Here’s where it starts: At the very end of 2019, the week between Christmas and New Year’s Day, the week when nobody does much of anything, my wife Trisha and I did something complicated, extravagant and totally unnecessary. We bought a house.
Everyone with whom we shared this news was ecstatically happy for us. Nobody called us stupid. Not to our faces.
I suppose if somebody had a problem with us buying this particular house, the problem would be that we already own a house, and the majority of people on Earth don’t own a house, and many don’t have a home, and now we have two. From that perspective, of course it’s clear that we didn’t have any damn business buying another house.
But we bought it anyway. We had our reasons. We think some of them are almost valid, but I’ll leave that to you. If you’re a capitalist, maybe you’ll say we’re smart people and we know what we’re doing and it’s not a problem at all so go ahead and enjoy it. If you’re a Marxist, you’ll likely call us out for the selfish pigs that we are. Fortunately for us, there are way more capitalists than there are Marxists, at least in our circle.
Trisha and I bought my parents’ house eighteen years ago in Valley Stream, Long Island, New York. It’s a little 1,300 square-foot cape cod-style house on a 60 x 100 plot of land. It’s cute. You’d like it. We grow a lot of flowers. The backyard overlooks a pretty little winding creek, the official name of which is actually “Valley Stream”, but people who don’t know me usually either call it Hook Creek or Mill Brook.
People who do know me call it Duffy’s Creek. Some, anyway. Because I asked them to. My parents bought the house in 1955, and I grew up there, the “baby” in a family of five kids. I never went very far, never changed my mailing address. I got married, came back, entered into a real estate transaction, had a son of my own, and began growing old right on that creek. The tide comes in and out from Jamaica Bay, and by the grace of God, I go right on living. It’s a nice story so far, isn’t it?
But here’s the thing: Three weeks after Trisha and I met on the boardwalk by the ocean in Long Beach, Long Island in 1999, we spent a perfect early-November weekend staying in a cabin in Taconic State Park at Copake Falls, in Columbia County, New York, a place we had both discovered independently, she from going to the annual Falcon Ridge Folk Festival in nearby Hillsdale, me from years when I would periodically get in my car and drive long distances because I didn’t have anybody to go to the Falcon Ridge Folk Festival with. We lit a campfire on a crackling cold and clear Friday night full of stars, and on Saturday morning we hiked to Bash Bish Falls under Indian summer skies full of crazy blue jays hopping through orange and yellow trees yelling, “Stay! Stay! Live Here!” We fell in love with each other and we fell in love with the place. And for the ensuing twenty years, we returned there every summer and a couple of falls, probably logging about six months of elapsed time. Our son Jack has never known a year that didn’t include at least one week in Copake Falls.
“It’s like our second home,” we’d say.
But that wasn’t true. It just sounded nice.
So our home away from home stayed up there on the map and up there in our minds year after year as we continued to grind it out on Long Island. The sound of the blue jays and the turns in the country roads stood behind us, tapping on our shoulders to remind us what we were missing; the ancient mountains, the cleaner air, the bigger trees, the wide open roads, the farm stores and the church barbecues, the people who wave when they drive by, the absence of malls and chain stores (except for the Stewart Shop up in Hillsdale, which is perfect and cannot be criticized). I wasted hours and hours of my precious time here on Earth scrolling though Zillow listings.
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Copake Falls was an alternative reality. And as Valley Stream continued to get louder and louder year after year, summer after summer Copake Falls stayed mellow.
Valley Stream is a lot of things. Many of them are good. But “mellow” is not one of those things. A quick check for “antonyms of mellow” on Merriam Webster reveals “discordant, dissonant, grating, harsh, inharmonious, jarring, strident, unmelodious and unmusical.” I guess it would be harsh, maybe even unmelodious, to describe my hometown in these terms. But still, it sure as hell is not mellow, except in our backyard, and then only when our surrounding neighbors aren’t shooting fireworks or holding dance competitions. And if you want to see jarring and strident, live near a mall on Long Island during those seasons when people get in their cars every half hour to go buy more stuff. If grating and harsh is more what you’re after, listen to a Long Islander who has been inconvenienced.
Robert Frost came up with the line, “I had a lover’s quarrel with the world.” It was such a good line that he requested it as the epitaph on his gravestone. As you might guess, Jean-Paul Sartre doesn’t have an epitaph on his gravestone (cool issues and all), but he sure could have gone with one of his best lines: “Hell is other people.”
People are what make a place more than anything. Or break it. There are rural parts of America and suburban parts of Long Island where I’m not too arrogant to say I wouldn’t be caught dead. People who are proud of where they live, wherever they might be, like to come up with slogans to promote their hometowns as places that other people might like to see, possibly even live in, because people spend money, and that’s what keeps places alive. Valley Stream once sold itself as “The Gateway to Suburbia”. Kind of a Dante’s Inferno thing really, but I suppose it was meant as a compliment at the time. The Town of Copake sells itself to this day as “The Land of Rural Charm.” That’s a good one, huh? I hope whoever thought of that at a meeting got the praise and recognition that they earned. But I could show you lots of uncharming rural places around town if I had to. And tell you about some less than charming rural people.
So In fairness to my fellow Long Islanders (and – whether they like it or not – my now-fellow Copakeans), let’s start with the premise that the vast majority of people everywhere, in every place with a name, are really all right. I truly do believe this. But sadly, as you know, while most people are wonderful, some people just suck. So it follows that if there are more people, more people will just suck. That being established, here are what I believe are the four basic groups of problem humans:
1. The Slightly to Extremely Dangerous: Those who have had hard lives or some sort of trauma and have decided than instead of nobility or faith, they will instead make it a point to project their hurt and anger on convenient targets they find around them. While this group of people have to be treated like walking landmines, as a child of God, one can’t judge them if one is not one of them and hopes not to be. I just try to stay out of their way and not to make things any worse for them.
2. The Insufferably Annoying: Those who have been sadly brainwashed by too much TV into thinking they are the star of their own little reality show, and thereby have developed a need to create drama and tension where none should exist in order to compensate for an otherwise tedious existence. Long Island is saturated with people like this, possibly because of its wealth. If your main problems are not the procurement of food, clothing and shelter, you really have no problems, so if you want some, you have to invent them. Ideally, it would help every one of them to be slapped silly, but violence is never an option.
3. The Head-Scratchingly Frustrating: Those who, for a variety of reasons, from deeply neurological to not getting hugged enough as babies, just can’t grasp the simple rules of getting along. They’re not particularly dangerous or overly dramatic. They just flat out boggle the mind. Ask anyone who’s ever worked in retail. But, as my father would have said, you can’t make their problem your problem. You can suffer fools gladly or ungladly. You’re still going to suffer fools.
Now, If you give people in these three categories the benefit of the doubt, and assume that in their essence they really just can’t help themselves, and they probably have many good qualities as well, that leaves us to grapple with the problems perpetuated and the damage done by Group #4, The Unrepentant Assholes: Those who live to purposefully and gleefully gain negative attention from the rest of us by being as unpleasant, uncooperative and self-centered as they can possibly be.
My personal sampling of the several hundred-thousand people I’ve interacted with in 57 years suggests that groups 1, 2 and 3 represent between 7% and 10% of the overall population. Maybe as much as 15% in higher-end neighborhoods. The Unrepentant Assholes in Group 4 are actually a very, very small percentage of the human population. I asked Trisha, and she said 2%. I was thinking three, but I’ll go with her answer.
There are 284.7 square miles of land in Nassau County, New York, and approximately 1,359,700 people call it home, making for a population density of 4,787 people per square mile, with all the people noise and chaos they generate. Bear in mind that there are large swatches of Nassau County where billionaires have reserved lots of land for themselves and their horses and their golf courses, leaving the rest of us to fight over what’s left. The population density of South Valley Stream is 7,583 people per square mile.
Traveling from Nassau County to Columbia County, you’ll pass Co-Op City in the Bronx, which has a population density of 47,000 per square mile. So really, I should just shut the fuck up. I’m very much aware of this. But we’re born where we’re born, for reasons that are seemingly random and certainly not fair, and we know what we know. I would like to build a little house with a garden for every family in Co-Op City on all the land currently being used for golf courses. I have no beef with horse farms.
Meanwhile, In Columbia County, there are 635 square miles of land, which is home to 59,461 people, which is 93 people per square mile. This includes Hudson, the county seat, which is two square miles and has 6,144 people, 1238 of whom sell antiques. Extrapolate that funky little metropolis, and now we’re down to 84 people per square mile, and 2% of 84 is 1.68.
This all means that in every square mile of land in Nassau County, you will find 94 Unrepentant Assholes (150 in South Valley Stream, most of them driving). Whereas in Columbia County you might find two. Plus you can factor in the variable that being known as having manners and not being a big fat pain in the ass is much more important in Columbia County, because you don’t want everyone else to agree that you’re that one person in their square mile, whereas in Nassau County, every asshole is competing for attention against 93 other assholes within one square mile, and it’s hard to keep track of them all.
There is no cure for any of this. Not in this life, man. More people create more stress. As the Pandemic of 2020 set in, I started seeing clickbait on my rectangle about how people would start moving from the city up into the Hudson Valley “in droves”. Since it’s an issue that affects my life, I was interested to know how many a drove is and how many droves you could multiply that by, but I try not to fall for clickbait. And the proliferation of people in Groups 1, 2 and 3 will only get worse as cell phones get better. And more Group 4’s means more chances of something unpleasant happening to you or around you every time you leave the house.
So the choice for us seems to have become one of either standing in the Gateway to Suburbia as the Barbarians continue to storm through, or goin’ to the country and buildin’ us a home in The Land of Rural Charm, hoping that agricultural zoning regulations will keep the droves at bay for a while.
And that’s why at the end of the twenty-first year of complaining about the miseries that follow the overpopulation of Long Island, and of idealizing the alternative existence of Columbia County, Trisha and I bought a second home two and a half hours away from our first one, a mellow-yellow ranch house on 1.9 acres of land bordering the very state park where we had once walked around all gooey in love under the autumn sun with the blue jays and everything so many years before. Since I had named the creek in back of our house in Valley Stream after myself, because who could stop me, and since the funds that made this real estate transaction possible were bequeathed through my wife’s family, I insisted that we call our new second home, perched on a ridge 840 feet above sea level, “Trisha’s Mountain”.
We had a dream. We had the money. We jumped off the cliff. And then the whole country broke. And then I quit my job.
Not really, but sort of. I actually retired from 25 years as a middle school English teacher. It’s an important job, and somebody has to do it, but it is no longer me. However, the pension I earned is a lot less than if I had stuck around and made more money for a couple of more years, thereby assuring that eventually, if I wanted to live in the style to which I’ve become accustomed, house in the country and all that, I’d have to suck it up and find a part-time job. So, I gave myself four months to decompress, while the Covid-19 Pandemic and the complete collapse of American Society that will likely precede or follow the Presidential Election of 2020 play themselves out.
In the meantime, in between traveling up and down State Route 22, I thought I’d write a book. But I didn’t know what to write about. I had some ideas, but I don’t like it when people are angry at me, so I had to keep thinking of other ones.
The whole “we left the crowd in the city and moved to the country but we didn’t know the cows next door would smell so bad and why are there bees and snakes” thing has been done to death. That’s not what I’m after here. There isn’t a whole lot of Upstate / Downstate culture shock for me to write about because I pretended that I had a house in the country for twenty years before I actually had one. And nobody up there has to explain to us how not to be “citiots.” We get along just fine with everyone. Not much material there. Of course, In order to be considered a local in Copake, your family has to have lived there for two-hundred years, so we know we’ll always be outsiders. We try to counter that by being polite.
So ultimately I decided to write a book of stories and word pictures, twenty of which are set in Columbia County, the other twenty in Nassau County.
My only claim to originality is that I write from the perspective of one whose heart truly lives in two places at the same time, and who knows his time in the one place, the place that created him, is likely winding down.
A Little Side Note: Right now, if you’re reading this book in its competed form, and not in installments on duffyscreek.com, you’ve established that 20 plus 20 equals 40 and not 41. Very astute. Chapter 1, the longest one in the book, is mostly about New York Route 22, the road in between (and how I found it). As we’re making this several years long transition, the road from here to there and back has become sort of my third home.
Valley Stream and Copake Falls, while they are almost united by a common language, and while you can drive from one to the other in two and a half hours, and while by virtue of boundaries drawn up 400 years ago are both in New York State, could not be less alike. But this book is not about comparing and contrasting them. It’s about things that define these places for me. They are both home now. When I’m in one place, I feel the other one trying to pull me back. Neither of them seems to understand that I can’t be in two places at once.
I have become a human wishbone.
I grew up in Valley Stream (and by extension, Long Island) in days when it wasn’t quite as strident and jarring. As another one of my heroes, Mose Allison, said of Tippo, Mississippi, “I am of that place, and the stamp is upon me.” But the little hamlet of Copake Falls has been yanking at the sleeve of my soul for most of my adult life, and now our plan is to go there for good someday.
But not today.
I guess you could say we have a plan. But we don’t, really. Our right-now-16-year-old son has two more years of high school and likes it upstate just as much as we do. So he would be more or less on board if we actually had a plan. Trisha is very successful at her mommy-takes-the-train-to-the-city job, so she’s not in a hurry to leave (as we’d be broke, and she’s in charge of money) but I know Long Island’s obnoxiousness gets to her even more than it gets to me. And as I write this in the summer of 2020, you can’t even go sit on the beach unless you want to risk getting horribly sick (or getting somebody else horribly sick), and Long Island is pretty much pointless without the beach and the ocean. It seems predetermined which way the wishbone will eventually snap, and I guess if there is a plan, that’s the plan.
Abraham Lincoln said that the best thing about the future is that it happens one day at a time. I’ve outlived him by a year, so I’m happy to be here at all.
And as people suffer all over the world, my main purpose in life in August of 2020 is waiting for people to call me to schedule delivery of some comfy furniture.
I never thought it would come to this.
Of course, If we decided to put our house in Valley Stream on the market tomorrow morning, it would take the better part of two years to shovel out of it anyway. So for the foreseeable future, part of me is watching the tide come and go on the creek and part of me is watching the light dance across the mountains. I am a stupidly lucky son of a gun and I have not a thing in this world to complain about, but if you’re nice enough to read on anyway, I’ll try not to be boring.
When a friend at work would complain to me, he’d often say, indignantly, “this is not what I signed up for!” Well, this is exactly what I signed up for that mellow December day last year in the lawyer’s office in Millerton.
I am a human wishbone. I am Gumby, damn it. With one arm and one leg stretched north, the other arm and leg stretched south.
Which would put my center somewhere around the Red Rooster.
Francis James Duffy died early on the grey and rainy morning of Sunday April 26, 2020. He was a great guy to have as a friend, an even greater guy to have as my father.
As of two days ago, he was one of 120,000 people who have died as a result of the Covid-19 Coronavirus in The United States of America, 446,000 on Planet Earth. As you probably know, Long Island suffered unbelievable losses. Over 4,000 people have died from the virus in Nassau and Suffolk Counties alone. I feel like I’ve heard more ambulance sirens this year than in my previous fifty-six combined. For weeks in April into May, every morning brought three or four more pages of people, particularly grandpas and grandmas, ripped from the living, smiling above their names and the sad news of their departures in the Newsday Obituaries.
He was one of them.
Today is Sunday June 21st, 2020. The first full day of summer. Father’s Day. Francis has been gone eight weeks. Born at the start of the Summer of 1929, he would have been 91 years old tomorrow, June the 22nd.
