We knew we’d be going back to see The Dee’s again before Thanksgiving. We just weren’t sure if we’d be going back to see Joey or Tommy.
We hadn’t been inside the gigantic, glass-walled store at Dee’s Nursery after the first frost since the last time we visited Santa Claus as part of our annual Christmas tree hunting and gathering tradition. The inside store is Joey’s domain, although his dad, Tom Sr., the Dee’s patriarch, still hangs out by the registers while we watch the damage we’ve done to ourselves in slow motion. Usually we won’t visit until April, when it’s time to load up Lou the Subaru with bags of tall fescue grass seed, with the topsoil and the peat moss to throw on top of it. Whether it’s Grass Seed Day, or a month later when we start loading up on annuals, veggies and compost, Trisha and I always get a hearty greeting from Joey. Long ago we maxed out on planting trees and shrubs and hybrid tea roses and perennials on our little 60 X 100 plot, so we usually don’t get out to the yard much anymore to see Joey’s older brother Tommy until the Christmas trees show up. But Tommy is always good for a hearty greeting, too. If you were Joey or Tommy, you’d be glad to see us, too.
The Dee’s Nursery is a second-generation family business in Oceanside, Long Island, started in 1958. It was one of my mom’s favorite places to visit in the springtime. Our Christmas Tree hunting and gathering tradition when I was a kid was to go to Garden World in Franklin Square, where they had reindeer you could feed, which is horrible in retrospect, but I suppose my parents and everyone else involved meant well at the time. But Mom loved going to see The Dee’s in the springtime, and taught me to love it, too. For a local, independent business, they have a huge operation, and their selection, quality and service in all things gardening just can’t be beat. Tommy told us one year that he drives a crew up to the family’s own Christmas Tree farm in Franklin, Maine every November. He was very happy and very proud of that, as well as being proud of their annual donation of thousands of Christmas trees shipped to troops serving overseas. And we are always happy and proud to buying one of those trees from this family year after year, comin’ to us straight from Maine.
Every business transaction should be as pleasant.
Unfortunately, we’re in America, so while the The Dee’s are all about service, selection and quality, their prices can be beat quite easily in any season, specifically by the likes of the Home Depot, the presence of which in Rego Park, Queens convinced my late father-in-law to close down his own second-generation nursery business, McCloskey’s Florist, shortly after I joined his family. That was tough to watch.
So we’re willing to pay The Dee’s a couple of extra bucks to support a local business and stay out of the Dante’s Inferno which is the Valley Stream Home Depot parking lot. And in addition to helping support The Dee Boys and their families, we have two other local guys: Ray, whose dad started Alma’s Garden Center on Sunrise Highway in Lynbrook around the time I was born, and Dave, who owns Di Setta Nursery down in Woodmere. A conservative estimate of $50,000 big ones over the course of eighteen years have been split among these three businesses by two slightly touched people who consider growing flowers in the yard to be an unnegotiable necessity.
In years when money was tight, we bought our flowers and our dirt on credit cards, which is quite stupid when considered objectively and I wouldn’t recommend it. But we had to have them. In our defense, we’ve never spent money on lavish vacations and fancy restaurants. So it goes that I may die without seeing Yosemite or the Grand Canyon, but damn you should have seen our gardens in June.
I was away from the gardens a lot this year. More so than in any year since we began building them up from nothing in 2002. I spent about eight weeks of elapsed time in 2020 up in the Peaceful Roe Jan Valley, among the Taconic-Berkshire Mountains that nature built from nothing a couple of million years ago. There are lots of wildflowers and flowering shrubs around Trisha’s Mountain, but nothing we’ve planted, which I suppose could change in time, but as I pointed out in Chapter 5, it would take some intense negotiations with the deer and the bunnies and the groundhogs to get it off the ground.
We never took it for granted for a second this year. It was our incredibly good fortune to have a property up in the country with lots of oxygen, especially in the midst of all the Pandemic misery this year – when just down the road there were people sitting on line in their cars for hours outside Taconic State Park waiting for a chance to just take a walk to Bash Bish Falls, and less fortunate people than those people were dying on hospital beds. We’re only a year into our second home owning adventure as I write this, so the novelty has not even come close to wearing off yet. We’re still just walking around feeling stupid lucky. Knock freaking wood.
So I wasn’t giving the gardens a lot of thought during those eight weeks when I wasn’t in them. They were being watered or rained on and the weeds would wait ‘till I got back. I suppose in my mind I was beginning to move on from them. But that’s how it happens, isn’t it. You think about something until something else comes along that requires bandwidth in your brain, and the thing you were thinking about starts getting crowded out. Sometimes when you look back, you realize that’s kind of a scary process. The more time I spent up n the country this year, getting to know our upstate home, the less I was thinking about the downstate one. Not only can you not be in two places at once, it’s hard to even think of two places at once.
But after all these years, most of the landscaped space on Duffy’s Creek is on autopilot anyway. Most of the trial and error has been done. The losers don’t grow here anymore, and the winners come back stronger every year.
The Big Plan is, of course, to phase out Duffy’s Creek and live full-time on Trisha’s Mountain. When that actually happens remains a question. Back in the Aughts, I noticed on a sign that Copake Town was founded in 1824, so I was thinking I could be up here full time by the time the Copake Bicentennial comes around, maybe even walk down Main Street on stilts dressed as Uncle Sam. I have big dreams.
But that would mean only three more growing season’s on Duffy’s Creek. And that would also mean eventually selling the house, perhaps to someone who rips out all the gardens and replaces them with heavily fertilized grass, or worse, just lets them go to hell, which wouldn’t take long at all.
Once I landed back on Long Island in mid-November of 2020, following my nineteenth trip up and down Route 22 for the year, this time to take delivery of a new industrial-grade humidifier for the basement, I decided to get off the road for a while. I’d been back and forth eight times in thirteen weeks, and the plan (in progress as I write this) was to stay on the creek for six weeks, through Thanksgiving and Christmas. Mookie in particular was exhausted from all the traveling. We needed a break.
But unlike Mookie, I’m not good at doing nothing, no matter how hard or how often I try. I enjoy doing nothing, but after a while I have to do something. I admire people who can keep doing nothing going. I decided that not only was I going to clean up the gardens down to the last fallen leaf, but that this year, since I had the time, I was going to give them all a damn good mulching. And not only that, I was going to power wash the patio so it would already be clean in the spring. I have big dreams.
And I love mulch. I love topsoil and compost, too: The look, the smell, the feel, everything. I suppose I could live without the weight. But still. There’s no more agreeable afternoon activity to me than getting down and dirty in the gardens.
We have seven of them. They all have names. In the front are two semicircle raised beds built with river stone. One is my creation, which starts out as a well-mannered and proper bed of tulips and daffodils in the spring and devolves into an insane tangle of sunflowers and zinnias by July. I call that the Crazy Summer Garden. The opposite semicircle is Trisha’s statelier “Cottage Garden”, highlighted by a giant purple beautyberry bush, chiefly the domain of our resident mockingbird no matter how hard Lyle the Cat stares through the window at him. There’s mock orange and flowering quince around the front, coneflower and bee balm in the middle and creeping purple phlox cascading over the stones. Unlike my garden, somebody had a plan.
On the side of the garage was the tomato and vegetable garden. This year I phased that out and threw in a couple of dahlias which I mostly neglected despite their beauty. I couldn’t keep the damn squirrels away from the tomatoes, and I didn’t want to grow lettuce and broccoli that I wasn’t home to eat or give away. But I still grew cucumbers in another little patch next to the shed this year, way more than I could use, which was good news for a neighbor on the creek who loves cucumber sandwiches. Meanwhile, my 2020 bread and butter pickles were another raging success.
Between our backyard fence and the creek is my Wetland Garden. In one section, I’ve been naturalizing purple and pink native asters for ten years now, and let me tell you, come September, my aster is the most spectacular aster you’ve ever seen. In another section are shrubs that don’t mind drinking crappy brackish water; red twig dogwood, rosa rugosa and winterberry holly, plus a red cedar tree that my brother and I saved from being uprooted after Hurricane Sandy, which is now known as the Leaning Cedar. Most of these plants were, of course, bought from Tommy Dee, many on credit cards. The whole thing is held back from the creek with a bulkhead of logs, wire fencing and dirt that I carted in after ripping out forty years of thug brush eighteen years ago. I had the time of my life.
Along a wooden fence are Trisha’s hybrid tea roses. The roses also stretch into a spot between two houses that we call the Secret Garden. All the roses have cultivar names and stories which she’s told me lots of times because I asked, and she planted many of them in memory of people. Apparently, their preferred pronoun is “she”, as in, “she needs to be cut back.” I can’t keep much of this straight, but I do try really hard. And Trisha works very hard at keeping the hybrid tea roses sprayed with the stuff that keeps them from getting eaten up by little parasites every year. You can get high off the aroma of Trisha’s rose garden in June, and often we do. But one season of neglect and they’d be nothing but angry, thorny green sticks.
Out the back door is my Patio Garden. My parents had a deck when we bought the house. They had it built in the 1970’s, when you were required to build a deck in your suburban backyard under penalty of law. The deck had seen better days by the time we bought it, so we were already planning to rip it out and replace it with a patio when we visited the Berkshire Botanical Garden in Stockbridge, Mass. It was there that I encountered the Herb Associates, a group of volunteers that maintained an herb garden with a patio right outside a kitchen in one of the buildings on the grounds.
I have to admit, my biggest takeaway from this experience was the sheer joy of knowing that there was a group of old ladies from Stockbridge who called themselves the Herb Associates, but I also liked the idea. Eventually, the garden out the back door on Duffy’s Creek became a combination of herbs, perennials and annuals surrounding a loose-laid brick patio that looks like the mason who built it was actually an English teacher on summer vacation.
Around the patio, I have planters where I put the same annuals every year because I know they’ll behave themselves and look great doing it: Geraniums and lantana, both in red, white mandevilla, some years white jasmine if I want to splurge, plus some basil and oregano that I didn’t get around to harvesting this year. Plus I have three highbush blueberries in planters on the patio and four more on the side of the garage, which I’ve used to make some sublime pies over the years, and which us make us very popular with robins.
Since we’ve done all the heavy planting (and transplanting), and the gardens are what they are, most of the work now is adding compost in spring and keeping everything weeded and watered. Invariably, since you only have to get dirty once, I’ll do all the weeding in one shot once every two or three weeks. I can tell which days were weeding days just by looking at my Fitbit history. Any days when I walked 25,000 steps and saw some serious cardio orange and red on my heartbeat chart, those were the days I was out playing in the dirt.
After all these years of pulling weeds, I know every one of them personally, many by name. I can tell you, for instance, that every year I have to pull out deadly nightshade. And every year, deadly nightshade says, “Yeah, OK. Whatever, dude. I’ll be back.” Late in the season, I have to pull out white snakeroot, which can poison milk if cows eat it, and reportedly killed Abraham Lincoln’s mother. Weeding is serious business.
The fall cleanup is actually the biggest job in the gardens now. First is deadheading all the perennials and pulling out the dried-up ghosts of hundreds of zinnias and marigolds and other annuals. Then comes raking out all the leaves and cultivating the soil, then chopping out the last of this year’s weeds. It takes hours and hours and hours. Which is great if, like me, you enjoy this sort of thing, and you happen to have hours and hours and hours.
Any teacher who rides the rhythms of the school year knows that the fall semester is insanely busy. So for all the years I was on that ride, I’d check the Weather Channel app constantly to see what Saturdays and what Sundays would be suitably benign enough to get out and clean up the yard. And knowing how long each section took, I could plan out what I could get done in the time I had. My ultimate goal was to get a bed of cedar mulch down on every garden surface once all the leaves were raked up and the annuals were pulled out and the perennials were cut back and the deadly nightshade and the white snakeroot and all their outlaw buddies were on the brush pile.
I very rarely got anywhere close to that goal. Some years were better than others. Some years I’d still be cleaning out last years’ dead stuff in April. But a couple of years, I got all the mulch down, and it somehow made going to work easier knowing that I did it. This year, with a stretch of freakishly warm weather and a freakish amount of time on my hands, I realized that the attaining the ultimate goal of a damn good full mulching, topped off by a power washing, would somehow make standing around inside the house and looking out the windows all winter a lot easier. I cleaned the gardens until they screamed for mercy and gave them a long overdue mulching.
I usually go for the dyed red cedar mulch, but this year, Dave Di Setta, who keeps his mulch right at the front gate for easy access, only had fifteen bags of red left, and seeing as it takes thirty bags total (and three round trips for Lou the Subaru) I went half red and half plain brown this year.
it’s a beautiful sight and a warm, fuzzy feeling for this OCD sufferer. Not only is it a nice warm blankie for all the plants and enrichment for the soil, it’s also much easier to track what plants are breaking the soil next spring, meaning it’s also harder for the weeds to hide. So in the words of Cosmo Kramer, you’ve got to mulch. You’ve got to.
In the midst of this herculean effort, completed in three-or-four-hour blocks of time over the course of eight nice-weather days, I also put up the Christmas lights, which look delightful and which I absolutely hate doing, and which nobody will actually come to the house to see for themselves. I think I do it for my parents, most of all, and for the memories it conjures up. I have no control over whether any future owners of the property will celebrate Christmas.
Which brings us to the tree. Last December, which was two-thousand years ago, was very exciting for us. We were closing on a house in Copake Falls, a dream we had dreamed for twenty years. The closing was set for the 20th of December, the day the boiler stopped working in the house on what was not yet Trisha’s Mountain, and the closing had to be postponed. Someone flipped the reset switch on the boiler the next day and it’s been working since (knock wood again), and the closing was finally a done deal a week later, on the 27th. We reserved one of our old cabins at Taconic State Park to stay over both times, to avoid nighttime winter driving, which can kill you.
Fortunately, we had the World’s Most Responsible Teenager on the block to take care of the cats on both nights, but this time, she had the added pressure of watering the live Christmas tree next to the radiator in the living room. Leaving a live Christmas tree unattended, even overnight, gave us the willies. I guess I’ve seen one too many videos of blazing Christmas trees infernos. In practical terms, there was very little chance of the Christmas tree burning down the house. They don’t spontaneously combust like the drummers in Spinal Tap. As Bruce Springsteen sang in the worst song he ever wrote, you can’t start a fire without a spark. But if the tree had burned the house down, Lyle the Cat would surely have had something to do with it.
So this year, knowing that we could get up to the Mountain between Christmas and New Year’s, we took a ride to Dee’s to see Joey’s artificial Christmas trees for ourselves inside the store. Our tradition is to put up our tree in the first weekend in December, then take it down the first weekend after New Year’s, by which time some of them over the years have grown a trifle crispy. But neither Trisha nor I, and by extension our offspring and animals, has ever experienced a Christmas without a real Christmas tree. As a kid, I felt pity for people with artificial trees, people who were happy to spend the season looking at a sad, scrawny green plastic scarecrow, usually with boring all-white lights, that looked as much like a tree as a White Castle looks like Versailles, or as a Taco Bell looks like a hacienda. I don’t care what you got for Christmas, or how much fun you had. That’s not really living.
As with many things in my lifetime, though, artificial Christmas tree research and development has grown by leaps and bounds. The ones they make now look very much like trees. They’re pre-lit. You can find one in perfect symmetry to your available space and the initial investment pays for itself in three years of not buying a tree from Tommy’s yard. And you can leave them up as long as you like. John Prine left his up all year long, but he had a bigger house. And there would be no chance of fire by stupidity if we left the tree up on the Creek and drove up to the Mountain, despite Lyle the Cat.
Joey Dee took us through a couple of handsome artificial trees that looked promising and told us he had plenty in stock and more coming in. Nobody was coming to our house over Christmas, so we’d be the only ones who would see it. We’d likely end up getting a fake tree when we move upstate permanently because you really couldn’t put a living tree anywhere near the fireplace, so why not just get used to having a fake tree now? There was only one overriding downside, only one good reason why we didn’t pull the trigger.
We didn’t want to.
I started reading about Zen Buddhism when I was in college. Alan Watts, D.T. Suzuki. Those guys. I liked everything about it. In Zen philosophy, the past and the future are illusions. Any wisdom you’ve gained along your path is meant to applied to right now, not to some future day. What’s more, our house and gardens and creek and your house and all your stuff are events, not things, because everything is in a constant, slow-motion state of flux, and nothing is permanent. And since they’re events, not things, they should be celebrated like events, with as much enthusiasm as you work up, because they’re going to end, and we’re going to end, and since that will be the end of that, this right here and this right now are all we’ve got.
But as hard as I’ve tried, I’ve just never been able master the art of living in the Here and Now. I don’t know what’s in anyone else’s brain beyond what they’ve told me, so maybe I’m better at it than I think I am. All I know is that even after years and years of piling up great memories, there are still stupid little moments that I wish I had handled differently rattling around in my head like loose change in a coffee can. And Lord knows I’ve scattered baskets of brain cells across my years worrying about things that theoretically might have happened but never did.
And even when I’ve been as close as I could get to living fully and completely in the Here and Now, and there have been lots and lots of those times, I never went too long without checking my watch. It’s how I’m wired, and that’s just sad, but it’s no excuse. Very often, I enjoyed the hell out of the job I did for 25 years, but I could always tell you exactly how long I had to keep doing it until I didn’t have to.
But if anything could get me to finally shake off all this mental illness, finding myself floating along through the days, collecting my monthly Cash For Life payments from the New York State Teacher’s Retirement System while waiting for a Pandemic to end (and a psychopath to go away) may have been the ticket. I’ve cut off a big chunk of my past and I have no more than a vague plan for the future. Whenever I check my watch, I’m right smack in the middle of the Here and Now.
Self-awareness is one of the benefits of getting old, unless you’re hopeless. It becomes easier to catch yourself when you’re up to your same old lame tricks. Too often this year I’ve found myself sitting on my poorly constructed patio on the creek, thinking about what it would be like to leave Valley Stream and move up to Copake Falls permanently, how I’d feel about letting it all go. Then I’d be up on the Mountain thinking about what it would be like to be there with no back to go to. None of this is anything that I really had to think about at that moment, and any second I that I was, I knew I was only cheating myself out of good time.
And I’ve come to realize that the only reason I’m giving any unthinkworthy thoughts any space in my head at all, instead of enjoying the passage of time, which is of course the secret of life, is because I’m not thinking about my lesson plans for Monday morning, or what to do about that one kid. So all this extra room opens up in my brain, and something has to fill the vacuum. At times in 2020, to my credit, I happily feasted on whatever was in front of my eyes in the Here and Now.
But sometimes I pigged out on boxes of worry cookies and bags of regret chips.
We’re all works in progress. If you’re doing it right.
A moment of personal enlightenment came as it often does, after cleaning. In this case, on the first Sunday of December, when the temperature on Long Island was a sickeningly sweet 70 degrees. I had finished all the mulching and power washed the patio bricks, which takes just as long as cleaning them on your hands and knees with a pencil eraser, then topped off the weekend by cleaning out the garage. The property on Duffy’s Creek looked as good as it ever had on the first Sunday in December.
I was sitting in the yard with my nine-year-old dog, enjoying the fruits of my labor and watching the walkers on the creek path. Looking at how beautiful and how happy he looked, my mind had to find a way to try and ruin it by wandering up an unpleasant stream, as it does too often, to the day when I’d have to let Mookie go.
Then I remembered an excellent cartoon I came across called “Why Dogs Are Better Than People”. The artist drew a man and his dog walking. The man’s think bubble is crowded with dollar signs and buildings and cars and angry looking people and piles of paper. The dog’s think bubble is he and the man walking. I told myself to just stop it already. We’re Here. It’s Now. Nothing matters until it does.
And that was how the Christmas Tree Decision ultimately led us to the Fraiser Firs comin’ to ya straight from Maine via Tommy’s yard. Because we’re Here and it’s Now, and there’s no reason to get a fake tree this year just because we might get one in some distant future Christmas. We made one change in the tradition, and it I think it’ll work out just swell. Instead of waiting until the first weekend in December, we went to Dee’s on the day before Thanksgiving. There was only one other customer in the yard, and most of the trees hadn’t even been unwrapped, but we found this year’s winner within five minutes.
So we’re going to keep Christmas as well as we possible can, and we’re going to try to create a little joy in this miserable time. Then we’re going to take down that perfect Christmas tree the week after Christmas, and we’re going to head up to Copake Falls. Just for good measure when we get there, we’ll put up the little prelit tabletop Christmas tree that was in my father’s room at the nursing home when he woke up to his last Christmas. We’ll have a fire in the fireplace on New Year’s Eve and we won’t burn down either house.
And as another New Year rolls in, I won’t have to see the pictures of people in Taconic State Park enjoying a bonfire after their First Day Hike to Bash Bish Falls and say boy that looks like fun I’d like to get in on that some year because I’ll be there, soaking it in, unconcerned about any other day, past or present.
And by that same logic, I’ll still be pulling deadly nightshade and white snakeroot out of the gardens at Duffy’s Creek until the day we hand somebody else the keys. And if that day happens to be in December, I may just treat them to a damn good mulching before I move on, and before the next event starts.
Mookie Dog knows he’s got it good up in the country. In his Labrador heart, though, I think he’d always rather be in Valley Stream. For one thing, he has deep and soulful connections with all three of his cats, and it’s difficult for all of them to be separated. But that’s a story for Chapter 5. I feel bad for him because his puppy brain struggles to make sense of things these days. You can explain the what, the where, the who and sort of the when to dogs, but they’ll never fully understand the why. We do too many things that just make no canine sense.
For the first eight and a half years of Mookie’s life, we took one or two long trips in the car in July and/or August. He stayed at his friend Gina’s K9 Bed and Breakfast a mile away because he wasn’t supposed to be in the cabin, and I’d come by to take him out to play for the day, then bring him back, and then after a couple of days we’d take another long car ride and everything went back to normal. For the rest of the year, including all the cold months, we were in the home he first arrived in as a nine-week old puppy. So you can certainly imagine his confusion as he finds himself, at the equivalent of 63 years old, suddenly going on two and a half-hour car trips every couple of weeks.
But if I told him right now that we were going for a ride in the car, he would immediately begin wagging and hopping up and down and panting, because it would mean that we would possibly be going somewhere where things smell differently and there might be water for swimming or at the very least people who rub his face and say hi. We’d get there, wherever there might be, have our fun, and as soon as that fun was over and he came back to wherever we started, he’d have a short nap, then return to staring at me and moping, like he’s doing right now. He’s a fun junkie, my dog is.
And even though he willingly and joyfully gets in the car every time I suggest the idea, he plainly dislikes the sensation of the wheels moving under him. Though a purebred labby, he’s just not a head sticking out the window dog, which is something I’ve accepted about him. I don’t shoot ducks out of the sky and he loves me just the same. As any long car ride evolves, If he’s not lying down across the back seat in defensive sleep, he sits up and stairs down at the seat with an expression I can only describe as existential dread, and I say, “everything’s OK! Everything’s fine! Lie down, Puppy!” until he lies down again and tries to sleep. He especially dislikes exit ramps. They mess with his large center of gravity.
But while long car drives are stressful, staying home while I disappear for a couple of days is far more so. There were a few trips when I needed the whole car for transporting stuff and I left him home, safely with the others in the pack who have access to the dog food, but still this was not acceptable. So when he sees the duffle bag and the cooler come out, he never lets me out of his sight. And the cycle continues.
