Of Great Guys, Dopey Bastards and The Art of Being Francis

by John Duffy

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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.

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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.

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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.

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For the record, the three of us laughed like hell at this picture from my confirmation at Holy Name of Mary in 1976. And the apartment building at left is where Trisha and I “lived in sin” 24 years later, a year before buying the House on Duffy’s Creek.

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.

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Where I got that shit from.

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.

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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.

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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.

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Francis loved technology and cool contraptions. He kept Brookstone Hard To Find Tools in business for many years. Right here he’s saying, “how much do one of those things cost?”

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.

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Wish I had a picture of Dan and Molly in their younger days. This is probably 1956.

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.

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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.

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Dan Duffy behind the wheel with his two boys. When Francis showed me this picture, he said it was the first family car, and wondered how many we’ve had since. We lost count.

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.

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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.

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Francis in his merchant marine dress whites, with Blondie the cocker spaniel on the roof of the apartment building in Astoria.

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.

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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 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.

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Apparently, somewhere in this ship’s boiler room was a place where you could sit down and grab a cup of coffee.

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.

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Aerial Photograph of Duffy’s Creek courtesy of Granard Associates.

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.

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Grandma Scully with my sisters at Sunken Meadow State Park

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.

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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,

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This is what the Great Hall at Ellis Island looked like before it was renovated into a museum. The composition of the photo is pure Frank Duffy artistry.

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.

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Not the one where I was almost kidnapped, but a fair representation.

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.

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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.”

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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:

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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.

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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.

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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.

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The Maritime Industry Museum at Fort Schuyler remains a physcal legacy to my father’s passions.

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.

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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?

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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.

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Granard Associates changes up up a little bit for a different sort of air transport.

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: “Ah.”

The end.

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.

grandpa and jack get the mail 08-19-06

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.

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).

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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.

That smile.

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.

@ me.

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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.

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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.

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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.

And this is what he said:

Love one another, you dopey bastards.

Thank God for a new day.

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Copyright 2020 by John Duffy

All Rights Reserved

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Better Food (or “Hey, You! Stop Eating The Garbage!”)

img_0084I’ve eaten a lot of crap over 53 and a half years. I’m guessing you’ve eaten your share, too. I’ve eaten storage rooms and barrels full of common poisons, ingested by way of Sour Cream Pringles, Double Stuff Oreos, Rold Gold Pretzels, Three Musketeer Bars, Double-Cheese and Bacon Burgers, Taco Supremes , Hot Dogs from Questionable Sources and the Rubbery Swanson’s Object that they refer to as Fried Chicken, among other common people swill. Despite this (and despite the personal campfire that I light around my head at regular intervals – not to mention the bottomless cup of coffee that’s always nearby) I’m not dead. Actually, I feel pretty good. I think it might be the long walks. And the farm fresh food. So does Mookie.

fd0bb8aa-382d-4874-a3c5-4963bde62349_1-94782dc05bb7387c783d9b272dc7f546When I was a kid, I had an iron stomach. Some of the things I found edible astound me now. And there was no barrier on my access to poor food choices. As the youngest child of five, I was my mother’s or father’s co-pilot on their weekly trips to the supermarket. (It remains one of my primary household responsibilities to this day, and oddly enough, I love supermarkets so much I worked as a stock clerk off and on for many happy years, without having to think about what I was doing once. Anyway…). When I’d go to the supermarket with my mother especially, she’d let me buy just about anything that looked like it might be something. It’s possible that she was a little distracted. Nevertheless, I have happy childhood memories of eating entire boxes of Bugles while watching afternoon game shows and sitcoms on a portable black and white TV after school, of making myself a Friday Night Elio’s Frozen Pizza to go with Sanford and Son or The Odd Couple, or doing up an entire box of pigs in a blanket for a late Saturday afternoon Mets game from the West Coast. If you stacked the slices of Oscar Meyer Bologna that I consumed between 1970 and 1990, and stood three of their nasty hot dogs between each slice, it would be approximately the height of the famous Jones Beach Water Tower, and far and away the greater engineering marvel. They’re very thick slices, but still. 2fd47f49f0aff655731cdf2e32af0677

Some of my childhood favorites make me flat out nauseous in retrospect. I would crack open a tin of vienna sausages and munch on them, or make Underwood Chicken Spread  or Deviled Ham on Wonder Bread and, Good Lord, actually have it for lunch. I’ve eaten Spam with a Hershey’s Chocolate Milk chaser . And speaking of chocolate, there were Yodels. And Ring Dings. And Devil Dogs. They all go great with a cold Dr. Pepper. Did I mention I had all my teeth extracted seven years ago?

Moving on. As I mentioned, I’m the youngest of five children. There’s four years between the four of them and four and a half years between me and everybody else. By the time I was in fourth grade, my parents were already paying three college tuitions. My mom was working full-time as a NYC high school English teacher and my dad was working two nights a week at Apex Technical School in Manhattan teaching HVAC classes in addition to his day job. During the school year, my mom still felt strongly about getting anyone to the table who happened to be home at exactly 6 pm for dinner, but in order to plan that dinner, she had to relegate it to auto-pilot. She’d get a delivery from Pat’s Prime Meats in Malverne on Saturday (they’re still around), and off we went on another trip on the merry-go-round: Lamb Chops with mashed potatoes and frozen cut green beans on Monday, Turkey Roll or Howard Johnson’s Chicken Croquettes from the A&P on Tuesday, chicken cutlets with white rice and frozen mixed vegetables on Wednesday, Meatloaf with baked potato and carrots on Thursday, frozen pizza or whatever was left over on Friday. Everything prepared as quickly and with as little complication as possible, out of the necessity of eating at exactly 6pm.

My mom was actually a very good cook. On the weekends we might have a broiled steak, or something like veal parmesan, which my mom called veal scallopini. That was always my birthday dinner request. She also made her own spaghetti sauce with meat that rivaled that of any Italian mother. But the busier she got, and the fewer people who were around to eat, the more the weekly rotation, all of which got pretty old after a while anyway, started falling apart. There were a lot more Chinese food and Ancona Pizza nights, which suited me just fine, and a lot more frozen food.

Nobody knew any better. What could be more convenient than a TV Dinner? : Swanson’s Salisbury Steak, or the iconic and evil Fried Chicken Dinner, or the meatloaf, which was to meat what particle board is to wood,  with the chocolate brownie that would be unsalvageable if you left it in at 350 degrees for a second longer than 30 minutes. There was the Stouffer’s Chicken A La King that you boiled in two bags, one for the so-called chicken and sauce-like substance and one for the rice. Hard to screw up rice. And there were Hungry Man Chicken and Turkey Pot Pies. We had ’em all. Like many children of the 70’s, the generation when moms went back to work again, TV Dinners were perfectly acceptable alternatives to home cooked meals. They taste pretty good, too.

Except really, they aren’t, and they don’t.

As I got into working more and more (at Mel Weitz’ Foodtown, as well as other Mcjobs) and going to college at night, I subsided almost exclusively on fast food, junk, the Queens College cafeteria, friendly delis, the 7-11 and the ubiquitous stalwart TV Dinners. I’ve always had a metabolism not unlike a coal furnace. I’ve weighed somewhere between 120 and 125 pounds my whole adult life, and yes, at 5’9”, I am a human scarecrow, and maybe a little sensitive about that, but I’ve accepted that I am as God made me. (I’m always amused that people are allowed to say, “you’re so skinny!” but not allowed to say, “Christ, look how fat you are!” It’s a bit of a double standard. And I wrote that line at least 35 years ago). Nonetheless, I have to constantly feed the furnace to maintain my weight and keep from falling off the face of the earth, or slipping into a crack in the sidewalk.

One of my favorite go-to meals when I went to school at night was to come home to a big breakfast at 9:30 pm. Some french toast, maybe fried eggs on an english muffin, maybe a couple of nuked sausage links on the side. My parents thought I was fucking crazy but they loved me anyway. My mother would always tell me there was a leftover lamb chop, but I’d be more likely to have a bowl of Apple Cinnamon Cheerios.

Once out in the working world, if you had a good pizza place I could get in and out of in less than twenty minutes, or a diner where the grease soaked into the bun of the cheeseburger as you ate it, you and I became the best of friends, and you got 15% of my weekly income. When I worked in the production department at New York Magazine in the late 80’s (as much fun and as little fun as it sounds) there was a tradition that when a staffer left they would receive a mock magazine cover as a parting gift. When I left after two years and two months, one of my favorite co-workers (I remember you, Franny!) included an inset picture of the pizza place across 2nd Avenue on my cover with the headline “Sal In Shock! Sales Plunge!” I was also famous for using my weekly food allowance for  staying late to “close the book” on Tuesday nights to pig out on KFC. A lot of people who worked there were very into fancy-schmancy restaurants, which more often than not frightened me. They would all walk into our end the office and become immediately enraptured, then quickly repulsed,  by the smell of mass-produced fried chicken. I didn’t really care. I was just shoveling coal into the furnace.

After a while I settled into this job where you’re lucky to get ten minutes to eat lunch and they don’t buy your KFC, or your copy paper. I’ve been on “continuous service” in this particular job for 21 years and three months. I needed something to eat fast that I wouldn’t necessarily get the chance to fully and properly digest (and expel) until two or three hours later. Thus began the legend of the peanut butter and jelly sandwich.

People are amazed at the fact that I’ve eaten a peanut butter and jelly sandwich nearly every working day for over twenty years. I’m amused that they’re amazed. Especially when I sneak it in during meetings and somebody says, “Hey! That looks good!”, like they just now realized you could put these particular ingredients together. Why wouldn’t you eat peanut butter and jelly? It’s perfect!

And let me be precise here. (This is a very big part of my OCD, so it’s a subject very dear to me). It’s actually peanut butter and jam, and I do randomly switch between grape and strawberry jam.(Sometimes obsessive-compulsives will surprise you).  But it has to be Smuckers Jam. And Jif Creamy Peanut Butter. Liberally spread together on Pepperidge Farm Honey Wheat Bread, then wrapped in foil, then put in a Ziploc bag (with a zipper) for maximum freshness. I make tomorrow’s peanut butter and jelly within a half hour of getting home from work. It has to be well-refrigerated.  It goes in the bottom drawer of the fridge, where everything I pack in my working day lunch bag goes: A bottle filled with water, a bottle filled with Tropicana Orange juice, a plastic bottle of Dr. Pepper or Coca-Cola for the ride home on the God Damned Belt Parkway, some apple slices in a Ziploc bag, an individually-wrapped Entemann’s crumb cake, and my magic potion: A La Yogurt Mixed Berry and a bag containing about fifteen blueberries.

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Yogurt was one of my big turning points on my food journey. It’s about as far away as you can get from Bugles, for starters. In fact, I could make the case that yogurt is the axis on which this entire silly narrative tilts upward towards it’s title: Better Food.

When you become a parent, it’s not about feeding yourself anymore. Fifteen years ago, I married a lovely girl named Trisha who had been a vegetarian for seventeen years when I met her. She couldn’t believe some of the stuff I ate, and the stuff she ate didn’t seem at all filling to me. And yet we loved each other then as now. She was especially repulsed by one of my g0-to dinners, the Dread Birdseye Garlic Chicken Voila. imgres Available in your frozen food section, but if you’re smart, you’ll just keep on walking. Quote the funniest woman I know: “The chicken is kind of suspect, but it’s the voila that’ll get you.”

Nonetheless, for the first couple of years, we figured it out. A lot of pasta, a lot of take out. If you’re ever in Valley Stream, Ancona Pizza on Rockaway Avenue could theoretically feed you for the rest of your life. Start with the meatball parm hero. Tell them John sent you.

And because Trisha’s mother told her it was her responsibility to feed me, which it isn’t, she would make really good cheese lasagnas, and even made me Shake and Bake Chicken and cutlets like my mom made, even though she wasn’t eating any of it.  Once when she made me a roasted chicken, I caught her making it dance on the sink as she cleaned it. I love that woman like you wouldn’t believe. But she herself stayed a vegetarian until one July day in 2003, when she was pregnant and she smelled really good.

We were sitting in Dad’s Copake Diner, which is one of my favorite ways to start a sentence. Usually, she’d have to go through five minutes of making faces at the menu to find the best vegetarian thing they had. Suddenly she just said fuck it. She didn’t really say that because she curses much less than I do. What she did say is: “I’m going to have a chicken cesear wrap.”348s

And just like that, Trisha wasn’t a vegetarian anymore. And I started barbecuing more steaks. And we had a baby. And we bought baby food. And the baby ate the baby food, and we ate what we ate. And the baby got a little older, and we started expanding his menu. Trisha bought some Axlerod Yogurt.

Yogurt grossed me out from the mid-1960’s up until 2006 or so. And one day I tried one again. And I eat it every working day, and many non-working days at that, and have been eating it religiously for ten years now. It not only tastes great, it’s like a fresh coat of paint on the walls of your digestive tract every morning. Once I got hooked, I suggested that Axlerod’s motto ought to be: “It’s so Mother Fucking Good!”  But ah, so you ask, why’d you put a picture of La Yogurt in here?  Well, first I’m glad you’re still paying attention, and secondly, there was a distribution problem at my King Kullen with Axlerod. They often didn’t have my favorite flavors. And I haven’t changed my mind about greek yogurt, or the cottage cheese my mother used to eat for lunch with a half a melon when she was on some weird diet. That shit is vile. But out of necessity, I tried La Yogurt and found it just as mother fucking good as Axlerod. Again, people with obsessive-compulsive disorder will surprise you sometimes.