Which means that this morning, in an alternate reality that didn’t include a worldwide pandemic, Trisha, Jack, Mookie Dog and I would have driven an hour and fifteen minutes east from the house my parents bought in 1955 (and sold to us in 2002) to the Jefferson’s Ferry Life Care Community in South Setauket, where they moved 19 years ago.
He would have been asleep in his wheelchair when we got there, and while he would eventually come around to the notion that he had visitors, he wouldn’t know who we were. But he’d like that we’d brought a dog. We would have wheeled him from the Memory Unit, down the long hallway, past the rooms of those he used to call “the inmates”, then out to the patio with the high maples and the oaks and the rock garden with the recirculating waterfall and the upscale outdoor furniture with the oversized umbrellas, the red corduroy chair cushions and the cool summer breeze.
And there we would have sat with him and there we would have tried as we always did to communicate with him through the darkened synapses of his advanced dementia. If we’d been lucky, he might have opened his eyes once or twice, and maybe light them up with his smile, a smile like no other. And more than likely, Mookie would have made that happen.
After his wife of 60 years died in August of 2012. I visited my father once a month. Usually it would be just Mookie and me, back out on the road at the crack of dawn on a Saturday Morning. It was exactly a 50-mile trip. We’d zip out before the Long Island traffic, east on Sunrise Highway, north on the Seaford Oyster Bay Expressway, east again on the Long Island Expressway to exit 62 , up Nichols Road to Northern Boulevard to Shep Jones lane, where we’d park in the Nature Conservancy parking lot for a hike through High Farms and up into Avalon Woods in Stony Brook. Then, fully born again, we’d head back down Nichols Road to 347 to Wireless Road to go see Grandpa. For me it was sort of like going to church and getting to physically kiss Jesus on the top of his head at the end of the mass.
Mookie made lots of friends over the years at Jefferson’s Ferry, and as far as we’re concerned, he was a working therapy dog when he was there. Now I don’t have the heart to tell him we’re never going back. Being a dog, He never stops hoping. And I don’t know about him, because, again, he’s a dog and he can’t tell me, but I assume he also holds those mornings with his grandpa as preciously in his Labrador heart as I hold them in my human one. Being the only one of us (I can only assume) who was aware that every one of those monthly visits might be the last one, I tried to stay in the moment as we three sat together, even as the man whom my dog knew as Grandpa slipped further and further away from us as the months turned into years.
Not counting Mookie, Francis J. Duffy was grandpa to eight people and great grandpa to five. He leaves behind a family of 26 people. And if not for the dedicated and wonderful people who work at Jefferson’s Ferry, he would have died alone, because the pandemic led to the prohibiting of visitors to nursing homes after March 15th.
The last day that Mookie and I made that trip was Saturday February 15th. And I knew it might be the last. I always knew that. Grandpa was getting closer and closer to that dreaded last stage of dementia, the vegetative state.
But never in a million years would I have guessed why it would be our last visit. I guess maybe I shouldn’t have been this naïve, but discouraged and beaten down as I’d been by the last three and a half years of news, I still actually thought that we had at least some scrap of a functioning Federal Government left, some bare system of oversight and protocol, accidentally left over from the Obama Administration, that would have had at minimum some shred of a plan in place to protect its citizenry from a national health emergency.
Instead, it’s 120,000 people dead and counting. And I don’t know who you think gets most of the blame, or who you think should take most of the responsibility.
But I have no doubt.
And so, while this blog post is first and foremost a tribute to my father, a great man in every sense of the word, I know that he would have wanted me to address the sons of bitches who killed him.
My pleasure, Francis. Stick around.
First though, I have to go on one of those long, wonderful tangents that Mom would go on, which as you lovingly pointed out, always started with: “To make a long story short…”
And I also need to explain something to you dear reader from the get-go: More often than not, I refer to my father by his first name, rather than “my father” or “dad”. I jumped back and forth between addressing him either way from the time I was a teenager. He eventually got used to it, and there’s a reason for it.
“Dad” and “Francis” are sort of a Yin and Yang in my mind: In the yin, my father, who taught me structure and self-discipline, optimism and faith; who called out all my bullshit, took care of me, worried about me, helped me out of jams and told me what a goddamn dopey bastard I was being any time it was necessary that I be informed as such. In the yang, Francis, the guy who was an absolute rip to spend time with, the guy who dove right into life whenever he could, and most of all, the guy who taught me the awesome power and potential of thinking for yourself, and the art of expressing those thoughts with style.
Now of course (to go on a further tangent), the name “Francis” often becomes “Frank”, and Francis actually used “Frank” as a sort of professional name, but my mother never called him that, unless she was among the people who knew him professionally. (Sometimes she’d call him “Frankie” with a dash of passive-aggressiveness, which was fun). Francis was his family name, the childhood name by which his Irish immigrant parents called him. “Frank Duffy” was his “stage name”. He had legions of fans as “Frank Duffy”, but more about that guy later.
For now, I don’t mind telling you that in my young and stupid days, my father and I took a long, long ride together on an emotional roller coaster. But emotional roller coasters have highs as well as lows, just like real ones. We had some real good times in there, too. And of course, rides on emotional roller coasters eventually end, just like rides on real ones do. And the first thing you do when it’s over is laugh. So let’s get all of what he would call “the silly shit” out of the way right now.
The fighting was both of our faults, really. It took a long time for both of us to figure the other one out, and I’m not sure if we ever made it all the way there, but we definitely reached a detente. There were things about me, as I began developing into the me that am, that he didn’t particularly like. Exhibit A: My younger propensity for being perfectly happy spending an afternoon strumming on a guitar, quite likely stoned (you dopey bastard) often along with a stereo that was turned up way too loud goddamn it. I suppose if he hadn’t wanted me to pick up on 60’s hippie culture, he shouldn’t have given me four older siblings. But there they were, and I was soaking up everything I saw and heard from them and from their friends. But for Francis, rock and roll, Marlboros and Cannabis, would forever be among things he associated with the rednecks he met in the Merchant Marines.
A side note (I can’t resist irony, even when it breaks the flow of my tangents): My second-greatest loss in the Coronavirus Pandemic (I hope) was the April 7th death of singer-songwriter John Prine. I never tried John’s songs out on Francis, but I bet he would have gotten a kick out of them. (I know he would have known the song “Paradise” from our annual three-week party at Camp Lavigerie it in the Adirondacks. It was practically the national anthem up there). But even if Francis could appreciate a song like “Fish and Whistle” or “It’s a Big Old Goofy World”, Dad would have written off Prine for his drug abuse and for his cavalier, good-timing lifestyle, which was of course, one of the reasons I loved John Prine.
My father didn’t much like anything that was counterculture, I suppose falling right into the whole point of counterculture, which is to piss off your parents. I think the thing he didn’t realize about Monty Python and the Grateful Dead, for example, is that they were actually great art, despite some of their fans. My mother got that, but my dad, not so much. We had to agree to disagree in the end. When Jerry Garcia died in 1995, Francis’ take was: “That’s a shame. Another dopey bastard that didn’t take care of himself.”
He also rightly called me out on a regular basis for emulating working-class kids in Valley Stream (“’you’ze?’ Are you kidding me?”), and it annoyed him that someone with his last name would dumb down to fit in. I know that he and my mother sometimes regretted the decision to send me to the Valley Stream Public Schools instead of Holy Name of Mary School and Maria Regina Catholic High School. We’d get into mighty battles when I was in high school, and he’d point up Jedwood Place to the Big Brick Building on the hill at the end of the street and say, “you got that shit from up there!”
And of course, whatever that shit happened to be on that day, I did, and he nailed it.
But one huge factor at the time was money, as my parents were paying for four college tuitions on civil servant salaries. Education was above everything, though, and my parents were going to give their five children the American Dream if it killed them.
Another factor that I’m sure entered into the equation was that my parents, especially mom, had grown politically more liberal than the church, though they never gave up on it. Ultimately, they saw my unrealized Formal Catholic Education as something could be redlined if they were going to balance the budget.
I’m telling you all this because when the dust started settling on my years’ long fight with my father, he told me once that in a way, I was the one of his five children who was the most like him. I actually couldn’t believe it when he said it. But Francis never lied, and he sure as hell never said things to make you feel better. I still think it’s my brother Thom. Nevertheless, I sort of knew where he was going with this notion. Francis and I did have a lot of personality traits in common. (Among them to this day, the habit of walking around closing all the windows in the house when waking up from a Saturday afternoon nap, purposefully making small talk with strangers, and a long, slow “wooooowww!” when confronted something unexpectedly good or bad).
But if he ever realized what I realized about the two of us as I was writing this, he never told me.
My parents met at and both graduated in 1948 from W.C Bryant High School in Long Island City. Francis joined the Merchant Marines and sailed all over the world straight out of high school while his future wife went on to the College of New Rochelle, run by the Ursuline Sisters. She then got her master’s degree from the Jesuits at Fordham. My two older brothers and two older sisters all had twelve years of Catholic School. All four went to Catholic Colleges at some point. I never went away to college. I chipped away at it for 14 years until I earned myself a master’s degree from CUNY Queens College. Francis got his bachelor’s degree from Pace University when he was 47 years old.
So Francis and I were the only public school kids, and the only night school kids. And maybe that made the two of us quicker on the draw, and a little less filtered.
While a more christian soul you’ll never meet, my father had an explosive temper, and I found myself on the receiving end a lot, but in fairness, only when I had it coming. Because it wasn’t displaced anger in any way. Yeah, he had a lot of pressure as a working father of five, but when he was pissed at me, it wasn’t frustration about money or work or anything. He was just pissed at me. I learned that It’s hard to hide from that, and harder still to defend yourself from somebody who is going to raise you right whether you goddamn liked it or not. As a father, as he always said, he was in business to put himself out of business.
And there were things about my father that pissed me off and frustrated me, and of course, when I was young and assholish I felt compelled to let him know all about these things on a regular basis. I could yell, too. I was like him, remember? But on one of these occasions, when I was way too old to be getting into these pissing matches with him, he said something that landed.
“You know,” he said, in his sidearm delivery, “I’ve made it. I’m a success. I don’t have to prove a goddamn thing to you.”
The gauntlet was thrown. I wanted to be able to say that back.
Which brings me around to why he’s Francis to me as much as Dad.
Dad always had the potential to erupt in that quick-tempered volcano of anger. He got loud, and it got old. If you left a storm door open for more than ten seconds between November and May, he would scream, “The HEAT damn it!” If you opened that same door for more than ten seconds between June and October, he would scream, “The BUGS damn it!” The yelling drove my mom nuts, but she yelled right back. And then he yelled some more. They were Great Depression kids, and they were Irish and they were from Queens and they were yellers. I don’t know about my brothers and sisters, but that was something I had to unlearn. I thought everybody yelled at their families.
But when he wasn’t Angry Dad, yelling about opening the wrong windows or mowing the lawn or getting the inspection done on your car three weeks in advance or stepping on the kitchen floor he just friggin’ waxed two hours ago, he was Francis.
And Francis was as cool as they come.
A guru, a great philosopher, a mind fertile with lightning-fast comebacks and one-liners, clever adages and common-sense wisdom that have stuck to me like barnacles. Francis could put you away in five words and you’d have no choice but to laugh at how fast he shut you up. He once tried to convince my brother Mike to buy a used car rather than a brand new one. (“For Christ’s sake! You’re paying for new!”). Mike told him he needed a car he could rely on. Francis came back smiling and snarling with: “Not me! I want a car that breaks down all the time! It’s exciting!”
Francis was fun to listen to and knew how to carry a conversation. Like my mom, and his mom and dad, and most of the population of Ireland, he told a great story. He had an artist’s eye for detail, especially with a camera in his hands. His game face to the world was that warm, twinkling bug-eyed Irish smile, a firm handshake and a confident laugh. He was a Dale Carnegie disciple who developed a magic ability to connect with people, a skill that made him hundreds and hundreds of friends (some of whom of course called him Frank). And not only that, he had friends of all colors, religions and persuasions. And while he couldn’t resist a wise ass remark about any given person it fell in his lap, he did not discriminate. He was an equal-opportunity ball-buster, but he was also a lot of peoples’ friend, and he took that obligation seriously.
And here’s another thing I can tell you: Francis found every way he could to love the life he lived and live the life he loved. I even saw this as a kid. He enjoyed waking up on a weekend morning and announcing loudly, “THANK GOD FOR A NEW DAY!!!”. And the older he got (until he hit the wall), the more fun he had. In his prime, he kept his deposition sunny, despite yelling about the mud you just tracked into the house. He never let life wear him down.
He loved his family and he loved his religion. He wasn’t a fan of taking shit. When we would get in fights amongst the seven of us in this tiny house, he’d quote Jesus and say “Love One Another!”, but he’d bark it in a loud, sharp staccato, as to suggest that if we didn’t shut up, stop annoying him and start loving one another immediately, it was going to be somebody’s ass.
I don’t think that’s how Jesus said it, but he well may have. No matter.
Francis Duffy was a template in how to live a life in which, as he said, he slept like a baby every night. He was faithful to the same woman for over 60 years. He always put his family first and earned every penny he made. He didn’t smoke, and he let me know I was a horse’s ass for doing so, but beyond that he didn’t preach. However, it was vintage Francis when he decided he had enough of my leaving extinguished cigarette butts on his property, picked them all up one day and left them waiting for me on my pillow.
He was not slimy nor duplicitous. He was exactly who he was, right in front of you. He never had to cover his ass because he never did anything wrong. He never needed a drink, though he’d enjoy one when he felt like it. (I can still taste the quick sip of Rheingold Beer from his German Stein when I was a wee lad). He managed to avoid the word “fuck” 98% of the time. He valued learning and expanding one’s horizons above all else. He especially disliked the “uncouth”.
He was honest, generous, straightforward, responsible and trustworthy. He was a grown up and a gentleman through and through. And all the while (and more and more as he got older) he walked through this world as comfortable in his own skin as in his myriad collection of L.L. Bean flannel shirts.
And this above all: He was not, as he specifically instructed me that I, as a Duffy, could not and would never be, “one of those ‘gloms’.”
I’m pretty sure he made that word up, but goddamn if I don’t know a “glom” when I see one.
You can’t swing a dead cat without hitting a glom these days.
He yelled at me and threatened me as my father because he felt like he had to. He even said to me once in anger, “I’m not your friend. I don’t want to be your friend. I’m your father,” which was a notion I totally didn’t get and very much resented greatly at the time, especially since my mother always managed to be both my mother and my friend.
My mother loved my father and my father loved my mother, but my mother would get as frustrated as I would with his stubborn intractability, his impossibly high moral standards and his quick judgement on people who didn’t live up to them, me chiefly among them. One day when I was in my twenties we were talking behind his back and I hit on something that made her laugh and laugh, to the point where she had to fill him in on the joke later and we all three got a good laugh about it.
This is what I told her: My father has divided the world into two groups of people: Great guys and dopey bastards.
Ultimately, I became one of the few people, if not the only one, who crossed that bridge.
I don’t think he had to be as hard on me as he was, but in retrospect, there was no way for him to know that. I guess he didn’t realize that I was studying the Art of Being Francis the whole time he wasn’t yelling. And once he didn’t have to be my father as much, and I began recovering from assholism to the extent that he could finally put himself out of business, Francis and I became good friends, the way I’d always wanted it. And as I morphed from what my mother called “an old Irish bachelor” in my early thirties to a husband and father, landed suburban gentry, the guy who bought his house in Valley Stream, my father and I never had a cross word between us again, and we enjoyed each’s other’s company as I wished we’d always been able to. I spent his last twenty years going out east every four or five weeks to spend some time with my old friend Francis Duffy. And there were a few years there, in between Mom’s dying and his dementia swallowing him up completely, where he was able to get a few words in edgewise.