This place where we go these days, which I realize will never truly be home to him until his cats are there, only recently got comfy couches, a dog crate and a big comfy queen bed. For the first eight months, he had a dog bed on the floor and an air mattress that made him nervous. But while he enjoys these amenities we’ve provided, and he loves his big upstate backyard that smells like bunnies, he misses his neighborhood around Duffy’s Creek. He’s spent most of his life marking every tree and pole within two square miles of his house, and that’s not an accomplishment that’s easy to just walk away from.
In Valley Stream, we’ve gotten to the point where he takes me for walks, and ideally, to him, those walks are circular in nature, or at least Q-shaped. He has pre-determined routes where he has to check and respond to his pee-mail at specific poles and trees. My job is to follow along with plastic bags and keep him out of trouble.
And while he certainly enjoys the variety of scents that one can encounter in and around Copake Falls, it’s taken him some adjustment to accept that the majority of our walks in the country are linear. We go somewhere and then we go back the way we came. It’s the Road to Nowhere. Picture a man and his dog on two ends of a taut leash, debating about which of two opposite directions is the way they have to go now. It looks as ridiculous as it seems.
But he ultimately recognizes and accepts my position as the Alpha Dog. Actually, it’s bigger than that. He thinks I’m God. And of course, God doesn’t always give you what you want. Sometimes you can’t go lick the baby in the stroller and sometimes you can’t try to jump in the hammock that your favorite neighbor set up in his garage and that’s the way it is. God is all-knowing, and Mookie accepts this because he has faith. Every walk with God is essentially a good walk, circular or linear. Just like my own relationship to my own God, he’s a stubborn mule and his God loves him anyway. Besides, only a loving and benevolent God would know about a place like the Harlem Valley Rail Trial.
My relationship with the Rail Trail predates my relationship with my dog, never mind my human child. It goes back to the year 2000, the first year that Trisha and I took a full week of vacation in Columbia County. It was three days of camping with the hippies on Long Hill at the Falcon Ridge Folk Festival in Hillsdale (what a scene, man) then four days in cabin GH1 at Taconic State Park. Back then, everything was new to us and everything was the greatest thing ever. (“Hey! The Methodist Church is having a chicken barbecue!” “There’s a school near here where kids learn about organic farming!” “Did you know Copake had a lake? It’s huge!” “Look at the price on this house! Two acres!”). And since (blessedly in retrospect) we didn’t have any magic rectangles with Internet connections while we were there, the first two days back home on Long Island would be filled with wasted hours looking up every single thing I’d come across in Columbia County the week before. (“Hey honey! Those cows we saw last week on North Mountain Road? Brown Swiss!”).
I walked up to the Depot Deli the morning after we checked into cabin GH1, and there it was, something to do, forever: A paved path that hadn’t been there before with a sign explaining that I was entering the Harlem Valley Rail, which “derives its name from The New York and Harlem Railroad, chartered in 1831 and opened in lower Manhattan in 1832 with horse-drawn cars. In 1842, the line crossed the Harlem River, and in 1973 joined the New York Central Railroad, becoming known as the Harlem Division. By 1852, it extended north to the village of Chatham. In all, the line stretched 131 miles of track. What you see today while hiking and biking on this recreationway is a glimpse of Columbia and Dutchess Counties as thousands of paying customers saw the countryside until a little more than two decades ago, when passenger service was discontinued between Dover Plains and Chatham in 1972.”
Post-vacation research uncovered that this had all been developing under my radar for years. The first segment of the Harlem Valley Rail Trail opened in 1996, eventually connecting Wassaic, the last stop on Metro-North, and hence the southern end of the Rail Trail, to Amenia, which is a nice, little place. A connection from Amenia to Millerton, an equally nice, somewhat bigger little place than Armenia, came later, but I wasn’t hip to any of it at the time, as these were just the towns I passed through on the drive north and I wasn’t going to be in them again until my drive south. I also learned that there are a whole lot of people who have volunteered a whole lot of time and energy to building and maintaining this trail, and the guilt I feel at not being one of them is manifested annually to this day in the form of a charitable contribution to the Harlem Valley Rail Trail Association the week after Christmas.
The Copake Falls to Valley View Road to Undermountain Road in Ancram section of the trail opened in 2000, just in time for me to stumble on to it that morning. The first thing I thought to myself as I began ambling along is I gotta bring my bike up here next year, though it was plain as the years passed and the Rail Trail Culture evolved that I’d be no match for serious fellows in black speedos and wicking shirts with bright yellow and orange patterns and calf muscles like beer kegs who’d often pass me by. No matter, I like my calf muscles as God made them, and for me the bike would be just a way to get to the places where the cool birds are.
Birdwatching has always been one of my things, growing up on a creek and all. I had to know that those little ducks with the black and white heads who showed up in the winter were hooded mergansers, and not just those little ducks with the black and white heads, and I had to know that they bred in wooded lakes, ponds in rivers in Canada and migrated to tidal creeks and estuaries all over the U.S., including mine. When I meet birds, I want to know their names and I want to know their stories.
That morning, I walked the first section of the trail, a little over a mile to Valley View Road and back again (while my fiancée, who was told only that I was walking to the Depot Deli for newspapers, waited back at the cabin, in days before I would’ve thought to take my cell phone just to walk to the Depot Deli). I walked over the bridge the spans the Bash Bish Brook, little knowing at the time that the swimming hole directly under that bridge would be my dog’s favorite spot someday, or that I’d be pushing a stroller across that bridge not four years later, or that I’d be following behind a red Radio Flyer tricycle on that bridge a couple of years after that, or that twenty years later I’d be riding across that bridge on one of the two bicycles that I bought on Craiglist from a guy who I’d exchange $350 with in the parking lot of the Pittsfield, Mass. Wal Mart so I wouldn’t have to keep lugging two bikes back and forth from Long Island, which I’m embarrassingly aware was a First World Problem.
A little ways past the bridge, the west side of the trail opens up into a view of farmland sweeping up a gently rolling hill. Later, when I hit the trail at sunset, I found out why they had decided to put a bench there, as the sun sets directly behind that hill all summer. And I’ve got a thing for sunsets. On the east side is more farmland, but on a steeper climb, leading to the houses on the top of Valley View Road that are built into the side of Washburn Mountain, a point at which, if you can get a bike up the ridiculously steep hill that starts where the Rail Trail meets the road, whether by walking it up or with your overly-developed calf muscles, you can do a 30 mph coast about three quarters of a mile straight downhill and around a big turn right back to the Taconic State Park cabins. Just watch out you don’t get killed.
The morning I discovered the Rail Trail was a sweet, summer stunner and it was a Tuesday, so I pretty much had this whole thing to myself, and I knew Trisha wouldn’t be mad at me for wandering off once I told her what I’d found. While the spectacular views emerge in front of you, the trail is still lined with trees and bushes, and the birds were bursting at the seams. A line of thick brush along a farm or an open field or a meadow is what the good people at the Cornell Ornithological Society would tell you is “edge habitat.”
I met some of my usual friends walking along the edge habitat that morning; cardinals, robins, sparrows, chickadees. My favorite bird, the grey catbird, was following me all down the trail, greeting me by name as he always does. “Johhhhnnnn!” I started to get the feeling that I’d be spending a lot of time here.
At the point where the Rail Trail meets Valley View Road, the paved trail ends, and one has to follow a mostly uphill dirt road for about a half mile before reaching the next paved section that takes you south to Undermountain Road in Ancram. There are several properties along this dirt road. I may not have this story straight, but as I understand it, there’s a property owner who not only owns the road in front of his or her house but also the small meadow that looks out over the Peaceful Roe Jan Valley (hence “Valley View”) on the other side of the road. Apparently, this property owner refused to allow the road to be paved. There are also benches set up to take in the Valley View, adorned with angry “POSTED!” signs on poles surrounding them in case you even thought about sitting on one of them.
When the Harlem Valley Rail Trail is complete, it will run 46 miles from Wassaic to Chatham, and that half mile might be the only part that isn’t paved. The HVRTA has purchased 14 of the privately held miles from Copake Falls to Chatham, and NYS State Parks, who run the Rail Trail, are “in negotiation” for the other 22 miles. Knowing the way people are, they’re bound to run into a few more selfish types before they can connect the whole thing. Some of our neighbors on the bottom of North Mountain Road have the trail right in their backyards, and down in Millerton, there are houses you could jump into from it, and I don’t think anyone is being terrorized by gangs of thuggish nature enthusiasts.
I can tell you two things: One, I have passed the property in question on Valley View Road probably fifty times over twenty years. It’s built into a hill and has lots of windows. Every shade in every window has been pulled down every time I’ve gone past. Two, while riding past that in that meadow, I saw the biggest male deer I’ve ever met in person, and he didn’t give a rat’s ass that he was on private property.
I didn’t continue on to the Undermountain Road section on my first visit to the trail that morning, again because I’d wondered off without telling Trisha, which I can attribute to less than a year of having to tell someone where I was going after going wherever I wanted whenever I felt like it for most of my adult life to that point. On the way back along the dirt road, in a heavily wooded area at the point where the rail trail to Downtown Copake Falls goes to the left and Valley View Road goes straight up in the air, I saw a wood thrush low in the bushes after following his call; a deep, rich “bood-dood-a-weeeeee!” with bass in the “bood-dood” and treble in the “weeeeee!”. It’s a Morning in Copake Falls Sound, and like the nighttime sounds of bats chatting in the trees and coyotes howling at the full moon, I get homesick for it when I’m on Long Island.
On the way back to Copake Falls, at the point where the sun goes down behind the hill, I saw a meadowlark singing his heart out from the top of an evergreen tree. I said screw the bike, I gotta come back here with a pair of binoculars. And Trisha.
I don’t know if it was that year, or two years later in ’02, when we walked the trail from Copake Falls to Undermountain Road to get in some intensive birding, early in the morning, heavily caffeinated and armed with binoculars and the Peterson Guide. I know it wasn’t ’01 because we were a little preoccupied with getting married that summer, and though we managed to squeeze in a couple of nights of camping out on the hill with the hippies at Falcon Ridge, we didn’t make it down to the park. We haven’t missed a year since then, and now we never miss a month, but I digress.
The best birding turned out to be in a stretch with big trees adjacent to farmland most of the way, but with enough high trees along the trail itself for some kick-ass edge habitat. The catbird followed us along and called me by name. The wood thrush played their stereophonic flutes in the deep brush. All the cool songbirds were there: Little warblers and vireos that are only pass through Long Island in spring and fall all darting around here like they owned the place, swallows and flycatchers swooping over the fields while vultures and hawks hovered in circles above like guys cruising their hot rods around town. We found a whole family of cedar waxwings, Trisha’s favorite bird, with their new wave haircuts and their squeaky metallic “zeeet” call that sounds like feedback from tiny guitar amps.
We took a lot of walks specifically to watch the birds back then. We followed people with very expensive spotting scopes around the pond at Jamaica Bay picking up pointers. I dragged the poor woman around the dunes on the West End of Jones Beach when she was six months pregnant, but we did see a saw-whet owl sleeping in a fir tree. We spent my fortieth birthday circumnavigating Camusett Park and Target Rock Wildlife Refuge on the north shore of Long Island. We saw lots and lots of birds that day, but the highlight was spotting a bluebird flying across a field.
When I think back on that first walk to Undermountain Road with my gal, that will always be the day of the indigo bunting.
Indigo Buntings are bluer than bluebirds. They’re as blue as blue gets before it starts turning black. They’re the blue of the denim jacket you got for your 13th birthday. And they chirp a little song like an overly friendly storekeeper who’s had too much coffee. “Helloo! It’s a beautiful day! Nice to see you! Thanks for coming! Isn’t this great! Please! Look around!”. He sat on top of a bush in plain sight, no binoculars needed, and sang to us and showed off his magnificent blueness for as long as we wanted to look at him, and we looked at him for a long, long time.
Once we got into the baby business, we had to curtail the birding adventures a bit, but by that time we’d built a wildlife refuge on the creek in the backyard, and there were still lots of high trees around that have since been cut down, so we put out lots of seed and let the birds come to us. One snowy January night in the Early Aughts we had twenty-one cardinals visit the feeders at dusk, something that will never happen again, as their homes were all cut up with chain saws over the ensuing ten years. But up in Copake Falls, where time stands more still and the trees are still tall, there was no better place to push a stroller than up and down the Rail Trail. And when it was time for the guy in the stroller to start powering his own wheels, that was the place to do it.
And since you can’t rightly stare at trees with binoculars at the same time you’re making sure your five-year old doesn’t ride his bike into a ditch, we started to really appreciate the stunning variety of wildflowers just as much as the birds on the trail. Summer is a hippie festival of color and fragrance up and down the trail, and you can eat the wild blackberries and raspberries you come across and I promise that you won’t get sick and die.
My son loves the Rail Trail. It’s never not been part of his life. He went from three wheels to four wheels to two wheels in the blink of five summers. Then of course Dad had to teach him about the Valley View Road Downhill Challenge, just to scare the crap out of Mom. I loved sitting on our front porch at GH7 waiting for him to come whipping around that corner as he coasted in. We regularly biked the Copake Falls to Undermountain Road and back again route together as part of our week in the park.
Speaking of Undermountain Road, it’s under mountains, the biggest ones in the part of the Taconic Range that overlooks the Peaceful Roe Jan Valley. When you get to this section of the Rail Trail, you’re literally under Alander Mountain. The trailhead is just down the road. There’s another big boy called Brace Mountain that is easily accessed from Copake Falls. These mountains are not much taller than Baker Mountain in Saranac Lake, which I climbed twice in the last three years. When I was a whole lot younger, I climbed Mt. Marcy, the highest point in New York State and a mile up in the air, at least five times. I have a brother who is four and a half years older than me who still climbs mountains whenever he gets the chance and is working on being an Adirondack 46’er. I’ve also got a pack of Marlboro 27’s on the patio table.
My excuse for not climbing any Taconic Mountains to this point is that I didn’t have a day when I happened to be up that way and the weather conditions would make it worth the effort. Now that I’m a part-time resident, that excuse is trickling away. I know I could always ask one of the people I know in Copake Falls who are in their 80’s, and don’t have a pack of Marlboro 27’s on their patio table, to serve as a guide. They climb the local mountains all the time. There’s something in the water up there and I sure as hell hope it works for me.
Less intimidating is the challenge of a bike ride from Copake Falls to Millerton on the Rail Trail, which should be possible by 2021, when the newest eight-mile section is completed. That would be 12 miles of mostly level or slightly downhill rolling, with a sandwich and a ride back from Trisha waiting at the Millerton parking lot. Hell, we could even make it to Wassaic, 22 miles away, as long as I get that sandwich and that ride. Dream big, that’s what I say.
I could point out to anyone who might actually be using this document as a guide to the Harlem Valley Rail Trail that you could stop wasting your time with me right now and got to hvrt.org, but I could also tell you that the two and a half miles of trail south of Millerton to Coleman Station (I haven’t made it to Armenia or Wassaic) is just about the nicest walk or ride you’d ever want to take. Right after you pass through the pretty little town, and right before the trail opens up to some beautiful scenery, you go through a section that was originally created by blasting through solid rock, and the solid rock they didn’t blast remains on both sides of you, so it’s always about fifteen degrees cooler on this part of the trail than it is everywhere else, which was a blessing on the hot day that Jack and I finally got around to riding this trail last summer, which was the same day I inadvertently cooked a mouse in the oven, which is a story for Chapter 6.
In 2010, ten years after the Copake Falls to Undermountain Road section opened up, the trail was extended north to Orphan Farm Road, which now borders the Shagbark Tree Farm. This is the stretch where you’ll find Mookie and I most often these days. It’s a nice mile and a half jaunt with what is probably the most spectacular scenery that the paying customers on Harlem Valley Line saw from the trains, although I can’t state that for a fact. There is also a small section across Route 22 from Black Grocery Road (the etymology of which I want nothing to do with) to the Herrington’s Hardware store parking lot in Hillsdale. Eventually, the plan is to build a pedestrian bridge over 22, connecting Orphan Farm Road to Black Grocery Road, thereby connecting everything from Wassaic to Hillsdale, which would give the trail 26.6 of its eventual 46.1 miles to Chatham. The motto of the Harlem Valley Rail Trail Association is “Chatham or Bust!”, and I take them at their word.
Meanwhile, the end of the Orphan Farm trail is where Mookie questions the need for walks to be linear rather than circular in Nature. His nose tells him that his second home in the country is right up there at the top of a very steep and narrow path that runs between the hill full of Happy Little Trees and a heavily wooded patch of the Rail Trail right-of-way leading into my neighbor’s backyards. This shortcut back to Trisha’s Mountain is easily accessible from the Orphan Farm parking lot. He’s sniffed it and seen and it for himself while sitting on his front porch up on the hill. As a matter of fact, we could make this a completely circular walk by traveling down North Mountain Road to the rail trail, then climbing back up this path right back to our mailbox. What he doesn’t know is that 1) It’s private property, which he wouldn’t care about anyway, and 2) Trisha has already seen a coyote and I’ve already seen a black bear emerge from that path in broad daylight, not at the same time of course (that’d probably be newsworthy, even in Columbia County), and if my stubborn dog thinks he can talk shit to animals that live in mountains like he does to dogs and cats and squirrels that live in Valley Stream he would be tragically mistaken. God watches after fools, little children and their dogs.
And since Mookie can’t think figuratively, which is really one of the best things about him, I wouldn’t be able to explain to him that these one-way walks are sort of metaphoric. While I hope we’re walking together for a couple of more years, mortality will eventually come between us. He’s a 9-and-a-half-year-old dog and I’m a 57-and-a-half-year-old human doing his best to stay alive in the midst of a pandemic. The road we’re on is not a circle, and one of these days, we’ll have gone as far as we can go.
But the good news is that neither one of us I really have anything left to prove to anybody. We’ve both been good boys, and now we’re just trying to live in the moment, both happy to be walking relatively pain-free. Our journey is our destination. We’re on the road to nowhere, but baby, it’s all right. Despite all of our shared internal conflict about leaving behind everything we’ve loved and marked back in Valley Stream, when we’re out on the Harlem Valley Rail Trail, and the sun is shining and the birds are chirping and the breeze is blowing and the wildflowers are blooming, there’s just nowhere else we’d rather be.
(With acknowledgement to Antoine de St. Exupery for the help).
My father was a Covid-19 statistic. He died at the age of 90 on April 26th, 2020, at the height of the Pandemic in New York. He suffered from advanced dementia, and the fight left in his body was no match for the virus. As he was living in a skilled nursing facility, none of his children or grandchildren (or great-grandchildren) could be with him to say goodbye. The last time I saw him was on February 16th and I could see even before he was stricken that he had taken a general turn for the worse. Of course, if you tell me that his contacting coronavirus was a blessing in disguise I’m gonna come over there and kick your ass.
Neither he nor my mother, who died in 2012, ever saw Copake Falls. If they had been just a couple of years younger and healthier back in the Early Aughts, maybe they could have come up and stayed at a local B & B and hung out with us at Taconic State Park for a day or two. I sure would’ve liked that. As a matter of fact, it’s a recurring dream that I have every once in a while, and I even like the distorted dream version of them visiting.
They were the ones who first took me upstate after all, and they would have loved the Peaceful Roe Jan Valley. They actually kicked the tires on a house way up in Rainbow Lake in the Adirondacks when they retired, but they decided that it was way too much of a hassle to have two houses hundreds of miles apart. They were practical people.
I had a conversation with my father once about moving upstate. We were standing in the backyard on the creek in Valley Stream, the one that used to be theirs and became ours. He had grown up in an apartment in Astoria, Queens, so the 60 x 100 plot was all the room he’d ever hoped to have. He was a city guy.
Of course, since he started me out on the 60 X 100 plot, naturally I wanted something bigger someday. So we were talking in the backyard on the creek that day about how Trisha and I were very happy with buying the house in Valley Stream, but that we always followed the upstate real estate market around the place where we went on vacation every year.
This is how that conversation went:
Me: “… So we keep an eye on the properties for sale. I mean, this is great, but for what you pay on Long Island, you could have a couple of acres of land upstate, and that might be nice someday.”
Dad: (Genuinely perplexed) “What would you do with a couple of acres of land?”
Me: (Slight pause, unprepared for the question) “Stare at it! Walk around on it!”
At which point he responded with his hearty laugh and his million-dollar smile and we moved on.
Around this same time, I started teaching in a school in Ozone Park, Queens where I’d work for the next 16 years. I parked my car outside one morning in September right near where my new assistant principal (who would later become principal) had just gotten out of his parked car. I noticed that he had Vermont license plates. I thought to myself, “well, heck, there’s some pleasant small talk for the walk inside. This guy has a house in Vermont and I’ve been to Vermont. In fact, Copake Falls, where I go every summer, is only about 60 miles from the Vermont border. I’ll ask him about Vermont. Maybe he drives up Route 22 to get there.”
This is how that conversation went:
Me: “Vermont, huh? Beautiful up there. We go to a place near the Berkshires every summer. Copake Falls, New York. Ever hear of it?”
Him (distractedly): “Maybe. I think so… What do you DO there? Do you ski?”
(Narrator: “The Catamount Ski Mountain is one of the big tourist attractions nearby”).
Me: (Again unprepared for the question, and at a complete loss for what to say next) “Not much… Uhhh…We hang out. We watch the birds.”
Him: (long pause). “Hmmm.”
And then we went to work. But (sorry, boss) after I reported this disastrous attempt at friendly conversation to Trisha, it became an inside joke between us. We’d be sitting staring at a campfire or watching the trees swaying in the wind from the front porch of the cabin, and one of us would say to the other, loudly, “What do you DO there?”
Well, now we have a place of our own in Copake Falls. With 1.9 acres of land. And to be honest, when we’re there, we don’t do a damn thing, really. In the words of the great Robert Earl Keen, “I kinda like just doin’ nothin’. It’s somethin’ that I do.”
You might see me taking Mookie Dog for a swim in the brook and a walk on the rail trail in the morning. You might see me and Jack on that same rail trail later on riding the bikes I bought from a guy on Craigslist who I met in the parking lot of the Pittsfield Walmart. You might even see us doing a little tree trimming and minor brush clearing around the yard. You might see me and Trisha watching birds from the front porch. We have campfires. We make dinner. We play ping-pong, pool and darts in the basement. We read and watch stuff. We drive on country roads to re-stock or to look around, then we drive back to the Mountain. Then we stare at it and we walk around on it.
And when weather conditions are favorable, and the Earth’s orbit is aligned correctly, we watch The Show.
The Show, also known as the Trisha’s Mountain Driveway Sunset Festival, is made possible by four elements: The Earth’s rotation around the sun, the topography of the Roe Jan Valley and the surrounding mountains and hills, a road that rises to 800 feet up the side of a 1200-foot rise, and the Shagbark Tree Farm.
It was in 2002 when Trisha and I first stayed in Copake Falls for a full week together. One of my hobbies that week was to learn every road in the area, and how those roads connected to each other. It was so long ago that I did my research with a paper Hagstrom Map of Columbia County that I bought at the AmeriStore gas station. (Today, of course, you could look up our Valley Stream address on Google Earth and see Trisha getting out of her car in the driveway).