The blueberries got added to the morning yogurt when I decided to start growing blueberries in giant pots around the yard. I started about ten years ago and I now have ten blueberry bushes. I love blueberries. I love everything connected to blueberries. The plants themselves are beautiful. It’s fascinating to watch the flowers slowly become berries, and the fall foliage is a deep crimson red that’s like a bonfire in the sunshine. So many things are better with blueberries. I’d buy blueberry scented toilet paper if they made it. (I actually wrote that joke about cinnamon a long, long time ago. But I think it’s pretty good, so I recycled it). And after a few summers, I realized that one of my truly favorite things about growing blueberries (specifically, highbush blue jay, blue crop and one or two other cultivars I can’t remember right now) is that they come into season just about the same time that I get some time away from the Belt Parkway for a while and can actually enjoy a summer morning. I was walking around the house smoking a cigarette (Gasp!) and picking at the blueberries at the same time. (The robins, mockingbirds and catbirds, who don’t smoke, also get their share) when it suddenly occurred to me that I was ingesting carcinogens and antioxidants at the same time And let me tell you, it felt great. So every morning I pack every spoonful of La Yogurt with as many blueberries as I can, and I become as indestructible as I possibly can be until peanut butter and jelly sandwich time approximately four hours later.

Meanwhile, back in fatherhood, our young lad, known on A Creek Runs Through It as “The Dude”, started to have (well-documented) sensory issues, and among those was disliking the texture and taste of certain foods. By the time he was 8 or 9, milk was out. Eggs were never in. You could get away with things made with milk and eggs sometimes, as long as they were cutlets or lasagna. But then he started to have a problem with cutlets and lasagna. we couldn’t win. Shake and Bake Chicken was one of the first ones to go, which made me very sad. I mean, how the hell…? Never mind.

Suffice to say, it was getting harder and harder to feed him without disappointment and what my mom used to call “whammy faces” at the dinner table, and I was getting more and more frustrated, since by this time I had put myself in charge of cooking because Trisha doesn’t get home from work until after six. And I was really starting to enjoy cooking. I always liked it, but I was digging up more recipes and learning more about the magic ingredients and spices that really good cooks put together. Mrs. Duffy is my witness: I have gone from Chicken Garlic Voila in a frying pan to restaurant quality presentations. As a matter of fact, when they closed down a long, long established restaurant called Goldie’s at Gibson Station, which is one one of my favorite walking routes with Mookie Dog, I conjured up a Powerball Dream of opening “Duffy’s At The Station” and hiring lots of people I know to create the best family restaurant in Valley Stream (which already has Mitchell’s). It’s a nice dream, but it’d be way too much work. If I did hit Powerball, I’d probably just take more naps.

So you could imagine, becoming really good at cooking, great even, and starting to really feel strongly about family dinners just like Mom used to, and having very little time to put them together, just like Mom used to, and then having the guy you’re cooking for constantly whining that he can’t eat what you cook. It was getting frustrating to say the least. And then, like manna from heaven two summers ago, Our Harvest entered my life.

85c404db325d3ff6571ff9eaf560f4bdThis is  a picture of Mike Winik and Scott D. Reich, undoubtedly the smartest guys in their lunchroom when they went to school, blissfully unaware that I am using their picture without permission and that they are tagged in this post. They are the co-founders of Our Harvest. Let me tell you the amazing idea that these two young fellers came up with and how it’s changed my life.

This is what they do: They buy fresh meat, poultry, dairy products, vegetables, fruit and other stuff from farms in the Hudson Valley upstate, New Jersey and out east on Long Island and local organic foodies, they sell it to me through their website at ourharvest.com and I pick it up on Saturday mornings, where a nice college kid waits in the parking lot of Blessed Sacrament Church, a mile north of here, with bags and coolers of fresh food. And not only that, for every $25 you spend with Our Harvest, they donate one meal to a family in need on Long Island, and I assume it’s not a TV dinner. They have pick up points all over Long Island and the Five Boroughs.  It’s a wonderful thing when your business model ensures that everyone wins. I was in on the ground floor of this, and actually met Scott or Mike, or both, one of the first times I picked up my order. I complimented them on their cool t-shirts (It has their logo on the front and the slogan “Eat Better Together” on the back) and they had a free t-shirt waiting for me with my next order. They had me at the chicken, but the t-shirt was a nice touch.

And this is what I can tell you: It’s all so mother fucking good. Perdue chicken and King Kullen steaks are like Swanson TV Dinners compared to eating chicken and steak that was enjoying the sunshine just a couple of weeks ago. Once you have eaten farm fresh meat and poultry, it’s impossible to go back. There’s a Turkey London Broil I get that’s from the DiPaolo Turkey farm in New Jersey, and I found a outrageously delicious recipe for an orange honey glaze for said turkey – complete with herbes de provence (which is fun to say) – from thecozyapron.com, the domain of a nice lady named Ingrid who my wife thinks I have a little thing for. And the carrots taste like carrots. Everything is fresh and full of the food flavors that are slowly disappearing from just about everything you buy at the supermarket. And Sunday I cook things to last all week. I’m a regular visitor to an app called The Big Oven, which you have to say in a silly Fat Albert voice when you refer to it. And since we all eat enough chicken to start growing feathers, I have an arsenal of six or seven chicken recipes that The Dude is guaranteed to eat every time. We still have wars at dinner time here and there, mostly because The Dude didn’t fall far from the tree, and The Tree still keeps a supply of Oreo cookies, donuts, Pringles and spice drops in the house at all times, and The Dude often snacks too much before dinner. But for the most part, food has been solved on Duffy’s Creek

And oddly enough, The Dude has developed a Temple Grandin-ish interest in the humane treatment of farm animals and the importance of organic food. Taking advantage of this, Trisha brought home some organic milk last year and suddenly The Dude’s five-year milk boycott ended, and he drinks it with his Our Harvest-laced dinner pretty much every night. And then I tried the organic milk. And I never went back. It tastes like the the milk my parents got in glass bottles from the Dairy Barn. It makes store brand milk taste like milk-flavored water. It costs a lot more, as does all the Our Harvest food, but I couldn’t care less. What should you spend money on that’s more important? For one thing, my son eats. And he’s a human scarecrow, too, so he needs every bit of protein he can get.

And for another thing, a funny thing has happened to me over the last couple of years with long walks with Mookie Dog , more farm fresh and organic food and slightly fewer Oreo cookies. I feel better. A Lot better. I feel like I very well may have expelled a lot of chemicals from my system and not replaced them with more chemicals.

Thanks to Our Harvest, we’re  eating better food all the time. Thanks to the miracle and inspiration of childbirth, the guy who ate ten-thousand baloney sandwiches is one of the best cooks you know. Yes, I still have a bag of Oreo cookies in the pantry. And yes, there is nothing Mookie and I love more than an individually-wrapped Entemenn’s Crumb Cake. But when it comes to dinner, I don’t mess around. I wish I could invite you all over to prove it. I’d make you some Sesame Chicken Thighs that would make your knees quiver. Maybe some Baked Yukon Gold Potatoes and fresh steamed broccoli on the side.

And fresh salad. Always fresh salad, and always organically grown.  I haven’t touched a pre-made bagged Dole salad in years and years.

I’d sooner eat my lawn.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Mookie Rescues A Kitten And Grandma Writes Her Own Final Script, Exits Stage Left: A Long-Winded Story

DSCN4732The last story I told my mother was about how Mookie the Dog rescued a kitten. It happened three years ago this week. Today, I’d like to tell it to you, just as she would’ve, with enough painfully intricate detail to make you want to run screaming.

Somewhere, probably within ten miles of here, this scrawny little black and white kitten has grown into a fat, healthy three-year old house cat, all because he had the good sense to follow a dog that should have been named Jesus. It’s a good little story, and you not only get to hear it, you get to know The Dude’s Grandma Duffy a little bit along the way. Anyone who ever met her would tell you it’s your lucky day.

If she had one glaring weakness, or one great strength, it would have to be the incredible twists, turns, detours, asides and complete non-sequiturs that my mom would take you on when she told a story. I never met anyone who didn’t like her, so I guess it was a strength. People enjoyed listening to her, she enjoyed listening to other people, and she remembered every single thing anyone ever told her. Therefore, if she were telling you a story about running into someone at a store, you would come away from the experience learning not only the person’s life story, but more than likely the history of the store as well, plus an overview of the inventory, some background on the owner and his employees, and the parking situation outside. But if you were, on any given weekday, trying to get work done, or take care of a child and his animals, make dinner and clean the house all at the same time, and the phone rang, and Mom had a story, and you didn’t want to be rude, because you were rude last time, you would be sucked down into the abyss, and the hands of the clock would start spinning around like they do in cartoons and old movies.

So we had our fights in her last couple of years before she died because it drove me crazy to get stuck on the phone when I had pressing matters to see to. I’m really not a phone guy in the best of circumstances. But the problem was that Mom had nothing to see to, nothing to do really except be in pain from Parkinson’s Disease. And though her body was shot, her mind remained sharp as a needle until her last days. She became a prisoner of a body that didn’t work anymore. Yet she had spent her whole life busy at something, and had always had an innate need to connect to other people, to be part of the action. She raged like hell against the dying of the light. Her mind was a housefly trying to get through a plate glass window.

In 2001, after 46 years in Valley Stream, she and my father moved from Duffy’s Creek to a “life care community” in Suffolk County, about 50 miles from here, and sold the house to us. If you go to live in a life care community, you start in a cottage, then you go to an assisted living facility, then you go to the skilled nursing floor, then you slide into the back of a Caddy. Mom went through the four steps of life care in the space of 11 years, the last three in two years. And through those years, most of our catching up was done over the phone. The problem was that a lot of the time I had nothing to share except the stress of the daily grind, which was not the slightest bit interesting to me, so I really didn’t want to be on the phone. More than once I was unnecessarily nasty about it. But she got even. She died.

Oh, and I should mention that no one was allowed to call HER between 7:00 and 7:30 weeknights because she’d be watching Jeopardy, which I got her hooked on. My entire goal in life some weekdays in the winter is to get to the point where I can sit down on the comfy couch and watch Jeopardy on the DVR. Some days that doesn’t happen until 9:30 or so. Mom never learned how to work a DVR. It wasn’t her style. But God forbid you went a week without calling, or not calling back in due time if you let the answering machine pick it up because you were tossing chicken cutlets. She’d attack with all the Irish Mother guilt in her arsenal.

So I made it a point to call her on Thursday August 16, 2012 and tell her what happened that day. I knew she would appreciate it, and I had time to talk, and to listen if necessary. It was a story about Mookie, and she loved Mookie. She would introduce him to people when he came out to see her at the life care community as “the youngest member of my family.” And Mookie fell in love with Grandma Duffy instantly because she was the first person to sneak him human food under the table, specifically McDonald’s french fries. Mookie loves everybody, but after those french fries he always had a special place in his heart, and under the table, for Grandma Duffy.

Mookie's first Meet and greet with Grandma and Grandpa Duffy in July of 2011
Mookie’s first Meet and Greet with Grandma and Grandpa Duffy in July of 2011
Mookie's last visit to Grandma and Grandpa, August 2012
Mookie’s last visit to Grandma and Grandpa, August 2012

On the morning of Thursday August 16th, 2012, Mookie and The Dude and I were walking on the Left Bank of Duffy’s Creek. On our side, most of the backyards have a little buffer zone between the property line and the creek (we encroached on it and built a wetland garden). On the Left Bank, there’s a path that starts at a four-lane road and winds along the creek, with short streets dead-ending along it. It used to connect to a bridge that connected to another path that connects to Valley Stream South High School, which never did me any good. They took the bridge down about ten years ago because (they said) it was getting old and unsafe. The high school kids had trouble behaving themselves on the path leading to the bridge. Thirty years worth of Valley Stream kids had found fun and trouble hanging out by that bridge, I among them. Lots of people got real nostalgic when they took it down.

So there we were, down by where the bridge isn’t, and Mookie was sticking his nose under the gigantic holly bushes at the end of Elderberry Road. Under one of the bushes I heard a tiny little, “mew!” And my very first reaction was, “oh, crap.” This whole area is rife with stray cats (You can’t swing a cat without hitting one). My parents actually fed a small colony of them at one point, until it became a large colony. They kept one cat that moved out east with them and ended up living 15 years or so.

We have three cats.  They live inside. The last thing I needed was for The Dude to find a litter of kittens under a bush.

Mookie heard the “mew!. He knew exactly what he had found and was very excited about it, as you could imagine. But The Dude didn’t hear it at first. (Sometimes he’s in a different stratosphere, even when he’s five feet away). I gave Mookie a quick pull and a “leave it!” He looked at me and expressed his disappointment and reluctant acceptance, as only he can. We started walking onward where the path veers away from the Creek and goes behind some houses.

mother-298x225And the kitten came out of the bushes and started following Mookie along the path. I immediately thought of the “Are You My Mother?” story. The little bird is left alone in the nest and flies around asking people, and things, if they are his mother. That story had a happy ending. I wasn’t feeling too good about this one.

We turned around and walked back towards the kitten, who at that point turned chicken and ran back under the bushes. There were no other cats to be seen. Although I didn’t express my thought process to The Dude, if figured the kitten had been either separated from or abandoned by it’s mother, and he would probably just lay under that bush and starve and roast until he was food for whatever eats dead kittens around here. Unless we rescued him.

