are immigrants from somewhere and they work and they work and they work. They are gentleman who treat their often annoying customers with respect and I appreciate them being there, as the only time I see them is when I’m not working.
And one of these days, I have to check out Meli Melo, which is the Cajun-Creole restaurant that opened where Goldie’s, an Italian Restaurant, used to be. (“A Taste of Louisiana and Haiti”) Mookie and I had a nice conversation one morning with a guy who was working on the remodel for a long, long time. (They’d have to put the smiling clown from the Goldie’s sign back up to shoot those 1979 scenes). When Goldie’s was empty, I had a fun little dream about buying a winning lotto ticket at the Cold Cut Express and opening “Duffy’s At The Station”, but I guess now it’s too late, and I wish Meli Melo nothing but success. We’re walking north up Dubois Ave. now, leaving Du Boys at the Cold Cut Express and Du New Boys at Meli Melo to keep chasing their American dreams.
On the left side of the street are some beautiful colonial houses with big front porches that predate Mr. Gibson. Starting on the right side of Dubois and heading south are Mr. Gibson’s 1920’s era, rather unique Pointy Houses.
As I walk through all these neighborhoods, I’m privately amused when I consider that I’ve been inside at least one example of each style of house, even though the people who lived in those houses when I visited are long gone, and the people who live there now have no idea I’ve been in their houses. I still keep in touch with lots of people from high school, and they live all over, and I pass their childhood houses all the time. The kids who lived in this neighborhood either went to William L. Buck or Brooklyn Avenue School. I went to Robert W. Carbonaro, which is on back on Hungry Harbor Road around the corner from Jedwood Place.
Brooklyn Avenue is a beautiful old building from the 1920’s. Buck and Carbonaro are identical buildings, 1960’s Splanch Style, approximately two miles away from each other, at the southwest and northeast polar ends of Mookie’s turf. When our son had some accumulated trouble at Carbonaro in fourth grade, he went in to the BOCES system for a year, and then we insisted that he go back to his home district. This story is, of course, a lot more involved than what I’m telling you.
There was a new principal at Carbonaro at the time. My personal interactions with him were both pleasant and nauseating. Overall, the place seemed a bit on edge. We met some great people there, and some maybe not so much. I myself spent seven wonderfully happy years at Carbonaro from 1968 to 1975. As for our son, the district people didn’t want him to go back to Carbonaro and agreed to enroll him at Buck. That summer, the principal at Buck got in touch with me to invite my son in to look over the building (and teach him all about the new geothermal heating and cooling system that had just been installed for free by New York State) and introduce him to his teacher. They were nothing but kind. The school was a happy place. And our son ended up having his best year in elementary school.
So now every time Mookie and I walk past Carbonaro (pretty much every day) I feel a little twinge of betrayal mixed in with the nostalgia. And every time we walk past Buck, which is different but looks almost exactly the same, I’m reminded to keep an open mind, and have some faith that things have away of working themselves out.
Meanwhile, I could take you through some really drop-dead gorgeous neighborhoods at this point, the nicest streets in South Valley Stream, between Rockaway Avenue and Forest and Brooklyn Avenues, pre-Gibson colonials with big front porches set back from the street on huge plots of land with lots of big trees that don’t want to kill anyone. There are also neighborhoods like this in Central and North Valley Stream – particularly Westwood on the border of Malverne – but we’re not going that far today, because that’s generally outside of our walking turf and I’m looking down the barrel of 8,000 words already.
We’re going straight up Rockaway Avenue, across Sunrise Highway. In short, we’re going to town. You get to see the sights, visit our fine stores and restaurants. And you get to meet David Sabatino.
Mookie’s psyched. He slipped David the tongue once when he kissed him.
First we have to wind our way along the part of Rockaway south of the highway, where you’ll pass Wondarama, where they’ve been fixing flats and replacing batteries for 45 years or so. Across the street is Temple Beth Shalom. There is a small Hasidic community that lives in some of the houses around the temple. They enjoy seeing Mookie and I out walking with them on Saturday mornings. He wags his tail for them.
Right next door to the temple are two warehouse buildings, the second a monstrosity of contemporary glass in your face architecture, which went up in the last three years. A company called International that distributes many, many bottles of booze owns both buildings. And if you say, “well, gosh, those buildings are nice for warehouses and all but they’re totally too big and out of character for the area,” Then I’d agree with you and watch your reaction when we come up on the Sun Valley Apartment Building.
Yes, folks, this is the future of Valley Stream. Five stories, 72 modern squirrel cages with Blink Fitness on the ground floor and a tennis court on the roof where in four years I have yet to see a tennis ball in flight when I happen to look up. It may yet happen.
People want to live here. They like the schools, and the parks. They even like the mall. The population is exploding. Since you’re not getting our little wooden box for under $400,000, housing is a problem. Plus, in another five years or so, the Long Island Rail Road will have burrowed through to Grand Central Station in Manhattan, finally creating direct access from Long Island train stations to the East Side of Manhattan, and as Money Magazine breathlessly told you, we could be on the next train west from Valley Stream and jostling our way through Penn Station in 35 minutes. It’s great, isn’t it? And now you can add in a couple of thousand people who would like to be jostling through Grand Central in 45 minutes, and the end result is apartment buildings, and lots of ‘em.
It’s a tide you just can’t fight. And you can take that from an experienced kayaker and worry wart. To suggest it’s “out of character” for a suburban “bedroom community” to have buildings with 74 apartments on a commercial corner is a shortsighted notion and completely out of touch with reality. This was something I had to learn. When Sun Valley was going up (and up and up) I bitched and moaned to the Deputy Mayor, a wonderful fellow who excels at debate, mostly about what I saw as the horrible aesthetics of the building. A lot of people who were watching this thing go up described it in terms of the Bronx House of Detention.