Early in this grand pursuit, I found North Mountain Road. The south end of North Mountain starts in the hamlet of Copake Falls off Route 344 and raises you up steadily. The north end takes you for a big twisty up and down ride past some very expensive houses set back on lawns with the square footage of the Pittsfield Walmart. Right in front of these fabulous properties is a small cemetery where the first St. Bridget’s Catholic Church was located. (Upstate New York: Home of the Incongruent Cemetery). The road then twists you sharply downhill and quickly back uphill several times for a roller coaster ride around a dairy farm where they raise Brown Swiss cows (imagine that) before it finally plunges you straight downhill and it spits you out on Route 22 close to the Hillsdale Town Line.
In the middle, when you’re up about as high as you’ll get, there’s a leveling off, and to your west about three or four miles away are hills that are just about equal in elevation to the one you’re on. Between you and those hills is the Roe Jan Valley, which we always refer to as the Peaceful Roe Jan Valley, because in 2002 we saw a guy who called himself the Singing Dentist perform a really campy song by that name in the auditorium of Taconic Hills High School and we laughed and we laughed. “I will spend my days / singin’ songs of praise / in the Peaceful Roe Jan Valley”. It’s catchy, isn’t it?
The Peaceful Roe Jan Valley is dissected by the meandering Roe Jan Kill, which is short for Roeliff Jansen Kill, which was named for a guy who led a party from New Amsterdam that got stuck in the ice on the Hudson River one chilly day in the 1630’s and stumbled across a tributary that runs 56.2 miles through Dutchess and Columbia Counties. And when the sun hits the valley just right, you can see the reflection of the Roe Jan Kill from North Mountain. It looks like silver mercury in a giant crooked thermometer. I already have a favorite creek, but the Roe Jan is my favorite kill.
Meanwhile, back in the Summers of the Early Aughts, Trisha got used to me taking the better part of an hour to come back from a ride to the IGA in Hillsdale five miles from Taconic State Park because I’d always have to check out another road that I found on the map. North Mountain was a no-brainer, as it led directly off 22 and planted me right in Copake Falls, so it was one of my first detours, if not the first.
I was flat-out flabbergasted by my first glimpse of the million-dollar view I’m going to try to describe here in words, and I should point out that among the mental pictures I took on my first journey was that of a yellow house that looked like an oversized mobile home, but had a little piece of that million-dollar view. How much less than a million dollars for that?
At the point where the hills level off along the top ridge of North Mountain, if you’re traveling south from Hillsdale, you pass a couple of gorgeous properties with ponds on the west side of the road. Past there, and continuing for about three-quarters of a mile, the entire long slope in front of you is part of the 800-acre Shagbark Tree Farm, on land that used to be a dairy farm called Orphan Farm. Here you’ll see seemingly infinite rows of happy little Aspens and Birches and Colorado Blue Spruces patiently awaiting their adulthood in backyards and bank parking lots. And if you look into the distance beyond that slope, where the Peaceful Roe Jan Valley below levels off, you’ll see another piece of the tree farm that runs along Farm Road west of Route 22. As the hills on the other side rise up, the biggest piece of the tree farm looks straight back at you from Overlook Road. Behind that is more hill and behind that in the afternoon is the sun.
And to make it even more fabulous, if you turn around and look north or south, the Peaceful Roe Jan Valley ends right below Copake and right above Hillsdale, so it’s nothing but mountain peaks stretching out to the horizon. Squint your eyes and you can see the faint outlines of Catskill Mountains on the other side of the Hudson.
All of this adds up to some motherf#%&ing beautiful sunsets.
I was a big fan of Bill Geist on CBS Sunday Morning. His thing was reporting little offbeat stories, mostly from small-town America. One of his best was about Sundown Days in Hanlontown, Iowa (now called the Sundown Hoedown), where they tried to promote the town with a festival built around the fact that right around the time of the Summer Solstice, the sun sets directly in the middle of the abandoned Union Pacific railroad tracks that run through town. I was totally charmed by the idea, as I am by every goofy idea (as is Bill Geist, God bless him), and luckily, there was a beautiful sunset that in fact lit up the railroad tracks for the CBS cameras.
The people in Hanlontown admitted they came up with this idea because there wasn’t much else to do. But if you’re watching the sunset, you’re doing something, even if it looks like doing nothing.
Our asphalt driveway on North Mountain Road is not quite straight like a railroad track. It is, however, directly in front of the southern boundary of Orphan Farm. Going south down the road from there towards downtown Copake Falls it’s all private property, with lots of big trees that block a full view of the sunset from the road. But from early spring to early fall we have a front row seat to the sun setting behind the hills to the west, above thousands and thousands of happy little baby trees. And for week or two after the sun lights up the rails in Hanlontown, Iowa, it lights up our driveway in Copake Falls.
Being apparently desperate for attention, I’ve shared a lot of pictures of those sunsets on Facebook. I’ve even apologized for it and flat out admitted that I was just showing off. People keep telling me they like the sunset pictures and they don’t mind seeing them at all. But as I turn The Show into more and more a ritual, because I have obsessive-compulsive disorder and it’s what I do, I’m trying to turn it into more of a meditative thing, like a Japanese Tea Ceremony. And if you want to meditate successfully, it’s always a good idea to unplug yourself from that stupid phone and walk away from it.
From the website kcbinternational.com:
In ancient times, Buddhist monks designed the tea ceremony to directly work to affect all five senses, to wake up the person both physically and spiritually. The double nature of the ritual works in such a way that it brings a deep inner peace and tranquility by bringing the mind and body together.
Of course, sometimes I’ll bring the camp chair down to the driveway and the sunset will be so gorgeous I will not be able to fight off the impulse to run back up to the house and get the stupid phone and take a bunch of pictures. I’ve done videos, time-lapse, panorama, crazy photo edits, and portrait mode. I’m weak of will.
In my mind, Buddhist monks shake their heads and softly say to me, “you’re freaking hopeless, dude.”
But I’m trying.
And though I know you’re not supposed to think about anything but the Here and the Now when you’re trying to achieve enlightenment, down on the driveway watching the sunset, I’ve gained a little self-knowledge (and not-self-knowledge) from thinking about the little prince.
The 2019-2020 school year was already going to be my last as a middle school English teacher. Knowing that I was eligible for a full pension at the end of 25 years, I pretty much decided in September of 2019, while staring forlornly at the long line of red break lights stretching in front of me and Lou the Subaru on the Belt Parkway at 6:08 am, that I was done.
Oh, and by the way: When people tell you about teachers spending all those hours of their own time doing prep work, communicating with parents and grading papers, when they tell you how much of their own money teachers spend on supplies, when they tell you how many obstacles are thrown in the way of doing the job effectively, they’re telling you the truth.
And all that stuff about it being a rewarding career? That’s all true, too. I met more great people and saw more of the good in humanity close-up in 25 years than many people ever will. You’ll have to trust me on that one. That was my reward for a workday that was like being hit in the head repeatedly with a two-by-four. But I got to live deeply as heck for 25 years. It was exhausting, but I don’t regret it, and I’m glad I took over the family business from my Mom. I might start tutoring at some point, but as for juggling 90 eighth graders for 185 days a year, twenty-five trips around the sun was plenty.
My last day in a school with kids in it was supposed to be June 26th, 2020. Instead it was March 13th. For many of those 106 days, it was my job to keep the kids going with “virtual lessons” on Google Classroom. However, acknowledging that many teachers had to keep their own kids going through remote learning, the periods were shortened from 42 to 25 minutes. There’s really not a whole lot you can accomplish as a teacher in 25 minutes. That’s where pdf’s come in.
We finished the novel we had been reading in class before Trump broke the country, The Wednesday Wars by Gary D. Schmidt, which I loved teaching because through of a funny and charming coming-of-age story set on Long Island, the kids got to learn what a mess everything was in 1968, and why it’s still a mess. That took about three weeks. Then what? Well, for my next trick, I was planning on breaking out Steinbeck’s The Pearl to teach the young ones to avoid greediness and how to spot unrepentant assholes, and lo and behold, there it was in public domain on pdf’s all over the place. Mission accomplished. However, my ingenious plan, breaking the book down into 15-minute bites with questions meant to promote critical thinking, ‘cause that’s how I rolled, gave me three more weeks to fill up after Memorial Day.
What to do, what to do. It was totally on me. And even if it weren’t, who was going to stop me from doing whatever I wanted? It had to be something relatively short and simple, that was old enough to be ripe for stealing from a pdf. file. Ideally, something good. The kids had suffered for the incompetence of their leaders. Some of them never saw the light of day for the three and a half months that I was in contact with them online.
One of them lost his father just like I did, except his father was younger than me, probably a lot younger, and he also lost 45 years with his father that I got with mine, so it wasn’t like I did at all. I was communicating electronically every workday with 13-year-olds in the epicenter of a Pandemic. Just writing that sentence feels surreal. There was misery and anger and confusion and sadness all over the place, and I know Duffy’s Google Classroom was a bright spot for many of them. There was something there to think about, and somebody thanked them for thinking. I had to go out with a bang, even if I was sitting on my couch with a laptop computer. I needed a book that could help them think about sadness and loss, about love and friendship, about hypocrisy and human folly, about seeing with your heart.
There’s only one book in the world like that. And I’m happy to report that it was a smash hit on Google Classroom.
Here’s The Little Prince by Antoine de St. Exupery in short with too much left out:
A pilot has crashed his plane and is stranded in the desert. He meets a tiny little prince from the Asteroid B-612, who has come to Earth after a long journey through the universe, a journey he took because the love he felt for a single flower was too much for him to bear. The little prince recounts his journey through different planets to the pilot, telling of his conversations with, among others, a king, a man who has nothing but believes he is rich, a drunken fool, a lamplighter, a cartographer, and a train switchman. They each allow him insight into some paradox of human behavior. On Earth, he meets a fox, who teaches him true wisdom, which he then imparts to the pilot. When the little prince leaves the pilot (I’m not telling you how) he promises that pilot will be able to see him in the night sky.
And if you’ve read The Little Prince, you’ve already figured out what this all has to do with sunsets. This is from chapter 6:
Oh, little prince! Bit by bit I came to understand the secrets of your sad little life… For a long time you had found your only entertainment in the quiet pleasure of looking at the sunset. I learned that new detail on the morning of the fourth day, when you said to me:
“I am very fond of sunsets. Come, let us go look at a sunset now.” “But we must wait,” I said. “Wait? For what?” “For the sunset. We must wait until it is time.”
At first you seemed to be very much surprised. And then you laughed to yourself. You said to me:
“I am always thinking that I am at home!”
Just so. Everybody knows that when it is noon in the United States the sun is setting over France.
If you could fly to France in one minute, you could go straight into the sunset, right from noon. Unfortunately, France is too far away for that. But on your tiny planet, my little prince, all you need do is move your chair a few steps. You can see the day end and the twilight falling whenever you like…
“One day,” you said to me, “I saw the sunset forty−four times!” And a little later you added: “You know−− one loves the sunset, when one is so sad…” “Were you so sad, then?” I asked, “on the day of the forty−four sunsets?” But the little prince made no reply.
In Chapter 10, on the first stop of his journey, the little prince meets a king who lives alone on a planet with no subjects. The king tells the prince that he has absolute authority over everything. The little prince is intrigued by this notion, and so asks the king if he can command a sunset, since he is feeling homesick and hasn’t seen one since he left Asteroid B-612.
Such power was a thing for the little prince to marvel at. If he had been master of such complete authority, he would have been able to watch the sunset, not forty−four times in one day, but seventy−two, or even a hundred, or even two hundred times, without ever having to move his chair. And because he felt a bit sad as he remembered his little planet which he had forsaken, he plucked up his courage to ask the king a favor:
“I should like to see a sunset… do me that kindness… Order the sun to set…”
“If I ordered a general to fly from one flower to another like a butterfly, or to write a tragic drama, or to change himself into a sea bird, and if the general did not carry out the order that he had received, which one of us would be in the wrong?” the king demanded. “The general, or myself?”
“You,” said the little prince firmly.
“Exactly. One much require from each one the duty which each one can perform,” the king went on. “Accepted authority rests first of all on reason. If you ordered your people to go and throw themselves into the sea, they would rise up in revolution. I have the right to require obedience because my orders are reasonable.”
“Then my sunset?” the little prince reminded him: for he never forgot a question once he had asked it.
“You shall have your sunset. I shall command it. But, according to my science of government, I shall wait until conditions are favorable.”
“When will that be?” inquired the little prince.
“Hum! Hum!” replied the king; and before saying anything else he consulted a bulky almanac. “Hum! Hum! That will be about−− about−− that will be this evening about twenty minutes to eight. And you will see how well I am obeyed.”
Just as the king commands, twenty minutes to eight is about what time The Show starts in Copake Falls, during the weeks when the Trisha’s Mountain Driveway Sunset Festival is in full swing. It’s completely reasonable. We carry the camp chairs down to the end of the driveway and we sit there, like we’re at the Village Green Bandshell in Valley Stream and The Nassau Pops are coming out to perform. Sometimes we shoot the breeze while we watch the show, and sometimes we start getting silly and laughing ‘cause we do that. Sometimes we point phones at it. But other times we sit there and stare, and we think our own thoughts.
And as all sunset fans know, it’s different every time. Sometimes fluffy cumulous clouds glow like they’re being heated on a stove when the sun sets beneath them. Sometimes there’s a little break in a blanket of cloud cover so that the sun suddenly appears right before it sets behind the mountains and throws a ribbon of orange and red straight across the ridge. Sometimes cirrus clouds splash streaks of peach and mustard and cherry red against the darkening blue like brushstrokes from an abstract painter, and sometimes giant stratocumulus dragons and bunnies change colors as they float by. You never know what you’ll see, so it’s always worth watching.
So shortly after the day of my final sign-off on Google Classroom, I was up on The Mountain, sitting in a camp chair next to Trisha in an illuminated asphalt driveway as the clouds and the sun and the tree farm and the hills performed another new, never-seen-before version of The Show and I was thinking about the little prince.
“You know, one loves the sunset – when one is so sad…”
There’s something intrinsically sad about a sunset. It’s the end of another day of one’s life. It’s the last gasp of light before total darkness sets in. So even if one is sitting happy as a clam watching a spectacular sunset, one is bound to feel a little bit of melancholy. I suspect it has something to do with the fact that we’ll all be dead someday.
But besides feeling sad for the state of the world right now, and sad about all the grief in the collective consciousness, and all the unnecessary suffering that has been inflicted by greed and stupidity, and of course sad about the death of my father in the middle of all this, I realized I was also feeling a little sad watching the sunset that evening because there are flowers back on the creek that have tamed us, and Trisha and I are responsible for them.
Our backyard in Valley Stream faces west, and the sunsets there are no slouches. If they were the sunsets we watched for the rest of our lives, we’d die lucky. But nothing compares to the big sky over Copake Falls. It almost feels like we’re cheating on our house. But we’ve allowed ourselves to be tamed by this 1.9-acre plot of land on a hill overlooking a tree farm, and since the day we first stepped foot on it, nothing has been the same. And sometimes it feels like the future is coming at me too quickly.
The little prince loved a rose that grew on Asteroid B-612. Being the only rose there, he thought she was unique in all the world. But his rose was very vain and very demanding, and she was breaking his heart, which is why he decided to tidy up his volcanoes, pull up the weeds to stop the baobab trees from taking over and go out into the universe to find wisdom. Later, while exploring Earth, he comes across a garden of roses, and realizes that his rose is not unique, which makes him cry.
He next meets the fox, who wants the little prince to tame him, but the Little Prince doesn’t understand the concept, so the fox explains:
“It is an act too often neglected,” said the fox,” It means to establish ties.”
“‘To establish ties’?”
“Just that,” said the fox. “To me, you are still nothing more than a little boy who is just like a hundred thousand other little boys. And I have no need of you. And you, on your part, have no need of me. To you, I am nothing more than a fox like a hundred thousand other foxes. But if you tame me, then we shall need each other. To me, you will be unique in all the world. To you, I shall be unique in all the world…”
The fox goes on to explain the process of taming:
It will be as if the sun came to shine on my life. I shall know the sound of a step that will be different from all the others. Other steps send me hurrying back underneath the ground. Yours will call me, like music, out of my burrow. And then look: you see the grain−fields down yonder? I do not eat bread. Wheat is of no use to me. The wheat fields have nothing to say to me. And that is sad. But you have hair that is the colour of gold. Think how wonderful that will be when you have tamed me! The grain, which is also golden, will bring me back to the thought of you. And I shall love to listen to the wind in the wheat…”
So at the fox’s insistence, the little prince tames him. Part of the process is to establish rites. The little prince has to show up at the same hour as he did the day before so the fox can look forward to that hour. Soon, the fox has been tamed. But the little prince, who never wanted to tame the fox in the first place, feels like he has to move on.
“But now you are going to cry!” said the little prince.
“Yes, that is so,” said the fox.
“Then it has done you no good at all!”
“It has done me good,” said the fox, “because of the color of the wheat fields.”
“Go and look again at the roses. You will understand now that yours is unique in all the world. Then come back to say goodbye to me, and I will make you a present of a secret.”
The little prince comes to realize that the rose he left behind on Asteroid B-612 is unique from the other roses because it has tamed him. And he tells the other roses just that:
“But in herself alone she is more important than all the hundreds of you other roses: because it is she that I have watered; because it is she that I have put under the glass globe; because it is she that I have sheltered behind the screen; because it is for her that I have killed the caterpillars (except the two or three that we saved to become butterflies); because it is she that I have listened to, when she grumbled, or boasted, or even sometimes when she said nothing. Because she is my rose.
And he went back to meet the fox.
“Goodbye,” he said.
“Goodbye,” said the fox. “And now here is my secret, a very simple secret: It is only with the heart that one can see rightly; what is essential is invisible to the eye.”
“What is essential is invisible to the eye,” the little prince repeated, so that he would be sure to remember.
“It is the time you have wasted for your rose that makes your rose so important.”
“It is the time I have wasted for my rose−−” said the little prince, so that he would be sure to remember.
“Men have forgotten this truth,” said the fox. “But you must not forget it. You become responsible, forever, for what you have tamed. You are responsible for your rose…”
“I am responsible for my rose,” the little prince repeated, so that he would be sure to remember.
The House on the Creek tamed me as a little boy, then it tamed me all over again when our son was a little boy. I know every single flower and weed that grows on that 60 x 100 plot of land. I have spent thousands and thousands of hours taking care of it.
There’s a wisteria bush that grows in the corner of the yard next to a large and beautifully crooked maple tree that leans out towards the creek. Both of these plants were there before my parents were. If not for our regular intervention, the wisteria vines would have swallowed up the maple tree long ago. Someday we’re not going to be there and there will be nothing we can do about it, but on some level, we’ll still feel responsible for it.
Over almost twenty years on the Creek, Trisha and I have planted over a hundred perennials, roses shrubs and trees. We’ve grown thousands of flowers and fallen in love with every single one of them. We made a place surrounded by too much ugly into something uniquely beautiful. We tamed it and it tamed us. Though the siren call of Copake Falls was always calling, we made a little paradise in Valley Stream.
But the first time we drove up that asphalt driveway on North Mountain Road, we both knew we were going to be tamed all over again. The sweep of grass that slopes upwards to a trail through the woods in the backyard, the solitary mountain standing watch over the cornfield next door, the way the house itself nestles into the hill like a giant stick of butter on a plate, the big old trees that needed a little help from the vines trying to eat them, the leaves of the tall cottonwoods dancing in the breeze along the driveway, and those sunsets over the Peaceful Roe Jan Valley.
The little prince points out that on Earth “Men set out on their way in express trains, but they do not know what they are looking for. Then they rush about, and get excited, and turn round and round...” And not only that, they “raise five thousand roses in the same garden−− and they do not find in it what they are looking for.”
That’s us all right. All the years we spent building a little Eden in Valley Stream surrounded by crowds and noise and litter, we kept looking for our place in Copake Falls, and just like when the little prince and the pilot go in search of a well in the desert, we just kept going until it found us. And when we did, it was as if it had been waiting to be found, waiting to be tamed, and waiting to tame us.
The first time we walked up the hill in the backyard, I said to Trisha that this was a canvas that we could paint something brand new on, something that started with us. She was always more than cool about making a home and a family in a place where I had already been part of one, instead of us building from the ground up together. Now this was her turn. Trisha’s Mountain. But after twenty years and a thousand roses, she’s just as tamed by the creek as I am. To let go of it completely is, to quote one of her favorite expressions, something I can’t get my head around right now.
Monsieur St. Exupery said it best: “One runs the risk of weeping a little, if one lets himself be tamed…”
When it comes time to say goodbye to Valley Stream, to say goodbye to the place where I was a little boy and where we raised a little boy, time to say goodbye to that physical connection to my parents, it just ain’t gonna be easy.
But the fox reminds the little prince that, “it is only with the heart that one can see rightly; what is essential is invisible to the eye.”
So when I’m doing nothing on Trisha’s Mountain, sitting and staring or walking around, I may not be able to meditate like a Buddhist Monk, but I’m trying like hell to stay in the here and the now, to see with my heart, everything essential that happens to be right in front of me, and everything essential that I love that can’t be right in front of me. It’s all there if I see rightly.
When it’s time for little prince to leave the pilot, on the one-year anniversary of his descent to Earth, he comforts the pilot by telling him to look up at the stars.
“And at night you will look up at the stars. Where I live everything is so small that I cannot show you where my star is to be found. It is better, like that. My star will just be one of the stars, for you. And so you will love to watch all the stars in the heavens… they will all be your friends. And, besides, I am going to make you a present…”
He laughed again. “Ah, little prince, dear little prince! I love to hear that laughter!” “That is my present. Just that. It will be as it was when we drank the water…”
“What are you trying to say?”
“All men have the stars,” he answered, “but they are not the same things for different people. For some, who are travelers, the stars are guides. For others they are no more than little lights in the sky. For others, who are scholars, they are problems. For my businessman they were wealth. But all these stars are silent. You−− you alone−− will have the stars as no one else has them−−”
“What are you trying to say?”
“In one of the stars I shall be living. In one of them I shall be laughing. And so it will be as if all the stars were laughing, when you look at the sky at night… you−− only you−− will have stars that can laugh!”
And he laughed again.
“And when your sorrow is comforted (time soothes all sorrows) you will be content that you have known me. You will always be my friend. You will want to laugh with me. And you will sometimes open your window, so, for that pleasure… and your friends will be properly astonished to see you laughing as you look up at the sky! Then you will say to them, ‘Yes, the stars always make me laugh!’ And they will think you are crazy. It will be a very shabby trick that I shall have played on you…”
And he laughed again.
“It will be as if, in place of the stars, I had given you a great number of little bells that knew how to laugh…”
There isn’t much room for the stars in our neighborhood on light-polluted Long Island. There’s no limit to the stars on our hill in Copake Falls. After The Show fades to dark red and then to black, you can move the camp chair to the wide-open hill in the backyard and take them all in. And of course, the longer you look, the more stars you see.
The little prince is up there. You know that. But then there’s all the people whose time in my life has passed like another day’s sunset. Some of those little stars up there are all the thousands of kids and thousands of grown-ups I met in 25 years as Mr. Duffy the Schoolteacher. Some of them are people I met before those 25 years even started, people from my neighborhood, people from school, people I met while working at the supermarket, driving a cab, working at a magazine and a newspaper, going to college, going out to bars and clubs, going on an Outward Bound expedition when I was 16, going to Camp Lavigerie in the Adirondacks every summer and every other thing I ever did.
Some of those stars are friends and family who I haven’t seen in too long because of this Pandemic, and I hope every one of them of them can come here and sit down on this hill someday. But in the meantime, they’re out there. So I’ll think of them and hope they’re doing well and I’ll pick each one out a star for the time being.
