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).

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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. “