Deputy Mayor Vincent Grasso said, “Just wait until it’s done.” The Village didn’t sign off on the CO until the development company, which was making it’s first foray into Nassau County after a successfully putting people in cages in Queens and Brooklyn for years, made a series of aesthetic improvements to the building’s exterior. It was pretty amazing to me how just a clean buttress line along the top of the building and two-toned brick made it seem less like a tenement. As giant apartment buildings go, I’ve seen worse. But people still complain about it, as they are complaining about several other apartment buildings either planned or currently rising like steel Godzillas around town.
You want to take these folks at their word, that it’s overcrowding they are most concerned about. But Lynbrook and Rockville Centre, the next two towns down the highway, considered more affluent than Valley Stream, have always had lots of apartment buildings (albeit somewhat lower to the ground) mixed in with the beautiful houses, with more going up as we speak. And the whole damn Island is choked with people and cars already. So unfortunately, I think the overcrowding argument is a just a cover.
There is a mild strain of Trumpanzeeism, “more white, more right” thinking that still pervades, bubbling under the surface of Valley Stream, despite the diversity we’ve achieved here. You see it especially in some of the comments on social media pages and in comment threads attached to articles in the Valley Stream Herald newspaper. Case in point: A contingent of people went absolutely bugfuck last year when the Herald printed an article about a Muslim group petitioning the schools to declare Eid Al-Fatir as a school holiday. It’s an ugly little microcosm of the nativism that rages in some other parts of the country in the Age of Twitler and his MAGAT’s. For the most part, these people quickly reveal themselves for what they are and what they believe to be true about the “kind” of people moving into town. They stand out through their small-mindedness here, and the future is leaving them behind.
Up in the Adirondacks, my family used to stay near the tiny crossroads of Onchiota, NY, where the local General Store owner and Postmaster, Bing Tormey, posted signs around his little main square that became legendary. The best of these was: “You are leaving 97 of the friendlist people in the Adirondacks (plus a couple of soreheads).”
There ya go.
Me, I don’t particularly like apartment buildings. We lived in one – the really old one on Grove Street across from Holy Name of Mary Church – for a year and a half before we came here. Nothing personal against the other people whose lives led them to that same apartment building, but for us personally, the experience was like being under siege all the time. I like mountains. And rivers. We’re really just here for the money, my wife and I. So we can go visit mountains and rivers. This is where our jobs are, and this is my son’s hometown. If we left, it sure wouldn’t be because of anybody who’s moving in.
And yes, every town on Long Island is a property tax rabbit hole and everything costs way too much, but the opportunities exist here to do pretty much anything for a living (except maybe forestry or sheparding) and live a decent middle-class life. We have a lot invested in getting up and going to work in the morning, and we get a pretty good return on that investment. Not great, but pretty good. All things considered, we have very, very little to complain about compared to most of the people on Earth.
And this past weekend, the people who monitor the Valley Stream News Facebook – the first ones to tell you the helicopters are flying over the mall and all hell is breaking loose again – had a get-together at our very neat and clean Hendrickson Park, where people came on down and met their neighbors for a pot-luck meal and some pleasant company on a Saturday afternoon, all happy to be part of the scene in New York State’s best town. I’ll let the picture below stand for itself . Not pictured is John Duffy or his family, as we were upstate in Copake Falls that day (ironically) but otherwise we’d have be there, and I appreciate every effort that people make to make this a better place, knowing full-well that it will never be 1955 ever again, and the whole world is crowded except for Onchiota, NY.
The reality of Valley Stream, Long Island in 2018, is simply not the reality my parents bought into in 1955. With nothing but $400,000 houses, there’s really no place for people get started here. And many of the people who are trying to get started here anyway are from other places in the world, many of them having done their time in those same neighborhoods in Queens and Brooklyn that produced the population of post-war Long Island. And one could take it as a compliment that they think so much of Valley Stream that this is where they want to live and raise their kids. Or one could bemoan the fact that one’s hometown is not what it was. But really, nothing is, so what sense does that make? And for the second and third generations of Valley Streamers like myself, why would you begrudge people who are trying to do for their kids what your parents did for you, no matter where those people came from?
We’re waiting at the light to cross Sunrise Highway right now, and there’s always the chance we might get killed. It’s a busy, angry, stressed-out six-lane highway in a town full of busy, angry, stressed out drivers on roads choked with way too many cars, hence there are generally two or three fatalities a year on Sunrise Highway just in Nassau County alone. The State DOT just finished a big expensive reconstruction that, I have to admit, made me feel better about my chances of not getting killed. Included in that reconstruction was a series of crosswalks where you press the button and a very commanding computer voice tells you very matter-of-factly to “WAIT.” The first time Mookie heard this, he looked back at me to figure out how the hell I did that with my voice. And, of course, he waited, because he’s a good dog. And I laughed and I laughed.
Now we’re walking up Valley Stream’s main drag. The question of “what can we do to make people shop on Rockaway Avenue?” has been bandied about since Green Acres was built. (Here’s an idea: Don’t build Green Acres). Rockaway Avenue has been slightly dysfunctional for most of my life, but like me, it gets by. There used to be a movie theatre, The Rio, which was actually an old vaudeville playhouse. I saw the Grateful Dead Movie there at least five times, and saw the Stray Cats perform on the 4th of July, probably 35 years ago. In many towns east and north of us in Nassau County and out into Suffolk County, people made the investment to save their local one-screen movie houses and turn them into performing arts spaces. Subsequently, if you look around, there are interesting places to see plays and live music and vintage films all over Long Island and Valley Stream isn’t one of them. Oops.