But the brightest stars up there, some of whom are planets following the path of the sun?
Those are my parents, and Trisha’s parents, finally getting to visit, and to share in all this beauty that has tamed us. Those are the stars that guide our way into the future.
Because someday, when we cross the Whitestone Bridge with nothing left to go back to on the other side, the sun will go on rising and setting, and we’ll have a front row seat to a beautiful sunset every night there is one. Over time our sorrows about leaving Long Island will start to be soothed. And some of those stars on that hill at night will be all the flowers we grew on a little 60 X 100 plot of land along a creek in Valley Stream.
And we can say it’s what we did there. And we can say it was something.
Copyright 2020 by John Duffy
Fair use (hopefully) of excerpts and illustrations from The Little Prince, which was written in 1943 but renewed in 1971, copyrighted by the widow of Antoine de St. Exupery.
Here’s where it starts: At the very end of 2019, the week between Christmas and New Year’s Day, the week when nobody does much of anything, my wife Trisha and I did something complicated, extravagant and totally unnecessary. We bought a house.
Everyone with whom we shared this news was ecstatically happy for us. Nobody called us stupid. Not to our faces.
I suppose if somebody had a problem with us buying this particular house, the problem would be that we already own a house, and the majority of people on Earth don’t own a house, and many don’t have a home, and now we have two. From that perspective, of course it’s clear that we didn’t have any damn business buying another house.
But we bought it anyway. We had our reasons. We think some of them are almost valid, but I’ll leave that to you. If you’re a capitalist, maybe you’ll say we’re smart people and we know what we’re doing and it’s not a problem at all so go ahead and enjoy it. If you’re a Marxist, you’ll likely call us out for the selfish pigs that we are. Fortunately for us, there are way more capitalists than there are Marxists, at least in our circle.
Trisha and I bought my parents’ house eighteen years ago in Valley Stream, Long Island, New York. It’s a little 1,300 square-foot cape cod-style house on a 60 x 100 plot of land. It’s cute. You’d like it. We grow a lot of flowers. The backyard overlooks a pretty little winding creek, the official name of which is actually “Valley Stream”, but people who don’t know me usually either call it Hook Creek or Mill Brook.
People who do know me call it Duffy’s Creek. Some, anyway. Because I asked them to. My parents bought the house in 1955, and I grew up there, the “baby” in a family of five kids. I never went very far, never changed my mailing address. I got married, came back, entered into a real estate transaction, had a son of my own, and began growing old right on that creek. The tide comes in and out from Jamaica Bay, and by the grace of God, I go right on living. It’s a nice story so far, isn’t it?
But here’s the thing: Three weeks after Trisha and I met on the boardwalk by the ocean in Long Beach, Long Island in 1999, we spent a perfect early-November weekend staying in a cabin in Taconic State Park at Copake Falls, in Columbia County, New York, a place we had both discovered independently, she from going to the annual Falcon Ridge Folk Festival in nearby Hillsdale, me from years when I would periodically get in my car and drive long distances because I didn’t have anybody to go to the Falcon Ridge Folk Festival with. We lit a campfire on a crackling cold and clear Friday night full of stars, and on Saturday morning we hiked to Bash Bish Falls under Indian summer skies full of crazy blue jays hopping through orange and yellow trees yelling, “Stay! Stay! Live Here!” We fell in love with each other and we fell in love with the place. And for the ensuing twenty years, we returned there every summer and a couple of falls, probably logging about six months of elapsed time. Our son Jack has never known a year that didn’t include at least one week in Copake Falls.
“It’s like our second home,” we’d say.
But that wasn’t true. It just sounded nice.
So our home away from home stayed up there on the map and up there in our minds year after year as we continued to grind it out on Long Island. The sound of the blue jays and the turns in the country roads stood behind us, tapping on our shoulders to remind us what we were missing; the ancient mountains, the cleaner air, the bigger trees, the wide open roads, the farm stores and the church barbecues, the people who wave when they drive by, the absence of malls and chain stores (except for the Stewart Shop up in Hillsdale, which is perfect and cannot be criticized). I wasted hours and hours of my precious time here on Earth scrolling though Zillow listings.
OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA
Copake Falls was an alternative reality. And as Valley Stream continued to get louder and louder year after year, summer after summer Copake Falls stayed mellow.
Valley Stream is a lot of things. Many of them are good. But “mellow” is not one of those things. A quick check for “antonyms of mellow” on Merriam Webster reveals “discordant, dissonant, grating, harsh, inharmonious, jarring, strident, unmelodious and unmusical.” I guess it would be harsh, maybe even unmelodious, to describe my hometown in these terms. But still, it sure as hell is not mellow, except in our backyard, and then only when our surrounding neighbors aren’t shooting fireworks or holding dance competitions. And if you want to see jarring and strident, live near a mall on Long Island during those seasons when people get in their cars every half hour to go buy more stuff. If grating and harsh is more what you’re after, listen to a Long Islander who has been inconvenienced.
Robert Frost came up with the line, “I had a lover’s quarrel with the world.” It was such a good line that he requested it as the epitaph on his gravestone. As you might guess, Jean-Paul Sartre doesn’t have an epitaph on his gravestone (cool issues and all), but he sure could have gone with one of his best lines: “Hell is other people.”
People are what make a place more than anything. Or break it. There are rural parts of America and suburban parts of Long Island where I’m not too arrogant to say I wouldn’t be caught dead. People who are proud of where they live, wherever they might be, like to come up with slogans to promote their hometowns as places that other people might like to see, possibly even live in, because people spend money, and that’s what keeps places alive. Valley Stream once sold itself as “The Gateway to Suburbia”. Kind of a Dante’s Inferno thing really, but I suppose it was meant as a compliment at the time. The Town of Copake sells itself to this day as “The Land of Rural Charm.” That’s a good one, huh? I hope whoever thought of that at a meeting got the praise and recognition that they earned. But I could show you lots of uncharming rural places around town if I had to. And tell you about some less than charming rural people.
So In fairness to my fellow Long Islanders (and – whether they like it or not – my now-fellow Copakeans), let’s start with the premise that the vast majority of people everywhere, in every place with a name, are really all right. I truly do believe this. But sadly, as you know, while most people are wonderful, some people just suck. So it follows that if there are more people, more people will just suck. That being established, here are what I believe are the four basic groups of problem humans:
1. The Slightly to Extremely Dangerous: Those who have had hard lives or some sort of trauma and have decided than instead of nobility or faith, they will instead make it a point to project their hurt and anger on convenient targets they find around them. While this group of people have to be treated like walking landmines, as a child of God, one can’t judge them if one is not one of them and hopes not to be. I just try to stay out of their way and not to make things any worse for them.
2. The Insufferably Annoying: Those who have been sadly brainwashed by too much TV into thinking they are the star of their own little reality show, and thereby have developed a need to create drama and tension where none should exist in order to compensate for an otherwise tedious existence. Long Island is saturated with people like this, possibly because of its wealth. If your main problems are not the procurement of food, clothing and shelter, you really have no problems, so if you want some, you have to invent them. Ideally, it would help every one of them to be slapped silly, but violence is never an option.
3. The Head-Scratchingly Frustrating: Those who, for a variety of reasons, from deeply neurological to not getting hugged enough as babies, just can’t grasp the simple rules of getting along. They’re not particularly dangerous or overly dramatic. They just flat out boggle the mind. Ask anyone who’s ever worked in retail. But, as my father would have said, you can’t make their problem your problem. You can suffer fools gladly or ungladly. You’re still going to suffer fools.
Now, If you give people in these three categories the benefit of the doubt, and assume that in their essence they really just can’t help themselves, and they probably have many good qualities as well, that leaves us to grapple with the problems perpetuated and the damage done by Group #4, The Unrepentant Assholes: Those who live to purposefully and gleefully gain negative attention from the rest of us by being as unpleasant, uncooperative and self-centered as they can possibly be.
My personal sampling of the several hundred-thousand people I’ve interacted with in 57 years suggests that groups 1, 2 and 3 represent between 7% and 10% of the overall population. Maybe as much as 15% in higher-end neighborhoods. The Unrepentant Assholes in Group 4 are actually a very, very small percentage of the human population. I asked Trisha, and she said 2%. I was thinking three, but I’ll go with her answer.
There are 284.7 square miles of land in Nassau County, New York, and approximately 1,359,700 people call it home, making for a population density of 4,787 people per square mile, with all the people noise and chaos they generate. Bear in mind that there are large swatches of Nassau County where billionaires have reserved lots of land for themselves and their horses and their golf courses, leaving the rest of us to fight over what’s left. The population density of South Valley Stream is 7,583 people per square mile.
Traveling from Nassau County to Columbia County, you’ll pass Co-Op City in the Bronx, which has a population density of 47,000 per square mile. So really, I should just shut up. I’m very much aware of this. But we’re born where we’re born, for reasons that are seemingly random and certainly not fair, and we know what we know. I would like to build a little house with a garden for every family in Co-Op City on all the land currently being used for golf courses. I have no beef with horse farms.
Meanwhile, In Columbia County, there are 635 square miles of land, which is home to 59,461 people, which is 93 people per square mile. This includes Hudson, the county seat, which is two square miles and has 6,144 people, 1238 of whom sell antiques. Extrapolate that funky little metropolis, and now we’re down to 84 people per square mile, and 2% of 84 is 1.68.
This all means that in every square mile of land in Nassau County, you will find 94 Unrepentant Assholes (150 in South Valley Stream, most of them driving). Whereas in Columbia County you might find two. Plus you can factor in the variable that being known as having manners and not being a big fat pain in the ass is much more important in Columbia County, because you don’t want everyone else to agree that you’re that one person in their square mile, whereas in Nassau County, every asshole is competing for attention against 93 other assholes within one square mile, and it’s hard to keep track of them all.
There is no cure for any of this. Not in this life, man. More people create more stress. As the Pandemic of 2020 set in, I started seeing clickbait on my rectangle about how people would start moving from the city up into the Hudson Valley “in droves”. Since it’s an issue that affects my life, I was interested to know how many a drove is and how many droves you could multiply that by, but I try not to fall for clickbait. And the proliferation of people in Groups 1, 2 and 3 will only get worse as cell phones get better. And more Group 4’s means more chances of something unpleasant happening to you or around you every time you leave the house.
So the choice for us seems to have become one of either standing in the Gateway to Suburbia as the Barbarians continue to storm through, or goin’ to the country and buildin’ us a home in The Land of Rural Charm, hoping that agricultural zoning regulations will keep the droves at bay for a while.
And that’s why at the end of the twenty-first year of complaining about the miseries that follow the overpopulation of Long Island, and of idealizing the alternative existence of Columbia County, Trisha and I bought a second home two and a half hours away from our first one, a mellow-yellow ranch house on 1.9 acres of land bordering the very state park where we had once walked around all gooey in love under the autumn sun with the blue jays and everything so many years before. Since I had named the creek in back of our house in Valley Stream after myself, because who could stop me, and since the funds that made this real estate transaction possible were bequeathed through my wife’s family, I insisted that we call our new second home, perched on a ridge 840 feet above sea level, “Trisha’s Mountain”.
We had a dream. We had the money. We jumped off the cliff. And then the whole country broke. And then I quit my job.
Not really, but sort of. I actually retired from 25 years as a middle school English teacher. It’s an important job, and somebody has to do it, but it is no longer me. However, the pension I earned is a lot less than if I had stuck around and made more money for a couple of more years, thereby assuring that eventually, if I wanted to live in the style to which I’ve become accustomed, house in the country and all that, I’d have to suck it up and find a part-time job. So, I gave myself four months to decompress, while the Covid-19 Pandemic and the complete collapse of American Society that will likely precede or follow the Presidential Election of 2020 play themselves out.
In the meantime, in between traveling up and down State Route 22, I thought I’d write a book. But I didn’t know what to write about. I had some ideas, but I don’t like it when people are angry at me, so I had to keep thinking of other ones.
The whole “we left the crowd in the city and moved to the country but we didn’t know the cows next door would smell so bad and why are there bees and snakes” thing has been done to death. That’s not what I’m after here. There isn’t a whole lot of Upstate / Downstate culture shock for me to write about because I pretended that I had a house in the country for twenty years before I actually had one. And nobody up there has to explain to us how not to be “citiots.” We get along just fine with everyone. Not much material there. Of course, In order to be considered a local in Copake, your family has to have lived there for two-hundred years, so we know we’ll always be outsiders. We try to counter that by being polite.
So ultimately I decided to write a book of stories and word pictures, twenty of which are set in Columbia County, the other twenty in Nassau County.
My only claim to originality is that I write from the perspective of one whose heart truly lives in two places at the same time, and who knows his time in the one place, the place that created him, is likely winding down.
A Little Side Note: Right now, if you’re reading this book in its competed form, and not in installments on duffyscreek.com, you’ve established that 20 plus 20 equals 40 and not 41. Very astute. Chapter 1, the longest one in the book, is mostly about New York Route 22, the road in between (and how I found it). As we’re making this several years long transition, the road from here to there and back has become sort of my third home.
Valley Stream and Copake Falls, while they are almost united by a common language, and while you can drive from one to the other in two and a half hours, and while by virtue of boundaries drawn up 400 years ago are both in New York State, could not be less alike. But this book is not about comparing and contrasting them. It’s about things that define these places for me. They are both home now. When I’m in one place, I feel the other one trying to pull me back. Neither of them seems to understand that I can’t be in two places at once.
I have become a human wishbone.
I grew up in Valley Stream (and by extension, Long Island) in days when it wasn’t quite as strident and jarring. As another one of my heroes, Mose Allison, said of Tippo, Mississippi, “I am of that place, and the stamp is upon me.” But the little hamlet of Copake Falls has been yanking at the sleeve of my soul for most of my adult life, and now our plan is to go there for good someday.
But not today.
I guess you could say we have a plan. But we don’t, really. Our right-now-16-year-old son has two more years of high school and likes it upstate just as much as we do. So he would be more or less on board if we actually had a plan. Trisha is very successful at her mommy-takes-the-train-to-the-city job, so she’s not in a hurry to leave (as we’d be broke, and she’s in charge of the money) but I know Long Island’s obnoxiousness gets to her even more than it gets to me. And as I write this in the summer of 2020, you can’t even go sit on the beach unless you want to risk getting horribly sick (or getting somebody else horribly sick), and Long Island is pretty much pointless without the beach and the ocean. It seems predetermined which way the wishbone will eventually snap, and I guess if there is a plan, that’s the plan.
Abraham Lincoln said that the best thing about the future is that it happens one day at a time. I’ve outlived him by a year, so I’m happy to be here at all.
And as people suffer all over the world, my main purpose in life in August of 2020 is waiting for people to call me to schedule delivery of some comfy furniture.
I never thought it would come to this.
Of course, If we decided to put our house in Valley Stream on the market tomorrow morning, it would take the better part of two years to shovel out of it anyway. So for the foreseeable future, part of me is watching the tide come and go on the creek and part of me is watching the light dance across the mountains. I am a stupidly lucky son of a gun and I have not a thing in this world to complain about, but if you’re nice enough to read on anyway, I’ll try not to be boring.
When a friend at work would complain to me, he’d often say, indignantly, “this is not what I signed up for!” Well, this is exactly what I signed up for that mellow December day last year in the lawyer’s office in Millerton.
I am a human wishbone. I am Gumby, damn it. With one arm and one leg stretched north, the other arm and leg stretched south.
Which would put my center somewhere around the Red Rooster.
It’s been another long, inexcusable break from blogging, but for better or worse, A Creek Runs Through It rises from the ashes today. Today, it’s time to go for a good, long walk. If you’re up for it, Mookie and I would be pleased to take you along on a tour of Valley Stream, Long Island, New York, or at least a nice, big chunk of it.
Of course, we’re wired very differently, and our respective life experiences are very different as well, so no doubt Mookie would at some points be putting things in a more positive light for you than I might. But he doesn’t speak English, and he doesn’t blog. So today I’m your somewhat unreliable narrator.
We are eight summers and seven winters into walking our turf together now, Mookie and I, and we’ve interacted with hundreds of our neighbors along the way. And I’ve learned to appreciate his perspective. As a writer named Edward Hoagland wrote about dog training theory, I’ve learned ”to open up myself the possibility of becoming partly a dog.” We even negotiate over which way we’re heading on our walks, since he knows his way around as well as I do. If he could speak English, and he could blog, he’d just look at you with a big smile and say, “Isn’t this great?” But then again, he would say that about every place he’s been.
Futhermore, my dog believes that every person who opens every house or car door as we’re walking by has arrived in his field of vision purposely to see him and tell him what a beautiful big dog he is. He collects people. We’re just walking by your house and you happen to walk out your front door or get out of your car. Mookie stops dead in his tracks, squares his paws, sucks in his gut and targets his prey (you) with his best Labby smile, as if to say, “Hey! Hey you! Here I am! I love you! Wanna say hi waggy waggy?”
He’s very good at it and he scores a “Hey, Buddy!” or a smile back at the very least almost every time. Subsequently, he’s made me like people a little more in general. They’re actually not so bad, most of them.
Mookie deciding whether to bolt over to someone and tackle them, just to say hi.
Yes, my dog loves it here in Valley Stream. So does my son, whose grandparents moved here from Astoria, Queens in 1955, lived for 46 years on a house on a creek and raised five children in it. My son is already planning to send us away someday and buy this house. For the record, that never occurred to me when I was 14. I’m glad he likes it.
Me, I’m the youngest of those five children and right now the I’m guy who lives with his family of three people, three cats and a dog in that same house on that same creek. Do I love living in ValIey Stream? Well, honestly, a lot of the time I’m pretty much awash in ambivalence. I’ve met a lot of great people here, and a couple of soreheads. Plus I suppose it would be impossible not to feel affection for a place where you’ve spent most of fifty-five years and three months.
On the other hand, most of fifty-five years and three months is a very, very long time to live in the same anywhere. I feel like the place where I live could be a lot better if people in general had different priorities. But that’s true of all of Long Island, where people often have some really ass-backwards ideas about what’s important. And I will say this: What strengths Valley Stream does have put it way ahead of a lot of places not only on Long Island, but also in America in general.
So I’m going to take a cue from Mookie and try to keep it positive when I can. We’re going on a big, circuitous, approximately five-mile walk, but we’re going to take our time, and sometimes go back in time. Mookie will need to read his pee mail on the poles and trees, and I’ll be telling you some stories and acting as your tour guide. The goal is to see a place, a town in America in 2018, close up for what it is, as well as what it was and where it seems to be going. Remember, no matter who we happen to meet along the way, Mookie loves them. As for us, you’d probably agree with me that any day is a good day for a walk, and most people are likable enough. So I’d like to show you around our hometown. At its best, it’s a microcosm of the best things about our country. At its worst, maybe not so much. You wanna go for a walk? Come on! Let’s go for a walk!
Terrapin escaping troubled waters for a bit of sun on a rock
Egrets, we have a few. And I try to look out for them.
The walk starts from the house in which I was conceived and raised, and where I live more or less happily today. The house is on a winding street that follows a winding creek, and it’s called Jedwood Place for no good reason. In that house, on a 60 x 100 plot of land abutting tidal waters flowing in and out from Jamaica Bay (home of many interesting birds and one big-ass airport), I have been a baby, a son, a little brother, a snotty teenager, an occasional host of rowdy parties, a smart kid, a troublemaker, a mostly frustrated , bored but sporadically inspired young adult, a lot of peoples’ friend “Duff” who lives down the block from South High, a college student, a guy who’s been in his parents’ house too long, a guy carrying laundry and Ancona pizza on a visit home, a happy and loyal husband, a pleasant enough neighbor, a not-so-awful father and the guy with the big yellow dog.
Two big, fat side notes before we go walking (you can use this time to stretch, maybe tie your shoes. Mookie Dog will wait patiently on the front lawn and sniff the air) :
Note One: There is no other Jedwood Place on the face of the earth. But after 55 years of using the same mailing address, the name “Jedwood” feels as much a part of my name as my name. Yet there is no logical explanation why Mr. William Gibson, the man whose development company built my neighborhood in the early 1950’s and who built most of the neighborhoods of South Valley Stream thirty years before that, would have named a street “Jedwood Place.” The two most frequent citations of “jedwood” that you’ll find on Google refer to a hunting ground in Scotland and “jedwood justice”, which was a practice rooted in 19th Century Maryland wherein a person suspected of a crime was put to death without trial. Neither of these things have anything to do with Jedwood Place. Hopefully, they never will.
Note Two: Jedwood Place is in it’s own little development, bordered by Duffy’s Creek and dead-ending at Valley Stream South High School. Mr. Gibson called it “West Sunbury” but that name never stuck. The other three street names in this little development are Cluett Road, Sanford Court and Virginia Court. A Google search reveals that the man who developed the process of pre-shrinking fabrics known as “sanforization” was named Sanford Lockwood Cluett. Hmmmm. I have no idea if he was a friend of Mr. Gibson, though they were contemporaries, and captains of industry, sort of. I could find no mention of Sanford Cluett, who was born in upstate Troy, NY, hanging out on Long Island, though if I were from Troy I guess I’d jump at the chance. And oddly enough, Sanford Cluett was married to a woman whose maiden name was Camilla Elizabeth Rising, and the land Jedwood Place was built on was once part of the Riesing Farm, a different spelling but coincidental just the same. I have no idea who Virginia was. All this is interesting to me (if not to you, as you and Mookie wait for your promised walk) because Jedwood feels like part of my name, and it’s only because somebody pulled it out of nowhere in 1950.
Such is the randomness of our existence. Creek Street would have worked just as well.
I wanted you to know all this before we go because I ‘ve spent most of my life walking or driving around in circles, starting from and ending at Jedwood Place, of which there is only one on the face of the earth. And over the last seven years, in partnership with our beautiful, loyal, insanely friendly Labrador Retriever, I’ve taken walking in circles starting from Jedwood Place to a whole new level.
During the twenty-five years in which I was between dogs, I had often wished I had a dog just so I could go for a walk without having a destination in mind (and of course because dogs are generally so, so much better company than people). As we’ve established, Mookie’s mission in life is to say hi to as many people as he can, which in his best-case scenario means you rub his face and he stares deeply into your eyes and tries to kiss you. If you were actually here, you’d know that already, and as you may have guessed, I’m somewhat more reserved. But I enjoy all this about him greatly, and hundreds of people we’ve met on our walks have as well.
And so (surprise), having a friendly, good-looking dog and taking long, rambling walks around town is a great way to observe and often meet people, and when you observe and often meet people, sometimes you get talking to them. And when you get talking to people, you get to know the true character of a place. And I can say without any reservation that I (and to an extent, Mookie) know the character of Valley Stream – at least the south half of it – better than anyone, particularly anyone who works at Money Magazine.
Why Money Magazine? Well, apparently, somebody at Money Magazine really likes Valley Stream, so much so that earlier this year Money Magazine voted it the Best Place To Live in New York State. For heaven’s sake why? Well, this is what they said:
First settled by Scottish immigrants in 1834, Valley Stream is a Nassau County village that attracts residents with a reputation of being “neat, clean and safe”. The location is a big draw—it’s just 35 minutes from Manhattan, near two major highway arteries, and served by the Long Island Railroad. Snapple originated in Valley Stream, which also boasts several historic colonial sites, a diverse population, and a close-knit suburban community.
So, to use a buzz phrase that my boss loves, “let’s unpack that.”