And while I am not him, and quite frankly (pun intended), not worthy to carry his legacy, and while to this day I still enjoy strumming a guitar and playing the stereo too loud, I’ve adopted a lot of his ways, and a lot of his ways of thinking. People say I’m more my mother’s son, but that’s chiefly because of the things I love, which she taught me to love. Vivaldi, Steinbeck, the Impressionists, stuff like that. Francis is more responsible for my game plan, for the way I show up in the world and what I say and do when I get there, not to mention how I talk about the world when it’s not listening.
As a matter of fact, once my wife got to know both of us pretty well, she pointed out to me that I was essentially “Stoned Francis”, an appellation which I wear proudly. Interpret this as you wish. I will say no more, other than to say that, as usual, she got that right.
And though I may be more flexible about who has to stand in which corner, I’ve come to realize that the great guys of this world (and by the way, the female equivalent is “smart woman” and the opposite of “smart” isn’t “dumb”, it’s “silly”), the critical thinkers of this world, the compassionate, the empathetic, the fair-minded, the educated: We are in a constant, never-ending struggle with the dopey bastards who want to take us down, mostly because we seem so much happier, and they hate that.
So in order not to let the dopey bastards win this round, settle back and let me tell you the story of a great guy. It has a sad ending, as we all do, I suppose. Maybe sadder than most though. But it’s a hell of a story.
Francis had a childhood tougher than most, followed by a blessed and wildly successful adulthood, followed by a truly amazing second act that got going once he had begun to “put himself out of business” as a father, followed by a heartbreakingly sad final stretch to the finish line.
He was born the second child of Daniel Duffy and Mary (aka Molly) Duffy (nee Geraghty). They lived in a walk-up apartment at 41-07 28th Avenue in Astoria, Queens. His older brother Daniel is still with us, living in California. His father Daniel Duffy was from Derry, Northern Ireland. His mother was from a little town called Granard in County Longford, right in the center of the Old Country.
So I guess I don’t have to tell you where the Duffy Family stands on immigration issues.
Dan and Molly met here in New York and were married in June of 1923 at the church of St. John the Evangelist on East 55th Street in Manhattan. This was four years after Dan earned his honorable discharge from the U.S. Army, where he fought on the Western Front from September 1918 until Armistice Day ended WWI fourteen months later. Dan volunteered his services to the Army at the age of 25 in order to earn his American Citizenship. His engagements included the Meuse-Argonne Offensive, where 26,000 soldiers died.
But Dan didn’t. And with that old Duffy Luck working in his favor, he found Molly, who had come over with her sister Agnes from small-town Granard, working first as a domestic and later as a cook at Jack Dempsey’s Broadway Restaurant. (Yes, the prize fighter. And Aunt Agnes, who lived into her 90’s and got to tell me lots of stories, was the hat check girl at the Biltmore Hotel, and “oh, Johnny, I got ta meet everyone!”).
During Francis’ grade school years, smack in the middle of the Great Depression, Dan was not well for a long time. I’d tell you why, but when it comes to discussing other people’s problems, I share the mantra of the guys of Dan’s and Francis’ generation: “It’s none of your goddamn business”. Suffice to say, Molly had to keep the family afloat, and it could not have been easy.
In his public school years, Francis was not the most natural student, which is how he met the love of his life. He was just trying to get through 11th grade English at Bryant High School when he caught the eye of the best student in the class, a blonde-haired, blue-eyed knockout from a more “lace curtain Irish” family by the name of Joan Marie Scully. They began dating and got married four years out of high school.
And, because he looked at life through his own little funhouse mirror (and taught me to do the same), in Francis’ world, you had to hum along when you drove over drawbridges (aka “singing bridges”), and the guy who painted the arrows for the twisting road signs upstate was drunk on the job. And thus, he told me when I was very little that he had to get married at 23 because he started losing his hair and it became a race against time before my mother wouldn’t want him anymore. He also told me that the monks who he stayed with in Germany had tattooed the Lord’s Prayer in miniature on his bald spot, but you had to look really close to see it. And when you’d look really close to see it, he’d start tickling you and say “Stop means go!” You’d stay “STOP!”, and he’d keep going until you said “GO!”, then he’d keep going anyway.
During the four years between high school and marriage, Joan earned a bachelor’s degree in English from the College of New Rochelle, making her mark as the editor of the school newspaper. She went on to earn a master’s degree in English and education and began what would be 25-year teaching career with a 16-year maternity leave in the middle of it.
But Francis’ application to the Officers’ Training Program at Maine Maritime Academy was rejected, and he decided that “regular college” was not for him. He joined the merchant marines as a seaman at 18 years old. His dream of going out to sea had been the candle burning inside his brain since he was a boy. And that candle was still burning when he co-authored The New York Harbor Book with his friend Bill Miller half a century later.
So here is Francis J. Duffy himself to tell you all about it, from the introduction to the book, published in 1986, when he was 56, a year younger than I am now:
“It was one of those moments that never faded from my memory, during a walk with my father across the recently opened Triborough Bridge. Looking down from the walkway, 315 feet above the East River and the infamous Hell Gate waters, I watched the ships and boats below and confidently told my father that when I grew up, I wanted to work on ships…The panorama of vessels was endless; tankers, cargo ships, military vessels, tugs, barges and railroad car floats, enough to hold a young boy’s attention for hours on end and encourage him to build dreams of sailing away someday…I did fulfill my dream after high school, sailing in the merchant marine on tankers, liberty ships, troop transports and even refugee carriers. Although the romance of the sea paled after I was married and had children, even after swallowing the anchor and coming ashore to work, my fascination with things maritime has never ended.”
As you can see, Francis was a really smart guy who was frustrated that he didn’t do better in school. In the course of his life, he went on to write two books and hundreds of magazine articles, not to mention his ten years as the editor of Towline, the in-house magazine of the Moran Towing Company, who not only had the flashiest tugboats in NY Harbor but also the best season-ticket box at Shea Stadium.
As a teacher, I saw this a lot over 25 years. Young people with loads of natural intelligence who I knew were going to turn out just fine, but who just were not good at “the school game.” As a matter of fact, when I started a teaching job in 1995 at Rockaway Beach Junior High School, in one of New York’s poorest neighborhoods, Francis tossed me a piece of wisdom that nobody in the Education Department at CUNY Queens ever thought to say, something that guided my whole approach to conquering the job. He said, “Don’t expect those kids down there to have middle class values. If you were them, with what they go through, you wouldn’t give a shit either.”
If you think this advice smacks of racism, you didn’t know Francis. It was his way of warning me that throwing your white privilege around won’t win you friends in the projects of Rockaway. You’d be amazed how many people I worked with who didn’t get that. Then again, no you wouldn’t.
As far as I’m concerned, my parents were on the right side of history on just about every issue: Race, immigration, social services, human rights, worker’s rights, you name it. They were dyed-in-the-wool Liberal Democrats who worshipped FDR and mourned John F. Kennedy, and they weren’t fooled by Nixon or Reagan for a damned second. I try to see things from other people’s political and social points-of-view. I really do. But more often than not, when I run it through my parents’ filter, it comes out horse shit.
As a young man sailing on transport ships as a merchant seaman, Francis got to meet other young men from all over the country, and as a straight-arrow, ultra-Catholic Northeastern Liberal, he took an immediate dislike to the “yahoos” from the South (with their guitars and their cigarettes). Everyone had to share quarters with a bunkmate, and Francis became aware that one of these yahoos was complaining that his bunkmate was black. Francis told him he’d switch bunks with him, as the black guy had to be a better bet than the asshole redneck he had gotten stuck with. And he and a seaman named Charlie Calhoun became good friends and kept in touch throughout their lives. AND, when he found out that Charlie’s son Will was the drummer for the band Living Colour, he also had something cool to tell his son John, who likes that kind of music.
I heard my father make lots of snide comments about people of all races and creeds, mostly for what he saw as the sin of falling into the stereotypes they would have been best to try to avoid. He hated the negative stereotypes of the Irish, but he hated even more the Irish that perpetuated those stereotypes. There was a subset that he called “The Bullshit Stage Irish”, the ones that talked way too loud and drank way too much and gave the rest of us a bad name. He liked Irish music if it had some depth, but he referred to the more commercialized stuff as “that diddley-diddley shit.”
But Francis was ultimately every ethnic group’s rooting squad, in that he’d rip into anybody who would attempt to disparage any group at large, or to suggest that any color or creed was inherently inferior. I learned that one very early on: Only dopey bastards think they’re better than everyone because they’re white.
Francis didn’t like to talk about his childhood much, but he loved to talk about his time in the merchant marines. In case you don’t know, (and I probably wouldn’t have), the simplest way I can explain the merchant marines is that it’s sort of an auxiliary of the Navy, with privately-owned ships that are commissioned by the government to move cargo and troops. It’s sort of quasi-military. They wear uniforms and they have officers, which is what he wanted to be, but his high school grades weren’t good enough. He would work as a merchant seaman six months on and six months off. He did this straight out of high school until his first child came along about five years later.
As I was writing this post in the weeks after Francis’ death, my brother Thom actually did something useful, pulling some strings to get a feature obituary article published in both The New York Times and Newsday. He then sent links to the email addresses that Francis still had in his old-fashioned rolodex. What ensued was a kind of slow-motion virtual wake, with many of his colleagues from the “Frank Duffy, Maritime Writer and Photographer” years checking in with kind words and memories.
In an ironic twist, after not making the cut for officer’s training, years and years later, he was one of the founders of the Maritime Industry Museum of SUNY Maritime College at Fort Schuyler. Jim McNamara, one of the gentleman he worked with on this project, wrote a letter to the directors and friends of the museum informing them of the sad news. The information he included in that letter filled in a few blanks for me regarding Francis’ merchant marine Service.
Because of Mr. McNamara, I know that Francis attended The Seamen’s Church Institute, still in business today at 25 South Street in Manhattan. He earned his seaman’s papers and spent the majority of his tours working for the Army Transport Service aboard a troopship called the Alexander Patch.
His crossed the North Atlantic, the Mediterranean, through the Suez Canal and into The Mideast at the age when I was flunking out of classes at Nassau Community College and posing in bars that blasted Depeche Mode and Haircut 100, not to mention living on his dime.
On one of his tours, he signed up to take care of military dogs who were being transported to Europe, because he’d get to hang out with dogs all day. I loved the image of my father as a young man in uniform surrounded by a bunch of German Shepherds. Mookie could certainly attest to his love of animals.
Many, many years later, my parents ended up taking in a formerly feral cat that, despite being very small, had pumped out more than one litter of kittens in the backyard. At some point during her life in the wild, Runt the Cat had gotten her tail bitten off. But she was an excellent cat, and my parents even took her with them when they moved out east.
It’s a pretty safe bet to judge people by how they treat animals, never mind their children. My oldest sister brought home a kitten that a guy was about to drown in the creek on my second birthday in 1965. Herman the Cat went on to live with us for 18 years. When Herman was an old man, he would jump up next to his buddy Francis at dinner every night. And every night, Francis would greet him by saying, “Hello son!”.
And because I had started bugging my parents for a dog from the time I was five, I have a vivid picture in my head of my father’s one in a million smile when they brought Ace the Dog home to me one August afternoon when I was eight.
Runt The Cat
Herman The Cat
Runt the Cat died in Francis’ lap one night out in Jefferson’s Ferry. In retrospect, it was a turning point, as it seemed like my parents really started to decline after they had nobody left to take care of.
Anyway (as our long story lengthens), we have to make one last Port of Call for the merchant marine years, so I can tell you the story of how Francis ended up in the job that he turned into his “marketable skill”, a phrase with which his children were all very, very familiar. From the 1950’s until the 1980’s, Francis made his living with his stationary engineer’s license. He was a member of Local 891 of the International Union of Operating Engineer’s, and proud of it. As he told it to me, the reason that he chose this particular career path is because he was sailing through the North Atlantic, and it was bone-chilling cold. He happened to go down to the ship’s boiler room for some reason and saw a group of guys sitting at a card table, drinking coffee, all toasty warm. And he said sign me up.
The punchline is that once he started working in the boiler room, all his assignments were sailing into the Middle East, and it was 500 degrees in the boiler room.
So Francis has his around-the-world adventures, finds out he’s going to be a father, resigns from the merchant marines the year the Korean War ends, takes his marketable skill and his engineer’s license and gets a job helping to run the terminal buildings at Idlewild Airport, a decade before it became JFK.
And it’s funny: Had he gotten into Maine Maritime Academy and had he become an officer; he would have been away from his family six months a year. I could not imagine what that would have been like, and I’m sure once he settled into his new role as Dad, he couldn’t have either.
Francis started his Dad Career at the age of 24 and he and Joan bought a house when they were both 25. Valley Stream was an easy commute to Idlewild, but Joan wanted to be near the water. And Francis’ overriding mantra was “Whatever Joan Wants.” So first they looked at houses on the Freeport Canals and I’m glad they didn’t buy one. For them, and later for Trisha and me, finding The House on Duffy’s Creek, which had gone up for sale by the original owners only five years after it was built, was Divine Providence. But the mortgage on $13,500 scared the hell out of them.
By the time I arrived as the Fifth Duffy in 1963 (“The Last of The Mohicans” was one of my Francis Names, along with dopey bastard), my parents had already been in the family-raising business for ten years. And when I was sixth months old, and Francis was 33, his own father died suddenly at 69. Joan had already lost her father in 1955, also in his 60’s. So no Grandpas for me.
As a matter of fact, the three people John Daniel Duffy was named for, including a Grandpa, a Pope and a President, all died the year I was born. My mother told me, lots and lots of times, that one of her nun buddies from the College of New Rochelle remarked that this meant I had “three good friends at the right hand of God,” which I bet is just about the most Irish freaking thing you’ve ever heard.
Needless to say, I’ve always loved the creek that runs in back of our house. It’s been flowing nonstop through every story I’ve told you today, and the ones I haven’t gotten to yet, and to me that’s something worth paying attention to. Francis liked to look out the window at the creek changing with the seasons and the tides and say, “it’s like being on vacation every day.” So for the point at which I enter the story, we may as well start with the creek.
Duffy’s Creek is actually a brackish tidal basin that takes in saltwater from Jamaica Bay and fresh water from a stream system and a small lake running about six miles north. It was commonly known as Watt’s Creek when I was a kid, until I changed it. Francis bought an aluminum rowboat and a 15mph Johnston Outboard Motor to take us for rides. A couple of times we hitched the boat to a trailer and went out from the Woodmere Docks to explore the Bay Houses. At the time, you could get all the way out to the airport and the bay from our backyard, and there was actually a “5 mph speed limit sign” posted on the creek. People would come down in motorboats, wave to us, realize they couldn’t get past the dam on Mill Road, turn around, wave to us again, and go back towards Rosedale.
But an adventure of this sort was not advised, as the tide in Jamaica Bay could mess you up bad if you didn’t know what you were doing. And this gave rise to Francis’ favorite bedtime story, about the boy who didn’t listen to his father and took the boat out without permission, “and he went down past Mr. Campbell’s house, down past Mr. Burnett’s House, down past Mr. O’Neill’s House, down past the high school, under the bridge, out past the airport, into the ocean, and they never saw him again.”
My brother Thom asked me once what I believe is the single biggest gift I got from being raised in The Art of Being Francis. One thing came to mind right away. My father taught me the incomparable feeling of piloting a boat on the water and knowing what you’re doing. I definitely don’t like it as much as he did, though. I went on an Outward Bound trip in Maine when I was 16, where we sailed on the open ocean, and while I’m glad I had the experience, I pretty much hated it. I’m more of a flat water guy. My parents loved to go on cruises, and personally I would rather be trapped in a basement for a week. But about six years ago, I got in touch with my Inner Francis and started kayaking, and to teach my son to love it. And my dad is right there with me any time I’m not on terra firma.