We do have Ancona, which is famous for their true New York pizza, calzones and heroes, and where you are officially in with the Valley Stream in-crowd if George knows you by name. We have Itgen’s, famous for their homemade ice cream, and recently sold with the promise that it will continue. We have Mitchell’s, a nice little restaurant, though I prefer the Valbrook Diner up on Merrick Road, and an Italian Restaurant called Mia’s that’s been on my list of places to try a lot longer than Meli Melo. We used to have Morris’ Variety, which for years was the place to get everything from a screw to a fake Christmas tree. It was taken over a few years back by Raindew. Not quite as quirky as Morris’, but it serves the same purpose. They got me hooked on Yankee Candles. A lot of businesses have disappeared over the years, but there are a surprising number of survivors.
Among the Rockaway Avenue old-timers are the T & F Pork Store, DePalma Florist, Larry’s Bar, Woods Locksmith, Ciccarelli the Tailor (make-a you a nice suit), Brancard’s Deli, Valley Home Care and Surgical Supplies, Valley Stream Pharmacy, Chicken Gyro Delicious and the stalwart Sal and Vin’s Barbershop, established in 1952. Tell Michael you know me.
Rockaway Avenue is also the go-to place if you like Latin American and South American cuisine. The Chicken Coop does Colombian chicken. There’s a couple of Spanish delis plus the Juanito Bakery and Café, and my favorite, the San Antonio Bakery, that will make you a hot dog they call a “compleato” – with avocado and a bun they made at 6am – that’ll knock you on your ass. If you want to go Mediterranean, there’s Sam’s Halal Steak and Grill where a Not-Halal Steak and Grill called P.J Harper’s used to be, and the Nightcap Café used to be before that. Haven’t tried it but I hear good things.
And yet, with this all going for it, Rockaway Avenue looks kind of shabby compared to other main drags on the Island. Beyond the stores I mentioned are your usual nail and hair salons, dollar stores, second-hand merchandise stores, empty storefronts and (of course) a T-Mobile. Taken as a whole, living organism, it doesn’t seem cohesive. It has a “patched together” quality about it. Many of the surrounding downtowns have invested more in visual appeal, fancy sidewalks and facades and uniform signage and the like. It’s also a heavily trafficked street so it’s somewhat noisy and dirty in general. The Village recently reclaimed an old building across from Ancona and renovated it into the Village Court in an effort to bring in more pedestrian traffic around Rockaway businesses and restaurants, so it’s not like they’re not trying.
But here’s the thing: Ultimately, how important is aesthetics if I can get a haircut, a new welcome mat, a compleato or a meatball parm hero and even get my wife’s shoes fixed by an old-timey shoe repair guy? How badly do I need bricked sidewalks and signs that all in the same typeface? I’d like the stores and the open space up the block from me to be less of a toxic wasteland, but to what end? So it suits my fussy sensibilities?
Sometimes you just have to get over it. Money Magazine thinks we’re “neat and clean”, and I’ll tell you what: As we’re walking through residential neighborhoods in Valley Stream that are now almost 100 years old, 95% of the front yards that we pass are pretty as a picture. The houses themselves, if not renovated, are well-maintained. People are house proud here, and it shows. This is all we have. We take care of it. We make lemonade.
But sometimes you have every right to be pissed. The surface of the roads, a juristictional spider web of responsibility divided among the Village, the Town of Hempstead and Nassau County, are for the most part terrible. While the parks are nice enough, too many public spaces are tired eyesores. The LIRR and the Utility Companies bear a lot of responsibility for that. Above our heads is a jungle of wires that may or may not stay up there if there’s a thunderstorm this afternoon, or a hurricane. The train trestles are rusting away.
Roads and public spaces are among the basic services that we pay property taxes for, and from what I see, they are not given priority. Somebody decided it was more important to give tax breaks to Green Acres Mall.
That’s right. Screw your roads. This is Long Island. We shop. Commerce is King here. If there are enough band-aids and rolls of duct tape holding together the infrastructure to get you to the next strip mall and back, then what the hell are you complaining about? Your neighbors in Valley Stream plant pretty flowers, and they smile at your dog. It’s the Best Place To Live in New York State. Just keep buying shit and we’ll all be fine.
Todd Pratt was a backup catcher for the New York Mets in the late 90’s / early 2000’s, when Hall of Famer Mike Piazza was the starting catcher. He was a good guy to have on your team. At this time, Shea Stadium, which was a perfectly wonderful place to go watch a baseball game, was already facing its demise. The plan, ultimately implemented in 2006, was to knock old Shea down – deemed a poorly designed relic of another time with ever-more disgusting bathrooms and concessions and 30 years of gum embedded in the concrete – and replace it with a “retro” stadium with all sorts of cool angles and seats closer and better angled towards the field, not to mention lots more expensive places to eat and cushy seats for the one-percenters.
Back in the 90’s, when the Mets flew into LaGuardia Airport after a road trip and Shea Stadium came into view from the plane, Todd Pratt would (I’ve read) stand up and make this announcement:
“Well, there it is boys. It’s kind of a dump. But it’s OUR dump.”
I get it. I never have really taken to Citi Field.