First of all, Snapple. Really? What the hell is Snapple doing in three sentences of copy about Valley Stream being the best place to live in New York State? And I believe we have one colonial site. This is why I mostly avoid magazines.
Second of all, I’m very aware of the “major highway arteries” and the Long Island Railroad, thank you so much, as well as being five miles from JFK Airport. It’s often very noisy around here. It’s not “Manhattan noisy”, or even “Queens noisy”. You can still hear the birds. There still are occasional moments of relative quiet. But if you listen for it, there’s almost always a dull roar of the motor noise of trains, plains, automobiles and leaf blowers emanating from our surroundings, and I’m not entirely sure that this isn’t all slowly driving me insane.
Third of all, neat, clean and safe. These are just about the most relative terms you could string together to describe a place. Your idea and my idea of the threshold for earning those adjectives could be very similar or very different, depending on how much you are affected by Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder.
We’ll get to “clean” and “neat” when we get walking. (“Yawwwnnn!!!,” says Mookie). First, let’s talk about “safe”. “Safe” is ultimately what makes or breaks the reputation of a place. But again, it’s completely relative. Do I feel “safe” walking with Mookie at night through Valley Stream? Well, yeah, ‘cause we’re the scariest looking two guys out there if you’re up to something, so that’s a moot point. Do I feel safe if my 14-year old son or my wife is out after dark? Of course not, because I love them and I worry about them and I want to be with them all the time so I know where they are, but that would be true wherever we lived. That’s got nothing to do with Valley Stream.
Less than a mile to my west is Green Acres Mall, which has grown like an ink stain since it was built in the 1950’s. It has, over the years, fostered a reputation as being a slightly dangerous, crime-ridden place. So much so that the first neighborhood we’re going to visit on our walk changed it’s name from “Green Acres” to “Mill Brook” in the early 1980’s to distinguish itself from the shopping mall, a decision that at the time smacked of racism, because many of the shoppers at the mall are people of color from neighborhoods in Queens and Brooklyn. This is ironic in retrospect since all the ethnic groups that people in Green Acres were afraid of are now raising families and planting flowers in front of the houses they own in Mill Brook.
Within the last three years, Green Acres applied for and received a PILOT (Payment In Lieu Of Taxes, otherwise known as a big fat tax break) from the Town of Hempstead to expand yet again. Part of their strategy for legally cheating on taxes and stealing money from people in Valley Stream was to sell Green Acres as a “tourist attraction”, since more than 50% of the customer base comes from outside Nassau County. The mall is literally right on the New York City border. And so, when people on Valley Stream social media pages want to make snide comments about people from the city, they call them tourists. Isn’t that clever?
Statistically, I don’t know how true the perception of Green Acres Mall being unsafe is or ever was. But I can tell you this: The creek amplifies noise. All creeks do. It’s a property of water. If there’s a particularly egregious crime at the mall (I’d say an average of between 6-10 times a year depending on how hot the summer is and how much the giant flat-screen TV’s are going for on Black Friday) you’ll know about it at Duffy’s Creek. You’ll hear the angry roar of helicopters circling overhead (followed seconds later by the angry roar of people on the Valley Stream News Facebook page reporting helicopters circling overhead), and the apocalyptic sirens from emergency vehicles racing down Sunrise Highway and Mill Road.
At times like these, Green Acres is less a shopping mall than an encroaching monster that wants to eat my quality of life. Of course, it would certainly be LESS safe here if there WERE no circling helicopters and emergency vehicles ready to respond in minutes to intervene in whatever nonsense is going down. We pay some of the highest property taxes in the country for that sort of thing. And Roosevelt Field, the bigger shopping mall to the east bordered by the much more wealthy community of Garden City, makes it into Newsday for spectacularly stupid crimes as much as Green Acres does.
And the other 99% of the time, when there are no egregious crimes being committed, it’s just a shopping mall. And me, I hate shopping malls. They’re gross. I like forests. And lakes. But if you’re OK with shopping malls, go ahead and visit Green Acres Mall sometime. Don’t worry. It’s plenty safe. It’s a tourist attraction. Go there and waste your money.
Meanwhile, now that we’ve established that “safe” is an illusion that means absolutely nothing no matter where you live, let’s get to that walk. As you look across the street from my house, the first thing you will say is “What the…?” And then you will smile your dopiest smile, because you’ve just had your first look at the house of my longtime neighbor and friend John and his wife Amanda who live across the street. John and I disagree vehemently on politics, so we never ever talk about it when we see each other. However, I have great respect for and truly enjoy his execution of the American rights and traditions that allow one to do whatever the hell one wants to one’s house within local zoning regulations. Plus he does our taxes, and we always do pretty well. So I have no problem living across the street from a house that has been remodeled to resemble a giant log cabin.
Thanks to my neighbor John for giving me permission to share this view of his house from my house.
Yeah. That’s right. A giant log cabin. AND, there are two “showcases” in the front of the house. In one of those showcases you’ll see a life-size gorilla statue, along with a life-size guy who looks a little like John himself sitting in a chair in a white suit and a Panama hat, with a parrot on his shoulder, a totem pole and a monkey scaling a tree behind him. In the other showcase you’ll see a bear, several small hippos and a family of prairie dogs. You’ll also notice the two grazing bison attached to the second floor balcony and the almost life-sized plastic representation of a Tennessee Walking Horse mounted on the fence. Completing the look is a stone wall in the corner of the property with a faux blue pond made of concrete, engraved with various animal drawings, “flowing” out to the sidewalk.
I’ve seen a lot of people take pictures of John’s house. Selfies, mostly. I find it extremely amusing. And I know he doesn’t give a flying rat what anyone thinks of his log cabin, which another reason I like him. And since we have Valley Stream South High School up at the top of the dead-end of Jedwood Place, we have lots of pedestrian and vehicle traffic passing by our houses – and lots of very loud teenagers – when school is open. As a matter of fact, you literally can’t get out of our driveway between 7:15 and 7:40 a.m. on school days as the street is one long convoy of cars dropping those same teenagers off at school, most of whom live no more than a mile away. My friends all walked to school here, even the ones who lived two miles away. Most of them are still alive. Just sayin.’
Valley Stream South High School, where we regularly trespass and occasionally get off the leash to go get it. The new football field really pisses us off
As we set out on our five-mile walk (did I mention that?) we have three possible trails: We can walk towards Valley Stream South High School, my alma mater, where we don’t give damn about trespassing on the field because of the school taxes we pay (and Mookie has lots of friends in high places anyway). They’re currently transforming the South football field from natural to artificial turf, which Mookie and I, along with the sandpipers, agree is a really stupid idea, but we had no say in it at all. Walking up that way, we might see my next-door neighbor, originally from the Philippines, who Mookie has loved since he was a puppy, and how could you not? We might see Raffi, who doesn’t like Mookie sniffing at him, but who feeds me really good noodle and pastry stuff after Ramadan so I give him jars of homemade bread and butter pickles on my summer vacation. (All my other friendly neighbors get them. I don’t concern myself with the unfriendly ones, and Mookie knows not to stop in front of their houses).
We might see Bob walking his dog Eli the other way and we might say something about the Mets. One family of Mookie’s best friends moved to Florida last year and we both miss them. But he’s recently worn some other people down at the end of the street who now say hi to him by name. Up at the high school soccer field, Mookie might get to chase a ball off the leash if no one is around, but if it’s Sunday, they’ll be twenty gentleman of various ages, all in way, way better shape than I am, playing The Beautiful Game like their lives depended on it. When school is open, Mookie collects high school students. They’re not so bad, even with the littering. I digress.
If we take trail #2 and walk up Cluett, we’ll see a house that belongs to some wonderful neighbors of ours that is currently being renovated and has been raised way high off the ground to survive the next big hurricane. From what I can see, I like their chances. Mookie will check to see if his very best friend Vacco is relaxing in the hammock that hangs from the walls of his spotless garage, and if so will have to charge at him and wag his tail maniacally for a face rub while Vacco and I talk about our solar panels.
But we’re going to take trail #3 and walk up Jedwood towards Mill Road and around the Creek, into Mill Brook, which I still call Green Acres. There’s a story I want to tell you about the path on the other side. Walking up to the corner, we’ll pass about twenty houses, and Mookie has friends in at eight of them. He’s working on the other twelve.
The Mill Brook community (when it was Green Acres) used to be connected to Jedwood via a pedestrian bridge over Duffy’s Creek (called, not surprisingly, “the Bridge”) but it was deemed unsafe after a kid got stabbed there (long, stupid story) and it was demolished, meaning most kids from Mill Brook now either walk or get a ride down Jedwood to get to school. So once upon a time, you, me and Mookie could’ve walked to the footpath on other side of Duffy’s Creek from the high school without going to Mill Road and passing the stores. And if the bridge were there, I could tell you about all the bottles of cheap beer and other commodities that were consumed over the years by generations of Valley Stream South students. But it isn’t. So I won’t.
Instead we have to make our way past the insane little white dog that occasionally runs out into traffic to chase after us at the corner of Jedwood and Mill, and walk north past the stores.
Here’s the good news about the row of stores at the corner of Jedwood Place and Mill Road. There’s a dry cleaner, a deli, a pizza place which I don’t like but my son does, a Chinese take-out that everybody likes, and deli that’s really a bodega, which is different from a deli but I don’t have the patience to explain to you why that is if you don’t already know. There is a certain convenience in having these things in your neighborhood. I guess that makes them convenience stores.
Here’s the bad news about the row of stores at the corner of Jedwood Place and Mill Road. 1) It has not been updated since 1950. It’s shabby and run-down looking and there is 68 years of gum embedded in the sidewalk. They use the steel doors use that you see in the picture when they’re closed, which makes the neighborhood look worse than it is, but I suppose it’s better than broken plate glass, which would do the same. 2) Nassau County owns a strip of land next to the row of stores that abuts Duffy’s Creek. They have not cleaned this area in my lifetime. It’s a wasteland of weeds, dead trees and garbage, as disgusting as anything you’ll ever see in a place where the median family income is $85,00 a year. It screams, for all the world to hear, that here in Southwest Nassau County, we just don’t give a fuck. The water spilling from the culvert under Mill Road into the creek smells like death, but more about that later, too. 3) There is a very large laundromat between the deli and the pizza place and people double park in front of it all the time. 4) The first store was a dive bar for most of my life – originally called “The Sportsman’s Rendezvous” – but has become a Nail Salon. It is one of approximately 500 nail salons in a five-mile radius. I never hung out in the dive bar, but I’m sure there were a lot less nefarious things going on in the Sportsman’s Rendezvous than there are in the Nail Salon. But that’s just me. 5) The Garbage.
The Path along the Left Bank of Duffy’s Creek, owned by the Town of Hempstead.
The spillway under Mill Road, where the “fresh” water from Hendrickson Lake and Mill Pond meets the salt water from Jamaica Bay at Diuffy’s Creek,
Mill Pond Park, Village Of Valley Stream
Mill Pond Park, Village Of Valley Stream. They tell me they can’t do much about the pond scum, and I’ve met pond scum, so I get that.
The toxic wasteland is owned by Nassau County. If you don’t believe that it is a toxic wasteland, I’d invite you to go take a whiff.
The amount of garbage on the street in and around Jedwood Place, most of it originating from the row of stores, and the very loud teenagers from the high school, whom Mookie loves and who visit those stores regularly, would have cost Valley Stream our Money Magazine “Best Place To Live in New York” designation if Money Magazine had known about it. I regularly feel like the Crying Indian when I walk around and see all the garbage that kids drop on the street (and that people throw out of their car windows after dropping their kids off at the high school. Don’t worry. I see you). There was a big push back in the 70’s to get people to stop littering, because nobody really wanted to make the Indian cry. But somehow, somewhere along the line, this morphed into the idea that people are paid to pick up after you. And who the hell is the Crying Indian? If you litter on Jedwood Place, ultimately, I pick up after you for free, because I get to the point where I can’t look at it anymore. People walk around with a bottle of something and a magic rectangle everywhere they go but somehow carrying a wrapper, or that now empty bottle of something, to the next garbage can is far too great a burden. This is a Valley Stream problem and a Long Island problem in general. We spent a week in Copake, NY and a week in Saranac Lake, NY this summer. There are fewer people in these places, of course, but none of them throw their fucking garbage in the street. So it’s not like a ratio or anything. People on Long Island – though I like many of them, and Mookie loves all of them – are pigs. There, I said it.
But Mookie, of course, doesn’t mind at all. He’s more interested in smells and finding people to say hi to than he is in aesthetics. This is one part of me that refuses to become partly a dog.
So we’re past the stores now, we’ve checked for terrapin turtles sunning themselves on the rocks next to the horrible-smelling spillway (sometimes we see our friend Steve who works at the high school looking for turtles, too). We’re around to the Right Bank of Duffy’s Creek, going down the path that runs behind the backyards in the “new” section of Mill Brook. We could have gone straight and gone through “Old Green Acres” on the streets north of Flower Road, which was the part of the development built in 1939 and features some very nice tudors and brick colonials that help keep the property value up on our little wooden box, but I would rather show you this path. I have my reasons.
My sister Mary Frances on The Path, around 1958
The same spot in 2018
Unlike much of Valley Stream, the path along Duffy’s Creek -which like Jedwood Place is outside the boundaries of the Village of Valley Stream and within the jurisdiction of the Town of Hempstead – looks pretty much the same as it did when I was a kid, but with one big difference: There’s less of it. The creek has been eroding the path for as long as they’ve been matched together. The hard surface of the path is just about gone in most places. Tall Phragmites (what my father referred to as “woozy-woozies” when he had small children and even when he didn’t) block your view of the water through most of it, except where one guy takes it upon himself to cut them all down with one of his many, many power tools so he can see the creek from his deck, which happens to be directly across the water from our house. It’s a reasonably nice place to walk your dog, as Mookie can attest. But it’s supposed to be a lot nicer. And I can prove that with a 123 page pdf file available online from the New York State Office of Storm Recovery, otherwise known as “New York Rising.”
South Valley Stream got whacked pretty well by Hurricane Sandy (or “Superstorm Sandy” if you insist, but please don’t). Being just south of Sunrise Highway, we were on the northern end of the area that got flooded. Towns south of us, East Rockaway, Oceanside and Long Beach in particular, were whacked much, much more devastatingly. (Not sure if anybody at FEMA uses the term, “whacked” to describe what happened, but I’m going with it).
About a year and a half after Hurricane Sandy surrounded our house in four feet of tidal surge on the night of October 29th, 2012, I heard about a meeting, the first in a series of meetings, at the Forest Road School, where the Mill Brook Civic Association would be taking public comments on how to spend the $3 Million in New York Rising Storm Recovery money that was apportioned to South Valley Stream. I just wanted to make sure they weren’t planning to build concrete retaining walls along my creek and declare it as a permanent open sewer, because that would really piss off the egrets. (I have a few). I was pleasantly surprised to see that this was not the plan.
New York State contracted with the Louis Berger Group as consultants to advise individual communities on how to spend the money they were getting through New York Rising. The Louis Berger Group (I saw them at the Peppermint Lounge in ’83) would work with existing community organizations to formulate and document a plan of action. The exiting community organization here was (and is) the Mill Brook Civic Association, even though Mill Brook is only about one-third of South Valley Stream. Gibson used to have a civic association but it doesn’t anymore because the old one died and I haven’t had the time to start the new one, and neither has Sean Lally.
I was wary of what the folks in the Mill Brook Civic Association were up to, so I kept haunting their meetings. Again, I was pleasantly surprised by the plan, officially published in March of 2014. Through going to the meetings, I got to know a wonderful gentleman who was leading the Louis Berger Group contingent for the project, a Dutch fellow by the name of Niek, or Neiyk. No matter. We got talking about birds. I told him that when I first moved back to my childhood home here, I documented the different bird species we saw.
I had always noticed the variety of birds around here as a kid, but I never got all citizen science about it until I was a homeowner, and they were MY birds. Way back then in 2002 we still had two gigantic maple trees out front and two Bradford pears in the back that were allowed to get out of control before our arrival, and they were all threatening to kill the house, so we eventually had to have them taken down. (We have replaced them, and then some, but trees take time). There were several giant Eastern White Pines in the neighborhood that have since been taken down or blown over in storms. Sadly, a beautiful oak tree on my next door neighbors’ property (once my grandmother’s), a tree that was probably planted along the creek by the Reising Farm owners before the houses were built, had to come down just this summer.
Big trees mean lots of birds, of course. And fewer trees mean fewer birds. And who doesn’t like birds? But sometimes where little wooden boxes are jammed together in 60 x 100 plots, you have to take down big trees, because they might kill you. And when you lose the trees, you lose the birds, who I’m sure don’t understand what the hell anyone would have against a big tree. I used to say that Duffy’s Creek was a great place to be a bird. Sadly, it’s come to the point, especially after losing the oak tree this summer, that if I were a bird, I’d probably blow this hot dog stand and move upstate.
But back when Trisha and I moved in, and we still had lots of big trees, filling up the bird feeders would get you twenty cardinals at sunset on a snowy afternoon. Waves of warblers and other migrant songbirds stopped in our trees in the spring and fall. We still have an impressive variety of waterfowl, especially in fall and winter, but every year the creek is neglected, it gets a little less populated. But in a year or so upon moving back to Jedwood Place in back in 2002, I had identified close to a hundred different species of birds in our yard and on our creek. Most of them I will never see here again because of the whole tree thing, but this little tidbit was still very impressive to Niek, or Neiyk, who had himself grown up in the Netherlands along a river (I knew that without him telling me) and was still something of a bird guy himself. At the meeting where the Louis Berger Group were unveiling the New York Rising plan for South Valley Stream, he told me that I should send him a list of those birds, and so I did.
The plan that Niek, or Nieyk and the Louis Berger Group put together was a beautiful thing. Landscaping and naturalizing the path, planting lots of trees, replacing the sewer pipes with a wetland filtration system (called a “bioswale”) that would clean the water over time. And to top it off, South Valley Stream was awarded another $3 million from New York State in “Race To The Top” money (gag me) for showing that the plan could, among other things, help bring back the birds on the list I sent to Neik, or Nieyk, who gave me some of the credit for the $3 million when nobody else did, which he didn’t have to do because all I did was count birds, but I appreciated it. I met some great people through stalking the Mill Brook Civic Association. They made me feel very optomistic about living here.
Now you may recall, a couple of paragraphs back, that this plan was published in 2014. The Town of Hempstead received the money from the State of New York to implement the plan. They’re sitting on $6 million as far as I know. And as you may have guessed from our walk today, they haven’t done shit yet, besides stick some flags in the ground and mow the grass.
But I’m hopeful. And our walk continues.
We’re around on the other side of the creek now, and in this section, past the path, there are house on both sides of the creek. There’s a style of house here, and on Rosedale Road where we emerge at Hoeffner’s Gas station on the city line (opened when the whole area was still Hoeffner’s Farm) and in the neighborhood on the other side of South High School from Jedwood, which I can only describe as the ”three little window houses”. They’re ranches with attached garages and a room jutting out towards the street with three ridiculously small windows hung in a parallel line at the top of the wall. Having been in those houses, I can tell you they’re nice from the inside. Big open floor plans and all that. They’re just kind of goofy looking from the outside.
Temple Hillel, Rosedale Road
A Three Little Window House
The “Lilco Woods”
I can’t say anything if you won’t let me in to see anything.
Hoeffner’s Gas Station. The New York City Line is less than 500 feet from here.
Which brings us to two “when I was a kid” observations that are true of this neighborhood and the rest of the places we’ll pass on our walk.
Observation #1: Every house on every street used to look like every other house on that street. That’s not quite as true anymore, as people have remodeled, and in some cases created great Taj Mahal-like structures from the little ranches and capes they started out with. This is more true in Mill Brook / Green Acres and the “North Woodmere” section of South Valley Stream. A lot of Mr. Gibson’s streets look structurally as they did 100 years ago. As an architecture fan, I find some of the remodels classy and sharp, and others a violent assault on my senses. But, like John’s Log Cabin, I respect and admire people for making these boxes into their own personal statements to the world. It’s a very American thing to do. We haven’t built a Taj Mahal, but we’ve planted a lot of flowers and trees. That’s a human thing to do.
Observation #2: When I was a lad here, the community of Green Acres, as well as the development along Rosedale Road up into North Woodmere, was a primarily Jewish neighborhood. I personally went to at least five bar and bas mitzvahs. Had a great time, too, as I remember. The majority of Valley Streamers were of Italian, Jewish, German and Irish descent, like my parents, one-generation removed from apartment buildings in Brooklyn and Queens, just like the new folks moving in these days. People of color lived across the City Line (at the time even further, the color line was really Brookville Boulevard in Rosedale, Queens) and that’s the way it was. As a matter of fact, you should read this New York Times story from 1979 and some 2010 census statistics before we go on, so as you continue on our walk up into the heart Valley Stream, you can see how far we’ve come, and why there’s really no such thing here as an anyone’s neighborhood anymore, and that’s a good thing:
VALLEY STREAM, L.I., Aug. 15 – A crude wooden cross was set afire last night on the front lawn of a house that a black family moved into here last week.
The cross was discovered at 10:15 P.M. by Inga Grant, the mother of seven children, who had moved into the two‐story, four‐bedroom colonial house from Rego Park, Queens, according to the Nassau County police.
They said the family had received obscene telephone calls and that windows had been broken while it was moving into the house, at 101 Woodlawn Avenue, in this South Shore village that neighbors said was predominantly white.
A real‐estate agent who had an exclusive listing on the house for several months, but did not sell it to Mrs. Grant, said today that he had been receiving obscene and threatening phone calls since Aug. 1, when the sale, reported at “upward of $70,000,” was closed.
Few of the neighbors gathered near the house today expressed sympathy for the Grants. And some of them said there had been neighborhood speculation that the sale was an attempt at blockbusting that is, inducing homeowners to sell quickly by creating the fear that purchases of homes by members of a minority group will cause a loss in value.
Now here’s the Wiki for the latest demographics of South Valley Stream, not including most of the Village of Valley Stream or North Valley Stream, which for the record are equally or more diverse. The CDP is my little “census designated place”, which is relatively small in area compared to everything that’s called “Valley Stream”. It’s a little confusing, I understand:
As of the census of 2010, there were 5,962 people, 1,969 households, and 1,554 families residing in the CDP. The population density was 6,415.1 per square mile. (Holy crap). There were 2,045 housing units at an average density of 2,326.9/sq mi. The racial makeup of the CDP was 51.90% White, 23.10% African American, 0.07% Native American, 18.10% Asian, 0.00% Pacific Islander, 4.40% from other races, and 2.20% from two or more races. Hispanic or Latino of any race were 9.80% of the population.
As for the “loss of value” that haunted the dreams of Woodlawn Avenue residents 29 years ago (not all of them, of course), you might be interested to know that the average price of a house in my neighborhood today is $462,000 big ones. We just do that to keep the riff-raff out.
And I suspect, based on the unscientific method of walking around with my dog, that the 2020 census will show more even slices of pie among white, African American Hispanic or Latino and Asian. And more and more, there’s an overlap among them all. And, not for nothin’, half of us have college diplomas. So fuck you.
Sorry, I didn’t mean that. We’re just a little defensive here sometimes. It’s because of Rockville Centre and Hewlett.