Meanwhile, heading the other way up the creek, my maternal grandmother, Julia Scully, bough the house next door to us a year after my parents moved here, and commenced to drive Francis up the wall for the next thirty years. But he was the one who had originally convinced her to move out to the suburbs when the house went on the market shortly after my grandfather William Scully died. Whatever Joan wants.
While it was nice having a contiguous lawn to play on, I could tell from when I was very young that Grandma Scully was a handful. She paid my parents one dollar every night to deliver (via me) a plate of whatever they were having for dinner that night across the lawn to her kitchen table. Francis pointed out many, many times what a great deal Grandma was getting on the “dollar supper”, which wasn’t adjusted for inflation once in over thirty years.
She also decided that she would help my mother out by having one of us bring freshly dried laundry in baskets over to her attic, where there was an ancient, out of tune piano that I’m sure she must have insisted had to be carried down the stairs of her apartment building in Astoria, into a van and back up the stairs to the unfinished attic of 81 Jedwood Place in Valley Stream. There, next to this never-played piano, she would separate, fold and iron the laundry so one of us could be sent back over to get it later, sometimes followed several hours later by Francis saying, “where the hell is my (shirt / underwear/ pajamas / etc.)?”
And thus was born, in the wonderful mind of Francis J. Duffy, the Legend of The Sock-Eating Piano.
And here’s another legendary family story: My father’s personal mic drop when it came to my maternal grandmother. Grandma Scully took Francis aside on his wedding day to tell him that there was no room for him in the Scully Plot at St. John’s Catholic Cemetery, which they have had since the mid 19th Century. Really. That happened. And If he told the Scully Plot story once, damned if he hadn’t told it five-hundred times. And yet he made sure she was taken care of by moving her out to Valley Stream and making it seem like her idea, when it was his idea.
And today, he is buried in the Scully Plot, but they spelled his name on the headstone with an “e” by mistake.
So I guess it was a draw.
Now, when I was very little I had a thought that I knew I couldn’t express out loud, which was that I wished the fun Grandma lived next door to us instead. My father’s mother was my good buddy until I was eight years old. She would come to visit every few weeks from Astoria, or we would go to see her. I once told her that I liked the little cartoons on the Quaker Instant Oatmeal envelopes. From that day forward, she saved me every single oatmeal envelope that she emptied, carefully torn off at the top. She probably had just saved another one the day she fell on the street and broke her hip, which was when they found out she had advanced bone cancer.
My “Grandma Duffy” and I lit up around each other. I was “her Johnny” and I could listen to her Irish lilt all day. Having a grandparent from the Old Country was like having access to a TV station that no one else got, where they even speak a different kind of English. And I later found out, through reading captions she wrote on old photographs in an album I found in the attic of my house, that she was the real reason why we were all funny. I knew there was a reason I liked her best when I was little, but I couldn’t put my finger on it at the time. That was it. She was funny. And now that I know that her birthplace was established in the year 256, I like to think that being a wiseass is buried deep in the Duffy DNA. You probably had to be pretty good to make people laugh in 256.
When she was dying of cancer in 1971 at St. Rose’s Hospice on the Lower East Side, my father drove me in on a Sunday morning to say goodbye. Of course he did his tour guide narrative on the way, telling me all about the buildings and history around me, as he did whenever we drove into the city. Still, that must have been a rough one for him. I know this because the day I drove my own eight-year old son to Mather Hospital to say goodbye to his Grandma Duffy forty years later was a rough one for me.
Through most of the 60’s and 70’s, my parents didn’t have two dimes to rub together. Yet every summer from 1966 to 1974, we went on a two or three three-week vacation to a paradise in the Adirondack Mountains called Camp Lavigerie. Francis hauled hundreds of pounds of humans and cargo 700 miles round trip in the red VW Bus he bought new in 1964 and sold to some hippies in 1972. (It was white Ford station wagons after that. Then nothing but Honda Accords).
Now, you ask, what would a guy who loved hanging out around New York Harbor and watching the big ships sailing past the Statue of Liberty be doing in the Adirondacks for three weeks every July? Well, the answer to that question is Whatever Joan Wants. My mother was introduced to the North Country by her college roommate and she fell in love. And Francis loved Joan, so he also learned to love mountains and lakes. And so did I. The 15 mph Johnston Outboard Motor was the first thing to go in the bus every summer, ready to be hooked up to a rented aluminum boat, ready to take us to Bing Tormey’s General Store across Lake Kushaqua, where Francis would pick up the New York Times and where I first picked up a mournful taste for Dr. Pepper. And I and my brothers and sisters have been drawn back to Lake Kushaqua like moths over and over as the years pass. Last summer, I had the unique pleasure of kayaking on Kushaqua with my son Jack, my brother Mike and his girlfriend, more than fifty years after that first trip to Tormey’s.
In August of 1972, the year after Molly died, we took another week or so of vacation to circle the coast of Ireland in a rented car, with a trip inland to the village of Granard in County Longford, where she was born before the first dawn of the 20th Century. My parents decided to take just me and my brother Thom, four and a half years older than me. The older three stayed back and threw parties while Grandma Scully was in charge next door. We couldn’t go to Derry in the North to see where Dan was born because of the troubles at the time. Of course, Francis was ready to go anyway, but the car rental company wouldn’t let him.
In Granard, I remember Francis getting out of the car to talk to a local fellow to find out directions to the home of some cousins he thought he might find, and the guy turned out to be his cousin. I can see that moment like it happened yesterday; the stone house, the hedgerows, my dad’s hat and trench coat, the whole thing. I even remember the red rental car. The trip was magical to me: Exploring castle ruins, watching the patchwork of green from the airplane landing at Shannon Airport, meeting other distant relatives who looked and sounded like leprechauns (their name was Ellis and they lived on a farm), following Thom as we snuck out of the hotel room in Dublin to do our own exploring when my parents left us there for a couple of hours, and best of all to a seven year-old, hotels with heated indoor swimming pools.
Years later (and we’ll get there if you stick around), when my father became Frank Duffy, everybody’s go-to maritime writer and aerial photography specialist in New York Harbor, and built his own free-lancing business by, among other adventures, taking pictures of all manner of sailing vessels while hanging out of rented helicopters and scaring the crap out of my mom (whom he reassured by telling her they were all piloted by Vietnam Vets), he named that business Granard Associates. And the genesis of Granard Associates was when he bought his first of many SLR cameras for that trip to Ireland in 1972, probably about five years before he sold his first picture as Frank Duffy.
Ireland, of course, is a really good place to take pictures, provided you follow some simple, established protocols.
Alas, the rules of society were nothing in the face of Francis J. Duffy with a camera. If the shot was there, he was going for it. Trespassing on private property was of trivial concern compared to getting a great picture, which explains why several years after the Ireland trip, he committed several felonies one Summer Sunday afternoon to take a pilot boat out to the then abandoned Ellis Island – the place where both of his parents first met New York City – to break into the buildings and take pictures, taking his two youngest sons along for the history lesson, but fortunately not to witness him being arrested and led into custody. Naturally, he and his buddy the pilot boat captain got away with the whole thing,
Sometime in the early 1990’s, I heard that they were tearing down the vaudeville-era Rio Theater in my hometown of Valley Stream that week.
I happened to mention this to my father on a Saturday afternoon. We were literally inside the theater taking pictures half an hour later. There were guys working on the demo crew who saw him walk in with the big, fancy camera around his neck and just assumed he belonged there.
But he met his match the afternoon when we saw the Tinkers’ trailer parked along the road. Tinkers are the Gypsies of Ireland. The name derives from making a living as tinsmiths. It is politically correct in Ireland to call them the Travelers. Francis called them the Tinkers.
We pulled over to get a look at a Tinker’s trailer. I can see it. Ornate wood designs painted bright reds and blues and oranges, with three steps up to a red door that looked like the door in the tree in fairy tales. He told me to run over and stand in front of it while he drew that SLR Camera from the bag. Dutifully, I stood on the steps. The little second-generation leprechaun.
And the Tinker emerges from that fairytale door, looking quite like a fairytale character himself, and not one of the nice ones. He grabs me by the collar of my windbreaker and suggests to the man with the camera that ya may want to pay me a few pounds fer takin’ pictures of me house, Yank. And the man with the camera quickly came to a financial arrangement with the Tinker, who in turn released me.
And for years and years and years, I could count on Francis to pull out one of his all-time best lines, every few times I wised-off to him, or was otherwise annoying:
“I should have left you with the Goddamn Tinkers.”
Francis was a busy guy in the 1970’s. With four kids in college, his wife went back to work as a New York City high school English teacher when I started first grade. He had left the airport around 1965 for a new, better-paying job as a school custodian engineer for the NYC Board of Education, then by the time he was sporting his 70’s sideburns, he grabbed a position as the supervisor of school custodians. His territory was Greenwich Village down to Chinatown. On school vacations, I had designated “Go to Work with Dad” days. That would mean getting up early to drive to the Queens Courthouse Municipal Parking Lot on the Belt Parkway and the Van Wyck Expressway (the first time I heard him say “fuck”), then taking the E or the F downtown (where I was instructed that people on subways do not make eye contact) to the office that he shared with the other supervisors on 7th Avenue South. I can still see Mr. Strom, the big guy with the round glasses who talked about his place up in the country, and Mr. Lambert, the black guy with the jazzy sportscoat and hat who followed the Mets just like I did.
Francis’ job was to go from school to school and check in with the custodian, take a look around, then sign the book. Interestingly, he and the men he supervised were all in the same union. He referred to them as “The Good Brothers”. Not a dopey bastard among them as far as I know.
On my first Go to Work with Dad Day, we were walking through the cafeteria of an elementary school in Chinatown. Every single child in the room was Chinese except me. So just to screw with me, he said, “you’re gonna eat lunch with the kids here while I go to the office, OK?”, then enjoyed replaying my reaction to one of the Good Brothers, then to everybody in the family when we got home.
Lesson: Being freaked out because you’re in a room where nobody looks like you is just silly. Get over it.
One of the main highlights of Go to Work with Dad day was lunch at the Blue Mill Restaurant, tucked away in a little side street of 7th Ave South. As a man who thought cooking was something his mother, the ship’s cook or his wife did, Francis was a huge fan of restaurants, and had a collection of matchbooks from every restaurant he visited under glass on the top of his dresser, though of course he didn’t smoke. He and the Good Brothers always took their full hour for lunch. I remember Francis greeting the owner of the Blue Mill warmly, even though to me he looked like the guy who used to beat up Charlie Chaplin.
The other highlight of the day was the S.S. John Brown.
The John Brown was a WW II Victory Ship, one of 2,700 built in the blink of an eye when this country could do things. “The Brown” operated as a merchant marine ship before being converted into a New York City Vocational High School in 1946. Until 1983, the “School Ship” trained thousands of guys to be merchant marines. In retrospect, I think Francis took that commute downtown for the better part of twenty years just to get to know restaurateurs and hang out on the John Brown every chance he got.
The Brown was docked on Pier 43 at the end of West 25th Street, where the locals would sunbathe in thongs while rubbing suntan lotion on each other intimately and Francis would walk right by like they weren’t there.
He loved showing his kids around the kind of ship where he had lived his youthful adventures. And I cannot smell diesel fuel to this day without being seven years old with my dad again.
The John Brown also had a small “training vessel” called the “Pisces”, which is the one we stole to go to Ellis Island.( As you see, I was piloting for a bit, out on New York Harbor). It still astounds me what a ballsy thing that was to do.
And there’s two things I can tell you about the S.S. John Brown: One is that it’s still around, one of the only two remaining Liberty Ships, currently operating as a museum in Baltimore, and if you’re near there, you can visit it. The other thing is that it launched the career of the man everyone connected to New York Harbor would come know and love as Frank Duffy.
Francis Duffy lived in Valley Stream, Long Island for 44 years, but you could have found him in Downtown Manhattan, as his alter-ego Frank Duffy, a good chunk of that time. A couple of nights a week in the years when the tuitions were piling up, he taught aspiring stationery engineers at Apex Technical School. He also took several years of night classes at Pace University to get his bachelor’s degree. This of course gave him more time for restaurants in between jobs, but he also started getting involved in various organizations and projects connected to the Harbor.
Then he started writing articles and taking pictures and getting them published. As a guy who needed my mom to get him through 11th grade English, he was over the moon proud to see his byline in publications like Steamboat Bill and The National Fisherman. (My mom was, of course, his editor, and they fought like hell, but they got the job done). And he kept coming up with new ideas for articles. He loved this cartoon he saw in The New Yorker by Frank Booth, where a man is sitting in front of a typewriter on his front porch staring into space, as ten dogs of different breeds sit around him and his wife says from the doorway, “Write about dogs.”
Frank Duffy wrote about ships. And he took lots and lots and lots of pictures. And he met more and more people and got involved in more and more projects. When the Bicentennial rolled around in 1976, with its parade of big sailing ships passing the Statue of Liberty and its humongous fireworks display, we were on the roof of a local NYC School having a big party. When they renovated the Lady of The Harbor for her 100th birthday ten years later, Francis climbed up on the scaffolding to take pictures.
Here’s the proof:
The side gig got bigger and bigger, to the point where he checked out of there civil service the second he hit 25 years in 1985. Over the ensuing 20 years, he was for ten of them the head of Public Relations for the Moran Towing Company (The tugboats with the big “M” on them). He co-authored a book with his friend Bill Miller called The New York Harbor Book, then wrote his own book, Always on Station, the story of the Sandy Hook Pilots who guide gigantic ships and barges into the Harbor.
One thing I definitely picked up studying The Art of Being Francis was his passion for finding out every single thing he could about any subject that grabbed his attention, then having to tell people what he found out. And, of course, he did most of that before there was an Internet.
At some point, he got interested in the story of The General Slocum Disaster, a major incident in NYC history from June 15, 1904 in which an excursion boat with outdated or non-existent safety equipment caught fire on a day trip shortly after leaving the dock at nine o’clock in the morning. The boat had been rented by St. Mark’s Lutheran Church on the Lower East Side for $350, and was carrying mostly German immigrant woman and children. Of 1,358 passengers, 1,021 died, with the unthinkable choice of being burned alive on the boat or jumping off and drowning in the water. The captain, Harry Van Schaick, was later found guilty of criminal negligence.
Yes, stubbornness, stupidity, poor planning and lack of decisive action can lead to a lot of people dying who shouldn’t have. That’s how the man whose passions led to all sorts of people learning about the forgotten tragedy of the General Slocum ended up dying himself.
But because he lived his life as he did, lots of people know the story of the General Slocum who otherwise wouldn’t, and the memorial for the 1.021 dead that was run-down and neglected in Tompkins Square Park in the East Village is now maintained, and a wreath-laying ceremony started by Frank Duffy still takes places on June 15th to this day. He even made friends with two women who survived the fire as infants: Catherine Connelly, who lived to be 109, and Adella Wotherspoon, an infant in 1904 who died at the age of 100 the month my son was born in 2004. If you want to learn a little more (and get away from me for awhile) You can take a look at Francis himself in this History Channel documentary:
Now, you can imagine with all these irons in the fire, and all this recognition and ego-affirming as Frank Duffy, and all these accomplishments piling up (one of his family jokes was if he were criticized him over something trivial, he’d come back with, “how many guys do you know who have readers all over world?”), he didn’t really have the brain space for this snotty youngest kid who kept screwing up in school, who didn’t share his interests, and seemed to be involved in suspicious activities.
But he never gave up on me. And he always tried to find ways to meet me where I was.