David Sabatino would get it, too, but unlike me, he wouldn’t accept it as the truth of his hometown. To David’s way of thinking, it would be blasphemous to call Valley Stream a dump, even to convey a sense of familiarity, or in my case, resignation. David, who loves Valley Stream like Mookie loves me, is the co-owner of Sip This, a coffee shop and cool hangout place that’s been on Rockaway, right across from where the movie theatre isn’t, for seven years. (It was named after Slipped Disc, the iconic hipster record store that once occupied the space. Get it? Slipped Disc? Sip This? Clever, huh? ). David also has a degree in urban planning ( I’m pretty sure) and he is a natural-born organizer. But more importantly, David is a good guy, and an optimist. And Valley Stream is lucky to have a guy like him around. So now he works for the Village as well, and very well may be the mayor someday whether he likes it or not.
He’s probably a good twenty-five years younger than me, but I didn’t have his level of energy and hope for the future when I was five, never mind thirty. It was Mookie, really who introduced me to David. In 2010, when Mookie was just a gleam in his father’s eye, I was researching dog parks to take the puppy I was getting in 2011. I came across a website for an organization called “Envision Valley Stream”, the brainchild of my friend Mr. Sabatino, which was, among other things, petitioning the Village of Valley Stream government to build and maintain a dog park.
We have a neat and clean and picturesque village park called Hendrickson Park a mile and half due north of Duffy’s Creek, which gets it fresh water and anti-freeze runoff from Mill Pond – which we’ll pass on the way back – and from Hendrickson Lake via pipes that go under Merrick Road and through the Village Green. Hendrickson Lake features a fine walking and biking path that leads up to Valley Stream State Park, and there’s an equally fine community pool complex in the park that we pay lots of money to swim in every summer. But no dogs are allowed on the path, and they can only swim in the kiddie pool on the day after Labor Day because everybody at Village Hall likes Mike Powers, who first had the idea. And how could you not?
So back in 2010, David starts planning a dog park, and I start going to his Envision Valley Stream meetings, and we strike up a friendship and all of a sudden I’m involved in the community. I start getting to know Mayor Fare (yeah, I know. It’s like it’s made up) and Deputy Mayor and Renaissance Man Vinny Grasso and other people who I liked right away because I recognized them instantly as real Valley Stream as an adjective (smart; personable; outspoken; funny; genuine).
The road to building the dog park, now located in the Village Green next to the Village Hall and the Library, had a couple of rough patches along the way. I got discouraged and frustrated, but other people who had taken David’s idea and run with it, including the aforementioned Mr. Powers, did not, because they’re better people than I am. Eventually you would have to say it was a success. So much so that the Town of Hempstead, Nassau County and other village municipalities started building more dog parks, so our dog park doesn’t get quite the crowd that it used to. Still, over the years, it’s been a great place to kill a half hour and shoot the breeze while Mookie watches dogs that are way too fast for him to keep up with. (It’s really the people park with dogs in it for Mookie).
David Sabatino, force of nature that he is, moved on to other things, including starting a family and buying a house in Westwood. Right now he’s planning a Community Garden and – get this – a “Winter Festival” centered around the ice hockey rink next to the train station. And getting involved with Sabatino’s vision gets you involved with all sorts of other people, which is indirectly how I wound up agreeing to do a presentation about the history of Valley Stream through the history of my parents for the local Historical Society. I’ll be at the Community Center on Wednesday September 12th of this year (2018). Unless of course they read this post and tell me to stuff it.
Rockawy Avenue was busy with so many people at the Valley Stream Community Feast.
Anyway, there’s one more important thing I have to tell you about Sabatino. His greatest civic accomplishment by far has been the establishment of the annual Valley Stream Community Fest on the fourth Saturday of September. For one day, Rockaway Avenue becomes a laid back pedestrian street fair, Hundreds of people turn out to stroll up and down the avenue. Every sports, civic, religious and cultural organization in town is represented, seated at folding tables with brochures and big smiles, ready to tell you all about what they do. The businesses on Rockaway get to promote themselves. Plus there’s lots of arts and crafts and junk food for sale, rides for the kids, demonstrations, people dancing around in brightly colored clothing, an antique car show and enough ethnic and religious diversity to make your average Trumpanzees want to crawl back into their caves, or possibly realize what assholes they’ve been all this time. But I doubt it.
And don’t think that Mookie doesn’t get in on all this. For three of the last four years, he’s worked a three-hour shift at the “Doggie Kissing Booth”, raising money to support the Friends of Valley Stream Dogs. On Fest Day, he’s in Mookie Heaven, wagging people over to him as they walk by (“Ohhhhh!!! Look how cute!!!) and convincing them to hand Mike a dollar so they can lean down and get a big, sloppy wet dog smooch. Once Mookie is sufficiently overwhelmed, Bella the Chocolate Lab takes over, and that’s usually when we grab a compleato from San Antonio and head on home to the backyard. The creek is too icky for Mookie to swim in, so he has a kiddie pool to jump in to cool down after his walk. I can offer you a cold Dr. Pepper.
We’ll head home along South Franklin Avenue. We’ll pass the post office, the Burrito Monster (not a fan) and the Railroad Inn next to the train station, a bar now owned by a guy I went to kindergarten with, which is next to another bar called Buckley’s that’s been an old man’s bar since before the owner of the Railroad Inn and I were in kindergarten. The Dog Park and the Village Green are over on the other side of the tracks, but we’ve put about four and half miles on the Fitbit already, and we’re a half mile from home, and Mookie and I ain’t so young anymore, so the Dog Park will have to wait for later. We’ll pass Papandrew Jewelers, where the owner, who’s the son of the original owner, once took out an armed robber. We’ll cross Sunrise (“WAIT.”) and be glad we don’t need anything from Staples today.