And we couldn’t rescue him. In theory, sure, but in reality, well, we have three cats. Sunny, the oldest, is a very mellow zen master. She’s even trained Mookie to stop chasing her and sit his fat behind down when she comes in the room. They keep each other company. Then there’s Allie. Allie is a sweet, fat little ball of fur who is scared of her own shadow, and only leaves the attic at night when Mookie is asleep on The Dude’s bed behind a closed door.

Gansta Cat.

And then there’s Lyle. Lyle is gangsta His back legs are too long, so he even walks gansta. Or really, more like a gunslinger that just got off his horse. He spends a lot of time catting around at night, until he gets bored and  harasses me out of a dead sleep to get up and feed him. He does this every single night. And once he wakes me up, usually by batting at my eyelids or dropping his ass directly on my face, I have to pee anyway, ’cause I’m a guy in his 50’s.  So I get up and I feed the cats. It’s gotten to the point where I set my alarm for 2:30 a.m on work nights, even though I don’t have to get up until 5, just so I know I can avoid being attacked and get back to sleep for a few hours. It’s a sad state of affairs, but Lyle decided from the beginning that I was his mother, and he’s very attached to me, although I regularly call him abusive names. Therefore, of course, Lyle is highly jealous of Mookie, who will follow me, follow me wherever I may go. Lyle will be happy to try and rip Mookie a new snout if he gets too close. And Mookie can’t understand how anyone could possibly not like him, ’cause everybody loves Mookie, so he keeps coming back for more abuse. Lyle and Mookie have a classic dysfunctional co-dependence.

Mookie can't understand while Lyle acts like such a jerk. And yes, I have repainted that radiator cover.
Mookie can’t understand while Lyle acts like such a jerk. And yes, I have repainted that radiator cover.

So right away I knew that I was not going to be able to adopt this kitten, because Lyle would more than likely kill him the first chance he got. He’s a stone-cold killa gansta gunslinger. Ask the mouse that got into the house once. Actually, you can’t. He’s dead. Lyle snuffed his ass.

But I called Trisha at work and asked her anyway. Honey, Mookie found a kitten and it followed us, can we keep him?

Now, mind you, Trisha will be the first to tell you that she had planned to become a crazy cat lady but married me instead, AND she had three cats when we met, whom I loved as my own for the rest of their seven years. So we’re talking about a woman who has a soft spot for cats. And this is what she said (verbatim) when I told her what we found and asked if she wanted a fourth cat: “NOOOOOOOO!!! ABSOLUTELY NOT!!! NO WAY!!!”

So I called my pals at Broadway Vet in Hewlett. I knew that they often had kittens for adoption sitting in a cage in the waiting room. And I knew that Dr. Glenda Wexler had a soft spot for Mookie, and wouldn’t want to disappoint him. They reluctantly agreed to take the kitten if I could catch him. No problem. I had a pet carrier, plenty of cat food and a dog named Jesus. The thought occurred to me, though, that the mother might come back for the kitten, and that I was sticking my nose into cat business that shouldn’t concern me. But I also knew that being a feral cat is nothing but a one-way ticket to Palookaville, so it was in the kitten’s best interest to leave the wilds of the Left Bank of Duffy’s Creek behind.

We drove over with the cat carrier, the cat food and Jesus the Dog, who of course found the kitten right away. I had The Dude hold Mookie while I got the kitten to eat some cat food off a plate, then put the plate inside the crate. And just like that, the kitten was in the back seat of a minivan on the way to his new life in the Five Towns, no longer a feral animal. The entire process took about an hour. The kitten was adopted within a week. He has no doubt grown into a beautiful cat, and I wish we could’ve kept him. But I like Lyle well enough, even if he is an asshole.

The first person I wanted to tell my Dog Rescues Cat story to was my mother. I called her that night and we had a nice long chat, and she listened to every word of the story and asked the right follow-up questions and pressed for the right details. I knew that this would give her a story to tell my father, who takes lots of naps and doesn’t like staying on the phone very long. Then she could tell her neighbors, and the people who took care of her, and her dinner companions at the community center (which we called “The Big House”) where she and my father ate every night. Then she could tell the waitress and the busboy. It was a good story. A yellow lab rescues a kitten. You can’t beat that. I knew that she would see that it was conversational gold. And now it was hers.

Less than 24 hours later, on Friday August 17th, my sister called. Mom had been taken to the hospital. They had found her “non-responsive.” I immediately knew it was the beginning of the end from just those words. In 82 years, no one had ever described Joan Duffy as non-responsive.

And I had a decision to make. The next day, Saturday August 18th, was or annual one-day trip upstate for Copake Falls Day. What is Copake Falls Day? I’ll let Mookie explain in his words: “We go for a long ride in the car, we say hi to a lot of people, we go swimming, we walk around, we sit in the shade, then finally we walk up a hill where there’s music playing and people hand you big slabs of barbecued meat, which turns out to be what Mookies like best. Then you sleep in the car all the way home.” That’s pretty much it in a nutshell. We haven’t missed it since they started doing it seven years ago.

I knew Mom was going to die, but nobody had officially told me that yet. I figured the worst that could happen is she would slip away during the 16 hours we’d be unavailable, and if she did, I could rationalize to myself that because Mookie rescued a kitten, and we had a nice, long phone conversation about it, and there was nothing she loved more than a nice long phone conversation, not to mention Mookie, so I could always say that we went out on a high note. I just didn’t feel the need to rush to her bedside. I thought of Albert Camus’ character in “The Stranger”  – which of course Mom turned me on to – who is found to be a menace to society because he didn’t show emotion when his mother died.

But she wasn’t dead yet. And I have two older brothers and two older sisters. Mom would be covered for Saturday, and I’d be out there as soon as I could on Sunday.

So how did I know she was going to die? Well, In the true spirit of long-winded storytelling, it’s important to interject two details before we go on here. One is about her mother, my Grandma Scully. Julia Scully was a widow from 1958 until she died in 1989. She decided shortly before my grandfather died to drag him out of Astoria, Queens and follow my parents to the Creek in Valley Stream when the house next door to them was up for sale. William Scully died of complications from diabetes within a year and Julia Scully stayed next door and systematically drove my parents nuts for the better part of three decades. When the paramedics carried Grandma Scully out of her house in 1983 after suffering a stroke, she lingered in a nursing home for six years until she died at the age of 98. And my mother told me, and hundreds of other people more than likely, that Julia “thought she was going to write her own script. She thought she’d die in that house and never have to leave it.” And the point was, of course, that, as my English Teacher, Devout Catholic mother would say, quoting the gospel of Matthew, “we know not the day nor the hour.”

Mohonk Mountain House in New Paltz, N.Y. (AP Photo/Mike Groll - used without permission)
Mohonk Mountain House in New Paltz, N.Y. (AP Photo/Mike Groll – used without permission)

The other detail takes us to the Mohonk Mountain House in New Paltz, New York. And buckle yourself in, ’cause this a big detour. Mohonk is a stunningly beautiful place. It has no equal. It’s also stunningly expensive to stay there. But Mom didn’t care. She heard about it from a friend and decided in 1982 that she and my father would stay there to celebrate their 30th wedding anniversary. Then in 1992, she dipped into the cash that Grandma Scully had piled in her house by collecting rent from the buildings she owned in Astoria (my father called it “The Scully Fortune”) to bring the entire family, fifteen of us at the time, up to stay for a weekend. Like a bunch of friggin’ Kennedys we were. A big Irish Catholic family all gathered up in suits and dresses for dinner, playing tennis and going to the spa or out on canoes on the lake during the day.  I got to see how really wealthy people relaxed and had fun on vacation. I have to say, they have it down. Mom obviously had the time of her life because we did it again ten years later for their fiftieth wedding anniversary in 2002. There were 18 of us by that time. We had a wonderful time. I don’t want to know what it cost.

But that was Mom. She loved a good party, and she thought it was worth it. My father, bless his soul, was madly in love with her from the day she helped him out in 10th grade math class at William Cullen Bryant High School in Long Island City. If she wanted it, he did what he could to make it happen. When they left the city to come to the suburbs, Mom said she wouldn’t buy a house unless she could see water from it. That’s why you’re reading duffyscreek.com. It was the best water they could afford at the time. Us too.

So when 2012 rolled around, and Mom was already separated by a floor in the skilled nursing building from Dad because he couldn’t take care of her anymore, and against the advice of just about everybody, she said fuck it, we’re all going back to Mohonk for a 60th Anniversary Reunion. Matching tee shirts and everything.  She tortured my brother who handles the finances and my sister who handles the health care for the better part of the year over making the arrangements. She was going to get back there if it killed her. My father’s opinion? Whatever your mother wants.

They were transported from Long Island to New Paltz in the back of an ambulette. They were accompanied by two home health care aids, who stayed with my parents the entire weekend. They were delightful women. Mom had a list of everything she wanted to do while she was up there from Friday night until Sunday afternoon, including having somebody push her around the grounds and going to the outdoor picnic on Sunday afternoon.

And it rained more that weekend that it rained all summer. It rained buckets, for hours at a time. And Mom was pissed, as only Mom could get pissed, until I told her to look around. We were on the porch of the Mountain House, with the rain dancing off the lake below and off the roof above us. And everybody was there, because it was raining, and there was nowhere else to go. At the 40th and 50th Anniversary Weekends, my brothers and sisters and their families went their own way during the day and met up at meals. Now we were all stuck together, just talking, enjoying each others’ company. But I told her, If the sun was shining you’d be sitting here by yourself. You paid for all these people. Now you get to see them. And more importantly, you get to talk to them. Enjoy it.

My parents' 60th Anniversary Dinner at The Mohonk Mountain House, July 19th, 2012
My parents’ 60th Anniversary Dinner at The Mohonk Mountain House, July 19th, 2012

She thanked me for changing her attitude. And though the pain she was in wouldn’t quit, and it was tough for her to keep up, she knew she had lived her dream. She had pulled it off. She got the band together to rock Mohonk Mountain House one last time.

Mookie and The Dude and I went out to see them about a week and a half before she died, a few days before I got to tell her the incredible saga of how her favorite dog rescued a kitten. We took her and my fahter outside to the patio of the nursing home – it drove her crazy that she couldn’t go outside any time she damn well pleased – and we sat and we talked.

And we did go to Copake Falls Day and did everything we always do and nobody died that day. The next day, Sunday August 19th, I brought my father to the hospital to see my mother. It was not the first time I had done that. The other times, she got a little better and they released her. This time, as my father sat with my mother, the doctor consulted me with the results of all the tests they had done. The short version was that she had pneumonia, and when combined with all the things that were already wrong with her, she would probably be gone within a week. And then I got to walk back into the hospital room where my mother slept and my father watched, and I, the forty-nine year old baby of the family, got tell him that the woman he had loved for nearly 70 years was dying.

I tried for a good five minutes. He wasn’t getting it. He didn’t want to get it. I went to get the doctor. He tried for another five minutes. Dad finally acknowledged what we were telling him. The doctor left the room and we sat in silence for as minute. He didn’t cry. I don’t think I cried. We’re not really criers. He just said something that will stay with me forever, something I say every time I try to acknowledge someone’s grief and express my sympathies. You know what my father said when he found out my mother was dying? He said: “No matter how much time you have, you always want a little more.”

Mom woke up long enough to talk to me a little bit. She was back to being responsive, at least for about ten minutes of every hour. I told her that I we had gone to Copake Falls Day the day before and she understood, and she was happy to hear it. She’d never been to Copake Falls, but she knew I loved it, so she loved it. After I gave them some time alone, I brought Dad back home. On the way out of the hospital, we stopped for a little snack and a coffee to go for the driver at the cafeteria. My dad wandered away for a minute and came back with the biggest black and white cookie I’ve ever seen in all my life. I thought that was a very intelligent response to situation. A yin-yang full of sugar. I drove home to tell Joanie Duffy’s youngest daughter-in-law and youngest grandson that they had to come back with me tomorrow and say goodbye.

We wanted to do something special, and since The Dude was seven years old and was really impressed with his own reading ability, we prepped him to read one of Mom’s favorite poems to her, W.B. Yeats, “The Lake Isle of Inisfree.” Once he started reading, she started reciting it from memory right along with him, right through to the end. It was an amazing thing to witness. Mom was an high school English teacher – “a goddamn good English teacher”- as she told me in confidence on her deathbed. She loved literature, but she also loved all kinds of music and all kinds of art, and she kept everything she had ever experienced in her head right until the last day. I could’ve played “Name That Tune” with her as she was dying of pneumonia and she would’ve batted 1.000.

DSCN4643

Trisha took The Dude for a little walk around the hospital so Mom and I could have some one on one time. That fifteen minutes or so was great theater. There were certain people in her inner circle that Mom would feel comfortable enough with that she would curse like a sailor when she got together with them. I was fortunate to be one of those people. We regularly laced our conversations with f-bombs and characterized people as assholes and pieces of shit, usually Republicans. So I should have been ready for her last little bit of passive-aggressive snarkiness, as it was one of the great gifts she passed on to her youngest boy.

I told her I was sorry. I was sorry for all the times I got annoyed at her, that I should have been more patient, no matter what I was up against. because the pain she had suffered in the last ten years of her life was a monster, all the more monstrous because her mind had stayed so sharp. I was especially sorry for not taking the time to call more often, or for chasing her off the phone. “Or lettin’ that goddamn answering machine pick up.” she added. Yeah, that too.

I told her I was sorry and I hoped she could forgive me. She looked straight at me through all the pain and the fog and hung the wiseass smirk that I learned so well from her. “Naaaaah,” she said, “Fuck you. I’m takin’ that one to my grave.”