I was his son, and that never stopped counting for something.
Case in point: Francis was not a baseball fan. Couldn’t care less about it. But after my first-grade teacher let us watch the ’69 World Series (which the Mets won on October 16, which was my mom’s 40th birthday) following the Mets was one of my own personal “looking out from the Triborough Bridge” little-boy epiphanies.
And every year from when I was seven until I became an intolerable teenager and started taking the train to Shea with my intolerable teenage friends, Francis would hand me the Mets schedule in March and say, “pick two games”.
Fifteen years or so later, he regularly got the best seats in the house, right behind home plate, from his job at Moran Towing. We got the tickets five or six times a year for over ten years, and I know he especially liked that this made him cooler in my eyes. Plus, he started going to more games himself because his wife really enjoyed it. Whatever Joan Wants.
And twenty years or so after that, shortly before his long, slow decline began, he was flipping through the Times at his table in the yellow cottage at the Jefferson’s Ferry Life Care Community and he saw an ad for a framed picture of the Mookie Wilson’s slow ground ball going under Bill Buckner’s legs in the 1986 World Series, signed by both Bill Buckner and Mookie Wilson, and he said, “I bet you John would like that”, and he ordered it for me on the spot. It is one of my most prized possessions.
So you’d think I would’ve been nicer to him when I was younger.
But, Christ I was a dopey bastard.
My mother saw me going to Syracuse University, majoring in communications, being a famous guy who communicates. Through they were not the least bit rich, Francis would often say to me, “you know I’d pay for Harvard if you got in.”
But with my grades in high school, Nassau Community College was where I wound up.
Then I fucked THAT up.
So after several missteps and several incomplete college courses which cost money, I found myself working at the Foodtown Supermarket during the day and taking classes at night, and instead of going away to college and then going away, I crept further into my twenties still living at home, keeping from Francis from going out of business. Then again, while he was hanging out with what my mom called his “ship buddies in the city”, I was back in Valley Stream mowing the lawn, doing the grocery shopping and driving people to and from the airport when necessary. Then he’d come home and we’d fight about something. So, in a nod to The Pink Panther (and because I inherited Francis’ funhouse mirror), I started calling myself Chan the Houseboy.
Francis introduced me to two people during my Chan the Houseboy years who helped point me in the right direction. One was a world-famous doctor and professor, the other was a custodian engineer.
After one of our regularly scheduled battles, Francis didn’t know what the hell else to tell me, so he gave me a book that he had kept for most of his life. It was a 45-page book, a little bigger than a tin of Altoids, published in 1937. Its text was a speech by Dr. William Osler, a Canadian who was one of the four professors who founded Johns Hopkins Medical School, credited with being the first to include residencies in medical school training.
The speech was given to the Yale Graduating Class of 1917, and it was called “A Way of Life.” Francis was trying to give me the secret of how he became Francis, and I said, “yeah, yeah, whatever.” But I read it. And it got me thinking.
Osler’s philosophy was basically, “get up off your ass and do something.” His “Way of Life” was to take each day of your life as a separate entity (a sort of Zen Buddhist “there is no past there is no future” kind of thing). He proposed that this “handle to fit your life tools.” was to suggest that “life is a habit.” Mastery of life comes through repetition, which means being the same guy every day, preferably a good one.
I’ll let the good Dr. Osler take it for a little bit here:
“Now, for the day itself! What first? Be your own daysman!…Get in touch with the finite, and grasp in full enjoyment that sense of capacity of a machine working smoothly. Join the whole creation of animate things in a deep heartfelt joy that you are alive, that you see the sun, that you are in this glorious earth, which nature has made so beautiful, and which is yours to conquer and enjoy.”
Great stuff, but Osler went on to say that I should quit smoking (“Lady Nicotine”) so I’d feel better in the morning, and I found that an unreasonable request. But he also gave me this pearl of wisdom: “Life is straight, plain business, and the way is clear, blazed for you by generations of strong men, into whose labors you enter and whose ideas must be your inspiration.”
Again, I totally got it, and it’s a part of my overall philosophy. But I found guys like Dr. Osler and my father to be a little too tight in their presentation. I guess I needed “A Way of Life Lite.”
And then I met Joe Darcy.
Mr. Darcy was the Custodian Engineer of PS 205 in Oakland Gardens, south of Bayside, Queens. In the summer, I would go on hiatus from Foodtown, where I was beloved but made $6 an hour, and I’d work as a school cleaner for one of the Good Brothers, where I’d make $13 an hour. (I am the only person you know who did his student teaching in the same school where he had once cleaned the bathrooms). Mr. Darcy was one of my summer bosses.
He was from the Old Country, the size of a thatched cottage, so Irish it was practically exploding out of his face from under a shock of grey hair. He was funny as hell and we took an instant liking to each other. To this day, when I ask my wife if she knows the score of the ballgame, I’ll call out in Darcy’s booming brogue, “SO HOW’RE ME METSIES DOIN’?” The crew was only four guys, but he insisted that we observe holidays, which meant a cold case of Budweiser cans around 2 pm on July 3rd.
At around 4:30 pm that day, walking out to our respective cars, Mr. Darcy had some wisdom for me, which he imparted by practically swallowing me up under his arm:
“Let me tell ya somethin’ about yer father, Johnny. Yer father? He’s a PROUD motherfucker! And ya got to do right by him, Johnny! ‘Cause he’s a good man. Now you and me, Johnny, we’re a couple of fuck ups. We’ll always be a couple of fuck ups. But YOU! (poking me in the chest with a gigantic finger at this point) You gotta do right by him! You can’t embarrass him! You hear me, Johnny? He’s a PROUD mother fucker!”
Now I knew from Francis that Darcy was not a fuck up. Not at all. After emigrating to New York from Ireland, he had put himself through school at night while working as a bellhop in a Manhattan hotel and had earned his stationary engineer’s license. He was a husband, a father and a homeowner. But Darcy could see that I was not as tightly wrapped as my father, and I’m sure he had heard stories about me, so he took it upon himself to point me towards an achievable goal: Be who you are, but don’t embarrass that man.
I guess that was the first step towards becoming Stoned Francis. But I can be a proud motherfucker, too.
The Chan The Houseboy Agreement was that I paid for my tuition and expenses and lived rent-free as long as I was chipping away at a degree. Rent on Long Island was and is insane, and many of my friends had gotten around that by getting married. It was not an ideal situation of course, but one upside is that Francis and Joan were gone about six weeks of the year at this point, going on cruises and other trips that Francis was either getting gratis in exchange for his photojournalist services or using as a fat tax write off. The grandchildren started coming around this time and my parents were in their glory. (Chan The Houseboy was also very good at being Uncle John). They had finally put themselves out of business, notwithstanding the young fellow living in their attic.
In the end, I took Chan eight years to get a four-year degree, parlaying an Associate’s credits to a B.A in English degree from CUNY in 1989. I was completely embarrassed by how long it took, and that I was living at home at 26. But Francis insisted that we celebrate the occasion. At the time, he owned a small share of a “party boat” operating near the South Street Seaport called the Mystique. My parents invited a bunch of their friends and insisted that I invite a bunch of my friends, and we sailed around New York Harbor on beautiful summer night and we had a grand old time.
It’s funny to me in retrospect that I normally would try to keep my friends away from Francis, even though he’d always fool me and wind up finding something in common with them, long hair, leather jackets, bloodshot eyes, tattoos and all. That was his Dale Carnegie thing. Years later, my wife said whenever she saw him, he’d ask about her parents and her sisters and brothers, and he’d remember something she said last time, and there’d be no question that he wasn’t just making small talk. He actually wanted to know. And if you’d introduce someone to Francis, he’s often come back at you a month later, and say, “Hey, did ____ get that job?” You could say It was a pretty amazing gift he had, but it wasn’t a gift. It was a habit he had worked at. A Way of Life.
My first post-BA job was in the production department of New York Magazine. Francis was impressed. My first place off Jedwood Place was a house I shared with two Valley Stream buddies 20 miles north, overlooking Hempstead Harbor in Sea Cliff, Long Island. Francis was both impressed and happy to get rid of me. It helped that my share of the rent (for a room the size of a walk-in closet) was $400, because the glamourous city job paid $18,000 a year. After a year in Sea Cliff, the other two guys, who had lived there for five years before me, were completely sick of each other and decided not to renew the lease, and I was back to the attic of my parents’ house at the age of 27.
The starting salary for a NYC teacher at the time was $28,000. After experiencing the kissassitocracy of the New York Publishing world, civil service, the family business, started looking better and better. Despite my mother warning me (and rightly so) that it was a lot harder than it seemed (Francis always thought a marketable skill was a good idea), I went back to CUNY Queens for my Master’s degree and a teaching license, and spent another couple of years as Chan The Houseboy.
But by this time, Francis and I were done fighting. We’d talk politics and current events, we’d watch “Seinfeld”, I’d know what was going on at the Maritime Museum and talk on the phone to the old ladies who survived the General Slocum. It was frustrating as hell to be there, but he didn’t make it intolerable. And I guess we both figured it was a temporary situation and we may as well enjoy each other’s company.
Ultimately, it was a temporary situation, but it ended up lasting way, way longer than it should have. Once I was licensed in the Fall of 1992, my mother had a friend who had friend who was a principal of a high school in the Bronx and I had a job. (It happens to be the building that was built over the Hutchinson River Parkway, and I drive under it and thank it for the four months of service credit I got towards my retirement on my way to our house up in Copake Falls, which is as far from the Bronx as you can get in two hours).
The school was not good. For the most part, I didn’t like the people I worked with. I was a Nassau / Queens guy and the Bronx was another country. I was having trouble finding the right tone with the kids in the crappy program they gave me. The building itself made my head hurt. The principal was not the nice guy he had sold himself as to me, and I was not the confident, ready-to-go rookie teacher I had sold myself as to him. It was a terrible situation, but I was determined to see it through. On a Friday afternoon in early October, one of my Sea Cliff roommates tipped me off to a studio apartment for rent in his building in Douglaston. I had a blank check in my hand, but somebody had scooped it up by the time I got there.
The next morning my parents took a beautiful October day to go walk around the Old Westbury Gardens, and I went to see Dr. Rivara about something that hadn’t seemed quite right, and that I had been putting off for a couple of months. Dr. Rivara sent me directly to Dr. Stanley Landau, a urologist in Rockville Centre.
And that afternoon, my parents coming home all spiritually refreshed from their golden afternoon at Old Westbury Gardens, I had to sit them down and tell them I had testicular cancer. My mother told me something later about that day that I’ll never forget. She said, “In all the years I’d known your father, that was the saddest I’ve ever seen him.”
Francis let me stay in his house as long as I needed to be there, and I need to be there three and a half more years.
Because it got to the point where I let myself get fired from the high school in the Bronx for too many days absent, and I didn’t care anymore. It was hellish under ordinary circumstances, and I refused to even entertain the notion of working in a hostile environment in between chemotherapy treatments, which turned out to be a very good decision, as those treatments knocked me on my ass completely.
But by that summer, I was cancer-free. Turns out testicular cancer was well-researched, and one of the most curable forms of cancer, I suppose because historically, most doctors had testicles. I got a job teaching ESL Classes to rich Europeans and Asians milking their student visas at a place called Aspect Language School that operated on the CW Post Campus in Old Brookville. I drove a cab in Port Washington and helped a friend in his cleaning business.
Francis loved hearing the details of all these jobs, because they were outside of his experience and he could learn something new. And now that we had stopped fighting with each other (he and mom still yelled at each other all the time), I could just enjoy him for the character that he was. If Joan were making him a sandwich, he would call from the other room, “make sure you use the nice mustard!” Which is to say, the Grey Poupon and not the French’s. To this day, I personify all food based on its temperament. The nice chicken.
And while once again functioning as Chan the Houseboy around my three poorly-paying jobs, I went on lots of job interviews at Long Island schools because I didn’t want to go back to the city no way no how. And I’d get invited in because my resume and cover letter contained no typos, and I’d have wonderful, positive interview, sometimes two, and they’d send me a follow-up letter saying how much they enjoyed meeting me but in the end they decided to hire the business manager’s nephew. They didn’t really say that, but they may as well have.
So Chan the Houseboy was slowly turning into what my mother called, “one of those sad, old Irish bachelors living with his parents.” (Her confidence was in me was inspiring).
This went on until Francis had seen enough. In the fall of 1995, he spread my resume around among the Good Brothers all over Queens, who would then drop them on principals’ desks all over Queens. People were always ready to help out Francis because they knew he’d help them out, or else he already had.
On the week before Columbus Day, staring down the barrel of another year of living in the attic, I got a call from Bob Spata, principal of Rockaway Beach Junior High School 180. He yelled everything, and that afternoon, this is what he yelled into the phone at me: “You come very highly recommended from Harvey Weintraub! And if you’re good enough for Harvey, you’re good enough for me! Come on in Tuesday morning!”
I had no idea who Harvey Weintraub was. But I came in Tuesday Morning and managed to work around it. It turns out that Harvey was a principal of another school who had taken the resume of a guy looking for an English teacher job from his custodian engineer, then remembered talking to Bob Spata about how he needed an English teacher.
So Francis set me up with the job I kept for the next 25 years, nine in Rockaway (which unlike the Bronx was more my kind of crazy), and 16 years in Ozone Park. You can imagine how happy I was to grab him on a Saturday afternoon early the next spring to drive over and look at my new apartment on the second floor of a house on the side of a six-lane highway in Lynbrook. I was still an old Irish bachelor, but at least I wasn’t living with my parents anymore. That was something. The first thing Francis did was buy himself the best self-propelling lawn mower he could find.
And it was a privilege to hang out with him in those years. No Dad Drama, just Francis Fun. He was always up to something. And if you were in with Francis, every once in a while, it would be your turn for a helicopter ride.
It happened to have come around to my turn again the day after Frank Sinatra died, May 15th, 1998. I remember that because when Francis came over to pick me up at my apartment in Lynbrook, I figured that was something I could lead off with. “Hey, did you hear about Sinatra?”
The whole world was buzzing with tributes and hagiography for one of the biggest stars of the century, and Francis says this: “I never liked him much.”
I nodded and I laughed out loud. Of course he didn’t like him much. In Francis’ World, vocal artistry, or any great talent, didn’t get you off the hook for being an asshole. Why should it?
That morning, Francis was dressed in his Frank Duffy, Granard Associates work uniform: The matching khaki pants and safari-style field coat with a hundred giant pockets among them, the brown baseball cap with the oversize brown sunglasses resting on the brim, and locked up tight out in his Honda Accord, the gigantic army green camera bag with several thousand dollars’ worth of equipment at the ready.
We were heading out of Republic Airport to take photos of a barge coming into New York Harbor from under the Verrazano Bridge (guided by the Sandy Hook Pilots). Francis would always remind you that all the pilots he worked with were Vietnam Vets. As if to say whatever happens, they’ve seen worse.
It was a beautiful Long Island morning, but already getting early-summer warm. Usually he flew from the 34th Street Heliport, so it was an extra treat to fly from Farmingdale straight over Nassau County, where we learned there are people making some serious money in the backyard swimming pool business, then out past Rockaway, where we flew right over my school.
Guests rode up front with the pilot, while Francis worked both windows in the back with his telephoto lens. It’s quite possible that one of the pictures he took that day is still framed on somebody’s office wall somewhere. He literally built an international reputation for being the best maritime aerial photographer in New York, and he could also whip you up a nice little press release and get it planted somewhere if you liked. He was 69 years old and having the time of his life. And if you also liked, he could come to your group with a couple of wheels of slides and give you a presentation on everything from the forgotten islands of New York Harbor to the Victory Ships of WWII.