Statistically speaking, concepts of race and ethnicity could someday disappear altogether in a place like Valley Stream, which is pretty noteworthy considering the attitudes of 1979, when I was in 10th grade at Italian-Jewish-Irish South High School and knew those cross burners personally, or at least their families. And, while it’s easy to say this for a white guy, and I try to be aware of the systemic, institutionalized racism that people darker than myself have to put up with all the time no matter how enlightened their community supposedly is, I believe that in some ways, we’re almost there. As people get to know their neighbors, and share the common spaces, they see each other’s colors less and less. Unless they’re beyond hope, and most of the people who were beyond hope left here years ago. Valley Stream is not perfect in this regard, but it’s become a pretty good place to walk around in whatever color skin you happened to have been born wearing.
Let’s keep walking.
We’re on Rosedale Road, which for no good reason becomes Brookfield Road when it intersects Hungry Harbor Road, which was actually named for people who were hungry. Squatters, I’m told. We’re passing a fenced-off two acres or so of woods that belongs to Long Island American Water. There’s a good story behind this little piece of woods that you should say something if you see something in, even though you can’t go in it, but I’ve already told that story in a previous blog post: https://duffyscreek.com/2016/08/07/taking-a-walk-an-abridged-10000-year-history-of-south-valley-stream and we’re crossing Mill Road again, heading up Dubois Avenue, where Du Boys used to hang out in front of the candy store and the deli at Gibson Station.
Yes, almost forty years ago, I was one of the boys. A scrawny, tag-along boy but a Verified Gibson Rat just the same. Where the Nail Salon is now (one of the five-hundred) was once Jimmy and Ronny Duffy’s “Candy Store”, which as anyone from Long Island would know is a place where you could buy candy, newspapers, magazines, greeting cards, Whiffle Bats and Spalding Balls and odd stuff hanging around like flyswatters, condoms and birthday cake candles. There was also be the obligatory pinball tables, and later video games, in the back of the store, eager to swallow the quarters of local idiots. I got pretty good at Asteroids, but never could handle Defender.
Jimmy was Ronny’s father, and their names weren’t actually Duffy. They were using Jimmy’s wife’s maiden name to avoid something or somebody, but I didn’t care. They treated me and the rest of the knuckleheads who hung around the store like Italian family. Still, in retrospect, I regard every second hanging around Gibson Station as a colossal waste of time. I guess I must have learned something from the experience, but I have no idea what. Maybe how to act more Italian, but I could never pull it off. Oh, well.
Today my favorite thing about Gibson Station (besides the fact that it is frozen in time and could be easily used for the “1979” scenes of my biopic) are the guys who make Mookie and I our bacon and egg breakfast at the Cold Cut Express. Not being invited inside, Mookie stays tied up to a parking meter no one ever feeds (shhh!!!) and usually makes at least one new friend in the time it takes to scramble two eggs. As most people in this line of work now, the guys at the Cod Cut Express are immigrants from somewhere and they work and they work and they work. They are gentleman who treat their often annoying customers with respect and I appreciate them being there, as the only time I see them is when I’m not working.
And one of these days, I have to check out Meli Melo, which is the Cajun-Creole restaurant that opened where Goldie’s, an Italian Restaurant, used to be. (“A Taste of Louisiana and Haiti”) Mookie and I had a nice conversation one morning with a guy who was working on the remodel for a long, long time. (They’d have to put the smiling clown from the Goldie’s sign back up to shoot those 1979 scenes). When Goldie’s was empty, I had a fun little dream about buying a winning lotto ticket at the Cold Cut Express and opening “Duffy’s At The Station”, but I guess now it’s too late, and I wish Meli Melo nothing but success. We’re walking north up Dubois Ave. now, leaving Du Boys at the Cold Cut Express and Du New Boys at Meli Melo to keep chasing their American dreams.
On the left side of the street are some beautiful colonial houses with big front porches that predate Mr. Gibson. Starting on the right side of Dubois and heading south are Mr. Gibson’s 1920’s era, rather unique Pointy Houses.
As I walk through all these neighborhoods, I’m privately amused when I consider that I’ve been inside at least one example of each style of house, even though the people who lived in those houses when I visited are long gone, and the people who live there now have no idea I’ve been in their houses. I still keep in touch with lots of people from high school, and they live all over, and I pass their childhood houses all the time. The kids who lived in this neighborhood either went to William L. Buck or Brooklyn Avenue School. I went to Robert W. Carbonaro, which is on back on Hungry Harbor Road around the corner from Jedwood Place.
Brooklyn Avenue is a beautiful old building from the 1920’s. Buck and Carbonaro are identical buildings, 1960’s Splanch Style, approximately two miles away from each other, at the southwest and northeast polar ends of Mookie’s turf. When our son had some accumulated trouble at Carbonaro in fourth grade, he went in to the BOCES system for a year, and then we insisted that he go back to his home district. This story is, of course, a lot more involved than what I’m telling you.
There was a new principal at Carbonaro at the time. My personal interactions with him were both pleasant and nauseating. Overall, the place seemed a bit on edge. We met some great people there, and some maybe not so much. I myself spent seven wonderfully happy years at Carbonaro from 1968 to 1975. As for our son, the district people didn’t want him to go back to Carbonaro and agreed to enroll him at Buck. That summer, the principal at Buck got in touch with me to invite my son in to look over the building (and teach him all about the new geothermal heating and cooling system that had just been installed for free by New York State) and introduce him to his teacher. They were nothing but kind. The school was a happy place. And our son ended up having his best year in elementary school.
So now every time Mookie and I walk past Carbonaro (pretty much every day) I feel a little twinge of betrayal mixed in with the nostalgia. And every time we walk past Buck, which is different but looks almost exactly the same, I’m reminded to keep an open mind, and have some faith that things have away of working themselves out.
Meanwhile, I could take you through some really drop-dead gorgeous neighborhoods at this point, the nicest streets in South Valley Stream, between Rockaway Avenue and Forest and Brooklyn Avenues, pre-Gibson colonials with big front porches set back from the street on huge plots of land with lots of big trees that don’t want to kill anyone. There are also neighborhoods like this in Central and North Valley Stream – particularly Westwood on the border of Malverne – but we’re not going that far today, because that’s generally outside of our walking turf and I’m looking down the barrel of 8,000 words already.
We’re going straight up Rockaway Avenue, across Sunrise Highway. In short, we’re going to town. You get to see the sights, visit our fine stores and restaurants. And you get to meet David Sabatino.
Mookie’s psyched. He slipped David the tongue once when he kissed him.
First we have to wind our way along the part of Rockaway south of the highway, where you’ll pass Wondarama, where they’ve been fixing flats and replacing batteries for 45 years or so. Across the street is Temple Beth Shalom. There is a small Hasidic community that lives in some of the houses around the temple. They enjoy seeing Mookie and I out walking with them on Saturday mornings. He wags his tail for them.
Right next door to the temple are two warehouse buildings, the second a monstrosity of contemporary glass in your face architecture, which went up in the last three years. A company called International that distributes many, many bottles of booze owns both buildings. And if you say, “well, gosh, those buildings are nice for warehouses and all but they’re totally too big and out of character for the area,” Then I’d agree with you and watch your reaction when we come up on the Sun Valley Apartment Building.
Yes, folks, this is the future of Valley Stream. Five stories, 72 modern squirrel cages with Blink Fitness on the ground floor and a tennis court on the roof where in four years I have yet to see a tennis ball in flight when I happen to look up. It may yet happen.
People want to live here. They like the schools, and the parks. They even like the mall. The population is exploding. Since you’re not getting our little wooden box for under $400,000, housing is a problem. Plus, in another five years or so, the Long Island Rail Road will have burrowed through to Grand Central Station in Manhattan, finally creating direct access from Long Island train stations to the East Side of Manhattan, and as Money Magazine breathlessly told you, we could be on the next train west from Valley Stream and jostling our way through Penn Station in 35 minutes. It’s great, isn’t it? And now you can add in a couple of thousand people who would like to be jostling through Grand Central in 45 minutes, and the end result is apartment buildings, and lots of ‘em.
It’s a tide you just can’t fight. And you can take that from an experienced kayaker and worry wart. To suggest it’s “out of character” for a suburban “bedroom community” to have buildings with 74 apartments on a commercial corner is a shortsighted notion and completely out of touch with reality. This was something I had to learn. When Sun Valley was going up (and up and up) I bitched and moaned to the Deputy Mayor, a wonderful fellow who excels at debate, mostly about what I saw as the horrible aesthetics of the building. A lot of people who were watching this thing go up described it in terms of the Bronx House of Detention.
Deputy Mayor Vincent Grasso said, “Just wait until it’s done.” The Village didn’t sign off on the CO until the development company, which was making it’s first foray into Nassau County after a successfully putting people in cages in Queens and Brooklyn for years, made a series of aesthetic improvements to the building’s exterior. It was pretty amazing to me how just a clean buttress line along the top of the building and two-toned brick made it seem less like a tenement. As giant apartment buildings go, I’ve seen worse. But people still complain about it, as they are complaining about several other apartment buildings either planned or currently rising like steel Godzillas around town.
You want to take these folks at their word, that it’s overcrowding they are most concerned about. But Lynbrook and Rockville Centre, the next two towns down the highway, considered more affluent than Valley Stream, have always had lots of apartment buildings (albeit somewhat lower to the ground) mixed in with the beautiful houses, with more going up as we speak. And the whole damn Island is choked with people and cars already. So unfortunately, I think the overcrowding argument is a just a cover.
There is a mild strain of Trumpanzeeism, “more white, more right” thinking that still pervades, bubbling under the surface of Valley Stream, despite the diversity we’ve achieved here. You see it especially in some of the comments on social media pages and in comment threads attached to articles in the Valley Stream Herald newspaper. Case in point: A contingent of people went absolutely bugfuck last year when the Herald printed an article about a Muslim group petitioning the schools to declare Eid Al-Fatir as a school holiday. It’s an ugly little microcosm of the nativism that rages in some other parts of the country in the Age of Twitler and his MAGAT’s. For the most part, these people quickly reveal themselves for what they are and what they believe to be true about the “kind” of people moving into town. They stand out through their small-mindedness here, and the future is leaving them behind.
Up in the Adirondacks, my family used to stay near the tiny crossroads of Onchiota, NY, where the local General Store owner and Postmaster, Bing Tormey, posted signs around his little main square that became legendary. The best of these was: “You are leaving 97 of the friendlist people in the Adirondacks (plus a couple of soreheads).”
There ya go.
Me, I don’t particularly like apartment buildings. We lived in one – the really old one on Grove Street across from Holy Name of Mary Church – for a year and a half before we came here. Nothing personal against the other people whose lives led them to that same apartment building, but for us personally, the experience was like being under siege all the time. I like mountains. And rivers. We’re really just here for the money, my wife and I. So we can go visit mountains and rivers. This is where our jobs are, and this is my son’s hometown. If we left, it sure wouldn’t be because of anybody who’s moving in.
And yes, every town on Long Island is a property tax rabbit hole and everything costs way too much, but the opportunities exist here to do pretty much anything for a living (except maybe forestry or sheparding) and live a decent middle-class life. We have a lot invested in getting up and going to work in the morning, and we get a pretty good return on that investment. Not great, but pretty good. All things considered, we have very, very little to complain about compared to most of the people on Earth.
And this past weekend, the people who monitor the Valley Stream News Facebook – the first ones to tell you the helicopters are flying over the mall and all hell is breaking loose again – had a get-together at our very neat and clean Hendrickson Park, where people came on down and met their neighbors for a pot-luck meal and some pleasant company on a Saturday afternoon, all happy to be part of the scene in New York State’s best town. I’ll let the picture below stand for itself . Not pictured is John Duffy or his family, as we were upstate in Copake Falls that day (ironically) but otherwise we’d have be there, and I appreciate every effort that people make to make this a better place, knowing full-well that it will never be 1955 ever again, and the whole world is crowded except for Onchiota, NY.
The reality of Valley Stream, Long Island in 2018, is simply not the reality my parents bought into in 1955. With nothing but $400,000 houses, there’s really no place for people get started here. And many of the people who are trying to get started here anyway are from other places in the world, many of them having done their time in those same neighborhoods in Queens and Brooklyn that produced the population of post-war Long Island. And one could take it as a compliment that they think so much of Valley Stream that this is where they want to live and raise their kids. Or one could bemoan the fact that one’s hometown is not what it was. But really, nothing is, so what sense does that make? And for the second and third generations of Valley Streamers like myself, why would you begrudge people who are trying to do for their kids what your parents did for you, no matter where those people came from?
We’re waiting at the light to cross Sunrise Highway right now, and there’s always the chance we might get killed. It’s a busy, angry, stressed-out six-lane highway in a town full of busy, angry, stressed out drivers on roads choked with way too many cars, hence there are generally two or three fatalities a year on Sunrise Highway just in Nassau County alone. The State DOT just finished a big expensive reconstruction that, I have to admit, made me feel better about my chances of not getting killed. Included in that reconstruction was a series of crosswalks where you press the button and a very commanding computer voice tells you very matter-of-factly to “WAIT.” The first time Mookie heard this, he looked back at me to figure out how the hell I did that with my voice. And, of course, he waited, because he’s a good dog. And I laughed and I laughed.
Now we’re walking up Valley Stream’s main drag. The question of “what can we do to make people shop on Rockaway Avenue?” has been bandied about since Green Acres was built. (Here’s an idea: Don’t build Green Acres). Rockaway Avenue has been slightly dysfunctional for most of my life, but like me, it gets by. There used to be a movie theatre, The Rio, which was actually an old vaudeville playhouse. I saw the Grateful Dead Movie there at least five times, and saw the Stray Cats perform on the 4th of July, probably 35 years ago. In many towns east and north of us in Nassau County and out into Suffolk County, people made the investment to save their local one-screen movie houses and turn them into performing arts spaces. Subsequently, if you look around, there are interesting places to see plays and live music and vintage films all over Long Island and Valley Stream isn’t one of them. Oops.
We do have Ancona, which is famous for their true New York pizza, calzones and heroes, and where you are officially in with the Valley Stream in-crowd if George knows you by name. We have Itgen’s, famous for their homemade ice cream, and recently sold with the promise that it will continue. We have Mitchell’s, a nice little restaurant, though I prefer the Valbrook Diner up on Merrick Road, and an Italian Restaurant called Mia’s that’s been on my list of places to try a lot longer than Meli Melo. We used to have Morris’ Variety, which for years was the place to get everything from a screw to a fake Christmas tree. It was taken over a few years back by Raindew. Not quite as quirky as Morris’, but it serves the same purpose. They got me hooked on Yankee Candles. A lot of businesses have disappeared over the years, but there are a surprising number of survivors.
Among the Rockaway Avenue old-timers are the T & F Pork Store, DePalma Florist, Larry’s Bar, Woods Locksmith, Ciccarelli the Tailor (make-a you a nice suit), Brancard’s Deli, Valley Home Care and Surgical Supplies, Valley Stream Pharmacy, Chicken Gyro Delicious and the stalwart Sal and Vin’s Barbershop, established in 1952. Tell Michael you know me.
Rockaway Avenue is also the go-to place if you like Latin American and South American cuisine. The Chicken Coop does Colombian chicken. There’s a couple of Spanish delis plus the Juanito Bakery and Café, and my favorite, the San Antonio Bakery, that will make you a hot dog they call a “compleato” – with avocado and a bun they made at 6am – that’ll knock you on your ass. If you want to go Mediterranean, there’s Sam’s Halal Steak and Grill where a Not-Halal Steak and Grill called P.J Harper’s used to be, and the Nightcap Café used to be before that. Haven’t tried it but I hear good things.
And yet, with this all going for it, Rockaway Avenue looks kind of shabby compared to other main drags on the Island. Beyond the stores I mentioned are your usual nail and hair salons, dollar stores, second-hand merchandise stores, empty storefronts and (of course) a T-Mobile. Taken as a whole, living organism, it doesn’t seem cohesive. It has a “patched together” quality about it. Many of the surrounding downtowns have invested more in visual appeal, fancy sidewalks and facades and uniform signage and the like. It’s also a heavily trafficked street so it’s somewhat noisy and dirty in general. The Village recently reclaimed an old building across from Ancona and renovated it into the Village Court in an effort to bring in more pedestrian traffic around Rockaway businesses and restaurants, so it’s not like they’re not trying.
But here’s the thing: Ultimately, how important is aesthetics if I can get a haircut, a new welcome mat, a compleato or a meatball parm hero and even get my wife’s shoes fixed by an old-timey shoe repair guy? How badly do I need bricked sidewalks and signs that all in the same typeface? I’d like the stores and the open space up the block from me to be less of a toxic wasteland, but to what end? So it suits my fussy sensibilities?
Sometimes you just have to get over it. Money Magazine thinks we’re “neat and clean”, and I’ll tell you what: As we’re walking through residential neighborhoods in Valley Stream that are now almost 100 years old, 95% of the front yards that we pass are pretty as a picture. The houses themselves, if not renovated, are well-maintained. People are house proud here, and it shows. This is all we have. We take care of it. We make lemonade.
But sometimes you have every right to be pissed. The surface of the roads, a juristictional spider web of responsibility divided among the Village, the Town of Hempstead and Nassau County, are for the most part terrible. While the parks are nice enough, too many public spaces are tired eyesores. The LIRR and the Utility Companies bear a lot of responsibility for that. Above our heads is a jungle of wires that may or may not stay up there if there’s a thunderstorm this afternoon, or a hurricane. The train trestles are rusting away.
Roads and public spaces are among the basic services that we pay property taxes for, and from what I see, they are not given priority. Somebody decided it was more important to give tax breaks to Green Acres Mall.
That’s right. Screw your roads. This is Long Island. We shop. Commerce is King here. If there are enough band-aids and rolls of duct tape holding together the infrastructure to get you to the next strip mall and back, then what the hell are you complaining about? Your neighbors in Valley Stream plant pretty flowers, and they smile at your dog. It’s the Best Place To Live in New York State. Just keep buying shit and we’ll all be fine.
Todd Pratt was a backup catcher for the New York Mets in the late 90’s / early 2000’s, when Hall of Famer Mike Piazza was the starting catcher. He was a good guy to have on your team. At this time, Shea Stadium, which was a perfectly wonderful place to go watch a baseball game, was already facing its demise. The plan, ultimately implemented in 2006, was to knock old Shea down – deemed a poorly designed relic of another time with ever-more disgusting bathrooms and concessions and 30 years of gum embedded in the concrete – and replace it with a “retro” stadium with all sorts of cool angles and seats closer and better angled towards the field, not to mention lots more expensive places to eat and cushy seats for the one-percenters.
Back in the 90’s, when the Mets flew into LaGuardia Airport after a road trip and Shea Stadium came into view from the plane, Todd Pratt would (I’ve read) stand up and make this announcement:
“Well, there it is boys. It’s kind of a dump. But it’s OUR dump.”
I get it. I never have really taken to Citi Field.
David Sabatino would get it, too, but unlike me, he wouldn’t accept it as the truth of his hometown. To David’s way of thinking, it would be blasphemous to call Valley Stream a dump, even to convey a sense of familiarity, or in my case, resignation. David, who loves Valley Stream like Mookie loves me, is the co-owner of Sip This, a coffee shop and cool hangout place that’s been on Rockaway, right across from where the movie theatre isn’t, for seven years. (It was named after Slipped Disc, the iconic hipster record store that once occupied the space. Get it? Slipped Disc? Sip This? Clever, huh? ). David also has a degree in urban planning ( I’m pretty sure) and he is a natural-born organizer. But more importantly, David is a good guy, and an optimist. And Valley Stream is lucky to have a guy like him around. So now he works for the Village as well, and very well may be the mayor someday whether he likes it or not.
He’s probably a good twenty-five years younger than me, but I didn’t have his level of energy and hope for the future when I was five, never mind thirty. It was Mookie, really who introduced me to David. In 2010, when Mookie was just a gleam in his father’s eye, I was researching dog parks to take the puppy I was getting in 2011. I came across a website for an organization called “Envision Valley Stream”, the brainchild of my friend Mr. Sabatino, which was, among other things, petitioning the Village of Valley Stream government to build and maintain a dog park.
We have a neat and clean and picturesque village park called Hendrickson Park a mile and half due north of Duffy’s Creek, which gets it fresh water and anti-freeze runoff from Mill Pond – which we’ll pass on the way back – and from Hendrickson Lake via pipes that go under Merrick Road and through the Village Green. Hendrickson Lake features a fine walking and biking path that leads up to Valley Stream State Park, and there’s an equally fine community pool complex in the park that we pay lots of money to swim in every summer. But no dogs are allowed on the path, and they can only swim in the kiddie pool on the day after Labor Day because everybody at Village Hall likes Mike Powers, who first had the idea. And how could you not?
So back in 2010, David starts planning a dog park, and I start going to his Envision Valley Stream meetings, and we strike up a friendship and all of a sudden I’m involved in the community. I start getting to know Mayor Fare (yeah, I know. It’s like it’s made up) and Deputy Mayor and Renaissance Man Vinny Grasso and other people who I liked right away because I recognized them instantly as real Valley Stream as an adjective (smart; personable; outspoken; funny; genuine).
The road to building the dog park, now located in the Village Green next to the Village Hall and the Library, had a couple of rough patches along the way. I got discouraged and frustrated, but other people who had taken David’s idea and run with it, including the aforementioned Mr. Powers, did not, because they’re better people than I am. Eventually you would have to say it was a success. So much so that the Town of Hempstead, Nassau County and other village municipalities started building more dog parks, so our dog park doesn’t get quite the crowd that it used to. Still, over the years, it’s been a great place to kill a half hour and shoot the breeze while Mookie watches dogs that are way too fast for him to keep up with. (It’s really the people park with dogs in it for Mookie).
David Sabatino, force of nature that he is, moved on to other things, including starting a family and buying a house in Westwood. Right now he’s planning a Community Garden and – get this – a “Winter Festival” centered around the ice hockey rink next to the train station. And getting involved with Sabatino’s vision gets you involved with all sorts of other people, which is indirectly how I wound up agreeing to do a presentation about the history of Valley Stream through the history of my parents for the local Historical Society. I’ll be at the Community Center on Wednesday September 12th of this year (2018). Unless of course they read this post and tell me to stuff it.
Rockawy Avenue was busy with so many people at the Valley Stream Community Feast.
Anyway, there’s one more important thing I have to tell you about Sabatino. His greatest civic accomplishment by far has been the establishment of the annual Valley Stream Community Fest on the fourth Saturday of September. For one day, Rockaway Avenue becomes a laid back pedestrian street fair, Hundreds of people turn out to stroll up and down the avenue. Every sports, civic, religious and cultural organization in town is represented, seated at folding tables with brochures and big smiles, ready to tell you all about what they do. The businesses on Rockaway get to promote themselves. Plus there’s lots of arts and crafts and junk food for sale, rides for the kids, demonstrations, people dancing around in brightly colored clothing, an antique car show and enough ethnic and religious diversity to make your average Trumpanzees want to crawl back into their caves, or possibly realize what assholes they’ve been all this time. But I doubt it.
And don’t think that Mookie doesn’t get in on all this. For three of the last four years, he’s worked a three-hour shift at the “Doggie Kissing Booth”, raising money to support the Friends of Valley Stream Dogs. On Fest Day, he’s in Mookie Heaven, wagging people over to him as they walk by (“Ohhhhh!!! Look how cute!!!) and convincing them to hand Mike a dollar so they can lean down and get a big, sloppy wet dog smooch. Once Mookie is sufficiently overwhelmed, Bella the Chocolate Lab takes over, and that’s usually when we grab a compleato from San Antonio and head on home to the backyard. The creek is too icky for Mookie to swim in, so he has a kiddie pool to jump in to cool down after his walk. I can offer you a cold Dr. Pepper.