I believe I replied with something along the lines of, “well played, old lady.” It didn’t matter. She had a heart as big as an Adirondack mountain, and she loved me with all of it, every day from May of 1963 on. We shared music and poetry and baseball and art and gardening and animals and food and all the things that make your life your life. She taught me what living is. But she also took no shit. She’d hit you with the verbal frying pan to the head with no mercy if you had it coming. And I had it coming.

Later, she told my sister, “I think this is really hard on John. He’s still my baby you know.” She knew.

By the time I got out on Wednesday, she wasn’t talking anymore. They had moved her from the hospital back to hospice care at the nursing home so my father could be with her. They talked Wednesday morning, somebody took Dad to lunch, and when they got back, she wasn’t talking anymore. and she died late Thursday night. I didn’t bring Mookie to see her before she died, because of all the people who would’ve said what the hell are you bringing a dog in here for, but I brought him to see Grandpa as we all gathered Friday morning to start the send off.

She had a great turnout for an 82-year-old woman who had moved 50 miles from her home. Well over a hundred people. One of her oldest friends, a nun, said to me, “we have a new saint.”

I can’t help it. She made me what I am. I smiled and chuckled and said, “well…I don’t know about that.” Not quite sure how the nun actually took that, but she smiled back.

It was tough on The Dude. I could see it in his eyes when he saw her at the wake. I lost my own Grandma Duffy – Molly Gerahty Duffy of County Longford, Ireland- in 1971, at the same age he was in 2012. They wouldn’t let me see her at the wake. I had to sit outside. But I snuck a look at her lying in the coffin, and the image stays with me to this day. We decided that there was no point to shielding The Dude from anything. And it was actually gratifying to see him show raw, unguarded, profound human emotion, and gratifying to know that he loved his Grandma Duffy deeply and would never forget her. She had worried that he would never get to know her. She worried about a lot of stuff that never happened. She passed that one on to me as well.

I sang and played one of her favorite songs at her funeral: “Morning Has Broken”. I also wanted to perform “Four Strong Winds”, which she loved: “‘Cause our good times are all gone / and I’m bound for movin’ on/ I’ll look for you if I’m ever back this way.” (How many people do you know whose mothers asked them to mix them CD’s?). The nice people at the Catholic church would not accept “Four Strong Winds” at a funeral mass, but “Morning Has Broken” is on the acceptable list – “in the canon” as they put it to me. I thought it was kind of funny that it was written by a guy named Yusef Islam.

And when it was all over, when she was buried in the Scully Plot at St. John’s Cemetery, I was able to let my mind wander across the whole course of events of her final month, and back over her whole life. I don’t know where I was when a magical thought occurred to me. I was probably in the backyard on Duffy’s Creek that she loved so much. I thought about her incredibly stubborn insistence that she get to The Mohonk Mountain House that summer. I thought about how she rolled her eyes when she talked about how her own mother believed she could dictate the terms of her own death.

“But you did.” I said to her memory. “You went out like a rock star. You knew your body could never handle that trip, and you were in awful pain the whole time, but you did it anyway, ’cause nobody was going to tell you you couldn’t live while you were still alive. You wrote your own script.”

Well played, old lady.

My Mom in the backyard on Duffy's Creek in 1984. She's 54 in this picture, two years older than I am now. Much thanks to cousin Ann Marie Lenihan for digging this one up.
My Mom in the backyard on Duffy’s Creek in 1984. She’s 54 in this picture, two years older than I am now. Much thanks to cousin Ann Marie Lenihan for digging this one up.

Whooooosh!!!! Growing Up in Valley Stream All Over Again

July 2011. The Dude is seven. Mookie is about ten weeks. Me? 48.
July 2011. The Dude is seven. Mookie is about ten weeks. Me? 48.

Most of this is a re-run for some of you. Heck, it’s August. Read it again. Why not. Back in the Summer of 2011, my buddy David Sabatino, aka Mr. Valley Stream Himself, suggested that I write something for the Valley Stream Voices column in the local Herald Newspaper. And I said, yeah, I could do that. David was helping out the editor at the time, Andrew Hackmack, who did a great job covering the town for a lot of years. Andrew asked him to find someone who could do a Voices column, and David said, “John Duffy.” And I’m glad he did.

I decided to try to capture the experience of raising a child in the same town I grew up in. I painted the place in a very positive light, and overall, I was happy with the way it came out. Andrew wrote the headline, “Valley Stream is Better Than Ever,” which was not totally misleading, as it was the general theme of the essay, but I thought it that message was a little too advertising slogan-y. Life is pain, your highness. Anyone who tells you differently is selling you something. There are a lot of things that aren’t better: First and foremost that we’re all packed in like sardines, and they keep building more and higher sardine cans to pack more people in.

There happens to be a reason for that. At some point, the Long Island Rail Road, which my wife Trisha subjects herself to twice a day to earn a living, is eventually going to finish a connection to Grand Central Station and the East Side of Manhattan. And when that day comes, lots more people are apparently going to want to live in apartment buildings near the railroad stations, specifically Valley Stream and Gibson. And I suppose the ten minutes it takes me to go two miles to the King Kullen some afternoons will turn into fifteen. They built a monster of an apartment building less than a mile from Duffy’s Creek – called Sun Valley Apartments. Ugh. – that I and many people raised hell about when it went up, because it looked like a cross between a Bronx tenement and an upstate prison. They recently did a nice crown molding all the way around the top of it to make it less ugly. That was nice of them.

Trisha and I would really like to leave here, but we can’t. We’d like to move to Copake Falls, or somewhere nearby. Valley Stream, and Long Island in general, have become ridiculously crowded and dirty and noisy. But this is where work is for both of us, and we both have many years invested in our jobs. We also have an 11-year old son who has trouble transitioning from pajamas to clothes every single morning. He doesn’t do change very well, and the fact is, this is a good place to grow up, because you’re forced to learn how to get along with a whole lot of different kinds of people. It wasn’t that way when I was growing up. There were a lot of bigoted white people trying to turn me into one of them. If not for my parents being bleeding-heart liberals, they might have made more of a dent. When the town started to diversify, around the turn of the century, the bigots mostly ran like hell, leaving people who know how to get along for the most part. It’s not the people that make me want to leave. I love the people here. There’s just too damn many of them. So The Dude has about ten years to save his money if he wants to buy this house and “stay here forever” as per his plan. We’re not leaving anytime soon, and we’re very good at making lemonade out of the lemons, but in about twelve years this blog will be called, “A Creek Ran Through It.”

Anyway, here we are, and what follows is my little public love letter to Valley Stream, written four years ago. My favorite thing about this essay is that the mayor of Valley Stream, a very smart, energetic and friendly fellow named Edwin Fare (that’s right, Mayor Fare) has borrowed a phrase that was the anchor of the whole piece. I don’t know how terribly original it was, but I referred to Valley Stream as a “big small town”, which it is if you’re an old timer. You’re usually about three degrees of separation from anyone you start a conversation with – they went to school with someone you know, or lived on the same street, or went to the same church, or played on the same team, or at the very least got drunk in the same bar. Mayor Fare used the phrase in an interview with Newsday and in a recent Cablevision-produced video. I believe that he unconsciously lifted it from me. I saw him just today walking around the pool. I’ve never said to him, “Hey! That’s my line!”, since for one thing what does it matter and for another thing he’d just tell me it isn’t, ’cause he took it. Fact is, he needs it more than I do. (What I did say to him was, “you ought to jump in! It’s like a bathtub in there today!” Which was just me being folksy, as he was wearing street clothes).

So without further ado, the Valley Stream Voices Column from 2011 that I would have simply entitled: “Whooosh!!!”, with a little postscript at the end. Hope you enjoy it (again):

I am a second-generation Valley Streamer. Many of you just said, “me, too!” There are a lot of us. My parents moved from Queens in 1955 for a backyard on a creek and room for their growing family. Five kids and 46 years later, in 2001, they moved east and my wife and I bought the house where I grew up. Two years later, in my 40th year, our son Jack was born, a third-generation Valley Streamer.

dscn2230In my new role as Jack’s daddy, I began to realize how many of the icons of my childhood were unchanged, and how Valley Stream remains a big small town and a good place to grow up. In my opinion, it’s actually better than in the ’60s and ’70s.

When I was a kid, my mother might announce that we were “going to town.” That meant driving in our red Volkswagon bus (seriously, we had one) over to Rockaway Avenue. The first stop was Morris Variety, then, as now, a place where a little kid could be enraptured by the impressive assortment of stuff; where you could get lost in the long aisles of toys, hardware and craft supplies while mom picked through greeting cards, then memorize the candy at the front counter while she checked out. Going to town might also include lunch at Itgen’s, Mitchell’s or Ancona, and maybe a walk up to Sal and Vin’s for haircuts, a swing by the library or a stop at the bank with the big vault that looked like the one Maxwell Smart walked through.

dsc042613058-1Today, going around Valley Stream with my son, there are times when I’m suddenly traveling in a time machine (I can even hear a “Whoosh!” sound in my head when it happens). I can reconnect with my inner little kid, the one that we all tend to leave behind and disregard, as we get older and our boundaries expand far beyond “going to town.”

One of the first places Jack and I went when he was a baby was Brook Road Park in Mill Brook. (Sorry, but it’ll always be Green Acres to me.) When my older siblings were all in school and I was home with my mother, she would push me there in a stroller over the bridge. (The bridge was first fenced off and then taken down, to the dismay of many old-timers.) Coming back 40 years later with my little boy was one of my first trips into my personal Valley Stream Time Machine, one of many enjoyable travels that I’ve taken back to my childhood through my son. After admiring the new playground equipment, we walked by a fence that holds back the eroding retaining wall along the creek. Behind the fence were relics of my pre-school days — the big dolphin you could sit on, and the concrete turtle you could crawl under, both on a bouncy rubber surface. And there was the very bench where my mother sat enjoying my company, wearing ’60s-style cat’s-eye glasses.

461142_299944693431867_624281914_oAs Jack grew into a toddler, we joined the Valley Stream Pool. As a kid, I remember the kiddie pool area shaded by mottled Sycamore trees, like the ones still in the playground. My mother was a part of a group of women with lots of children who jokingly called themselves the “Over the Hill, Under the Tree Club.” On summer days, they could have some much-needed peace and adult conversation as the kids entertained themselves.

There was a probably a 30-year interval between my last visit to the pool as a kid and my first as a dad. As I stood next to the Olympic pool, “Whoosh!” I was in the time machine again — going under water with my eyes open, daring myself out into the deep end, jumping off the diving board, eating a hot dog and French fries under the concession stand roof. It all comes back to me, like opening a book you haven’t read in years and remembering how much you liked the story. The French fries taste exactly the same.

Jack likes going to town. He’s well-known at Morris Variety, and Michael at Sal and Vin’s always makes him look great. We recently had Itgen’s for lunch and Ancona for dinner with a trip to the pool in between. Jack and his mom both like mint chip ice cream. I’m a vanilla fudge guy. Ancona meatball parmesan heroes are sublime.

This year, I made some new friends in my old town. While looking for dog parks for our new Labrador puppy, I found Envision Valley Stream, a group that promotes ideas for fostering a sense of community, including park clean-ups, graffiti removal and the skate park and dog park initiatives which the village administration has been receptive to. It’s nice to meet people of all ages and backgrounds who like living here. And it’s very nice to see the local government working with residents to make good ideas happen.

Jack is going into second grade at Carbonaro School. It was a warm and nurturing place when I went there and it still is. This year, he played baseball with the Valley Stream Little League. I played on a Mail League team in the ’70s, so of course the “Whoosh!” brought me right back as I stood on the ball fields of Barrett Park, Wheeler Avenue and others. We marched with the Little League in the Memorial Day parade, my first since the ’70s. The sense of community here is as strong as ever. And a one-time reputation for intolerance has been replaced by a diversity of people who interact easily with each other. This is something my son will have which my generation did not. His big small town is a lot like mine, but better, and I’m glad we’re here.

Ok, I’m back here in 2015. Christ, I’m tired. The Dude doesn’t go to Carbonaro anymore because the class where he fits best is across town in an identical building called William L. Buck.  (The Dude calls the similarity “freaky”). We’re a long way removed from little league, and I’m a happy observer of the Memorial Day Parade. The Dog Park is a raging success, mostly due to the efforts of others besides myself, but I feel a sense of ownership of the place, and so do Mookie and his Dude. You’ve gotta like that.  “Envision Valley Stream” is in the process of morphing into the Greater Valley Stream Civic Association, in which I’m trying to carve out the time to take an active role. (I’m the liaison for the “part of South Valley Stream that isn’t Mill Brook or Gibson even though Gibson built the houses but don’t you dare call it North Woodmere” -Our Man On The Creek, if you will). 

Yeah, we want out. And we more than likely will get out someday. We won’t be able to afford to stay when we’re too old. They’ll eat us alive. But for now, me and My Dude  still go to the pool most weekday afternoons in the summertime. And we’ll be getting our haircuts at Sal and Vin’s tomorrow. And lunch or dinner at Ancona is never far away. (John! You Called?). When we finally do leave Valley Stream, when it’s all over, will I miss it? (I have to speak for myself, as Trisha has been here for 15 of her years and I’ve been here for all 52 of mine, more or less). Will I romanticize it like my mom did when she left kicking and screaming?

I don’t know. Places are funny like that. It’s like the line from “Fast Times at Ridgemont High”, when the creepy guy is giving the dorky guy his dating advice: “Wherever you are – it’s the place to be! – Isn’t this great?” I tend to live in the present tense (which is why we’re broke), so if I were living upstate, I don’t think I’d give it much thought. I think the toughest thing about leaving would be the legacy that I’d be ending that started with my parents in 1955. My mom DID miss it when she left, so I’d miss it for her.