He’d been known to take pictures hanging half out of his buckled seat, and he actually preferred it if there were no door in his way. In a nutshell, he was freaking crazy up there. When Joan expressed her worry (which she did so well), first Francis would do his patented twisted-mouth expression with a hand waving across your words like they were Camp Lavigerie mosquitos, and then he’d say, ‘Ahhh, go on! I’ll be fiiiiine! Besides, if I fall out, you’ll be a rich old lady. What do you care?”
As I told you before, once we didn’t need anything from each other, Francis and I got to be pretty good friends, and one of the best ways to cement a friendship is to get in some trouble together, whether intentionally or not. On the helicopter ride back from the Verrazano Bridge, it became clear that we were racing a wicked thunderstorm, and that we weren’t completely assured of winning.
Storms come across the city from the west into the Long Island suburbs, and apparently this one had popped up earlier than our pilot had anticipated. By the time we were a mile or so out of Republic, the black-clouded thing had caught up to us, complete with lightning flashing on both sides of the helicopter, and enough turbulence to wipe the smiles off the respective faces of both the veteran war pilot and Frank Duffy, veteran Smug Aerial Photographer.
Fortunately, we landed safely, and Francis and I drove home through the drenching rain with a new story to share. (“We probably shouldn’t tell your mother”). He was quick to tell me that in over a hundred flights, that was as scared as he ever got, and while I could’ve lived without it myself, it was a great honor to have been on the flight that actually frightened Frank Duffy.
I think back on that day because you could say it was one of the last times I saw “Frank” in action. Sharp-eyed boatsman that he was, he could see plainly that at 69, the tide was slowly turning, and the river of his life was getting harder to navigate. My parents’ glory days; Columbus Day weekends at the Mohonk Mountain House, cruises on windjammers in Maine, taking their oldest grandchild to Ireland, fancy nights out in the city, spoiling everyone silly at Christmas, started winding down when Joan was diagnosed with Parkinson’s Disease in 1995.
She had wondered what was wrong with her for about a year. She didn’t have the tremors, but she more and more difficulty in moving her arms and legs, and she had developed what I now know as the “Parkie Shuffle.” We realized that Grandma Scully, who left the house for a nursing home in 1983 and died there at 98 six years later, had walked like that for years and had never had a diagnosis. Mom had been working at Hofstra University as an adjunct professor, and loving every minute of it, but now she could barely walk across the campus.
She got the diagnosis right before she and Francis were supposed to hop across the ocean for another adventure. I think it was Italy. Right before she left, she started taking dopamine. And she was practically jogging when she came back. It was miraculous, but it was also temporary. The level of dopamine would have to keep being increased as the disease progressed, and the disease would eventually win.
So around that time, Francis started looking into a new option for old folks called Life Care, which he no doubt learned about one morning while eating an Entenmann’s sticky bun with the New York Times Sunday Real Estate Section spread out across the table and the other sections spread all over the couch behind him. In a Life Care Community, you put a very large sum of money down as a deposit and you chose between living in a cottage (my parents’ choice) or an independent living apartment. Once you can’t handle that, you move to right into assisted living. From there you go to skilled nursing and from there you slide into the back of a Caddy.
There were two Life Care Communities on Long Island, both in Suffolk County: One all the way at the tip of the East End in Orient called Peconic Landing, and one about five miles south of Port Jefferson called (in a stroke of marketing genius) Jefferson’s Ferry. They kicked the tires on Peconic Landing, but ultimately settled on Jefferson’s Ferry.
Meanwhile, a year and a half after safely landing in a helicopter at Republic Airport, the old Irish Bachelor met a not-as-old Irish and Dutch Cat Lady, and True Love happened. And as you know, it doesn’t happen every day.
Trisha and I are both the youngest child in our families, me of five and she of ten. I was 36 and Trisha was 28, so we were both welcomed warmly and with much relief into each other’s new families. Some of our older brothers and sisters had all taken turns disappointing our parents by “living in sin” before marriage. So we knew what we were getting into (not that we cared very much). So to smooth it over, we announced that we were engaged before we announced that we moving into an apartment together across the street from my parents’ church, Holy Name of Mary.
Being a city teacher, Mom was hipper than Francis. She still never got used to the idea of people living together before they got married, but she realized that to question it would be, in one of her favorite expressions, “like shoveling shit against the tide.” I told her about it first, and she was worried about how Francis was going to take it. Twenty years before, when one of my siblings was “living in sin”, Francis asked me out of nowhere what I thought about it. I was 16 and I told him I thought it was pretty cool. He snarled and said, “I’m sickened by it.”
He inherited his religious traditions directly from his immigrant parents and he never saw a need to change them. But now the old dog didn’t have the same bite.
So this is the way the conversation went down in June of 2000:
Me: “Hey, you know that old apartment building on South Grove Street across from the church?”
Francis: “Sure. What about it?”
Me: “Trisha and I are moving into an apartment there next week.”
Francis (after a very long pause): “Where do you park there?”
Me: You can park overnight in the village lot on Hawthorne.”
Francis got to know and love Trisha. He called all his daughters-in-law, “dear.” We had already established that the McCloskey family nursery and florist business in Rego Park, Queens had been getting an annual order for years from a lady named Joan Duffy in Valley Stream who wanted to make sure there was a nice fresh flower arrangement on the Scully Plot at St. John’s Cemetery next door. Jack’s father, Theodore McCloskey, had actually started the business next to the cemetery in the 1920’s to serve all the good grave-decorating Catholics in the surrounding neighborhood. Theodore also built one of the original houses in the beach community of Point Lookout, three houses up the block from the Town Beach. That’s where Trisha was living when we met.
Francis was never a shopkeeper, and he never had a house on the beach, so he asked his “dear” Trisha lots of questions because he liked to learn about people. And when he learned how far back Jack McCloskey went with Point Lookout, he took some aerial pictures of the town and Jack’s house at various altitudes while out on a Granard Associates gig. When Trisha presented those pictures to her dad, Jack was stopped in his tracks. He said, “Wowww! That’s something!” And Francis didn’t need to do it, of course. Just like when he bought me the signed Mookie Wilson / Bill Buckner Picture, he just said to himself, “I bet you Jack McCloskey would like that.”
At our wedding rehearsal dinner at the Point View Inn, my father stood up to make his toast. He wished us all the best, then he looked straight at me. I had long burned the bridge and left the dopey bastard on the other side. In the eyes of my father, and my friend Francis, I was a fully realized great guy.
And this is what he said: “This is my son, with whom I am well pleased.”
For me, it was sort of like when Harry Bailey says, “to my brother George. The richest man in town!” That’s it. Nothing to add to that. The movie’s over. Merry Christmas.
It was actually Christmas Day a year and a half later when Trisha and I took possession of the House on Duffy’s Creek. We had looked at other houses, but none of them had creeks, and none of them had the family discount built into the price. Still, Francis sort of tried to talk us out it. I think he was embarrassed at how much work it needed, that he had let it slide too much in between pursuing his passions, driving my mom everywhere, and grabbing naps. To quote mom: “I’m sorry this place is such a wreck. I was sick and your father couldn’t give a good god damn.”
And when he thought something was not your best idea, he’d always say, “ahhh, you don’t wanna do that!” Which Trisha was the first to point out to me is in itself a very odd thing to say. Once my sister’s boyfriend, in his forties at the time, told Francis that he was thinking about getting a new tattoo. Francis said, “ahhh, Ed, you don’t wanna do that!” And Ed looked at him dumbfounded and said, “I’m 45 years old, Mr. Duffy. I’ll do what I want!”
So, despite, “ahhh, you don’t wanna buy this place!”, we did what we wanted, and he was just as happy not to have to deal with real estate people or hire his own lawyer, as they were already late in getting out of the house and into Jefferson’s Ferry because Joan had been diagnosed with breast cancer earlier that year. She was wearing a chemotherapy wig at our wedding. It’d been a tough year and he had enough on his plate.
So when we met them for breakfast after church at the Golden Reef Diner in Rockville Centre on Christmas Morning 2001, they were staying at a local hotel so they could have dinner at my sister and brother-in-law’s house, and we were living in their house.
Over time, Jefferson’s Ferry became home for them, and Jedwood Place became home for Trisha. I was fine all along.
I love gardening because my mom taught me to love it when I was very young. I had a designated “diggy spot” in the corner of the backyard. One day I sometime in the 1960’s, I was playing in that very diggy spot when my father came along and said to me, “you know, this little plot here, this is your piece of the Earth. Did you ever think of that? The whole planet Earth, but you’ve got this one little piece.”
Fast-forward forty years, and Francis and I standing in the same yard at a family party that my wife and I are hosting for his 75th birthday. I tell them that he told me when I was five that this was my little piece of the Earth. He said, “Wow, you really took that one to heart, didn’t you.” Yeah. I did.
Unless the Coronavirus or something else kills me before I get the chance, I will probably move upstate to Copake Falls permanently at some point and we will sell this house someday. And when that day comes, I know I can speak for Trisha when I say I will cry and cry and cry and cry some more.
Meanwhile, after everyone was settled, Trisha and I brought our gardening skills out to Jefferson’s Ferry. We planted bulbs and annuals and shrubs and hybrid tea roses all around their cottage. It was a very comfy place, and despite mom’s health, my parents were pretty happy there.
But as so many things that end up defining our lives do, the dementia that stole from Francis every memory I’ve shared with you snuck up on him, and it overwhelmed him and us before we knew it.
I don’t know if he was aware. If he was, he wouldn’t have breathed a word of it. One the phone, my mother would inform me (after telling me every single pain she was experiencing that day and asking me if I got Final Jeopardy), “your father is starting to lose his marbles. He’s forgetting things all the time.” And you think to yourself, OK, he’s an old man, old men forget stuff all the time. And he’d get on the phone and you’d ask him how he was doing and he’d say, “I’m fiiiiine!,” because he’d say that if he had blood gushing out of his head.
2004: Francis’ 75th Birthday in the backyard at Duffy’s Creek
2014: Francis’ 85th Birthday at Duffy’s Creek
2014: Francis’ last visit to the house he bought in 1955
And then he started getting lost. I’m not sure if it was a flying around in a helicopter gig, but he went to the city on some sort of Granard Associates job, and it would be his last. He could not remember how to get back from the city. Somehow he eventually did, but it took him hours and hours and scared the living bejesus out of my mother.
So no more driving to the city. He scared himself enough to decide that on his own. But then he got lost again driving from Jefferson’s Ferry to my sister’s house in Lynbrook. This began a several-month negotiation to get the car away from him, which my mom was actually against, because Francis not being able to drive her around anymore meant the end of the last physical freedom she had.
Then he fell and broke his leg. And that was the end of independent living in the cottage. My parents were relocated to a perfectly nice assisted-living apartment.
And then he fell again, and mom had to be moved to skilled nursing, and when he got out of the hospital, they were living separately.
And a month after their 60th wedding anniversary, my mother was taken to the hospital after being found unresponsive. (As soon as I heard “your mother” and “unresponsive” in the same sentence, I knew it was just about over).
On a Sunday morning in August of 2012, I drove Francis to Mather Hospital in Port Jefferson to see his wife. I spoke to the doctor while he sat with her, so I got to be the first to know that she had pneumonia and she had about a week left.
As she slept, I delivered that bad news to him as gracefully as I could. Then I tried again, with slightly different graceful words. The third time through it landed. He looked at her sadly and he said what I now say every time I have to go to a wake and make somebody feel better:
“No matter how much time you get, you always want more.”
We got seven and a half more years of Francis. There’d be good and not-so-good monthly visits. It was always wonderful to see him, but at the same time it was sort of like visiting a museum every month to find someone had stolen another couple of your favorite paintings off the wall. One year, he’d forget that mom was dead and he’d ask when that happened, the next, he’d forget who she was entirely. One year he’d want to know all about the iphone gadget I was using to show him the old family pictures, the next year he’d sleep in the wheelchair and wouldn’t wake up the entire time. One year, he’d be pleasantly surprised to see that I had brought the books he had written, the next year those books may as well have been copies of the Reader’s Digest. One year, he’d remembered where I lived and what I did, the next he looked right through me with no recognition at all.
But one thing remained constant, right until that last visit on February 15th.
Francis’ eyes would light up when he smiled. I mean literally. The same eyes that could throw angry poison darts at you could smile straight into your soul like morning light sparkling on an Adirondack lake. And everybody from the blue-eyed blonde girl in his English class at William Bryant High School to the girls at the nurse’s station at Jefferson’s Ferry loved that smile.
And when he smiled, it reminded me of everything good. Though he pretty much stopped talking in the year before his death, I could usually count on at least one good Francis smile during our visit, usually directed at the dog.
It made it OK, that smile. It stopped time. I could put it in my pocket, drop it into the gas tank of the car and drive home on it.
You know who doesn’t smile? Trump. As a matter of fact, when I thought of this subject-changing pivot in our narrative, I did some research, painful as it was. If you Google Image “Trump Smile”, the first two subheadings are “transparent” and “smug”, only because “shit eating” wouldn’t make it through the algorithm. He smiles like he just got back from a lynching with the boys and nobody has found the body yet. He smiles like he just got off the phone with Vladimir Putin and they’ve figured out a way to shut the electrical grid down on Election Day. He smiles like somebody just told him about a new way to steal from you.
Furthermore, because of Trump, I believe that reincarnation is one possible afterlife scenario. Born fourteen months after Hitler committed suicide? That’s a creepy coincidence if you ask me. Of course, back in 2015, more than one person told me that any comparison to Hitler was a false equivalence that invalidated my argument.
To those people now: Do you like apples?
Actually, if you want to be Catholic about it instead of Hindu, I believe that the motherfucker is the Devil Incarnate.
Actually, I ran all this by my wife and my son. We’re all Copake Falls Episcopalians at heart now, but I was born to doubt. I asked them if they believed that someone could be born evil. Nature vs. Nurture. One of my favorite unanswerable questions. They said no. I said, well then, could any one of this in this room theoretically become as evil as Trump if we had been raised to be so? That is, if we had been raised by nasty, heartless racists who worshipped the God of Money, who provided us with shortcuts and free passes through every one of life’s milestones, who taught us to lie, to steal, to cheat, to bully, to abuse, to hate, to generally just be an unrepentant, unapologetic smirking asshole who enjoys making people suffer?
They said yes. But I still think he’s Hitler. And the Devil. Because why not? So it came to a point in the conversation when my mother would have said, “I just don’t know anymore, honey,” and I went out in the yard for a cigarette.
As for what this has to do with Francis? Well, he read the New York Times cover to cover every day until he couldn’t anymore. (“You’d think I’d be smarter.”). He could have told you that Trump was Satan in a blue fat suit 50 years ago, when Young Twitler and his white-hooded father were caught discriminating against black and Puerto Rican people in their Brooklyn and Queens housing developments. Francis couldn’t take it when Trump inserted himself into everything in New York City in the 80’s and 90’s. He knew the guy was a self-promoting con man, a stupid one at that, more than likely connected to the mob, without question completely full of shit.
In fact, dopey bastard wasn’t good enough to describe this guy. In Francis-speak, Trump was an “goddamn ignoramus.” A guy who shoots his mouth off but couldn’t find his ass with both hands.
Not the guy you want in charge of a nation of 331 million people when worldwide pandemic time rolls around. Well you can’t blame me. I certainly wasn’t one of the dopey bastards who voted for a career criminal.
I wasn’t one of those gloms.
Because here are three simple assertions that I could easily prove: 1. Hillary Clinton was the most qualified person ever to run for the Presidency. 2. She would have been all over Covid-19 like a mother bear. 3. She would have borne responsibility for every death on her watch.