We could cut across Mill Pond Park, which still has some nice, big trees, but instead we’ll walk through the almost 100-year old original Gibson neighborhood anchored by Roosevelt Avenue, because Mookie has a lot of friends down that way. Passing by the Sunoco with the sign that says :”COOFFEE 99 CENTS!” (you can also get free air for your tires if you press the “botton”) we’ll make the turn at the Greek Pie Factory (they’re really tasty) and the hair salon with the sign lit up in 100-point type (“HAIR SALON!”), both on the ground floor of a very old two-story building that someone would like to knock down to build another high-rise apartment, and probably will.
We could go up to Cochran Place, which would lead us back to Gibson Station, but we’re going to cut west back towards Jedwood Place. Once on a summer Sunday afternoon we saw a group of people in a tiny back yard on Cochran who had a dance floor set up where they were all watching one couple dancing a tango. My, I was glad I saw that. This same family has some sort of parrots that used to squawk at my son and I from the windows when we rode on our bikes to the summer camp he loved going to at Barrett Park. There’s another guy along Ridge who walks his parrot on his shoulder, which makes Mookie think to himself, “My, I’m glad I saw that.”
We could walk straight down Roosevelt to Fairfield where some old guys might be leaning on a chain link fence shooting the breeze, and Mookie will growl at the dog behind that fence because they’re supposed to be his old guys. A little further on he might see his friend the 99-year old WWII veteran sitting on his porch, and he’ll stop and do his waggy waggy routine until the his old friend invites him up on the porch for a face rub.
Crossing Mill, we might see the happiest guy in the world, one of my new neighbors from somewhere far away who always greets us warmly, who is out almost every evening when the sun is shining, happily tidying up the gardens around his little house at the corner of Mill and Jedwood, where the traffic is hideous and where I wouldn’t live if you gave me $400,000 but he seems to love it. It just goes to show you. Everything is relative. And his relatives seem to enjoy it, too.
We’ll arrive home in Mookie’s backyard, and he’ll cool down in his pool. But before you go, I’ll leave you with a scene I saw on that neglected path that you see directly across the creek. Mookie and I were walking along that path one morning when we came upon a young Filipino couple getting their three little kids out of the house for a while. Two of the kids were on bikes and the youngest was walking. The kids on the bikes stopped riding, as they were very excited to meet Mookie, and he them. The father and the mother caught up to them and the father asked me about his breed and I told him and he said, “he’s a big boy.” And I said, “he sure is!” and Mookie wagged his tail.
I was thinking to myself that these people are my parents in 1958, with three little kids who need to get out of the house and a nice path along a creek (somewhat nicer then) to go for a walk right near their house.
Livin’ the Dream in Valley Stream.
And just as I was thinking this, I saw the smallest kid, who was on foot, catching up to the others and zooming in on Mookie. Then I noticed his t-shirt. It said, “YOU CAN’T STOP THIS!”
And I thought to myself: Why would I want to? Why would anyone?
Kid, let me tell you something about Valley Stream, since you’ll be growing up here just like I did. I’ve been around here a long time, and to tell you the truth I’m at the point where other places, with bigger trees and fewer cars, are calling to me. (I suppose you’ve never heard of Zillow, kid, but don’t worry about it).
For the foreseeable future, though, I suppose Mookie and I will be part of the scenery as you grow up here. And the fact is, we could both do a lot worse. I don’t know about the Best Place to Live in New York State, but your parents still picked a good place for you to live, just like my parents did. Remember that.
And kid, if and when Mookie and I do move on, please do us both a favor and take care of what’s left of the natural world around here. It’s probably going to get more and more crowded and noisy, but help out the birds any way you can. And keep your antenna up, ’cause you never know what kind of shit your local politicians will pull, or what they will neglect. Better yet, get to know them, and let them know what you think.
And this is important, kid. Don’t let anyone ever, ever make you believe that you don’t belong here. That’s up to you to decide. Until then, you belong here as much as I do.
And one more thing:
Valley Stream? The Town of Hempstead? Nassau County? Long Island? New York? America? The Planet Earth?
People throw their garbage in the street here, but people also organize street fairs. People build humongous apartment buildings here, but they also build dog parks, and maybe they’ll fix this path. People drive like psychopaths here, but they light up at red lights when they see a big happy dog smiling at them from the sidewalk. People who can get away with it steal money here to build more stores to steal more money, but the teacher or principal that you remember forever at Forest Ave. School or South High will be worth every penny your parents pay in school taxes. People make a mess of things here, and people keep it from becoming a complete mess.
Most of this is a re-run for some of you. Heck, it’s August. Read it again. Why not. Back in the Summer of 2011, my buddy David Sabatino, aka Mr. Valley Stream Himself, suggested that I write something for the Valley Stream Voices column in the local Herald Newspaper. And I said, yeah, I could do that. David was helping out the editor at the time, Andrew Hackmack, who did a great job covering the town for a lot of years. Andrew asked him to find someone who could do a Voices column, and David said, “John Duffy.” And I’m glad he did.
I decided to try to capture the experience of raising a child in the same town I grew up in. I painted the place in a very positive light, and overall, I was happy with the way it came out. Andrew wrote the headline, “Valley Stream is Better Than Ever,” which was not totally misleading, as it was the general theme of the essay, but I thought it that message was a little too advertising slogan-y. Life is pain, your highness. Anyone who tells you differently is selling you something. There are a lot of things that aren’t better: First and foremost that we’re all packed in like sardines, and they keep building more and higher sardine cans to pack more people in.