Speaking of my Mom, if you’ve never met her, you’ll have a chance to get to know her a little bit in my next post. Anybody would tell you that would be your lucky day. And coincidentally, that upcoming post is also about a kitten who had a very lucky day because he decided to follow a big yellow dog one day on Duffy’s Creek. It’s not so complicated, but I’ll probably tell the story in a way to make it so. I got that gift from Mom. I’m long-winded and I need an editor. But at least I came by it honestly.

Read it anyway, and thanks. See you when the tide comes in.

Hendrickson Lake in Valley Stream. I can't take a boat on it and my dog can't jump in it, but it's nice enough to look at, and a good place for a bike ride or a walk. And it's a just a couple of sewer pipes away from Duffy's Creek
Hendrickson Lake in Valley Stream. I can’t take a boat on it and my dog can’t jump in it, but it’s nice enough to look at, and a good place for a bike ride or a walk. It’s the Crown Jewel of My Hometown, and it’s a just a couple of sewer pipes and a six-lane highway away from Duffy’s Creek.

“A Saranac Lake Guy”: The Story of Camp Lavigerie

DSCN5884There’s a place. It’s about 325 miles from Duffy’s Creek. There’s a great big lake there, with another great big lake beside it. Near where that great big lake empties into a dam and disappears, you’ll find a beach. There’s not much sand left, but the grass is soft and the wildflowers are friendly. Next to the beach, the land extends to a point surrounded by tall pines and spruces, aspens that sparkle in the breeze and birches that stand around looking awesome. You walk across a carpet of pine needles on this point and you look out at wizened old mountains. One of those mountains has a rock formation in the center of it, almost in the shape of a smile. Once upon a time, if you looked very closely, you would see two birch tree logs, both at least 10 or 15  feet tall, strung together to look like a crucifix standing to the far right of the rock formation.

The mountain probably has another name, but to a couple of hundred people who passed through this place beginning in the late 50’s to early 60’s, it’s White Cross Mountain. The first time I stood on this beach and looked out across this lake at this mountain was in 1966, at the age of three, wearing a little red plaid swimsuit. And I have still have the scar on my finger to prove it. How I got to this place to begin with, why there was a crucifix in that mountain, why I and many, many other people keep coming back – and why my son might come back without me someday – are all very good questions. I would enjoy answering them, and if you stick with it, along the way there’s a history lesson, a fateful burrito, a kind-hearted motel owner, a guy who has lived off the grid for twenty years, some other really nice people – even Santa Claus shows up – not to mention the best damn soft serve ice cream under God’s Blue Sky.

White Cross Mountain
White Cross Mountain
The Dude and Mookie on Family Beach, Lake Kushaqua, August 23, 2013
The Dude and Mookie on Family Beach, Lake Kushaqua, August 23, 2013
White Cross Mountain from the spot where we kept the motor boat.
White Cross Mountain from the spot where we kept the motor boat.

In July of 1966, Francis and Joan Duffy, both 37 years old and married for 14 years, arrived at Camp Lavigerie, Onchiota, NY, owned and operated by the White Fathers of Africa, which is not a supremacy group. They had driven 325 miles with five kids, aged 3 to 13, packed into a 1964 Red Volkswagen Bus. They had never been to this place before. They had only heard about it through some friends who had some friends. And because the best things in life often come out of random events, Joan Duffy’s college roommate was from Keene Valley, NY, about 40 miles away from Onchiota. Joan had already indoctrinated Francis to Adirondack Magic. They were both from Astoria, and my mother had told the story several hundred times of how she saw  the night sky full of stars for the first time when she got off the Trailways Bus in Keene Valley at the age of 18. Naturally, she dragged my father, her high school sweetheart, up to see it for himself as soon as she could. So 19 years later, they came to Camp Lavigerie, with the five kids and the Volkswagen Bus, intending to stay a week. They stayed two. The next year, they came back for two more. Eventually, they extended their annual July stay at Camp Lavigerie to three weeks. So in the end, their youngest son –me- spent about 18 weeks worth of July’s from 1966 to 1974 in this paradise in the Adirondack Mountains, about 15 miles northwest of  Saranac Lake, NY.

Me in Lake Kushaqua, a long time ago
Me in Lake Kushaqua, a long time ago

In 1974, Camp Lavigerie shut down. The land was sold to New York State. The Adirondack Park Agency added it to the Forever Wild Lands and they tore the whole thing down, save for three buildings. Francis and Joan’s oldest four kids were off doing their own things in the summer, but they couldn’t leave their youngest son – me – alone in Valley Stream, and they couldn’t stay away from the Adirondacks, so from 1975-1978, from age 12-15, I got stuck in a cabin in nearby Rainbow Lake with them for two weeks in July or August, thus adding eight more weeks to my time spent in the Adirondacks. But my brothers and sisters and all the hundreds of people that called that big Mountain White Cross Mountain were not there for the most part, except for one or two day visits. Being a snotty teenager, and bored out of my head with my parents, who were just trying to relax for God’s sake, I explored. A lot. By bike, by boat, by thumb and by foot, from Onchiota to Saranac Lake and everything in between. The place wrapped its arms around me. And it has never let go.

My parents in front of the Rainbow Lake cottage, which was wonderful once they stopped having to take me, Actually, we had some good times. Look, they're smiling.
My parents in front of the Rainbow Lake cabin, which was wonderful once they stopped having to take me, Actually, we had some good times. Look, they’re smiling.
The Cabin at Rainbow Lake, were my dad wonders where I'd been with the boat so long.
The Cabin at Rainbow Lake, where my dad wonders where I’d been with the boat so long.

And once I was old enough, I started coming up by myself, first by a combination of Trailways Bus and Illegal Hitchhiking, then later by car, bringing friends up to see it all for themselves, then still later to meet people from Camp Lavigerie for reunions. And then again to introduce those people to my wife and my son, and to introduce my wife and my son to the place where I spent a big fat chunk of summer youth, a place that I’ve visited in at some point during more than half of my 53 summers. I don’t know what the hell I was doing during the summers I didn’t make it up there, but as their probably ain’t more than 20 able-bodied ones left to go for me (and that’s optimistic) I don’t intend to miss many more from here.

Mom and Dad chillin' in back of Uganda Cottage
Mom and Dad chillin’ in back of Uganda Cottage
The walk down to Family Beach on Lake Kushaqua that I first took in 1966. The beach chairs have been removed.
The walk down to Family Beach on Lake Kushaqua that I first took in 1966. The beach chairs have been removed.

My parents loved being on or near the water. For example, they bought a house on a creek in 1955, the same house I’m sitting in. It probably was not long after unpacking the five kids and the Volkswagen Bus that they went down to see the beach at Camp Lavigerie, on the shores of Lake Kushaqua. The name is an Algonquin word for “beautiful resting place.” It must have seemed like just that until their freaking three year-old son got his finger caught in a wooden folding beach chair. The Algonquin spirits probably woke up from my screaming. I don’t know how far away my parents or my siblings were at that moment. All I do know is that I was rescued by a woman named Mrs. Herman from Buffalo, who became my mother’s first friend at Camp Lavigerie, and who probably remained on her Christmas Card list for the next 45 years. And I still have the scar on my finger.  I don’t have a tattoo, and I’m the only guy at The Valley Stream Pool without one, but I have this mark from the first time I ever set foot on the shores of Lake Kushaqua, the day my mom and Mrs. Herman became friends.

Sort of like this one. You can see how easily a three-year-old could get his finger wedged in it.
You can see how easily a three-year-old could get his finger wedged…
So I did
…so I did

And the friends just kept coming, for my parents and for all of us. The place was riddled with big Irish Catholic families, each with enough kids to start their own softball team: The Lynches, Meenan’s and Donohue’s and Hickey’s, all from Long Island. The Shaw’s from Rochester, The Rudden’s from Ontario , the Heney’s from Quebec, the Desmond’s from Schenectady and the Zimmer’s from Buffalo. There were bonfires and big spaghetti dinners and softball games and talent shows and guys with speedboats and water skis; trips to the movies in Saranac Lake on Saturday Nights, or to the stores on Broadway and the Berkley Hotel in Saranac for lunch on rainy days, and let’s not forget church on Sunday morning. The place itself had originally been built in 1901 as a tuberculosis sanitarium. There was a colossal tudor-style building originally used as a hospital (“sanitarium”, actually), a beautiful little white chapel and a train station next to it, and ten or twelve “cure cottages” scattered about on the road and on the lakefront. In 1959, years after they figured out tuberculosis, the entire thing was bought by a French-Canadian medical missionary organization called the White Fathers of Africa to use as a seminary for priests in training . The White Fathers added a recreation hall and ten or twelve small cabins, which were all named after African nations. We either stayed in Algeria or Uganda. (And you’re thinking, my, this story got weird quickly. Seriously, it’s OK).

IMG_3921
Stony Wold Sanitarium/ The White Fathers Seminary
The Front of the Sanitarium/Seminary
The Front of the Sanitarium/Seminary
The Rec Hall
The Rec Hall. When I was four, I had a plan to climb those mountains to see what was on the other side. Never got to that.
A postcard of the Stony Wold / White Fathers Chapel, circa early 1900's
A postcard of the Stony Wold / White Fathers Chapel, circa early 1900’s
The Chapel, July 2015
The Chapel, July 2015
The Stony Wold Train Station, which became the Camp Lavigerie Store.
The Stony Wold Train Station, which became the Camp Lavigerie Store.

In addition  to the seminary, the White Fathers first established a boys camp, then expanded it to become a “family camp.” You don’t hear about many family camps anymore. Probably because nobody has big families anymore. The folks that went to Camp Lavigerie had gone forth and multiplied, damn sure. And this piece of earth and water in the Adrondack Mountains went from a place where people at the turn of the 20th Century went to cough until they got better or died to the happiest little small town on Earth for two months every summer from 1962 to 1974.

Studying the ways of hippies by watching Pete Hickey in the Rec Hall. My guess would be 1973.
Studying the ways of hippies by watching Pete Hickey in the Rec Hall. My guess would be 1973.

And it was pretty much the same thing every year, and nobody would have it any other way.  You went to the Camp Store to get the list of who was staying where and you started looking up old friends. And you’d find them at the Rec Hall, where there were ping pong tables and big comfy chairs and people who needed one more for a card game and a teen room I was never allowed into because the damn place closed when I was 11. Or they’d be on the beach, swimming out to the raft or getting ready to take the boat out. (There were actually people going by on water skis and waving. I kid you not). The beach would also be the site of the end of the week bonfires on Friday nights, which were great if you weren’t leaving the next day. Then of course you’d see everyone at mass at the Chapel on Sunday Mornings, but you’d know you didn’t need to see heaven when you died ’cause you were already in it. There would be daily trips in the boat with the Johnson outboard motor to get groceries at Bing Tormey’s store in Onchiota, where the sign said “67 of the Friendliest People in The Adirondacks, Plus A Couple of Soreheads”, because Bing was as funny and smart as anyone who has ever lived in Manhattan. And you might even see Santa Claus on your boat trip back to the Camp; specifically, a retired vaudeville comedian named Ireland MacFadyn who lived in a trailer on Kushaqua and would throw on a santa suit and come out to greet kids who came by, just ’cause he enjoyed it. Imagine that. (And take a look at the picture below that I have thanks to Pat Haltigan).

And in the middle there were big spaghetti dinners and talent shows in the “Green Room” of the Seminary (where we all saw Neil Armstrong step on the moon on July 20, 1969). And Mr. Rudden would sing “The Damper Song” at the top of his lungs and people would be be rolling in the aisles (google it)  and Pete Hickey would channel Arlo Guthrie and get everyone to sing “I don’t want a pickle/Just wanna ride my motorcycle…and I don’t wanna die. Just wanna ride my motorcy…cle.” And Pete and all the other teenagers were like Gods and Goddesses to me. They spent the week barefoot and seemingly unbothered with by their parents for the most part, Their wild early 70’s hairstyles and fashions making the place look like Godspell for Christ’s sake. I knew they were having much more fun than us younger kids, who still bring up this unfairness when we get together even though we’re in our 50’s now. We never got the chance to let loose at Camp Lavigerie like our older brothers and sisters did, though we loved it on our own terms. (And let loose they did. My father is 85 years old now and doesn’t remember much. But if you mention Camp Lavigerie, he often says, “I’m surprised nobody ever got killed up there.”)

Ireland MacFadyn aka Danta Claus with Pat Haltigan, probably around 1963
Ireland MacFadyn aka Santa Claus with Pat Haltigan,probably around 1963
Mr Rudden. I went around annoying people one day with a camera and he was only one that posed for me.
Mr Rudden. I went around annoying people one day with a camera and he was only one that posed for me.
You have never met anyone like Bing Tormey, unless you met Bing Tormey. I bought my first Dr. Pepper from this man. And he was always gracious every time you rolled into his town. And it was most definitely his town. :>)
You have never met anyone like Bing Tormey, unless you met Bing Tormey. I bought my first Dr. Pepper from this man. And he was always gracious every time you rolled into his town. And it was most definitely his town. :>)

During the last two or three summers, there weren’t enough “brothers” living at the White Fathers Seminary to keep the place running properly, so the Brother-in-Charge, Jim Heinz, had the smart idea of employing all the teenage guys who had grown up at the camp. My brother got the enviable job of driving around in a very old Red Chevy Pickup with Brother Vernon, picking up the garbage and doing maintenance. Tim Donohue ran the Camp Store. John Forzly was the lifeguard. Tony Shubert hung out in the boathouse with a pile of comic books. I spent a lot of time annoying them.