Even George W. Bush, who used to be our worst President, actually read books instead of holding them upside down for cameras after tear gassing innocent civilians, and when Dubya read a book at his ranch about the Spanish Flu Pandemic on one of his month-long summer vacations, he said by golly it’s almost 100 years. I should probably do something.
People questioned the idea of New York Governor Cuomo becoming a hero for doing nothing more than calmly making sense in his daily press conferences. They say he waited too long to shut everything down and made the hospitals send positive patients back to nursing homes, leading to all those dead grandmas and grandpas.
But Governor Cuomo was following federal guidelines, and certainly did not have access to the intelligence that Trump ignored going all the way back to November, while he was watching Fox News and golfing and holding hate rallies (No, no, he’s not Hitler), not to mention throwing hand grenades on Twitter so people say his name all day.
The federal government is supposed to lead in matters of national security. Even Dubya came around for a photo op on top of the remains of the World Trade Center, even though he let it happen. He didn’t tell Governor Pataki to figure it out and get back to him. At the same moment early this year that Hillary would have been shutting the entire country down and telling us how screwed we’d be if we didn’t cooperate, Trump, the fake president installed by Vladimir Putin for the express purpose of destroying the United States, looked America in the eye with that transparent, smug grin and said the virus was a hoax, said it would go away on its own in the summer, said all his pasty, brainwashed evangelical zombies could get their nails done and their beards trimmed for church on Easter, right before a big, sweaty sit-down brunch at Denny’s.
And now that we have “flattened the curve” in New York, any leader who understands the concept of leadership would say, “Hey, look what they did in New York! The whole country could to do that!” Instead the goddamn ignoramus politicizes quarantines and masks and convinces the zombies that he, and they, are smarter than the scientists. And besides, if an evil Democrat like Andrew Cuomo tells you something is a good idea, you would just be a sheep to follow along.
And here on Long Island, as in too many other places, we got to watch Trumpbilly Covidiots on News 12 waving American flags, berating objective reporters who are giving them publicity in the first place only because they’re a sentient accident on the side of the road, bitching and moaning because masks are an inconvenience and besides, they couldn’t get their mani-pedis done by Korean women, or get served their red meat at Applebee’s by minimum wage brown-skinned workers. Especially when compared to the Black Lives Matter protests that began several weeks later (and should continue indefinitely as long as they have to) when millions of people took to the streets to protest something insidious, immoral and deadly, the willful ignorance and gleeful obnoxiousness of these people complaining about having to make small sacrifices for the larger good make me hate the island and the country I love.
You want to know how stupid some people are? There was a woman at one of these protests; track suit, frosted blonde hair helmet, big glasses, screaming “yoo-wa faaake newzzz!” at the News 12 Reporter. I swear I had seen her before and later it hit me. Women dye their hair all the time, and wasn’t she the one who went to visit Benner’s Farm in Setauket, found out that Minnie the Cow would be hamburgers in a couple of weeks, then came back with her friends to protest against a beloved local farmer who invites children onto his family farm to learn things, carrying a sign that said, “Animal Lives Matter!” while wearing a leather jacket, with a matching leather boots and leather handbag?
You can’t swing a dead cat without hitting a glom these days.
And now people are getting sick and dying in record numbers in Florida, in Texas, in Arizona, places where Trumpbilles are a measurable percentage of the population, rather than people who the majority of sensible New Yorkers have learned can usually be stepped around like land mines, except when you tell them they have to wear masks. The emergencies in these places seems like they’re just getting started as I write this, and I’m not the least bit happy that I called this a month ago, or that these dopey bastards are going to kill other peoples’ Francis with their recklessness.
We’ve shown here in New York that relatively simple measures can slow the spread of Covid-19. We’ve also shown how horribly deadly it can be, especially to the elderly. Republican governors refuse to execute those measures, because they are Republicans first, humans second. I wonder how many red hats who lose their parents or grandparents in the next month or two will turn around and call somebody a pussy for wearing a mask at the grocery store? They don’t call ’em deplorables for nothin’.
You could make the case that part of the plan has become to kill people on purpose. Trump (or Hitler, or The Devil) enjoys human suffering, and apparently he’s not alone in this. I could easily prove that assertion, too. (see “babies in cages”). I believe that he does not care how many people die on his watch. It’s almost like a badge of honor to this pig that we have more than a quarter of the world’s Covid-19 deaths. And besides, dead people can’t vote.
So knowing what you know about my father’s underlying health conditions, you know that I cannot state for a fact that this sloppy, chaotic, cynical, repugnantly evil response to a national emergency actually led to his death.
But I can’t not say it, either.
My name is John Duffy. You killed my father. Prepare to get ripped a new one.
For months, when it became clear that the virus was coming this way, Trump did nothing. He had a big assignment to finish and he was going to be graded on it, but he decided he would just fake his way through it ‘cause that’s what his mommy and daddy taught him, along with telling him that everything the blacks do is bad, which is the sole reason why he fired Obama’s pandemic response team. He also had to loot the federal government to give tax breaks to his donors, enablers as bad if not worse than his elected party members. We paid $6000 more in taxes after that. It went straight into the My Pillow Guy’s pocket.
The federal response to the Covid-19 Coronivirus Pandemic of 2020 has been a horrible, horrible shitshow that has led to waves of human suffering that simply did not have to happen. We only get so many years, and of course anyone who hasn’t actually gotten sick or who didn’t see their income disappear overnight this year can’t really complain. But just taking away a year of graduations and baseball games and playgrounds and gym workouts and weddings and birthdays and funerals and visits to grandma and grandpa’s house, just taking away these precious moments of people’s lives, is in itself a tragedy.
Francis’ youngest grandson would have been ready to start his first paying job as a counselor at the Valley Stream community day camp in two weeks. He enjoyed attending the camp for seven years, then volunteered as a junior counselor last summer. If I let myself think about how my son and all those little kids are getting ripped off, I get angrier than a generally happy-go-lucky guy should get. There’s no Camp Barrett because the President of the United States didn’t want to upset the Chinese Government, because he thought they could help him get re-elected. There’s no Camp Barrett because people voted for a fucking game show host to lead the free world.
But you can’t blame it all on one person, even if he is the devil or Hitler reincarnated. The insanity that defines American life right now was, or course, years in the making.
So with the sincerest of apologies to Mr. Rogers, in times of crisis, look for the scumbags.
We could go all the way back to Roger Ailes and Richard Nixon, who perfected the dark art of vilifying your fellow American (not only minorities, but Agnew’s “pointy headed liberal college professors” as well), in order to win votes because they knew that lazy people loved to hate. I could show you where the seeds were first sown of portraying the other party not as “the loyal opposition” but as less than American, and how they co-opted our common flag and turned it into a hate symbol. I could sew Ronald Reagan into this, with his union busting and his welfare queens. And Daddy Bush and Willie Horton. I could weave you through how John McCain let himself get talked into Sarah Palin and inadvertently spawned the Dumb And Racist As Fuck And Proud Of It Movement that swept much of White, Red-State America in 2008, and has now reached feverish levels of scary. But we just don’t have time. I’ve just crossed 20,000 words and you’ve got other stuff to do.
So I’ll stop ranting and just put it as two simple questions : 1) After three and a half chaotic, divisive, exhaustingly cruel years of Trump, how the hell can anybody still support this guy? 2) How could anyone add two and two together and not conclude that the Republican Party is standing on the neck of democracy as they murder your country in broad daylight with the cameras rolling?
As Francis J. Duffy lay dying in the Memory Unit of the Bove Health Center of Jefferson’s ferry in the last week of April, with nothing to be done but to wait for the inevitable, I woke up one morning as I wake up every morning and took a quick look at the apps.
I have friends who like Trump. Not very many, but some. We have enough in common to work around it, I suppose. Still, I cannot fathom why they think what they think. If I asked, they might tell me it has something to do with hating Democrats more. Or they might tell me that they didn’t trust career politicians and they thought a businessman was what we needed in the world’s most powerful political position.
OK, so at the end of this month, I’ll be retired from doing nothing else for the last 25 years but teaching Junior High School English. Since I have some spare time, I’d be happy to intubate you if you need to be placed on a ventilator. I’ve never done it, but look how smart I am.
Or they might tell me that they liked how he speaks his “mind” and “tells it like it is.”
Ok, well, I was a successful and beloved teacher. I regularly told parents that their children were stupid and had no hope. I spoke my mind. I told it like it was. I found that people appreciate that quality in teachers. I also regularly asked parents where they came from and if they were here legally. Because, hey, I pay taxes.
I hope I don’t have to explain that I’m being sarcastic. I know I’m really good at it. I learned it on my father’s knee.
On January 20th, 2017, I made a conscious decision to not to post anything political on Facebook ever again, and I haven’t. Because I can’t get into it with them, because the only purpose would be to change their minds and tragically, I’m not going to.
So I suffer through other people’s posts and I don’t engage. And I showed great restraint that April morning when, as the death toll was closing in on 50,000, as that raging asshole wanted the governors to be nicer to him so he’d be more inclined to help innocent people who were suffocating to death, as I was planning on being on a Zoom call later that day so I could see my dying father’s face, I read a post that said “CAN I GET AN AMEN FOR PRESIDENT TRUMP?”
No. No you can’t.
But this is what I can give you. My father made up a prayer that we’d say every night as kids, right after the Our Father and the Hail Mary. This is how it goes:
God bless us all and keep us well.
God bless all our friends and benefactors.
God help us in our work and play.
God give us a vocation
God give us peace.
I led the participants in the Zoom meeting through the Francis Prayer that morning. My brother had it printed on the back of the mass cards. But there was no wake, no funeral mass. We felt fortunate to have been able to attend the burial at St. John’s eleven days after he the day our father died. A cousin who is an ordained deacon led the service. Around the Scully Plot, we stood in masks, approximately six feet apart from each other, and we said the saddest of goodbyes.
One of the million ways that I am stupid lucky is that I’ve never experienced the helpless feeling of a loved one being the victim of a violent crime. Knock wood and God forbid. I cannot imagine what it would be like to have something like that eat at you every day and I hope and pray that I never do. But I believe that I have a little inkling of what it’s like after this, after dopey bastards created a situation that led to the loss of the greatest of great guys.
Yes, tomorrow would have been my father’s 91st birthday. If you asked him on one of his happier birthdays how it felt to be another year older, he’d say to you, “it beats the alternative.”
We couldn’t go see him today, which really sucks for Mookie, because Mookie hates boats and Jack and I are going to strap the Eddylines to the top of the car, and we’re going to celebrate Father’s Day with a paddle around Stony Brook Harbor, a place where my parents would go to get out of the house when they first moved to Suffolk. It beats the alternative of sitting in the air conditioning, staring at a rectangle and getting angry. We only get so many days. Learning to make the most out of them was Lesson One in The Art of Being Francis.
I talked to the spirit of my father when I was out walking Mookie a couple of evenings ago, along the same creek where my parents would walk the dog they brought home for me fifty years ago because they loved me. I told my old friend that I was writing about him and I asked him what he’d like the world to remember him for most of all.
He told me to tell you that he loved his wife and his children, and that he loved his life, the life that I hope I’ve shown you was a wonderful and beautiful work of art.
Then I asked him what he would say to the people in this broken country.
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.
The “Lilco Woods”
Hoeffner’s Gas Station. The New York City Line is less than 500 feet from here.
Temple Hillel, Rosedale Road
A Three Little Window House
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.
This post wants nothing from you. You don’t have to yell or scream, or refute your core beliefs, or get mad as hell and swear you’re not going to take it anymore, or shoot holes in my argument, or even submit your email and create a password. It’s just a little slice of life, followed by a little editorial, and it won’t hurt you, even if you don’t agree with it’s point-of-view. I don’t want anybody to eat anybody. I just want everybody to be happy. Really. And I’ll be back to writing about cute dogs and pretty flowers and precocious children again before you know it.
This is the little slice of life part: I shared two posts on my Facebook page yesterday that were about politics. One post was a share of a Huffington Post report (such a silly name, Huffington) which suggested, as I believe right now, that Bernie Sanders has a legitimate chance to be elected President next year. They had polls and stuff to back it up. We don’t have that kind of technology here at Duffy’s Creek, but we do have fresh broccoli growing next to the garage, which I bet The Huffington Post doesn’t have. The other post was about a trained paramedic who makes $15 an hour, who suggested that fast-food workers are entitled to make the same $15 an hour even without his prerequisite skills because it would in effect force his employer to eventually pay him more, the same employer that sends out emails to the $15 an hour paramedic to tell him how great they’re doing and how much money they’re making. I suggested that this guy’s realization was proof that, in the words of the great Joe Torre, “the goddamn worm is starting to turn.”
A couple of people who I know think the same way as I do threw me a couple of likes when I checked back on the posts after going to the pool, and buying two grape slurpees at the 7-11, and picking up fresh meat and produce from the Hudson Valley out of the back of an SUV in a church parking lot. (I live a full and rich life) . But later, as I was staring at the garden and The Dude was up in his man cave, I got to thinking about my previous forays into political debate on facebook, and I said, “uh-oh” and I deleted the posts.
But then, because I’m OCD and I can’t leave well enough alone, I posted an explanation of why I deleted the posts. And because I’m OCD and I can’t leave well enough alone, I’ll probably delete the explanation later. Here’s what I wrote:
I posted some political stuff today. Then I took it down. Last time I got going on Presidential politics I got some folks upset. Something about the joy of watching a certain guy get caught speaking his mind among his rich friends. The guy who strapped his dog to the roof of the car. Don’t remember his name. Anyway, my philosophy on Facebook sharing since then is it should be the stuff you’d tell people at a backyard barbecue, not from a barstool, ya know? I’m going to hold to that. No politics from me on Facebook. I’m a far-left, pro-union borderline socialist bleeding-heart liberal ’cause that’s the way Mom and Dad raised me. Surprise, surprise. Oh, and screw Facebook. I have a blog. If you want to know what I think, you’ll have to up my clicks on wordpress when I put up a tease. It ain’t all gonna be flowers, therapy dogs and poignant parenting stories, especially when this thing starts getting ugly. I’m voting for Bernie Sanders, and he’s going to need my help, but you don’t need to hear about it, unless you want to. Time to cook dinner. I won’t be posting a picture of it. smile emoticon
That was cool! I copy/pasted the smile at the end of my rant and it came up “smile emoticon”! You can get away with saying all sorts of things if you follow them with a smile emoticon. Anyway, as you see, I have some history with this stuff. I know people whose politics are as much learned from their parents and heritage as mine are from mine (fun with pronouns, there) and I like those people just fine and I don’t want anyone to be mad at me, ever, for anything. And when I started shooting arrows at…oh what’s his name…Moose? Ripley? (Thanks, Steven Colbert) it started a whole ugly back and forth and I began to realize that Facebook is a really good place to post pictures of your dog and yourself on a ferris wheel and a really bad place to forward your political beliefs. But I know lots of people who do it, on both sides of the Little Civil War we’re all having. And really, I want them to keep doing it. Because I don’t tell other people what to do unless I’m getting paid to. And unlike myself, often they manage to do it in a less snarky way than I would have.