There happens to be a reason for that. At some point, the Long Island Rail Road, which my wife Trisha subjects herself to twice a day to earn a living, is eventually going to finish a connection to Grand Central Station and the East Side of Manhattan. And when that day comes, lots more people are apparently going to want to live in apartment buildings near the railroad stations, specifically Valley Stream and Gibson. And I suppose the ten minutes it takes me to go two miles to the King Kullen some afternoons will turn into fifteen. They built a monster of an apartment building less than a mile from Duffy’s Creek – called Sun Valley Apartments. Ugh. – that I and many people raised hell about when it went up, because it looked like a cross between a Bronx tenement and an upstate prison. They recently did a nice crown molding all the way around the top of it to make it less ugly. That was nice of them.
Trisha and I would really like to leave here, but we can’t. We’d like to move to Copake Falls, or somewhere nearby. Valley Stream, and Long Island in general, have become ridiculously crowded and dirty and noisy. But this is where work is for both of us, and we both have many years invested in our jobs. We also have an 11-year old son who has trouble transitioning from pajamas to clothes every single morning. He doesn’t do change very well, and the fact is, this is a good place to grow up, because you’re forced to learn how to get along with a whole lot of different kinds of people. It wasn’t that way when I was growing up. There were a lot of bigoted white people trying to turn me into one of them. If not for my parents being bleeding-heart liberals, they might have made more of a dent. When the town started to diversify, around the turn of the century, the bigots mostly ran like hell, leaving people who know how to get along for the most part. It’s not the people that make me want to leave. I love the people here. There’s just too damn many of them. So The Dude has about ten years to save his money if he wants to buy this house and “stay here forever” as per his plan. We’re not leaving anytime soon, and we’re very good at making lemonade out of the lemons, but in about twelve years this blog will be called, “A Creek Ran Through It.”
Anyway, here we are, and what follows is my little public love letter to Valley Stream, written four years ago. My favorite thing about this essay is that the mayor of Valley Stream, a very smart, energetic and friendly fellow named Edwin Fare (that’s right, Mayor Fare) has borrowed a phrase that was the anchor of the whole piece. I don’t know how terribly original it was, but I referred to Valley Stream as a “big small town”, which it is if you’re an old timer. You’re usually about three degrees of separation from anyone you start a conversation with – they went to school with someone you know, or lived on the same street, or went to the same church, or played on the same team, or at the very least got drunk in the same bar. Mayor Fare used the phrase in an interview with Newsday and in a recent Cablevision-produced video. I believe that he unconsciously lifted it from me. I saw him just today walking around the pool. I’ve never said to him, “Hey! That’s my line!”, since for one thing what does it matter and for another thing he’d just tell me it isn’t, ’cause he took it. Fact is, he needs it more than I do. (What I did say to him was, “you ought to jump in! It’s like a bathtub in there today!” Which was just me being folksy, as he was wearing street clothes).
So without further ado, the Valley Stream Voices Column from 2011 that I would have simply entitled: “Whooosh!!!”, with a little postscript at the end. Hope you enjoy it (again):
I am a second-generation Valley Streamer. Many of you just said, “me, too!” There are a lot of us. My parents moved from Queens in 1955 for a backyard on a creek and room for their growing family. Five kids and 46 years later, in 2001, they moved east and my wife and I bought the house where I grew up. Two years later, in my 40th year, our son Jack was born, a third-generation Valley Streamer.
In my new role as Jack’s daddy, I began to realize how many of the icons of my childhood were unchanged, and how Valley Stream remains a big small town and a good place to grow up. In my opinion, it’s actually better than in the ’60s and ’70s.
When I was a kid, my mother might announce that we were “going to town.” That meant driving in our red Volkswagon bus (seriously, we had one) over to Rockaway Avenue. The first stop was Morris Variety, then, as now, a place where a little kid could be enraptured by the impressive assortment of stuff; where you could get lost in the long aisles of toys, hardware and craft supplies while mom picked through greeting cards, then memorize the candy at the front counter while she checked out. Going to town might also include lunch at Itgen’s, Mitchell’s or Ancona, and maybe a walk up to Sal and Vin’s for haircuts, a swing by the library or a stop at the bank with the big vault that looked like the one Maxwell Smart walked through.
Today, going around Valley Stream with my son, there are times when I’m suddenly traveling in a time machine (I can even hear a “Whoosh!” sound in my head when it happens). I can reconnect with my inner little kid, the one that we all tend to leave behind and disregard, as we get older and our boundaries expand far beyond “going to town.”
One of the first places Jack and I went when he was a baby was Brook Road Park in Mill Brook. (Sorry, but it’ll always be Green Acres to me.) When my older siblings were all in school and I was home with my mother, she would push me there in a stroller over the bridge. (The bridge was first fenced off and then taken down, to the dismay of many old-timers.) Coming back 40 years later with my little boy was one of my first trips into my personal Valley Stream Time Machine, one of many enjoyable travels that I’ve taken back to my childhood through my son. After admiring the new playground equipment, we walked by a fence that holds back the eroding retaining wall along the creek. Behind the fence were relics of my pre-school days — the big dolphin you could sit on, and the concrete turtle you could crawl under, both on a bouncy rubber surface. And there was the very bench where my mother sat enjoying my company, wearing ’60s-style cat’s-eye glasses.
As Jack grew into a toddler, we joined the Valley Stream Pool. As a kid, I remember the kiddie pool area shaded by mottled Sycamore trees, like the ones still in the playground. My mother was a part of a group of women with lots of children who jokingly called themselves the “Over the Hill, Under the Tree Club.” On summer days, they could have some much-needed peace and adult conversation as the kids entertained themselves.