Then, In 1979, I got to be a teenager at Camp Lavigerie for a week. I was 16 and came up to Road’s End, one of the three remaining buildings left after the Camp was demolished, to attend a reunion with my brother. The reunion was put together by all the former teenagers, who were now in their twenties and knew how to have serious fun. My brother had to leave during the week and convinced my parents to let me stay, and they agreed because they knew who I’d be staying with. Perhaps if they knew I’d spend the entire week drunk on Genesee Beer they might have reconsidered. No matter, that wonderful week was the last I’d see of Camp Lavigerie for the next 9 years. I came up to the Rainbow Lake Cabin a couple of times with some friends and a couple of times just by myself. As a matter of fact, I hitchhiked up the Adirondack Northway from Glens Falls when I was 17, just to say I did. When I got to Saranac Lake and was just walking around my childhood hometown by myself, it was the most free I have ever felt, and would ever feel. I can still catch that feeling  just by standing on the river bridge on Church Street. I was alone, 300 miles from Long Island (and all the people who had formed opinions of me there), and yet I felt completely at home and not the least bit afraid, ’cause this was home, too.

Me and Mookie in Saranac Lake, July 2015
Me and Mookie in Saranac Lake, July 2015

In 1995, a group of people began putting together formal Camp Lavigerie reunions over Labor Day weekend. The people who had the week-long party at Road’s End were starting families and wanted to show them what it was like, minus the Genessee and debauchery, so they all got together at a hotel in Lake Placid. I didn’t go to the first one. I was so far removed from it that I didn’t think it would mean much to me. Then my parents came home gushing about all the people they saw and all the things they did, and I made sure I was at the next one in 1998 and had the time of my life catching up with everybody, and getting to hang out on equal terms with all the Gods and Goddesses of my childhood, who had turned out to be as cool as they always were except older. And then I went to one after that in 2001, and this time, I brought my wife of three weeks to see what all the fuss was about.

Trisha was feeling a little out of place. After driving through a wicked rainstorm up Route 73 and scaring the crap out of her, we arrived at The Ramada Inn in Lake Placid, which was all very nice and good but which is basically The Hamptons with Mountains. It has nothing to do with Saranac or Onchiota. She was about to find that out. We took a drive through Saranac Lake (which also made her nervous, which I found very funny) and made our way out to the old Rec Hall site, which was now (and still is) owned by a former camper, Pat Haltigan, who started out in Levittown, and who somehow found out that the White Fathers had never actually owned the land around the Rec Hall, and when they sold the rest to the State, he jumped in and bought it. Pat has lived off the grid on the Kushaqua Mud Road for over twenty years. He comes back to the story in a little bit. I’m digressing.

So there we are, all standing around on Pat’s property, catching up with each other, and Trisha is smiling and playing along. At this point Pete Hickey, and his beard and his hair and his tie-dye and his tinted hippie glasses, comes down the road covered in bloody scratches all over his arms and legs and announces that he has blazed a trail to the top of White Cross Mountain (he was one of the ones who erected the birch tree cross way back when) and would we all like to come for a hike. And I was in heaven, and my newlywed wife was wondering what fresh hell she had gotten herself into. But we climbed, Rudden’s and Shaw’s and Donohue’s and Meenan’s and lots of others, and we reached the big rock and looked down over Lake Kushaqua, and Trisha started to get it. And later that weekend we had a big softball game and a bonfire and a talent show where Mr. Rudden sang “The Damper Song” and Pete sang “The Pickle Song.” and she started to get it more. The group that organized the reunion had found a nice priest from Saranac who agreed to say a mass in front of the chapel on Sunday morning. In his homily, he pointed out how the Camp Lavigerie story was now moving on to a new generation, and pointed out how one young couple – Jimmy Meenan and his wife – had come with their newborn baby, and how another young couple, John and Trisha Duffy, had just gotten married and would probably be back at the next reunion with a baby of their own.

We came back to the 2004 reunion with a baby of our own. We caught up with everyone again, and had a big softball game (it was me and The Shaw’s against everyone else. I believe it was a blowout) and a talent show and a bonfire that we had to miss because Daddy was starting a new job the day after Labor Day.We stayed in Saranac Lake like normal people and Trisha fell in love with it on our walks around town, pushing our baby stroller just as cute as could be. By that time somebody had set up a Website where we could all try to keep in touch, but really, it wasn’t until facebook came along (you love to hate it) that it became possible to really keep everyone together. Still. life got in the way of the Labor Day Reunions and the last big one was in 2007.

Hanging out with the Great Burt Shaw at the 2004 Reunion, with a little five-month old Dude on my lap and a very small Emily Rudden and another little girl gushing over him. Burt found out I wasn't going to the bonfire that night and said,
Hanging out with the Great Burt Shaw at the 2004 Reunion, with a little five-month old Dude on my lap and a very small Emily Rudden and my niece Maggie Duffy gushing over him. Burt found out I wasn’t going to the bonfire that night and said, “well it that case I’m gonna sit down and talk to you right now.” And that’s just what we did. We haven’t seen each other since.

After that, I went 8 years between trips to The Adirondacks. We were happy enough with our little home away from home three hours away in Copake Falls and I just kind of let it get away from me. Then on August 23, 2012, my mother died at the age 82. And I knew that on August 23, 2013 I’d be standing on the shore of Lake Kushaqua, come hell or high water. (And in that intervening year we had some of both). Trisha understood completely. We stayed at Amanda’s Village Motel in Saranac. The Dude was nine years old and thought it was really cool to stay in a motel with Mom and Dad and Mookie, who loved the big comfy beds most of all. Our next door neighbor at the motel became a friend, Bruce Freifeld. He had just toured around The Great Lakes on a motorcycle and let The Dude sit on his bike and try out his weather-proof gear, including the jacket that heats up when you plug it into the battery, which of course blew The Dude’s mind. We saw a couple of our old friends, particularly Martha Rudden and her wonderful kids, Emily and James. We walked around Saranac and went for ice cream at Donnelly’s, which was a five mile drive from Camp Lavigerie but was one of the highlights of the week back in the days, when it was Crystal Springs Dairy. Every night they twist a different flavor with vanilla and it’s the best soft serve ice cream on the planet. Anyone reading this who has experienced this ice cream can attest. I can’t describe in words how good it is.

You stand around on Family Beach, Lake Kushaqua long enough, you run into someone you knew almost 50 years ago. This is Peggy Lynch Mulchahy, who lives about five miles away from here. I'd be more likely to see her at Kushaqua than at the King Kullen on Sunrise Highway.
You stand around on Family Beach, Lake Kushaqua long enough, you run into someone you knew almost 50 years ago. This is Peggy Lynch Mulchahy, who lives about five miles away from here. I’d be more likely to see her on Kushaqua than at the King Kullen on Sunrise Highway.

We even went on a night walk through Tucker Farm’s Great Adirondack Corn Maze in Gabriels, which for The Dude, who is currently asleep upstairs with all the lights on, was a huge jump. On the second trip down to the lake, I saw two women and a dog. I said, “Lavigerie?” and one of the women said “John Duffy?” and I said, “Peggy Lynch?” and wound up having a conversation about the old days with someone who actually lives about five miles from here. The whole trip was magical. Even the weather was perfect, which is not always the case in this particular part of the world.

Driving back from Kushaqua to Saranac Lake that afternoon, my ipod shuffle picked out “Fire And Rain” just as I was passing the turnoff for the Rainbow Lake Cabin. I thought about my mother and tears welled up in my eyes. I thought about all the things we both had to deal with in our lives that were so far away from the peace and happiness of Camp Lavigerie, and for no damn good reason. How much we both had to deal with people and situations that just plain sucked: “Sweet dreams and flying machines in pieces on the ground.” But on the other hand: “Sunny days that I thought would never end.” I knew I would have to keep coming back to this place to keep my center intact, honor the memory of the person that gave this place to me, and pass it on to my son.

So we came back again, this past July. The Shaws were renting the same place they’d rented since Lavigerie closed, Martha was coming to town with her kids, so we decided to move the Copake Falls Week up and come back to Saranac and Onchiota in July. So we ended up driving 150 miles, staying away from home for a week, driving 150 miles back home, staying for four days, then driving 325 miles to stay in a motel for four and a half days. While Trisha and I could envision what it would take to endure that, and why it was worth it, we didn’t realize that it would be a little too much of a strain on our 11 year-old Dude. Meanwhile, Trisha is, currently and unfortunately, suffering from an injury related to spinal stenosis, and it really hurts her to walk. She had gotten a cortisone shot before Copake Falls that she promptly undid by feeling great and trying to load the car. So for the entire week that she lives for all year long, she wasn’t able to walk any distance in the place where we spend half our time taking walks, and it was breaking my heart. However, you have never met anyone with a bigger heart than my wife, and a sweeter spirit. She insisted that we make the trip to Saranac Lake. She didn’t want to miss it. Under these circumstances, we knew it was going to be quite as “lightning-in-a-bottle” magic as the last trip, but we went anyway. Because it’s there.

The Waterhole on Broadway in Saranac Lake.
The Waterhole on Broadway in Saranac Lake.

We made the trip in six hours flat. It usually takes at least seven. I was so excited that I told a friendly guy walking down River Street in front of the motel, as Mookie read the new pee mail, that I had just driven from Long Island in six hours. He gave Mookie a big hello (and vice versa), congratulated me and invited me over to The Waterhole for a drink. I of course couldn’t join him, being a family man and all that, but to be invited to The Waterhole is a great honor. Later Mookie and I saw the guy and his buddies on the front porch of the Waterhole, which is the Front Porch of Saranac Lake, and we all said hi like old friends. That’s how it goes there.

We went over to see the Shaw’s at their cabins on Flower Lake. Burt and Brian, my childhood heroes, were not there, which was a bit of a buzzkill, and started me thinking about how old we’re all getting. But we got to catch up with Glenn, who is a boy about my age – 50- and meet his three year-old son William and his fiancee Katie, plus my childhood buddy Christal, and Curtis (who Mookie particularly bonded with), and Mrs. Shaw, who is now 90 years old, and Keith, who gave The Dude a quiz on proper electrician and HVAC guy procedure, which was great entertainment around the campfire. Things were starting out well. Even Mookie got to go for a quick swim on their beach.

We stayed up too late and The Dude was starting to drag the next day. We had to drag him out of the motel for our first drive out to Lake Kushaqua. He wasn’t whiny, but he wasn’t having as much fun as we thought he should be. I couldn’t get him to come into the lake with Mookie and me, and Trisha had to sit down wherever possible. Plus I should point out that it’s a steep walk down to the lake. You can drive your car down the road, but it’s barely passable. Walking back up the hill was about all Trisha’s back could take and she was really wrecked by the time we got back to the motel. That’s when Edie decided to get involved.

Amanda's Village Motel.
Amanda’s Village Motel.

Edie and Joe are the proprietors of Amanda’s Village Motel, across River Street from Flower Lake. Amanda’s was brand spanking new in the 1940’s, but Edie and Joe have managed to suspend it in time. They run a clean, simple motel where you can bring your dog and walk to everything in Saranac, except if you can’t walk. Edie saw how much Trisha was suffering, and unlike myself, decided to do something helpful. She insisted that Trisha go see her chiropractor the next day. I was not particularly in favor of the idea. I’m pretty sure a chiropractor made my back worse than it already was when I destroyed it working in the Grocery Department of Foodtown when I was 18, so of course  I base my whole opinion of chiropractors on that one incident. But desperate times call for desperate measures, so we agreed that Trisha would go see Dr. Cliff Wagner (who everyone just called “Doc”) at 3:30 the next day.

Meanwhile, The Dude was getting to be a little out of sorts. I tried to change his outlook by taking him over to the local Ace Hardware and Radio Shack so he could pick up the new outlet receptacle and wire he needed for his summer projects, because he’s spoiled rotten. Put it this way: I don’t mind doing this stuff at all as long as a little gratitude is shown. Instead, when we got back to the motel he started whining about the wi-fi being spotty, and that it was too hot, and generally being nasty and unpleasant, and he didn’t want to go for a walk into town with Mookie and me (which to me is inconceivable if the town is Saranac Lake) Pile that on with Trisha being in excruciating pain and it all adds up to me getting snarky back and taking the computer away.

Glenn is the happiest guy in Harrietstown. The Shaws go for ice cream at Donnelly's every night during their Saranac Week. Each night is a different flavor twisted with vanilla. Ain't nothin' wrong with that.
Glenn is the happiest guy in Harrietstown. The Shaws go for ice cream at Donnelly’s every night during their Saranac Week. Each night is a different flavor twisted with vanilla. Ain’t nothin’ wrong with that.

And I immediately flashed back to those years when it was just me in the Rainbow Lake cabin with my parents, and how much of a jerk I thought my father was being, and how it was me being the jerk. We had ice cream with the Shaw’s at Donnelly’s after Little Italy Pizza in Riverside Park and we apologized to each other and tried to reboot.  Oh, and by the way, if you’re in Saranac Lake the third week of July and you’re looking for the Shaw’s, just go stand in front of Donnelly’s Ice Cream Stand on Route 86 around 8pm, and they’ll be there in no time flat.