We’ll head home along South Franklin Avenue. We’ll pass the post office, the Burrito Monster (not a fan) and the Railroad Inn next to the train station, a bar now owned by a guy I went to kindergarten with, which is next to another bar called Buckley’s that’s been an old man’s bar since before the owner of the Railroad Inn and I were in kindergarten. The Dog Park and the Village Green are over on the other side of the tracks, but we’ve put about four and half miles on the Fitbit already, and we’re a half mile from home, and Mookie and I ain’t so young anymore, so the Dog Park will have to wait for later. We’ll pass Papandrew Jewelers, where the owner, who’s the son of the original owner, once took out an armed robber. We’ll cross Sunrise (“WAIT.”) and be glad we don’t need anything from Staples today.
We could cut across Mill Pond Park, which still has some nice, big trees, but instead we’ll walk through the almost 100-year old original Gibson neighborhood anchored by Roosevelt Avenue, because Mookie has a lot of friends down that way. Passing by the Sunoco with the sign that says :”COOFFEE 99 CENTS!” (you can also get free air for your tires if you press the “botton”) we’ll make the turn at the Greek Pie Factory (they’re really tasty) and the hair salon with the sign lit up in 100-point type (“HAIR SALON!”), both on the ground floor of a very old two-story building that someone would like to knock down to build another high-rise apartment, and probably will.
We could go up to Cochran Place, which would lead us back to Gibson Station, but we’re going to cut west back towards Jedwood Place. Once on a summer Sunday afternoon we saw a group of people in a tiny back yard on Cochran who had a dance floor set up where they were all watching one couple dancing a tango. My, I was glad I saw that. This same family has some sort of parrots that used to squawk at my son and I from the windows when we rode on our bikes to the summer camp he loved going to at Barrett Park. There’s another guy along Ridge who walks his parrot on his shoulder, which makes Mookie think to himself, “My, I’m glad I saw that.”
We could walk straight down Roosevelt to Fairfield where some old guys might be leaning on a chain link fence shooting the breeze, and Mookie will growl at the dog behind that fence because they’re supposed to be his old guys. A little further on he might see his friend the 99-year old WWII veteran sitting on his porch, and he’ll stop and do his waggy waggy routine until the his old friend invites him up on the porch for a face rub.
Crossing Mill, we might see the happiest guy in the world, one of my new neighbors from somewhere far away who always greets us warmly, who is out almost every evening when the sun is shining, happily tidying up the gardens around his little house at the corner of Mill and Jedwood, where the traffic is hideous and where I wouldn’t live if you gave me $400,000 but he seems to love it. It just goes to show you. Everything is relative. And his relatives seem to enjoy it, too.
We’ll arrive home in Mookie’s backyard, and he’ll cool down in his pool. But before you go, I’ll leave you with a scene I saw on that neglected path that you see directly across the creek. Mookie and I were walking along that path one morning when we came upon a young Filipino couple getting their three little kids out of the house for a while. Two of the kids were on bikes and the youngest was walking. The kids on the bikes stopped riding, as they were very excited to meet Mookie, and he them. The father and the mother caught up to them and the father asked me about his breed and I told him and he said, “he’s a big boy.” And I said, “he sure is!” and Mookie wagged his tail.
I was thinking to myself that these people are my parents in 1958, with three little kids who need to get out of the house and a nice path along a creek (somewhat nicer then) to go for a walk right near their house.
Livin’ the Dream in Valley Stream.
And just as I was thinking this, I saw the smallest kid, who was on foot, catching up to the others and zooming in on Mookie. Then I noticed his t-shirt. It said, “YOU CAN’T STOP THIS!”
And I thought to myself: Why would I want to? Why would anyone?
Kid, let me tell you something about Valley Stream, since you’ll be growing up here just like I did. I’ve been around here a long time, and to tell you the truth I’m at the point where other places, with bigger trees and fewer cars, are calling to me. (I suppose you’ve never heard of Zillow, kid, but don’t worry about it).
For the foreseeable future, though, I suppose Mookie and I will be part of the scenery as you grow up here. And the fact is, we could both do a lot worse. I don’t know about the Best Place to Live in New York State, but your parents still picked a good place for you to live, just like my parents did. Remember that.
And kid, if and when Mookie and I do move on, please do us both a favor and take care of what’s left of the natural world around here. It’s probably going to get more and more crowded and noisy, but help out the birds any way you can. And keep your antenna up, ’cause you never know what kind of shit your local politicians will pull, or what they will neglect. Better yet, get to know them, and let them know what you think.
And this is important, kid. Don’t let anyone ever, ever make you believe that you don’t belong here. That’s up to you to decide. Until then, you belong here as much as I do.
And one more thing:
Valley Stream? The Town of Hempstead? Nassau County? Long Island? New York? America? The Planet Earth?
People throw their garbage in the street here, but people also organize street fairs. People build humongous apartment buildings here, but they also build dog parks, and maybe they’ll fix this path. People drive like psychopaths here, but they light up at red lights when they see a big happy dog smiling at them from the sidewalk. People who can get away with it steal money here to build more stores to steal more money, but the teacher or principal that you remember forever at Forest Ave. School or South High will be worth every penny your parents pay in school taxes. People make a mess of things here, and people keep it from becoming a complete mess.
The 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.
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.
And 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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.”
Most of this is a re-run for some of you. Heck, it’s August. Read it again. Why not. Back in the Summer of 2011, my buddy David Sabatino, aka Mr. Valley Stream Himself, suggested that I write something for the Valley Stream Voices column in the local Herald Newspaper. And I said, yeah, I could do that. David was helping out the editor at the time, Andrew Hackmack, who did a great job covering the town for a lot of years. Andrew asked him to find someone who could do a Voices column, and David said, “John Duffy.” And I’m glad he did.
I decided to try to capture the experience of raising a child in the same town I grew up in. I painted the place in a very positive light, and overall, I was happy with the way it came out. Andrew wrote the headline, “Valley Stream is Better Than Ever,” which was not totally misleading, as it was the general theme of the essay, but I thought it that message was a little too advertising slogan-y. Life is pain, your highness. Anyone who tells you differently is selling you something. There are a lot of things that aren’t better: First and foremost that we’re all packed in like sardines, and they keep building more and higher sardine cans to pack more people in.
There happens to be a reason for that. At some point, the Long Island Rail Road, which my wife Trisha subjects herself to twice a day to earn a living, is eventually going to finish a connection to Grand Central Station and the East Side of Manhattan. And when that day comes, lots more people are apparently going to want to live in apartment buildings near the railroad stations, specifically Valley Stream and Gibson. And I suppose the ten minutes it takes me to go two miles to the King Kullen some afternoons will turn into fifteen. They built a monster of an apartment building less than a mile from Duffy’s Creek – called Sun Valley Apartments. Ugh. – that I and many people raised hell about when it went up, because it looked like a cross between a Bronx tenement and an upstate prison. They recently did a nice crown molding all the way around the top of it to make it less ugly. That was nice of them.
Trisha and I would really like to leave here, but we can’t. We’d like to move to Copake Falls, or somewhere nearby. Valley Stream, and Long Island in general, have become ridiculously crowded and dirty and noisy. But this is where work is for both of us, and we both have many years invested in our jobs. We also have an 11-year old son who has trouble transitioning from pajamas to clothes every single morning. He doesn’t do change very well, and the fact is, this is a good place to grow up, because you’re forced to learn how to get along with a whole lot of different kinds of people. It wasn’t that way when I was growing up. There were a lot of bigoted white people trying to turn me into one of them. If not for my parents being bleeding-heart liberals, they might have made more of a dent. When the town started to diversify, around the turn of the century, the bigots mostly ran like hell, leaving people who know how to get along for the most part. It’s not the people that make me want to leave. I love the people here. There’s just too damn many of them. So The Dude has about ten years to save his money if he wants to buy this house and “stay here forever” as per his plan. We’re not leaving anytime soon, and we’re very good at making lemonade out of the lemons, but in about twelve years this blog will be called, “A Creek Ran Through It.”
Anyway, here we are, and what follows is my little public love letter to Valley Stream, written four years ago. My favorite thing about this essay is that the mayor of Valley Stream, a very smart, energetic and friendly fellow named Edwin Fare (that’s right, Mayor Fare) has borrowed a phrase that was the anchor of the whole piece. I don’t know how terribly original it was, but I referred to Valley Stream as a “big small town”, which it is if you’re an old timer. You’re usually about three degrees of separation from anyone you start a conversation with – they went to school with someone you know, or lived on the same street, or went to the same church, or played on the same team, or at the very least got drunk in the same bar. Mayor Fare used the phrase in an interview with Newsday and in a recent Cablevision-produced video. I believe that he unconsciously lifted it from me. I saw him just today walking around the pool. I’ve never said to him, “Hey! That’s my line!”, since for one thing what does it matter and for another thing he’d just tell me it isn’t, ’cause he took it. Fact is, he needs it more than I do. (What I did say to him was, “you ought to jump in! It’s like a bathtub in there today!” Which was just me being folksy, as he was wearing street clothes).
So without further ado, the Valley Stream Voices Column from 2011 that I would have simply entitled: “Whooosh!!!”, with a little postscript at the end. Hope you enjoy it (again):
I am a second-generation Valley Streamer. Many of you just said, “me, too!” There are a lot of us. My parents moved from Queens in 1955 for a backyard on a creek and room for their growing family. Five kids and 46 years later, in 2001, they moved east and my wife and I bought the house where I grew up. Two years later, in my 40th year, our son Jack was born, a third-generation Valley Streamer.
In my new role as Jack’s daddy, I began to realize how many of the icons of my childhood were unchanged, and how Valley Stream remains a big small town and a good place to grow up. In my opinion, it’s actually better than in the ’60s and ’70s.
When I was a kid, my mother might announce that we were “going to town.” That meant driving in our red Volkswagon bus (seriously, we had one) over to Rockaway Avenue. The first stop was Morris Variety, then, as now, a place where a little kid could be enraptured by the impressive assortment of stuff; where you could get lost in the long aisles of toys, hardware and craft supplies while mom picked through greeting cards, then memorize the candy at the front counter while she checked out. Going to town might also include lunch at Itgen’s, Mitchell’s or Ancona, and maybe a walk up to Sal and Vin’s for haircuts, a swing by the library or a stop at the bank with the big vault that looked like the one Maxwell Smart walked through.
Today, going around Valley Stream with my son, there are times when I’m suddenly traveling in a time machine (I can even hear a “Whoosh!” sound in my head when it happens). I can reconnect with my inner little kid, the one that we all tend to leave behind and disregard, as we get older and our boundaries expand far beyond “going to town.”
One of the first places Jack and I went when he was a baby was Brook Road Park in Mill Brook. (Sorry, but it’ll always be Green Acres to me.) When my older siblings were all in school and I was home with my mother, she would push me there in a stroller over the bridge. (The bridge was first fenced off and then taken down, to the dismay of many old-timers.) Coming back 40 years later with my little boy was one of my first trips into my personal Valley Stream Time Machine, one of many enjoyable travels that I’ve taken back to my childhood through my son. After admiring the new playground equipment, we walked by a fence that holds back the eroding retaining wall along the creek. Behind the fence were relics of my pre-school days — the big dolphin you could sit on, and the concrete turtle you could crawl under, both on a bouncy rubber surface. And there was the very bench where my mother sat enjoying my company, wearing ’60s-style cat’s-eye glasses.
As Jack grew into a toddler, we joined the Valley Stream Pool. As a kid, I remember the kiddie pool area shaded by mottled Sycamore trees, like the ones still in the playground. My mother was a part of a group of women with lots of children who jokingly called themselves the “Over the Hill, Under the Tree Club.” On summer days, they could have some much-needed peace and adult conversation as the kids entertained themselves.
There was a probably a 30-year interval between my last visit to the pool as a kid and my first as a dad. As I stood next to the Olympic pool, “Whoosh!” I was in the time machine again — going under water with my eyes open, daring myself out into the deep end, jumping off the diving board, eating a hot dog and French fries under the concession stand roof. It all comes back to me, like opening a book you haven’t read in years and remembering how much you liked the story. The French fries taste exactly the same.
Jack likes going to town. He’s well-known at Morris Variety, and Michael at Sal and Vin’s always makes him look great. We recently had Itgen’s for lunch and Ancona for dinner with a trip to the pool in between. Jack and his mom both like mint chip ice cream. I’m a vanilla fudge guy. Ancona meatball parmesan heroes are sublime.
This year, I made some new friends in my old town. While looking for dog parks for our new Labrador puppy, I found Envision Valley Stream, a group that promotes ideas for fostering a sense of community, including park clean-ups, graffiti removal and the skate park and dog park initiatives which the village administration has been receptive to. It’s nice to meet people of all ages and backgrounds who like living here. And it’s very nice to see the local government working with residents to make good ideas happen.
Jack is going into second grade at Carbonaro School. It was a warm and nurturing place when I went there and it still is. This year, he played baseball with the Valley Stream Little League. I played on a Mail League team in the ’70s, so of course the “Whoosh!” brought me right back as I stood on the ball fields of Barrett Park, Wheeler Avenue and others. We marched with the Little League in the Memorial Day parade, my first since the ’70s. The sense of community here is as strong as ever. And a one-time reputation for intolerance has been replaced by a diversity of people who interact easily with each other. This is something my son will have which my generation did not. His big small town is a lot like mine, but better, and I’m glad we’re here.
Ok, I’m back here in 2015. Christ, I’m tired. The Dude doesn’t go to Carbonaro anymore because the class where he fits best is across town in an identical building called William L. Buck. (The Dude calls the similarity “freaky”). We’re a long way removed from little league, and I’m a happy observer of the Memorial Day Parade. The Dog Park is a raging success, mostly due to the efforts of others besides myself, but I feel a sense of ownership of the place, and so do Mookie and his Dude. You’ve gotta like that. “Envision Valley Stream” is in the process of morphing into the Greater Valley Stream Civic Association, in which I’m trying to carve out the time to take an active role. (I’m the liaison for the “part of South Valley Stream that isn’t Mill Brook or Gibson even though Gibson built the houses but don’t you dare call it North Woodmere” -Our Man On The Creek, if you will).
Yeah, we want out. And we more than likely will get out someday. We won’t be able to afford to stay when we’re too old. They’ll eat us alive. But for now, me and My Dude still go to the pool most weekday afternoons in the summertime. And we’ll be getting our haircuts at Sal and Vin’s tomorrow. And lunch or dinner at Ancona is never far away. (John! You Called?). When we finally do leave Valley Stream, when it’s all over, will I miss it? (I have to speak for myself, as Trisha has been here for 15 of her years and I’ve been here for all 52 of mine, more or less). Will I romanticize it like my mom did when she left kicking and screaming?
I don’t know. Places are funny like that. It’s like the line from “Fast Times at Ridgemont High”, when the creepy guy is giving the dorky guy his dating advice: “Wherever you are – it’s the place to be! – Isn’t this great?” I tend to live in the present tense (which is why we’re broke), so if I were living upstate, I don’t think I’d give it much thought. I think the toughest thing about leaving would be the legacy that I’d be ending that started with my parents in 1955. My mom DID miss it when she left, so I’d miss it for her.
Speaking of my Mom, if you’ve never met her, you’ll have a chance to get to know her a little bit in my next post. Anybody would tell you that would be your lucky day. And coincidentally, that upcoming post is also about a kitten who had a very lucky day because he decided to follow a big yellow dog one day on Duffy’s Creek. It’s not so complicated, but I’ll probably tell the story in a way to make it so. I got that gift from Mom. I’m long-winded and I need an editor. But at least I came by it honestly.
Read it anyway, and thanks. See you when the tide comes in.
This post wants nothing from you. You don’t have to yell or scream, or refute your core beliefs, or get mad as hell and swear you’re not going to take it anymore, or shoot holes in my argument, or even submit your email and create a password. It’s just a little slice of life, followed by a little editorial, and it won’t hurt you, even if you don’t agree with it’s point-of-view. I don’t want anybody to eat anybody. I just want everybody to be happy. Really. And I’ll be back to writing about cute dogs and pretty flowers and precocious children again before you know it.
This is the little slice of life part: I shared two posts on my Facebook page yesterday that were about politics. One post was a share of a Huffington Post report (such a silly name, Huffington) which suggested, as I believe right now, that Bernie Sanders has a legitimate chance to be elected President next year. They had polls and stuff to back it up. We don’t have that kind of technology here at Duffy’s Creek, but we do have fresh broccoli growing next to the garage, which I bet The Huffington Post doesn’t have. The other post was about a trained paramedic who makes $15 an hour, who suggested that fast-food workers are entitled to make the same $15 an hour even without his prerequisite skills because it would in effect force his employer to eventually pay him more, the same employer that sends out emails to the $15 an hour paramedic to tell him how great they’re doing and how much money they’re making. I suggested that this guy’s realization was proof that, in the words of the great Joe Torre, “the goddamn worm is starting to turn.”
A couple of people who I know think the same way as I do threw me a couple of likes when I checked back on the posts after going to the pool, and buying two grape slurpees at the 7-11, and picking up fresh meat and produce from the Hudson Valley out of the back of an SUV in a church parking lot. (I live a full and rich life) . But later, as I was staring at the garden and The Dude was up in his man cave, I got to thinking about my previous forays into political debate on facebook, and I said, “uh-oh” and I deleted the posts.
But then, because I’m OCD and I can’t leave well enough alone, I posted an explanation of why I deleted the posts. And because I’m OCD and I can’t leave well enough alone, I’ll probably delete the explanation later. Here’s what I wrote:
I posted some political stuff today. Then I took it down. Last time I got going on Presidential politics I got some folks upset. Something about the joy of watching a certain guy get caught speaking his mind among his rich friends. The guy who strapped his dog to the roof of the car. Don’t remember his name. Anyway, my philosophy on Facebook sharing since then is it should be the stuff you’d tell people at a backyard barbecue, not from a barstool, ya know? I’m going to hold to that. No politics from me on Facebook. I’m a far-left, pro-union borderline socialist bleeding-heart liberal ’cause that’s the way Mom and Dad raised me. Surprise, surprise. Oh, and screw Facebook. I have a blog. If you want to know what I think, you’ll have to up my clicks on wordpress when I put up a tease. It ain’t all gonna be flowers, therapy dogs and poignant parenting stories, especially when this thing starts getting ugly. I’m voting for Bernie Sanders, and he’s going to need my help, but you don’t need to hear about it, unless you want to. Time to cook dinner. I won’t be posting a picture of it. smile emoticon
That was cool! I copy/pasted the smile at the end of my rant and it came up “smile emoticon”! You can get away with saying all sorts of things if you follow them with a smile emoticon. Anyway, as you see, I have some history with this stuff. I know people whose politics are as much learned from their parents and heritage as mine are from mine (fun with pronouns, there) and I like those people just fine and I don’t want anyone to be mad at me, ever, for anything. And when I started shooting arrows at…oh what’s his name…Moose? Ripley? (Thanks, Steven Colbert) it started a whole ugly back and forth and I began to realize that Facebook is a really good place to post pictures of your dog and yourself on a ferris wheel and a really bad place to forward your political beliefs. But I know lots of people who do it, on both sides of the Little Civil War we’re all having. And really, I want them to keep doing it. Because I don’t tell other people what to do unless I’m getting paid to. And unlike myself, often they manage to do it in a less snarky way than I would have.
And that’s my problem. And everybody’s problem, more and more. I was taught, wrongly, that in a political debate you go in for the kill and you take no prisoners; that it’s as much about proving the other person wrong and proving yourself right as it is about an exchange of ideas. But as I’ve gotten older, I’ve realized that this is an awful, un-Jesus-like way to be. Apparently, many people my age haven’t gotten older. I may feel very strongly about my political beliefs, but I’ve come to feel equally strongly that there’s no need to shove them in people’s faces. It’s impolite. Chris Christie is the sitting Governor of New Jersey and he says he wants to punch the leader of the American Federation of Teachers in the face. He was responding to a question that some talking head on a news show asked him, which I find incredulous. The question was, “who would you like to punch in the face?”. Why would you ask that question to a Presidential candidate? Did Christie’s people get to the guy before the interview and say, “Hey! Ask him who he’d punch in the face! It’ll be great!” And then I read the quote that came out of that useless orifice he has there, and I say to the newspaper: “Oh yeah! Well when you cut yourself shaving, fat boy, gravy comes out. You’re running for President? You couldn’t even run to the bathroom to lose that last ten pounds of red meat you just sucked through a freakin’ straw you disgusting, inert mass of lipids. You wouldn’t even be able to lift your arm to throw the punch. You’d fall forward and be like a goddamn weeble wobbling on the floor until they sent fifteen of your empty-headed people scrambling in to hoist your fat ass back up with a rope and a pulley.”
You see? He got me. I was goaded, and I went in for the kill with a personal attack that has nothing to do with our disagreement of the role of teacher’s unions. (of course, neither does threatening to punch somebody in the face). And when the other idiot with the hair started talking trash about Mexicans, the best we all they could have done was not give him a second of airtime. Not a second. Why would anyone dignify such hateful, vile words? I first heard it with my son in the car at 4:30 in the afternoon and switched off the radio as quickly as I could. The Dude asked me why. I said, because the guy who was talking is a piece of garbage and he doesn’t deserve a single cell of my attention span.
But he got hours and hours and hours of coverage, and everyone on one side said, “Yeah. Immigrants. That’s the problem. See? He said so.” And everyone on the other side started trying to punish the ignorant bastard and take away his toys because they’re all shocked that a jerk would say something jerky if put in front of cameras and a microphone. And he obviously loved every minute of it.
I recently read a great quote from Pedro Martinez when he was being elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame. Some reporter was goading him into responding to some backwater radio commentator who had something nasty to say about Dominican baseball players. I don’t know what the radio idiot said, but Pedro responded by saying, “I only discuss things like that with intelligent people.” And it’s not like Pedro doesn’t understand winning and losing. He is the owner of the single best baseball quote of all time. When they asked him about the “Curse of the Bambino” that kept the Red Sox from winning the World Series for 80 years, he said, “I’m going to dig the Bambino up and drill him in the ass.” The man understands that a baseball diamond is a good place for no-holds-barred competition, not to mention colorful trash-talking, but it has no place in real life. When we’re trying to figure out where everybody fits in this world, there shouldn’t be any thought given to who wins and who loses. We should try to figure out how everyone wins.
But the politicians get worse and worse. Even Obama, who has for the most part stayed above the fray – sometimes to his detriment – has referred to politics as a “blood sport.” What the hell does that mean? Why do they insist on perpetuating this ugliness? And why do I have to hear about buffoons like Donald Trump and Chris Christie just because I stay in touch with current events? (Even if I stick to NPR). If they want to run for President, fine. Go ahead. But if your rhetoric is obviously beneath the dignity of the office you aspire to, and said just for shock value, just to get yourself noticed, why would the media report it at all? I suppose they have to, but why do right-thinking people then feel the need to react to or counter these statements at all? Why not just say, “I only discuss things like that with intelligent people.” What exactly do petulant little gobs of snot with money burning holes in their pockets, who decide they can get a lot of the attention they so desperately crave by running for President, really have to do with the state of the world until the day they’re actually standing in a general election and can directly affect the destinies of the immigrants and schoolteachers (and immigrant schoolteachers) that they openly hate?