And that’s my problem. And everybody’s problem, more and more. I was taught, wrongly, that in a political debate you go in for the kill and you take no prisoners; that it’s as much about proving the other person wrong and proving yourself right as it is about an exchange of ideas. But as I’ve gotten older, I’ve realized that this is an awful, un-Jesus-like way to be. Apparently, many people my age haven’t gotten older. I may feel very strongly about my political beliefs, but I’ve come to feel equally strongly that there’s no need to shove them in people’s faces. It’s impolite. Chris Christie is the sitting Governor of New Jersey and he says he wants to punch the leader of the American Federation of Teachers in the face. He was responding to a question that some talking head on a news show asked him, which I find incredulous. The question was, “who would you like to punch in the face?”. Why would you ask that question to a Presidential candidate? Did Christie’s people get to the guy before the interview and say, “Hey! Ask him who he’d punch in the face! It’ll be great!” And then I read the quote that came out of that useless orifice he has there, and I say to the newspaper: “Oh yeah! Well when you cut yourself shaving, fat boy, gravy comes out. You’re running for President? You couldn’t even run to the bathroom to lose that last ten pounds of red meat you just sucked through a freakin’ straw you disgusting, inert mass of lipids. You wouldn’t even be able to lift your arm to throw the punch. You’d fall forward and be like a goddamn weeble wobbling on the floor until they sent fifteen of your empty-headed people scrambling in to hoist your fat ass back up with a rope and a pulley.”
You see? He got me. I was goaded, and I went in for the kill with a personal attack that has nothing to do with our disagreement of the role of teacher’s unions. (of course, neither does threatening to punch somebody in the face). And when the other idiot with the hair started talking trash about Mexicans, the best we all they could have done was not give him a second of airtime. Not a second. Why would anyone dignify such hateful, vile words? I first heard it with my son in the car at 4:30 in the afternoon and switched off the radio as quickly as I could. The Dude asked me why. I said, because the guy who was talking is a piece of garbage and he doesn’t deserve a single cell of my attention span.
But he got hours and hours and hours of coverage, and everyone on one side said, “Yeah. Immigrants. That’s the problem. See? He said so.” And everyone on the other side started trying to punish the ignorant bastard and take away his toys because they’re all shocked that a jerk would say something jerky if put in front of cameras and a microphone. And he obviously loved every minute of it.
I recently read a great quote from Pedro Martinez when he was being elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame. Some reporter was goading him into responding to some backwater radio commentator who had something nasty to say about Dominican baseball players. I don’t know what the radio idiot said, but Pedro responded by saying, “I only discuss things like that with intelligent people.” And it’s not like Pedro doesn’t understand winning and losing. He is the owner of the single best baseball quote of all time. When they asked him about the “Curse of the Bambino” that kept the Red Sox from winning the World Series for 80 years, he said, “I’m going to dig the Bambino up and drill him in the ass.” The man understands that a baseball diamond is a good place for no-holds-barred competition, not to mention colorful trash-talking, but it has no place in real life. When we’re trying to figure out where everybody fits in this world, there shouldn’t be any thought given to who wins and who loses. We should try to figure out how everyone wins.
But the politicians get worse and worse. Even Obama, who has for the most part stayed above the fray – sometimes to his detriment – has referred to politics as a “blood sport.” What the hell does that mean? Why do they insist on perpetuating this ugliness? And why do I have to hear about buffoons like Donald Trump and Chris Christie just because I stay in touch with current events? (Even if I stick to NPR). If they want to run for President, fine. Go ahead. But if your rhetoric is obviously beneath the dignity of the office you aspire to, and said just for shock value, just to get yourself noticed, why would the media report it at all? I suppose they have to, but why do right-thinking people then feel the need to react to or counter these statements at all? Why not just say, “I only discuss things like that with intelligent people.” What exactly do petulant little gobs of snot with money burning holes in their pockets, who decide they can get a lot of the attention they so desperately crave by running for President, really have to do with the state of the world until the day they’re actually standing in a general election and can directly affect the destinies of the immigrants and schoolteachers (and immigrant schoolteachers) that they openly hate?
But they keep churning it out, they do, both the politicians and the media that covers them. And we keep slobbering it up. It seems a bit contrived doesn’t it? Like it’s being done on purpose. You think? They shove all this garbage at us because we all love to keep hearing it, so people on one side can own new nasty little talking points and people on the other side can let loose and take no prisoners like I just did to Fat Ass and Escalator Man. (Besides, if you asked me who I’d like to punch in the face, I’d have to go with Andrew Cuomo first anyway. I have my reasons). And though it felt very good when I was writing it, It’s ultimately pointless, not to mention toxic. But the Little Civil War looks like it’s just going to go on and on and it’s never going to stop. Unless, of course, intelligent people who are more interested in governing than in putting on a show are elected into positions of power. And, of course, the endless cycle of stupid could be broken if the media was run by intelligent people more interested in informing the public than in stoking the dark underbelly of people’s fears, or treating political issues with the depth of a kiddie pool. They’re supposed to “comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.” (Finley Peter Dunne. Never heard of him).
They do the exact opposite now. They afflict the afflicted and comfort the comfortable.
So as I was saying, it’s just not going to stop.
But it stops on my Facebook page. And it stops on my TV, and my Twitter feed, and in my newspaper, ’cause I decide what I pay attention to. My ultimate goal is peace of mind and contentment. You can’t get there when you’re covered in slime. At least I can’t. I’m OCD. Less garbage in. That’s my plan. Following the Mets is stressful enough.
I’m going to miss Jon Stewart. He was and forever will be the absolute best at ripping the masks off the pretenders, parsing their insipid sound bites and reminding us of how much shit they think we’ll eat, and why we’re too smart to bite. But I understand that he’s sick of it. I’m sick of watching him do it. It’s funny because it’s our old crazy friend Jon, doing the Mitch McConnell turtle and the Lindsey Graham southern bell and The Dick Chaney growl. But it’s gotten to the point where it’s really not funny anymore, because this country is truly suffering from the incivility. As the mother-in-law character in “Field of Dreams” said when she couldn’t see the baseball players, “I don’t think it’s very polite…try’na make other people feel stupid.”
Therefore, I’ve decided to write a little manifesto, a little treatise, of what I believe, and how the two people whose images grace the top of this post, who are losing me followers as you read this, are the best embodiment of the direction in which I would like to see my country headed. Then I’m going to shut way up until the General Election. This is the editorial part. I am not asking you to slap me on the virtual back and tell me how much you agree with me or to slap upside the back of the virtual head and tell me how much you disagree with me. If you would like to write a post on your blog about how John Duffy does not know what the hell he’s talking about, I would not be offended in any way. I’d probably enjoy it, and most likely agree on many points. So I hope you will not be offended in any way by my sharing the beliefs that my parents instilled in me, and that I have taken to heart through my own empirical experience of walking through this world for 52 years. Here’s what I think:
I think that everyone has a vested interest in everyone else’s success. If I do better, you do better, and vice versa. Competition is wonderful when you’re playing tennis, or Boggle, but it’s somewhat unhealthy when it determines whether somebody eats or has a home. If I have a big slice of the pie, and you have a big slice of the pie, then we both have more pie than we need, so we can sell some pie, so we can buy ingredients to bake more pie, or if we already have the ingredients to bake the next pie, we can give some pie to someone who has no pie at all, so they can have some pie, too, because when they get their own little slice of the pie, they’ll share their pie with somebody else, because we shared our pie with them. And on and on. There’s enough pie for everybody, and we have the ability to make lots and lots of pie. So there’s no good reason for the richest country on Earth to make it difficult for people to have a slice of the pie. The people with all the pie who won’t share it say, “Let them eat cake.” But cake is not as good for you as pie. The cake is the nonsense they throw at us to distract us, the “shiny objects” if you will: Empty calories and celebrity gossip. Pure sugar and “Mission Impossible”. If you eat too much of it, you get sick. But the pie is education and healthcare and family leave and affordable housing and day care and social security and veterans benefits and food stamps and home ownership and playgrounds and swimming pools and school clubs all the other things that can lead to a better life for a lot of people. And I truly believe that there is enough for everyone, and anyone who tells you differently is working for someone who wants to keep more pie than they should fairly be allowed to. and has conveniently forgotten that we are all connected. Or sees that he could help and nevertheless couldn’t really give a rat if you have any pie at all.
I believe in the strength of diversity. I used to didn’t. I grew up in a segregated town that itself grew up to be unsegregated, and I went through the learning curve right along with it. My parents taught me not to hate, but I heard a lot of “us vs. them” around Valley Stream growing up. But I know now that there are two kinds of people in this world: People who believe that there are two kinds of people in this world and people who know better. I had a next-door neighbor from hell once upon a time. She was pasty-colored Irish just like me. She was a real estate agent, and she bragged that she was steering people of color away from houses that were for sale in our neighborhood. (This was in New York in 2005. Thought I’d point that out). She and her family did lots of obnoxious things and no one was sorry when they finally left. In one of her parting shots to me, she said, “enjoy the trash that’s moving in here.” Later, I related this quote verbatim to my other next-door neighbor, a hard-working, good-hearted, responsible husband and father of three who was born in The Philippines, who replied with a Buddah-like smile, “I guess I’m the trash that moved in.” If people leave their homes and family members behind to emigrate to this country, they must have a good reason, just like most American’s grandparents and great-grandparents did. Let’s find out what they came here for, and how they can contribute to everyone else’s success. And let’s not let the pie hogs start playing us against each other based on stereotypes. Nobody anywhere in this country should be falling for that crap anymore.
I believe in the establishment of a maximum wage. Forget the minimum wage for a second. The real problem is a system where it’s OK to just keep taking and taking and taking. Because the more you’ve taken, the easier it is to keep taking some more. Exhibit A: The Wal-Mart business plan. As I have come to understand it, they pay people as little as they can get away with so they can sell cheap goods to people who work for other employers who pay the least amount possible, then they laugh all the way to the bank with billions of profits while the government, aka the taxpaying citizens, pay for food stamps and other subsidies to their workers, who can’t afford a pot to pee in with what Wal-Mart is paying them. Then the bubbleheads who work for the billionaire that owns Fox News tell you that the people on food stamps are stealing your money. Freaking brilliant. Exhibit B: There’s a small independent college called Paul Smiths College in the Adirondacks. A woman named Joan Weill, whose husband Sandy was the CEO of Citigroup, wants to pay the college $20 million to change the name of the college to Joan Weill Paul Smiths College. First of all, an act of hubris and superego of that magnitude would render Sigmund Freud dumbstruck. But more importantly, where did these people get $20 million to throw around in the first place? By systematically figuring out a way to take all the pie, and leave the rest of us with the crumbs. And I’m sure every bit of it was legal. Maybe if that $20 million had been fairly distributed in return for honest labor and productivity, the people who pay tuition to Paul Smiths College could be asked to chip in a little more, and they would. And Joan Weill would have just enough to maintain the insanely luxurious place she owns in the Adirondacks and would be happy enough to keep her name to herself.
And that’s why I think the time has come to burn down the mission, to redistribute the wealth and rebuild the ladder and the safety net; to “eat the rich” as it were. If that’s Socialism, then I’m a socialist. I believed all this before Occupy Wall Street. Before it was hip. What you take from society, you should give back in kind. If you’re successful, you got that way because you moved your goods and services on roads that were built for everybody, using everybody’s power and water. Maybe you even went to a public school. If you become rich in this country, you could have only done it on the backs of other people. And there’s nothing wrong with that as long as those people benefitted in some way while helping you get there. The ideas of the “self-made man” and “the job creators” would be laughable if people didn’t buy into them so freely. And if you turn around and try to deny others the same advantages you yourself used to get rich, you suck, and you deserve what’s coming to you.And here they come.
There are two politicians in this country who have addressed these issues bluntly and consistently: Senators Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren. Obama has made a slight dent in the conversation, but he’s always been worried about choosing his words carefully, so it comes off as as more college professor than street fighter. Hillary is likable enough, but she’s too closely tied to the establishment. She talks the income inequality talk right now because Bernie has forced her into it. I’m sure she’s buddies with Sam Walton, as a matter of fact there’s a picture of them together right there. I’m sure she’s exchanged pleasantries with Sandy and Joan Weill. She takes a lot of money from the takers, who took all the money from you. She would obviously be the better choice if the general election were between her and any of the current Republican nominees, and she will probably win, firstly because the make-up of the Electoral College makes it almost impossible for a right-wing Republican to win a general election, and secondly because the Republicans will continue to talk non-stop until they’ve alienated and pissed off everyone except the extreme right wing, who are mostly angry because they’re a dying race.
Bernie is running for president. In a way, he has already won, because he forces Hillary to veer left. If her plan was to try and please everybody like her husband did, it’s not going to work this time. (see prison building, gun rights, draconian drug laws, defense of marriage act – loved ya Bill, but you were a goddamn suck-up, and a bit of creep). She needs to be a True Democrat, in the great tradition of the three great ones: Franklin D. Roosevelt, Lyndon Johnston and My Mom. Or she needs to get out of the way.
And it’s possible, in my little dreamworld, that Bernie Sanders could actually beat Hillary and be the Democratic Nominee, because she plays it too safe, and she frustrates the base and they decide to go for broke. I’ve already made the decision to do just that.And if that happens, what a wonderful thing it would be if Bernie could get Elizabeth Warren to run with him as a Vice-Presidential candidate.
Besides being true to the Democratic Party traditions, there is something that those two people have in common, which is exactly what we need now. When they argue, they argue facts. They can easily dispel the myths of the “job creator” and the “too big to fail” banks. They can reveal the arguments against showing fairness and compassion towards your fellow man for the greedy ugliness that it all boils down to. They don’t throw shiny objects in your face to fool you into voting for them. They can tell you that people are being greedy without needing to vilify those people. They can show you why you are where you are, and what can be done to change it. They are not suggesting that anybody punch anybody in the face. They are suggesting changing the laws.
Of course they would hit the same gridlock as Obama has. But Obama has managed to significantly change the tone of this country if not the direction. People like that $15 an hour paramedic are starting to get it. We need to double down on that, we need to drive the point home that the rich are too rich and need to pay their fair share of taxes, and the corporations they control and hold stock in need to be regulated and monitored, so that the government has enough revenue to ensure the well-being and the equal rights of all its citizens. That is only asking what was more or less true of this country up until about forty years ago, when Nixon first tricked the people in the Deep South into voting against their interests by scaring them with liberal boogeymen. Then twenty years later, Reagan fired the Air Traffic Controllers. As far as fairness and income equality, it’s been all downhill from there, and that’s pretty much my entire adult lifespan. My parents didn’t have to live paycheck to paycheck. We do.
If what Sanders and Warren are both suggesting is Socialism, then maybe Socialism is the way to go. Kurt Vonnegut had this to say, in a college commencement speech back in the 1970’s: “I suggest you work for a socialist form of government. Free enterprise is much too hard on the old and the sick and the poor and the stupid, and on the people nobody likes. They just can’t cut the mustard under Free Enterprise. They lack that certain something that Nelson Rockefeller, for instance, so abundantly has.”
I think that’s it in a nutshell. How you get people who can’t see the forest for the trees to understand this notion is something that I will have to leave to Mr. Sanders and Ms. Warren, who I hope, for the good of the country, will combine forces. I will follow what they have to say and ignore the ignorant opposition for as long and as much as I can. And to this you say, oh – well – you’re doing exactly what they do – you’re just hearing what you want to hear and shutting out those who disagree with you. And to this I say, when I hear somebody on the right talking about anything else but cutting government, giving tax breaks to their buddies, defending their “traditional values” (of everyone in the restaurant being lily-white), breaking up labor unions, demonizing immigrants or bragging about who they’re going to punch in the face next, then I might tune in. Right now, they’re just blowing hot air, and I only discuss these things with intelligent people. When next Labor Day rolls around and the real election is at hand, I’ll be screaming my politics from the rooftop. And the Creek carries sound very well, so you’ll hear it. Until then, I will carry on with my life and hold to my beliefs in the way I live it. Though I will not – from this point forward- crawl down in the mud with the likes of the Christies and Trumps of this world, I will – in the words of a very smart fellow named Bruce Cockburn – “kick at the darkness ’till it screams daylight.”