The Dude got his computer back the next day. After I got in a spectacular morning kayak paddle with Christal, we loaded up some lunch and a big yellow dog and headed back to Kushaqua. This time I drove down to the beach to save Trisha the walk (and drove back up -and anyone who knows that road knows that Subaru should be sponsoring this page just because I wrote that). I took a dive in and Mookie tried to rescue me. The Dude was doing a monologue, a lecture, an Asperger’s thing, where he takes the listener captive (in this case and most often, Trisha) and talks through every singe detail of how he is going to – in this case -hardwire a doorbell in the house this summer. And it’s pissing me off that he might as well be standing in a Wal-Mart Parking lot for all he’s really taking in Lake Kushaqua, the spot he described as “like a tropical island” the first time he saw it two years before. But I made the adjustment. I looked outside myself and into him. I decided consciously not be an asshole. I asked him to tell ME how he was going to install the doorbell, and I started walking across the beach, Mookie behind me as always. As he monologued on and on, he followed me right into the lake, and we walked through the shallow water and watched the Aspen leaves sparkle in the breeze as he talked and talked. Finally, he acknowledged that the water was pretty nice.

I tricked The Dude into going into Lake Kushaqua with me by letting him take me through the entire process of how he's going to hard-wire us a front door bell.
I tricked The Dude into going into Lake Kushaqua with me by letting him take me through the entire process of how he’s going to hard-wire us a front door bell.
And someday this tree will be 80 feet tall, and The Dude and I will stand under it together.
And someday this tree will be 80 feet tall, and The Dude and I will stand under it together.

I had a plan. Besides getting Trisha to the chiropractor by 3:30. I wanted to take a drive down Kushaqua Mud Road, walk on a path that I knew of back down to the lake and see a spot that was called “Children’s Beach” way back when, even though it was more a grassy spot than a beach and there were never any children on it. The spot was special because it was the place where my Mother used to go to hide from us all at Camp Lavigerie. She had said many times that it was her favorite spot on Earth. She could sit there and look at out White Cross Mountain across the lake, maybe read a book, maybe sneak in a couple of Marlboros. I hadn’t visited the spot the last time we came up because the road was closed. This time I never got down there because we saw Pat Haltigan outside his place and we got to talking, and I’m glad we did.

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Children’s Beach

As I mentioned before, Pat bought the land where the Camp Lavigerie Rec Hall was located. He started out as a kid from Levittown at Camp Lavigerie but, like quite a few others, he came up to the North Country permanently as soon as he could. (I told Edie That I might have done the same at one time in my life if I had not been born chicken-shit). Pat was a long-distance trucker, so when he started out, he used to keep his rig right on the property. He had tapped into the well water, has a giant propane generator and a wood stove and therefore is able to live off the grid. (When I told the Dude that Pat generated all his own power, he just stared at the trailer for a very long time). He is also the now, unfortunately, the single father of a seven-year-old boy and has been forced to go on disability because of some injuries. He bonded with Trisha right away because they a lot of had aches and pains in common. And if you still don’t believe in climate change, I’ll tell you that Pat – the most independent person you could ever meet – has gotten a place in Saranac to stay with his son in the wintertime, after hunting season, because the last two winters were horrific all through upstate. (The Rochester Shaw’s said the same thing – The worst they ever saw).

We stood around talking to Pat, who showed The Dude some of his cooler toys (an old CB radio among others) and broke out some old pictures (some of which accompany this article) and the time got away and it was time to head back to Saranac and take Trisha to the Country Chiropractor. The Dude took the River Walk through Saranac with me and was generally pleasant. We had heroes from the Lakeview Deli for dinner, ice cream with The Shaw’s again (it was “fruit surprise” night) and all was generally right with the world.

Crystal Shawm Myself and Martha Rudden. We all came to Camp Lavigerie when we were very, very small, and now they're very nice people and I'm an old crank who doesn't want to get his picture taken in DJ's Rustic Restaurant because it's ruining his Saranac Street Cred. But they like me anyway and we keep in touch.
Crystal Shawm Myself and Martha Rudden. We all came to Camp Lavigerie when we were very, very small, and now they’re very nice people and I’m an old crank who doesn’t want to get his picture taken in DJ’s Rustic Restaurant because it’s ruining his Saranac Street Cred. But they like me anyway and we keep in touch.

The next morning Trisha was still in pain. We made another appointment to go see “Doc” at 11:30. I had breakfast with Christal and Martha and her kids at DJ’s Rustic Restaurant. (The Dude was “not hungry”) and planned to just spend the day walking around Saranac with The Dude and Mookie. The Dude was understandably upset about his mom’s condition and was again a little out of sorts. When we picked up Trisha, we decided to walk over to the Farmer’s Market in Riverside Park, and the walk damn near made her break down in tears. There’d be no more family walks for this vacation, or anymore rides to Kushaqua. We’d visit a couple of my favorite stores on Broadway and then have dinner at The Downhill Grill, plus of course ice cream at Donnelly’s, even though The Shaw’s had packed up to go home.

When The Dude and I have our battles, we always acknowledge after the fact that we were both to blame, and that is true. The situation usually escalates in direct proportion to how I react. The rest of that afternoon he whined about the wi-fi and the weather (it was getting right steamy) and burying his head under the covers on his motel bed. By the time we got to dinner, he insisted on ordering a burrito instead of getting something safer off the kids menu. The burrito came, looking nothing like a Taco Bell burrito, and he had a head-in-the-hands, rocking-back-and-forth full scale meltdown, bitching and moaning about how badly we treated him. And we had to eat our dinner real fast and get out. And he said some nasty stuff he didn’t have to say, just like a Duffy. And I lost my shit on him. I made him stay in the car while we got our last Donnelly’s ice cream and gave him the silent treatment until Trisha got him to sleep. And of course I felt bad about it later.  I went for a drive that night, got one of may many, many coffees to go from the Stewart Shop, looked around Saranac and felt like the most selfish punk in the world for driving my injured wife and my ultra-sensitive son all this way just so I could reconnect with my past. When I told Trisha that, she told me I was being ridiculous. I love that woman.

The next morning, as we left to go home, The Dude was quiet, but apologetic. As we drove out through Saranac one last time, I told him that this place has a lot to do with the person that I am, and that I studied the ways of North Country people when I was “growing up” here in the summers. I told him that people who lived here, and the people who knew it well, were people who rolled with the punches, who didn’t let little things get to them, who treated friends and strangers alike with kindness and respect no matter what their circumstances; who kept their sense of humor and their connection to nature intact as much as possible and who knew what was important and what was not. I told him that I didn’t know when we’d be coming back, because he didn’t seem to really appreciate it. And that was just a plain old mean thing to say, but I said it anyway.

As we made our way down 73 to The Northway, The Dude told me he was sorry again. And I apologized for overreacting. And then he said something that will stay with me forever. This is what he said: “I’d like to come back here again and learn how to be a Saranac Lake Guy.”

And so we will. And we’ll find a nice cabin on a lake so we don’t have to live in a motel, and Mookie can go swimming whenever he feels like it, and Trisha will be able to walk, and we’ll leave the damn computer and all the electronic junk at home and keep working on teaching our son to love the North Country for the beautiful, magical place that it is.

And at some point, I’ll take a ride by myself and go down to Children’s Beach and sit and stare at White Cross Mountain and remember for awhile. I’m sure Mom wouldn’t mind the company.

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Call That Dog Jesus: The Story of Mookie the Yellow Lab

DSCN4413This is the story of Mookie Dog. It’s a really good story about a really good dog, but it takes awhile for him to show up. To tell it right, I have to start the story five years ago at Taconic Valley Lawn and Garden Supply and True Value Hardware on Route 23 in Hillsdale, NY, a few miles up the road from our summer vacation cabin at Taconic State Park in the small, magical hamlet of Copake Falls, NY. Then I have to take a big detour to my childhood, with a stop in 1986 before coming all the way back to the last five years. I can only ask you to stick with it. If you like a good dog story, I believe I’ve got one you’ll enjoy today.

As for Taconic Valley Lawn Care and True Value Hardware, heretofore known simply as “the hardware store”, I always make it a point to visit while we’re staying at the cabin in Copake Falls. There’s always some excuse why I have to go walk around this great little hardware store once a year. This past year it was because the coffee maker at the cabin sucked and we forgot to bring the one from home, and I regarded that as affront to all that’s good. Without coffee, my life is just not sustainable, but I digress. This is about dogs. I’ll stay on topic.

The hardware store has a resident dog, an “Irish” Jack Russell Terrier named Darcy. There’s a reason I put “Irish” in quotes, which I’ll get to later. Darcy is a great little dog, and she had a face that reminded me of the only dog I’d owned to that point, Ace the beagle mix. Ace was the nicest thing my parents ever did for me, and they did thousands and thousands of nice things for me. I bugged them for years to get a dog. I really wanted a beagle, first because Snoopy was a beagle, second because every beagle I met made me want a beagle. One summer day in 1971, they went on a secret mission to Animal Haven in Queens Village and surprised their 8 year-old boy that afternoon with a year-old dog with big brown eyes and a happy smile. He was named Ace because it was nickname the older guys like my brother were calling each other and I thought it sounded cool. You think a lot of things when you’re eight.

Ace lived for fourteen years, until I was 22. In his younger years he caused a lot of trouble. He had accidents on the kitchen floor more times than I could count, and every time he did, my poor parents, cleaning up a big puddle of piss off their linoleum before dragging themselves out to work, screamed at him and screamed at me, because that’s all they could think to do. Ace stole food whenever he could, he ate the food Herman the cat left behind and got the last piece of everything I ate, and he got very, very fat. He bit a couple of kids in the neighborhood, but they had it coming. He liked my mother better than me because she was the main food and walk source, because I was an irresponsible little jerk, as all children are. But he was my dog. We played, we wrestled, we napped and we talked. For the first five years, we spent hours and hours and hours together, just hanging out. We both enjoyed watching game shows after school on cold winter days. And he was always happy to see me, even when I became a teenager and my attention turned to too many other things, none of them very good.

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When Ace was about seven or eight, he suffered a slipped disc in his neck and was in terrible pain, and he got my attention again. He couldn’t bend his neck at all and would yelp in pain just going down the front step for a walk. It was awful. I gave my parents all the money I had from various jobs and presents, about $300, when they suggested that they might have to put Ace down because an operation was prohibitively expensive. I wouldn’t hear it. He was my dog. He got better after the operation, but he got old fast after that. At the end, he was pretty much blind and deaf, and was losing control of his bladder. I wrote something nice about him right after he died that still exists written in a notebook somewhere. I’ll eventually dig that up and put on this blog someday, because I can.

Ace died in January of 1986. This is where the Mets come in, briefly. 1986 was the last time the Mets won the World Series. It was of course, the World Series when Mookie Wilson hit the ground ball up the first base line that went through Bill Buckner’s legs, one of the most famous moments in baseball history. Mookie was my favorite player on that team. As a matter of fact, I’ll submit that he was one of the coolest guys that ever played major league baseball. Having followed him from his rookie season, when the team was beyond bad, it was especially sweet that he was part of that ultimate Mets Magic Moment. It was also quite redemptive as he had also lost playing time to Lenny Dykstra that year, but I’m digressing again. The point is that I decided in October of 1986 that my next dog would be named Mookie, and told anybody who would listen. I had no idea that it would take 25 years before I finally got that dog. This is where Darcy at the hardware store in Hillsdale comes back to the story.

I was bonding with Darcy that particular July day in 2010 and so was our only-child son, The Dude, who was six years old. The fact that he was paying attention to this dog in a positive way was worthy of note to me, as he was well into the behaviors and thought-processes that got him labeled as high-functioning autistic, more than likely Asperger’s Syndrome even though it doesn’t exist anymore. We were dealing with daily meltdowns, at home and at school, and constantly correcting and explaining some really wacky behavior. Plus, his limited experience with dogs left him very wary of them. Dogs were just one more thing, of the many, many things, that The Dude couldn’t figure out how to integrate into his sensory-processing machine.

But I got to thinking: Maybe a dog was exactly what he needed. I asked the hardware store guy about Darcy’s breed. He said he was an Irish Jack Russell Terrier, which he said were smaller and calmer than regular Jack Russell Terriers. I took him at his word and started doing some Internet research when I got home. What I found out was that there was really no such thing as an Irish Jack Russell terrier, that it was actually a made up breed that people used to pass off little mutt dogs off as pure breeds. I wouldn’t tell that to the guy at the hardware store of course, and Darcy was still my prototype dog. Then my wife Trisha, God bless her, who had never had a dog, who was very unsure about getting a dog for The Dude, who knew that no matter what she said she would probably someday have a dog because apparently I told her on our second or third date that I was going to get another dog someday and name him Mookie, did what she does a lot. She said something that made a lot of sense and made me see things in a completely different way. This is what she said: “If you’re going to get a dog, get a real dog. Get a golden retriever or a lab. I don’t want a little yappy dog, and beagles howl.”

All right then. Back to the Internet. I started searching breeders. I decided Mookie would be a lab. Now there’s a contingent out there, and I very much support them, that would read this and wonder why I didn’t rescue a dog from a shelter, as there are so many that need rescuing. It’s a fair question, and here’s my answer: I had exactly one chance to get it right. With a kid as full of issues as The Dude was when he was six, and a former aspiring-crazy-cat-lady wife who believed she would merely tolerate a dog and not consider anything canine as a part of the family, I knew that it was a crapshoot to adopt a dog who I had not raised from a puppy, or a dog who had demons that were waiting to come out. No matter how well North Shore Animal League could match me with a dog, the control freak in me decided that I had to get a purebred Labrador Retriever, and I had to raise him from a puppy, and avoid the mistake my parents made, which was trusting a little kid, by nature irresponsible little jerks, to help take care of a dog. Mookie would be The Dude’s dog, but my responsibility.