But they keep churning it out, they do, both the politicians and the media that covers them. And we keep slobbering it up. It seems a bit contrived doesn’t it? Like it’s being done on purpose. You think? They shove all this garbage at us because we all love to keep hearing it, so people on one side can own new nasty little talking points and people on the other side can let loose and take no prisoners like I just did to Fat Ass and Escalator Man. (Besides, if you asked me who I’d like to punch in the face, I’d have to go with Andrew Cuomo first anyway. I have my reasons). And though it felt very good when I was writing it, It’s ultimately pointless, not to mention toxic. But the Little Civil War looks like it’s just going to go on and on and it’s never going to stop. Unless, of course, intelligent people who are more interested in governing than in putting on a show are elected into positions of power. And, of course, the endless cycle of stupid could be broken if the media was run by intelligent people more interested in informing the public than in stoking the dark underbelly of people’s fears, or treating political issues with the depth of a kiddie pool. They’re supposed to “comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.” (Finley Peter Dunne. Never heard of him).
They do the exact opposite now. They afflict the afflicted and comfort the comfortable.
So as I was saying, it’s just not going to stop.
But it stops on my Facebook page. And it stops on my TV, and my Twitter feed, and in my newspaper, ’cause I decide what I pay attention to. My ultimate goal is peace of mind and contentment. You can’t get there when you’re covered in slime. At least I can’t. I’m OCD. Less garbage in. That’s my plan. Following the Mets is stressful enough.
I’m going to miss Jon Stewart. He was and forever will be the absolute best at ripping the masks off the pretenders, parsing their insipid sound bites and reminding us of how much shit they think we’ll eat, and why we’re too smart to bite. But I understand that he’s sick of it. I’m sick of watching him do it. It’s funny because it’s our old crazy friend Jon, doing the Mitch McConnell turtle and the Lindsey Graham southern bell and The Dick Chaney growl. But it’s gotten to the point where it’s really not funny anymore, because this country is truly suffering from the incivility. As the mother-in-law character in “Field of Dreams” said when she couldn’t see the baseball players, “I don’t think it’s very polite…try’na make other people feel stupid.”
Therefore, I’ve decided to write a little manifesto, a little treatise, of what I believe, and how the two people whose images grace the top of this post, who are losing me followers as you read this, are the best embodiment of the direction in which I would like to see my country headed. Then I’m going to shut way up until the General Election. This is the editorial part. I am not asking you to slap me on the virtual back and tell me how much you agree with me or to slap upside the back of the virtual head and tell me how much you disagree with me. If you would like to write a post on your blog about how John Duffy does not know what the hell he’s talking about, I would not be offended in any way. I’d probably enjoy it, and most likely agree on many points. So I hope you will not be offended in any way by my sharing the beliefs that my parents instilled in me, and that I have taken to heart through my own empirical experience of walking through this world for 52 years. Here’s what I think:
I think that everyone has a vested interest in everyone else’s success. If I do better, you do better, and vice versa. Competition is wonderful when you’re playing tennis, or Boggle, but it’s somewhat unhealthy when it determines whether somebody eats or has a home. If I have a big slice of the pie, and you have a big slice of the pie, then we both have more pie than we need, so we can sell some pie, so we can buy ingredients to bake more pie, or if we already have the ingredients to bake the next pie, we can give some pie to someone who has no pie at all, so they can have some pie, too, because when they get their own little slice of the pie, they’ll share their pie with somebody else, because we shared our pie with them. And on and on. There’s enough pie for everybody, and we have the ability to make lots and lots of pie. So there’s no good reason for the richest country on Earth to make it difficult for people to have a slice of the pie. The people with all the pie who won’t share it say, “Let them eat cake.” But cake is not as good for you as pie. The cake is the nonsense they throw at us to distract us, the “shiny objects” if you will: Empty calories and celebrity gossip. Pure sugar and “Mission Impossible”. If you eat too much of it, you get sick. But the pie is education and healthcare and family leave and affordable housing and day care and social security and veterans benefits and food stamps and home ownership and playgrounds and swimming pools and school clubs all the other things that can lead to a better life for a lot of people. And I truly believe that there is enough for everyone, and anyone who tells you differently is working for someone who wants to keep more pie than they should fairly be allowed to. and has conveniently forgotten that we are all connected. Or sees that he could help and nevertheless couldn’t really give a rat if you have any pie at all.
I believe in the strength of diversity. I used to didn’t. I grew up in a segregated town that itself grew up to be unsegregated, and I went through the learning curve right along with it. My parents taught me not to hate, but I heard a lot of “us vs. them” around Valley Stream growing up. But I know now that there are two kinds of people in this world: People who believe that there are two kinds of people in this world and people who know better. I had a next-door neighbor from hell once upon a time. She was pasty-colored Irish just like me. She was a real estate agent, and she bragged that she was steering people of color away from houses that were for sale in our neighborhood. (This was in New York in 2005. Thought I’d point that out). She and her family did lots of obnoxious things and no one was sorry when they finally left. In one of her parting shots to me, she said, “enjoy the trash that’s moving in here.” Later, I related this quote verbatim to my other next-door neighbor, a hard-working, good-hearted, responsible husband and father of three who was born in The Philippines, who replied with a Buddah-like smile, “I guess I’m the trash that moved in.” If people leave their homes and family members behind to emigrate to this country, they must have a good reason, just like most American’s grandparents and great-grandparents did. Let’s find out what they came here for, and how they can contribute to everyone else’s success. And let’s not let the pie hogs start playing us against each other based on stereotypes. Nobody anywhere in this country should be falling for that crap anymore.
I believe in the establishment of a maximum wage. Forget the minimum wage for a second. The real problem is a system where it’s OK to just keep taking and taking and taking. Because the more you’ve taken, the easier it is to keep taking some more. Exhibit A: The Wal-Mart business plan. As I have come to understand it, they pay people as little as they can get away with so they can sell cheap goods to people who work for other employers who pay the least amount possible, then they laugh all the way to the bank with billions of profits while the government, aka the taxpaying citizens, pay for food stamps and other subsidies to their workers, who can’t afford a pot to pee in with what Wal-Mart is paying them. Then the bubbleheads who work for the billionaire that owns Fox News tell you that the people on food stamps are stealing your money. Freaking brilliant. Exhibit B: There’s a small independent college called Paul Smiths College in the Adirondacks. A woman named Joan Weill, whose husband Sandy was the CEO of Citigroup, wants to pay the college $20 million to change the name of the college to Joan Weill Paul Smiths College. First of all, an act of hubris and superego of that magnitude would render Sigmund Freud dumbstruck. But more importantly, where did these people get $20 million to throw around in the first place? By systematically figuring out a way to take all the pie, and leave the rest of us with the crumbs. And I’m sure every bit of it was legal. Maybe if that $20 million had been fairly distributed in return for honest labor and productivity, the people who pay tuition to Paul Smiths College could be asked to chip in a little more, and they would. And Joan Weill would have just enough to maintain the insanely luxurious place she owns in the Adirondacks and would be happy enough to keep her name to herself.
And that’s why I think the time has come to burn down the mission, to redistribute the wealth and rebuild the ladder and the safety net; to “eat the rich” as it were. If that’s Socialism, then I’m a socialist. I believed all this before Occupy Wall Street. Before it was hip. What you take from society, you should give back in kind. If you’re successful, you got that way because you moved your goods and services on roads that were built for everybody, using everybody’s power and water. Maybe you even went to a public school. If you become rich in this country, you could have only done it on the backs of other people. And there’s nothing wrong with that as long as those people benefitted in some way while helping you get there. The ideas of the “self-made man” and “the job creators” would be laughable if people didn’t buy into them so freely. And if you turn around and try to deny others the same advantages you yourself used to get rich, you suck, and you deserve what’s coming to you.And here they come.
There are two politicians in this country who have addressed these issues bluntly and consistently: Senators Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren. Obama has made a slight dent in the conversation, but he’s always been worried about choosing his words carefully, so it comes off as as more college professor than street fighter. Hillary is likable enough, but she’s too closely tied to the establishment. She talks the income inequality talk right now because Bernie has forced her into it. I’m sure she’s buddies with Sam Walton, as a matter of fact there’s a picture of them together right there. I’m sure she’s exchanged pleasantries with Sandy and Joan Weill. She takes a lot of money from the takers, who took all the money from you. She would obviously be the better choice if the general election were between her and any of the current Republican nominees, and she will probably win, firstly because the make-up of the Electoral College makes it almost impossible for a right-wing Republican to win a general election, and secondly because the Republicans will continue to talk non-stop until they’ve alienated and pissed off everyone except the extreme right wing, who are mostly angry because they’re a dying race.
Bernie is running for president. In a way, he has already won, because he forces Hillary to veer left. If her plan was to try and please everybody like her husband did, it’s not going to work this time. (see prison building, gun rights, draconian drug laws, defense of marriage act – loved ya Bill, but you were a goddamn suck-up, and a bit of creep). She needs to be a True Democrat, in the great tradition of the three great ones: Franklin D. Roosevelt, Lyndon Johnston and My Mom. Or she needs to get out of the way.
And it’s possible, in my little dreamworld, that Bernie Sanders could actually beat Hillary and be the Democratic Nominee, because she plays it too safe, and she frustrates the base and they decide to go for broke. I’ve already made the decision to do just that.And if that happens, what a wonderful thing it would be if Bernie could get Elizabeth Warren to run with him as a Vice-Presidential candidate.
Besides being true to the Democratic Party traditions, there is something that those two people have in common, which is exactly what we need now. When they argue, they argue facts. They can easily dispel the myths of the “job creator” and the “too big to fail” banks. They can reveal the arguments against showing fairness and compassion towards your fellow man for the greedy ugliness that it all boils down to. They don’t throw shiny objects in your face to fool you into voting for them. They can tell you that people are being greedy without needing to vilify those people. They can show you why you are where you are, and what can be done to change it. They are not suggesting that anybody punch anybody in the face. They are suggesting changing the laws.
Of course they would hit the same gridlock as Obama has. But Obama has managed to significantly change the tone of this country if not the direction. People like that $15 an hour paramedic are starting to get it. We need to double down on that, we need to drive the point home that the rich are too rich and need to pay their fair share of taxes, and the corporations they control and hold stock in need to be regulated and monitored, so that the government has enough revenue to ensure the well-being and the equal rights of all its citizens. That is only asking what was more or less true of this country up until about forty years ago, when Nixon first tricked the people in the Deep South into voting against their interests by scaring them with liberal boogeymen. Then twenty years later, Reagan fired the Air Traffic Controllers. As far as fairness and income equality, it’s been all downhill from there, and that’s pretty much my entire adult lifespan. My parents didn’t have to live paycheck to paycheck. We do.
If what Sanders and Warren are both suggesting is Socialism, then maybe Socialism is the way to go. Kurt Vonnegut had this to say, in a college commencement speech back in the 1970’s: “I suggest you work for a socialist form of government. Free enterprise is much too hard on the old and the sick and the poor and the stupid, and on the people nobody likes. They just can’t cut the mustard under Free Enterprise. They lack that certain something that Nelson Rockefeller, for instance, so abundantly has.”
I think that’s it in a nutshell. How you get people who can’t see the forest for the trees to understand this notion is something that I will have to leave to Mr. Sanders and Ms. Warren, who I hope, for the good of the country, will combine forces. I will follow what they have to say and ignore the ignorant opposition for as long and as much as I can. And to this you say, oh – well – you’re doing exactly what they do – you’re just hearing what you want to hear and shutting out those who disagree with you. And to this I say, when I hear somebody on the right talking about anything else but cutting government, giving tax breaks to their buddies, defending their “traditional values” (of everyone in the restaurant being lily-white), breaking up labor unions, demonizing immigrants or bragging about who they’re going to punch in the face next, then I might tune in. Right now, they’re just blowing hot air, and I only discuss these things with intelligent people. When next Labor Day rolls around and the real election is at hand, I’ll be screaming my politics from the rooftop. And the Creek carries sound very well, so you’ll hear it. Until then, I will carry on with my life and hold to my beliefs in the way I live it. Though I will not – from this point forward- crawl down in the mud with the likes of the Christies and Trumps of this world, I will – in the words of a very smart fellow named Bruce Cockburn – “kick at the darkness ’till it screams daylight.”
We grow a lot of flowers here on Duffy’s Creek. And trees, and bushes, and vegetables. And we’ve spent way, way too much money doing it. And it takes a lot of time and grunting to maintain what we’ve done from year to year. But I tell you what: I’ve walked around a lot of neighborhoods with Mookie Dog these last four years, and I’ve gotten a good look at a lot of peoples’ properties while Mookie sniffed and peed on the nearest telephone poles (The Dude gets credit for coming up with: “he’s reading his pee mail.”). In the world of property ownership, and what a wonderful world it is, I have come to believe that people who have flowers growing around their house are the people who look like they’re enjoying their stay on Earth a bit more than the people who don’t. And they probably are. I know I am. Of course if the homeowner is elderly or disabled it isn’t a fair statement, but still, if you can grow some flowers and you don’t, it looks to me like you just don’t care in general, and you probably don’t. Is that arrogant? It might be arrogant. Hell, I don’t know. I’d just like to take you on a tour of Gardens @ Duffy’s Creek. You like flowers? We got some flowers for ya today.
It doesn’t matter where we start, since you’re not actually here, so we can start where it all started. Trisha and I bought the old Duffy Family House on The Creek in 2001 from my parents, who moved to a Lifecare Community. My mom kind of went kicking and screaming, mostly because she loved the backyard on the Creek. Trisha’s family owned an operated a Florist and Nursery, McCloskey’s on Woodhaven Boulevard in Rego Park, Queens for 86 years, Her grandfather started out by selling flowers for putting on graves in St. John’s Cemetery across the street. So as soon as she saw the backyard of this place, she knew what she wanted to do with it. The first thing she did was clear a whole lot of crap (her newlywed husband dug up a few tree roots for her) and plant this Hybrid Tea Rose Garden. I love that all the plants have names and little stories, but I can’t keep any of them straight. Still, I like hearing about them. And truly, there’s just nothing like roses. I don’t know what smells you associate with your spouse (Cheese? Cinnamon? Ben-Gay?) but to me the smell of hybrid tea roses, whatever the hell their names are, remind me how much I love my wife. Isn’t that nice?
We have a big six-foot wood stockade fence along the back of the Rose Garden, courtesy of some former psychotic neighbors who will get their own post one of these days. I’ll even name them for you. Anyway, the point at which the rose garden meets the house and the stockade fence is Trisha’s “Secret Garden”, which has more Hybrid Teas, plus some climbing roses and Clematis on arbors and some various perennials, the Lupines being my favorite, if only because of the silly Monty Python sketch. There’s some bitchin’ foxglove in there. And it’s a great place to hide from The Dude.
Around front, you get to Trisha’s Cottage Garden, modeled after a Thomas Kinkade painting if he dropped acid, which has a lot of beautiful perennials and some good smellin’ Mock Orange and Quince, plus this cool guy called a Purple Beautyberry Bush which is owned and defended by an insane Mockingbird.
Me, I always liked playing in the dirt. As a matter of fact, when I was very young in this very backyard I had a “diggy spot.” And when I was 30 and stuck living back with my parents after going through surgery and chemotherapy for testicular cancer, I decided to start a little garden out where my “diggy spot” used to be. And my mom liked planting flowers, too. So one day in 1993 we went to Dee’s Nursery in Oceanside together – which in itself is a great memory – and she sprung for some perennials and bulbs to get that garden started. There’s still a couple of hyacinths that come up every year from that garden, but for the most part it got too shady under my neighbor’s giant oak tree to really get anything good growing there. So after my mom died in 2012, I planted a Colorado Blue Spruce as a memorial to her, thus taking the “diggy spot” out of the active flower gardening area. I’ve never visited her grave, and I don’t know if I ever will. If I need to talk to her, she’s right here.
When we moved back here in 2001, I started noticing the bird, including the ducks and the geese and the other assorted characters – osprey, egrets, kingfishers, terns, herons and cormorants to name a few- who made their living on the Creek. We had a lot of songbirds, too. Unfortunately, one of the reasons was that the whole place was overgrown and they had lots of places to hide. Once we put up some bird feeders, it was madness. One January twilight we had over 20 cardinals dancing around in the snow. We don’t have as many birds now because we had to take down two massive maple trees and a pear tree before they killed us in a hurricane. (And there was one, and they didn’t. And we of course replaced those trees, but these things take time). Back when we started, I wrote down all the species of birds I saw and when I saw them in a spiral notebook (very neatly ’cause I’m OCD), then I looked them up and found out what they were doing here, and what they wanted for dinner. I have a list of about 115 bird species that have passed through or by this property. I will put that list up as a separate post sometime soon. It recently may or may not have helped earned South Valley Stream $3 million dollars in New York Rising Recovery grant money, but that’s a story for another day.
Anyway, around this same time, we started taking hikes through Jamaica Bay Wildlife Refuge, which is a long way from here but connected by water, and noticing not only the birds but the plants. This led to the Duffy’s Creek Bird Sanctuary. We started trying to use as much garden space as possible for bird-friendly habitat plants and stuff that grew here naturally. This led to the Wetland Gardens that run between the yard and the Creek, which is actually planted on land that belongs to Nassau County. But screw ’em, they don’t deserve it.
In the wetlands are Rosa Rugosa and Red Twig Dogwood and Winterberry Holly, a Weeping Willow Tree, a Butterfly Bush and one of our signature specimens, the Great Leaning Cedar of Duffy’s Creek. It was a four-foot tall Eastern Red Cedar bought from Dee’s Nursery. I really had to wonder about myself when I planted a $139 tree on property that I don’t actually own, but no matter. The Red Cedar got really tall, probably about 15 feet or more. Then Hurricane Sandy came along and knocked it to a 45 degree angle. My brother came down from Connecticut to help us out with the mess about a week after the storm. We raised the Cedar back up and he tied it to the fence using one of the knots that he learned in Boy Scouts and I didn’t. The Cedar survived, but it leans like the Tower of Pisa now. So we call our backyard The Leaning Cedar Cafe @ Duffy’s Creek, ’cause we like the way it sounds.
When we first moved in, we had a deck. It was a very 1970’s deck, probably because it was built in the 1970’s. And it was slowly rotting away. The final straw for the deck was when a cat caught a mallard and left his decapitated head under the step. It was a little too evocative of “The Godfather”, but I digress again. Around that same time, we took a day trip from Copake Falls to visit the Stockbridge Botanical Gardens in Stockbridge, Mass. Here we met some of the “Herb Associates”, whose name still inspires giggle fits around here. Basically a bunch of old ladies who planted and maintained an herb garden just off the kitchen of the house at the gate of the Gardens.
We were already planning to replace the deck with a loose-laid brick patio. The “Herb Associates” inspired us to include a little garden with some sage and lavender and thyme and oregano and mint. And then we just kept going, and started adding lots of cool perennials, dahlias and zinnias from seed.
Soon enough it was the insane garden you can see in the foreground of this picture. Some of the coreopsis and rubekia and hellenium and Mexican Sunflowers grow over six feet tall. We call them by their latin name: “Crazius Bastardus.” The patio garden is our landing place. It’s the nicest room in the house in the summer, and consequently, we watch a lot less TV. It’s where you sit and stare for five minutes – or an hour- when you’re between things you have to do, or walk around and crush leaves between your fingers, take a big whiff and say, “damn that’s good!” At least we do.
As you can see, the patio garden has some nice bee balm. And when you have perennials, you can make the same jokes at the same time every year. As soon as one of us mentions that the bee balm is coming into bloom, the other will either do a Monty Python falsetto and say, “Whatcha bringin’ a balm in here for!” or do the Jackie Childs voice from Seinfeld. “A balm? Nobody know what a balm will do! They’re unpredictable!” We try to have fun.
Along the side of the house this year I have some, OK a thousand, black eyed susans growing quite untidily. Usually I insist on tidy, but I’m letting them have their fun. Last year I planted a thousand black-eyed susan seeds in the Wetlands and in this spot, where I was out of ideas, and in one year they have naturalized and become our own resident wildflower. They are pretty weeds. God bless ’em.
We also have eight blueberry bushes in large planters which have been producing phenomenal fruit for us and the Robins, Catbirds, Song Sparrows and Mockingbirds for ten years now.
During the Hurricane Sandy storm surge, the blueberry bushes floated on down the block. We found them the next day on various front lawns around the neighborhood. A neighbor with a van brought us two that he found at the high school at the end of the street, about a quarter of a mile away. We have a dog kennel that we bought when we first got Mookie, but that he decided he didn’t like one damn bit because we weren’t in there with him. We were going to sell it, then we realized it would come in handy in the next Hurricane as a place to put anything that might float away down the street.
Hurricane Sandy (I hate “Superstorm”) didn’t do the damage to us here in South Valley Stream as it did in points south, specifically East Rockaway, Oceanside, Island Park and Long Beach, which all got walloped. But it did take out some of our favorite specimens. We had two little Christmas trees growing on the side of the garage, a Frasier Fir and a Balsam Fir. We were going to make them our last two Chistmas Trees here someday if we had a choice in the matter. But the brackish water from the surge killed them, as well as a Mountain Laurel that had survived for 60 years and two outrageously beautiful Burkwood Viburnum bushes outside the front window. But when life hands you lemons and all that, we turned the space along the garage into a nice vegetable garden, where we’ve started feeding ourselves as well as the birds. We have carrots, celery, broccoli and cucumbers growing there now. I use the cucumbers to make homemade bread and butter Pickles, because I can. Actually because I jar, but no matter. The best part of making bread and butter pickles for me is being able adopt Robin Williams’ silly, exaggerated Scottish accent and scream at my wife, “Damn it, Woman! I’m makin’ The brine right now!” I never get tired of that one.
Of course, every good gardener knows that you go through a lot of experimentation and a lot of failure on your way to creating a successful patch. That’s the thing that Thomas Jefferson and I have in common most of all. The spot outside the front window has seen and lost Two holly bushes, the aforementioned Viburnum, a peach tree that was really cool but was under constant siege from Ants, Squirrels and Fungus (which may have been the name of a Warren Zevon album). I also planted and moved an Eastern Red Cedar and a Crabapple Tree from that spot after I decided they each looked better somewhere else.
Our resident Insane Mockingbird decided he like the Eastern Red Cedar so much he planted another one on the opposite side of the front lawn, and it has grown almost as big as the first.
And this leads me to one of my favorite things about this whole 14 year experiment in floral hedonism that we’ve got going on here. Two years ago, I decided I would just fill up the spot in front of the window with flowers. I threw in some zinnias and gladiolas and dahlias and lilies and phlox that I grew from seed. As usual, I spent too much money that could have gone towards fixing the house itself, like say, a roof for instance. And after I do all that, and it all grows in, the most impressive flowers in the whole business are the a deep orange multiflower sunflowers that were planted by my friends the goldfinch.Who are busy eating the seeds of it and pooping them out to make sure they come back next year.
So if you’re walking by our house (And your dog is reading his pee mail) you might notice a nice display of flowers growing outside. And if you knock on the door and ask, we’ll show you round the back. And you’ll say, these people, they seem to have a pretty good life here, and we do. And because we do, we praise God with a thousand flowers every year, because we care, and we’re trying to enjoy our time here on Earth. And we like birds. And it smells good.
And if you’ve got a couple of geraniums in pots on your front step, and you keep them watered, well you’re all right with me.
This 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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.”