There was a probably a 30-year interval between my last visit to the pool as a kid and my first as a dad. As I stood next to the Olympic pool, “Whoosh!” I was in the time machine again — going under water with my eyes open, daring myself out into the deep end, jumping off the diving board, eating a hot dog and French fries under the concession stand roof. It all comes back to me, like opening a book you haven’t read in years and remembering how much you liked the story. The French fries taste exactly the same.
Jack likes going to town. He’s well-known at Morris Variety, and Michael at Sal and Vin’s always makes him look great. We recently had Itgen’s for lunch and Ancona for dinner with a trip to the pool in between. Jack and his mom both like mint chip ice cream. I’m a vanilla fudge guy. Ancona meatball parmesan heroes are sublime.
This year, I made some new friends in my old town. While looking for dog parks for our new Labrador puppy, I found Envision Valley Stream, a group that promotes ideas for fostering a sense of community, including park clean-ups, graffiti removal and the skate park and dog park initiatives which the village administration has been receptive to. It’s nice to meet people of all ages and backgrounds who like living here. And it’s very nice to see the local government working with residents to make good ideas happen.
Jack is going into second grade at Carbonaro School. It was a warm and nurturing place when I went there and it still is. This year, he played baseball with the Valley Stream Little League. I played on a Mail League team in the ’70s, so of course the “Whoosh!” brought me right back as I stood on the ball fields of Barrett Park, Wheeler Avenue and others. We marched with the Little League in the Memorial Day parade, my first since the ’70s. The sense of community here is as strong as ever. And a one-time reputation for intolerance has been replaced by a diversity of people who interact easily with each other. This is something my son will have which my generation did not. His big small town is a lot like mine, but better, and I’m glad we’re here.
Ok, I’m back here in 2015. Christ, I’m tired. The Dude doesn’t go to Carbonaro anymore because the class where he fits best is across town in an identical building called William L. Buck. (The Dude calls the similarity “freaky”). We’re a long way removed from little league, and I’m a happy observer of the Memorial Day Parade. The Dog Park is a raging success, mostly due to the efforts of others besides myself, but I feel a sense of ownership of the place, and so do Mookie and his Dude. You’ve gotta like that. “Envision Valley Stream” is in the process of morphing into the Greater Valley Stream Civic Association, in which I’m trying to carve out the time to take an active role. (I’m the liaison for the “part of South Valley Stream that isn’t Mill Brook or Gibson even though Gibson built the houses but don’t you dare call it North Woodmere” -Our Man On The Creek, if you will).
Yeah, we want out. And we more than likely will get out someday. We won’t be able to afford to stay when we’re too old. They’ll eat us alive. But for now, me and My Dude still go to the pool most weekday afternoons in the summertime. And we’ll be getting our haircuts at Sal and Vin’s tomorrow. And lunch or dinner at Ancona is never far away. (John! You Called?). When we finally do leave Valley Stream, when it’s all over, will I miss it? (I have to speak for myself, as Trisha has been here for 15 of her years and I’ve been here for all 52 of mine, more or less). Will I romanticize it like my mom did when she left kicking and screaming?
I don’t know. Places are funny like that. It’s like the line from “Fast Times at Ridgemont High”, when the creepy guy is giving the dorky guy his dating advice: “Wherever you are – it’s the place to be! – Isn’t this great?” I tend to live in the present tense (which is why we’re broke), so if I were living upstate, I don’t think I’d give it much thought. I think the toughest thing about leaving would be the legacy that I’d be ending that started with my parents in 1955. My mom DID miss it when she left, so I’d miss it for her.
Speaking of my Mom, if you’ve never met her, you’ll have a chance to get to know her a little bit in my next post. Anybody would tell you that would be your lucky day. And coincidentally, that upcoming post is also about a kitten who had a very lucky day because he decided to follow a big yellow dog one day on Duffy’s Creek. It’s not so complicated, but I’ll probably tell the story in a way to make it so. I got that gift from Mom. I’m long-winded and I need an editor. But at least I came by it honestly.
Read it anyway, and thanks. See you when the tide comes in.
They don’t whine. They don’t bore you with the details of their assorted aches and pains. There’s no such thing as a hypochondriac dog. That’s why they’re called noble beasts. And why we’re not noble beasts. They don’t curse when they feel the pain. They don’t yell at the nearest person. The worst you’ll hear is a high-pitched “YOLP!!!”. Last November, when Mookie got attacked by a pit bull who chomped into his ear and wouldn’t let go, he made that sound over and over again until I punched the pit bull in the face, The owners who stood there doing nothing, were spared. Although The Dude, who witnessed the attack, gave them a nice earful as I tended to Mookie. And he kept Mookie’s bloody ear in a cold compress all the way to the vet’s office. I was proud of him. Still, I’m haunted to this day by the sound of Mookie screaming “YOLP!!!” until I got the dog off of him. Bleeding from his ear, probably scared and most certainly still in pain, he didn’t say a word from there on. And it was a forty-five minute drive to the vet’s office. Once the initial pain was over, he just looked at me – with those eyes- as if to say, “Why? Why is there evil?”
That particular incident happened at Stump Pond in Blydenburgh State Park, Smithtown, Long Island, where a lot of smart people bring their well-trained dogs, and as it turned out, two stupid people brought an untrained dog one time. Not knowing the stupid people had joined us that afternoon, I was lulled into a false sense of security and let Mookie go swimming without the 15-foot extended leash I usually use. He went over to say hi to some people around a cove and their dog chomped into his ear. The whole experience was right awful, and it took Mookie a little while to trust dogs again. He still gets nervous when dogs sniff at his ear. And of course, besides the trauma of seeing my friend in pain, it turned out to be a $400 mistake. I love my vet, but that was a lot of money. And of course I said I was going to get pet health insurance after that and never got around to that.