I found a very nice breeder right in Copake who agreed to let us visit when we came back up that year in August. I told her point blank that I was not leaving with a puppy, that I only wanted our son to meet the dogs and that we’d be getting a puppy the next summer. She was totally cool with that, and I grew to find out that, in general, people that hang out with Labrador Retrievers are generally cool. So one morning we drove out to the breeder’s house on the country road that leads to Copake Lake, The Dude was already in a snit, though it wasn’t even ten o’clock yet, and he didn’t want to go meet the doggies. To make matters worse, when we pulled into the backyard, in our Ford Minivan That Broke Down A Lot, the first thing The Dude noticed was the Intex inflatable pool set up in the backyard. From the time he was an infant until he was 7 or 8, The Dude was petrified of all things inflatable, particularly balloons. You could not even say the words “inflate” or “deflate” in his presence without him scattering like a cat when the front door opens. So Daddy brings his six year-old boy to go meet the dogs and the puppies, and his six-year-old boy refuses to get out of the car. At this point the breeder lady was already at her back door coming out to greet us. I left the doors to the minivan open and walked up to her deck. Trisha stayed about halfway, or else as usual I was just walking faster.

The breeder lady had two big goofy labs with her at the back door, a yellow female and a black male, plus several barking dogs in a kennel alongside the house. She opened the door graciously so we could all come in and meet the dogs.

I need to point out the beautiful realization I had in the moment that followed. I had already read all about the amazing things that Labrador Retrievers do. People absolutely gushed about them. I’m one of those people now. I had immersed myself in the stories of how Labbies can bring all sorts of wonderful changes to the lives of autistic kids. I read about how they were noble, intelligent, empathetic dogs with the mystical, intrinsic power to completely transform people’s lives through their presence. One writer referred to them as “God’s most perfect creatures.” This is all true. But the most beautiful thing about Labrador Retrievers is that they can accomplish all of these things while being complete fucking goofballs at the same time.

The two big dogs saw the back door open. They looked out and saw a little boy in a van with the doors wide open. 180 pounds of black and yellow happy dog bolted past me in a blur, passed my shocked wife, ran like lightning off the deck, across the yard and right into the back seat of the van, where they proceeded to jump all over my son, lick his face up and down, then climb into the back of the van, where they waited for the ride that they assumed we were all going to take. The Dude did not know what to think, but he knew that he had to live in that moment, that being in a snit about an inflatable pool or God knows what doesn’t mean a damn thing to two big happy dogs who see a little boy in an open van. It was not all about him anymore. The dogs were drawing him out of his autism, whether he liked it or not. I knew at that moment that this getting a dog thing was a plan that would work. How well it would work, I had no idea yet.

The Dude finally came inside (as the big dogs had taken over the van) and we had a nice visit with the breeder and her husband and son. We held puppies and asked a lot of questions. My plan was to bring home a puppy the following July. (I have a job which affords me nine to ten weeks vacation every summer – I suppose it wouldn’t be difficult to guess what that is. Hint: Not a Ski-Lift Operator – so a puppy brought home in July would have intensive training for the first two months). The breeder highly recommended Glenerie Labradors of Saugerties, NY, just across the river from Copake. I had already seen their website. Their dogs are absolutely stunning. Big, gorgeous English Labs that looked like they should be floating in kayaks or exchanging Christmas Presents with well-groomed preppy people in LL Bean catalogues. Go look for yourself at www.glenerielabradors.com then come back and I’ll tell you the rest of the story.

Ah, you’re back. Where were we? I know: By November of that year, I had a contract with Ed and Cindy Noll of Glenerie Labradors for a Labrador puppy the following July. My first choice was a yellow lab, ‘cause they’re just so damn good-looking, and they have big, soft brown eyes like Ace the Beagle mix had (which very well may have been Labrador eyes). Plus we hoped for a male, since the dog would function as confidant to The Dude. On May 8, 2011, Glenerie Broadway Girl aka Roxy, a pretty-as-they-come black lab, had her first litter of puppies. The father was from a breeder called Brookberry Labradors in Northern New Jersey. His name was Perfect Impression aka Logan, a big yellow guy with a massive head and the expression of a crazy good old boy out on the town. One of those puppies, a yellow male, became Glenerie Gets By Buckner aka Mookie. The Noll’s, despite being true blue Yankee fans, were very good about that.

I only spoke to Ed Noll on the phone only once, but it was a memorable conversation. He told me about labs that had been bred as companions for war veterans suffering from PTSD. One dog in particular had figured out when his guy was about to have the recurring nightmare that he dreamed every night. The dog soon trained himself to wake the guy up every night before the nightmare started. Ed Noll did not realize that he was speaking to a man whose sleep had been interrupted every single night for the previous five years by a little boy flying down the stairs and jumping into bed between he and his wife. He may have known that the dog he was selling to that man would, within a year, learn to stay with that little boy all night, every night, either asleep next to him on the bed or laying by the door waiting quietly and patiently for the man to take him for downstairs for pee business and breakfast, while the boy slept on and learned to love his own room.

Ed Noll was also the first to pass on the credo that I now know many people besides myself live by, which is especially amusing to me, living on Long Island among thousands of little yappy terriers who all bark their heads off when they see Mookie coming: “Mr. Duffy,” he said to me, “if it ain’t at least 50 pounds, it ain’t a dog.”

Cindy Noll greeted me nine weeks later at their house in Saugerties. Ironically, she was giving me a dog named Mookie to take home and then heading down to the Bronx on a Metro North train to catch the Yankee game. The best piece of advice she gave me was this: “He’s a mound of clay. You can make him into whatever you want him to be.” This is something that you cannot say of human children.

My mound of clay and I spent a lot of time going over the basics in the Summer of 2011. And he learned them amazingly well. You hear about how smart these dogs are, but when you actually hang out with one day after day, it will blow your mind. My training approach was a little bit Cesar Milan, establishing that I was the boss through “exercise, deeescipline and affection”, a little bit Monks of The New Skete, making sure the dog knows he’s a dog and not your equal, and a lot of Pat Miller’s “Power of Positive Dog Training”, which suggest that there should always be something in it for the dog. I immersed myself in dog training books for a year and then just went with my instincts. I could’ve done better, but I could have also done a whole lot worse.

From the start, Mookie loved getting things right, and a “good boy” and a good rubby went as far as treats. Cindy told me, “he’s a cuddler.” and it became clear from the outset that Mookie would always tolerate and often enjoy being hugged, dogpiled, scratched and belly-rubbed by The Dude, as well as myself and the entire rest of the human race. From the beginning, he has been all about pleasing people and trying to do things the way we liked them done. He never chewed furniture, he has never taken food that wasn’t offered to him, he had maybe three accidents before he was perfectly housebroken and he has never showed one iota of aggression towards people besides a low growl when someone walked too slow past the front window or otherwise seems out of place.

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Within four weeks, he learned Sit, Stay, Wait, Lie Down, Come, Go Get It, Bring It, Drop It, Leave It, Shake Hands, High-Five, Look At Me, Give Me A Hug, Heel, Walk With Me, Cross, Back Up, Go Home and Go For A Ride In The Car.

He has two flaws, one that seems pretty hard-wired and the other that I have to admit I could have trained out of him but I thought it was just too much fun. I wanted to strike the balance between noble therapy dog and happy fucking goofball, and I think I did. He does know that “off” means to please cease jumping on a given person and trying to look deep into his or her eyes and lick his or her face, but I found some people (as I do) really enjoy that sort of thing (we call it “getting the Full Mookie”) so he’s still allowed to do it sometimes. And he chases our three cats (The Dude’s Therapy Cats – who’ll get their own blog posts in due time) around the house whenever he can, but they sort of goad him into it sometimes. Other than that, our mound of clay is just about the perfect dog. He has even charmed my mother-in-law, who is a wonderful woman but not easily charmed by dogs. When we stayed at her house for a week after Hurricane Sandy, Mookie was the perfect houseguest, though he was as confused as all hell by the whole thing. He knew his job was to be where we were and help keep our little family going, but while we displaced, he was going to sweet-face his way onto the couch.

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When Mookie was 12 weeks old, we brought him upstate for a day for our annual trip up to attend Copake Falls Day, when the whole little town comes out and throws itself a day-long party. St. John’s of The Wilderness Episcopal Church hosts a big old barbecue at the end of the day. We were a little nervous about bringing Mookie that first year, so we put him in an ex-pen away from the people and the food. One by one, every little kid at the barbecue walked over to the ex-pen and sat down where the cute little labrador puppy could look deep into their eyes. Then one by one the parents of those little kids, who weren’t coming when called because they were busy staring at the cute labrador puppy who was looking deeply into their eyes, brought plates of food over to their children, then came back  and sat down with their own plates of food and let the little labrador puppy look deep into their eyes, too. Trisha looked at the scene and said, “let the little children come to me.” And because we enjoy building on each other’s jokes, and we’re both pretty funny, I replied, “Call that dog Jesus.”

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Jesus aka Mookie has been with us for four years. The effect he has had on my son’s struggle to make peace with his head and with his world is immeasurable, as we don’t know what it would have been like without Mookie, but we can tell the difference he has made. It’s sort of like how I feel about the Obama Presidency. A lot of things were screwed up anyway, but I feel that they would have been a whole lot more screwed up without him. The Dude has still had lots of trouble in school, he’s still had lots of meltdowns, still gets lost in his own head, but he’s come miles and miles in his ability to interact naturally with the rest of the human race through having a dog ambassador.

Mookie has been my ambassador to the human race as well. The year before we brought him home I was researching dog parks and I came across a petition started by a young fellow named David Sabatino, who had started a group called Envision Valley Stream. I am by nature not a joiner, but I joined forces with David – who by nature joins everything – and along with a group of like-minded people we worked with the village government to create a community dog park in Valley Stream, and through the Valley Stream Dog Park, which opened in the spring of 2012, I met a whole lot of other people. The Dude enjoys hanging out with Mookie and the other dogs at the park, and he’s sort of developed a little Temple Grandin thing with dogs, cats and animals in general. Animals have brought out the empathy, kindness and humor inside him that people weren’t having much luck getting to. The whole experience of walking through this world with Mookie has made us both better people. And Trisha loves a dog now.

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As for Mookie, the dog park is as much the people park for him. He is on a insatiable quest to “say hi” to as many people as possible in the years that he has. The entire purpose of leaving the house for Mookie is to hunt for people to say hi to, and wag his tail and look deeply into their eyes when he finds one. Since we bring him everywhere we possibly can, I would stipulate that he has personally greeted close to two thousand people in four years. He’s aslo unbelievably photogenic and I put so many pictures of him on facebook that I eventually gave him his own page. You can see for yourself at https://www.facebook.com/mookiethedog.

Our dog Mookie has comforted people in the nursing home where my mother passed away and where my father still lives, and he has attracted huge crowds through playground fences. He makes roving packs of teenage boys walking from the high school up the street turn into six-year-olds. He once even found a stray kitten abandoned by his mother because the kitten came out of the bushes and started following him along the Duffy’s Creek Path. We brought the kitten to my vet, who got it adopted. I don’t know any other dogs who have rescued kittens, but if you have one like I do, you got something there.

This fall, I’m hoping to get him through his Canine Good Citizen test so we can eventually get Therapy Dog International status and bring him around to more people who need him as he gets older and slows down a bit. Right now, he sleeps upstairs in my eleven year-old son’s bed, making sure the demons stay at bay for another night. Tomorrow morning, he’ll sit next to me on the couch while I read the Sunday paper and I’ll give him scratchies and rubbies with my free hand. Then we’ll go for a good long walk around the neighborhood, and possibly knock one or two more people off the “say hi” list. I’ll watch as the person’s face lights up when his or her eyes meet Mookie’s. The person will say something like, “what a beautiful dog!” or “”he’s a real sweetheart.” And I’ll say what I’ve been saying for years now: “He loves you, too.”

Call that dog Jesus.

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Hello, It’s Me. I Have No Way Of Knowing Who You Are, And Though That Creeps Me Out, I’m Going With It

I said I wasn’t going to write future posts in the third person but then this morning I filled out the “about me” box and I like how it came out, even though I wrote it in the third person. And since I’m currently too stupid to figure out how to get it on the website menu (I hope to be smarter someday soon), and I was happy with what I wrote, I decided to make it a post all on it’s own. It may give you people some further insight into what you’re in for if you read or follow this blog. It won’t hurt you at all and I hope you enjoy it:

John Duffy is a generally optimistic, rather thin, obssessive-compulsive 52 year-old second-generation Irish-American husband, father, son, brother, uncle, cousin, home owner, bleeding-heart liberal Roman-Catholic, dog and cat owning animal lover, gardener, bird watcher, amateur musician, careful listener, passionate coffee drinker, news junkie, comedy afficionado, Mets fan, Subaru-driving, upstate traveling, smart ass Long Islander proudly born, raised and residing in South Valley Stream, NY.  He’s often sad about the world going to hell, but he keeps on keepin’ on. If you would like to take a long walk or have a catch or play chess or whiffle ball or go somewhere where birds visibly outnumber people, he’s in. He has a job, at which he works very hard and in which he takes pride but believes that it is a slippery slope to define yourself primarily in terms of how you make money. He is locked in a lifelong lover’s quarrel with the human race, and tries to hate the right people. When he’s shuffled off his mortal coil, run down the curtain and joined the bleedin’ choir invisible, he hopes that his obituary will read: “Nice guy. Too bad. “