And that blatant act of procrastination may have cost me $325 last night, but I’m not sure if “hotspots” are covered. Your hotspots allow you to read this. Lucky you. A labrador retriever’s hotspots are misery. Dog hotspots are technically known as moist dermatitis, because they’re a skin infection that is made worse by moistness. Like if your dog jumps into his pool after a good long walk then takes a nap in the air conditioning. Hotspots are also called pyrotraumatic dermatitis because the dog makes them worse by scratching and licking at the wound. (I’m sure some of you have pyotraumatic troubles of your own. I know I do). Hotspots are common among dogs with thick undercoats during warm weather. As I understand it, from how the nice vet explained it to me last night, all the bacteria in the dog send messages to each other to let each other know the presence of a small wound, and suddenly there’s a bacteria flash mob. And it can happen in a matter of hours.
Mookie started with a little pimple on the side of his face on Friday afternoon. it might have been a bug bite or a cat scratch or a dog nip – I couldn’t quite tell. It looked like a pimple. Then it got bigger. Within a day, it was oozey and bloody and quite disgusting at that. Fortunately, dogs don’t spend a lot of time looking in mirrors, so he couldn’t see how horrible he looked, though I doubt that would make a difference to a noble beast. He didn’t scratch at it too much, but he kept looking at me sort of helplessly. He didn’t say “YOLP!!!” but he was trying to tell me how much it hurt. And I couldn’t tell him that I was staying in denial of another giant vet bill for as long as I could.
My denial lasted until we got back from visiting Grandma in Point Lookout on Sunday afternoon. The entire side of Mookie’s face was covered in matted blood and the oozey mass was huge and spreading. At that point, I had no idea it was a hotspot. I had heard of them when I was researching labradors, but he’d never had one before. So I had no idea what was going on with my silent, noble friend. All I knew is I didn’t want to see him suffer.
My own vet’s office was closed. Another vet across town, who friends of mine have raved about, is open 24 hours a day. I called them and explained why I wanted to bring Mookie in, and just tell me now what the emergency fee is. It’s $135. Trisha said, “It’s Mookie. Take a credit card.” I told them I’d be over in fifteen minutes.
Mookie didn’t seem like he was in too much pain once he had new sensory input. Lots of pee-mail messages outside the building. A cat in a cage in the waiting room. A receptionist that called him sweetie and came down to eye level. And a guy walking around the waiting room with tears in his eyes, who didn’t want to acknowledge either one of us. And I didn’t want to acknowledge that I will more than likely be that guy someday. I don’t know what was going on with the guy’s dog, but I knew we were in for a wait, and I accepted that.
They put us in a very small, very warm examination room about a half hour into the wait. An assistant came in and took Mookie’s vitals. While we waited another fifteen minutes, I started googling and read about all sorts of horrible growths and basal cell tumors and the like. I was starting to feel pushed off-course. Mookie was concerned about the noises of animals and people he couldn’t see. We both concentrated on breathing.
Fifteen or twenty minutes later we saw the vet, who kept me hanging for a good ten more minutes before announcing “moist dermatitis, also known as a hotspot.” So that’s what a hotspot looks like. Duly noted. My dog’s not going to have surgery or die today. All good. Now what do you do about it and how much?
The first thing they do is shave and clean the affected area, which is a very good thing. Payment for emergency professional diagnosis and wound treatment, plus a bottle of antibiotics. All to be expected. In my head I was at about $225. The vet took Mookie into a back room to shave and clean up his face. I started googling again while I waited.
You know what works for hotspots? Gold Bond Medicated Powder. And tea bags. You know what else works? A $52 dollar, two-ounce bottle of Nolvasan/HB101/DMSO, plus a $38 dollar, 60 milliliter bottle of Gentocin Topical Spray plus a $36 cone of shame. Total bill? $401 dollars.
Ok, for starters, he’s not really scratching at it so let’s skip the $36 cone. It’s just going to drive him nuts. Ok, Mr. Duffy, that’s your choice, but if he scratches at the wound and opens it it will take longer to heal. You think? Secondly, once I begin giving the dog antibiotics from the $95 bottle I just bought, we can’t I just treat him with tea bags and Gold Bond Medicated Powder? I’ve seen both remedies listed in five websites in the time I’ve been sitting here. Well, Mr. Duffy if you don’t want the medication we can make an adjustment there.
$75 of adjustments later ( I sucked it up and bought the Nolvasan) Visa was nice enough to lend me $325, at a billion percent interest compounded every second, and I settled the bill with the vet’s office. They were all thoroughly professional, nice people. And because of them I know a hotspot when I see one and hopefully I won’t see another one anytime soon.
We have a little joke around here: When Mookie is panting a hot day, or we’re leaving and we’re not taking him with us, or something’s happening and he doesn’t know what it is (which happens a lot), I’ll look at him, and say “poor guy!” And Trisha, imagining Mookie’s thoughts at that moment, will say, “Am I a poor guy? Why am I a poor guy? I don’t feel like a poor guy. Why do you keep saying that?”
He’s not a poor guy. He has a family that loves him and showers him with attention. He gets to go for long walks and rides in the car, and he gets big hugs and butt scratchies and belly rubs and treats and chewy bones and comfortable places to nap. And there’s nothing we wouldn’t do for him if he’s suffering, except get blatantly ripped off. Because he’s our noble beast.